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Simpler Method Devised to Produce Malaria Drug

Giving anti-malaria drugs

Giving anti-malaria drugs in Angola, Africa (

16 March 2017. A biochemistry group in the U.K. developed simpler and potentially more efficient techniques for producing a first-line drug for treating malaria. Researchers from the lab of Cardiff University chemistry professor Rudolf Allemann describe their process in the 13 March issue of the journal Angewandte Chemie (paid subscription required).

Malaria, according to World Health Organization, affected 212 million people in 2015, which extracts heavy social and economic burdens in developing countries. In 2015, some 429,000 people died from malaria, of which 92 percent were in sub-Sahara Africa. Children under the age of 5 are particularly susceptible to the disease. Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes, but despite medical and other interventions such as insecticides and bed nets, the disease continues to plague many developing regions.

World Health Organization lists drugs with artemisinin as first-line treatments for uncomplicated malaria. The drug works by reducing the parasite load in the blood during the first 3 days of treatment, while companion drugs remove remaining parasites. Health authorities purchased some 334 courses of treatments with artemisinin in 2014, according to WHO, up from 11 million in 2005.

Artemisinin is derived from from the Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood, plant used in Chinese herbal treatments for fever for more than 2,000 years. Extracting a usable drug from the plant, however, requires an extended process that still yields limited outputs of usable compounds. Allemann’s lab studies the chemistry of terpenoids, a large group of compounds found in natural sources and extracted for drugs, as well as industrial and commercial products.

In their research, Allemann and colleagues applied these techniques to generate dihydroartemisnic aldehyde, a precursor chemical for producing artemisinin that today requires 13 separate steps beginning with plant-derived compounds. In those steps, a protein called amorphadiene synthase from the plant reacts with and oxidizes an intermediate compound, farnesyl diphosphate, to produce dihydroartemisnic aldehyde, from which artemisinin is made.

The Cardiff team instead developed a synthetic, partially oxidized form of farnesyl diphosphate, in effect cutting out the previous steps in the process. Beginning with this synthetic farnesyl diphosphate, making dihydroartemisnic aldehyde requires 4, rather than the original 13 steps.

The authors note that market prices for wormwood plants can fluctuate markedly, making it difficult for manufacturers to predict their costs for producing artemisinin. Allemann believes the group’s simpler, synthetic method can help solve that problem. “What we’re left with,” says Allemann in a university statement, “is a novel and powerful approach for producing the drug that does not rely on extraction from large amounts of plants. Our approach could reduce market fluctuations in the supply chain of artemisinin.”

WHO reports that parasites resistant to artemisinin began appearing in parts of southeast Asia, particularly along the Cambodia-Thailand border, where parasites now are resistant to almost all available antimalarial medicines. While the group’s research does not address resistance, Allemann feels the synthesis process offers a way of finding a solution. “Our production method is also generic,” adds Allemann, “and can be used to create analogues of artemisinin that might allow us to tackle malaria in a number of new ways.”

The following infographic outlines the study.

Synthesis process infographic

(Cardiff University)

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Medical Robotics Company Crowdfunding IPO

MyoPro device

MyoPro device (Myomo Inc.)

15 March 2017. A medical robotics company spun-off from labs at MIT is issuing its initial public stock offering through equity crowdfunding, aiming to raise $15 million. Myomo Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts aims to be the first company to both crowdfund its IPO and be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, under the symbol MYO.

Myomo develops assistive robotics devices for people with neurological disorders or upper limb paralysis. The newest form of the device, known as MyoPro, is a powered brace that makes it possible for individuals to move their impaired hand, wrist, or arm. MyoPro has sensors that detect weakened muscle signals, called myoelectric signals, which are amplified and activate motors in the device to move the hand, wrist, or arm as desired.

The company says the device is designed for individuals with neurological disorders that result in impaired upper limb functions, such as spinal cord injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. The MyoPro is a result of research supported by the Veterans Affairs Department in the U.S. beginning in the 1990s. That research led to a myoelectric prosthetic device prototype developed at MIT, which Myomo licensed in the form of two patents from the university in 2006.

Myomo plans to raise $15 million by issuing 2 million shares priced at $7.50, adding to $20 million already raised privately. Shares are being offered to the public through BANQ, an online marketplace for small-cap companies, those with small capitalization values. Myomo’s IPO takes advantage of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups, or JOBS Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2012. Regulation A+ under Title IV of the JOBS Act allows companies to issue crowdfunded mini-IPOs, raising under $50 million, to the public, with lower fees and fewer regulations than full-scale IPOs. Before 2015, equity crowdfunding campaigns were open only to accredited investors, those with a net worth of $1 million or more.

If successful, Myomo says it will be the first company with a crowdfunded IPO to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. “While a traditional public offering is generally reserved for large institutions and the Wall Street elite to invest at this stage,” says Paul Gudonis, CEO of Myomo in a company statement, “we are taking advantage of new SEC regulations to level the playing field for all investors to participate concurrently in our IPO.”

The company says proceeds from the IPO will fund sales and marketing, product development, repayment of debt, and for working capital and other general corporate purposes. The official offering lists a number of risks to investors, including adverse results of future clinical trials, introduction of competitive products, and reliance on third-party or Medicare reimbursement. In addition, Myomo outsources the manufacturing of MyoPro devices to a third party, another source of risk to investors.

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Software Aims to Boost Lab Results Reproducibility

Charles Fracchia

Charles Fracchia, founder and CEO of BrioBright (BioBright)

15 March 2017. A software package that claims to tackle a growing problem of the failure to reproduce results of scientific research, is being field tested in an academic lab. Initial results of the test indicate the software made by the Boston start-up enterprise BioBright also improves productivity in life science labs.

BioBright is a two year-old company developing software called Darwin that it says augments and extends the work of biologists to better document their actions as the work proceeds. This documentation, says BioBright, can help address a chronic and apparently growing problem of reproducibility in lab findings. A June 2015 study in the journal PLoS Biology estimates more than half of all preclinical research is irreproducible, with a total price tag of $28 billion.

In May 2016, the journal Nature published results from a survey of 1,576 scientists, with half (52%) calling the inability to reproduce results from other labs “a serious crisis.” More than 900 of respondents in the Nature survey came from biology or academic medical labs. Among respondents from biology and medicine, two-thirds to three-quarters say they failed to reproduce experiments done by other researchers, and at least half of the group admitted to failed attempts of reproducing their own results. One-third of respondents overall, including 4 in 10 in medicine, say they are taking concrete steps to counter the reproducibility problem, such as better documentation and standardization of experimental methods.

BioBright’s Darwin system collects data generated by lab instruments, while at the same time uses voice recognition to capture researchers’ verbal comments to help document their work. Transcripts of those comments can be retrieved later as needed. Researchers’ lab notes are traditionally recorded by hand, a process that can interrupt the work flow in a lab, and increase the amount of time required for experiments.

Bijan Pesaran, a neuroscientist at New York University, field tested the BioBright system in his NYU lab. Pesaran and colleagues study activities of neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain particularly their coordination to control human behavior, with implications for decision-making, speech, and brain-machine connections. The test, funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, suggests the software offers sizeable productivity benefits to his lab.

“BioBright tackled one of the central tasks in my lab, ” says Pesaran in a BioBright statement,” how we move electrodes to record brain activity in implantable systems. Due to the complexity of the experiment, we used to have two people working together. The BioBright system augments a single researcher to do the work of two with more than 20 times greater accuracy in positioning the electrodes.”

Charles Fracchia is the founder and CEO of BioBright. The company is a spin-off from MIT, where Fracchia is currently on leave from MIT’s Media Lab and the lab of geneticist George Church at Harvard Medical School’s Wyss Institute, a bioengineering lab.

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Allergan to Option Gene Editing for Eye Diseases

Gene editing illustration


14 Mar 2017. International drug maker Allergan is gaining access to treatments for inherited eye diseases being developed by Editas Medicine, a spin-off enterprise from MIT and Harvard. The deal brings Editas Medicine $90 million immediately, with more payments later on if Allergan decides to license and commercialize Editas’s technologies.

Editas Medicine was founded in 2013 in Cambridge, Massachusetts by geneticist Feng Zhang and colleagues from Broad Institute, a medical research center affiliated with Harvard University and MIT, to commercialize research from their labs on genome editing known as Crispr, short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Crispr is based on bacterial defense mechanisms that use ribonucleic acid or RNA to identify and monitor precise locations in DNA. The actual editing is done by proteins such as Cas9 or Cpf1.

Much of Editas Medicine’s current development is in inherited eye diseases, with the company’s lead program addressing Leber congenital amaurosis, an inherited disorder that results from mutations in at least 14 genes. The disease affects infants, occurring in 2 to 3 in 100,000 newborns, but is still considered one of the more common causes of blindness in children. Leber congenital amaurosis primarily affects the retina. causing severe visual impairment beginning in infancy.

The agreement gives Allergan, headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, an option to license Editas Medicine’s Crispr technology for Leber congenital amaurosis, now in preclinical testing. An option gives a licensing prospect an opportunity to review and decide whether to license a technology, usually for a fixed period of time. This deal also gives Allergan an option to license up to four other genome-editing treatments for eye disorders in development by Editas.

Under the agreement Allergan pays Editas Medicine an initial fee of $90 million for the option to license the 5 Crispr treatments. Should Allergan decide to license the technologies, it would be responsible for their subsequent product development and commercialization. However, Editas may co-develop and promote up to 2 of the programs being optioned. For each treatment licensed by Allergan, Editas will receive unspecified development and commercialization milestone payments, including near-term milestones for Leber congenital amaurosis.

Vision diseases are one of Allergan’s specialties, with therapies in development for dry eye disease, glaucoma, and retinal disorders. Editas’s treatment for Leber congenital amaurosis, says David Nicholson, chief R&D officer for Allergan in company statement, “is highly complementary to our ongoing eye care development programs where unmet medical need exists for patients.”

As reported by Science & Enterprise, Editas Medicine benefited from an important legal case in February, when a panel of administrative patent judges ruled Broad Institute’s Crispr technology does not interfere with techniques for genome editing created by University of California at Berkeley. Editas licenses its Crispr technology from Broad Institute.

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Mobile App Shown Feasible for Asthma Data

Asthma app screen shots

Screen shots of Asthma Mobile Health Study app (Mount Sinai School of Medicine)

14 March 2017. An academic-industry team found a smartphone app can reliably collect data from people with asthma about their conditions, but some limitations remain. Researchers from Mount Sinai medical school and mobile health systems company Lifemap Solutions, both in New York, report their findings in the 13 March issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology (paid subscription required).

The team led by Mount Sinai’s director of genomics Eric Schadt, who also has degrees in mathematics and computer science, evaluated a smartphone app developed by the medical school with Lifemap Solutions to collect data directly from people with asthma about their conditions, as well as their medications and environmental factors that may contribute to their experiences with the disorder. Asthma is a chronic condition where the airways become inflamed and narrow, causing people with asthma to experience wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and coughing for periods of time. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in 2010 some 18.7 million adults had asthma, along with 7 million children.

The mobile app, developed by Lifemap for Apple iPhones acts as a data collection tool as well as an educational medium about asthma in general and the user’s own condition. The app collects data on asthma symptoms, use of medications including inhalers, and medical attention received. The software also records input from participants from environmental conditions that trigger asthma attacks, such as colds, smoke, pollen, and animals. In addition, the iPhone’s activity tracker shares data on physical activity, which may also trigger attacks. The app was designed with Apple’s ResearchKit that provides modules for tracking activity, conducting surveys, and gaining user consent.

Mount Sinai began the study and introduced the app in March 2015, resulting in a flurry of nearly 50,000 downloads, but only a fraction of which — about 7,600 — in the U.S. actually enrolling in the study. The school reports the vast majority (85%) of study participants completed at least 1 survey presented by the app during the 6 month period, but only about 2,300 of those individuals completed multiple surveys, and are considered the hard-core group.

Schadt and colleagues collected data from app surveys, as well as locations of the participants from their iPhones, and simultaneous reports on air quality and pollen levels from those locations. The team correlated data from the app with the environmental reports, and compared the results with findings from existing asthma studies.

The authors conclude that mobile apps are a feasible way of collecting reliable information from individuals on chronic conditions, such as asthma. Data from the apps corroborated findings from local reports of heat and pollen, and matched peak air flow rates found in conventional studies. Even local hazards, such as dangerous air quality levels from wild fires in Washington State, correlated with increased asthma symptoms from the app.

“We now have the ability,” says Schadt in a Mount Sinai statement, “to capture rich research data from thousands of individuals to better characterize ‘real world’ patterns of disease, wellness, and behavior. This approach provides a more comprehensive and accurate view of our patients that was not feasible in the past due to logistical limitations and prohibitive costs.”

The authors still note some limitations with mobile apps, beginning with low retention rates and potential selection and reporting biases. In addition, maintaining security for data collected through the apps is a continuing concern.

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Report: More Biotech Regulations Needed, and Soon

Test tubes

(Makunin, Pixabay)

10 March 2017. A new report from the National Academies calls for a more robust and responsive regulatory system to handle an anticipated flood of biotechnology products. The report — published yesterday by a joint committee of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine — focuses on the state of federal regulatory mechanisms to address risks posed by developments in biotechnology over the next 5 to 10 years in products involving plants and animals, but excluding drugs and medical devices for humans.

The study by a group of 4 committees made up largely of academic experts, but also representatives of private enterprise and national laboratories, sought to determine the directions in biotechnology for the next 10 years, and provide a road map for agencies tasked with regulating these developments. The work was funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, and Environmental Protection Agency, but the study’s conclusions are expected to apply to other agencies involved in biotechnology.

The report, “Preparing for Future Products of Biotechnology,” indicates the biotech economy is growing quickly in both size and complexity, posing new kinds of risks for regulatory agencies to understand. The committees grouped new biotech developments into categories of open-release products, contained products, and platform technologies. Open-release products refers to genetically modified organisms like those found in new crop varieties, sterile insects, or mice engineered to find land mines. Contained products are organisms used to generate other products, such as genetically-engineered algae to produce chemicals or synthetic industrial enzymes. Platform technologies are methods and processes for developing biotech products, either wet-lab technologies like cloning kits, or dry-lab computerized tools, such as software. In some cases, platform technologies can combine wet- and dry-lab processes, such as organs-on-chips.

The committees concluded that the rate of change in biotechnology is accelerating at rate that threatens to leave current regulatory mechanisms behind. Not only is the quantity of new biotech discoveries increasing, the reach of these discoveries is extending into new types of organisms and biological processes, and in some cases, in disruptive ways. If agencies charged with regulating biotechnology expect to support innovation, protect public health, and reduce threats to the environment, says the report, they will need to gain the resources and expand their capabilities well beyond their current states.

The report cites as examples of new risks in biotechnology such as do-it-yourself bioengineering kits and genetically-modified organisms marketed directly to consumers. Tools for detecting and analyzing these risks may not yet be in place, nor in some cases are legal authorities clearly indicated. A new consumer biotech product, for example, may fall outside the jurisdiction of USDA, FDA, or EPA, and may need to be addressed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

At the same time, regulatory agencies still need to promote and not stifle innovation in biotechnology. Mechanisms for risk analysis need to be clear and straightforward for industry and make sense to consumers, if agencies expect to continue to have the confidence of their stakeholders.

The committees recommend increasing the qualitative capabilities of regulatory agencies to match the increasing speed and complexity of biotech developments, including new tools and expertise in the natural and social sciences, as well as regulatory processes. The report calls for the USDA, FDA, and EPA to conduct more pilot tests of ecological risk assessments to better understand novel and unfamiliar developments, and to prototype new approaches for assessing their risks.

In addition, the report calls on other government bodies that fund research in biotechnology to also increase their investments in regulatory research, as well as education for scientists and the public in biotechnology. The report specifically names National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and National Institute of Standards and Technology to take on these tasks.

“The rate at which biotechnology products are introduced – and the types of products — are expected to significantly increase in the next 5 to 10 years,” says joint committee chair Richard Murray,  a bioengineering professor at California Institute of Technology in a National Academies statement, “and federal agencies need to prepare for this growth. We hope this report will support agency efforts to effectively evaluate these future products in ways that ensure public safety, protect the environment, build public confidence, and support innovation.”

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Univ. Spin-Off Develops Head Impact Sports Sensor

Rugby scrum

(Skeeze, Pixabay)

9 March 2017. Two chemistry faculty in Michigan developed a simple sensor that measures the force and shows the location of head impacts in contact sports. Marcos Dantus and Gary Blanchard, professors  in the chemistry department at Michigan State University, also started a company in Okemos, Michigan to develop the product they call Rosh Sensors, now in products offered for sale.

Dantus and Blanchard sought a simple and inexpensive way for parents, coaches, and trainers in sports like American football, rugby, and lacrosse to identify potentially dangerous blows to the heads of young athletes. Speed and simplicity were two key factors in designing their solution. These sports are played outdoors in all types of weather, where mud and sweat can make electronic sensors unusable.

“Other monitors are available,” says Blanchard in a university statement, “but they can be expensive and overly sensitive to weather and other extreme conditions experienced during competition. Many times these models have to be connected to a computer, have the data downloaded and then have it analyzed before any recommendations regarding concussion protocols can begin.”

The sensor is printed into a strip of treated paper that fits into a headband or cap worn by itself or under a helmet. If the impact on the athlete’s head has enough force, one or more stars appear on the strip. Since the strip wraps around the head, the position of the appearing stars can also indicate the location of the impact. Both of these indicators can alert a parent, coach, or trainer that the athlete should go through a formal concussion diagnostic protocol.

The inventors stress that the sensor does not diagnose a concussion. But the sensor can provide an early alert that a concussion may have occurred, to prevent further head impacts that can compound the initial damage. Preventing this so-called second impact syndrome, can also prevent serious injury, but most athletes don’t enjoy being sidelined and coaches want to be able to use all of their available players. “The key decision that our product can help address,” notes Dantus, “is ‘return to play.’”

Once they developed the basic sensor, Dantus and Blanchard went through dozens of headband prototypes before settling on a design similar to one worn today by athletes. The inventors made the strategic decision to outsource production of the sensors, headbands, and caps, which made it possible to concentrate on developing the product and getting it on the market, which they accomplished in 18 months.

Consumers can order the headband and cap from the Rosh Sensors web site for under $40.00, but the company is introducing the product deliberately through high school teams in Michigan. As scientists, the inventors are still collecting data on causes of head impacts (e.g., hard tackles or head hitting the turf), whether head impacts recorded by the sensor correlate to concussion diagnostics, and how sensor results influence decisions by parents, coaches, and team doctors. Results from these early adopters are expected to help further product design and development.

The company is also getting help from former Michigan State and NFL linebacker Brian McConnell, now chief operating officer of the company HPN Neurologic developing treatments for sports concussions. McConnell is recruiting other NFL alumni to encourage use of the sensors in California high schools.

“First concussions are a problem,” says McConnell, “but a second one soon after the first has the potential to do more damage. So, if you can tell someone to sit out after the first one and allow them to recover, then you’ll go a long way toward preserving their life, their health.”

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Inexpensive Pumps Devised for Portable Labs-on-Chips

Hydraulic battery

‘Hydraulic battery’ shown here pumping fluid through a simple microchannel, with images taken 12 minutes apart. (Glenn Walker, North Carolina State University)

9 March 2017. An engineering lab developed an inexpensive pump without electric power for lab-on-a-chip devices, making these systems more portable for diagnostics. Researchers from a joint biomedical engineering lab at North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina describe the pumps in an article published in late February 2017 in the journal World Scientific Technology (free registration required).

The pumps are the work of the lab in Raleigh led by biomedical engineering professor Glenn Walker that studies microfluidic, or lab-on-a-chip devices for testing and patient monitoring. Among the devices in development by Walker and colleagues are chips to replicate the microenvironment or support system for cancerous tumors, and monitor parathyroid hormone levels among people with overactive thyroid glands. Microfluidic devices, however, require fluids to be pumped through the fine microchannels in their chips, which today also require power sources and control functions.

When microfluidic devices are used in a hospital or clinic, external power is not a problem. When taken into the field to the point of care, however, the pumping devices need a power source, such as batteries, that add weight, cost, and complexity to the systems. “Portability is important, because it makes new applications possible, such as diagnostic tools that can be used in the field,” says Walker in a North Carolina State statement. “Electric pumps, and tubing to connect them, are fine for a laboratory environment, but those aren’t easy to take with you.”

Providing power is only part of the problem. Pumping systems on microfluidic devices also need to start, stop, and adjust their flow rates on demand. The Carolina team calls its solution for these functions an hydraulic battery, another name for the capillary action of water through paper, where fluids such as blood are drawn into minute empty pores by their surface tension. In the team’s microfluidic pumps, the pores are 125 microns across, where 1 micron equals 1 millionth of a meter.

Control functions are designed or programmed into the paper. Two-dimensional pores make it possible to turn pumps off and on by attaching or detaching the paper to the chip. But more complex functions can be programmed with three-dimensional designs, where individual paper pumps are stacked and integrated. In their paper, the team demonstrates various control functions of flow rates, including step changes, as well as ramping and oscillating flows.

The researchers designed the paper pump as an attachment to microfluidic chips, with its low cost as a highly desirable feature. The pump is made from commercial chromatography paper used to separate chemical components in the lab, with the sheets laminated to prevent evaporation. The team estimates those materials cost about $0.07 per pump. The low cost means it’s disposable, but its detachable nature also makes it possible to save the fluid sample in the paper for analysis later on.

The lab filed a patent application for the technology and is seeking industry partners to take the technology to market. “Our hydraulic battery is small, lightweight, very inexpensive, easy to connect to a device and disposable,” adds Walker. “We’re optimistic that it could make a difference in both public health and advancing fundamental research.”

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Trial Shows Bioactive Glass Stops Bone Infections

Implanting bioactive glass granules

Implanting bioactive glass granules (BonAlive Biomaterials Ltd.)

8 March 2017. Grafts of glass-based substitute material were shown in a clinical trial to stop bacterial bone infections from osteomyelitis, in most cases without additional antibiotics. Results of the study were reported in January 2017 as part of the Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology series published by Springer.

The study, led by Nina Lindfors, a professor of surgery at University of Helsinki, tested the bioactive glass product code-named BAG-S53P4 by BonAlive Biomaterials Ltd. in Turku, Finland among patients with chronic osteomyelitis. The condition often results from trauma, where infections spread from nearby tissue or through the blood stream, to longer bones in the arms or legs. Infections can also affect bones in the feet as a result of diabetic foot ulcers.

BonAlive designs BAG-S53P4 as granules for surgical implants for grafts to fill voids in infected bones. The product, says BonAlive, is made with materials found in the body including silicon, sodium, calcium, and phosphorous. When bioactive glass comes in contact with fluids in the body, sodium is released from the granules’ surfaces causing an increase in pH, which discourages bacterial growth. The release of silicon, calcium, and phosphorous ions, along with sodium, also increases osmotic pressure in the bone, further inhibiting growth of bacteria.

At the same time, says the company, bioactive glass forms a silica gel layer on the surface of granules to receive calcium phosphate precipitation, which crystallizes into bone-like material. This crystallized calcium phosphate bonds with surrounding bone in the patient to fill voids caused by the infections.

For the study, Linford and colleagues recruited 116 individuals in 6 countries in Europe and central Asia with chronic osteomyelitis, age 15 to 87 (median: 48), with infections in their tibia or femur bones in the leg, or heel bones. Many patients already received previous surgeries, in some cases for as long as a decade. Most (85%) participants received only the BAG-S53P4 granules, with the remainder first being treated with antibiotics. The results show nearly all (90%) participants reported total clearance of their infections, followed by a full recovery.

“The use of bioglass is a new approach without local antibiotics, thus the risk of creating resistant bacteria is reduced and the bone has a good template to grow,” says Arnold Suda, an orthopedic surgeon at Mannheim University Medical Center in Germany, and a co-author of the study. “With the amount of refugees with rare and very aggressive bacteria from the near east, Africa or Afghanistan, antibiotic treatment encounters its limits and bioglass seems to be an effective opportunity in these cases.”

BonAlive bioactive glass granules are used in smaller sizes for facial bone reconstruction. The product is used in neuro, trauma, orthopedic, and ear surgery for both adults and children. The company says some 10,000 surgeries used bioactive glass last year.

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Nanotech Gel Designed to Treat Snake Bites

Western diamondback rattlesnake

Western diamondback rattlesnake (H. Krisp, Wikimedia Commons)

8 March 2017. A team from University of California in Irvine developed a snake bite treatment that in lab tests stops venom more effectively and at lower cost than current antidotes. Researchers in the lab of chemistry professor Ken Shea published their findings in December 2016 in Journal of the American Chemical Society (paid subscription required).

Shea’s lab studies synthetic chemicals, in this case as polymers formulated into nanoscale particles that can neutralize the toxins in snake venom. The UC-Irvine team cites data showing some 4.5 million people worldwide are bitten by snakes each year, with more than half suffering serious injuries, leading to an estimated 100,000 deaths. Many of the snake bite victims are farm workers in low-resource regions of India and Africa.

Current treatments require intravenous infusions at hospitals or clinics that can cost up to $100,000. In addition, many treatments target specific types of venom or species. The UC-Irvine researchers, led by doctoral student and first author Jeffrey O’Brien are seeking a more readily available and less expensive alternative that can treat a wide range of toxic bites.

In their solution, O’Brien and colleagues address a group of phospholipase A2 or PLA2 proteins found in a number of venomous snakes including cobras and kraits in Asia and Africa, and pit vipers in North America. These enzymes break down the outer membranes of cells enabling the rapid spread of toxins in the body. The team applied techniques developed earlier to treat bee stings, which mix synthetic antidote chemicals formulated into nanoparticles for a gel material that can be easily transported and spread on affected areas.

The researchers in this case synthesized antibodies usually generated from venom injected in horses and extracted from their blood, a process that can take weeks and is illegal in the U.S. The team formulated the antibodies into nanoparticles and mixed the particles in hydrogels, networks of material that contain primarily water, but maintain enough substance to form into 3-D gelatinous structures.

Tests in lab dishes with human blood serum show the hydrogel binds to the PLA2 proteins, preventing them from breaking down red blood cell membranes. The tests show the toxins are absorbed into the nanoparticles, and sequestered from blood cells, preventing the toxins from causing harm.

“Current anti-venom is very specific to certain snake types,” says O’Brien in a university statement. “Ours seems to show broad-spectrum ability to stop cell destruction across species on many continents, and that is quite a big deal.”

The researchers say they learned since publication of the study their process could also be applied to scorpion and some spider bites. The university filed for patents on the technology, and the lab is seeking funds for clinical trials and product development. The U.S. military that financed early stages of the lab’s research is seen as a major potential market, particularly since snake bite kits can be made at a fraction of the cost of current antidotes.

“The military has platoons in the tropics and sub-Saharan Africa, and there are a variety of toxic snakes where they’re traipsing around,” notes Shea. “If soldiers are bitten, they don’t have a hospital nearby; they’ve got a medic with a backpack. They need something they can use in the field to at least delay the spread of the venom.”

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