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Scientists Make Progress in Their Quest for a Universal Flu Vaccine

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Seasonal flu vaccines can be a bit of a shot in the dark. They protect against the specific influenza viruses researchers predict will be the most common for the upcoming season. You can still catch other varieties of the flu that aren’t among the most common for that year, and flu viruses mutate rapidly, requiring new vaccines every year to protect people. According to one recent study, the protection from a flu vaccine falls after six months. (That's still generally enough time to get most of us through flu season.) 

And so scientists have long been on the lookout for better ways to protect people against the flu. One promising recent lead: a non-vaccine treatment that would make use of cells' natural virus defense mechanisms. A breakthrough approach would be a universal flu vaccine—one that would work against a wide variety of subtypes of influenza, reducing the need for seasonal flu shots.

Two papers released today in two leading science journals, Nature Medicine and Science, indicate that researchers might be inching closer to finding a universal vaccine—one that people could get only once every few years or longer. 

These two studies report success with a vaccine targeting an unusual part of the virus that does not mutate as quickly as other parts, resulting in what’s called heterotypic protection (i.e., protection against a different type of virus than the one the vaccine is designed for). 

Flu vaccines typically raise immunity to one part of the influenza virus called hemagglutinin (HA) glycoprotein. However, HA molecules are different for different influenza strains, and it changes as viruses mutate. 

“We’ve known for some time that there is a region of HA, the stem, that does not change and is present on all flu A viruses, and if we can use only that part in the vaccine we could raise immunity to many different viruses at the same time,” says Sarah Gilbert, an immunologist who studies vaccines at Oxford University, in a statement to the UK's Science Media Centre, “but it has been technically challenging to make a vaccine that works in that way.” 

In Nature Medicine, researchers from the National Institutes of Health were able to protect mice and ferrets against a fatal dose of H5N1 flu, even though the vaccine didn’t result in antibodies that neutralized that particular virus. In Science, researchers from the Janssen Center of Excellence for Immunoprophylaxis (owned by Johnson & Johnson) and the Scripps Research Institute report using antibodies targeting the HA stem to protect mice and monkeys from different flu viruses, including the H5N1 viruses, in lethal doses. 

Creating a universal vaccine would do more than just save people from making the trip to the doctor or pharmacy year after year. Seasonal vaccines don’t protect against the influenza viruses that people get from animals, like swine flu or avian flu. It takes some six months to develop an influenza vaccine, so when a brand new virus comes along like H1N1 did in 2009, scientists have to scramble to catch up, producing a vaccine and getting it into clinics before the virus becomes a pandemic. A universal vaccine would theoretically be better able to protect against new mutations, meaning that people wouldn’t have to wait six months (or more) for protection against a virus that’s already spreading through the population. 

While these studies provide a solid proof-of-concept for vaccines of this type, don’t expect to pick up one of these vaccines at your local pharmacy anytime soon. First, the vaccines will have to make it through human trials, a process that will take years, if they succeed at all. 

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Medicine
Why Haven't We Cured Cancer Yet?
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Walkathons, fundraisers, and ribbon-shaped bumper stickers raise research dollars and boost spirits, but cancer—the dreaded disease that affects more than 14 million people and their families at any given time—still remains bereft of a cure.

Why? For starters, cancer isn't just one disease—it's more than 100 of them, with different causes. This makes it impossible to treat each one using a one-size-fits-all method. Secondly, scientists use lab-grown cell lines cultivated from human tumors to develop cancer therapies. Living masses are far more complex, so potential treatments that show promise in lab experiments often don't work on cancer patients. As for the tumors themselves, they're prone to tiny genetic mutations, so just one growth might contain multiple types of cancer cells, and even unique sub-clones of tumors. These distinct entities might not respond the same way, or at all, to the same drug.

These are just a few of the challenges that cancer researchers face—but the good news is that they're working to beat all of them, as this TED-Ed video explains below.

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Health
6 Ways Technology Can Help Mental Health Disorders
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Today is World Mental Health Day. Mental health issues affect hundreds of millions of people around the globe; according to the World Health Organization, some 300 million suffer from depression, and another 260 million grapple with anxiety disorders. While researchers haven't developed any breakthrough mental health drugs in nearly three decades, new technological innovations are helping some patients connect with a therapist, get diagnosed, track moods, manage or mitigate symptoms, and stick to treatments. Here are just a sampling of them.

1. APPS FOR EVERYTHING FROM PTSD TO ADDICTION

The "there's an app for that" slogan is now true for the complex world of mental health care. There are thousands. Some apps are targeted at users with specific conditions, such as anxiety, schizophrenia, or depression, and are designed to assuage and manage symptoms, track moods and thoughts, or help individuals stick with treatments. Others are aimed at improving memory, coping, and thinking skills, or managing stress through meditation or mindfulness. There are also apps for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and addiction. The list goes on.

Mental health apps have plenty of benefits, including convenience, anonymity, and a low price. But experts caution prospective users against using them as a stand-in for professional treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Most aren't backed by peer-reviewed research or clinical trials, partially because tech development moves faster than traditional scientific testing. Confidentiality is also a major issue, as many of these apps don't adhere to standard healthcare privacy guidelines.

Yet some preliminary studies have shown that they can yield patient improvements. Vet any app you're considering with a doctor or therapist, focusing on ones that rely on evidence-based treatment such as cognitive behavior therapy. Double-check the app developer's credentials before downloading: The most trustworthy are typically affiliated with academic research institutions or government agencies, according to the American Psychological Association. And choose one with an intuitive interface; it will be easier to stick with, so you might see better outcomes.

To learn more about the pros and cons, visit the NIMH's comprehensive report on the subject.

2. ONE-ON-ONE THERAPY THROUGH VIDEO AND TEXT

With a shortage of mental health professionals in the U.S., online or mobile therapy appears to be a good solution for prospective patients who can't find an available one in their area. It's also promising for those who simply don't have the time or resources for in-person appointments, or are afraid of stigma.

Some services or platforms allow users to connect with therapists via voice or video on a computer or phone. Others are text-based and allow patients to send unlimited messages via their phones, 24/7, for a flat monthly fee.

3. BEHAVIOR TRACKERS THAT MAY INDICATE AN IMPENDING MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS

While some mental health apps are designed to deliver outcomes (an improved mood, lessened anxiety), researchers are also working to harness mobile technology to detect suicidal inclinations, burgeoning manic episodes, or depressive episodes before they manifest.

One such scientist is Dr. Thomas Insel, a psychiatrist and former head of the NIMH. After a stint with Verily, the life sciences unit of Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Insel left the tech giant to co-found a start-up called Mindstrong. Both organizations, he told CNBC, are working on apps that monitor users' smartphone behavior—with permission from the user.

For example, if a user starts typing more rapidly than normal, their syntax changes, or they indulge in impulsive shopping sprees, that might be an indicator that they're manic. If they don't respond to texts from family and friends, they might be depressed. Together, this data collection could create what Insel calls a "digital phenotype," which could be described as a personalized mental health map. This could help users or their loved ones mitigate any potential crises through preventative treatment.

This line of research is promising, but Insel noted that it's still unclear whether the approach will yield long-term outcomes for patients—or if the tech itself is fine-tuned enough to observe behavior changes.

4. SMART SOFTWARE THAT FINDS AT-RISK PATIENTS IN MEDICAL RECORDS

Some insurance companies are now using cloud-based software platforms to review electronic medical records and insurance claims data to identify patients at risk for developing mental health conditions like depression. Then, they connect them with appropriate treatments through a network of behavioral health specialists.

5. VIRTUAL-REALITY TREATMENTS

In addition to treating PTSD with medication, therapy, and exercise, some physicians use a technique called exposure therapy, which is designed to help patients relive trauma-related phenomena in a controlled, safe environment, such as a doctor's office. This helps patients get habituated to the memories so they no longer trigger flashbacks and anxiety. Scientists have tested VR as a tool for exposure therapy in clinical trials, and a handful of clinicians around the U.S. are now trained to use it in their practices.

Headsets whisk patients back in time using a combination of images and sounds. While wearing the headsets, subjects discuss past experiences with therapists until they become desensitized to the triggers before them.

Meanwhile, researchers like Yale scientist Sarah Fineberg are using computer games and VR to understand feelings of social rejection in people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), a complicated condition in which sufferers have a hard time regulating emotions, have a distorted sense of self, and are prone to extreme mood swings, especially towards the people in their lives. 

6. A GOOGLE SCREENING THAT LETS YOU KNOW IF YOU'RE DEPRESSED

Google recently teamed up with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a nationwide grassroots mental health advocacy group, to offer a mental health screening questionnaire to U.S. residents who search for "depression" on their mobile phones. The top result is a box called a "knowledge panel," which has information on depression, its symptoms, and potential treatments. To get screened, click the option "Check if you're clinically depressed" to take a confidential, medically backed self-assessment quiz.

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