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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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Why You Should Think Twice About Drinking From Ceramics You Made by Hand
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Ceramic ware is much safer than it used to be (Fiesta ware hasn’t coated its plates in uranium since 1973), but according to NPR, not all new ceramics are free of dangerous chemicals. If you own a mug, bowl, plate, or other ceramic kitchen item that was glazed before entering the kiln, it may contain trace amounts of harmful lead.

Earthenware is often coated with a shiny, ceramic glaze. If the clay used to sculpt the vessel is nontoxic, that doesn’t necessarily mean the glaze is. Historically, the chemical has been used in glazes to give pottery a glossy finish and brighten colors like orange, yellow, and red.

Sometimes the amount of lead in a product is minuscule, but even trace amounts can contaminate whatever you're eating or drinking. Over time, exposure to lead in small doses can lead to heightened blood pressure, lowered kidney function, and reproductive issues. Lead can cause even more serious problems in kids, including slowed physical and mental development.

As the dangers of even small amounts of lead have become more widely known, the ceramics industry has gradually eliminated the additive from its products. Most of the big-name commercial ceramic brands, like Crock-Pot and Fiesta ware, have cut it out all together. But there are still some manufacturers, especially abroad, that still use it. Luckily, the FDA keeps a list of the ceramic ware it tests that has been shown to contain lead.

Beyond that list, there’s another group of products consumers should be wary of: kiln-baked dishware that you either bought from an independent artist or made yourself. The ceramic mug you crafted at your local pottery studio isn’t subject to FDA regulations, and therefore it may be better suited to looking pretty on your shelf than to holding beverages. This is especially true when consuming something acidic, like coffee, which can cause any lead hiding in the glaze to leach out.

If you’re not ready to retire your hand-crafted ceramic plates, the FDA offers one possible solution: Purchase a home lead testing kit and analyze the items yourself. If the tests come back negative, your homemade dishware can keep its spot on your dinner table.

[h/t NPR]

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Marathon Running Won't Undo Poor Lifestyle Choices, Study Suggests
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Even marathon participants can't outrun an unhealthy lifestyle, according to a new study highlighted by The New York Times.

For years, expert opinion has been mixed on whether long-distance running helps or hurts hearts. In the 1970s, research suggested that marathon running and a heart-healthy diet would completely prevent atherosclerosis (a buildup of harmful plaque in the arteries). But since high-profile runners have died of heart attacks, scientists in the 1980s began to worry that running might actually harm the vital organ. Compounding this fear in recent years were studies suggesting that male endurance athletes exhibited more signs of heart scarring or plaques than their less-active counterparts.

Experts don't have a verdict quite yet, but researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford and their colleagues have some good news—running doesn't seem to harm athletes' hearts, but it's also not a panacea for heart disease. They figured this out by asking 50 longtime marathon runners, all male, with an average age of 59, to fill out questionnaires about their training, health history, and habits, and then examining them for signs of atherosclerosis.

Only 16 of the runners ended up having no plaque in their arteries, and the rest exhibited slight, moderate, or worrisome amounts. The men who had unhealthy hearts also had a history of smoking and high cholesterol. A grueling training regime seemed to have no effect on these levels.

Bottom line? Marathon running won't hurt your heart, but it's not a magic bullet for poor lifestyle choices.

[h/t The New York Times]

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