Antibody tests are often used to determine whether individuals have been exposed to certain bacteria or viruses. For most existing antibody tests, the process goes something like this: A vial of blood is drawn from the individual, the vial is sent to a lab, then a trained technicians performs the antibody test and sends back the results. The current process is less than ideal for a few reasons. For one, blood draws are invasive and can be painful. Also, getting results could take days due to the time required to deliver and process the sample. Lastly, costs can be high, since the need for trained professionals and specialized instruments in laboratory settings adds to the cost of each test.
What if all you needed to do for an antibody test was apply a single drop of blood onto a thin piece of film, and you would get results on the spot within five minutes? Scientists have recently developed an antibody test based on bioluminescent technology that could make this a reality. They describe their findings in a recent study published in ACS Sensors.
There is still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19 and the virus, SARS-CoV-2, that caused the pandemic and changed the way we live. But there are two things we do know about the disease: 1) Patients with diabetes and high blood glucose levels are more likely to develop severe COVID-19 symptoms with higher mortality. 2) Patients that experience an uncontrolled inflammatory response, called the cytokine storm, also develop more severe COVID-19 symptoms. The fact that both high glucose levels and an exaggerated immune response drive severe disease suggests that the two may be linked. But how? The answer may lie in the metabolism of immune cells in the lungs of COVID-19 patients, according to a recent study published in Cell Metabolism.
Most of us, after we flush the toilet, don’t think twice about our body waste. To us, it’s garbage. To epidemiologists, however, wastewater can provide valuable information about public health and help save lives.
History of Wastewater-Based Epidemiology
Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) is the analysis of wastewater to monitor public health. The term first emerged in 2001, when a study proposed the idea of analyzing wastewater in sewage-treatment facilities to determine the collective usage of illegal drugs within a community. At the time, this idea to bridge environmental and social sciences seemed radical, but there were clear advantages. Monitoring wastewater is a nonintrusive and relatively inexpensive way to obtain real-time data that accurately reflects community-wide drug usage while ensuring the anonymity of individuals.
Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we still have limited knowledge of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and no effective treatment or vaccine. A major obstacle for scientists trying to understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus is the lack of appropriate cell models. Most of the studies published so far are based on cancer cell lines or animal models that have been engineered to express the human SARS viral entry receptor—ACE2. However, there are a many limitations to using these as models for studying human virus infection:
Marine animals are fascinating. Not only are their appearances alien-like (think tentacles, suckers and bioluminescence). But many have also developed unique capabilities unlike anything you see on land.
In fact, most of the biodiversity of the world lies beneath the ocean. According to the World Register of Marine Species, there are more than 400,000 marine species, and it is estimated that 91% of marine species have yet to be identified. Studying marine animals may help us learn more about how we evolved and even lead to new ways to study and treat human diseases. At the forefront of marine biology research is the Marine Biological Lab (MBL), located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
As the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus continues to spread throughout the world, the race is on to produce antivirals and vaccines to treat and prevent COVID-19. One potential treatment is the use of human monoclonal antibodies, which are antibodies engineered to target and block specific antigens. A recent study by Wang, C. and colleagues published in Nature Communications showed that human monoclonal antibodies can be used to block SARS-CoV-2 from infecting cells.
In 2012, a 6-year-old girl named Emily Whitehead was battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common cancers in children. Her cancer was stubborn. After 16 months of chemotherapy, the cancer still would not go into remission. There was nothing else the doctors could do, and she was sent home. She was expected to survive only a few more months. Her parents would not give up and enrolled her into a clinical trial of a new immunotherapy treatment called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy. She was the first pediatric patient in the program.
Doctors took T cells from Emily’s blood and reprogrammed them in a lab. They essentially sent her T cells to boot camp where they are trained to find cancer cells and destroy them. The reprogrammed T cells were then injected back into her body. A week into treatment, she started getting a fever, the first sign that the treatment was working and her reprogrammed T cells were fighting the cancer. But soon, she got very sick. All of the indicators suggested that she had cytokine release syndrome (CRS)—also known as the cytokine storm. This happens when cytokines are released in response to an infection but the process cannot be turned off. The cytokines continue to attract immune cells to the infection site, causing damage to the patient’s own cells and eventually resulting in acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). (Learn more about the cytokine storm in this blog.)
Emily was soon on a ventilator. Tests showed that she had extremely high levels of one particular cytokine: interleukin-6 (IL-6). Desperate to keep her alive, her doctors gave her a known drug that specifically targets IL-6. The results were dramatic. After one single dose, her fever subsided within hours, and she was taken off the ventilator. On May 2nd, 2012, she woke up from an induced coma—it was her 7th birthday. Her doctors said they have never seen a patient that sick get better that quickly.
One of the biggest outstanding questions of the COVID-19 pandemic is why symptoms vary so much among patients. Some patients have no symptoms at all; some symptoms are mild, while others are extremely severe. Among the more severe cases, a common pattern of disease progression happens like this: A patient gets through the first week with some signs of recovery—then suddenly they rapidly deteriorate. In some cases, they go from needing just a tiny bit of oxygen to requiring a ventilator within 24 hours.
This pattern, often seen in young and otherwise healthy patients, has baffled doctors. What causes these patients to suddenly crash? Research now suggests that the patient’s own immune system may be to blame. It’s called cytokine release syndrome—also known as the “cytokine storm”.
In December 2019, a new disease emerged from a seafood
market in Wuhan, China. People who were infected began experiencing fever, dry
cough, muscle aches and shortness of breath. The disease swept through China
like wildfire and quickly spread overseas to almost every continent. We now
know the virus that caused this disease, SARS-CoV-2, is a member of the severe
acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, and the disease itself was officially
named COVID-19. According to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center,
there are 877,422 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and 43,537 total
deaths at the publication of this blog. Those numbers are only expected to
increase over the next few weeks.
In this moment of crisis, scientists all around the world are desperately trying to find ways to treat and prevent the disease. One strategy for preventing the spread of the virus is to block its entry into human cells. But first we need to understand how SARS-CoV-2 enters human cells. A research group at the German Primate Center led by Dr. Stefan Pohlmann provides some answers in a recent publication in Cell.
Snakebite is a serious public health issue in many tropical countries. Every year, roughly 2 million cases of poisoning from snakebites occur, and more than 100,000 people die. Snake venom is extremely complex, containing a cocktail of chemicals, many of which are undefined. This complicates the development of new therapeutics for treating snakebite.
Antivenom is the most effective treatment for snakebites,
but its production is complex and dangerous. It involves manually milking the
venom from different species of live snakes, then injecting small doses of the
venom into animals (mostly horses) to stimulate an immune response. After a
period of time, antibodies form in the animal’s blood, which is purified for
use as antivenom.
But what if we could produce snake venom in the lab, instead
of using live snakes? Recently, a group from the Netherlands did just that by
growing organoids derived from snake venom glands.