Social Isolation Linked to Higher Risk of Developing Dementia

A recent study found that the risk of developing dementia is 27% higher among older adults who lack regular social contact and interaction with others.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. It used data from a group of 5,022 participants aged 65 and older (with an average age of 76) as part of a long-term study titled National Health and Aging Trends.

At the time of the study, the participants were not living in a nursing home, residential care facility or other institution. They were asked to complete a two-hour, in-person interview to assess cognitive function, health status and overall well-being.

Initially, about 23% of the participants were socially isolated but showed no signs of dementia. The other 77% of participants were not considered socially isolated.

According to the study, social isolation is characterized by interacting with others infrequently and having few relationships. The researchers considered if participants lived with others, attended religious services, participated in social events, or discussed “important matters” with two or more people in the past year. Participants who engaged in none of the above were considered socially isolated.

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During the nine years of the study, researchers periodically administered cognitive tests. The study showed that 26% of the participants considered socially isolated developed dementia, compared with 20% of those who were not deemed socially isolated.

In total, 21% of all participants had developed dementia, leading researchers to conclude that the risk of developing dementia over nine years was 27% higher in socially isolated older adults.

Social isolation among older adults is associated with greater dementia risk. Elucidating the pathway by which social isolation impacts dementia may offer meaningful insights for the development of novel solutions to prevent or ameliorate dementia across diverse racial and ethnic groups.”

Dr. Alison Huang, a senior research associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said, “one possible explanation is that having fewer opportunities to socialize with others decreases cognitive engagement as well, potentially contributing to increased risk of dementia.”

Dr. Thomas Cudjoe, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins and a senior author of the study, stated  in a news release that “social connections matter for our cognitive health, and it is potentially easily modifiable for older adults without the use of medication.”

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that around 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.  Being socially isolated “has also been linked to poor mental health and emotional well-being in older people.”

Another study that used data from participants in the same National Health and Aging Trends study “found that more than 70% of people age 65 and up who were not socially isolated at their initial appointment had a working cellphone and/or computer, and regularly used email or texting to initiate and respond to others.”

This second study, conducted over four years, found that older adults who used these technologies showed a 31% lower risk for social isolation than other participants. 

Dr. Mfon Umoh, a postdoctoral fellow in geriatric medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said that “basic communications technology is a great tool to combat social isolation.” 

“This study shows that access and use of simple technologies are important factors that protect older adults against social isolation, which is associated with significant health risks. This is encouraging because it means simple interventions may be meaningful.”


7,000 Nurses Go on Strike at Two of NYC’s Largest Hospitals

After a weekend of talks failed to produce agreements for new contracts, more than 7,000 nurses at Mount Sinai Medical Center and Montefiore Medical Center in New York City are going on strike to demand better pay and working conditions.

The walkouts began at 6 a.m. Monday morning. The New York State Nurses Association, representing 42,000 nurses, said that chronic understaffing prompted the strike. Hiring has not been sufficient to cover the nursing shortages created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nancy Hagans, president of the NYSNA, said the nurses “do not take striking lightly, but that’s what’s going to happen if our bosses give us no other choice.”  The failure of hospital administrators to hire nurses left behind hundreds of unfilled slots, leaving current nurses to pick up the workload.  

“Our No. 1 issue is a crisis of staffing. It is an issue that our employers have ignored.” 

Despite having 760 open nursing positions, Montefiore Medical Center did not fill any of them. According to Ms. Hagan, some nurses tend to up to 20 patients at a time. This puts tremendous pressure on workers, especially in the emergency room, which is “so overcrowded that patients are admitted in beds in the hallway instead of hospital rooms.”

The union desires adequate enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance with safe staffing levels. They are also requesting pay increases commensurate with inflation rates. Sunday night’s negotiation session failed to produce an agreement. Monday has no scheduled bargaining sessions, but the nurses are eager to return to the table.

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Monday’s strike put a strain on the NYC healthcare system, with hospitals having to relocate patients, reroute ambulances, and reduce other services. Hospitals were already feeling the impact of the citywide tripledemic of RSV, influenza and COVID-19. Because of nursing shortages, hospitals brought in temporary staff, including doctors, to continue operations.

Mario Cilento, the president of the New York State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, showed support for the nurses in a statement released on Monday.

“It is time for the hospitals to treat these nurses fairly, with the dignity and respect they deserve, to ensure nurses can get back to serving their communities by providing superior care to their patients.”

 Gov. Kathy Hochul called for binding arbitration on Sunday night to postpone the strike, but the union rejected the offer.

“Gov. Hochul should listen to front-line COVID-19 nurse heroes and respect our federally protected labor and collective bargaining rights. Nurses don’t want to strike. Bosses have pushed us to strike by refusing to seriously consider our proposals to address the desperate crisis of unsafe staffing that harms our patients.”

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 The union leaders at Montefiore Medical Center turned down management’s offer of a 19.1% compounded wage increase over three years and a commitment to add more than 170 new nursing jobs. Mount Sinai administrators released a statement addressing the latest negotiations, during which union leaders walked out at 1 a.m. on Monday morning.

 “We remain committed to seamless and compassionate care, recognizing that the union leadership’s decision will spark fear and uncertainty across our community. Our first priority is the safety of our patients. We’re prepared to minimize disruption, and we encourage Mount Sinai nurses to continue providing the world-class care they’re known for.”

 The pandemic has left front-line medical workers with a distrust of hospital management. In recent years, nurses have walked out in states across the country as well as worldwide. Nurses in the United Kingdom went on strike last month for the first time in seven decades.

 Nurses and doctors still remember the dangerous working conditions when COVID-19 first swept through the city in 2020, inundating hospitals with patients and killing more than 22,000 residents. Hospitals were inadequately prepared, and there was insufficient personal protective equipment for medical staff.

Foreseeing the impending strike, both Montefiore and Mount Sinai have rushed to make preparations in recent days. Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement released Sunday night that the city is in contact with the hospital networks. Still, he acknowledged that some parts of the city’s hospitals would likely be overburdened.

 “In the event of a strike, our system will be prepared to meet the challenges. If there is a nurses’ strike, hospitals in certain areas may experience impacts to operations, including possible delayed or limited service. We encourage all New Yorkers to call 911 only for emergencies, and be prepared to seek an alternate facility in case their preferred hospital is impacted.”


Genes That Helped People Survive the Plague Linked to Autoimmune Disorders in Descendants

Scientists have discovered that the same genetic characteristics that helped people survive the Black Death more than 700 years ago are now linked to an elevated risk of developing certain autoimmune disorders.

Using the DNA of victims and survivors of the Black Death from the 14th century, scientists have discovered that Europeans with a variation of the gene called ERAP2 had a substantially better chance of surviving the disease. The mutations provided protection against the Black Death pathogen Yersinia pestis, which went on to kill off nearly half of Europe’s population.

These results, published in the Journal “Nature,” provide insight into how the Black Death influenced the development of immunity genes like ERAP2 and laid the groundwork for how some people react to disease today. For instance, inheritors of the gene have a higher risk for autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease and arthritis.

Luis Barreiro, professor of genetic medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center and co-author of the study, believes this study provides new insight into the true evolutionary impact of the plague.

“This is, to my knowledge, the first demonstration that indeed, the Black Death was an important selective pressure to the evolution of the human immune system.”

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The study was carried out on more than 500 ancient DNA samples collected from the teeth of people who had died before, during or after the plague. Some samples were taken from skeletons buried in London’s East Smithfield plague pits. According to Barreiro, the pits were used for mass burials in 1348 and 1349 when people were dying so quickly that the city’s cemeteries were running out of space.

“So the king [Edward III], at the time, bought this piece of land and started digging it. There’s basically layers and layers of bodies one on top of each other.”

Samples that contained two copies of the ERAP2 gene indicated an ability to produce functional proteins, which helped the immune system to recognize an infection. The variant also helped immune cells neutralize the virus more efficiently, making the person 40% more likely to survive the plague than their peers. However, the mutations enhanced the body’s inflammatory response, making people more susceptible to autoimmune disorders.

Hendrik Poinar, professor of anthropology at McMaster University in Canada and co-senior author of the study, said the study showed the ability of pandemics to alter genome sequences in the long-term without being detected in modern populations.

“These genes are under balancing selection – what provided tremendous protection during hundreds of years of plague epidemics has turned out to be autoimmune-related now. A hyperactive immune system may have been great in the past, but in the environment today, it might not be as helpful.”

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Evolutionary biologist David Enard from the University of Arizona said the speed of the adaptation over just a few decades had other implications. The 40% survival advantage the variant bestowed is the most significant evolutionary advantage recorded in humans.

“The evolution is faster and stronger than anything we’ve seen before in the human genome. It’s really a big deal. It shows what’s possible [for humans], in terms of adaptation in response to many different pathogens.”

According to paleogeneticist Maria Avila Arcos, the study still has its limitations by only being carried out on a narrow population. The plague also affected parts of Asia and North Africa.

“There might be way more cellular mechanisms people used to cope with this devastating outbreak, but we’re just seeing the mechanisms shared across the English and Danish.”

white house

White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Explains Why Some Americans Don’t Trust The Science

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s Covid response coordinator, recently spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival and explained why Americans continue to grow less trusting of medical advice from experts. One of the biggest reasons cited is due to a lack of representation in the scientific/medical field. 

“If you look at the experience of the way the public health system has treated, let’s say, African Americans in America, there’s a lot of basis for mistrust. It is not a glorious history.”

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According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 29% of US adults say they believe medical scientists are acting in the best interest of the public: that percentage is down from 40% in late 2020. 

Jha said that for many people of color, that mistrust can be rooted back to not seeing enough representation or diversity in the medical field in general, especially when it comes to positions of power in the public health system. 

“We have to do a much better job at diversifying our scientific workforce. It will make science better. It’ll make the communication better. The proportion of Black men in medical school is the same today as it was 40 years ago.” 

According to a 2015 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), only 1,337 Black men applied to US medical schools in 2014, compared to 1,410 Black men in 1978. Less than 6% of all physicians in America are Black, according to a 2018 study by UCLA. 

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Diversity in medicine has been luckily on the rise recently; January data from the AAMC shows that there were roughly 20% more Black male first-year medical students in the US in 2021 when compared to 2020. However, the report also cited an 8.5% decrease in American Indian and Alaska Native first-year students. 

Jha noted that “diverse doctors and healthcare workers could help get more people of color on board with vaccinations. The words of trusted community members often carry more weight than government officials, even publicly elected ones.”

“Here are communities that have been served badly, where the health system has treated them badly, and then someone shows up and says, ‘You want a vaccine?’ and you’re surprised that people are not immediately jumping for it?”

“You saw incredible vaccine uptick rates in lots of communities of color, but, when you work with those right partners. It was proof of this principle that if you get the right partners, you do this humbly, you do this in an effective way, it really moves the needle,” said Jha.


Success Of mRNA Covid-19 Vaccines Is ‘Just A Glimpse Of Their Full Potential’

According to a new Perspective published in the Medical Journal Of Australia, the success of mRNA vaccines against Covid-19 shows “just a glimpse of their full potential.” 

Isabella Overmars is a research coordinator at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, and her and her colleagues are responsible for the published Perspective in which they explained why mRNA vaccines are so successful. The mRNA contains a code for a specific antigen that is transferred into a host cell where it is then translated into a coded protein. 

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“This typically leads to the host cell displaying the protein on its surface to promote cell-mediated immunity, and the host cell releases proteins outside of the cell which are taken up and presented by other antigen-presenting cells to promote antibody-mediated immunity,” they wrote.

mRNA vaccines are being held in such high regard for a multitude of reasons, including their low toxicity, and the fact that “there is no possibility for an infection to occur from the vaccine itself”.

“mRNA vaccines do not rely on non or mildly pathogenic viral vectors as a delivery method, which in some cases can cause issues of immune-based clotting disorders, such as thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS), and antivector immunity,” Overmars wrote.

“The manufacturing process also has several benefits, including in vitro development and use of synthetic materials, which improves manufacturing consistency. Moreover, mRNA vaccines can be rapidly synthesized after the required sequence is known, and modifications can be expedited, which is advantageous in responding to emerging immune-evasive variants.”

The biggest “limitation” to mRNA technology is the fact that it can be easily destroyed, which is why the vaccines need to be stored at cold temperatures.

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“mRNA vaccine development will continue to accelerate, spurred on by the success of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, and further improvements to the technology may mitigate some of the current limitations and facilitate broader reach.”

“For example, strategies to make the mRNA vaccines self-amplify, meaning the mRNA delivered in the vaccine encodes not only the antigen of interest but also the replication machinery that amplifies the mRNA, will reduce the amount of mRNA needed in each vaccine. Moderna is already in phase 1 with a seasonal influenza quadrivalent product, and is developing other combination vaccines, including one for human metapneumovirus and parainfluenza virus,” wrote Overmars and colleagues.

“Existing challenges need to be addressed to ensure equitable access and expansion. To do this, manufacturing facilities with advanced mRNA technology may be required in multiple locations globally,” they explained. 

“Testing of different additives, adjuvants and delivery mechanisms will be important to increase the stability of mRNA vaccines at higher temperatures and to therefore facilitate equitable access.”

“mRNA technology has progressed rapidly over the past 2 years in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, revealing new and exciting avenues for prophylactic and therapeutic vaccine development,” they concluded.

Clinical Trial

A Small Cancer Trial Resulted In Remission For Every Patient Involved 

In a new research trial of 18 rectal cancer patients, every individual involved who took the same drug found themselves in remission for their illness. The cancer vanished in every single patient, meaning the cancer was undetectable by physical exam, endoscopy, MRI scans, and PET scans. 

The research from the trial was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine from lead author Dr. Luiz A. Diaz Jr. of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The trial was sponsored by drug company GlaxoSmithKline, and Dr. Diaz stated that he knew of no other study where a treatment completely obliterated a cancer in every patient involved. 

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“I believe this is the first time this has happened in the history of cancer.”

Dr. Alan P. Venook, a colorectal cancer specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved with the study, said he also thought “this was a first. A complete remission in every single patient is unheard-of,” he said.

The rectal cancer patients involved in the study have all previously experienced invasive and intense treatments for their conditions including chemotherapy, radiation, and life-altering surgery that could result in bowel, urinary, and sexual dysfunction. 

When the patients received the news that they would no longer need treatment for their cancer, as it was no longer existent, Dr. Andrea Cercek, a co-author of the paper, said “there was a lot of happy tears from everyone.”

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Venook added that another major surprise was that none of the patients had any clinically significant complications from the trial drug. On average 20% of patients who take a drug similar to the one used in the trial, dostarlimab, have some sort of adverse reaction. 

In the trial the medication was given every three weeks for six months, each dose cost around $11,000. The drug itself is meant to “unmask” cancer cells, allowing the body’s immune system to easily identify and destroy them. 

“While most adverse reactions are easily managed, as many as 3% to 5% of patients who take checkpoint inhibitors have more severe complications that, in some cases, result in muscle weakness and difficulty swallowing and chewing. The absence of significant side effects, means that either they did not treat enough patients or, somehow, these cancers are just plain different,” Venook said.

Dr. Hanna K. Sanoff of the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, who was not involved in the study, called it “small but compelling, though, that it is not clear if the patients are cured. Very little is known about the duration of time needed to find out whether a clinical complete response to dostarlimab equates to cure.”

Bob Saget’s Death A Tragic Reminder Of The Importance Of Seeking Medical Attention When It Comes To Head Injury

This past Wednesday Bob Saget’s family released a statement which described how authorities discovered that Saget passed away from head trauma. 

“They have concluded that he accidentally hit the back of his head on something, thought nothing of it, and went to sleep. No drugs or alcohol were involved.” 

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Saget was 65 and had been embarking on his comedy tour at the time of his untimely death. He was found unresponsive in his hotel room in Orlando, Florida after performing. The statement didn’t detail what or how Saget may have hit his head. 

CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta said it sounded like a “possible bleed on top of the brain”which may have resulted in a subdural hematoma.”

“There is a blood collection in this scenario that’s on top of the brain pushing on the brain. The thing about the brain, unlike any other organ in the body, it’s obviously encased in a hard skull so it has nowhere to go if it has this kind of pressure on it.”

If pressure is placed on the brain and brainstem, it can result in a person losing consciousness and their ability to breath on their own. 

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“It may have been a pretty significant blow to the head. Maybe a fall in the bathroom, or on the headboard of your bed, you don’t think anything of it. Small veins can tear as a result of that blow and blood can start to leak,” Gupta explained. 

Saget’s passing reminded many fans of Natasha Richardson, the late actress who passed away after hitting her head during a skiing lesson after initially declining medical treatment after the fall. Mark Shaud, the younger brother of Duchess of Cornwall Camilla also passed away after falling and hitting his head on the sidewalk. 

Gupta explained how subdural hematomas are “far more common than people realize, they can develop over hours, or even weeks.” 

Gupta explained how typically one will experience a headache, slurred speech, confusion, nausea, and vomiting when a subdural hematoma is occurring. It’s vital that the individual seeks medical treatment as quickly as possible when a potential head injury has occured. 

“I don’t want to suggest that everyone who hits their head needs to go get a [computed tomography also known as a CT or CAT)] scan. Most do not need that obviously. But if it’s a significant blow, you’re on blood thinners …and again those symptoms: worsening headaches, confusion, nausea, vomiting, slurring of speech, things like that are unusual. You should definitely go get that checked out,” Gupta said.

NY Doctors Perform First Double Hands And Face Transplant 

This Wednesday, doctors at NYU Langone Medical Center announced that after 23 long hours in surgery they had performed the first successful face and double hands transplant on 22-year-old Joe Dimeo.

Back in 2018, 20-year-old Joe Dimeo fell asleep at the wheel of his car on Route 22 in New Jersey, causing him to lose control, hit a curb and flip his vehicle over, completely engulfing it in flames. Luckily a bystander was able to pull Dimeo out of the car before it exploded, but the young adult still suffered third-degree burns over nearly 80% of his body. 

The damage was so severe that he was left without eyelids, ears, and parts of his fingers. The scarring from the burns limited his range of motion and partially covered his eyes making it difficult to see. It’s for these reasons that Dimeo was so motivated to work with his doctors in performing this historic surgery. 

Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez is the head of the team that completed the surgery, and told the media this Wednesday that Dimeo is “the most highly motivated patient [he’s] ever met.” The surgery actually occurred in August of last year, however, the team of doctors wanted to wait and ensure that Dimeo’s body wouldn’t reject the transplants before calling the surgery a complete success. 

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“There have been over a hundred hand transplants performed successfully, and close to 50 face transplants, so fundamentally there was no reason why they couldn’t occur together, successfully.”

There have only ever been two other attempts to complete a double hand and face transplant simultaneously worldwide but both were unfortunately unsuccessful. “We needed to avoid infection, we needed to have this operation occur as fast as possible, we had to be very selective with the donor, and we had to implement every state of the art technology that would ensure complete success of Joe’s operation, and that’s exactly what we did.”

“Joe is healthy, he’s young, he’s strong, he loves to exercise, he eats healthy, and he has that one special element which is going to be required for this operation, a high level of motivation and a tremendous sense of hope.”

The operation took 80 healthcare professionals spread across six surgical teams and two adjoining operating rooms to complete. One of the operating rooms was used to carefully retrieve the hands and facial tissue from the dying donor, which are then typically replaced with 3D prosthetics according to Rodriguez. 

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“We always begin the operation with a moment of silence to honor the donor family, to respect their great loss, to never forget the donations that have been made. In all these operations it’s important to recognize that someone must give up their life so that others can continue living,” Rodriguez said. 

In the other room Dimeo was being meticulously prepared to receive the transplants. The surgery itself is long, grueling, and dangerous, and if done incorrectly would have resulted in the end of Dimeo’s life as well. Rodriguez explained that for each hand they had to replace “21 tendons, three major nerves, five major vessels, and two major bones,” and that’s not even including the face. 

After 23 hours in surgery and 45 days in intensive care, followed by two months of impatient rehab, Dimeo learned to open his new eyelids, more his new hands, and smile for the first time in years. Dimeo also recently spoke with the press about wanting to share his story and tell people to never give up on life. 

“I want to share my story to give people hope in the world. I’d like to recognize the selflessness of my donor, and how none of this would be possible without his sacrifice. Thank you. I feel like I’ve been given a second chance at life. There’s no excuse to not be motivated, or not to do my therapy. My hands aren’t there yet. I have to keep practicing, it’s kind of like when you’re a baby, they’re just moving their hands all the time until they get that ability to do stuff. I’ve got new hands now, just like them. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. You never give up.”

COVID-19 Vaccine Trial

Human Trials For Covid-19 Vaccine Begins At Oxford University

The first human trials for a Covid-19 vaccine have begun in Oxford. Two volunteer patients were injected this week, and 800 more individuals will also be given the vaccine within the next few weeks as a part of the study. Half of the participants will be injected with the Covid-19 vaccine and the other half will receive a control vaccine that protects them from meningitis, but not the coronavirus. The design of the trial study makes it so each volunteer is unaware of which vaccine they’re receiving; the doctors obviously do know, however.

“Personally I have a high degree of confidence in this vaccine. Of course, we have to test it and get data from humans. We have to demonstrate it actually works and stops people getting infected with coronavirus before using the vaccine in the wider population,” said Sarah Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology at the Jenner Institute who led the pre-clinical research for the study. 

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The vaccine itself was developed in under three months by a team of researchers and scientists at Oxford University. According to the scientists who worked on it, the vaccine is made from a weakened version of a strain of the common cold virus; which is known as an adenovirus. They took this specific virus from chimpanzees and modified it so that it would be able to grow in humans. 

To put it simply, scientists have taken genes found on the surface of the coronavirus and added them to the adenovirus that they took from the chimpanzees. Scientists then inject this combination into the patient where it will begin to enter their cells and produce the coronavirus gene. As this process begins, the patient’s immune system should begin producing antibodies and activate killer T-cells to destroy all cells with that specific Covid-19 gene sequence. This is basically the same thing that happens in your body when you get a flu shot. 

The goal is that the vaccine works exactly like a flu shot in the sense that whenever an individual who’s been vaccinated is exposed to the coronavirus, their body’s immune system will be equipped to fight it off. 

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The same team running this trial developed a vaccine against MERS, another type of the coronavirus, using this same approach, hence the confidence from Gilbert and the rest of the team. The only real way that they’ll know if it works, however, is to compare the number of individuals who become infected within the coming months. The biggest concern is that cases in general will begin to decline in the UK which would give the scientists less data to work on the vaccine with. 

The researchers are prioritizing local healthcare workers to be their test subjects, as those are the individuals that are most likely to be exposed to the virus. Within the next two months, the team hopes to start a much larger trial of about 5,000 individuals instead of 800. In terms of timelines and when this vaccine could actually be distributed, Gilbert says only time will tell. 

“It’s not really our role to dictate what will happen, we just have to try to get a vaccine that works and have enough of it and then it will be for others to decide. We’ve got to ensure we have enough doses to provide for those in greatest need, not just in the UK but also in developing countries.”

This team at Oxford luckily has a fund of over 40 million pounds to work with on further research and trial developments. While this entire pandemic has been a waiting game in terms of updates, it seems as though this team of scientists is on the right track and has the necessary resources to remain on course. Gilbert is hoping the world sees a Covid-19 vaccine as early as fall 2020.


Lab-Grown Venom Works As New Treatment For Snake Bites

Every 5 minutes, 50 people are bitten by a venomous snake, and every day at least 200 people die from the bite. The main way to treat a snake bite is with antivenom; which is made by milking snake venom by hand and directly injecting it into a horse. The horse’s immune system will respond to the small doses of venom and evoke a response that produces antibodies that fight the poisonous effects of the venom. The horse’s blood is drawn and purified to collect the antibodies, this process can also be done within other large animals as well, however, it’s quite dangerous for all parties involved. 

The process of creating antivenom is messy, error prone, and extremely labor intensive, and if you’re not paying attention and doing everything 100% correctly, it can result in serious side effects for the snake, bitten human, the horse, and the individual performing the whole process. Antivenom production has been the same since the Victorian era and, up until now, it was the best way to treat severe snake bites. However, scientists have finally made major strides in producing snake venom in a lab environment using stem cells and genome mapping.

“[We] have created venom-producing glands from the Cape Coral Snake and eight other snake species in the lab, using stem cells. The toxins produced by the miniature 3-D replicas of snake glands are all but identical to the snake’s venom. These are massive developments because it’s bringing 2020 science into a field that’s been neglected,” said Nick Cammack, head of the snakebite team at UK medical research charity Wellcome.

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Hans Clevers has been the principal investigator at the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental Biology and Stem Cell Research in the Netherlands in regard to creating a new antivenom, however, Clevers wasn’t even intending on tackling this issue originally. In 2009, Clevers and his team developed a technique to make miniature human organs out of stem cells called organoids. This made medical history at the time, as doctors were given the ability to test the specific effects of certain drugs safely outside of a patient’s body, but still using their specific DNA to know how they would react; these techniques really advanced certain cancer treatments as well. 

At the time, Clevers was teaching as well as creating these organoids, and when three of his PhD students asked about the logistics of what else stem cells could recreate, they all began brainstorming about different animal organs to make in a lab setting. Eventually, they all agreed that recreating a snakes venom glands would be the coolest development they could make, and although they all had low standards on their ability to do so, the lack of research, at the time, regarding stem cells and snake venom was enough inspiration to at least try. 

“[We] found we were able to take a tiny chunk of snake tissue, containing stem cells, and nurture it in a dish with the same growth factor we used for human organoids to create the venom glands. These snake organoids produced the same toxins as the snake venom. Open them up and you have a lot of venom. As far as we can tell, it’s identical. We’ve compared it directly to the venom from the same species of snake and we find the exact same components,” said Clevers, who posted about these findings in the Journal Cell.

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Once developed, Clevers and his team took their stem cell venom and some real venom that was extracted from the same snake that their lab-made venom emulated and compared how human muscle cells reacted to both on a genetic level. They found that the muscle cells had the same exact reaction to both, meaning they successfully created an “artificial” version of the venom that, genetically, is identical to the real thing. 

This is a huge development, as previously mentioned, current antivenom practices that involve horses has been the main method of treating snake bites since the Victorian era, so Clevers and all the other teams in Europe currently working on this are advancing science more than they know. Only 60% of the world’s venomous snake populations have successful antivenom treatments in the case of a bite. The goal is to begin developing snake organoids from the 600+ venomous snake species currently living on our planet. If successful, the mass production and distribution of these new treatments could have hundreds of thousands of lives every year. 

“The next step is to take all that knowledge and start investigating new antivenoms that take a more molecular approach. The lab now plans to make venom gland organoids from the world’s 50 most venomous animals and we will share this biobank with researchers worldwide. At the moment, we’re able to produce the organoids at a rate of one a week,” Clevers said.