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Acela2038 via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Acela2038 via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tracking Germs on Public Transit Could Help Predict Epidemics

Acela2038 via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Acela2038 via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The dirty reality: researchers who swabbed subway cars and ticket machines in Boston found surprisingly low numbers of harmful microbes. They intend to use this data as a baseline to help anticipate future epidemics and other public health crises. The team published their findings in the journal mSystems.

For the study, the scientists headed into stations along the subway system’s Red, Green, and Orange lines on three separate weekdays in May and October in 2013. They swabbed the touchscreens and sides of ticket machines, as well as the seats, seat backs, poles, and wall grips inside train cars, carefully recording the precise location of the swabbing site. Back in the lab, the researchers picked through the swabs’ microbial communities, creating a DNA profile for each site.

They found that the public transit environment was positively teeming with bacteria and other microorganisms. Poles and hand grips were liberally smeared with Propionibacterium, Corynebacterium, Staphylococcus, and Streptococcus—species all commonly found on human skin and in our mouths. Seats hosted Corynebacterium and the vaginal bacteria Gardnerella. (It's important to note that Gardnerella can easily be transmitted through clothing.) And plant bacteria were found all over outdoor touchscreens. There were no major differences between train stations or lines.

So yes, germs were everywhere, but the presence of germs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to Curtis Huttenhower, a computational biologist and senior author on the study.

“We were surprised to find that the microbes that we collected on surfaces that people touch—and sometimes sneeze on—had low numbers of worrisome pathogens or antibiotic resistance genes,” Huttenhower said in a press statement. “These environments have drastically lower virulence profiles, in fact, than are observed in a typical human gut.”

Now, just because the subway wasn’t disease-ridden doesn’t mean these findings are useless. Far from it, Huttenhower says. “Our findings establish a baseline against which deviations can be used as an early warning system to monitor public health.”

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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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