Coming Soon: A Universal Flu Vaccine?

flu_vaccineScientists have been making great strides in coming up with treatments and cures for illnesses that were previously thought to be incurable. While some of these are aimed at eliminating pandemics that have taken millions of lives worldwide (such as HIV/AIDS) others are aimed at treating the more common – but no less infectious – viruses, like the common flu.

When it comes to the latter, the difficulty is not so much in creating a cure, as it is a cure all. The flu is a virus that is constantly evolving, changing with the seasons and with each host. This requires medical researchers to constantly develop new vaccines year after year to address the latest strain, as well as specialized vaccines to address different  types – i.e. H1N1, swine, avian bird.

flu_vaccine1Luckily, a research team at Imperial College London say they have made a “blueprint” for a universal flu vaccine. Their report appeared in a recent issue of Nature Medicine. In their report, they specified that the key to creating a universal vaccine lies in targeting the core of the virus, rather than its ever-evolving DNA.

Just last year, researchers at the Friedrich-Loeffler Institute in Riems Island, Germany sought to create a similar vaccine that would target the virus’ RNA structure rather than the key proteins found in the DNA. By contrast, the Imperial researchers set about looking into T-cells, the crucial part of the immune system that is thought to be able to recognize proteins in the core.

2009_world_subdivisions_flu_pandemicTheir research began with a series of clinical examinations of the 2009 swine flu pandemic, which was produced by the combining of earlier strains of pig and bird flu. The team then compared levels of one kind of T-cells at the start of the pandemic with symptoms of flu in 342 staff and students at the university. They showed that the higher the levels of the T-cells a patient had, the milder their symptoms were.

Researchers then teased out the specific part of the immune system that offered some pandemic flu protection and which part of the virus it was attacking. from there, They began developing a vaccine that would trigger the production of these cells – known as CD8 T cells. These cells would attack the invading flu virus, ignoring the outer protein structure and focusing on the core which it had encountered before.

Influenza_virus_2008765Prof Ajit Lalvani, who led the study, told the BBC:

It’s a blueprint for a vaccine. We know the exact subgroup of the immune system and we’ve identified the key fragments in the internal core of the virus. These should be included in a vaccine. In truth, in this case it is about five years [away from a vaccine]. We have the know-how, we know what needs to be in the vaccine and we can just get on and do it.

The benefits of such a vaccine would be profound and obvious. While many of us consider the seasonal flu to be an inconvenience, it is important to note that it kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people worldwide each year. While this is a fraction of the total number of deaths attributed to AIDS (1.6 to 1.9 million in 2010, it is still a significant toll. What’s more, new pandemics have the potential to take doctors by surprise and kill large numbers of people.
t-cellHowever, the Imperial College researchers admit that it is generally harder to develop a T-cell vaccine than a traditional one designed to provoke an antibody response. The challenge will be to get a big enough of a T-cell response to offer protection and a response that will last. So while the blueprint is in place, medical researchers still have a long road ahead of them.

Prof John Oxford, of Queen Mary University of London, put it this way:

This sort of effect can’t be that powerful or we’d never have pandemics. It’s not going to solve all the problems of influenza, but could add to the range of vaccines. It’s going to be a long journey from this sort of paper to translating it into a vaccine that works.

AI-fightingfluWhat’s more, there are concerns that a T-cell vaccine would be limited when it comes to certain age groups. Jenner Institute at Oxford University, explains:

Live attenuated influenza vaccines which are given by nasal spray and will be used in children in the UK from this autumn are much better at increasing the number of influenza-specific T cells, but these vaccines only work in young children who haven’t yet had much exposure to influenza virus, so we need an alternative approach for adults.

Interestingly enough, this approach of stimulating the production of T-cells bears a striking resemblance to the work being done at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at OHSU, where researchers are working towards a vaccine that could also cure HIV. This research also appeared in Nature Medicine last month.

So not only could we be looking at a cure for both HIV and the flu in the near future, we could be looking at the containment of infectious viruses all over the world. As these two cases demonstrate, advances in medical science towards antivirals appear to be tied at the hip.

Sources: bbc.co.uk, gizmodo.com, nature.com

Judgement Day Update: Using AI to Predict Flu Outbreaks

hal9000It’s a rare angle for those who’ve been raised on a heady diet of movies where the robot goes mad and tries to kill all humans: an artificial intelligence using its abilities to help humankind! But that’s the idea being explored by researchers like Raul Rabadan, a theoretical physicist working in biology at Columbia University. Using a new form of machine learning, they are seeking to unlock the mysteries of flu strains.

Basically, they are hoping to find out why flu strains like the H1N1, which ordinarily infect pigs and cows, are managing to make the jump to human hosts. Key to understanding this is finding the specific mutations that transform it into a human pathogen. Traditionally, answering this question would require painstaking comparisons of the DNA and protein sequences of different viruses.

AI-fightingfluBut thanks to rapidly growing databases of virus sequences and advances made in computing, scientists are now using sophisticated machine learning techniquesa branch of artificial intelligence in which computers develop algorithms based on the data they have been given to identify key properties in viruses like bird flu and swine flu and seeing how they go about transmitting from animals to humans.

This is especially important since every few decades, a pandemic flu virus emerges that not only infects humans but also passes rapidly from person to person. The H7N9 avian flu that infected more than 130 people in China is just the latest example. While it has not been as infectious as others, the fact that humans lack the antibodies to combat it led to a high lethality rate, with 44 of the infected dying. Whats more, it is expected to emerge again this fall or winter.

Influenza_virus_2008765Knowing the key properties to this and other viruses will help researchers identify the most dangerous new flu strains and could lead to more effective vaccines. Most importantly, scientists can now look at hundreds or thousands of flu strains simultaneously, which could reveal common mechanisms across different viruses or a broad diversity of transformations that enable human transmission.

Researchers are also using these approaches to investigate other viral mysteries, including what makes some viruses more harmful than others and factors influencing a virus’s ability to trigger an immune response. The latter could ultimately aid the development of flu vaccines. Machine learning techniques might even accelerate future efforts to identify the animal source of mystery viruses.

2009_world_subdivisions_flu_pandemicThis technique was first employed in 2011 by Nir Ben-Tal – a computational biologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel – and Richard Webby – a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Together, Ben-Tal and Webby used machine learning to compare protein sequences of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic swine flu with hundreds of other swine viruses.

Machine learning algorithms have been used to study DNA and protein sequences for more than 20 years, but only in the past few years have scientists applied them to viruses. Inspired by the growing amount of viral sequence data available for analysis, the machine learning approach is likely to expand as even more genomic information becomes available.

Map_H1N1_2009As Webby has said, “Databases will get much richer, and computational approaches will get much more powerful.” That in turn will help scientists better monitor emerging flu strains and predict their impact, ideally forecasting when a virus is likely to jump to people and how dangerous it is likely to become.

Perhaps Asimov had the right of it. Perhaps humanity will actually derive many benefits from turning our world increasingly over to machines. Either that, or Cameron will be right, and we’ll invent a supercomputer that’ll kill us all!

Source: wired.com

3D Meat, On the Way

According to a series of articles in your local science periodicals, a billionaire by the name of Peter Thiel has donated a small fortune to a series of biotechnology startups, one of which is researching ways to “print” 3D meat. The name of the company is Modern Meadow, a Missouri-based startup that believes 3D printing could be the answer to meeting (I swear, no pun!) the world’s high demand for meat.

The process involves the careful layering of mixed cells in a specific structure, thus rendering an in-vitro meat product. Thanks to Thiel’s donation of 350,000 dollars, they hope to create a prototype very soon – which will consist of a sliver of meat that measures two centimeters by one centimeter and is less than half a millimeter thick. Not the biggest slice of meat you ever saw, but as they say, start small!

If feasible, this concept will be a boon for food production and green initiatives. For decades now, vegetarians and environmentalists have been toying with the idea of artificially produced meat for a number of reasons. For the former, the benefits include a source of protein that doesn’t involve animal cruelty. For the latter, it means providing for Earth’s voracious appetite for meat – roughly 240 billion kilograms a year – without the need to clear rainforests for pasture land or the dangers of producing new and deadly diseases. Within the last thirty years, the world has seen outbreaks of Mad Cow Disease, Hoof in Mouth Disease, and Avian Bird Flu, all due to globalization and increased demands for meat.

Modern Meadow explained these advantages in a recent submission to the United States Department of Agriculture:

“The technology has several advantages in comparison to earlier attempts to engineer meat in vitro. The bio-ink particles can be reproducibly prepared with mixtures of cells of different type. Printing ensures consistent shape, while post-printing structure formation and maturation in the bioreactor facilitates conditioning.”

As for the rest of us, there’s just the question of what it would mean to actually eat this stuff. Are we comfortable with meat created by a machine? The company admits that this is one of the biggest challenges facing them and the development of this process. In a separate statement they claimed:

“The consumer acceptance of such products may not be without challenges. We expect it will first appeal to culinary early-adopter consumers and the segment of the vegetarian community that rejects meat for ethical reasons. With reduction in price, it can reach the masses with religious restrictions on meat consumption (people restricted to Hindu, Kosher, Halal diets) and finally populations with limited access to safe meat production.”

I like the sound of that, especially the part where low cost means better access. And in truth, the process could be made incredibly affordable once all the components are perfected, tested and become regular items manufactured by components industries. Unlike a lot of the technologies that I’ve been hearing about of late, this is not one that will appeal only to the super-rich and powerful. And there’s an upside to the planet and it’s developing nations, ones which are forced to destroy their environments for the sake of providing cheap sources of meat and poultry.

Still, not sure how I’d feel about this stuff if and when it shows up on the shelf at the local grocery store. Then again, if it meets all the right safety and health standards and the price is right, I’ll give it a shot!