The Drugmaker Merck Says Its Antiviral Pill Is Effective Against Coronavirus

The drug maker says its pill was shown in a clinical trial to cut the risk of hospitalization or death from the virus in half. Australia is accelerating plans to ease international travel restrictions for its citizens and permanent residents.

The drug maker Merck said on Friday that it would seek authorization for the first antiviral pill for Covid after its drug, known as molnupiravir, was shown in a clinical trial to cut the risk of hospitalization or death in half when given to high-risk people early in their infections.

The treatment could become the first in a wave of antiviral pill products, which experts say could offer a powerful new tool in efforts to tame the pandemic, as they could reach more people than the antibody treatments that are being widely used in the United States for similar patients.

I think it will translate into many thousands of lives being saved worldwide, where there’s less access to monoclonal antibodies, and in this country, too,” said Dr. Robert Shafer, an infectious disease specialist and expert on antiviral therapy at Stanford University.

Late-stage study results of two other antiviral pills, one developed by Pfizer and the other by Atea Pharmaceuticals and Roche, are expected within the next few months.

The Merck drug, which is designed to stop the coronavirus from replicating, is to be taken as four capsules twice a day for five days.

Merck said an independent board of experts monitoring its study data had recommended that its trial be stopped early because the drug’s benefit to patients had proved so convincing. The company said that the Food and Drug Administration had agreed with that decision.

For the research, the monitors looked at data through early August, when the study had enrolled 775 volunteers in the United States and overseas. For volunteers who received the drug, their risk of being hospitalized or dying fell 50 percent, without any concerning side effects, compared with those who received placebo pills, Merck said in a news release announcing the findings.

Seven percent of volunteers in the group that received the drug were hospitalized, and none of them died, compared with a 14 percent rate of hospitalization and death — including eight deaths — in the group that received the placebo.

The Merck pill’s efficacy was lower than that of monoclonal antibody treatments, which mimic antibodies that the immune system generates naturally when fighting the virus. Those drugs have been in high demand recently, but they are expensive, are typically given intravenously, and have proved cumbersome and labor-intensive for hospitals and clinics to administer. Studies have shown that they reduce hospitalizations and deaths 70 to 85 percent in similar high-risk Covid patients.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/

High Speed Typing Brain-Computer Interface

The ancient art of handwriting has just pushed the field of brain-computer interface (BCI) to the next level. Researchers have devised a system that allows a person to communicate directly with a computer from his brain by imagining creating handwritten messages. The approach enables communication at a rate more than twice as fast as previous typing-by-brain experiments.

Researchers at Stanford University performed the study on a 65-year-old man with a spinal cord injury who had had an electrode array implanted in his brain. The scientists described the experiment recently in the journal Nature.

The big news from this paper is the very high speed,” says Cynthia Chestek, a biomedical engineer at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the study. “It’s at least half way to able-bodied typing speed, and that’s why this paper is in Nature.”

For years, researchers have been experimenting with ways to enable people to directly communicate with computers using only their thoughts, without verbal commands, hand movement, or eye movement. This kind of technology offers a life-giving communication method for people who are “locked in” from brainstem stroke or disease, and unable to speak.

Successful BCI typing-by-brain approaches so far typically involve a person imagining moving a cursor around a digital keyboard to select letters. Meanwhile, electrodes record brain activity, and machine learning algorithms decipher the patterns associated with those thoughts, translating them into the typed words. The fastest of these previous typing-by-brain experiments allowed people to type about 40 characters, or 8 words, per minute.

That we can do this at all is impressive, but in real life that speed of communication is quite slow. The Stanford researchers were able to more than double that speed with a system that decodes brain activity associated with handwriting. In the new system, the participant, who had been paralyzed for about a decade, imagines the hand movements he would make to write sentences.

We ask him to actually try to write—to try to make his hand move again, and he reports this somatosensory illusion of actually feeling like his hand is moving,” says Frank Willett, a researcher at Stanford who collaborated on the experiment.

A microelectrode array implanted in the motor cortex of the participant’s brain records the electrical activity of individual neurons as he tries to write. “He hasn’t moved his hand or tried to write in more than ten years and we still got these beautiful patterns of neural activity,” says Willett.

The new findings, published online in Nature, could spur further advances benefiting hundreds of thousands of Americans, and millions globally, who’ve lost the use of their upper limbs or their ability to speak due to spinal-cord injuries, strokes or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, said Jaimie Henderson, MD, professor of neurosurgery.

This approach allowed a person with paralysis to compose sentences at speeds nearly comparable to those of able-bodied adults of the same age typing on a smartphone,” said Henderson, the John and Jene Blume — Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor.” The goal is to restore the ability to communicate by text.”

The participant in the study produced text at a rate of about 18 words per minute. By comparison, able-bodied people of the same age can punch out about 23 words per minute on a smartphone.

Surce: https://med.stanford.edu/
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https://spectrum.ieee.org/

Breakthrough Against COVID-19

A team of scientists from Stanford University is working with researchers at the Molecular Foundry, a nanoscience user facility located at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), to develop a gene-targeting, antiviral agent against COVID-19. Last year, Stanley Qi, an assistant professor in the departments of bioengineering, and chemical and systems biology at Stanford University and his team had begun working on a technique called PAC-MAN – or Prophylactic Antiviral CRISPR in human cells – that uses the gene-editing tool CRISPR to fight influenza.

But that all changed in January, when news of the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. Qi and his team were suddenly confronted with a mysterious new virus for which no one had a clear solution.

Lipitoids, which self-assemble with DNA and RNA, can serve as cellular delivery systems for antiviral therapies that could prevent COVID-19 and other coronavirus infections.

So we thought, ‘Why don’t we try using our PAC-MAN technology to fight it?’” said Qi.

Since late March, Qi and his team have been collaborating with a group led by Michael Connolly, a principal scientific engineering associate in the Biological Nanostructures Facility at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry, to develop a system that delivers PAC-MAN into the cells of a patient.

Like all CRISPR systems, PAC-MAN is composed of an enzyme – in this case, the virus-killing enzyme Cas13 – and a strand of guide RNA, which commands Cas13 to destroy specific nucleotide sequences in the coronavirus’s genome. By scrambling the virus’s genetic code, PAC-MAN could neutralize the coronavirus and stop it from replicating inside cells.

Qi said that the key challenge to translating PAC-MAN from a molecular tool into an anti-COVID-19 therapy is finding an effective way to deliver it into lung cells. When SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, invades the lungs, the air sacs in an infected person can become inflamed and fill with fluid, hijacking a patient’s ability to breathe.

But my lab doesn’t work on delivery methods,” he said. So on March 14, they published a preprint of their paper, and even tweeted, in the hopes of catching the eye of a potential collaborator with expertise in cellular delivery techniques. Soon after, they learned of Connolly’s work on synthetic molecules called lipitoids at the Molecular Foundry. Lipitoids are a type of synthetic peptide mimic known as a “peptoid” first discovered 20 years ago by Connolly’s mentor Ron Zuckermann. In the decades since, Connolly and Zuckermann have worked to develop peptoid delivery molecules such as lipitoids. And in collaboration with Molecular Foundry users, they have demonstrated lipitoids’ effectiveness in the delivery of DNA and RNA to a wide variety of cell lines.

Today, researchers studying lipitoids for potential therapeutic applications have shown that these materials are nontoxic to the body and can deliver nucleotides by encapsulating them in tiny nanoparticles just one billionth of a meter wide – the size of a virus. Now Qi hopes to add his CRISPR-based COVID-19 therapy to the Molecular Foundry’s growing body of lipitoid delivery systems.

Source: https://newscenter.lbl.gov/

Bionic Jellyfish

It may sound more like science fiction than science fact, but researchers have created bionic jellyfish by embedding microelectronics into these ubiquitous marine invertebrates with hopes to deploy them to monitor and explore the world’s oceans.

A small prosthetic enabled the jellyfish to swim three times faster and more efficiently without causing any apparent stress to the animals, which have no brain, central nervous system or pain receptors, the researchers said.

The next steps will be to test ways to control where the jellyfish go and develop tiny sensors that could perform long-term measurements of ocean conditions such as temperature, salinity, acidity, oxygen levels, nutrients and microbial communities. They even envision installing miniscule cameras.

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It’s very sci-fi futuristic,” said Stanford University bioengineer Nicole Xu, co-author of the research published this week in the journal Science Advances. “We could send these bionic jellyfish to different areas of the ocean to monitor signs of climate change or observe natural phenomena.

An initial goal will be deep dives because measurements at great depths are a major gap in our understanding of the oceans, added California Institute of Technology mechanical engineering professor John Dabiri, the study’s other co-author.

Basically, we’d release the bionic jellyfish at the surface, have it swim down to increasing depths, and see just how far we can get it to go down into the ocean and still make it back to the surface with data,” Dabiri added.

Source: https://www.caltech.edu/
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https://www.reuters.com/

How To Trap CO2 Molecules

Scientists from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University have taken the first images of carbon dioxide molecules within a molecular cage ­­– part of a highly porous nanoparticle known as a MOF, or metal-organic framework, with great potential for separating and storing gases and liquids.

The images, made at the Stanford-SLAC Cryo-EM Facilities, show two configurations of the COmolecule in its cage, in what scientists call a guest-host relationship; reveal that the cage expands slightly as the CO2 enters; and zoom in on jagged edges where MOF particles may grow by adding more cages.

This is a groundbreaking achievement that is sure to bring unprecedented insights into how these highly porous structures carry out their exceptional functions, and it demonstrates the power of cryo-EM for solving a particularly difficult problem in MOF chemistry,” said Omar Yaghi, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and a pioneer in this area of chemistry, who was not involved in the study.

The team, led by SLAC/Stanford professors Yi Cui and Wah Chiu, described the study  in the journal Matter.

Source: https://www6.slac.stanford.edu/

How To Boost Brain’s Synapses

A team of researchers at Stanford University has found synapse-boosting factors in the blood of young mice. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group describes their study of the rejuvenating impact of blood from young mice when transfused into older mice, and what they learned about it.

Prior research has shown that transfusing blood from young (12 to 15 months old) into older mice can reverse some of the signs of aging in the brain and sometimes other parts of the body—a process called parabiosis. While researchers have studied the effect, it is still not clear which factors in young blood provide the rejuvenating effects. In this new effort, the researchers looked deeper into the phenomenon and found two possible answers.

To learn more about parabiosis in mice, the researchers transfused serum from mice between the ages of 12 and 15 months into older mice to study its impact. They also did the same with 15-day-old mice. In so doing, they found that the youngest mouse blood resulted in more pronounced neuronal dendrite branching, a bigger increase in the number of , and a bigger increase in the release of neurotransmitters compared to blood from less . They also found that it provided more improvements in N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor-mediated synaptic function in the older mice. They next found that applying the to neurons cultured in the lab did the same. And finally, they found that doing so also boosted synaptic connectivity. Conversely, they found that applying serum from older mice to younger mouse neurons had the opposite effect.

To isolate the properties in the young serum that were behind the rejuvenating effect, the team looked at samples using tandem —they isolated two proteins (thrombospondin-4 and SPARC-like protein-1) that appeared richer in the younger serum. When the two proteins were applied to the older , some of the same rejuvenating effects took place, suggesting that they were at least two of the factors responsible for the rejuvenating effect. The researchers suggest that the blood of young mice likely holds many kinds of synapse-promoting factors that decline as mice age.

Source: https://www.pnas.org/

Cancer’s ‘Internal Wiring’ Predicts Relapse Risk

The “internal wiring” of breast cancer can predict which women are more likely to survive or relapse, say researchers. The study shows that breast cancer is 11 separate diseases that each has a different risk of coming back. The hope is that the findings, in the journal Nature, could identify people needing closer monitoring and reassure others at low risk of recurrence.

Cancer Research UK said that the work was “incredibly encouraging” but was not yet ready for widespread use. The scientists, at the University of Cambridge and Stanford University, looked in incredible detail at nearly 2,000 women’s breast cancers. They went far beyond considering all breast cancers as a single disease and beyond modern medicine’s way of classifying the tumours.

Doctors currently classify breast cancers based on whether they respond to the hormone oestrogen or targeted therapies like Herceptin. The research team analysed the genetic mutations inside the tumour to create a new way of classifying them.

By following women for 20 years, they are now able to show which types of breast cancer are more likely to come back.  “This is really biology-driven, it’s the molecular wiring of your tumour, said Prof Carlos Caldas. Once and for all we need to stop talking about breast cancer as one disease, it’s a constellation of 11 diseases. “This is a very significant step to more precision-type medicine.”

Source: https://www.bbc.com/

The Ionocraft, Insect-sized Drone That Flies Without Any Moving Parts

Developed by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, it’s not only described as the smallest flying robot ever made, but one which flies with zero moving parts: meaning no rotors, wings, or similar appendages. Instead, the insect-scale robot relies on atmospheric ion thrusters which allow it to move completely silently.

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To understand how it works, imagine two asymmetric — [such as] a wire and a plate — electrodes,” said Daniel Drew, currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Mechanical Engineering department at Stanford University. “When a voltage is applied between the two, the electric field will be stronger in the vicinity of the wire as a function of its geometry. If this field is strong enough, an ambient electron can be pulled in with enough kinetic energy to initiate avalanche breakdown through impact ionization. There’s now a stable plasma, glowing purple in the dark, around the top wire. Generated ions will be ejected from this plasma, drifting in the electric field towards the bottom electrode. Along the way, they collide with neutral air molecules and impart momentum, producing a net thrust.”

Source: https://people.eecs.berkeley.edu/
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Using Graphene, Munitions Go Further, Much Faster

Researchers from the U.S. Army and top universities discovered a new way to get more energy out of energetic materials containing aluminum, common in battlefield systems, by igniting aluminum micron powders coated with graphene oxide.

This discovery coincides with the one of the Army‘s modernization priorities: Long Range Precision Fires. This research could lead to enhanced energetic performance of metal powders as propellant/explosive ingredients in Army’s munitions.

Lauded as a miracle material, graphene is considered the strongest and lightest material in the world. It’s also the most conductive and transparent, and expensive to produce. Its applications are many, extending to electronics by enabling touchscreen laptops, for example, with light-emitting diode, or LCD, or in organic light-emitting diode, or OLED displays and medicine like DNA sequencing. By oxidizing graphite is cheaper to produce en masse. The result: graphene oxide (GO).

Scanning electron micrograph shows the Al/GO composite.

Although GO is a popular two-dimensional material that has attracted intense interest across numerous disciplines and materials applications, this discovery exploits GO as an effective light-weight additive for practical energetic applications using micron-size aluminum powders (µAl), i.e., aluminum particles one millionth of a meter in diameter.

The research team published their findings in the October edition of ACS Nano with collaboration from the RDECOM Research Laboratory, the Army’s corporate research laboratory (ARL), Stanford University, University of Southern California, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Argonne National Laboratory.

Source: https://www.arl.army.mil/