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Infographic – Numbers of Atlantic Hurricanes

Infographic: Stormy Season I: Number of Hurricanes Since 1967 | Statista You will find more statistics at Statista

9 September 2017. Here in the U.S., we’re trying to recover from Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, while preparing as best we can for Irma in Florida. Our thoughts and best wishes go out to the residents of those regions. Our friends at Statista prepared a chart yesterday that gives the number of hurricanes in the Atlantic from 1967 through 2015, divided between smaller storms in categories 1-2 and larger storms in categories 3-5.

We look forward to going back to reporting on venture funding and biotechnology.

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University, Drug Maker Partner on Suicide Genetics

Map: Risk of suicide by state

Risk of suicide by state. Click on map for full-size image. Source: CDC (University of Utah Health)

8 September 2017. Pharmaceutical company Janssen Research and Development and University of Utah Health in Salt Lake City are studying genetic factors linked to higher suicide risks. Financial and intellectual property aspects of the collaboration were not disclosed.

The initiative aims to build on earlier work by Utah research professor Hilary Coon, a specialist in psychiatry and biomedical informatics, who heads the Utah Suicide Genetics Project and is co-leader of the partnership. That study is looking into genetic variations associated with suicide in more than 3,500 DNA samples from suicide victims in Utah. The samples are linked to data in the Utah Population Database that collects medical, demographic, and genealogical information. In that project, researchers are seeking genetic variations associated with suicide, while controlling for other psychiatric and physical disorders.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide took the lives of nearly 43,000 people in the U.S. in 2014, or 13.4 deaths per 100,000 population, making it the 10th leading cause of death. Firearms account for about half of all suicides. According to 2015 data, Utah is one of the top 5 states in suicide rate, at about 23.5 per 100,000.

The joint project will investigate genetic clues in large extended families with unusually high rates of suicide, by finding associations between genetic variations and characteristic behavioral traits. The university and state’s medical examiner’s office say they can mine the database while protecting the privacy of suicide victims and their families by removing names, dates of birth, or other individual identifiers.

The researchers note that suicide and mental illness are often studied together, but many people with mental illness do not die of suicide. Therefore identifying genetic factors could provide ways of predicting which individuals are most at risk and take actions earlier to prevent a tragic outcome.

Coon notes in a university statement that this strategy could lead to new drugs or make existing medications more readily available for people deemed at higher risk of suicide. “We believe this work may help us identify high-risk groups for better, more targeted therapies and interventions to reduce the incidence of suicide.”

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Disclosure: The author owns shares in Johnson & Johnson, parent company of Janssen R&D.

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NIH Funds Heart Tissue Regeneration Tests in Pigs

Kevin Strange and Voot Yin

Kevin Strange, left, and Voot Yin are inventors of MSI-1436 (MDI Biological Laboratory)

8 September 2017. An experimental drug to help grow new heart tissue after a heart attack is advancing to tests in pigs, with help from National Institutes of Health. Novo Biosciences Inc., developer of the drug, was awarded a two-year, $1.5 million Small Business Innovation Research grant from National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of NIH.

Novo Biosciences is a spin-off company from MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, founded in 2013 by lab scientists Kevin Strange and Viravuth (Voot) Yin, now the company’s CEO and chief scientist respectively. The company’s drug, code-named MSI-1436, is derived from a naturally occurring compound that inhibits a protein known as tyrosine phosphatase 1B. This protein inactivates an enzyme that regulates innate tissue repair and regeneration.

The drug, in this case, is designed to stimulate heart muscle cells called cardiomyocytes that repair heart tissue damage from heart attacks. That damage is often replaced by scar tissue, which prevents the heart from beating in its normal rhythm. In tests with lab mice induced with damage similar to a heart attack, recipients of MSI-1436 reduced the amount of scar tissue, improved heart function, reduced the thinning of heart walls, increased production of cardiomyocytes, and increased survival times. The company says MSI-1436 was also well-tolerated in early-stage clinical trials of its safety in patients with type 2 diabetes and obesity.

As reported in Science & Enterprise, MDI Biological Laboratory received a patent on the technology to treat heart disease in August 2016. The patent is shared with Michael Zasloff of the MedStar-Georgetown Transplant Institute at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.

The drug still needs to be tested in animals with hearts more like humans, thus the tests with pigs, whose hearts are similar in size and function. Novo Biosciences proposes measuring effects of the drug on restoring heart functions with echocardiograms that provide images of the heart with ultrasound. The tests with pigs will be structured much like clinical trials, where the animals will be randomly assigned to receive either MSI-1436 or a placebo, and the lab researchers not aware if they are administering the test drug or the placebo. A cardiovascular team at Louisiana State University in New Orleans will conduct the tests.

“If the pig study is successful, Novo Biosciences will seek investors to move the potential drug through the multi-stage clinical trial process,” says Yin in an MDI statement. “If MSI-1436 shows results in humans that are anything like what we have demonstrated in mice, it will be a game-changer for patients who have suffered a heart attack.”

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Wearable-Implant Diagnostics Device in Development

Circuit graphic

(Gerd Altmann, Pixabay)

7 September 2017. A university engineering lab is developing a device combining a sensor chip implanted under the skin and wrist band to diagnose serious diseases and transmit the data. The three-year project, led by University at Buffalo electrical engineering professor Josep Jornet, is funded by a $1 million grant from National Science Foundation.

Jornet and colleagues seek to extend the ability of common wearable devices like wrist bands to capture and transmit more vital medical data, particularly when coupled with sensors that can screen for diseases. So far, wearable devices are useful for capturing basic indicators of fitness or overall health, with their value expanded by transmission to the cloud and combining those results with others. Adapting this technology for more detailed medical data is limited by the state of current monitoring devices that tend to be too large or heavy for practical use.

The Buffalo team is instead proposing implanted sensors under the skin that analyze an individual’s blood for indicators of serious disease. The sensors can then send wireless signals to a wrist band that like today’s fitness bands can relay the data to a smartphone, for further analysis or transmission to the cloud. The researchers underscore that a system of this kind would be used only in cases where there’s a high risk of the disease, from previous cases or family history, for example.

“We are developing an integrated system,” says Jornet in a university statement, “that will provide a faster and more accurate way to diagnose and monitor diseases than conventional technologies by leveraging the state-of-the-art in nano-bio-photonics and wireless communications.”

The key new element in this system is the implanted sensor. The researchers propose advancing optical detectors with metallic nanoparticles fit into a tiny gold biochip, about 10 microns square, that read variations in light waves to determine the absence or presence of specific proteins in the blood. The team is also studying ways to optimize the performance of the chip inside human tissue, and more general human factors in the system design, such as the longevity of the chip over time.

Another key element is the system’s software, including a set of algorithms written to calibrate, collect, and process the optical signals, residing in the wrist band. The project includes routines to convert the signals to meaningful data and share the information with health care providers.

For this project, the targets are indicators of lung cancer, with Roswell Park Cancer Institute, a cancer research center in Buffalo, as one of the partner organizations. The other partners are Intel Corporation and Garwood Medical Devices, also in Buffalo, a developer of medical implants for wound healing. Jornet is one of a team of researchers that works with Garwood.

The researchers will also develop an entire test environment for the system. The Buffalo team expects to test the chips in the lab with blood samples from people with lung cancer, as well as test in tissue samples and with cadavers.

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MIT, IBM Open Artificial Intelligence Lab

Artificial intelligence graphic

(Gerd Altmann, Pixabay)

7 September 2017. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and IBM are establishing a joint lab to advance the state of knowledge and business impact of artificial intelligence. The lab, in Cambridge, Massachusetts near the MIT campus, is backed by $240 million in funding from IBM over 10 years.

The MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab expects to conduct basic and applied research in artificial intelligence in four categories it calls pillars:

Advanced algorithms to expand machine learning and reasoning. The new algorithms plan to go beyond specialized tasks addressed today to more complex tasks requiring higher orders of learning, and using smaller stores of data than the large-scale databases now tapped.

Physics behind artificial intelligence. Researchers will investigate new materials and devices to support future computational architectures, including quantum computing for artificial intelligence. In these studies, research teams are expected to both use artificial intelligence to advance quantum computing, as well as apply quantum computing concepts to build algorithms for machine learning.

Artificial intelligence in industries. This part of the lab will develop new applications for artificial intelligence in fields such as health care and cyber security. These two fields overlap in the need to better protect medical data, but artificial intelligence can also help analyze medical images as well as personalize medical plans and treatments for patients.

Economic implications of artificial intelligence. Researchers expect to examine ways of expanding social and economic benefits of artificial intelligence to more people, companies, communities, and nations.

In a related effort, researchers in the joint lab, both faculty and students, will be encouraged to start new enterprises to commercialize their findings. The lab’s 100 scientists are also expected to publish their work and contribute to open-source collections.

In an online interview, Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of MIT’s School of Engineering who negotiated the deal with IBM says, “The project will support many different pursuits, from scholarship, to the licensing of technology, to the release of open-source material, to the creation of start-ups. We hope to use this new lab as a template for many other interactions with industry.”

The joint lab plans to issue a call for proposals to scientists at IBM and MIT for ideas related to the four research pillars. Chandrakasan co-chairs the lab with Dario Gil, a research vice-president at IBM responsible for artificial intelligence.

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Disclosure: The author owns shares in IBM

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Start-Up Lands $10M for Gene-Editing HIV Treatments

HIV particles infecting human T cell

Scanning electron micrograph of HIV particles infecting a human T cell (NIH.gov)

6 September 2017. A new enterprise developing treatments using gene editing to eliminate HIV infections received $10 million in its seed funding round. Excision BioTherapeutics, a spin-off company from Temple University in Philadelphia, says its technology has the potential to cure people with HIV infections, not just manage the disease as done with current drugs.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV infections. While the number of new HIV cases are declining, more than 39,500 new cases were reported in 2015. Gay and bisexual men, particularly young African-American gay and bisexual men, are most affected. Globally, according to World Health Organization, some 37 million people were living with HIV in 2016, with 1.8 new cases reported. About 1 million people died of AIDS in 2016.

The three year-old Excision BioTherapeutics aims to apply gene editing techniques such as Crispr, or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, to remove genes that support the stubborn HIV infections. Crispr is based on bacterial defense mechanisms that use RNA to identify and monitor precise locations in DNA. The actual editing of genomes with Crispr employs enzymes that cleave DNA strands at the desired points, with Crispr-associated protein 9, or Cas9, being the enzyme used most often.

The company was co-founded by Temple University neuroscientist Kamel Khalili, who studies effects of HIV infections on nervous system functions and leads the university’s NeuroAIDS center. Another founder is Thomas Malcolm, who studied HIV infections and cancer genetics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Malcolm is Excision BioTherapeutics’s CEO, while Khalili is the company’s chief scientific advisor.

In a paper published in July 2017, Khalili outlined a strategy for harnessing gene-editing technologies such as Crispr to eliminate the HIV virus. He argues that HIV remains in a latent state in people with infections, protected by a support system in the body that can be traced to specific regions in the genome. Khalili believes gene editing can deactivate elements in DNA that maintain HIV receptors in a latent form and enable the re-emergence of active HIV infections. In May 2017, Khalili and colleagues reported on research with lab mice where Crispr/Cas9 editing removed genes supporting latent HIV, reducing expression of RNA that maintains the virus, as well as overall infection levels in the animals.

Khalili says the company’s first target is HIV infections, but that’s only the beginning. He notes in a company statement, “what we’re working on is not exclusively focused to the HIV/AIDS virus, but multiple viruses. Our platform will allow us to eradicate permanently the genetic elements of Herpes, Zika, Ebola, Hepatitis, West Nile, and many more viruses.”

The $10 million in seed funding for Excision BioTherapeutics is led by technology venture investor Artis Ventures in San Francisco. Other investors were not identified. Most of the funds are expected to finance early clinical trials of the company’s proposed HIV treatments.

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Phone App Found to Measure Heart Health Metrics

Heart check

(Gerd Altmann, Pixabay)

6 September 2017. A medical engineering team designed a smartphone app that in a clinical study shows it can measure key factors in heart health as accurately as MRI scans. Researchers from California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, University of Southern California, and Huntington Medical Research Institute published results of their study in the July 2017 issue of Journal of Critical Care Medicine (paid subscription required).

The team led by Caltech’s Morteza Gharib, a professor of both aeronautical and biomedical engineering, is seeking ways of detecting heart disease that are more widely accessible. Heart disease, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for 1 in 4 deaths, or about 610,000 a year. In many people, heart or circulation problems have few noticeable symptoms, making it important to have regular screenings.

In most cases, however, those screenings need to occur at a doctor’s office or clinic and involve imaging technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging or echocardiograms that use ultrasound. Both of these methods require trained technicians, expensive equipment, and extended periods of time — 30 to 45 minutes — to complete. Providing a easier, less expensive, and portable technique to detect heart problems could help spot heart disease faster and earlier than current methods.

Gharib and lab colleagues are looking to smartphone technology to fill the gap. The team developed a smartphone app that detects and measures pressure variations in the walls in arteries in the neck that expand and contract similarly to heart. The researchers call these subtle pressure wave variations intrinsic factors, which in previous studies were shown to indicate changes in heart activity. The team also wrote an algorithm to calculate the relationship between intrinsic factors and a key measure of heart function called left ventricle ejection fraction that measures the amount of blood pumped with each beat.

The app uses the smartphone’s camera to detect changes in skin displacement above the carotid artery in the neck, with software to construct the pressure wave, and algorithm to calculate the intrinsic factors and estimate the equivalent left ventricle ejection fraction measurement. The stronger the pressure wave through the artery, the greater the amount of blood pumped from the heart through the artery.

In a proof-of-concept test of the app, the researchers recruited 72 volunteers ranging in age from 20 to 92 years that included individuals with heart failure. Participants used the app in an iPhone to estimate their left ventricle ejection fraction, and also undergo a cardiac MRI scan, a reliable and accurate technique, but also expensive. The app detection and measurements took 1 to 2 minutes, and required no special training or calibration.

The results show a high correlation — 0.74, with 1.0 being an exact correlation — between the app’s calculations of left ventricle ejection fraction and those made by MRI scans. Measurements made by the app varied within a 19.1 percent margin or error, say the authors, comparable to echocardiograms that have a 20 percent standard variation.

Gharib and colleagues are now looking into other indicators of heart health that the app can detect and measure. Caltech patented the underlying technology, with Gharib and three co-authors listed as the inventors. Those co-authors and inventors — Derek Rinderknecht, Niema Pahlevan, and Peyman Tavallali — recently founded the company Avicena LLC to further develop the app and take it to market.

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Field Tests of Genetically Modified Moths to Begin

Diamondback moth

Diamondback moth (Olaf Leillinger, Wikimedia Commons)

5 September 2017. Outdoor tests of a genetically engineered diamondback moth, a difficult agricultural pest, altered to stop reproducing and collapse the species, are about to get underway. Tests of the modified moth, produced by Oxitec Ltd, a biotechnology company developing engineered insects for health and agriculture, will be conducted by the lab of entomologist Anthony Shelton at Cornell University.

The diamondback moth — Plutella xylostella — is a destructive agriculture pest, particularly the caterpillars that eat brassica or crucifer vegetable crops including popular items such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, and kale. The diamondback moth in recent years became resistant to many synthetic and organic pesticides, leaving growers with few control options. The moth causes crop damage estimated by Shelton and colleagues at $4 to $5 billion a year worldwide.

Oxitec, based in Oxford, U.K., produces genetically altered insects that enable growers and public health authorities to control pests causing disease in crops and humans without toxins or chemical pesticides. For diamondback moths, genes in males of the species are altered to create females that die before they reach adulthood. Males mate with female moths, then pass along the self-limiting gene to the next generation of females, reducing the number of egg-laying females, and shrinking the moth population. Diamondback males mate only with their own species, leaving other insect species unaffected.

As reported in Science & Enterprise in July 2015, greenhouse tests of the altered diamondback moth show the engineered male moths quickly reduced the total moth population, and eliminated the species in about 8 weeks. In July of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded its environmental assessment of the modified moths, finding they posed no significant impact, and issued a permit allowing the field tests to proceed.

The field tests will be conducted by Shelton’s team at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station affiliated with Cornell. The engineered moths express red fluorescence as a marker, enabling the study team to assess the feasibility and efficacy of these moths in reducing their populations.

“Self-limiting diamondback moths,” says Shelton in an Oxitec statement, “offer a new mode of action in the fight against this economically damaging pest. Importantly, this technology only targets this damaging pest species, and does not affect beneficial insects such as pollinators and biological control agents.”

Oxitec is a spin-off company from Oxford University. In August 2015, the company was acquired by synthetic biology company Intrexon Corp. in Gaithersburg, Maryland, for $160 million cash and Intrexon stock.

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Engineered T-Cell Trials Stopped after Patient Death

Stop signs graphic

(kropekk_pl, Pixabay)

5 September 2017. The Food and Drug Administration stopped two clinical trials testing genetically engineered T-cells from the immune system to treat leukemia, after a participant in one trial died. Cellectis S.A., based in New York and Paris, yesterday announced the temporary halt in its early-stage trials after FDA put a temporary clinical hold on the studies.

Cellectis develops therapies that genetically engineer T-cells from the immune system to treat cancer, by adding chimeric antigen receptors, proteins attracting antibodies that bind to and destroy blood-related cancer cells. Current methods producing chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, known as CAR T-cells, produce promising results in patients with leukemia and other blood-related cancers.

Those current methods, however, are also time-consuming and dangerous for some patients. T-cells are taken from patients, then genetically engineered and cultured in the lab, for later infusion back into the individual, which can take several weeks to produce sufficient numbers of cells. Before the re-engineered cells can be introduced, patients must also undergo chemotherapy both as a cancer therapy, and to remove other immune system cells that can dilute the potency of the infused re-engineered T-cells. FDA halted other clinical trials of CAR T-cells, when one or more participants died, but the agency last month approved the first such treatments for one form of leukemia.

Unlike these other techniques, Cellectics is developing off-the-shelf CAR T-cell treatments, it calls Universal CAR T-cells, or UCARTs. These treatments use T-cells from healthy donors, rather than a patient’s own T-cells, genetically engineered to match the attributes of specific cancer types. As reported in Science & Enterprise in January 2017, the company developed engineered T-cells that in the lab target low-oxygen concentrations feeding tumor growth.

The clinical trials stopped by FDA are testing the safety of UCARTs with two related types of leukemia. The clinical trial where the patient died is testing a treatment for blastic plasmacytoid dendritic cell neoplasm, a form of acute myeloid leukemia. The patient is a 78 year-old man, the first participant enrolled in the study, who according to Cellectis received a UCART dose without incident. But the patient developed cytokine-release syndrome, a complex of immune-system reactions to immunotherapies that worsened with complications, and did not respond to treatment.

The second trial is testing UCARTs in patients with acute myeloid leukemia. The first participant in that trial, a 58 year-old woman, received a UCART dose and also developed cytokine-release syndrome, but later responded to treatments that resolved the reactions. The company says no graft-versus-host disease, an immune-system reaction to donated cells, occurred in either of the patients.

Cellectis says it is working with FDA to investigate and resolve these cases to resume the trials, perhaps with a lower UCART dose.

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Infographic – Smartphones Cause Photography Boom

Infographic: Smartphones Cause Photography Boom | Statista You will find more statistics at Statista

4 September 2017. In just the past month, Science & Enterprise reported on two new medical technologies that harness the camera on a smartphone for general diagnostics and to screen for liver diseases. Taking photos is one of the leading uses of smartphones, documented by the chart posted above from Statista showing the growing number of images captured with phones since 2013. According to InfoTrends, the source of the graph, some 1.2 trillion photos will be taken this year, 85% by smartphones.

Today is Labor Day in the U.S. Science & Enterprise will continue its regular posting tomorrow.

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