Scientists and researchers have been making great strides in the fight against HIV/AIDS in recent years. In addition to developing vaccines that have shown great promise, there have even been some treatments that have been shown to eliminate the virus altogether. And it seems that with this latest development, which was published in Nature earlier this month, there might be a treatment that can double as a cure.
Developed at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), this new vaccine proved successful in about fifty percent of the clinical subjects that were tested, and may be able to cure patients who are currently on anti-retroviral drugs. If successful, this could mean that a preventative vaccine and cure could come in the same package, thus eliminating HIV altogether.
Currently, anti-retroviral drugs and HIV vaccine typically aim at improving the immune response of the patient in the long term. However, they are limited in that they can never completely clear the virus from the body. In fact, aside from a very few exceptional cases, researchers have long believed that HIV/AIDS could only be contained, but not completely cured.
The OHSU team, led by Dr. Louis Picker, has been working on its own vaccine for the past 10 years. In that time, their research has shown that an immune response can in fact go beyond containment and systematically wipe the virus out of the body. As with most early vaccine candidates, the study revolves around SIV – a more aggressive virus than HIV that can replicate up to 100 times faster and, unchecked, can cause AIDS in only two years.
Picker and his research team created the vaccine by working with cytomegalovirus (CMV), another virus which is itself persistent, but doesn’t cause disease. In their initial tests, the vaccine was found to generate an immunoresponse very similar to that generated by CMV, where T-cells that can search and destroy target cells were created and remained in the system, consistently targeting SIV-infected cells until the virus was cleared from the body.
For the sake of their clinical trials, simian subjects were used that were infected by the HIV virus. When treated with the team’s vaccine, half of the subjects initially showed signs of infection, but those signs gradually receded before disappearing completely. This sets it apart from other vaccines which also generate an immunoresponse, but one which fades over time.
According to Dr. Picker, it is the permanency of the T-cells that allows the immunoresponse to be consistent and slowly eradicate the virus, eventually eliminating it completely from the system. Says Dr. Picker of their trials and the possibilities for the vaccine:
The virus got in, it infected some cells, moved about in various parts of the body, but it was subsequently cleared, so that by two or three years later the monkeys looked like normal monkeys. There’s no evidence, even with the most sensitive tests, of the SIV virus still being there... We might be able to use this vaccine either to prevent infection or, potentially, even to apply it to individuals who are already infected and on anti-retroviral therapy. It may help to clear their infections so ultimately they can go off the drugs.
Currently, Picker and his the team are trying to understand why some of the vaccinated animals did not respond positively, in the hopes of further increasing the efficacy of the vaccine. Once these trials are complete, it could be just a hop, skip and a jump to getting FDA approval and making the vaccine/cure available to the open market.
Imagine, if you will, a world where HIV/AIDS is on the decline, and analysts begin predicting how long it will take before it is eradicated entirely. At this rate, such a world may be just a few years away. For those working in the field of medicine, and those of us who are around to witness it all, it’s an exciting time to be alive!
And be sure to enioy this video from OHSU where Dr. Picker speak about their vaccine and the efforts to end HIV:
Folks, today I have a rare privilege which I want to share with you. Not that long ago, I reached out to a certain brilliant mind that’s been making waves in the scientific community of late, a young man who – despite his age – has been producing some life saving technologies and leading his own research team. This young man, despite his busy schedule, managed to get back to me quite quickly, and agreed to an interview.
I am of coarse referring to Jack Andraka, a man who’s medical science credentials are already pretty damn impressive. At the age of 16, he developed a litmus test that was capable of detecting pancreatic cancer, one that was 90% accurate, 168 times faster than current tests, and 1/26,000th the cost. For this accomplishment, he won first place at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).
Afterward, he and the other finalists formed their own research group known as Generation Z, which immediately began working towards the creation of a handheld non-invasive device that could help detect cancer early on. In short, they began working on a tricorder-like device, something for which they hope to collect the Tricorder X PRIZE in the near future.
While this project is ongoing, Andraka presented his own concept for a miniature cancer-detecting device at this year’s ISEF. The device is based on a raman spectrometer, but relies on off-the-shelf components like a laser pointer and an iPod camera to scan tissue for cancer cells. And whereas a raman spectrometer is the size of a small car and can cost upwards of $100,000, his fits in the palm of your hand and costs about $15.
Oh, and I should also mention that Jack got to meet President Obama. When I asked what the experience was like, after admitting to being jealous, he told me that the President “loves to talk about science and asks great questions. [And] he has the softest hands!” Who knew? In any case, here’s what he had to tell me about his inspirations, plans, and predictions for the future.
1. What drew you to science and scientific research in the first place?
I have always enjoyed asking questions and thinking about how and why things behave the way they do. The more I learned about a subject, the more deeply I wanted to explore and that led to even more questions. Even when I was 3 I loved building small dams in streams and experimenting with what would happen if I built the dams a certain way and what changes in water flow would occur.
When I entered 6th grade, science fair was required and was very competitive. I was in a charter school and the science fair was really the highlight of the year. Now I did not only love science, but I was highly motivated to do a really good project!
2. You’re litmus test for pancreatic cancer was a major breakthrough. How did you come up with the idea for it?
When I was 14 a close family friend who was like an uncle to me passed away from pancreatic cancer. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was so I turned to every teenager’s go-to source of information, Google and Wikipedia, to learn more. What I found shocked me. The 5 year survival rate is just awful, with only about 5.5% of people diagnosed achieving that time period. One reason is that the disease is relatively asymptomatic and thus is often diagnosed when a patient is in an advanced stage of the cancer. The current methods are expensive and still miss a lot of cancers.
I knew there had to be a better way so I started reading and learning as much as I could. One day in Biology class I was half listening to the teacher talk about antibodies while I was reading a really interesting article on carbon nanotubes. Then it hit me: what if I combined what I was reading (single walled carbon nanotubes) with what I was supposed to be listening to (antibodies) and used that mixture to detect pancreatic cancer.
Of course I had a lot of work left to do so I read and read and thought and thought and finally came up with an idea. I would dip coat strips of inexpensive filter paper with a mixture of single walled carbon nanotubes and the antibody to mesothelin, a biomarker for pancreatic cancer. When mesothelin containing samples were applied the antibody would bind with the mesothelin and push the carbon nanotubes apart, changing the strips’ electrical properties, which I could then measure with an ohm meter borrowed from my dad.
Then I realized I needed a lab (my mom is super patient but I don’t think she’d be willing to have cancer research done in her kitchen!). I wrote up a proposal and sent it out to 200 professors working on anything to do with pancreatic research. Then I sat back waiting for the acceptances to roll in.
I received 199 rejections and one maybe, from Dr Maitra of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I met with him and he was kind enough to give me a tiny budget and a small space in his lab. I had many many setbacks but after 7 months, I finally created a sensor that could detect mesothelin and thus pancreatic cancer for 3 cents in 5 minutes.
3. What was your favorite thing about the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair – aside from winning, of course?
My brother had been a finalist at Intel ISEF and I attended as an observer. I was blown away by the number and quality of the projects there and loved talking to the other finalists. It became my dream to attend Intel ISEF as well. My favorite thing about getting to be a finalist was the sense that I was among kids who were as passionate about math and science as I was and who were curious and creative and who wanted to innovate and push their limits. It felt like I had found my new family! People understood each other and shared ideas and it was so exciting and inspiring to be there with them, sharing my ideas as well!
4. What was the inspiration behind you and your colleagues coming together to start “Generation Z”?
I met some other really interesting kids at Intel ISEF who were making huge advances. I am fascinated by creating ways to diagnose diseases and pollutants. We started talking and the subject of the X Prize came up. We thought it would be a fun challenge to try our hand at it! We figure at the very least we will gain valuable experience working on a team project while learning more about what interests us.
5. How did people react to your smartphone-sized cancer detector at this years ISEF?
Of course people came over to see my project because of my success the previous year. This project was not as finished as it could have been because I was so busy traveling and speaking, but it was great to see all my friends and make new ones and explain what I was aiming for.
6. Your plans for a tricorder that will compete in Tricoder X are currently big news. Anything you can tell us about it at this time?
My team is really coming together. Everyone is working on his/her own piece and then we often Skype and discuss what snags we are running up against or what new ideas we are thinking about.
7. When you hear the words “The Future of Medicine”, what comes to mind? What do you think the future holds?
I believe that the future of medicine is advancing so fast because of the internet and now mobile phones. There are so many new and inexpensive diagnostic methods coming out every month. Hopefully the open access movement will allow everyone access to the knowledge they need to innovate by removing the expensive pay walls that lock away journal articles and the important information they contain from people like me who can’t afford them.
Now kids don’t have to depend on the local library to have a book that may be outdated or unavailable. They can turn to the internet to connect with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), professors, forums and major libraries to gain the information they need to innovate.
8. What are your plans for the future?
I plan to finish my last 2 years of high school and then go to college. I’m not sure which college or exactly what major yet but I can’t wait to get there and learn even more among other people as excited about science as I am.
9. Last question: favorite science-fiction/fantasy/zombie or superhero franchises of all time, and why do you like them?
I like the Iron Man movies the best because the hero is an amazing scientist and engineer and his lab is filled with everything he would ever need. I wonder if Elon Musk has a lab like that in his house!!
Yeah, that sounds about right! I’m betting you and Musk will someday be working together, and I can only pray that a robotic exoskeleton is one of the outcomes! And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that we had a Superhero Challenge here on this site, where we designed our own characters and created a fictional crime-fighting league known as The Revengers! We could use a scientifically-gifted mind in our ranks, just saying…
Thank you for coming by and sharing your time with us Jack! I understood very little of what you said, but I enjoyed hearing about it. I think I speak for us all when I say good luck with all your future endeavors, and may all your research pursuits bear fruit!
The future that is fast approaching us is one filled with possibilities, many of which were once thought to be the province of science fiction. Between tricorders and other new devices that can detect cancer sooner and at a fraction of the cost, HIV vaccines and cures, health monitoring tattoos and bionic limbs, we could be moving into an age where all known diseases are curable and physical handicaps will be non-existent.
And in the past few months, more stories have emerged with provide hope for millions of people living with diseases, injuries and disabilities. The first came just over three weeks ago from University of California, Berkley, where researchers have been working with an engineered virus which they claim could help cure blindness. As part of a gene therapy program, this treatment has been shown to effectively correct a rare form of inherited blindness.
For the past six years, medical science has been using adeno-associated viruses (AAV) as part of a gene therapy treatment to correct inherited retinal degenerative disease. However, the process has always been seen as invasive, since it involves injected the AAVs directly into a person’s retina with a needle. What’s more, the rpocess has shown itself to be limited, in that the injected virus does not reach all the retinal cells that need repair.
But as Professor David Schaffer, the lead researcher on the project, stated in an interview with Science Translational Medicine:
[D]octors have no choice because none of the gene delivery viruses can travel all the way through the back of the eye to reach the photoreceptors – the light sensitive cells that need the therapeutic gene.
Building on this and many more years of research, Prof David Schaffer and his colleagues developed a new process where they generated around 100 million variants of AAV and then selected five that were effective in penetrating the retina. They then used the best of these, a strain known as 7m8, to transport genes to cure two types of hereditary blindness on a group of mice.
In each case, the engineered virus delivered the corrective gene to all areas of the retina and restored retinal cells nearly to normal. But more importantly, the virus’ ability to penetrate the retina on its own makes the process far less invasive, and will likely be far more cost-effective when adapted to humans. And the process is apparently very convenient:
[W]e have now created a virus that you just inject into the liquid vitreous humor inside the eye and it delivers genes to a very difficult-to-reach population of delicate cells in a way that is surgically non-invasive and safe. It’s a 15-minute procedure, and you can likely go home that day.
Naturally, clinical trials are still needed, but the results are encouraging and Professor Schaffer indicated that his team are busy at work, now collaborating with physicians to identify the patients most likely to benefit from this gene-delivery technique.
Next up, there was the announcement back at the end of May that researchers from North Carolina State and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill had found yet another medical use for nanoparticles. In there case, this consisted of combating a major health concern, especially amongst young people today: diabetes.
In a study that was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the collaborating teams indicated that their solution of nanoparticles was able to monitor blood sugar levels in a group of mice and released insulin when their sugar levels got too high. Based on the results, the researchers claim that their method will also work for human beings with type 1 diabetes.
Each of the nanoparticles have a core of insulin that is contained with a degradable shell. When glucose levels in the blood reach high concentrations spike, the shell dissolves, releasing insulin and lowering the subject’s blood sugar. The degradable nano-network was shown to work in mice where a single injection kept blood glucose levels normal for a minimum of 10 days.
While the exact cause of this kind of diabetes is unknown, the effects certainly are. Patients living with this genetically-acquired form of the disease require several shots of insulin a day to keep their blood sugar levels under control. And even then, blindness, depression and even death can still result. What’s more, if the insulin shots are specifically calculated for the individual in question, side-effects can occur.
Hence the genius behind this new method. Not only would it relieve people who have type 1 diabetes from constantly injecting themselves, it would also remove the need to monitor their own blood sugar levels since the nanoparticles would be controlling them automatically.
In a study published recently in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Zhen Gu, lead author of the study claimed that the technology functions essentially the same as a pancreas. Hence another benefit of the new method, in that it could make pancreatic transplants – which are often necessary for patients with diabetes – unnecessary.
And last, but certainly not least, comes from the University of Illinois where John Rogers are developing a series of bio-absorbable electronic circuits that could help us win the war on drug-resistant bacteria. As part of a growing trend of biodegradable, flexible electronic circuits that operate wirelessly, fighting “superbugs” is just one application for this technology, but a very valuable one.
For some time now, bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics has been spreading, threatening to put the clock back 100 years to the time when routine, minor surgery was life-threatening. Some medical experts are warning that otherwise straightforward operations could soon become deadly unless new ways to fend off these infections are found. And though bacteria can evolve ways of evading chemical assaults, they are still vulnerable to direct assault.
This is how the new bio-absorbable circuits work: by heating up the virus. Each circuit is essentially a miniature electric heater that can be implanted into wounds and powered wirelessly to fry bacteria during healing before dissolving harmlessly into body fluids once their job is done. While this might sound dangerous, keep in mind that it takes only a relatively mild warming to kill bugs without causing discomfort or harm to surrounding tissues.
To fashion the circuits, Rogers and his colleagues used layers of utra-thin wafers and silk, material so thin that they disintegrate in water or body fluids or (in the case of silk) are known to dissolve anyway. For the metal parts, they used extra-thin films of magnesium, which is not only harmless but in fact an essential nutrient. For semiconductors, they used silicon membranes 300 nanometres thick, which also dissolve in water.
In addition to deterring bacteria, Rogers says that implantable, bio-absorbable RF electronics could be used to stimulate nerves for pain relief, and to stimulate bone re-growth, a process long proven to work when electrodes are placed on the skin or directly on the bone. Conceivably they could also be used to precisely control drug release from implanted reservoirs.
In other words, this is just the beginning. When it comes to the future of medicine, just about any barrier that was once considered impassable are suddenly looking quite porous…
Less than one month ago, the University of Victoria – located just 20 km from where I live – made history when its Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscope (STEHM) went online and began taking pictures. The microscope, which is located in the vault beneath the University, conducted its first operation by zapping a fleck of gold and producing the world’s most highly magnified image.
The nondescript shot of gold atoms proved what many were already hoping for – that his STEHM is indeed the most powerful in the world, even during its “tuning” phase. Built by Hitachi High Technologies Canada, the STEHM is a one-of-a-kind machine and is the highest-resolution microscope ever built, designed to allow researchers to see things at a magnification up to 20 million times larger than the human eye can see.
Apparently, the image of the gold atoms resolved at 34 picometres, thus breaking the record for highest resolution shot ever made by an electron microscope. Previously, this record was held by the This beats out the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in California which took an image at a resolution of 49 picometres. A picometre, it should be noted, is a trillionth of a meter, and a gold atom is about 332 picometres in diameter.
Rodney Herring, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of UVic’s Advanced Microscopy Facility, had this to say about the image in an interview with Saanich News:
For me it was a relief. I’d been telling everybody this could potentially have the best resolution and be the most powerful microscope in the world. But it wasn’t proven yet. Now we’ve got information down to 34 picometres and we aren’t done yet. We are still tuning the lab.
With the tuning and testing phase complete, Herring and his associates launched the microscope this month. The university had hoped to open the lab to outsider researchers this past winter, but the microscopes assembly and calibrations have been so maddeningly complicated that any such plans have been stalled and it only recently became operational. However, as Herring noted, tons of researchers are already lined up and looking to use it.
Literally everyone- from engineers, physicists, and chemists, to biologists and medical researchers – are looking to use the microscope to advance the sciences of medical and environmental diagnostics, communications, computers, alternative energy and manufacturing. However, the potential scientific breakthroughs for such a machine are yet to be fully contemplated, and present many exciting possibilities.All told, this machine will be able to probe and create 3D images of items like brain neurons and their synapses and muscle tissue, or probe microchip circuitry assembled at nearly the atomic level. Herring said the machine could create “pico technology,” where devices would be made one atom at a time.
This research would prove to be a boon for many areas of science, but especially for nanotechnology. Chemistry professor Alex Brolo oversees nanotechnology development related to items like medical sensors and solar cells at UVic, and said the STEHM will be critical in creating more precise devices, and without having to use powerful electron microscopes elsewhere in Canada.
And considering that more and more technology is being scaled at the nano level, any advancements made in this field would be both lucrative and incredibly significant. As it stands, the STEHM is the only microscope of its kind because of its complexity, and because of this, Hitachi has indicated that it does not plan to manufacture another like it anytime soon.
All of this puts the Advanced Microscopy Facility, and the University of Victoria in general, in a pretty comfortable position. For what could be years to come, they will have the most advanced microscope in the world at their disposal and be able to take part in some serious scientific advances. What’s more, they will surely be suffocated by petitions from research labs and scientists looking to get access to it.
Sometimes, it pays to have the most powerful microscope on the block!