Biotech Breakthrough: Fully-Functioning Organ Grown

artificial-thymusOrgan transplants are one of the greatest medical advances of the 20th century. Where patients once faced disability or even death, they’ve been given a new lease on life in the form of donated organs. The problem is that the supply of suitable donor organs has always been in a state of severe shortage. Not only is it entirely dependent on accident victims who have signed their organ donor card, there is also the issue of genetic suitability.

For decades, scientists have worked on producing lab-grown organs to pick up the slack left by the donor system. The research has yielded some positive results in the form of simple organs, such as the artificial esophagus and “mini-kidneys.” Nevertheless, the creation of whole, complex, functional organs that can be swapped for damaged or destroyed ones has remained out of reach. That is, until now.

fibroblastScientists at the University of Edinburgh have grown a fully-functional organ inside a mouse, a breakthrough that opens up the possibility of one day manufacturing compatible organs for transplant without the need for donors. Using mouse embryo cells, scientists at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine created an artificial thymus gland with the same structure and function as an adult organ.

The University of Edinburgh team produced the artificial thymus gland using a technique that the scientists call “reprogramming.” It involves fibroblast cells, which form connective tissue in animals, being removed from a mouse embryo and then treated with a protein called FOXN1 to change them into thymic epithelial cells (TEC). These were then mixed with other thymus cells and transplanted into living mice by grafting them to the animal’s kidneys.

T-cellThen, over a period of four weeks, the cells grew into a complete, functioning thymus gland that can produce T cells – an important part of the immune system. According to the scientists, this development goes beyond previous efforts because the thymus serves such a key part in protecting the body against infection and in eliminating cancer cells. This is clearly the first step on the road towards complete organ development.

The team is currently working on refining the reprogramming technique in the hope of developing a practical medical procedure, such as creating bespoke thymus glands made to match a patient’s own T cells. They see the development of a lab-grown thymus as a way of treating cancer patients whose immune system has been compromised by radiation or chemotherapy, and children born with malfunctioning thymuses.

bioprintingAccording to Rob Buckle, Head of Regenerative Medicine at the MRC, the potential is tremendous and far-reaching:

Growing ‘replacement parts’ for damaged tissue could remove the need to transplant whole organs from one person to another, which has many drawbacks – not least a critical lack of donors. This research is an exciting early step towards that goal, and a convincing demonstration of the potential power of direct reprogramming technology, by which one cell type is converted to another. However, much more work will be needed before this process can be reproduced in the lab environment, and in a safe and tightly controlled way suitable for use in humans.

Combined with “bioprinting” – where stem cells are printed into organs using a 3-D printer – organs transplants could very well evolve to the point where made-to-order replacements are fashioned from patient’s own genetic material. This would not only ensure that there is never any shortages or waiting lists, but that there would be no chance of incompatibility or donor rejection.

Another step on the road to clinical immortality! And be sure to check out this video of the artificial thymus gland being grown, courtesy of the Medical Research Council:


Source:
gizmag.com, crm.ed.ca.uk

An End to HIV: HIV Remove from Cultured Cells

https://i0.wp.com/292fc373eb1b8428f75b-7f75e5eb51943043279413a54aaa858a.r38.cf3.rackcdn.com/health-fitness_01_temp-1357384489-50e80b29-620x348.jpgAt the closing ceremony of the AIDS 2014 conference a few weeks ago in Melbourne, Australia, many of the speakers – including longtime AIDS researcher and International AIDS Society Presidential Award winner Eric Goosby – told of how utterly terrifying the disease seemed 30 years ago. And while that fear is not gone, it has since diminished, replaced by and large with a sense of hope that the disease will be eradicated.

According to UNAIDS – the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, which is dedicated to destroying the disease by 2030 – the medical community has learned much in the past few years and stands a good chance at accomplishing this goal. And with new advances being announced every few months, hopes for a world in which this terrible disease no longer exists all seem firmly on track.

UNAIDSConsider this latest development, which comes from the Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Here, researchers have discovered how to permanently extricate HIV-1 from human cells, effectively curing a patient of the disease. Combined with new vaccines that have shown the ability to block infection (and in some cases, even reverse it), this news may yet be reason for even greater hope.

One of the main issues in the treatment of HIV-1 is not simply that it is expensive, but that antiretroviral therapy have terrible side effects that can speed up diseases more commonly associated with aging or can cause co-infections, such as Hepatitis C, to become worse.  Added to this is that HIV is a tricky and tenacious disease that becomes part of a patient’s DNA, making it virtually impossible to eradicate.

https://i1.wp.com/images.gizmag.com/gallery_lrg/scientistseliminatehivfromhumancells.jpgHowever, researchers from Temple University School of Medicine have found a way to cut the infected genes out, potentially eradicating the virus for good and negating the need for lifelong ARV treatment. The technique uses a DNA-snipping enzyme, a nuclease, and a targeting RNA strand to hunt down the genome and cuts the HIV-1 DNA from it. The cell is able to repair its own genomes, essentially sewing itself together again, only now HIV-free.

This treatment will work in varied cell types such as the T-cells and monocytic cells that harbor HIV. In designing the molecular tools, researchers chose nucleotide sequences that do not appear in any coding sequences of human DNA to avoid what they call off-target effects, where patient’s cells or own DNA might be damaged. The technique may also be applicable against many other viruses.

There are still serious hurdles, like how to get the treatment into each, individual cell. Also, HIV-1 is known for mutations, and every patient has their own viral sequence. This means that there can be no single, prescriptive treatment for it. However, another potential upside is that there is the chance this may be used not simply as a treatment but also a vaccine as cells containing the nuclease-RNA combination do not acquire the HIV infection.

https://i1.wp.com/www.templehealth.org/AssetMgmt/getImage.aspxDr. Kamel Khalili, Professor and Chair of the Department of Neuroscience at Temple, calls it an “important step” towards the eradication of AIDS, though it is still years away from the clinical stage. As he put it:

We want to eradicate every single copy of HIV-1 from the patient. That will cure AIDS. I think this technology is the way we can do it.

Though it is not the one-shot breakthrough many have been hoping for, this enzyme-based treatment is another step along the long road towards the end of HIV and another nail in its coffin. As long as treatments exist that are not only able to treat and block, but also fight the disease, there is much reason for hope.

And be sure to check out this video from Temple University, where Dr. Khalili explains the medical breakthrough:


Sources:
gizmag.com, templehealth.org

Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2), med.standford.edu, news.cnet, listosaur, sci.esa.int

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

Ending HIV: New Vaccine Holds Promise for a Cure

hiv-aids-vaccineScientists 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.

vaccineCurrently, 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.

HIV_virusPicker 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.

HIVAccording 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.

Cure_for_HIVImagine, 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:


Sources:
gizmag.com, nature.com