CRISPR CREATES THE SUPER-CHICKEN.
Scientists have harnessed CRISPR gene-editing technology to produce chickens with a degree of resistance to avian influenza, as per a study in Nature Communications. This research could offer a method to mitigate the impact of bird flu, which threatens animals and humans. However, when subjected to high viral doses, some modified chickens still got infected. The virus also evolved quickly when only one chicken gene was altered, implying the need to edit multiple genes to achieve resistance. While Wendy Barclay of Imperial College London views this as progress towards flu-resistant chickens, Dr. Carol Cardona of the University of Minnesota emphasizes the flu virus’s rapid adaptability. Given the challenges in containing bird flu, such as the widespread H5N1 strain, and the logistical hurdles of vaccination, gene-edited resistance could be transformative. The study involved editing the ANP32A gene that the flu virus uses for replication, with no evident adverse health impacts on the chickens. Nonetheless, high doses still infected some edited chickens, and mutations emerged allowing the virus to utilize the modified ANP32A protein. Future work aims to modify all three related genes in chickens, and the potential of this method to improve public health is considerable. (New York Times)
NEW FUNDING AGENCY TAKES BABY STEPS.
When Renee Wegrzyn became the leader of the newly-formed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) a year ago, numerous questions arose regarding its distinction from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Wegrzyn’s ability to drive it. Now, ARPA-H has committed nearly $1 billion of its initial $2.5 billion budget to ambitious projects that NIH wouldn’t typically support, such as creating a 3D printed heart using living cells. Unlike the traditional NIH approach, ARPA-H is taking bold risks in the medical research arena. Established as a biomedical counterpart to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), ARPA-H aims to foster groundbreaking biomedical initiatives. Its establishment was contentious, with concerns about its relationship with NIH and funding allocation. ARPA-H differs from NIH by focusing on broad health technologies rather than specific diseases. Wegrzyn emphasizes hiring program managers to guide the agency’s vision and acknowledges that while there’s excitement around ARPA-H, there should be realistic expectations regarding outcomes. (Science)
TAINTED COUGH SYRIP COMPANY STILL PRODUCING.
In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, most production has resumed at Marion Biotech’s factory, a producer of cough syrups which have been linked to the deaths of 65 children in Uzbekistan last year. This company, along with two others from India, had their cough syrups associated by the World Health Organization (WHO) with the deaths of 141 children across Uzbekistan, Gambia, and Cameroon, marking a significant poisoning event. Although the state drug controller cancelled Marion’s licence in March, it was reinstated in September with the stipulation that they cannot produce products using propylene glycol (PG). Investigations revealed that the syrups contained harmful toxins diethylene glycol (DEG) and ethylene glycol (EG). These toxins, cheaper than PG, were reportedly used to cut costs. Furthermore, state prosecutors in Uzbekistan allege that officials were bribed to bypass mandatory testing for these syrups. As a result, 21 individuals are currently on trial for the child deaths. (Reuters)
POST-COVID PHARMA RETURNS TO NORMAL.
Down rounds in financing, where a company raises money at a lower share price than a previous round, are becoming more frequent in the biotech sector. While they used to signal potential issues with a company, they now reflect broader market dynamics. Data from industry law firm Cooley indicates that down rounds in the second quarter peaked at their highest in seven years, with 21% of all venture financings being down rounds. Josh Seidenfeld from Cooley predicts this trend to continue. In 2022, private biotech financings decreased by 24%, with a total investment of $21.7 billion, down from $28.5 billion in 2021. Les Funtleyder of E Squared Capital Management views this as a return to normalcy after a “once-in-a-decade bubble.” While these funding trends pose challenges, the biotech sector remains optimistic, with Lindy Fishburne of Breakout Ventures emphasizing that the quality of science and innovation remains strong. (Fierce Biotech)
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PREMATURE BIRTHS STILL A PROBLEM IN INDIA.
India has not made significant progress in reducing preterm births over the past decade, according to an analysis in The Lancet. Despite advancements in other maternal and child mortality indicators, the preterm birth rate in 2020 remained almost identical to 2010. Preterm birth refers to a baby born before the 37th week of gestation. India accounted for the highest number of preterm births globally, constituting 20% (3.02 million). These figures also reflect the nation’s large population and total births, and point towards weaker health systems, lacking adequate family planning and antenatal care. Preterm births contribute significantly to neonatal mortality. Although India decreased its neonatal mortality rate, it still records the world’s highest neonatal deaths. Preterm infants require specialized care, and many community health centers lack pediatricians. Inadequate healthcare service delivery exacerbates neonate deaths. Proper antenatal care can predict and prevent preterm births, but many Indian women don’t receive quality care. Addressing nutritional deficiencies and anemia can also reduce preterm births. While richer countries may have high preterm birth rates, their healthcare systems ensure better survival rates for neonates compared to countries with poorer healthcare infrastructure. (The Wire India)
MISINFORMATION AT X STARTS AT THE TOP.
The Trust and Safety team at X (previously Twitter) announced measures to combat disinformation about the Israel-Hamas conflict. However, Elon Musk, X’s owner, was notably absent from this initiative and instead engaged in controversial activities, including promoting disinformation and interacting with a QAnon promoter. Musk introduced a feature allowing X Premium subscribers to only view replies from those paying $8 a month, supposedly to combat spam. Despite this, disinformation, especially from verified accounts, remains rampant. The Safety team has removed Hamas-affiliated accounts and cooperates with the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT). They also praised the Community Notes system and removed accounts manipulating trending topics. However, Musk’s restructuring of the platform emphasizes engagement, potentially sacrificing truthfulness. Sulaiman Ahmed, an X Premium subscriber, falsely claimed an ancient church in Gaza was destroyed, and even after debunking, the lie continued to spread. Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins criticized Musk’s handling of the platform, suggesting it primarily benefits deceptive users. (Wired)
BMI IS AN OUTDATED METRIC.
Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, has treated patients with weight-related health issues. One of her patients still sought treatment despite having improved health markers, as she was concerned about her BMI. Although BMI has been used for decades as a standard to determine healthy weights, it doesn’t measure body fat and ignores variables like age, sex, and race. Consequently, there’s a movement advocating for supplementary weight metrics alongside BMI. The origin of BMI traces back to Adolphe Quetelet’s work on characterizing the ‘average man’. In 1972, Ancel Keys renamed Quetelet’s index to BMI, which became a primary measure of health. While BMI might indicate health trends at the population level, it’s a crude metric for individuals. Studies have shown discrepancies between BMI and actual health. The reliance on BMI fails to reflect variability among adults and racial differences. The American Medical Association recently highlighted these issues. Experts now suggest using BMI as a preliminary screening tool, not a standalone diagnostic measure. However, the rise in demand for anti-obesity medications might bolster the over-reliance on BMI. Efforts are underway to develop comprehensive diagnostic criteria that factor in BMI alongside other crucial metrics. (Nature)
INDIA PLANS MANNED SPACE TRAVEL.
India plans to undertake a critical test for its Gaganyaan space mission on Oct. 21, which involves sending an empty module into space and retrieving it, as stated by deputy minister for science and technology, Jitendra Singh. The ultimate mission, scheduled for next year with a budget of around 90.23 billion rupees ($1.08 billion), aims to send a crew of three in a space capsule to an orbit of 400 km (250 miles) and safely return them to Indian territory. “Gaganyaan” in Hindi means “sky craft.” The forthcoming test, launching from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, will evaluate the crew escape system for emergencies. Another test flight will precede the manned mission, carrying Vyommitra, a female robot astronaut. Although the exact dates remain undisclosed, the principal mission is anticipated to launch from Sriharikota by 2024’s end. Singh acknowledged the accomplishments of ISRO scientists in the Chandrayaan-3 mission and the country’s inaugural solar mission. (Reuters)
SOLAR ECLIPSE SET TO DAZZLE.
On Saturday, a rare “ring of fire” or annular solar eclipse will captivate spectators across parts of the western U.S. and Central and South America. The moon will align between the Earth and the sun, obscuring all but the sun’s outer edge, creating a bright ring around the moon. This phenomenon will be visible along a path stretching from Oregon to Brazil. The rest of the Western Hemisphere will witness a partial eclipse. Another total solar eclipse is anticipated in six months, on April 8, 2024. The upcoming eclipse will commence from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre and cross several U.S. states and countries before ending over the Atlantic. Viewers are advised to use certified solar eclipse glasses for protection. This celestial event precedes another total solar eclipse in April 2024, which will be observable across multiple U.S. states. Scientists plan to undertake extensive observations during both eclipses. (Associated Press)
Thanks for reading. Let’s be careful out there.
WORDS: The Biology Guy.
IMAGE CREDIT: Brenda Timmermans.