Extension of the Life of Immune System Means Live Longer

A new mechanism that slows down and may even prevent the natural ageing of immune cells – one of the ninehallmarks of ageing’* – has been identified by an international team led by UCL scientists.

Published in Nature Cell Biology, researchers say the discovery in-vitro (cells) and validated in mice was ‘unexpected’ and believe harnessing the mechanism could extend the life of the immune system, allowing people to live healthier and longer, and would also have clinical utility for diseases such as cancer and dementia.

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Personalized Skin Cancer Vaccine

Two major pharmaceutical companies are testing a personalized vaccine that might prevent the recurrence of a specific type of skin cancer. Moderna, one of the companies behind the COVID-19 vaccine, and Merck, an enterprise focused largely on oncology and preventative medicines, are teaming up to see if they can reduce the public’s risk of re-developing the deadliest form of skin cancer: melanoma.

The vaccine essentially combines two medical technologies: the mRNA vaccine and Merck’s Keytruda. As with the COVID-19 vaccine, mRNA shots don’t require an actual virus. Instead, they use a disease’s genetic code to “teach” the immune system to recognize and fight that particular illness. This makes it relatively easy and inexpensive for scientists to develop mRNA vaccines and edit them if a new form of the disease emerges. Keytruda, meanwhile, is a prescription medication that helps prevent melanoma from coming back after known cancer cells have been surgically removed.

Moderna and Merck are testing the feasibility of not only creating a two-in-one drug with both technologies but also customizing individual vaccines to suit their respective patients. Each vaccine is engineered to activate the patient’s immune system, which in turn deploys T cells (a type of white blood cell known to fight cancer) that go after the specific mutations of a patient’s tumor. Keytruda assists this effort by barring certain cell proteins from getting in the way of T cells’ intervention.

The experimental drug is currently in its second clinical trial out of three. The trial involves 157 participants with high-risk melanoma who just successfully underwent surgical removal. Some of the participants were given the personalized vaccine, while others were given Keytruda alone. Moderna and Merck will observe whether the participants’ melanoma returns over the span of approximately one year, with primary data expected at the end of this year.

If a vaccine preventing the recurrence of melanoma does in fact become commercially available, it could prevent more than 7,000 deaths per year in the US alone.

Source: https://www.extremetech.com/

Crispr Can Edit Directly Genes Inside Human Bodies

A decade ago, biologists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier published a landmark paper describing a natural immune system found in bacteria and its potential as a tool for editing the genes of living organisms. A year later, in 2013, Feng Zhang and his colleagues at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard reported that they’d harnessed that systemknown as Crispr, to edit human and animal cells in the lab. The work by both teams led to an explosion of interest in using Crispr to treat genetic diseases, as well as a 2020 Nobel Prize for Doudna and Charpentier.

Many diseases arise from gene mutations, so if Crispr could just snip out or replace an abnormal gene, it could in theory correct the disease. But one of the challenges of turning test tube Crispr discoveries into cures for patients has been figuring ouhow to get the gene-editing components to the place in the body that needs treatment.

One biotech company, Crispr Therapeutics, has gotten around that issue by editing patients’ cells outside the body. Scientists there have used the tool to treat dozens of people with sickle cell anemia and beta thalassemia—two common blood disorders. In those trials, investigators extract patients’ red blood cells, edit them to correct a disease-causing mutation, then infuse them back into the body.

But this “ex vivo” approach has downsides. It’s complex to administer, expensive, and has limited uses. Most diseases occur in cells and tissues that can’t be easily taken out of the body, treated, and put back in. So the next wave of Crispr research is focused on editingin vivo”—that is, directly inside a patient’s body. Last year, Intellia Therapeutics was the first to demonstrate that this was possible for a disease called transthyretin amyloidosis. And last week, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech company showed in-the-body editing in a second disease.

Source: https://www.intelliatx.com/
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https://www.wired.com/

Reprogramming the Brain’s Cleaning Crew to Mop Up Alzheimer’s Disease

The discovery of how to shift damaged brain cells from a diseased state into a healthy one presents a potential new path to treating Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, according to a new study from researchers at UC San Francisco (UCSF). The research focuses on microglia, cells that stabilize the brain by clearing out damaged neurons and the protein plaques often associated with dementia and other brain diseases. These cells are understudied, despite the fact that changes in them are known to play a significant role Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases, said Martin Kampmann, PhD, senior author on the study, which appears in Nature Neuroscience.

Microglia (green) derived from human stem cells

Now, using a new CRISPR method we developed, we can uncover how to actually control these microglia, to get them to stop doing toxic things and go back to carrying out their vitally important cleaning jobs,”  Kampmann said. “This capability presents the opportunity for an entirely new type of therapeutic approach.

Most of the genes known to increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease act through microglial cells. Thus, these cells have a significant impact on how such neurodegenerative diseases play out, said Kampmann. Microglia act as the brain’s immune system. Ordinary immune cells can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, so it’s the task of healthy microglia to clear out waste and toxins, keeping neurons functioning at their best. When microglia start losing their way, the result can be brain inflammation and damage to neurons and the networks they form. Under some conditions, for example, microglia will start removing synapses between neurons. While this is a normal part of brain development in a person’s childhood and adolescent years, it can have disastrous effects in the adult brain.

Over the past five years or so, many studies have observed and profiled these varying microglial states but haven’t been able to characterize the genetics behind them. Kampmann and his team wanted to identify exactly which genes are involved in specific states of microglial activity, and how each of those states are regulated. With that knowledge, they could then flip genes on and off, setting wayward cells back on the right track. Accomplishing that task required surmounting fundamental obstacles that have prevented researchers from controlling gene expression in these cells. For example, microglia are very resistant to the most common CRISPR technique, which involves getting the desired genetic material into the cell by using a virus to deliver it. To overcome this, Kampmann’s team coaxed stem cells donated by human volunteers to become microglia and confirmed that these cells function like their ordinary human counterparts. The team then developed a new platform that combines a form of CRISPR, which enables researchers to turn individual genes on and off – and which Kampmann had a significant hand in developing – with readouts of data that indicate functions and states of individual microglia cells.

Through this analysis, Kampmann and his team pinpointed genes that affect the cell’s ability to survive and proliferate, how actively a cell produces inflammatory substances, and how aggressively a cell prunes synapses. And because the scientists had determined which genes control those activities, they were able to reset the genes and flip the diseased cell to a healthy state.

Source: https://www.ucsf.edu/

Nanobody Penetrates Brain Cells to Halt the Progression of Parkinson’s

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have helped develop a nanobody capable of getting through the tough exterior of brain cells and untangling misshapen proteins that lead to Parkinson’s disease, Lewy body dementia, and other neurocognitive disorders. The research, published last month in Nature Communications, was led by Xiaobo Mao, an associate professor of neurology at the School of Medicine, and included scientists at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Their aim was to find a new type of treatment that could specifically target the misshapen proteins, called alpha-synuclein, which tend to clump together and gum up the inner workings of brain cells. Emerging evidence has shown that the alpha-synuclein clumps can spread from the gut or nose to the brain, driving the disease progression.

Nanobodies—miniature versions of antibodies, which are proteins in the blood that help the immune system find and attack foreign pathogens—are natural compounds in the blood of animals such as llamas and sharks and are being studied to treat autoimmune diseases and cancer in humans. In theory, antibodies have the potential to zero in on clumping alpha-synuclein proteins, but have a hard time getting through the outer covering of brain cells. To squeeze through these tough brain cell coatings, the researchers decided to use nanobodies instead. The researchers had to shore up the nanobodies to help them keep stable within a brain cell. To do this, they genetically engineered them to rid them of chemical bonds that typically degrade inside a cell. Tests showed that without the bonds, the nanobody remained stable and was still able to bind to misshapen alpha-synuclein.

The team made seven similar types of nanobodies, known as PFFNBs, that could bind to alpha-synuclein clumps. Of the nanobodies they created, onePFFNB2—did the best job of glomming onto alpha-synuclein clumps and not single molecules, or monomer of alpha-synuclein, which are not harmful and may have important functions in brain cells. Additional tests in mice showed that the PFFNB2 nanobody cannot prevent alpha-synuclein from collecting into clumps, but it can disrupt and destabilize the structure of existing clumps.

The structure of alpha-synuclein clumps (left) was disrupted by the nanobody PFFNB2. The debris from the disrupted clump is shown on the right.

Strikingly, we induced PFFNB2 expression in the cortex, and it prevented alpha-synuclein clumps from spreading to the mouse brain’s cortex, the region responsible for cognition, movement, personality, and other high-order processes,” says Ramhari Kumbhar, the co-first author and a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Medicine.

The success of PFFNB2 in binding harmful alpha-synuclein clumps in increasingly complex environments indicates that the nanobody could be key to helping scientists study these diseases and eventually develop new treatments,” Mao says.

Source: https://hub.jhu.edu/

Synthetic, Tumor-Targeting Molecule Promotes Immune Activation

Activating the immune system at the site of a tumor can recruit and stimulate immune cells to destroy tumor cells. One strategy involves injecting immune-stimulating molecules directly into the tumor, but this method can be challenging for cancers that are not easily accessible. Now, Stanford researchers have developed a new synthetic molecule that combines a tumor-targeting agent with another molecule that triggers immune activation. This tumor-targeted immunotherapy can be administered intravenously and makes its way to one or multiple tumor sites in the body, where it recruits immune cells to fight the cancer.
Three doses of this new immunotherapy prolonged the survival of six of nine laboratory mice with an aggressive triple negative breast cancer. Of the six, three appeared cured of their cancer over the duration of the monthslong study. A single dose of this molecule induced complete tumor regression in five of 10 mice. The synthetic molecule showed similar results in a mouse model of pancreatic cancer.

An immunotherapy molecule administered intravenously to mice was shown to target tumors.

We essentially cured some animals with just a few injections,” said Jennifer Cochran, PhD, the Shriram Chair of the Department of Bioengineering. “It was pretty astonishing. When we looked within the tumors, we saw they went from a highly immunosuppressive microenvironment to one full of activated B and T cells — similar to what happens when the immune-stimulating molecule is injected directly into the tumor. So, we’re achieving intra-tumoral injection results but with an IV deliver.”

A paper describing the study published online in Cell Chemical Biology.  The lead authors are Stanford graduate student Caitlyn Miller and instructor of medicine Idit Sagiv-Barfi, PhD.

Source: https://med.stanford.edu/

First Trial of Alzheimer’s Nasal Vaccine to Begin

Brigham and Women’s Hospital will test the safety and efficacy of a nasal vaccine aimed at preventing and slowing Alzheimer’s disease, the Boston hospital announced Tuesday. The start of the small, Phase I clinical trial comes after nearly 20 years of research led by Howard L. Weiner, MD, co-director of the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at the hospital. The trial will include 16 participants between the ages of 60 and 85, all with early symptomatic Alzheimer’s but otherwise generally healthy. They will receive two doses of the vaccine one week apart, the hospital said in a press release. The participants will enroll from the Ann Romney Center. A Phase I clinical trial is designed to establish the safety and dosage for a potential new medication. If it goes well, a much larger trial would be needed to test its effectiveness.

The vaccine uses a substance called Protollin, which stimulates the immune system.

Protollin is designed to activate white blood cells found in the lymph nodes on the sides and back of the neck to migrate to the brain and trigger clearance of beta amyloid plaques — one of the hallmarks of AD [Alzheimer’s disease],” the hospital explains. It notes that Protollin has been found to be safe in other vaccines. “The launch of the first human trial of a nasal vaccine for Alzheimer’s is a remarkable milestone,” said Weiner in the hospital’s press release. “Over the last two decades, we’ve amassed preclinical evidence suggesting the potential of this nasal vaccine for AD. If clinical trials in humans show that the vaccine is safe and effective, this could represent a nontoxic treatment for people with Alzheimer’s, and it could also be given early to help prevent Alzheimer’s in people at risk.”

The researchers say they aim to “determine the safety and tolerability of the nasal vaccine” in the trial and observe how Protollin affects participants’ immune response, including how it affects their white blood cells. “The immune system plays a very important role in all neurologic diseases,” Weiner added. “And it’s exciting that after 20 years of preclinical work, we can finally take a key step forward toward clinical translation and conduct this landmark first human trial.”

Research in this area has paved the way for us to pursue a whole new avenue for potentially treating not only AD, but also other neurodegenerative diseases,” said Tanuja Chitnis, MD, professor of neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and principal investigator of the trial.

I-Mab Biopharma and Jiangsu Nhwa Pharmaceutical are responsible for developing, manufacturing and commercializing Protollin.

Source: https://www.cbsnews.com/

Breakthrough Opens New Method to Fight Alzheimer’s

During experiments in animal models, researchers at the University of Kansas (KU)  have discovered a possible new approach to immunization against Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Their method uses a recombinant methionine (Met)-rich protein derived from corn that was then oxidized in vitro to produce the antigen: methionine sulfoxide (MetO)-rich protein. This antigen, when injected to the body, goads the immune system into producing antibodies against the MetO component of beta-amyloid, a protein that is toxic to brain cells and seen as a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

As we age, we have more oxidative stress, and then beta-amyloid and other proteins accumulate and become oxidized and aggregated – these proteins are resistant to degradation or removal,” said lead researcher Jackob Moskovitz, associate professor of pharmacology & toxicology at the KU School of Pharmacy. “In a previous 2011 published study, I injected mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease with a similar methionine sulfoxide-rich protein and showed about 30% reduction of amyloid plaque burden in the hippocampus, the main region where damage from Alzheimer’s disease occurs.”

The MetO-rich protein used by Moskovitz for the vaccination of AD-model mice is able to prompt the immune system to produce antibodies against MetO-containing proteins, including MetO-harboring beta-amyloid. The introduction of the corn-based MetO-rich protein (antigen) fosters the body’s immune system to produce and deploy the antibodies against MetO to previously tolerated MetO-containing proteins (including MetO-beta-amyloid), and ultimately reduce the levels of toxic forms of beta-amyloid and other possible proteins in brain.

According to Moskovitz, there was a roughly 50% improvement in the memory of mice injected with the methionine sulfoxide (MetO)-rich protein versus the control.

The findings have been just published in the peer-reviewed open-access journal Antioxidants.

Source: https://today.ku.edu/

AI-designed Antibody Enters Clinical Trials

The Israeli company Biolojic Design will conduct a trial for cancer patients in Australia with a new type of drugAulos Biosciences is now recruiting cancer patients to try it’s world’s first antibody drug designed by a computer. The computationally designed antibody, known as AU-007, was planned by the artificial intelligence platform of Israeli biotech company Biolojic Design from Rehovot, in a way that would target a protein in the human body known as interleukin-2 (IL-2). The goal is for the IL-2 pathway to activate the body’s immune system and attack the tumors.

The clinical trial will be conducted on patients with final stage solid tumors and will last about a year – but the company hopes to present interim results during 2022. The trial has raised great hopes because if it is successful, it will pave the way for the development of a new type of drug using computational biology and “big data.” Aulos presented pre-clinical data from a study on 19 mice – and they all responded positively to the treatment. In the 17-day trial period of the study, the antibody led to the complete elimination of the tumors in 10 of the mice – and to a significant delay in the development of the tumors in the other nine mice.

Aulos was founded in Boston as a spin-off of Biolojic and venture capital firm Apple Tree Partners, which invested $40 million in the company to advance the antibody project and prove its clinical feasibility. Drugs based on antibodies are considered to be one of the greatest hopes for anti-cancer solutions. Among the best-known in the field are Keytruda, mostly used to treat melanomas and lung cancer; and Herceptin for breast cancer. But the antibodies given today to cancer patients are created by a method that also has disadvantages – most are produced by the immune system in mice, and then are replicated to enable mass production.

Source: https://www.haaretz.com/

Tumors Partially Destroyed with Sound Don’t Come Back

Noninvasive sound technology developed at the University of Michigan (U-M) breaks down liver tumors in rats, kills cancer cells and spurs the immune system to prevent further spread—an advance that could lead to improved cancer outcomes in humans. By destroying only 50% to 75% of liver tumor volume, the rats’ immune systems were able to clear away the rest, with no evidence of recurrence or metastases in more than 80% of animals.

The 700kHz, 260-element histotripsy ultrasound array transducer used in Prof. Xu’s lab

Even if we don’t target the entire tumor, we can still cause the tumor to regress and also reduce the risk of future metastasis,” said Zhen Xu, professor of biomedical engineering at U-M and corresponding author of the study in Cancers. Results also showed the treatment stimulated the rats’ immune responses, possibly contributing to the eventual regression of the untargeted portion of the tumor and preventing further spread of the cancer.

The treatment, called histotripsy, noninvasively focuses ultrasound waves to mechanically destroy target tissue with millimeter precision. The relatively new technique is currently being used in a human liver cancer trial in the United States and Europe. In many clinical situations, the entirety of a cancerous tumor cannot be targeted directly in treatments for reasons that include the mass’ size, location or stage. To investigate the effects of partially destroying tumors with sound, this latest study targeted only a portion of each mass, leaving behind a viable intact tumor. It also allowed the team, including researchers at Michigan Medicine and the Ann Arbor VA Hospital, to show the approach’s effectiveness under less than optimal conditions.

Histotripsy is a promising option that can overcome the limitations of currently available ablation modalities and provide safe and effective noninvasive liver tumor ablation,” said Tejaswi Worlikar, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering. “We hope that our learnings from this study will motivate future preclinical and clinical histotripsy investigations toward the ultimate goal of clinical adoption of histotripsy treatment for liver cancer patients.”

Liver cancer ranks among the top 10 causes of cancer related deaths worldwide and in the U.S. Even with multiple treatment options, the prognosis remains poor with five-year survival rates less than 18% in the U.S. The high prevalence of tumor recurrence and metastasis after initial treatment highlights the clinical need for improving outcomes of liver cancer. Where a typical ultrasound uses sound waves to produce images of the body’s interior, U-M engineers have pioneered the use of those waves for treatment. And their technique works without the harmful side effects of current approaches such as radiation and chemotherapy.

Our transducer, designed and built at U-M, delivers high amplitude microsecond-length ultrasound pulses—acoustic cavitation—to focus on the tumor specifically to break it up,” Xu said. “Traditional ultrasound devices use lower amplitude pulses for imaging.”

Source: https://news.umich.edu/