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Oct 31
Studies in monkeys may be next step in search for HIV cure
A powerful infusion of HIV-fighting antibodies beat back a potent form of the virus in monkeys and kept it at bay for weeks, U.S. government scientists and a team led by Harvard University found, offering a potential next step in the battle against human HIV.

The two studies, published on Wednesday in the journal Nature, involve the use of rare antibodies made by 10 percent to 20 percent of people with HIV that can neutralize a wide array of strains.

Such antibodies latch on to regions of the virus that are highly "conserved," meaning they are so critical to the virus that causes AIDS that they appear in nearly every HIV strain.

By attaching to the virus, they make it incapable of infecting other cells.

In the past decade, scientists have tried to make vaccines that could coax the body into making these same types of HIV-specific antibodies. But finding a way to make these complex antibodies has been challenging.

"These are the Ferraris of antibodies," said Dr Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a professor at Harvard Medical School, who led the larger of the two studies.

"Nobody, including ourselves, has been able to develop a vaccine that can generate immune responses that are even close."

In the studies, the teams instead tested these antibodies as a potential treatment for people infected with HIV. Both teams used rhesus monkeys with the Simian-human immunodeficiency virus, a monkey version of HIV.

Barouch's team studied the rare antibodies harvested from HIV-infected humans that were grown in large batches and could be infused at high doses. The team tested different combinations of antibodies in 35 infected monkeys.

The one that worked best was an antibody called PGT121.

"Basically, that antibody, given either alone or in combination, resulted in a dramatic effect," Barouch said.

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The antibodies reduced the virus to undetectable levels in 16 of 18 monkeys within seven days, and kept it there for one to three months. In three animals with the lowest viral load at the time of treatment, the virus did not resurface.

A smaller study by scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a part of the National Institutes of Health, showed similar results.

Both teams say the approach should now be tested in people.

"All the data to date exist in the monkey model. We need to evaluate how these antibodies perform in humans infected with HIV," Barouch said.

His team did not test the antibody treatment in combination with antiretroviral treatments, the standard HIV drugs used by thousands of patients to control the virus.

But Barouch thinks such combinations would make sense because both treatments have different mechanisms of action.

While antiretroviral drugs only attack the machinery used by the HIV virus to make copies of itself, antibodies can directly attack free virus particles in the blood as well as in cells that are infected with the virus.

Barouch said researchers and drug companies are interested in the results, which could offer a next step toward a cure for the infection that causes AIDS.

In an interview on the Nature website, Dr Louis Picker of Oregon Health & Science University, who wrote a commentary on the research, said the study is "a baby step towards cure."

He said antiretroviral treatments, such as those made by Gilead Sciences and GlaxoSmithKline, reduce the ability of the HIV virus to replicate in the body by maybe 99.9 percent, but not 100 percent.

"This treatment on top of it may bring it to 100 percent," he said.

Still unclear is whether antibodies will also attack latent HIV cells that hide in the body and allow the virus to reappear when treatment stops.

"We haven't shown any cures," Barouch said. "However, we have shown the antibodies act not only on the virus in the bloodstream, but can also substantially reduce virus in tissues such as lymph nodes and the gut. Future research with these antibodies will help determine whether they might be part of a virus eradication or cure strategy."

Oct 31
SARS-like viruses can jump from bats to humans: Study
Scientists said Wednesday they had found evidence that SARS-like coronaviruses can jump straight from a type of Chinese bat to humans without the need for an intermediary animal "host".

The find has "enormous implications" for public health control, with potentially pandemic viruses present, right now, in bats in China that could cause another outbreak, said the authors of the study published in the journal Nature.

"Even worse, we don`t know how lethal these viruses would be if such an outbreak erupted," co-author Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based research group, said in a statement.

Bats have long been thought to be the origin of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) outbreak that killed hundreds of people in Asia 10 years ago, but other SARS-like viruses found in bats lacked the genetic ability to "bind" to human cells for infection.

SARS had also been found in civet cats in wildlife markets in China, and many scientists believed they were a necessary intermediary host for the bat virus to mutate into a form able to target humans.

"Our current paper shows that this isn`t necessary -- we have found SARS-like coronaviruses in Chinese horseshoe bats that are much more closely related to human SARS and that can use the human cell receptor," Daszak told AFP by email.

"That means they could emerge directly from bats to people anywhere there is contact with this species of Chinese bat, not just in the wildlife markets where civets are also found."

A receptor is a molecule on the surface of a human cell that receives chemical signals via a spike protein on the surface of a virus -- a kind of lock and key mechanism. But not all viruses have the key to unlock just any cell.

The study authors said their findings constituted the strongest evidence yet that SARS itself may have originated in bats.

"I think it`s the most likely hypothesis for how SARS emerged -- that bats carrying viruses similar to our new CoVs were in the market, and infected both civets and people at the same time," said Daszak.

The results underlined the importance of continued surveillance of viruses in bats to preemptively identify ones that could cross species, said the research team from China, Australia, Singapore and the United States.

"It is not uncommon for bats to be a food source for many people in China and other parts of Asia, so the risk is substantial," said an EcoHealth Alliance statement.

Horseshoe bats are also used in Chinese medicine.

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) which first appeared in September 2012 and has claimed 62 lives worldwide, is also believed to originate in bats -- in Saudi Arabia.

"Our work shows that bats are important reservoirs of a number of viruses including MERS and we should be more careful about how we interact with bats -- let`s give them the natural space for their habitat, conserve them, and avoid hunting and trading in bats -- this is good for conservation and good for our health," said Daszak.

The results published in Nature were based on a genetic analysis of virus samples taken over the course of a year from members of a horseshoe bat colony in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause an array of human illnesses -- everything from the common cold to SARS. They also cause a number of animal diseases.

Daszak said the team had managed to isolate and cultivate one of the viruses live in the laboratory, which will be used to work on a possible vaccine.

"The biggest threat for a pandemic now is not SARS itself because that outbreak happened and ended. The biggest threat is for something similar to SARS to emerge from wildlife and start off a new SARS-like pandemic," he said.

Commenting on the study, Sanjaya Senanayake, associate professor of medicine at the Australian National University, said the chances of direct disease transmission from animals to humans increased as we encroach further into their natural habitats.

"Of the 40 or so new infections in humans discovered in the last 40 years, most have come from animals," Senanayake said.

"This increasingly intricate cohabitation becomes a long-term issue for pandemic planners."

Oct 28
High altitude sickness can be detected before physical symptoms appear
Researchers have found that hypoxia can be detected prior to the appearance of physical symptoms.

Jan Stepanek, M.D., the Aerospace Medicine Program Director and Co-Director of the Aerospace Medicine and Vestibular Research Laboratory, said that this study opens the door for objective assessments of hypoxia and additional safeguards for military and commercials pilots and others working in high altitudes.

Hypoxia is a lower than normal level of oxygen in your blood. To function properly, your body needs a certain level of oxygen circulating in the blood to cells and tissues.

When this level of oxygen falls below a certain amount, hypoxia can cause a variety of symptoms including shortness of breath, impaired speech, slowed reaction time and passing out.

The Mayo Clinic study team used the King-Devick neurocognitive performance test , commonly used to identify cognitive changes related to sports-related concussions, and to assess cognitive function under conditions of low oxygen-simulating altitude.

The King-Devick test assesses the time in viewing, identifying and reading aloud a series of numbers on three consecutive test cards. Based on test times of 25 participants, the study concluded that the King-Devick test is an effective tool to detect "impairment of cognitive performance at a presymptomatic stage of hypoxia."

The findings have been published in journal Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine.

Oct 28
Theatre could help autistic youth improve social deficits
A novel autism intervention program is using theatre to teach reciprocal communication skills to improve social deficits in adolescents with the disorder, a new study has revealed.

The newly released study assessed the effectiveness of a two-week theatre camp on children with autism spectrum disorder and found significant improvements were made in social perception, social cognition and home living skills by the end of the camp.

Called SENSE Theatre, the Social Emotional Neuroscience and Endocrinology (SENSE) program evaluates the social functioning of children with autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders.

Camp participants ages 8 to 17 years join with typically developing peers who are specially trained to serve as models for social interaction and communication, skills that are difficult for children with autism.

The camp uses techniques such as role-play and improvisation and culminates in public performances of a play.

Lead author Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator, said that the findings show that treatment can be delivered in an unconventional setting, and children with autism can learn from unconventional 'interventionists' - their typically developing peer.

Corbett said that their findings show that the SENSE Theatre program contributes to improvement in core social deficits when engaging with peers both on and off the stage.

The study has been published in the journal Autism Research.

Oct 26
Paying kidney donors would be cost-effective, study shows
Would you donate your kidney for $10,000? A new study from the University of Calgary in Canada shows that paying kidney donors would not only increase donation rates - but would be cost-effective as well.

Study author Lianne Barnieh, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Calgary, has long been interested in exploring ways to increase rates of organ donation. Currently, people awaiting organs can receive them in one of two ways - from a deceased donor who provided consent while living or from a living volunteer. However, data from the Department of Health and Human Services has shown there are nearly 100,000 people in the United States currently in need of a kidney donation- and many will die waiting.

"We currently don't have enough donors stepping forward, be it with deceased or living donation rates," Barnieh said. "And the deceased donations, apart from improving the rate of consent, that's a limited increase."

Barnieh points out that the pool of kidneys donated from healthy, living people could potentially be much larger.

"Out of the living donor pool, people have two kidneys and we only need one to function, so that has the biggest potential to increase the donor pool," Barnieh said. "We hypothesized that not everyone is motivated by the same things. Some are motivated by the act of volunteerism, but how can we get at another segment of the population that is currently not stepping forward?"

The researchers speculated that the best way to get more people to step forward might be with cold, hard cash - and they had evidence suggesting the same. In an earlier survey, Barnieh and her team asked people whether they would donate an organ to a close family member or friend for $10,000, and nearly 50 percent of the participants said yes.

However, due to the controversial nature of a pay-for-organs system, Barnieh and her team wanted to make sure that paying donors would actually be a cost-effective move.

"We wanted to take a step back and remove some of the heatedness around it - because there's quite a bit of debate - and look at this on the evidence we currently have," Barnieh said. "Because if it turned out to not be cost-effective, we could stop there and look at a different strategy."

In a study published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, Barnieh and her team devised a financial model based on previous research, factoring in a variety of costs in addition to factors like improved quality of life for transplant recipients. Based on earlier surveys, they estimated that paying donors had the potential to increase donation rates by 5 percent.

"We based it on the 50 percent who would step forward (for $10,000), and we said, 'Let's take 10 percent of that and make it a conservative estimate,'" Barnieh said.

Using this model, Barnieh and her team found that their pay-for-organs policy did, in fact, prove cost-effective, offering a savings of about $340 per patient while improving each patient's overall health outcome.

"It means it's not only cost-effective, but outcomes for patients are better," Barnieh said.

Barnieh acknowledges that her findings need to be tested in a real world setting before they can be confirmed. And while there's still a long way to go before a pay-for-organs system could be implemented in the U.S. or Canada, she hopes that her research will contribute to a more informed dialogue on the subject.

"I think it would be great if that could be considered as a next step. But before we get there we need to have more discussions on the ethical and legal challenges and make sure the public is behind this..."Barnieh said. "I hope this opens the discussion further."

Oct 26
FDA wants restrictions on hydrocodone painkillers
The Food and Drug Administration is recommending new restrictions on prescription medicines containing hydrocodone, the highly addictive painkiller that has grown into the most widely prescribed drug in the U.S.

In a major policy shift, the agency said in an online notice Thursday that hydrocodone-containing drugs should be subject to the same restrictions as other narcotic drugs like oxycodone and morphine.

The move comes more than a decade after the Drug Enforcement Administration first asked the FDA to reclassify hydrocodone so that it would be subject to the same restrictions as other addictive painkilling drugs. The FDA did not issue a formal announcement about its decision, which has long been sought by many patient advocates, doctors and state and federal lawmakers.

For decades, hydrocodone has been easier to prescribe, in part because it is only sold in combination pills and formulas with other non-addictive ingredients like aspirin and acetaminophen.

That ease of access has made it many health care professionals' top choice for treating chronic pain, everything from back pain to arthritis to toothaches.

In 2011, U.S. doctors wrote more than 131 million prescriptions for hydrocodone, making it the most prescribed drug in the country, according to government figures. The ingredient is found in blockbusters drugs like Vicodin as well as dozens of other generic formulations.

It also consistently ranks as the first or second most-abused medicine in the U.S. each year, according to the DEA, alongside oxycodone. Both belong to a family of drugs known as opioids, which also includes heroin, codeine and methadone.

Earlier this year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that prescription painkiller overdose deaths among women increased about fivefold between 1999 and 2010. Among men, such deaths rose about 3.5-fold. The rise in both death rates is closely tied to a boom in the overall use of prescribed painkillers.

The FDA has long supported the more lax prescribing classification for hydrocodone, which is also backed by professional societies like the American Medical Association.

But the agency's top drug regulator, Dr. Janet Woodcock, said in a statement Thursday: "The FDA has become increasingly concerned about the abuse and misuse of opioid products, which have sadly reached epidemic proportions in certain parts of the United States."

The FDA says it will formally request in early December that hydrocodone be rescheduled as a Schedule II drug, limiting which kinds of medical professionals can write a prescription and how many times it can be refilled.

The Controlled Substances Act, passed in 1970, put hydrocodone drugs in the Schedule III class, which is subject to fewer controls. Under that classification, a prescription for Vicodin can be refilled five times before the patient has to see a physician again. If the drug is reclassified to Schedule II, patients will only be able to receive one 90-day prescription, similar to drugs like OxyContin. The drug could also not be prescribed by nurses and physician assistants.

The FDA's request for reclassification must be approved by officials in other agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services.

News of the FDA decision was applauded by lawmakers from states that have been plagued by prescription drug abuse, many who have been prodding the agency to take action for months.

"Today was a tremendous step forward in fighting the prescription drug abuse epidemic that has ravaged West Virginia and our country," said Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, in a statement. "Rescheduling hydrocodone from a Schedule III to a Schedule II drug will help prevent these highly addictive drugs from getting into the wrong hands and devastating families and communities

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York noted that the FDA's own expert panel recommended the reclassification more than nine months ago.

"Each day that passes means rising abuse, and even death, at the hands of hydrocodone-based drugs," Schumer said in a statement.

Still, Thursday's action immediately sparked criticism from some professional groups that said that the tighter restrictions could have unintended consequences, such as burdening health care workers and patients.

"The FDA's reported decision will likely pose significant hardships for many patients and delay relief for vulnerable patients with legitimate chronic pain, especially those in nursing home and long-term care," said Kevin Schweers, a spokesman for the National Community Pharmacists Association.

Oct 25
How sleep loss adversely affects immune system
Researchers have identified the genes that are most susceptible to sleep deprivation and are examining if these genes are involved in the regulation of the immune system.

Conducted at the sleep laboratory of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, the study restricted the amount of sleep of a group of healthy young men to four hours per night for five days, imitating the schedule of a normal working week.

Blood samples were taken before and after the sleep deprivation test. White blood cells were isolated from the samples, and the expression of all genes at the time of the sampling was examined using microarrays.

The results were compared with samples from healthy men of comparable age who had been sleeping eight hours per night for the week.

Researcher Vilma Aho said that they compared the gene expression before and after the sleep deprivation period, and focused on the genes whose behaviour was most strongly altered.

She said that the expression of many genes and gene pathways related to the functions of the immune system was increased during the sleep deprivation.

Aho asserted that there was an increase in activity of B cells which are responsible for producing antigens that contribute to the body's defensive reactions, but also to allergic reactions and asthma. This may explain the previous observations of increased asthmatic symptoms in a state of sleep deprivation.

The amount of certain interleukins, or signalling molecules which promote inflammation, increased, as did the amount of associated receptors such as Toll-like receptors (TLR). On the gene level, this was apparent in the higher-than-normal expression of the TLR4 gene after sleep loss. CRP level was also elevated, indicating inflammation.

The study has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Oct 25
Scientists discover protein that may help prevent cataract
Scientists have taken a step closer to prevent cataract from striking by finding out the activation mechanism of the protective protein that saves human eyes from falling prey to disease.

The lens of the human eye is made up of a highly concentrated protein solution that imparts the eye its high refractive power. Yet, despite this high protein content the ocular lens must remain clear and transparent.

To this end ocular lens cells have developed a remarkable strategy: They have thrown overboard the complex machinery present in all other cells of the human body for building up and breaking down proteins. Instead, lens proteins are created only once in a lifetime - during embryonic development.

In 2009, Johannes Buchner, professor for biotechnology at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen collaborated with Sevil Weinkauf, professor for electron microscopy at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen, and helped the first part of the aB-crystallin puzzle fall into place.

The team successfully deciphered the molecular structure of the most important form of this versatile protein - a molecule comprising 24 subunits. Under normal conditions, i.e. when the cell is not exposed to stress, this complex is the most common variant.

However, it is merely an idle form that contributes little to the prevention of clumping in other proteins. It was clear that there must be another molecular switch that triggers the protective protein.

It is this trigger mechanism that the team headed by Buchner and Weinkauf uncovered now. When a cell is exposed to stress, for instance when subjected to heat, phosphate groups are attached to a specific region of the protein.

The negative charges of these phosphates break the links between the subunits and the large complexes consequently disintegrate into numerous smaller ones of only six or twelve subunits each.

As a result of this breakup, the regions at the ends of the complexes become more flexible allowing the molecules to dock up with different partners, thereby preventing them from clumping - the protective protein is now active.

The study has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Oct 24
Daily dose of Vitamin D can help stave off diabetes
A daily dose of vitamin D can be used in the battle against Type 2 diabetes, experts have revealed.

Researchers are carrying out a major clinical trial to confirm whether taking vitamin D can prevent or delay the condition, the Daily Express reported.

They believe that the "sunshine vitamin" may reduce diabetes risk by 25 per cent.

The study led by Professor Philip Raskin, from UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, is a four-year trial across America which will track 2,500 people age 30 or older who have pre-diabetes.

They will be given daily doses of vitamin D about five times higher than usually recommended.

Oct 24
Testosterone therapy may cut risk of cardiovascular disease
A new study has suggested that testosterone treatment in hypogonadal (testosterone deficient) men restores normal lipid profiles and may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In this observational study, researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), investigated the effects of testosterone treatment in 255 hypogonadal men between the ages of 33-69 and followed them for a period of five years.

They found that men treated with testosterone therapy experienced a gradual reduction of their total cholesterol, low density lipoprotein cholesterol, triglycerides and increased high density lipoprotein.

"In addition to improving their cholesterol levels, we found that the testosterone treatment resulted in marked reductions in systolic and diastolic blood pressure as well, suggesting amelioration of hypertension," lead author Abdulmaged M. Traish, MBA, PhD, professor of biochemistry and urology as well as Research Director of the Institute of Sexual Medicine at BUSM explained.

Traish found this treatment also reduced fasting blood glucose and hemoglobin A1c, a surrogate marker of hyperglycemia, suggesting that testosterone treatment may improve insulin sensitivity and hyperglycemic control.

It also reduced the levels of inflammatory biomarkers such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and markers of liver dysfunction such as alanine aminotransferase and aspartate aminotransferase, suggesting reduction in the inflammation responses.

The study is published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice.