Research teams around the world race to develop COVID vaccine

Private-public partnerships work on developing effective COVID-19 vaccine.

Research teams around the globe are working hard to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, which has infected more than 5.9 million people worldwide and caused approximately 356,000 deaths since its first outbreak in Wuhan, China, late last year.

Formally known as SARS-CoV-2, the virus is part of the coronavirus family, named for the spiky proteins on their surfaces that resemble the points of a crown. The Latin word for crown is “corona.”

Coronaviruses affect birds and mammals. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and  Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are also caused by coronaviruses.

When a person or animal is infected, genetic material inside COVID-19’s round core is injected from the spikes into a host’s vulnerable cells, causing the virus to take over those cells and use them to replicate itself.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 169 efforts are underway worldwide in pursuit of a COVID-19 vaccine, but many researchers believe an effective one will not be developed and become available to the public until sometime in 2021.

Barney Graham, deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said vaccine development usually takes approximately 20 years.

For example, the development of a vaccine for human papilloma virus took 26 years, and creation of one for rotavirus took 25 years, he noted.

Because more than 100 research groups are currently working on a COVID-19 vaccine, with some already testing them on people, the process this time will be much quicker.

Earlier this month, the Trump Administration announced the launch of “Operation Warp Speed (OWS),” a public-private partnership aimed at accelerating the development,production, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines by January 2021.

However, most experts believe that date is overly optimistic and do not envision vaccines becoming available before the spring of 2021 and possibly not until the fall of that year.

Vaccines work by exposing a person to proteins of the virus known as antigens, empowering their “memory cells” to recognize the virus upon exposure and activate a strong immune reaction.

Several methods are used to expose individuals to these antigens. Some vaccines inject people with the whole virus in a dead or damaged form. Others take the gene that codes for the antigen and place that into a less harmful virus that is then injected into a person.

Newer vaccine techniques, still considered experimental, use the RNA or DNA that codes for the antigen and places them inside a membrane with which people are injected.

While these new techniques take less time producing a vaccine, they have not yet been approved for public use.

Vaccines typically take a long time to produce because their development requires several phases to assure they are safe for people. Phase 1  involves testing for safety and the exact dose needed. Phase 2 involves testing on a larger group compared with a control group while Phase 3 requires the time needed for enough people to be naturally exposed to the virus.

To date, none of the possible vaccines are in Phase 3. The majority have not even reached Phase 1 and are still in the pre-clinical stages.

Among the leading efforts is Moderna, a biotech company that began working on a vaccine just three days after scientists sequenced the virus’s genome. The company has not fully released its test results but reports eight volunteers given a COVID-19 RNA vaccine developed the necessary antibody responses.

Merck, an American pharmaceutical company, is working with the non-profit research group IAVI on a vaccine similar to its Ebola Zaire virus vaccine, the first for that disease approved for people. The company and its partner have pledged to make any vaccine they develop “accessible and affordable” around the world.

Currently, Merck is in the process of acquiring Themis, a company that focuses on vaccines.

CanSino, a Chinese company, is conducting Phase 1 clinical trials with a genetically engineered adenovirus vaccine modified with COVID-19’s spikes. While this triggered an immune reaction in 108 healthy people, its weakness is that adenoviruses, which cause the common cold, are already widespread among the population, meaning many already have immunity to them.

The company’s next step is a Phase 2 trial with 500 adults that will take six months.

Sinovac, another Chinese company, is pursuing the standard route of a vaccine made up of an inactivated form of the virus.

Oxford University, which is partnering with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, is also working on an adenovirus-based vaccine known as AZD1222 and claims the group can produce one billion doses if its vaccine is successful. With a $1 billion infusion from the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), they are now conducting a Phase 3 trial involving 30,000 participants.

A vaccine Oxford developed alone via its Jenner Institute, ChAdOx1, protected rhesus monkeys from getting pneumonia after being infected with COVID-19 but failed to prevent them from contracting the virus. That is currently in Phase 1 trials using more than 1,000 volunteers.

Johnson and Johnson, which has the capability of producing large quantities of vaccines, plans to start Phase 1 trials in September. Together with its subsidiary Janssen, it is working on a genetically modified adenovirus vaccine.

Inovio is working on a DNA vaccine candidate, which has been successful in mice and guinea pigs and is now in the Phase 1 study using 40 volunteers.

A team of researchers at Harvard University is also working on various DNA vaccines, a new technology they are testing on rhesus macaque monkeys.

Curevac said it plans to start Phase 2/3 clinical trials of an mRNA vaccine on humans for a vaccine starting in June while Pfizer and BioNTech announced it has started Phase 1/2 trials of an mRNA vaccine on humans in the US and Germany.

These are just a few of the vaccine research projects underway by pharmaceutical companies and research institutes worldwide.

Foodborne illness might be on the rise, report says

A new report suggests that foodborne illness is on the rise.

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that foodborne illness might be on the rise. Approximately 48 million people get sick from one of 31 pathogens each year, sending about 128,000 people to the hospital and causing 3,000 deaths.

Catherine Donnelly, a professor of food science at the University of Vermont, believes that the increase might at least partly be due to improvements in the tools that detect food contamination as well as outbreak reporting, surveillance, and investigation.

“Surveillance has drastically improved, and state public health labs are linked to databases at CDC, allowing quick identification of patterns of illness and links to food products,” she said. “As a result, we see more reports of foodborne illness.”

“People are tending to eat more produce and eat it in different forms, and those are good things, because we want people to eat more fresh produce, but when that happens, you’re likely to increase the risk,” said FDA deputy commissioner Mike Taylor.

And this risk is likely due to the fact that fresh produce is “sold and prepared without any kill step” to remove illness-causing germs.

“Foods travel longer distances to get from farms to consumers, and pathogens can be introduced along the way,” Donnelly said. “There is wider geographic distribution of centrally produced foods, so when something goes wrong during production, the impacts are widespread.

“Many outbreaks linked to poultry, eggs and meat can be traced back to farms where intensive production practices can lead to [the] spread of highly virulent pathogens,” she said, and some reflect “poor food handling practices.”

Regardless, Taylor doesn’t think there’s cause for a huge alarm.

“People should know that there’s a lot of high tech, high-powered science going into figuring out how to do better at preventing foodborne illness,” Taylor said. “People should know that the system — government and industry — they’re not just sitting back.”

Scientists discover cannabis extract that might fight psychosis

A new study reveals how cannabis extract helps reset brain function in people suffering from psychosis.

A new study from King’s College London reveals that just one dose of cannabidiol can reduce the brain function abnormalities observed in people suffering from psychosis. The data is the first evidence to reveal how cannabidiol reduces psychotic symptoms.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a non-intoxicating compound that is in cannabis. A purified form of the compound was recently licensed by the USA as a treatment for rare childhood epilepsies.

Not only that, a 2017 study revealed its antipsychotic properties, although how it alleviates psychosis has been a mystery until now.

“The mainstay of current treatment for people with psychosis are drugs that were first discovered in the 1950s and unfortunately do not work for everyone,” said Sagnik Bhattacharyya from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN). “Our results have started unravelling the brain mechanisms of a new drug that works in a completely different way to traditional anti-psychotics.”

Thanks to the new data, Bhattacharyya and his team are now launching the first multi-centre, large-scale trial to determine if cannabidiol can treat young people at risk of developing psychosis.

“There is an urgent need for a safe treatment for young people at risk of psychosis,” Bhattacharyya said. “One of the main advantages of cannabidiol is that it is safe and seems to be very well tolerated, making it in some ways an ideal treatment. If successful, this trial will provide definitive proof of cannabidiol’s role as an antipsychotic treatment and pave the way for use in the clinic.”

The findings were published in JAMA Psychiatry.

British woman expose to nerve agent died: reports

A British woman has died Sunday night after being exposed to Novichok.

A British woman has died Sunday night after being exposed to Novichok, which was used in the poisoning of a former Russian spy Sergie Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in March

Dawn Sturgess, 44, was exposed to the deadly nerve agent alongside her boyfriend Charlie Rowley, and are being treated for poisoning from Novichok, a military-grade chemical weapon, according to British authorities.

Prime Minister May announced in a tweet later Sunday that Sturgess’ death is being investigated as a murder.

It is not clear how the couple came in contact with the nerve agent or if it came from the same batch that poisoned a former Russian spy in March. Friends of the couple who spoke to the British press said that Rowley would often search dumpsters, making some investigators to ascertain that Sturgess and Rowley accidentally touched items contaminated with the nerve agent probably thrown away by the assailants.

Authorities said Sturgess absorbed the nerve agent through her hands.

Ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were both attacked with the nerve agent four months ago. They fell into comas but were revived and released. British authorities have accused Russia of being behind a deliberate attack, and expelled 23 Russian diplomats as a result.

According to British authorities, around 100 detectives are working to identify the source of the Novichok.

Police search continues for novichok contaminated item

Police have continued search for the item contaminated with the nerve agent that poisoned the couple.

Police have continued search for the item contaminated with the nerve agent that poisoned the couple. On Friday, investigators in protective clothing entered a John Baker House in Salisbury, where one of the victims, Dawn Sturgess, 44, lives.

Police believe Charlie Rowley, 45, and Ms Sturgess were exposed to Novichok after handling the unknown object.

The pair remains in a critical condition in hospital.

A government scientist who spoke with BBC News said the item was unlikely to have been left in the open before they touched it.

BBC home affairs correspondent Daniel Sandford also said the search for the item could take “weeks or months” and that no objects have yet been collected for testing.

Over time, rainwater and sunlight can weaken the effectiveness of Novichok , meaning the couple came in contact with the contaminated item in a contained space, the government scientist said.

However, other experts have said the nerve agent was designed to be persistent and not break down.

“Novichok is so toxic that it can pass through the skin and need not to be ingested” says the government scientist who spoke to BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner.

The source added that Mr. Rowley and Ms Sturgess’s symptoms were the exact shown by former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

They were both poisoned with the deadly nerve agent in nearby Salisbury in March.


Sleeping five hours or less connected to doubled risk of heart disease, study says

A new study links heart disease to lack of sleep in middle-aged men.

A new study suggests that men in middle age who sleep five hours or less each night have twice the risk of developing a major cardiovascular event in the two decades following compared to men who sleep seven to eight hours a night.

“For people with busy lives, sleeping may feel like a waste of time but our study suggests that short sleep could be linked with future cardiovascular disease,” said study author Moa Bengtsson, of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Previous data provide conflicting evidence as to whether short sleep is connected to a great chance of a future cardiovascular event. The new study appears to solidify the connection.

Not only that, the new data suggests that men who sleep five or fewer hours per night are more likely to have diabetes, obesity, low physical activity, high blood pressure, and poor sleep quality compared to those who get seven to eight hours per night.

“Men with the shortest sleep duration at the age of 50 were twice as likely to have had a cardiovascular event by age 71 than those who slept a normal amount, even when other risk factors were taken into account,” Bengtsson said.

“In our study, the magnitude of increased cardiovascular risk associated with insufficient sleep is similar to that of smoking or having diabetes at age 50,” she added. “This was an observational study so based on our findings we cannot conclude that short sleep causes cardiovascular disease, or say definitively that sleeping more will reduce risk. However, the findings do suggest that sleep is important—and that should be a wake-up call to all of us.”

Blue light from smartphones and laptops can damage your eyes, study says

A new study highlights the danger of blue light exposure from smartphones and laptops.

A new study from the University of Toledo suggests that blue wavelengths, which are released from smartphones and laptops screens, hits a molecule called retinal that leads to a series of chemical reactions that are toxic to the retinal cells of the eye.

The molecule retinal is located in its own spot in the rhodopsin protein, which is necessary for visual phototransduction. Retinal’s shape shifts when photons hit it, which is what sets a cascade of signals into motion that is responsible for sending signals from the optic nerve to the brain.

“You need a continuous supply of retinal molecules if you want to see,” said Ajith Karunarathne of the University of Toledo, senior author on the study. “Photoreceptors are useless without retinal, which is produced in the eye.”

But Karunarathne and his team found that blue light exposure in the presence of retinal triggers a distortion in a crucial cell membrane protein, followed by increased calcium levels and oxidative cell damage.

“It’s toxic,” said Kasun Ratnayake, co-author on the study. “If you shine blue light on retinal, the retinal kills photoreceptor cells as the signaling molecule on the membrane dissolves.”

“Photoreceptor cells do not regenerate in the eye,” he added. “When they’re dead, they’re dead for good.”

“Every year more than two million new cases of age-related macular degeneration are reported in the United States,” Karunarathne said.

“It’s no secret that blue light harms our vision by damaging the eye’s retina,” he concluded. “Our experiments explain how this happens, and we hope this leads to therapies that slow macular degeneration, such as a new kind of eye drop.”

The findings were published in Scientific Reports.

Spider venom can fight childhood epilepsy, study says

A new study reveals the potential of spider venom in the fight against Dravet Syndrome, which resists many traditional drugs.

A new study reveals that a peptide in spider venom could lead to the restoration of the neural deficiencies that activate seizures associated with Dravet Syndrome, which is a form of childhood epilepsy that resists many traditional drugs.

Glenn King, co-author on the study, said the the mouse study could help scientists create better therapeutic strategies for the life-threatening form of epilepsy that some children develop in the first year of their life.

“About 80 per cent of Dravet syndrome cases are caused by a mutation in a gene called SCN1A,” he said. “When this gene doesn’t work as it should, sodium channels in the brain which regulate brain activity do not function correctly.”

“In our studies, the peptide from spider venom was able to target the specific channels affected by Dravet, restoring the function of the brain neurons and eliminating seizures,” he added.

King believes that the discovery is the most recent to show how effective spider venom can be in the fight against nervous system disorders.

“Spiders kill their prey through venom compounds that target the nervous system, unlike snakes for example, whose venom targets the cardiovascular system,” he said. “Millions of years of evolution have refined spider venom to specifically target certain ion channels, without causing side effects on others, and drugs derived from spider venoms retain this accuracy.”

“This latest finding may help develop precision medicines for treatment of Dravet syndrome epilepsy, which has been difficult to treat effectively with existing seizure medication,” he added.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Germs are gaining resistance to hospital hand gels, study says

The prevalence of hospital hand gels is increasing germ resistance to them, according to a new study.

A new study suggests that Enterococcus faecium, the leading cause of infections traced back to hospitals, is quickly gaining resistance to antibiotics.

“It’s a WHO [World Health Organization] and CDC-recognized superbug,” said Timothy Stinear, senior author of the study. “In the hospital it is already resistant to nearly all classes of antibiotics.”

E. faecium seems to be gaining resistance to alcohol-based sanitizers, which could be due to the increase in the use of antimicrobial gels in hospitals.

“E. faecium has adapted to the health-care environment,” Stinear said.

E. faecium, as well as other enterococci, are bacteria that are typically found in the gut and not typically harmful or hostile. However, they have recently become one of the main causes of hospital-associated bacterial infections.

“E. faecium is a highly prevalent bacterial species that is a very common cause of infections that range from bloodstream infections to urinary tract infections,” said Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who was not involved in the study.

“The vancomycin [antibiotic]-resistant form of this bacteria, which the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] estimates kills more than 1,000 people a year in the U.S., is a priority pathogen that is involved in many hospital-acquired infections,” he added.

Now, it appears that hospitals might have to begin searching for alternative antimicrobial agents to replace alcohol rubs.

“As hand hygiene with alcohol-based sanitizers is a key prevention tool in hospitals, tolerance to alcohol rubs will be very problematic and may necessitate the use of alternative methods to optimally prevent its spread,” Adalja said.

The findings were published in Science Translational Medicine.

Anti-cancer drugs put cancer to sleep forever

A new study reveals the discovery of a new class of drugs that puts cancer cells into a permanent sleep.

For the first time ever, Melbourne scientists have discovered an anti-cancer drug that puts cancers into a state of permanent sleep. Not only that, it does so without the standard harmful side-effects caused by traditional cancer therapies.

The unique new class of drugs could give cancer patients an alternative treatment, and thus far it has show promise for stopping the progression of cancer in models of liver and blood cancers. Not only that, it has been shown effective in delaying cancer relapse.

Tim Thomas, who led the research, claims that the new drug class is the first to target KAT6A and KAT6B proteins, which are known to play a big role in driving cancer.

“Early on, we discovered that genetically depleting KAT6A quadrupled the life expectancy in animal models of blood cancers called lymphoma,” Thomas said. “Armed with the knowledge that KAT6A is an important driver of cancer, we began to look for ways of inhibiting the protein to treat cancer.”

“This new class of anti-cancer drugs was effective in preventing cancer progression in our preclinical cancer models,” he added. “We are extremely excited about the potential that they hold as an entirely new weapon for fighting cancer.

Apparently, the compound was tolerated well in preclinical models and proved itself to be potent against tumor cells without negatively impacting healthy cells.

“This has been a very tough nut to crack,” said Ian Street, chief scientist at Cancer Therapeutics CRC. “There is no doubt that the KAT6 inhibitors have played an important role in elucidating the potential of this new and exciting strategy to treat cancers.”

The findings were published in Nature.