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Can synthetic biology protect us from coronavirus? And the next one?

The National Institutes of Health hopes synthetic biology can engineer vaccines that outperform nature.

(Photo: U.S. Department of State)
  • The first coronavirus vaccines will enter Phase 2 testing soon but won't be ready for another 18 months.
  • Synthetic biology may offer a "universal coronavirus vaccine" that can be quickly modified to combat future mutated forms.
  • Despite promising lab tests, synthetic vaccines remain speculative; we'll need to live with COVID-19 during the interim.

    The world was not prepared for coronavirus. Despite the clarion calls that were the SARS and MERS outbreaks and early warnings from doctors, governments had neither the policies nor equipment in place to impede COVID-19's spread from a Chinese animal market.

    The United States' strategy was to impose a medical bubble of travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines. "We have contained this. I won't say airtight but pretty close to airtight," White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said last month—despite contrary warnings from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials.

    At that time, there were a handful of known cases. As of March 11, more than 1,000 people across 38 states have tested positive for the disease.

    For many hope lies in the development of a vaccine, but while the first vaccines should enter Phase 2 testing by summer, that leaves an efficacy-tested product months away. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, estimates the first vaccines won't be ready for "a year to a year-and-a-half."

    As companies hurry to test potential vaccines, the National Institute of Health (NIH) is hoping new bio-engineering techniques to help us restrain coronavirus—and its next mutation, too.

    Engineering a solution

    ​A synthetic biology research laboratory at NASA Ames.

    (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported by Sharon Begley in STAT, NIH is looking toward synthetic biology for the next advancement in vaccination development. This research is funded, in part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's $100 million commitment to strengthening global "detection, isolation, and treatment efforts" directed at COVID-19.

    In synthetic biology, scientists re-engineer organisms to sport new abilities or biological purposes. They do this by stitching together strands of DNA and inserting them into an organism's genome. This artisanal DNA can come from other organisms or be a completely original strand.

    Scientists begin the process by engineering nanoparticles out of proteins. Using a computational algorithm, they experiment with a million variants to discover the optimal structure. This structure not only allows the nanoparticle to house the viral antigens, but arranges those antigens for maximal arousal of the body's immune response.

    After lab-crafting DNA to code for the nanoparticle, the scientists place it in E. coli bacteria. Once the bacteria begin manufacturing the desired protein, it is extracted, purified, and studded with viral antigens.

    "If tests in lab animals of the first such nanoparticle vaccine are any indication, it should be more potent than either old-fashioned viral vaccines like those for influenza or the viral antigens on their own (without the nanoparticle)," Begley writes.

    According to Lynda Stuart, immunologist and physician who directs the Gates Foundation's vaccine research, synbio vaccines may have advantages beyond potency. The increased immune response could eliminate the need for adjuvants (additives used to boost said response). They could reduce the need for refrigeration, making deployment to poor countries easier. And they could be designed to house antigens from several viruses, making one vaccine capable of fighting multiple diseases.

    The ability to take past viral designs and quickly retrofit them to new, mutated forms of a virus could also reduce the development time for new, necessary vaccines.

    "We may need an approach that can get you millions and even billions of doses," Stuart told STAT.

    Synbio vaccines are still in the preliminary phases, and more traditional vaccines won't be available for months. During the interim, the virus will continue to spread, and its novelty means we'll need to encounter it before our bodies can build immunity. Many will become sick, but few will develop serious illness.

    As Nancy Messonnier, director for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, notes in the video above, the disease affects older adults most seriously. The greatest risk is faced by people over the age of 80 and those with underlying health conditions.

    Without a vaccine to curb its spread, it will be up to us to do what we can to maintain our health and prevent spreading the disease.

    Wash your hands. Americans are awful when it comes to hand hygiene, but it's one of the best ways to prevent the spread of disease. Wet your hands with warm water, lather them with soap, and scrub them all over for 20 seconds. Rinse your hands, and finish with a paper towel or air dry.

    Hand sanitizers can work, but they have to be rubbed in for 20 seconds and contain at least 60 percent alcohol. You should also sanitize frequent-contact surfaces like smartphone screens.

    Stay home if you are sick. It's good advice in general as your fellow students and coworkers don't need you to share your lung grimes. But it's especially important to do so if you have coronavirus symptoms. If your symptoms become serious, contact a doctor for instructions and the next steps.

    Limit potential exposure. If you are at higher risk, you'll want to avoid crowds as much as possible, especially in poorly ventilated places. You should also avoid non-essential plane travel.

    Have supplies on hand. You don't need a doomsday prepper's supply, but make sure you have a two-week supply of the essentials on-hand in case you get sick and have to stay in. If you have an underlining medical condition, ensure you have enough medication on hand.

    Face masks. If you are healthy, you likely do not need to wear a face mask for protection. The CDC advises face mask use for people who have COVID-19, are showing symptoms, and do so under the recommendation of a healthcare professional as it may prevent them from spreading the disease to others. Wearing a face mask needlessly limits the necessary supply available to health and care providers.

    Stay informed. Visit the CDC's coronavirus website for situation updates and information on the virus. Don't rely on hearsay or social media to inform you about local conditions. Monitor your state and local health department websites instead for accurate, reliable information.

    How accountability at work can transform your organization

    If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

    Videos
    • What is accountability? It's a tool for improving performance and, once its potential is thoroughly understood, it can be leveraged at scale in any team or organization.
    • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
    • Learn to recognize the mindset of accountable versus unaccountable people, then use Shideh's guided exercise as a template for your next post-project accountability analysis—whether that project was a success or it fell short, it's equally important to do the reckoning.

    What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

    Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

    Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

    Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
    Strange Maps
    • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
    • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
    • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
    Keep reading Show less

    Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

    The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

    An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

    Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
    Surprising Science
    • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
    • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
    • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
    Keep reading Show less

    A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

    A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

    Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
    Surprising Science
    • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
    • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
    • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

    A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

    The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

    So, em...

    Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

    In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

    Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

    The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

    Celestial sleuthing

    In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

    Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

    Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

    Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

    Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

    Or...

    A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

    LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

    Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

    The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

    "Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
    (1) a surviving star or
    (2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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