. Scientific Frontline

Monday, April 11, 2022

Decoy particles trick coronavirus as it evolves

Decoy nanoparticle explainer
Credit: Northwestern University

Emerging therapeutics could overcome drug-resistant variants

They might look like cells and act like cells. But a new potential COVID-19 treatment is actually a cleverly disguised trickster, which attracts viruses and binds them, rendering them inactive.

As the ever-evolving SARS-CoV-2 virus begins to evade once promising treatments, such as monoclonal antibody therapies, researchers have become more interested in these “decoy” nanoparticles. Mimicking regular cells, decoy nanoparticles soak up viruses like a sponge, inhibiting them from infecting the rest of the body.

In a new study, Northwestern University synthetic biologists set out to elucidate the design rules needed to make decoy nanoparticles effective and resistant to viral escape. After designing and testing various iterations, the researchers identified a broad set of decoys — all manufacturable using different methods — that were incredibly effective against the original virus as well as mutant variants.

In fact, decoy nanoparticles were up to 50 times more effective at inhibiting naturally occurring viral mutants, compared to traditional, protein-based inhibitor drugs. When tested against a viral mutant designed to resist such treatments, decoy nanoparticles were up to 1,500 times more effective at inhibiting infection.

Protease inhibitors safer than thought for pregnant women with HIV

University of Oxford researchers assessed evidence from 34 studies, involving over 57,000 pregnant women with HIV, and found that protease inhibitor-based antiretroviral therapies significantly increased the risk of babies being small or very small for their gestational age, but there were no other adverse pregnancy outcomes, compared to therapies without protease inhibitors.

Globally, more than 37 million people were living with HIV in 2020, including 19 million women of childbearing age (UNAIDS). Each year, around 1.3 million of these women become pregnant, most of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa where rates of maternal and child mortality remain high.

Antiretroviral therapy is recommended for all pregnant women living with HIV, since this plays a crucial role in improving maternal health and reducing transmission of HIV from mother to child. However, to date there has been a critical lack of evidence on whether antiretroviral therapies increase the risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth, low birth weight, stillbirth, and babies being small for their gestational age.*

In particular, there has been concern about a type of antiretroviral drug called protease inhibitors (including atazanavir, lopinavir, and darunavir). Current guidelines recommend that protease inhibitor-based therapies should be used in pregnancy only if ‘first-line’ treatments (such as integrase and reverse-transcriptase based treatments) are either unsuitable or unavailable. These guidelines also often advise against the use of a specific protease inhibitor, lopinavir/ritonavir (LPV/r), citing an increased risk of preterm birth. However, these recommendations are based on limited evidence, and can restrict treatment options for pregnant women with HIV.

Light, oxygen turn waste plastics into useful benzoic acid

Credit: Pexel 

Styrofoam egg cartons, hard plastic compact disc cases, red drinking cups and many other common products are composed of polystyrene, a type of plastic that makes up a third of landfill waste worldwide.

“In terms of plastic production and end-of-life waste streams, we are on the road to an unsustainable future,” said Erin Stache, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

But there’s good news: Stache has discovered a new path for polystyrene waste that includes being upcycled into benzoic acid, a chemical with wide commercial demand, through a mild process that uses light, an oxygen-rich environment and an abundant iron-based catalyst. The reaction can even take place in a sunny window.

The paper, “Chemical Upcycling of Commercial Polystyrene via Catalyst-Controlled Photooxidation” published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Doctoral candidate Sewon Oh is the lead author.

In line with her lab’s mission to tackle environmental concerns through interesting chemistry, the new process is mild, climate-friendly and scalable to commercial waste streams, Stache said. It efficiently produces benzoic acid, a product stocked in undergraduate and high school chemistry labs and also used in fragrances, food preservatives, and other ubiquitous products.

Meat industry not threatened by plant-based alternatives, study suggests

Vegan patties like these made with pea protein may mimic the sensory experience of eating a real burger, but aren’t putting much of a dent in fresh meat sales.
Credit: Unsplash

At least for now, there is no reason for the traditional meat industry to have much of a beef with producers of plant-based burgers and other meat alternatives, new research suggests.

The study showed that while sales and market share of new-generation plant-based meat alternatives have grown in recent years, those gains haven’t translated into reduced consumer spending on animal meat products.

Overall, the analysis of national meat purchases suggested that plant-based meats sold in patty, link and ground form are mostly an add-on to beef and pork and tend to serve as a substitute for chicken, turkey and fish.

Wuyang Hu Source: OSU
“We thought plant-based meat alternatives would be a potential replacement for red meat, but they’re not. It’s more of a complement,” said study co-author Wuyang Hu, professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at The Ohio State University. “People buy pork and beef, and at the same time they also buy plant-based meats.”

Researchers noted the study is not intended to take any industry’s side or give consideration to the comparative healthfulness of products.

“This new generation of plant-based meat, by mimicking the taste and sensory experience of eating real meat, appeals to consumers who are not only vegetarian but also people who are curious about plant-based meat and even meat eaters,” said lead author Shuoli Zhao, assistant professor of agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky.

“We wanted to look at the most up-to-date market response to a new product and see how the demand for such a product is interacting with the rest of the meat categories, especially within the fresh meat sector.”

World-leading simulation model to improve future pandemic quarantine response

A world-leading epidemiological simulation model to help improve future border quarantine practices for Australia and overseas has been developed by researchers at the University of Melbourne, the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and collaborating institutions.  

The team of researchers – who advised the Federal Government on its National Plan to Transition Australia's National COVID Response last August – have published their model findings in the journal Sciences Advances.

The simulation model combines a detailed representation of person-to-person contact and virus transmission among both travelers and the quarantine workforce, with an accurate simulation of how infectiousness and virus testing accuracy varies over the course of a person’s period of infection.

Researchers were able to include these factors into the simulation model by drawing on growing data from the operation of Australian hotel quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, and their inclusion can aid the design of quarantine systems to reduce the risk of virus transmission from infected arrivals in quarantine to the wider community.

Lead researchers Associate Professor Nic Geard and Dr Cameron Zachreson, from the University’s School of Computing and Information Systems (CIS), said the simulation model was developed to be adaptable and better calculate risks associated with various quarantine pathways including hotel quarantine, home quarantine and dedicated quarantine facilities such as the Victorian Quarantine Hub at Mickleham.

Lockheed Martin Stalker VXE UAS Completes a World Record 39-Hour Flight

Stalker VXE
Credit: Lockheed Martin Corporation

Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) Skunk Works® demonstrated the expanded endurance capabilities of a specially configured Lockheed Martin Stalker VXE unmanned aerial system (UAS) through a world record endurance flight on Feb. 18, 2022, at the Santa Margarita Ranch in California.

The flight establishes a new record in the Group 2 (5 to <25-kilogram) category with a flight time of 39 hours, 17 minutes and 7 seconds. The flight has been submitted to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the world sanctioning body for aviation records, through its U.S. affiliate, the National Aeronautic Association, for certification.

A production Stalker VXE was modified for this record-setting flight with an external, wing-mounted fuel tank. The flight provided valuable insight for improvements to Stalker VXE aimed at scaling its mission capabilities for the future.

Stalker VXE’s class-leading endurance, broad operating envelope, modular payload compliance, vertical take-off and landing capability, and open system architecture allow it to execute diverse and demanding missions while maintaining a small operational footprint and crew.

Aprotinin is effective in COVID-19 patients

A clinical study from Spain recently confirmed laboratory experiments made by researchers of Goethe University Frankfurt and University of Kent who showed that the protease inhibitor aprotinin prevented cells to be infected by SARS-CoV2. The authors of the clinical study report that patients receiving an aprotinin aerosol could be discharged from hospital significantly earlier.

SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, needs its spike proteins to dock onto proteins (ACE receptors) on the surface of the host cells. Before this docking is possible, parts of the spike protein have to be cleaved by host cell's enzymes called proteases. In 2020, a scientific team led by Professor Jindrich Cinatl (Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany), Professor Martin Michaelis and Professor Mark Wass (both University of Kent, UK), conducted cell culture experiments and found that aprotinin, a protease inhibitor, could inhibit virus replications by preventing SARS-CoV-2 entry into host cells.

In a more recent study, the research consortium further showed that aprotinin is also effective against the Delta and Omicron variants.

Blood cancer cells and the immune system are best frenemies

Single-cell technologies allow for the analysis of individual cells and the comparison of normal cells to tumour cells (purple).
Credit: Claudiu Cotta

Researchers at the University of Helsinki and Aalto University have demonstrated that the body’s immune system attacks itself in a rare type of blood cancer. The finding could lead to improved treatment and a more intricate understanding of the immune system’s role in other cancers.

Current treatment methods for large granular lymphocyte (LGL) leukaemia, a rare type of blood cancer, are based on an understanding that the cancer cells attack the body’s own tissues. Prior research has focused on studying these rogue cells, making inroads to a better understanding of the disease.

‘Our research group demonstrated ten years ago that LGL cancer cells typically have a mutation in the STAT3 gene, a finding that is now used to diagnose this disease worldwide,’ says professor of translational hematology Satu Mustjoki from the University of Helsinki.

Although rarely fatal, blood cancer causes several chronic symptoms, including an increased infection risk, anemia and joint pain. The challenge so far has been that patients show a mixed response to treatment.

ESO telescope captures surprising changes in Neptune's temperatures

This composite shows thermal images of Neptune taken between 2006 and 2020. The first three images (2006, 2009, 2018) were taken with the VISIR instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope while the 2020 image was captured by the COMICS instrument on the Subaru Telescope (VISIR wasn’t in operation in mid-late 2020 because of the pandemic). After the planet’s gradual cooling, the south pole appears to have become dramatically warmer in the past few years, as shown by a bright spot at the bottom of Neptune in the images from 2018 and 2020. 
Credit: ESO/M. Roman, NAOJ/Subaru/COMICS

An international team of astronomers have used ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), to track Neptune’s atmospheric temperatures over a 17-year period. They found a surprising drop in Neptune’s global temperatures followed by dramatic warming at its south pole.

“This change was unexpected,” says Michael Roman, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Leicester, UK, and lead author of the study published today in The Planetary Science Journal. “Since we have been observing Neptune during its early southern summer, we expected temperatures to be slowly growing warmer, not colder.”

Like Earth, Neptune experiences seasons as it orbits the Sun. However, a Neptune season lasts around 40 years, with one Neptune year lasting 165 Earth years. It has been summertime in Neptune’s southern hemisphere since 2005, and the astronomers were eager to see how temperatures were changing following the southern summer solstice.

Astronomers looked at nearly 100 thermal-infrared images of Neptune, captured over a 17-year period, to piece together overall trends in the planet’s temperature in greater detail than ever before.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Wireless neuro-stimulator to revolutionize patient care

Many neurological disorders like Parkinson’s, chronic depression and other psychiatric conditions could be managed at home, thanks to a collaborative project involving researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ).

Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) Professor Peter Silburn AM said his team, together with Neurosciences Queensland and Abbott Neuromodulation have developed a remote care platform which allows patients to access treatment from anywhere in the world.

“By creating the world’s first integrated and completely wireless remote care platform, we have removed the need for patients to see their doctor in person to have their device adjusted,” Professor Silburn said.

Electrodes are surgically inserted into the brain and electrical stimulation is delivered by a pacemaker which alters brain function - providing therapeutic relief and improving quality of life.

This digital platform allows clinicians to monitor patients remotely, as well as adjust the device to treat and alleviate symptoms in real time.

“We have shown that it is possible to minimize disruption to patients’ and caregivers’ lifestyles by increasing accessibility to the service, saving time and money,” Professor Silburn said.

“There are no cures for many of these conditions which often require life-long treatment and care, so for those people the device would be a game-changer.”

He said the system also fostered increasingly personalized treatment and data-driven clinical decisions, which could improve patient care.

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