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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
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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New Peanut Allergy Patch Could Be Coming to Pharmacies This Year
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About 6 million people in the U.S. and Europe have severe peanut allergies, including more than 2 million children. Now, French biotechnology company DBV Technologies SA has secured an FDA review for its peanut allergy patch, Bloomberg reports.

If approved, the company aims to start selling the Viaskin patch to children afflicted with peanut allergies in the second half of 2018. The FDA's decision comes in spite of the patch's disappointing study results last year, which found the product to be less effective than DBV hoped (though it did receive high marks for safety). The FDA has also granted Viaskin breakthrough-therapy and fast-track designations, which means a faster review process.

DBV's potentially life-saving product is a small disc that is placed on the arm or between the shoulder blades. It works like a vaccine, exposing the wearer's immune system to micro-doses of peanut protein to increase tolerance. It's intended to reduce the chances of having a severe allergic reaction to accidental exposure.

The patch might have competition: Aimmune Therapeutics Inc., which specializes in food allergy treatments, and the drug company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. are working together to develop a cure for peanut allergies.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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