Life science stories you may have missed – 10/01/20

Life science stories you may have missed – 10/01/20

The argument against herd immunity

In a recent article, Kaiser Health News set out to clear up the confusion on herd immunity. Herd immunity is the point at which enough people are resistant to a disease that it is unlikely to spread in the population, protecting the community from infection. According to the article, 50-70% of the population needs to be immunized to reach herd immunity for COVID-19. But experts predict this would equate to widespread illness and an “incredible number of deaths.” Further, cases of reinfection have raised questions on how long immunity lasts and whether someone who has immunity can still spread the virus. Dr. Stuart Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, concludes: “We can’t count on natural herd immunity as a way to control the epidemic.”

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From cancer research to tracking coronavirus

When COVID-19 hit, Dr. Paraic Kenny, director of the Kabara Cancer Research Institute at the Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Wis., wondered how his team could join the fight against the pandemic. Using existing equipment and expertise sequencing patients’ tumors, he converted his lab to begin sequencing COVID-19 patient samples to better understand the virus and its spread. To his surprise, the team found a fast-growing cluster they were able to trace to a single source: a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. The Washington Post breaks down the science behind Dr. Kenny’s discovery in “The code: How genetic science helped expose a secret coronavirus outbreak.”

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New report sheds further light on the opioid crisis

Ed Silverman writes for STAT that a “lack of coordination from opioid makers” hindered the success of a safety program intended to minimize opioid abuse and misuse. When the FDA began requiring REMS, or risk evaluation and mitigation strategy programs, for opioids in 2011 it was seen as an important move to curb the opioid crisis. But a new report shows that manufacturers often failed to submit required data on how often opioids were prescribed, side effects, and the results of surveys on prescriber and patient awareness of risks, such as addiction. Silverman says the conclusions are “especially problematic, when considering that, although opioid prescribing has decreased by 34% since 2012, health care providers still prescribed about 80% more opioids in 2018 than during the 1990s.”

Life science stories you may have missed – 10/01/20

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STAT explains the unprecedented fast-paced progress toward a COVID-19 vaccine

In March, The New York Times described STAT as “the medical news site that saw the coronavirus coming months ago” and reported that the outlet was drawing four to five times its normal audience. Today, the site continues to lead with insightful coverage for industry insiders and science newcomers alike. Andrew Joseph’s latest, “‘A huge experiment’: How the world made so much progress on a Covid-19 vaccine so fast,” is no exception. He explains how a combination of previous research, cutting-edge approaches, cash infusions, regulatory nimbleness and the nature of the virus itself has driven “the astonishing pace of the progress” toward developing potential vaccines.

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Genetic sequencing takes the spotlight

As Alice Park writes for TIME magazine, “genetic sequencing is the new language for managing infectious-disease outbreaks.” Before COVID-19, genetic sequencing was not a familiar term for those outside the scientific and medical community. Now, the analysis technique is gaining attention as a powerful tool to better understand the virus and how it is spreading, as well as to inform to development of vaccines and therapies.

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2020: The year of COVID, and CRISPR cows

The experiment: using CRISPR to insert DNA into bovine embryos to create a new line of bigger, better cattle for the beef industry. After many setbacks, the research team welcomed a baby boy in April. They had successfully used a gene editing knock-in approach to ensure the calf was male, but also found numerous erroneous insertions when they sequenced its DNA. In a world wracked by COVID-19, the WIRED headline provides a light-hearted distraction, but also proof that science of all kinds carries on. “Dozens of other projects aiming to make animals less susceptible to disease and other cruelties of industrial agriculture are in progress in other parts of the world, too,” writes Megan Molteni.

Life science stories you may have missed – 10/01/20

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For scientists at the bench, COVID-19 testing a daily ritual

In a pilot program, nearly 230 employees from a dozen biotech startups in Cambridge and Watertown, Mass. regularly visit the Broad Institute for COVID-19 testing. The Boston Globe’s Jonathan Saltzman reports that while much of the world has gone remote during the pandemic, biotech companies have been taking precautions to allow scientists back in the lab – from testing and wearing face masks to maintaining social distancing and working in shifts. Could the biotech community offer strategies for other industries seeking to reopen onsite work?

The (virtual) show must go on: ASCO 2020

Pharmaceutical Technology’s coverage on ASCO 2020, the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting, notes a shift in pharmaceutical developers’ focus from tissue-specific to tissue-agnostic drug development. As the use of next-generation sequencing and broad molecular profiling increases in diagnostic labs, targeting niche genetic aberrations with a broad label across multiple solid cancers could be an effective treatment option.

Critical considerations for COVID-19 vaccine development

If you have been infected or vaccinated for coronavirus, are you protected from getting sick again? Not necessarily. In new paper in Nature Biotechnology, co-authors George Church, SmartPharm Therapeutics CEO Jose Trevejo and researchers from HelixNano write that antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE) of infection has been observed in coronaviruses. This means patients who have been infected or vaccinated can later be infected by another strain – and potentially suffer even more serious outcomes. “Careful design and testing of vaccines or alternative approaches to prophylaxis will be needed to prevent ADE,” they write.

Life science stories you may have missed – 10/01/20

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Coronavirus and “shoe-leather epidemiology”

Wired’s Megan Molteni has a way of pulling readers inside her stories with colorful and pointed observations. In her piece on 1/21, notes that despite considerable technology advancement since SARS “figuring out how new diseases spread is still an exercise in shoe-leather epidemiology.” Viral DNA analysis is – and perhaps always will be – only one part of an epidemiological picture.

Read more in Wired

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Precision medicine mustn’t be about drugs alone

On its surface, Vinay Prasad’s piece in Nature is a story of two ships passing in the night. His ship, enlightened public health policy, is often overshadowed by the bright lights of blockbuster drugs, at least in popular media.  The “concepts” of population health and social determinants of health are esoteric by comparison. But these two ships aren’t on different courses. Medicine isn’t about drugs alone, nor should precision medicine, and Vinay is on to something worth closer scrutiny.

Read Vinay’s piece in Nature

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Cardiff University scientists discover T-cell receptor that recognizes and kills multiple cancers

On Monday, researchers from Cardiff University published a study in Nature Immunology about the discovery of a new T-cell receptor (TCR) that “exhibits pan-cancer cell recognition” and could make a patient’s T-cells capable of killing autologous melanoma without affecting healthy cells. The research is still early, but the potential for “pan-cancer, pan-population immunotherapies” to improve health outcomes and health economics is significant.

See study in Nature Immunology

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Life science stories you may have missed – 10/01/20

Recent life science news bites you may have missed

From Jen Heady, Vice President at Greenough Brand Storytellers

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Prime editing takes the spotlight

Just six years after Feng Zhang and George Church first harnessed the power of CRISPR-Cas9 for genome editing, WIRED magazine has already coined the term “classic CRISPR” to describe this now widely referenced genome editing approach. The term “classic” differentiates CRISPR-Cas9 from a hot new CRISPR technique: prime editing. While critics say prime editing may be less practical than existing methods, the number of new genome editing techniques and studies introduced over the last several years is a testament to the incredibly fast progression of science.

Read Megan Molteni’s coverage in WIRED

Check out the Broad Institute’s handy infographic explaining the prime editing process

For a history of CRISPR, visit the Broad Institute’s CRISPR timeline

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VC funding: It’s all about who you know

In her latest for STAT, Kate Sheridan covers how venture capital’s reliance on relationships is contributing to gender, racial and geographic disparities in the biotech space. What can be done to increase diversity? For entrepreneurs, the answer may be as simple as engaging with venture capitalists outside of your own network before launching a company. Bottom line: it’s still about who you know, but don’t limit your network to those in your current circle.

Read the full story

https://www.statnews.com/2019/10/31/social-connections-first-science-second/

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Inside scoop: A former Biogen employee on the company’s “shocking” Alzheimer’s news

Biogen made big headlines by announcing that it will submit aducanumab for FDA approval after halting a study on the Alzheimer’s drug earlier this year. Since the news dropped, journalists, Wall Street analysts and experts have speculated on how the company could have reinterpreted the data so drastically. As a former Biogen employee who “worked on and around aducanumab,” Ted Whitford writes that Biogen hasn’t been afraid to admit failures in the past, and that he hopes the company made a mistake in its earlier analysis. “But if it didn’t,” writes Whitford, “and this is another example of the American public watching big pharma trying to spin bad data, then I can’t help but wonder if Biogen, and perhaps the industry has lost its way.” One thing is certain: all eyes will be on Biogen next time it announces data on the buzzworthy drug. 

Read Ted Whitford’s “First Opinion” piece for STAT