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In uncertain times, we are witnessing one of the greatest moments in the history of science.
A projected timeline for treatment and prevention of the novel coronavirus. Although we are living ... [+] through uncertain times, we are also witnessing one of the greatest moments in science history.
Scientists are breaking speed records in their race to develop treatments for the new coronavirus. Some are panning through old molecules hoping to find effective drugs. Others are applying the latest breakthroughs in synthetic biology to engineer sophisticated treatments and vaccines.
Ive previously talked about some synthetic biology companies are racing to create treatments. Others like Mammoth Biosciences are developing much-needed testing. Every day brings additional reports of the latest breakthroughs from around the world. But how can we make sense of all this information?
To provide a big-picture perspective, SynBioBeta and Leaps by Bayer have partnered to help visualize the overall progress of the research community. At the heart of the project is an infographic showing the timeline to the various treatments and preventions (click here to download it). Its based on data from The Milken Institute, which recently released a detailed tracker to monitor the progress of each of the more than 60 known COVID-19 treatments and preventions currently in development.
One takeaway: the progress to develop coronavirus treatments and preventions is moving at an unprecedented pace, with historic records being broken nearly every week.
The crisis response from the global biotech community has been truly inspiring, says Juergen Eckhardt, SVP and Head of Leaps by Bayer, a unit of Bayer AG that leads impact investments into solutions to some of todays biggest challenges in health and agriculture. We are excited to partner on this visual timeline to help a broader audience understand how and when scientific innovation may bring us through this deeply challenging time.
COVID19: Projected timeline for treatment and prevention. Three paths: pre-existing drugs, antibody ... [+] therapies, and vaccines.
There are standard stages to getting a drug approved. In Phase 1 trials, a drugs safety is assessed in a small group of healthy subjects. In later stages (Phase II & III), efficacy is measured in a larger number of people, often versus a placebo. The situation with COVID-19 is predicted to become so dire so quickly, however, that many are looking to fast-track testing. This could include granting experimental drugs expanded access, for compassionate use, which would allow physicians to give them to patients who are critically ill before testing is complete.
The fastest way to safely stop COVID-19 would be to discover that an already-approved medication works against it. Repurposed drugs do not require the same extensive testing as novel medicines and may already be available in large quantities. The Milken Institutes tracker identifies 7 candidate drugs in this category.
One is the malarial medicine chloroquine, which in recent days has been touted by some as a possible miracle drug against the coronavirus. German pharmaceutical company Bayer last week donated three million tablets of chloroquine to the U.S. The FDA and academics are together investigating whether it can provide relief to COVID-19 patients.
There are hundreds if not thousands of other FDA-approved drugs on the market that are already proven safe in humans and that may have treatment potential against COVID-19, so many scientists are rapidly screening the known drug arsenal in hopes of discovering an effective compound.
Antibodies are proteins that are a natural part of the human immune system. They work around the clock in blood to block viruses and more. The problem at the moment is that because the novel coronavirus (known as SARS-CoV-2) is new, no one has had time to develop antibodies against it.No one, that is, except those who have recovered from COVID-19.
Antibodies taken from those people could help patients who are still infected. Such patient-to-patient transfers can be performed without extensive testing or lengthy approval processes so long as standard protocols are followed. It is yet unknown whether this treatment option will work for COVID-19, nor whether there will be enough recovered donors to deal with the infection at scale.
To improve this process, companies like Vancouver, Canada-based AbCellera are applying new biotechnologies.
AbCellera is using proprietary tools and machine learning to rapidly screen through millions of B cells from patients who recovered from COVID-19. B cells are responsible for producing antibodies. The company has announced a partnership with Eli Lilly on this project and aims to bring its hottest antibodies those that neutralize the virus to the clinic.
AbCellera's platform has delivered, with unprecedented speed, by far the world's largest panel of anti-SAR-CoV-2 antibodies," said Carl Hansen, Ph.D., CEO of AbCellera, in a statement. "In 11 days, we've discovered hundreds of antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the current outbreak, moved into functional testing with global experts in virology, and signed a co-development agreement with one of the world's leading biopharmaceutical companies. We're deeply impressed with the speed and agility of Lilly's response to this global challenge. Together, our teams are committed to delivering a countermeasure to stop the outbreak."
James Crowe at Vanderbilt University is also sifting through the blood of recovered patients. Using a new instrument called Beacon from a company called Berkeley Lights. Crowes team has been scouring through B cells to find antibodies that neutralize SARS-CoV-2. The technology behind this project was developed in recent years with funds from the Department of Defense.
Normally this would be a five year program, Crowe told me. But in the rapid process his team is following, animal studies could be done in as fast as two months.
This morning, Berkeley Lights announced a Global Emerging Pathogen Antibody Discovery Consortium (GEPAD) to attack COVID-19 and other viruses. It is partnering with Vanderbilt University, La Jolla Institute for Immunology, and Emory University to accelerate the work above to the broader research community.
This collaboration also included commercial partners, including Twist Bioscience, who synthesized DNA for the project.
Our mission is to provide the raw material needed for biologists to make breakthroughs, said Twists CEO Emily Leproust. If DNA is needed, we want to make it, quickly and perfectly
Another company that specializes in DNA synthesis, SGI-DNA, is offering its tools at much reduced cost to researchers developing COVID-19 treatments. The company said that people from around the world are coming to them for help.
"There is zero time to waste," said Todd R. Nelson, Ph.D., CEO of SGI-DNA. He said that researchers need synthetic DNA and RNA, which its Bio-XP machine can provide in as little as eight hours.
Nelson continued, "In a matter of a day or two, we have built the genes thought to be critical to the development of successful vaccines against SARS-CoV-2. SGI-DNA has made them available in the form of different genetic libraries, which researchers can use to find druggable targets in a matter of hours, dramatically accelerating the time to market for therapeutics and vaccines.
Beyond searching for antibodies in recovered patients, biotechnologists have other tricks up their sleeves.
One approach involves genetically engineering laboratory mice to mimic the human immune system. These animals can then be presented with the virus or parts of the virus and allowed to recover. The hope is that their B cells would then produce effective antibodies. Because this happens in a controlled setting, biologists can better understand and engineer the process.
A company called GenScript was pursuing this strategy as early as February 4, when police escorted 8 transgenic mice immunized with the 2019 nCoV antigen to research labs in China. In 12 hours, its researchers successfully found specific antibodies in the mice that could recognize the novel virus and potentially block it from binding to cells. In less than 24 hoursagain using Berkeley Lights new Beacon instrument for working with thousands of individual, live cellsGenScript completed a series of steps that would have taken three months using previous technology.
Yet another approach involves computational approaches and artificial intelligence. Firms like Distributed Bio are using computers to reengineer antibodies to better target SARS-CoV-2. The company is optimizing antibodies that are known to target SARS-CoV-1, the virus behind the 2003 outbreak of SARS.
We believe broadly neutralizing antibodies with engineered biophysical properties will become key weapons to win the war against all coronaviruses said Jake Glanville, CEO of Distributed Bio.
Vaccines work by simulating infection, which allows the body to mount its own defense against a virus. Effective vaccines take time to develop, and they can take even longer to test. But recent progress in biotechnology is again accelerating these efforts.
Notably, Moderna has launched a Phase 1 vaccine trial against COVID-19 in record time. Patients in Seattle have already begun receiving injections of an experimental mRNA vaccine. Moderna cranked out doses of this and won approval from the FDA for testing in just 44 days an all-time record.
These programs show a massive focus on a common enemy, and a coming together of disparate firms.
Ginkgo Bioworks, a giant in the emerging field of synthetic biology, has announced a $25 million fund to help spur even more collaboration. The company is offering its laboratory equipment and know-how to anyone with a good idea of how to stop COVID-19. We dont want any scientists to have to wait. The pandemic has already arrived, so the time for rapid prototyping and scale-up is right now, said Jason Kelly, CEO of Ginkgo.
These effortsand the infographic aboveshould give you hope. Although we are all now living in uncertain times, we are also witnessing one of the greatest moments in the history of science.
It's a terrible time, and simultaneously a fantastic time to see the global science community working together to conquer this very hard and challenging disease, said Berkeley Lights CEO Eric Hobbs. We are also learning and developing the tools and technologies to ensure that we can react faster to the next threat, so that we don't get to this point again in the future.
Follow me on twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology.
Thank you to Ian Haydon and Kevin Costa for additional research and reporting in this article. Im the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write aboutincluding Leaps by Bayer, Mammoth Biosciences, Distributed Bio, Twist Bioscience, SGI-DNA, Genscript, Berkeley Lights, and Ginkgo Bioworksare sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest heres the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.
COVID-19: The Best (Worst?) Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories – American Council on Science and Health
There's something irresistible about conspiracy theories. For whatever reason, humans seem to have a psychological need to explain troubling phenomena as the end result of meddling by powerful, mysterious forces in the universe -- like the New World Order or Big Pharma.
Naturally, a scary new disease like COVID-19 that emerges several thousand miles away in a foreign country is just too good to pass up for most conspiracy theorists. Here are the best (worst?) ones we've come across:
1) SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is an escaped Chinese biological weapon. This conspiracy theory has been repeated multiple times, even by high-profile individuals like Fox News's Tucker Carlson. The biggest problem with this conspiracy theory is that genetically engineering a virus is a lot easier said than done. To make a virus more lethal or more contagious or both, scientists would need to know how to tweak pre-existing genes -- for instance, by making multiple point mutations at precisely the correct spots in the genome. That is far-fetched, to put it mildly. A genetic analysis in Nature Medicine shows that the simplest explanation is that the virus evolved and "jumped" into humans from an animal.
There is a caveat to this. Wuhan hosts a high-security biological lab, like the CDC, that studies dangerous microorganisms. Is it possible that Chinese scientists were studying a virus isolated from an animal and it accidentally leaked, for example by infecting a lab worker? That can't be ruled out. After all, U.S. labs have mishandled smallpox, anthrax, and influenza.
2) For their part, the Chinese are saying that the U.S. military introduced the virus into Wuhan. Americans aren't the only ones to come up with juicy conspiracy theories!
3) 5G caused the coronavirus. 5G, the latest version of telecommunications technology, has been blamed for a lot of things -- cancer, asthma, memory deficits, autism, diabetes, obesity, impaired sperm function. We can now add coronavirus to the list, according to Dr. (???) Thomas Cowan. This takes a little bit of explaining.
According to Dr. Cowan, we do not get sick because of viruses. First, we get sick, and then our bodies produce viruses in response. How so? Our poisoned cells need to get rid of bad DNA, so they expel the bad DNA. That, in Dr. Cowan's universe, is the origin of the virus.
What causes our cells to become poisoned in the first place? 5G technology, of course.
4) People are dying from fear, not coronavirus. That claim comes from Kelly Brogan, a "holistic psychiatrist" -- whatever that is -- who blogs for Gwyneth Paltrow's snake-oil website Goop. In a video, Brogan says that she does not believe in "germ-based contagion," which is sort of like saying, "I don't believe in the moon." She then says that it's silly to villainize any particular microbe (social justice for microbes?), and that "there is potentially no such thing" as the coronavirus. This cements Gwyneth Paltrow's place as America's #1 scourge on public health, surpassing even Dr. Oz.
5) Vitamin C can cure or prevent the coronavirus. No. The evidence that vitamin C prevents or reduces common colds is scant to non-existent. Some coronaviruses cause the common cold, and because SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus, it can be thought of as a deadly version of the common cold. That means it almost certainly will not respond to vitamin C. However, there is evidence that zinc lozenges reduce the duration of the common cold, so perhaps they could do the same for COVID-19.
6) Coronavirus was released (or is a hoax) to make big profits for Big Pharma. There are several problems with that theory. First, Big Pharma is already wealthy. Second, just like those of nearly every other company, pharmaceutical company stocks took an absolute beating during the recent market collapse. Tanking the economy is not a great way to rake in the riches. Third, pharmaceutical companies can lose a lot of money if they develop a drug or vaccine that ultimately fails in clinical trials. Fourth, if they make too much money, we all know that Big Pharma will get hammered by the public (and certain populist politicians) who always look for new reasons to hate it.
7) Coronavirus was released as a method of population control in China. This one is particularly dumb. The Chinese government did a great job limiting population growth all by itself with its brutal One Child Policy. (Side note: Most of the aborted babies were girls.) Now, China is facing a demographic crisis because there won't be enough people to support the elderly and keep the economy going. Also, see #1.
8) Drinking cow urine and shoving essential oil up your butt will prevent coronavirus. Our fact-checkers rated both as false.
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One morning in 2005, Shelley Beverley woke up to find that she had gone deaf. She was 21, and living in Johannesburg with her older brother Neil. I was very scared, she says. It was just so sudden. She struggled through the rest of the day, hoping that her hearing would come back, but it didnt. In one sense, her hearing loss wasnt entirely a surprise: Beverleys grandmother had been deaf, Neil had lost his hearing when he was 13, and her mum, Mary, had lost hers when she was 32. We knew it ran in the family, she says, but I thought Id been lucky and not inherited it.
Beverley, 35, lives in Margate, a semi-rural district south of Hobart, with her husband James. The couple migrated to Australia from South Africa in 2010, looking for space, buying 2 hectares of lush green grass at the foot of a forested ridge near the mouth of the Derwent River. We love the wildlife here, says James, looking out the living room window. Weve seen pademelons, echidnas, quolls, blue-tongue lizards, even a Tassie devil. At dusk, hundreds of kangaroos emerge from the forest to gorge on the grass. Its very peaceful, says James. Its really helped us after everything thats happened.
Apart from their deafness, Beverleys family had largely enjoyed good health. Then, in September 2015, her mother, Mary, then 62, started experiencing fatigue and stomach pain. Doctors in Durban ordered a colonoscopy, but the procedure made her worse. Her feet became swollen and purple. Because of their hearing problems, Shelley and Mary had communicated mainly in text messages. But soon I began noticing that her wording got a bit funny, says Beverley. It didnt always make sense.
Beverley flew to Durban in February 2016, but by that time her mother could no longer talk or walk. She was so weak that she couldnt move her hands or lift her neck. Two days after Beverley arrived in Durban, her mother caught a virus that caused fluid to build up on her lungs. The doctors tried unsuccessfully to drain it. Shortly afterwards, she died. She weighed just 36 kilograms. It was so fast, Beverley says. And we were still in the dark about what she had.
Shortly before Marys death, Neil had also fallen ill. He developed a number of mysterious symptoms, including facial twitches and seizures. He kept falling over and tripping, and experienced vomiting and headaches so severe he lost his vision for weeks at a time. His behaviour became strange showering with his clothes on, and hallucinating.
One day, Dad was driving him around and Neil started talking to all these little people he thought were around his feet, says Beverley. Doctors in Durban had trouble diagnosing him, so they sent a biopsy to London, where he was found to have a type of mitochondrial cytopathy one of a large family of chronic and progressive diseases that affect the muscles, brain and nervous system. As the family soon learnt, the condition has no cure and no effective therapies. One of the common early symptoms is hearing loss.
Neil died in June 2017, aged 34, by which time Beverley had discovered she also had the condition. It was fear, so much fear, she says. She began experiencing symptoms, including migraines and vision loss. She has since developed diabetes, hypertension, gastro-paresis (when your stomach muscles dont work), and pharyngeal dysphagia (difficulty swallowing). Every time I get sick now, the flu or something, I think, When am I going to need a wheelchair or a feeding tube? When will my legs stop working?
Mito has taken everything from me, she says. If I die, at least James will still have a part of me.
Beverley has bright blue eyes and long, straight, ash-brown hair. Shes got a lazy left eye and uncommonly pale skin, which she attributes to her condition. Oh, and I had bunions out in 2010, she says, laughing wryly.
She doesnt know how long shes got left, but she is determined to make it count. She has joined mito awareness groups, and is an active member of the Mito Foundation, which supports sufferers, and funds research. She has exhaustively researched the condition and takes every opportunity to educate doctors. Youd be surprised by how little they know about it, she says.
But her overriding focus has been on a cutting-edge, and currently illegal, procedure called mitochondrial donation, a form of IVF which would allow those with the condition to have children, safe in the knowledge they would not be passing it on. Mito has taken everything from me, she says. If I die, at least James will still have a part of me. I would like him to look at our child, and say, You have your mums smile or your mums eyes.
An IVF treatment known as mitochondrial donation could potentially save up to 60 Australian children a year from being born with the condition. Credit:
Mitochondrial donation has been labelled immoral and unethical, a slippery slope to designer babies, not to mention potentially unsafe. The only country in the world to have legalised it is the UK. A report by medical experts into the technologys potential application in Australia is due to be delivered to Health Minister Greg Hunt this month.
This fight is really personal to me, Beverley says. Short of a cure, people with mito should at least have the option of having healthy children.
Mitochondria are microscopic structures in human cells that provide the body with energy. For this reason, they are often described as the cells powerhouse. They are crucially important: if your mitochondria fail or mutate, your body will be starved of energy, causing multiple organ failure and premature death.
A stylised representation of a mitochondrion, which provides the body with energy. Malfunction can lead to organ failure and death.Credit:Josh Robenstone
Mito, which is maternally inherited, usually affects the muscles and major organs such as the brain, heart, liver, inner ears, and eyes. But it can cause any symptom in any organ, at any age. Indeed, the term mito includes more than 200 disorders, the symptoms of which are maddeningly varied and seemingly unrelated, leading to delayed diagnoses or incorrect diagnoses or, indeed, no diagnosis.
Many of these people have been fobbed off by doctors or laughed off by people who think they are hypochondriacs, says Dr David Thorburn, a mitochondrial researcher at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, in Melbourne, who has diagnosed some 700 cases over the past 28 years. Most people are relieved to finally know what it is, because that is the end of that part of their journey.
Its sometimes said babies produced as a result of mitochondrial donation would have three parents the mother, the father, and the donor.
Up to two million people worldwide have some form of mito. - Others, like Beverley, who have a less severe type of the disease, will get adult onset, and can expect to become ill in their 30s, 40s or 50s.
According to Thorburn, One of the things that most dismays families with mito is the lack of control they have over passing the condition down to future generations of their family.
Remaining childless is one way to stop the condition from being passed down, as is adopting, but as Thorburn acknowledges, There is an innate desire in many individuals to have their own children. For these people, mito donation offers the very real prospect that the condition is eliminated from future generations.
Mitochondrial replacement is a highly specialised procedure, requiring a level of manual dexterity sufficient to manipulate a womans egg, which is roughly the width of a human hair. Within that egg is a nucleus, where a persons genes are located, and the cytoplasm, the jelly-like substance that surrounds it. Mitochondria are found in the cytoplasm.
Mitochondrial replacement involves taking a donor females healthy egg, removing its nucleus and replacing it with the nucleus of the woman affected by mitochondrial disease, but whose nucleus is healthy. The egg is then fertilised using her partners sperm. (Another option is to fertilise the egg first, and then swap the nucleus.) The resulting embryo is then implanted into the mother.
Researcher David Thorburn: "Mito donation offers the very real prospect that the condition is eliminated from future generations."Credit:Josh Robenstone
Since more than 99.9 per cent of our genes are found in the eggs nucleus, which remains unaffected, the procedure will have no impact on the childs height, hair colour or mannerisms. Despite that, its sometimes said that babies produced as a result of mitochondrial donation would have three parents the mother, the father, and the donor.
The technology has been tested in mice for more than 30 years, but only since 2009 has research been done on human embryos, mainly in the UK. Almost from the start, the research was subject to sensational headlines about scientists playing God, and the possibility of genetic engineering, with much of the hysteria being fuelled by anti-abortion groups. The Catholic Church described it as a further step in commodification of the human embryo and a failure to respect new individual human lives.
In 2012, the Human Genetics Alert, an independent watchdog group in London, wrote a paper comparing any baby produced with mitochondrial replacement to Frankensteins creation, since they would be produced by sticking together bits from many different bodies. According to the Conservative British MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, the procedure was not a cure for disease, it is the creating of a different person.
Regulators subjected the technology to four separate scientific reviews, together with rounds of ethical debate and community consultation. In 2015, the UK Parliament voted to legalise the technology for use in humans, on the proviso that it only be available to those women at high risk of passing on the disease. Since then, 13 couples in the UK have received the go-ahead to undergo the procedure.
Its unclear how many children, if any, have been born: the parents have asked that details not be published. Meanwhile, scientists like Thorburn wait eagerly for news of any developments. I know the UK researchers well and have asked several of them, and they are keeping completely quiet about it in respecting the families wishes, he says.
If there have been babies born in the UK using the procedure, they arent the first. In April 2016, a child was born using the technique in Mexico, to a Jordanian mother who carried a fatal mitochondrial condition known as Leigh syndrome. The doctor in charge, an American fertility specialist called Dr John Zhang, later admitted that he had gone to Mexico because the procedure is illegal in America. In Mexico, he admitted, There are no rules.
Even those who want mitochondrial donation legalised in Australia concede that much remains unknown about the procedure. Its long-term risks can only be understood through lifelong health check-ups, but this is impossible until any children conceived via this procedure become adults. Implications for subsequent generations also remain unclear.
No medical procedure is 100 per cent safe, says Sean Murray, CEO of the Mito Foundation. But we think we are at the stage now where the benefits of the technology are greater than the risks.
One of the issues around safety concerns the compatibility of the donors mitochondria with the recipients nuclear genes. A 2016 study in mice suggested that mismatched mitochondria affected their metabolism and shortened their lives. Another concern is known as carryover, whereby a tiny amount of mutant mitochondria is inevitably transferred from the affected mothers egg into the donor egg during the procedure.
Instead of it being wiped out, the mutation might then reappear in the descendants of any girls born as a result. For this reason, some people have proposed that the procedure be restricted to male embryos only, but this raises all kinds of ethical issues around selective breeding and sex selection.
Indeed, it often seems as if the term ethical minefield was coined especially with mitochondrial donation in mind.
My primary ethical concern has to do with the sanctity of human life, says Father Kevin McGovern, a Catholic priest and member of the National Health and Medical Research Councils Mitochondrial Donation Expert Working Committee.
If mitochondrial donation is permitted here, the technique most likely to be used is pronuclear transfer, which requires that both the donors egg and the affected mothers egg be fertilised. [This is to ensure that both eggs are at the same developmental stage.] But once the nucleus is removed from the donors fertilised egg, it is discarded. For people who believe that life begins at conception, this is akin to murder. You are creating two lives and destroying one for spare parts.
The Catholic Church has consistently opposed mitochondrial donation. In a Senate inquiry into the technology in 2018, Dr Bernadette Tobin, director of the Plunkett Centre for Ethics at the Australian Catholic University, suggested the process was intrinsically evil.
The inquiry also heard from Father Anthony Fisher, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, who raised concerns about the moral right of the child to know how he or she was conceived the problem of what he called genealogical bewilderment and the donors right to remain anonymous. He also worried that women might effectively become egg vending machines: The availability of human ova is often assumed when people talk about reproductive technology as if they were somehow there in a cupboard to be used. In fact, it means women have to be used to obtain these eggs. They are extracted by invasive procedures that do carry some risk.
A report by medical experts into mitochondrial donation and its potential application in Australia is due to be delivered to Health Minister Greg Hunt this month. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Equally troubling for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the peak national body for the churchs bishops, was the fact that mitochondrial donation involved conceiving babies not by marital intercourse [but by] a technical procedure.
Most of these concerns are redundant, argues the Mito Foundations Sean Murray. We already have a well defined regulatory framework for dealing with all this, he says. As far as the donors right to remain anonymous, we would defer to the appropriate federal or state and territory regulations that apply for sperm or egg donations. In regard to a kids right to know they had a mitochondrial donor, societally there seems to be a preference to inform kids. Its important for them to understand their genetic lineage.
Then theres the matter of consent. The parents can wrestle with the ethical issues and weigh up all the risks, but the only person who cant consent to the procedure is the unborn child. Well, says Murray, they cant consent to being born with mito, either.
The Mito Foundations Sean Murray: "In regard to a kids right to know they had a mitochondrial donor, societally there seems to be a preference to inform kids."Credit:Joshua Morris
Murray, 47, is one of the founding directors of the Mito Foundation, which was established in Sydney in 2009. Mito runs in my family, he says. My older brother, Peter, died of it in 2009 at 45, and my mum passed away in 2011, at 70. What people often dont understand is that even in families that have mito, each member can have different mutational loads basically, different amounts of bad mitochondria. Peter got a high load, but I didnt. Thats why Im still here.
A computer scientist by training, Murray now works full-time on the foundation. Much of his job involves travelling around the country, explaining mito to politicians, journalists and philanthropists, raising funds for research and, most crucially, advocating for a change to the laws.
Mitochondrial donation falls foul of two pieces of legislation: the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002, and the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction Act 2002. The laws prohibit the implantation of a human embryo that contains more than two peoples genetic material. The laws were subject to a mandatory review in 2010, but the then Labor government recommended they remain the same.
In 2013, the Mito Foundation urged the government to revisit its decision. Two years later, it began lobbying in earnest. What we tried to get across was that the science around mito donation has come a long way since 2010, says Murray. Also, the process that the UK went through to legalise it really reassured us that the procedure is safe and effective.
In the past five years, Murray and his colleagues have consulted with more than 100 MPs and senators. Only one of them, according to Murray, said I dont like this. They have also talked to dozens of industry experts, including academics and medical and research bodies, about the benefits of mitochondrial donation. Most of them get it straight away, he says. We are talking about a technique that will prevent the chance of having a morbidly ill child.
Now, a breakthrough appears imminent. In February 2019, Health Minister Greg Hunt asked the National Health and Medical Research Council to look into the matter, review the science and conduct public consultation. The NHMRC is due to hand its report to Hunt this month. The expectation among the mito community is that he will recommend the laws be changed. Any proposals would then need to be debated in Parliament, where issues around reproductive medicine have, in the past, been hotly contested.
Murray expects some opposition from more conservative MPs, but nothing like the rancour seen in the NSW Parliament during last years debate over legalising abortion. Shadow health minister Chris Bowen has, for his part, said that Labor will support changing the laws.
Mitochondrial sufferer Shelley Beverley at home in Tasmania. This fight is really personal to me. Credit:Peter Mathew
Whether this will help people like Shelley Beverley is unclear. If Hunt gives it the green light, it will take two years at least for mitochondrial donation to become available to prospective parents, given the time involved in drafting and passing legislation, establishing a regulatory regime and getting doctors up to speed with the technology.
This will probably be too late for Beverley. I really only have about a year left to give it a go, she tells me. After that, my symptoms may progress and biologically things get worse after 35. She says she would consider going to the UK for the treatment, but that at present they are not accepting international patients.
In the meantime, she watches TV, and reads a little, but not too much. (It puts me to sleep.) She gardens: she has a bed of huge white and pink roses out the back of her house, as a memorial to her mother and brother. And she eats. James cooks for me. He lets me choose the best meat and potatoes! Ive put on weight since I met him. She describes James as something close to an angel. He will listen to every problem I have or feeling I experience. He will always put me first.
Beverley started going out with James when she was 21, right around the time she first went deaf. I was so scared that he wouldnt like me as much. I remember calling him and saying I was scared he would leave me. But James is still here. Im very lucky to have him, she says. If I go, I want him to have a part of me.
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.
Tim Elliott is a senior writer with Good Weekend.
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How far should genetic engineering go to allow this couple to have a healthy baby? - Brisbane Times
Scientists have analysed the entirety of the novel coronavirus' genomic sequence to assess claims that it may have been made in a laboratory or been otherwise engineered.
The coronavirus outbreak first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan last December and has caused an international pandemic, infecting more than 198,000 people and leading to over 7,900 deaths.
International blame around the COVID-19 pandemic has incited conspiracy theories about its origin.
Without evidence Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry, suggested on Twitter that the virus could have been brought to Wuhan by the US army.
While he may have been insincerely provocative in response to American officials describing the outbreak as the Wuhan virus, stressing its beginnings in China, he received thousands of retweets.
Rumours linking the virus to the Wuhan Institute of Virology - based on geographic proximity, and without any endorsement from qualified epidemiologists - have also circulated.
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Shortly after the epidemic began, Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the virus and made the data publicly available for researchers worldwide.
Even the integrity of these scientists and medical professionals has been called into question by conspiracy theorists, prompting an international coalition of scientists to sign a joint letter of support for them and their work, published in medical journal The Lancet.
The value of the genomic sequence could prove vital for those developing a vaccine, but it also contains key details revealing how the virus evolved.
New analysis by researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in the US, UK and Australia discovered that the virus has proved so infectious because it developed a near-perfect mechanism to bind to human cells.
This mechanism is so sophisticated in its adaptions that the researchers say that it must have evolved and not been genetically engineered in their paper, titled "COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic has a natural origin", published in the journal Nature Medicine.
Dr Josie Golding, the epidemics lead at the Wellcome Trust in the UK, described the paper as "crucially important to bring an evidence-based view to the rumours that have been circulating about the origins of the virus causing COVID-19".
"They conclude that the virus is the product of natural evolution, ending any speculation about deliberate genetic engineering," Dr Golding added.
So how do they know? One of the most effective parts of the virus are its spike proteins, molecules on the outside of the virus which it uses to grab hold of and then penetrate the outer walls of human and animal cells.
There are two key features in the novel coronavirus' spike proteins which make its evolution a certainty.
The first is what's called the receptor-binding domain (RBD) which they describe as "a kind of grappling hook that grips on to host cells", while the second is known as the cleavage site, "a molecular can opener that allows the virus to crack open and enter host cells".
If researchers were actually going to design a virus to harm humans then it would be constructed from the backbone of a virus already known to cause illness, the researchers said.
However the coronavirus backbone is radically different to those which are already known to affect humans, and in fact are most similar to viruses which are found in bats and pangolins.
"These two features of the virus, the mutations in the RBD portion of the spike protein and its distinct backbone, rules out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin for [the coronavirus]," said Dr Kristian Andersen, corresponding author on the paper.
Another study of the genome by researchers at the Wuhan Institute for Virology reported that the virus was 96% identical to a coronavirus found in bats, one of the many animals sold at a Wuhan seafood market where it is suspected the virus jumped to humans.
However the new research was unable to determine whether the virus evolved into its current pathogenic state in a non-human host before jumping to a human, or if it evolved into that state after making the jump.
It is perhaps the United Kingdom that first realized that its strategy to mitigate the impact of the Covid 19 Pandemic would not work unless the outbreak can be suppressed. The mitigation and home quarantine alone cannot solve this global issue at large; however, it may slow down the global epidemic but not necessarily stop it. In a report published by the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team on Monday, it said that the mitigation approach that the government of various countries all across the world is emphasizing is not working anymore, and it needs something more robust to check the spread of this deadly virus. The report reads like, Our most significant conclusion is that mitigation is unlikely to be feasible without emergency surge capacity limits of the UK and US healthcare systems being exceeded many times over.
Now the US government is taking the initiative to oar the world out of this crisis period, by inventing the first Coronavirus vaccine. It has begun the phase 1 clinical trial of an investigational vaccine named mRNA -1273 designed to protect against the coronavirus disease, which has already claimed thousands of lives all across the world. The vaccine is developed by the NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is a wing of NIH or the National Institutes of Health), scientists and their collaborators at Moderna, Inc. which is a renowned biotechnology company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The trial began at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI), which is based in Seattle. To encourage the US government to take the research forward, many volunteers are coming up to take the trial vaccine. As such, this open-label trial needs at least 45 healthy adult volunteers aged between 18 to 55 years who will be kept under medical surveillance for approximately six weeks. They would be given two vaccines, one month apart. Till now, only four patients have been given the vaccine and the researches said that even though the vaccine was incorporated in record time, it will take months to almost a year to know the result, whether this vaccine is actually working or not.
The first person in Seattle who has received the vaccine is a 43-year-old woman who is also a mother of two. Even though the biotechnology company, Moderna Therapeutics, assured that the vaccine has been made using a tried and tested process. They said that the vaccine would certainly not cause Covid-19, but it contains a harmless genetic code that is copied from the Covid 19 virus that causes the disease.
Dr. John Tregoning, an expert in infectious diseases from Imperial College London, said, This vaccine uses pre-existing technology. Its been made to a very high standard, using things that we know are safe to use in people and those taking part in the trial will be very closely monitored. Yes, this is very fast but it is a race against the virus, not against each other as scientists, and its being done for the benefit of humanity.
US President Donald Trump said in a conference, Im pleased to report today that a vaccine candidate has begun the phase one clinical trial. This is one of the fastest vaccine development launches in history. Not even close. Were also racing to develop antiviral therapies and other treatments.
A day after the U.S. had launched its first investigational vaccine subjected to human trials for the novel coronavirus, China also announced on Tuesday said its scientists are implementing five different approaches (namely inactivated vaccines, nucleic acid vaccines, adenovirus vector vaccines, genetic engineering subunit vaccines, and vaccines using attenuated influenza virus as vectors) to develop the Coronavirus vaccines. A vaccine is being developed in Shanghai, which is expected to enter the clinical trials latest by the mid of April.
2 Indian companies, namely Gujarat-based Zydus Cadila and Pune based Serum Institute, are collaborating with the pharmaceutical company named Codagenix, which is based in America to develop Covid 19 vaccines in India. Zydus had announced last month to schedule for an accelerated research program with multiple Indian and European teams to develop the nCoV vaccine. But then it also said that the process could not happen overnight, and it needs a significant amount of time to bear with the crisis.
The countries all over the world have announced for isolation procedures to be taken seriously, because the less the amount of human exposure, the lesser will be the risks of the virus spread.
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UPDATE: Netflix has agreed to reduce the quality of its streaming content in Europe to help reduce the strain on networks in the region. Following the discussions between Commissioner Thierry Breton and Reed Hastings and given the extraordinary challenges raised by the coronavirus Netflix has decided to begin reducing bit rates across all our streams in Europe for 30 days, a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement.
EARLIER: Governments around the world have been declaring national emergencies and instituting various types of measures meant to enforce social distancing because medical systems need time to deal with the potentially massive influx of COVID-19 patients. Treatment is possible but might require intensive care for some patients, including access to ventilators to help with breathing. It turns out that having too many people isolating themselves at home may have an unexpected side effect, at least in the European Union. Authorities have already asked Netflix to reduce movie streaming quality because networks are under increased strain. While you may be annoyed to see your 4K or Full HD streams downgraded to SD quality, the EUs request has a silver lining in it that might not be immediately obvious.
European Commissioner for the internal market Thierry Breton said on Twitter that he had discussions with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings about slowing Netflix streams in the region.
He reminded people that beating COVID-19 requires isolation and that teleworking and streaming can help a lot. However, he added that infrastructures might be strained as more people stay at home for more extended periods. Switching to SD makes sense, as it could free up bandwidth in areas where communities lack access to fast data speeds.
Commissioner Breton is right to highlight the importance of ensuring that the internet continues to run smoothly during this critical time, a Netflix spokesperson told CNN Business. Weve been focused on network efficiency for many years, including providing our open connect service for free to telecommunications companies.
Netflix isnt the only company thats seeing spikes in traffic during this period. Facebook on Wednesday confirmed the pandemic is delivering big surges of traffic to some of its services. Mark Zuckerberg told reporters that the increase in demand is well beyond even the big annual spike seen on New Years Eve. Voice and video calls on WhatsApp and Messenger are more than double the normal levels.
Separately, Vodafone reported internet usage is surging by up to 50% in some countries following various anti-coronavirus measures in EU countries. The European Commission on Thursday advised telecom providers not to discriminate against content providers during this crisis:
Operators are authorized to apply exceptional traffic management measures, inter alia, to prevent impending network congestion and to mitigate the effects of exceptional or temporary network congestion. This must be done without discriminating individual content providers.
As I said before, theres a positive sign in all of this. If internet service providers and other companies are seeing all this additional traffic, then it means more and more people are staying home as advised in Europe, a region thats now at the center of the pandemic. The more people stay at home, the easier it will be for hospitals to beat the coronavirus and the sooner life might return to normal.
To put it differently, whether youre in Europe or anywhere else, you might want to consider streaming shows in SD even if youre paying for better quality.
Image Source: wutzkohphoto/Shutterstock
Chris Smith started writing about gadgets as a hobby, and before he knew it he was sharing his views on tech stuff with readers around the world. Whenever he's not writing about gadgets he miserably fails to stay away from them, although he desperately tries. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.