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The world now has an Ebola vaccine, in historic EU approval

The vaccine is 97.5% effective in protecting against the Zaire species of Ebola, according to the World Health Organization.

Ebola virus

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • The European Medicines Agency granted special approval for an Ebola vaccine called Ervebo.
  • Ervebo has proven remarkably effective in clinical trials conducted in Africa.
  • An Ebola outbreak has killed more than 2,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo since August 2018.


Health regulators in Europe have issued the world's first approval for a vaccine against Ebola, and it's estimated to become widely available in 2020.

The European Medicines Agency granted a conditional marketing authorization this week that allows the U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck to market the vaccine, called Ervebo. Conditional marketing authorizations help to fast-track the approval process for drugs and therapies that treat "unmet medical needs." That's important when fighting often-deadly viral diseases like Ebola.

Since August 2018, Ebola has killed more than 2,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Besides the 2014 West African outbreak that killed more than 11,000 people, the 2018 DRC outbreak is so far the deadliest on record. And the number of cases continues to rise. But experimental vaccination programs have helped curb infection rates. In these programs, Ervebo was strikingly effective, showing an estimated protective efficacy of 97.5 percent, as the World Health Organization reported in April.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

"Finding a vaccine as soon as possible against this terrible virus has been a priority for the international community ever since Ebola hit West Africa five years ago," Vytenis Andriukaitis, commissioner in charge of Health and Food Safety at the EU's European Commission, said in a statement. "Today's decision is therefore a major step forward in saving lives in Africa and beyond."

Ervebo protects against a particularly infectious ebolavirus species called Zaire, one of four species known to infect humans. Zaire can also infect animals, like macaques. In 2005, researchers at the Public Health Agency of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory developed an Ebola vaccine that protected macaques 100 percent of the time. But lack of funding and regulatory hurdles meant it'd take years, maybe decades, to prove the vaccine was safe and effective in humans.

Then the 2014 West African outbreak struck. With the need for an effective vaccine made clear, Merck obtained the license to Ervebo, known as rVSV-ZEBOV-GP, and soon the vaccine was being administered to people in Guinea as part of a clinical trial. The vaccination strategy there was to inoculate people who'd been in contact with others who'd been infected with Ebola. This is called ring vaccination.

But while ring vaccination was effective in preventing the spread of Zaire, it remains unclear just how long the protective effects last. That's a critical question for, say, health workers who get vaccinated to protect themselves against infection that might occur months later. There are also other ebolavirus species that other vaccines would need to address, such as the deadly Sudan species.

In addition to the conditional marketing authorization issued by the European Medicines Agency, the World Health Organization has "prequalified" the Ervebo, meaning it meets standards for safety and efficacy.

"[Prequalification] is a historic step towards ensuring the people who most need it are able to access this life-saving vaccine," WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in the announcement. "Five years ago, we had no vaccine and no therapeutics for Ebola. With a prequalified vaccine and experimental therapeutics, Ebola is now preventable and treatable."

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration is expected to decide on approval in March 2020.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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