We’ve done a full 360 on Zika. In early 2016, the WHO declared Zika to be a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” Less than two years later we’re just injecting it into brains willy-nilly to see what it does. To be fair, it does seem to kill glioblastomas pretty effectively, so we’ll give mad scientists a pass this time. Still, the Zika crisis did seem to peter out quickly in the Americas, at least quicker than US government investors expected. Without any real epidemic threat from the virus forthcoming, funding for the government and Sanofi’s vaccine development partnership has dried up. There are still two vaccine candidates from GSK and Takeda in development, but the decision has been criticized as short-sighted.
The current process we use for determining the boundary between cancerous and healthy cells during surgery—frozen section procedure—has been around for over 100 years. Let that sink in. While we’re sure there have been vast improvements in optimizing the procedure in the past century, it still takes about 30 minutes to prepare and analyze a section. That’s a lot of extra time to stay under for surgery. Well researchers at The University of Texas at Austin decided they wanted to make that time faster—about 150 times faster. Their device, the MasSpec Pen, is reportedly able to make the analysis within 10 seconds, is more accurate than FSP, and allows for more precision during tissue removal. Nice work, Longhorns.
Last week, the FDA approved Novartis’ Kymriah—a “living drug” that works by making immune cells realize they should get rid of those pesky leukemia cells making a mess of things. We’ve been following this story since June, because it’s really cool for a couple reasons. First, it marks the first time a gene therapy has been approved for use in the US, although more CAR-T treatments are in the pipeline. Second, the treatment is designated for the most prevalent form of childhood cancer in the US—acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). There is a bit of worry that the treatment is prohibitively expensive, which is what sunk the first gene therapy approved in the EU, but maybe competition will help drop prices.
Here’s the scenario: Scientist A says, “We have to do something about these superbugs before they kill us all!” Scientist B responds, looking up from a Spiderman comic, “Too bad we can’t just design some super-spiders to fight them with.” And that’s where it all started. Australian researcher Sónia Troeira Henriques and her team published a study wherein they redesigned a peptide from a Brazilian spider and found that their work increased the molecule’s antimicrobial and anticancer properties. Innovators have been looking for alternatives to the existing field of antibiotics, which are becoming dangerously ineffective at combating increasingly resistant bacteria. Earlier this year, the WHO released their list of “priority pathogens” that we really need to get some stuff in the pipeline for.
CT scans are one of the best ways for smokers to figure out if there’s something going on in their lungs… well at least for the most part. But there’s an argument that goes something like, “if a smoker receives this kind of exam and doesn’t receive bad results, it gives them a license to smoke.” Well, a study from Cardiff University is throwing shade on that argument. Researchers found that the simple act of receiving a CT scan might make a smoker more likely to quit—regardless of the result. The study authors chalk it up to the exam being a teachable moment where smokers give serious thought to giving up their cancer sticks.
Amazon is working tirelessly to find more and more pots to stick its Amazon Prime fingers in. The e-commerce goliath’s newest focus is healthcare, and it has two projects aimed at pushing in that direction. One is a secretive venture with the goal of (tell me if you’ve heard this one before) revolutionizing electronic medical records. The other is an investment that Amazon’s using to position itself as the solution for storing insane amounts of human genetic data. The company invested in Grail, a start-up planning to use its technology to flag the earliest signs of cancer. That requires a ton of data storage and processing, and if Amazon and Grail can pull it off here, you can bet it’ll be a huge market for them.
An FDA advisory board voted unanimously for the approval of a CAR-T cancer therapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL. This could be the first gene therapy—where one’s own genes are altered to create “killer T-cells” to attack cancerous cells—approved in the US. CAR-T cell therapy is a one-time treatment and shows promise in its ability to knock out ALL where other cancer drugs have failed. Novartis, the drug developer, reported 83% of the patients achieved complete remission within three months and a high probability of being relapse-free at 12 months. The new treatment isn’t without safety concerns, but traditional treatments are more toxic than CAR-T, must be taken long term and eventually stop working. Take THAT, childhood cancer!