Setting the Body’s ‘Serial Killers’ Loose on Cancer

After a long, intense pursuit, researchers are close to bringing to market a daring new treatment: cell therapy that turbocharges the immune system to fight cancer.

BETHESDA, Md. — The young surgeon was mystified. A fist-size tumor had been removed from the stomach of his patient 12 years earlier, but his doctors had not been able to cut out many smaller growths in his liver. The cancer should have killed him, yet here he lay on the table for a routine gallbladder operation.

The surgeon, Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg, examined the man’s abdominal cavity, sifting his liver in his fingers, feeling for hard, dense tumors — but he could find no trace of cancer.

It was 1968. Dr. Rosenberg had a hunch he had just witnessed an extraordinary case in which a patient’s immune system had vanquished cancer. Hoping there was an elixir in the man’s blood, Dr. Rosenberg got permission to transfuse some of it into a patient dying of stomach cancer. The effort failed. But it was the beginning of a lifelong quest.

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What Is Immunotherapy? The Basics on These Cancer Treatments

Some of the most promising advances in cancer research in recent years involve treatments known as immunotherapy. These advances are spurring billions of dollars in investment by drug companies, and are leading to hundreds of clinical trials. Here are answers to some basic questions about this complex and rapidly evolving field.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy refers to any treatment that uses the immune system to fight diseases, including cancer. Unlikechemotherapy, which kills cancer cells, immunotherapy acts on the cells of the immune system, to help them attack the cancer.

What are the types of immunotherapy?

Drugs called checkpoint inhibitors are the most widely used form of immunotherapy for cancer. They block a mechanism that cancer cells use to shut down the immune system. This frees killer T-cells — a critically important part of the immune system — to attack the tumor. Four checkpoint inhibitors have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and are on the market. They are given intravenously.

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Updated Brain Map Identifies Nearly 100 New Regions

The brain looks like a featureless expanse of folds and bulges, but it’s actually carved up into invisible territories. Each is specialized: Some groups of neurons become active when we recognize faces, others when we read, others when we raise our hands.

On Wednesday, in what many experts are calling a milestone in neuroscience, researchers published a spectacular new map of the brain, detailing nearly 100 previously unknown regions — an unprecedented glimpse into the machinery of the human mind.

Scientists will rely on this guide as they attempt to understand virtually every aspect of the brain, from how it develops in children and ages over decades, to how it can be corrupted by diseases like Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

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Repeat After Me: Cold Does Not Increase Odds of Catching Cold

Great article by Aaron Carroll in the New York Times on the myths behind the rhinovirus.

 

 

 

I’ve become somewhat known for medical myth-busting (having been a co-author of three books on the subject), so a fairly large number of emails sent to me are from people with articles or studies that they think prove me wrong.

This week, as a few of us sniffle with summer colds, the emails are all about a new study that they think proves that cold weather makes you more likely to catch a cold.

I’m sorry to say that this continues to be a myth. Research doesn’t support it.

This latest study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is complicated research of cells in laboratory conditions. The researchers showed that cells kept at 37 degrees Celsius were more likely to undergoapoptosis (basically, cell suicide) than cells kept at 33 degrees Celsius. Apoptosis is a way that we protect ourselves from infection. If the infected cells kill themselves, then there’s fewer chances for replication of the viruses that infect them.

I’m sorry to say that this continues to be a myth. Research doesn’t support it.

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Peril on Wings: 6 of America’s Most Dangerous Mosquitoes

With the spread of the Zika virus, the threat posed by the tiny mosquito has been magnified into shark-size proportions.

But among the more than 3,000 species of the insect worldwide, only two in the Americas are known carriers of the virus: the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti) and the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus).

The potential range of the two species in the United States helps explain where Zika could be a threat. The yellow fever mosquito, for instance, prefers the hot and humid climate in Florida and the southeastern part of the country. But it has colonized states as far west as California and Hawaii, and has the potential to live as far north as Connecticut in warmer weather, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Asian tiger mosquito, meanwhile, also favors tropical and subtropical locales but can withstand cooler temperatures, so it can range farther. In summertime, the insect can sometimes even be found in northern states like Maine and Minnesota.

Read at New York Times

Panel Endorses ‘Gene Drive’ Technology That Can Alter Entire Species

A revolutionary technology known as “gene drive,” which for the first time gives humans the power to alter or perhaps eliminate entire populations of organisms in the wild, has stirred both excitement and fear since scientists proposed a means to construct it two years ago.

Scientists dream of deploying gene drive, for example, to wipe out malaria-carrying mosquitoes that cause the deaths of 300,000 African children each year, or invasive rodents that damage island ecosystems. But some experts have warned that the technique could lead to unforeseen harm to the environment. Some scientists have called on the federal government to regulate it, and some environmental watchdogs have called for a moratorium.

On Wednesday, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the premier advisory group for the federal government on scientific matters, endorsed continued research on the technology, concluding after nearly a yearlong study that while it poses risks, its possible benefits make it crucial to pursue. The group also set out a path to conducting what it called “carefully controlled field trials,” despite what some scientists say is the substantial risk of inadvertent release into the environment.

Read at New York Times

Educate Your Immune System

Our bodies are confused by this 21st-century world.

 

IN the last half-century, the prevalence of autoimmune disease — disorders in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue in the body — has increased sharply in the developed world. An estimated one in 13 Americans has one of these often debilitating, generally lifelong conditions. Many, like Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, are linked with specific gene variants of the immune system, suggesting a strong genetic component. But their prevalence has increased much faster — in two or three generations — than it’s likely the human gene pool has changed.

Many researchers are interested in how the human microbiome — the community of microbes that live mostly in the gut and are thought to calibrate our immune systems — may have contributed to the rise of these disorders. Perhaps society-wide shifts in these microbial communities, driven by changes in what we eat and in the quantity and type of microbes we’re exposed to in our daily lives, have increased our vulnerability.

Read at New York times

Could Alzheimer’s Stem From Infections? It Makes Sense, Experts Say

Could it be that Alzheimer’s disease stems from the toxic remnants of the brain’s attempt to fight off infection?

Provocative new research by a team of investigators at Harvard leads to this startling hypothesis, which could explain the origins of plaque, the mysterious hard little balls that pockmark the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

It is still early days, but Alzheimer’s experts not associated with the work are captivated by the idea that infections, including ones that are too mild to elicit symptoms, may produce a fierce reaction that leaves debris in the brain, causing Alzheimer’s. The idea is surprising, but it makes sense, and the Harvard group’s data, published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine, supports it. If it holds up, the hypothesis has major implications for preventing and treating this degenerative brain disease.

The Harvard researchers report a scenario seemingly out of science fiction. A virus, fungus or bacterium gets into the brain, passing through a membrane — the blood-brain barrier — that becomes leaky as people age. The brain’s defense system rushes in to stop the invader by making a sticky cage out of proteins, called beta amyloid. The microbe, like a fly in a spider web, becomes trapped in the cage and dies. What is left behind is the cage — a plaque that is the hallmark of Alzheimer’s.

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It’s Not Cancer: Doctors Reclassify a Thyroid Tumor

An international panel of doctors has decided that a type of tumor that was classified as a cancer is not a cancer at all.

As a result, they have officially downgraded the condition and thousands of patients will be spared removal of their thyroid, treatment with radioactive iodine and regular checkups for the rest of their lives, all to protect against a tumor that was never a threat.

Their conclusion — and the data that led to it — are reported Thursday in the journal JAMA Oncology. The change is expected to affect about 10,000 of the nearly 65,000 thyroid cancer patients a year in the United States. It may also offer grist to those who have been arguing for the reclassification of some other forms of cancer, including certain lesions in the breast and prostate.

Read at The New York Times

A Biotech Evangelist Seeks a Zika Dividend

A diverse biotechnology company hopes its genetically engineered mosquitoes
can help stop the spread of a devastating virus. But that’s just a start.

 

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In the expanding realm ruled by Randal J. Kirk, sliced apples don’t brown. Salmon grow twice as fast without swimming upriver to spawn. Beloved cats are reborn.

And male mosquitoes are unleashed with the sole mission to mate, pass on a gene that kills their offspring, and die.

A few decades ago, the foods and creatures nurtured by Mr. Kirk would have been found only in dystopian fantasies like those written by Margaret Atwood. But Mr. Kirk’s company, Intrexon, is fast becoming one of the world’s most diverse biotechnology companies, with ventures ranging from unloved genetically engineered creatures to potential cancer cures and gene therapies, gasoline substitutes, cloned kittens and even glow-in-the-dark Dino Pet toys made from microbes.

Link to full article on NYT