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Ahmed Abd El Wahed
Ahmed Abd El Wahed

Scientists Develop Test-in-a-Box for Chikungunya Virus

Ahmed Abd El Wahed
Ahmed Abd El Wahed

As mosquito-borne viruses like Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya continue to spread across the globe, rapid diagnosis and treatment are more important than ever. In a recent paper published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, German researchers describe an inexpensive, portable test that could help speed up Chikungunya diagnosis in remote areas.

The word “chikungunya” means “to become contorted” in the Kimakonde language of southeastern Africa, and refers to the curled-up posture of people in pain. The symptoms of Chikungunya virus (CHIKV)—joint pain, muscle pain, and fatigue—are similar to those of a bad flu and will generally resolve on their own after a few days or weeks. But they also look a lot like the initial symptoms of Dengue fever, which can be fatal unless it’s treated quickly. The two illnesses are carried by the same mosquito species, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, and are found in the same parts of the world. Identifying which of these viruses a patient has can be a matter of life and death.

Current CHIKV tests rely on polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which chemically amplifies any traces of RNA or DNA in a sample to make them easier to identify. But PCR is time- and cost-intensive and requires refrigeration, which makes it an impractical choice in remote areas. An international team of researchers decided to see if they could do better.

They set PCR aside in favor of a technique called reverse transcriptase recombinase polymerase amplification (RT-RPA), which they hoped would also amplify the RNA of the Chikungunya virus (CHIKV). To test their assay, the team ran samples from 58 patients with suspected CHIKV infection and another 20 whose infection had been confirmed through both a PCR scan and their new RT-RPA.

The results were promising indeed. The patients’ samples had included 18 different CHIKV strains, and the RT-RPA spotted them all. The new test correctly diagnosed 36 patients, and didn’t return a single false positive. The RT-RPA was slightly less sensitive than the PCR, but it was also faster and more shelf-stable.

“The CHIKV RPA assay presented here is a promising tool for CHIKV diagnostics at the point of need,” the authors write in their paper.

Still, the test isn’t ready for primetime just yet. In its present incarnation, the assay requires a lot of steps and pipetting, and costs around $5. Ideally, the researchers say, the process would be even simpler and max out at $1. They’re continuing to refine their product, and recommend combining it with Dengue and Zika tests, which “…would improve outbreak investigations, since the three viruses induce the same clinical picture upon infection and increasingly co-circulate in many parts of the world.”
 
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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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