December 21 Research Roundup: HIV Vaccine, Super-Accurate Cervical Cancer Test, Molecular Mechanisms of Autism and Schizophrenia, and More

Pink dropper depositing liquid into a row of test tubes

There are plenty of great scientific research stories out this week. Here’s a look at just a few of them.

HIV Vaccine in Monkeys Show Promise

Researchers with The Scripps Research Institute recently published positive data about its HIV vaccine in the journal Immunity that suggests one might be on the horizon.

A long way from human trials, the vaccine in rhesus macaque monkeys produced neutralizing antibodies against one strain of HIV that is similar to the most common strain. It also resulted in the first-ever estimate of what antibody levels would be needed to protect against HIV.

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“We found that neutralizing antibodies that have been induced by vaccination can protect animals against viruses that look a lot like real-world HIV,” stated Dennis Burton, chair of Scripps Research’s Department of Immunology and Microbiology, and scientific director of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (AIVI) Neutralizing Antibody Center.

Molecular Mechanisms to Autism and Schizophrenia Identified

Researchers with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Health Sciences published research in the journal Science that identified molecular mechanisms associated with autism and schizophrenia. Other institutions that collaborated on the research include University of California, San Diego (UCSD); the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; Yale University; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; University of ChicagoDuke University; Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; SUNY Upstate Medical University; and Central South University in China.

The research came out of the PsycheENCODE Consortium, formed in 2015, which was organized to map the brain’s regulatory DNA. This was built on a previous study, ENCODE. PsycheENCODE analyzes genetic variants linked to psychiatric disease as well as patterns of RNA and proteins in 2,188 brain bank samples from healthy patients and those with a psychiatric disorder.

“This work provides several missing links necessary for understanding the mechanisms of psychiatric diseases,” stated Daniel Geschwind, senior author on two of the new papers. Geschwind is from UCLA.

In almost 1,700 brain bank samples, the researchers found thousands of RNA molecules that were spliced differently or present at higher or lower levels in the brains of individuals with one of the psychiatric diseases.

Michael Gandal, also at UCLA, and author of the second paper, stated, “You can’t look at the brain under a microscope and see substantial differences in these disorders. But we’ve now shown that if you look finely at patterns of how genes are expressed, you see pathways that are clearly dysregulated.”

A Pill You Can Control with your Phone

Anyone who’s ever had a colonoscopy has probably wondered when those sensors you swallow will become standard care. Now, researchers with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed ingestible capsules that can be controlled using Bluetooth wireless tech. The capsule can be programmed to deliver drugs, evaluate environmental conditions, or both. It can stay in your stomach for up to a month.

Giovanni Traverso, visiting scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, stated, “Our system could provide closed-loop monitoring and treatment, whereby a signal can help guide the delivery of a drug or tuning the dose of a drug.”

The capsules were manufactured using 3-D printing tech. The study was published in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies. The lead author is Yong Lin Kong, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at the University of Utah.

The ingestible capsule has potential has potential for the diagnosis of early disease and monitoring patients at high risk for infection, such as those receiving chemotherapy or immunosuppressive drugs. They’ve tested it in pigs and believe that within about two years it will be ready for human patient testing.

More Precise Clinical Biomarkers

A biomarker is essentially any molecule that can be measured that provides information about some aspect of health. There are literally thousands of biomarker-based tests. Now, researchers from Estonia’s Competence Centre on Health Technology, the University of Tartu and University of Helsinki in Finland, and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, have come up with a way to make the biomarkers more precise. They published their work in the journal Genomic Medicine.

The technique is called TAC-seq and already has been integrated into an endometrial receptivity test trademarked beREADY, that will be on the market next year. TAC-seq measures the number of DNA and RNA molecules used as biomarkers.

“Ordinarily in clinical samples, the DNA has to be amplified using the PCR method to ensure material for next-generation sequencing, otherwise it isn’t measurable by instruments,” stated Hindrek Teder, a doctoral student in Bioinformatics at the University of Tartu. “It is not known how many copies are created of a given original molecule and thus the results are inaccurate. With TAC-seq, on the other hand, we see the raw data with no loss of information and identify and remove all of the artificial copies made in the lab. The result is that the corrected biomarker values reflect the clinical sample with maximum reliability.”

Marijuana Might Make Glaucoma Worse

Sorry tokers, but a recent study suggests that cannabidiol or CBD, one of the active ingredients found in marijuana, may actually make glaucoma worse. In laboratory mice, CBD increased the pressure inside the eye. Researchers at Indiana University published their research in the journal Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science.

“This study raises important questions about the relationship between the primary ingredients in cannabis and their effect on the eye,” stated Alex Straiker, an associate scientist in the IU Bloomington Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, who led the study. “It also suggests the need to understand more about the potential undesirable side effects of CBD, especially due to its use in children.”

The study found that CBD increased intraocular pressure in the eye of the mice by 18 percent for at least four hours after use. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, has been found to lower pressure in the eye, but CBD in combination with THC appears to block the effect. THC alone caused a drop of almost 30 percent in the eye for eight hours, which was stronger in male mice than in female mice.

Straiker also points out that, although the evidence that THC lowers intraocular pressure was first identified 45 years ago, the actual neuroreceptors involved in it have never been identified.

Epigenetic Cervical Cancer Test has 100% Detection Rate

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have developed a clinical screening test for cervical cancer that outperforms both the Pap smear and human papillomavirus (HPV) test for less money. The work was published in the International Journal of Cancer.

“This is an enormous development,” stated Attila Lorincz, lead researcher. “We’re not only astounded by how well this test detects cervical cancer, but it is the first time that anyone has proven the key role of epigenetics in the development of a major solid cancer using data from patients in the clinic. Epigenetic changes are what this cervical cancer test picks up and is exactly why it works so well.”

The traditional Pap smear detects about 50 percent of cervical pre-cancers. The HPV test is more accurate, but only detects if women are infected with a cancer-causing HPV, not their actual risks of cancer, which are fairly low. The new test detected 100 percent of the eight invasive cervical cancers that developed in 15,744 women involved in the trial. Pap smear only detected 25 percent of the cancers and HPV test detected 50 percent.

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