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.
- 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.
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.
- Why public health officials sound more worried about the ... ›
- How does coronavirus compare to the flu? - Big Think ›
- How to deal with the age of the coronavirus - Big Think ›
- Dr. Fauci: We could have Covid-19 vaccine by end of 2020 - Big Think ›
- Russia claims world's first COVID-19 vaccine - Big Think ›
Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.
University of Utah research finds that men are especially well suited for fisticuffs.
- With males having more upper-body mass than women, a study looks to find the reason.
- The study is based on the assumption that men have been fighters for so long that evolution has selected those best-equipped for the task.
- If men fought other men, winners would have survived and reproduced, losers not so much.
Built for mayhem<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzk4NTQ2OX0.my6nML12F3fEQu3H4G0BScdqgaMZkRQHxgyj-Cmjmzk/img.jpg?width=980" id="906fc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd77af7a881631355ed8972437846394" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers are, of course, talking averages here, not stating a rule: There are plenty of accomplished female pugilists, as well as lots of males who have no idea how to throw a punch.</p><p>Even so, says co-author <a href="https://www.wofford.edu/academics/majors-and-programs/biology/faculty-and-staff" target="_blank">Jeremy Morris</a> says, "The general approach to understanding why sexual dimorphism evolves is to measure the actual differences in the muscles or the skeletons of males and females of a given species, and then look at the behaviors that might be driving those differences."</p><p>Carrier has been interested in the idea that millennia of male fighting has shaped certain structures in male bodies. Previous research has reinforced his hunch:</p> <ul> <li><a href="https://jeb.biologists.org/content/216/2/236" target="_blank">When a hand is formed into a fist, its structure is self-protective</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://unews.utah.edu/flat-footed-fighters/" target="_blank">Heels planted firmly on the ground augment upper-body power</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24909544" target="_blank">A study examined facial bone structure as being especially well-suited for taking a punch</a>.</li> </ul> <p>(That last one is our favorite. Do you know the German word "<a href="https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Backpfeifengesicht" target="_blank">backpfeifengesicht</a>?" It's an adjective describing "a face that badly needs a punching.")</p><p>"One of the predictions that comes out of those," asserts Carrier, "is if we are specialized for punching, you might expect males to be particularly strong in the muscles that are associated with throwing a punch."</p>
Testing the theory<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIzMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzMxMTE2MH0.UXJICMy57UPYUWskhK98alctOrPidJL9yxMkz3HDQrM/img.jpg?width=980" id="98718" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b12287684ac3e740b70392e6433a6b8f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers measured the punching — and spear-throwing — force of 20 men and 19 women. The assumption was that early humans were punchers <em>and</em> spear-throwers.</p><p>Prior to testing, each participant had filled out an activity questionnaire so that "we weren't getting couch potatoes, we were getting people that were very fit and active," says Morris.</p><p>For punching, participants operated a hand crank that required movement similar to throwing a haymaker. The purpose of the hand crank was to spare participants any damage that might be inflicted on their fists by throwing actual punches. Subjects were also measured pulling a line forward over their heads to assess their strength at throwing a spear.</p><p>Even though all of the participants, male and female, were routinely fit, the average power of males was assessed as being 162% greater than females. There were no gender differences in throwing strength recorded. Other untested, though presumably likely, hand-to-hand combat activities come to mind including tackling, clubbing, running, kicking, scratching, and biting.</p><p>Carrier's takeaway: "This is a dramatic example of sexual dimorphism that's consistent with males becoming more specialized for fighting, and males fighting in a particular way, which is throwing punches."</p>
Boys will be boys<p>It, er, strikes us as odd that, even in science fiction — hi-tech weaponry notwithstanding — the hero <em>is</em> going to wind up duking it out with some bad guy, or alien, in the climactic battle. What is it about men punching, anyway? Are they more sexually attractive? The study suggests so:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>The results of this study add to a set of recently identified characters indicating that sexual selection on male aggressive performance has played a role in the evolution of the human musculoskeletal system and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in hominins.</em></p><p>It's tough to contribute to the gene pool after being killed in battle.</p><p>Also, while the authors aren't <em>quite</em> saying that males' historical fighting role is mandated by biology and not by social expectations, neither are they quite <em>not</em> saying it.</p><p>As Carrier explain to <a href="https://attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/carrier-punch/" target="_blank">theU</a>: "Human nature is also characterized by avoiding violence and finding ways to be cooperative and work together, to have empathy, to care for each other, right? There are two sides to who we are as a species. If our goal is to minimize all forms of violence in the future, then understanding our tendencies and what our nature really is, is going to help."</p>
Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
Cool hand rebuke<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyMTIyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjY1NTYyOH0.0MCPKN3If94mYCNf3mMNrnTvJXjXN_bKLhgk9203EXk/img.jpg?width=917&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=453" id="1627b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6d76421ba1ea0de4b09956b97e80c384" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.