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AI Makes Gigantic Leap And Heralds A Revolution In Biology

An artificial intelligence (AI) network developed by Google AI offshoot DeepMind has made a gargantuan leap in solving one of biology’s grandest challengesdetermining a protein’s 3D shape from its amino-acid sequence.

DeepMind’s program, called AlphaFold, outperformed around 100 other teams in a biennial protein-structure prediction challenge called CASP, short for Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction. The results were announced on 30 November, at the start of the conference — held virtually this year — that takes stock of the exercise.

A protein’s function is determined by its 3D shape

This is a big deal,” says John Moult, a computational biologist at the University of Maryland in College Park, who co-founded CASP in 1994 to improve computational methods for accurately predicting protein structures. “In some sense the problem is solved.

The ability to accurately predict protein structures from their amino-acid sequence would be a huge boon to life sciences and medicine. It would vastly accelerate efforts to understand the building blocks of cells and enable quicker and more advanced drug discovery.

AlphaFold came top of the table at the last CASP — in 2018, the first year that London-based DeepMind participated. But, this year, the outfit’s deep-learning network was head-and-shoulders above other teams and, say scientists, performed so mind-bogglingly well that it could herald a revolution in biology.

It’s a game changer,” says Andrei Lupas, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, who assessed the performance of different teams in CASP. AlphaFold has already helped him find the structure of a protein that has vexed his lab for a decade, and he expects it will alter how he works and the questions he tackles. “This will change medicine. It will change research. It will change bioengineering. It will change everything,” Lupas adds.


Operation Warp Speed chief predicts coronavirus vaccines for all Americans by June

Over the next six months there will be enough coronavirus vaccine produced to immunize every American, Operation Warp Speed chief Moncef Slaoui is predicting. “Hopefully, by the middle of the year, I hope most Americans will have been immunized,” Slaoui, head of the Trump administration’s vaccine initiative, said at a Post Live event yesterday. “If enough people are immunized, we should have this pandemic under control in the second half of 2021.”

It requires not only manufacturing of more than 600 million doses of the two-shot vaccine, but also transporting it to all corners of the country, making it accessible to Americans of all stripes, and persuading them it’s safe.

Drug-free Nasal Spray Prevents SARS-CoV-2 Infection

Auris Medical Holding Ltd. (NASDAQ: EARS), a clinical-stage company dedicated to developing therapeutics that address important unmet medical needs in neurotology, rhinology and allergy and CNS disorders, today announced positive efficacy data from testing AM-301 in vitro. AM-301 is a drug-free nasal spray being developed by the Company’s affiliate Altamira Medica for protection against airborne pathogens and allergens.

AM-301 was tested for its capability to prevent or mitigate SARS-CoV-2 infection of nasal epithelial cells, which are part of the nasal mucosa and the first barrier against continuously inhaled substances such as pathogens and allergens. The experiment was performed over four days on reconstituted human nasal epithelia, which are frequently used to study the effects of human respiratory viruses. In saline-treated control cultures, Sars-CoV-2 replicated efficiently, resulting in a rapid increase in viral titer.

In contrast, daily treatment with AM-301, beginning right before inoculation, showed effective protection against viral infection. 48 hours post-infection, average virus titers were 90.0% lower than those observed in controls (p<0.05). 72 hours and 96 hours post-infection, average virus titers were 99.2 and 99.4% lower, respectively (p<0.001). Even when unbound virus was not removed daily through apical washing, allowing the virus to accumulate in the culture for 4 days, the reduction in viral titer was 92.4% compared to saline-treated controls (p<0.001).

Converting Electricity Into Heat And Vice Versa

A new University of Wollongong (UOW) study in Australia overcomes a major challenge of thermoelectric materials, which can convert heat into electricity and vice versa,improving conversion efficiency by more than 60%. Current and potential future applications range from low-maintenance, solid-state refrigeration to compact, zero-carbon power generation, which could include small, personal devices powered by the body’s own heat.

The decoupling of electronic (electron-based) and thermal (phonon-based) transport will be a game-changer in this industry,” says the UOW‘s Prof Xiaolin Wang.

Bismuth telluride-based materials (Bi2Te3, Sb2Te3 and their alloys) are the most successful commercially-available thermoelectric materials, with current and future applications falling into two categories: converting electricity into heat, and vice versa:

  • Converting electricity into heat: reliable, low-maintenance solid-state refrigeration (heat pump) with no moving parts, no noise, and no vibration.
  • Converting heat into electricity including fossil-free power generation from a wide range of heat sources or powering micro-devicesfor free‘, using ambient or body temperature.

Heatharvesting‘ takes advantage of the free, plentiful heat sources provided by body heat, automobiles, everyday living, and industrial process. Without the need for batteries or a power supply, thermoelectric materials could be used to power intelligent sensors in remote, inaccessible locations.

An ongoing challenge of thermoelectric materials is the balance of electrical and thermal properties: In most cases, an improvement in a material’s electrical properties (higher electrical conductivity) means a worsening of thermal properties (higher thermal conductivity), and vice versa.

The key is to decouple thermal transport and electrical transport“, says lead author, PhD student Guangsai Yang.


Human Brain Cells Gene-edited To reduce The Risk Of Developing Alzheimer’s Disease

Cells in the human brain could one day be edited by scientists to prevent the development of Alzheimer’s disease, a new study suggests. The causes of Alzheimer’s are still not well understood, but a leading theory is that it is triggered by the build-up of a protein called beta-amyloid outside the brain cells. Researchers from Laval University in Canada have been investigating how a key gene in human nerve cells could reduce the formation of this protein. Many variants of this gene increases beta-amyloid production, but one variant, called A673T, instead reduces it.

A673T was first discovered in 2012, and is only active in one in 150 people in Scandinavia, but those that have it are four times less likely to get Alzheimer’s. The researchers believe that switching on this gene variant in brain cells could reduce the production of beta-amyloid and thereby reduce Alzheimer’s risk. As the A673T variant doesn’t become relevant until later in life, it isn’t selected for by evolution, according to the study authors. It differs from other variants of the gene by a single DNA letter. Researchers showed that, by editing this one DNA letter, they were able to activate the A673T variant in brain cells growing in a culture dish. Jacques Tremblay and colleagues say this is the first step to proving that engineering the variant into brains could have the same benefits as inheriting it.

The team are still refining the technique before they try it on animals. The researchers initially used a CRISPR technique called base editing, which allows the direct, irreversible conversion of a DNA base into another, targeted base. However, they have now switched to a relatively new method called prime editing – a ‘search and replace‘ technique for editing genomes that directly writes new genetic information into a targeted DNA site using a fusion protein.  Working with cells in a dish they managed to edit about 40 per cent of the cells, but they think a higher proportion might be needed for it to work in a human brain.

The researchers  worked with a process known as base editing, a relatively new method that allows the direct, irreversible conversion of a DNA base into another, targeted base

How To Lure Stem Cells To A Specific Location Without Causing Inflammation

Transplanted stem cells instigate healing only after they reach a repair site, or “pathologic niche.” To help transplanted stem cells find their way, scientists have considered exploiting a natural inflammo-attraction system. It guides stem cells to inflammatory signals emitted by damaged tissue. The system, however, has usually been deemed too hot, that is, too apt to worsen inflammation and harm the body.

If only it were possible to shed the “inflammo” part of inflammo-attraction. Then, therapeutic stem cells could be deployed like smart bombs—except that they’d provide more balm than blam.

Neural stem cells maturing into astrocytes (yellow). [Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute]

The possibility has been investigated by scientists at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP). In a recent study, they reported that they modified an inflammatory “homing” molecule to create a drug that enhances stem cell binding and minimizes inflammatory signaling. They assert that this drug, which is called SDV1a, can be injected anywhere to lure stem cells to a specific location without causing inflammation.

Details appeared online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).


World’s Smallest Atom-Memory Unit Created

Faster, smaller, smarter and more energy-efficient chips for everything from consumer electronics to big data to brain-inspired computing could soon be on the way after engineers at The University of Texas at Austin created the smallest memory device yet. And in the process, they figured out the physics dynamic that unlocks dense memory storage capabilities for these tiny devices.

The research published recently in Nature Nanotechnology builds on a discovery from two years ago, when the researchers created what was then the thinnest memory storage device. In this new work, the researchers reduced the size even further, shrinking the cross section area down to just a single square nanometer. Getting a handle on the physics that pack dense memory storage capability into these devices enabled the ability to make them much smaller. Defects, or holes in the material, provide the key to unlocking the high-density memory storage capability.

When a single additional metal atom goes into that nanoscale hole and fills it, it confers some of its conductivity into the material, and this leads to a change or memory effect,” said Deji Akinwande, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Though they used molybdenum disulfide – also known as MoS2 – as the primary nanomaterial in their study, the researchers think the discovery could apply to hundreds of related atomically thin materials.

The race to make smaller chips and components is all about power and convenience. With smaller processors, you can make more compact computers and phones. But shrinking down chips also decreases their energy demands and increases capacity, which means faster, smarter devices that take less power to operate.

The results obtained in this work pave the way for developing future generation applications that are of interest to the Department of Defense, such as ultra-dense storage, neuromorphic computing systems, radio-frequency communication systems and more,” said Pani Varanasi, program manager for the U.S. Army Research Office, which funded the research.

The original device – dubbed “atomristor” by the research team – was at the time the thinnest memory storage device ever recorded, with a single atomic layer of thickness. But shrinking a memory device is not just about making it thinner but also building it with a smaller cross-sectional area. “The scientific holy grail for scaling is going down to a level where a single atom controls the memory function, and this is what we accomplished in the new study,” Akinwande said.


Russia’s Sputnik V Coronavirus Vaccine 92% Effective

Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine is 92% effective, its developers said as the global race heats up over mass vaccination to slow the spread of the pandemic that has killed nearly 1.3 million people and battered economies worldwide.

Interim results showed that 20 of the 16,000 volunteers who received both Sputnik V doses have contracted Covid-19, the Russian Health Ministry, state-run Gamaleya research center and Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) said in a statement.

As a result of a statistical analysis of 20 confirmed cases of coronavirus, the case split between vaccinated individuals and those who received the placebo indicates that the Sputnik V vaccine had an efficacy rate of 92% after the second dose,” the statement said.

More than 20,000 volunteers have received the first dose of Sputnik V as of Wednesday, according to Gamaleya, the Health Ministry and RDIF.

The developers said that “some” of the volunteers experienced short-term “pain at the injection site [and] flu-like syndrome including fever, weakness, fatigue and headache.” They noted that these adverse effects were expected. Sputnik V’s final, or Phase 3, trials involve a total of 40,000 volunteers at around two dozen Moscow clinics.

Separate Sputnik V injections being administered to medics and other at-risk groups outside Moscow demonstrated the vaccine’s efficacy rate of over 90%, the developers said. Officials in the Altai region of Siberia reported earlier that three out of the 42 medics who received the adenovirus vector-based vaccine there ended up contracting Covid-19.


New Oxford/AstraZeneca’s Coronavirus Vaccine To Cost Just £2 Per Dose

Britain could have 19million doses of Oxford and AstraZeneca‘s coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year after clinical trials showed it is up to 90 per cent effective at preventing infection and can be stored cheaply in a fridge. President of AstraZeneca, Tom Keith-Roach said today that, on top of the four million doses on standby for the UK, a further 15million could be ready to roll out by the end of next month. They will be given to healthcare workers and the elderly first, subject to approval by regulators.

The vaccine is expected to cost just £2 per dose and can be stored in ordinary equipment, unlike other jabs made by Pfizer and Moderna that showed similarly promising results last week but need to be kept in ultra-cold temperatures using expensive equipment.  It’s also a fraction of the price, with Pfizer‘s costing around £15 per dose and Moderna‘s priced at about £26 a shot.

Oxford‘s trials found the jab has a nine in ten chance of working when administered as a half dose first and then a full dose a month later. Efficacy drops to 62 per cent when someone is given two full doses a month apart.

CRISPR Treatment Destroys Cancer Cells

Researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) have demonstrated that the CRISPR/Cas9 system is very effective in treating metastatic cancers, a significant step on the way to finding a cure for cancer. The researchers developed a novel lipid nanoparticle-based delivery system that specifically targets cancer cells and destroys them by genetic manipulation. The system, called CRISPR-LNPs, carries a genetic messenger (messenger RNA), which encodes for the CRISPR enzyme Cas9 that acts as molecular scissors that cut the cells’ DNA.

The revolutionary work was conducted in the laboratory of Prof. Dan Peer at TAU. Dr. Daniel Rosenblum led the research together with Ph.D. student Anna Gutkin and colleagues.

To examine the feasibility of using the technology to treat cancer, Prof. Peer and his team chose two of the deadliest cancers: glioblastoma and metastatic ovarian cancer. Glioblastoma is the most aggressive type of brain cancer, with a life expectancy of 15 months after diagnosis and a five-year survival rate of only 3%. The researchers demonstrated that a single treatment with CRISPR-LNPs doubled the average life expectancy of mice with glioblastoma tumors, improving their overall survival rate by about 30%. Ovarian cancer is a major cause of death among women and the most lethal cancer of the female reproductive system. Most patients are diagnosed at an advanced stage of the disease when metastases have already spread throughout the body. Despite progress in recent years, only a third of the patients survive this disease. Treatment with CRISPR-LNPs in a metastatic ovarian cancer mice model increased their overall survival rate by 80%.

The CRISPR genome editing technology, capable of identifying and altering any genetic segment, has revolutionized our ability to disrupt, repair or even replace genes in a personalized manner,” said Prof. Peer. “Despite its extensive use in research, clinical implementation is still in its infancy because an effective delivery system is needed to safely and accurately deliver the CRISPR to its target cells. The delivery system we developed targets the DNA responsible for the cancer cells’ survival. This is an innovative treatment for aggressive cancers that have no effective treatments today.

This is the first study in the world to prove that the CRISPR genome editing system can be used to treat cancer effectively in a living animal,” explained Prof. Peer. “It must be emphasized that this is not chemotherapy. There are no side effects, and a cancer cell treated in this way will never become active again. The molecular scissors of Cas9 cut the cancer cell’s DNA, thereby neutralizing it and permanently preventing replication.”

The results of the groundbreaking study were published in November 2020 in Science Advances.