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Anti-Vaccine Groups More Adept at Facebook Ads

Facebook screen

(Simon Steinberger, Pixabay)

15 Nov. 2019. A review of advertisements about vaccinations shows a few groups took advantage of Facebook’s advertising policies to spread vaccine misinformation. The review, appearing in the 13 November issue of the journal Vaccine (paid subscription required), also contends Facebook’s policies could limit pro-vaccine ads, while anti-vaccine messages may not be restricted by its rules.

Childhood vaccinations, once considered routine and non-controversial, became a source of debate in recent years as questions of vaccine safety arose from various groups. Despite repeated and voluminous scientific evidence of vaccine safety, questions continue to be raised by organizations, often repeated on social media. The result is what World Health Organization calls “vaccine hesitancy,” reluctance or refusal to vaccinate, despite the availability of vaccines.

WHO lists vaccine hesitancy as one of its top 10 health threats worldwide, with an increase in measles, for example, of 30 percent globally in recent years. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says as of 7 November, 1,261 cases of measles are reported this year in the U.S., up from 372 cases reported last year, and only 55 cases in 2012.

Researchers led by public health professor Sandra Quinn at University of Maryland, engineering professor David Broniatowski at George Washington University, and Johns Hopkins University computer science professor Mark Dredze, are seeking to better understand Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation about childhood vaccines. Facebook is the world’s leading social network with more than 2.4 billion active users each month, according to Statista, and a major presence in the lives of many people worldwide. For its part, Facebook has taken steps beginning in March 2019 to block pages and hashtags that spread vaccine hoaxes.

The research team focused on paid advertisements on Facebook, and took advantage of Facebook opening up its advertising archive for exploration. That archive, now called its Ad Library, is searchable by Facebook members and non-members. The researchers focused on the period before March 2019, and searched Facebook’s ads with the keyword “vaccine” during December 2018 and February 2019. The search revealed 505 advertisements, which the team categorized as pro-vaccine, anti-vaccine, or not relevant. The researchers also analyzed themes expressed by the ads.

The team found 309 relevant ads, with the percentage of pro-vaccine ads (53%) edging out anti-vaccine ads (47%). However, the anti-vaccine ads were more focused and repetitive, which the researchers attributed to the smaller number of ad buyers. The search shows two organizations — World Mercury Project and Stop Mandatory Vaccinations, both funded by private individuals — buying more than half (54%) of the anti-vaccine ads, with most of those ads (55%) describing harmful outcomes of vaccines. At the time, ad buyers could target Facebook members expressing an interest in vaccine controversies, which its new rules no longer permit.

Pro-vaccine ads on Facebook, on the other hand, came from 83 different organizations. About half of the pro-vaccine ads (49%) expressed support for vaccinations in general, with about equal smaller percentages promoting pro-vaccine philanthropies (15%) and policies (14%).

The researchers say Facebook’s new policies may make it more difficult now for pro-vaccine ads, since Facebook considers these ads as political in nature because they address issues of national importance. Many anti-vaccine ads however, say the authors, are considered expressions of personal opinion, and can evade Facebook’s political restrictions.

Faculty research assistant at University of Maryland and first author Amelia Jamison says in a university statement, “The average person might think that this anti-vaccine movement is a grassroots effort led by parents, but what we see on Facebook is that there are a handful of well-connected, powerful people who are responsible for the majority of advertisements. These buyers are more organized than people think.”

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T-Cells Engineered to Release Anti-Cancer Proteins

T-cells illustration

T-cells (

14 Nov. 2019. A biotechnology company is developing modified immune system cells programmed to sense and respond to cancer cells with targeted therapeutic proteins. A team from Cellectis Inc. in New York and Paris reports on results of tests with these reprogrammed cells in lab mice, in yesterday’s issue of the journal Nature Communications.

Cellectis develops cancer treatments that harness the immune system by breaking down defenses tumors create to prevent the body’s immune system from fighting the disease. The company’s platform builds on recent developments that take T-cells, white blood cells from the immune system, and reprogram the cells through genetic engineering to find and kill cancer cells. The engineered T-cells become hunter cells, containing proteins known as chimeric antigen receptors that act like antibodies. These modified chimeric antigen receptor or CAR T-cells are infused into the patient, seeking out and binding to proteins associated with the cancer.

Most current CAR T-cell methods genetically engineer a patient’s own T-cells, then re-infuse the altered T-cells back into the individual. Cellectis’s process is designed to produce 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, then are genetically engineered to match the attributes of specific cancer types.

In their study, a Cellectis group led by Julien Valton, the company’s team leader for synthetic biology, reports on a next iteration of anti-cancer T-cells. The researchers aim to further reprogram T-cells beyond the addition of chimeric antigen receptors, to recognize the type of tumor encountered and secrete the appropriate cancer-fighting proteins in response. To modify the T-cells, the team edited critical genes responsible for immune system functions to express therapeutic proteins, under certain conditions.

The team used Cellectis’s gene-editing technology known as Talen, short for transcription activator-like effector nucleases, to modify the target genes. Talens are synthetic enzymes that Cellectis says provide highly precise editing of genomes. In this case, the researchers edited three genes enabling the T-cell to recognize the tumor environment, and under those conditions express chimeric antigen receptors. These newly empowered CAR T-cells then secrete the protein IL-12P70 in the Interleukin-12 family of immune system enzymes. The edited genes also prevent expression of programmed cell death or PD1, the so-called checkpoint protein that blocks the functioning of T-cells.

Valton and colleagues tested their programmed CAR T-cells in lab mice grafted with human lymphoma tumors. The modified CAR T-cells were delivered with adeno-associated virusesbenign and naturally occurring microbes that can infect cells, but do not integrate with the cell’s genome. The researchers programmed the CAR T-cells to find tumor cells expressing a specific surface protein known as CD22, with the tumor cells divided between those expressing or not expressing this protein.

The results show the modified CAR T-cells accumulated where the tumor cells expressed the target CD22 protein, but were absent from other tumor cells not expressing this protein. Likewise, the team found more secretion of cancer-fighting IL-12P70 proteins where tumors expressed CD22 proteins, than where these targets are not expressed. The researchers report more anti-tumor activity in mice receiving the programmed CAR T-cells, as well as longer survival times.

“These highly intelligent CAR T-cells can sense and remodel their microenvironment in a tailored, highly regulated, and antigen-specific manner,” says Valton in a company statement, “allowing us to have more control over increasingly potent treatments and less risk of general secretion into healthy tissues. This engineering strategy could bring smarter, safer and more effective treatments to the forefront for patients in need.”

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Polymer-Coated Microparticles Boost Food Nutrition

Table and kitchen salt

Table and kitchen salt (Lexlex, Wikimedia Commons)

14 Nov. 2019. An engineering team designed a process for adding and protecting tiny particles of nutrients in foods, boosting their nutritional value even when cooked. Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other institutions describe the process, and tests with animals and humans, in yesterday’s issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine (paid subscription required).

Malnutrition is a continuing problem worldwide affecting some 2 billion people, leading to illnesses, learning deficiencies, birth defects, impaired growth, and about 2 million childhood deaths each year, according to data cited by the authors. Adding micronutrients — trace elements of nutritional minerals — to foods can improve their nutritional value, but progress is uneven and in some cases heating or extended storage of fortified foods breaks down the added nutrients, losing their value.

A team from the lab of MIT chemical engineering professor Robert Langer, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is seeking ways to add micronutrients to foods that withstand these day-to-day challenges. Researchers led by Langer and research scientist Ana Jaklenec focused particularly on fortifying food staples, those used daily in many households.

“What’s been shown to be effective for food fortification is staple foods, something that’s in the household and people use every day,” says Jaklenec in an MIT statement. “Everyone eats salt or flour, so you don’t need to change anything in their everyday practices.”

The team hypothesized that encasing micronutrients in some form of bio-compatible polymer could protect them from degradation. The researchers tested more than 50 different polymers, and found one material —  poly(butylmethacrylate-co-(2-dimethylaminoethyl)methacrylate-co-methylmethacrylate) or BMC — with the desired properties. BMC, say the authors, remains stable in boiling water, and is commercially available as an FDA-approved food additive.

The researchers found they could contain 11 different nutrients in BMC: iron, iodine, zinc; and vitamins A, B2, niacin, biotin, folic acid, B12, C, and D. In addition, the team discovered they could package up to four different micronutrients together. Lab tests show micro-scale particles encased in BMC withstand boiling for two hours, as well as oxidizing chemicals found in fruit and vegetables, and ultraviolet light.

When exposed to acidic conditions like those in the stomach, however, BMC dissolves, which releases the nutrients. Further tests with lab mice confirmed the performance of BMC-encased micronutrients, including release of nutrients when exposed to stomach acid.

With colleagues from ETH-Zurich, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the researchers conducted clinical trials to evaluate BMC-encased iron micronutrients. An initial trial with 20 women added iron sulfate micronutrients in BMC to salt mixed in servings of maize (corn) porridge. The results show the BMC-microparticles released less than half of the iron into the participants than free added iron.

Those findings required refinements in the BMC-microparticle technology, reducing the polymer content of the coating, thus increasing the ratio of iron sulfate to BMC polymer. A second trial enrolled 24 women, with iron sulfate microparticles added to flour, then baked into bread. Results from that trial show the BMC-microparticles released more iron into participants, reaching 89 percent of free iron.

The researchers believe the results show the technology is feasible for protecting micronutrients, and are identifying staple foods for adding nutrients in BMC-encased microparticles for further trials in developing countries. Several authors are listed as inventors on patents awarded to or applied for by MIT.

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How To Avoid Lapses In Productivity

– Contributed content –

Laptop on desk


14 Nov. 2019. When you have a business to run, you need to make sure everything and everyone is firing on all cylinders. If things are slowing down a little, then that’s going to be a slight problem, isn’t it? Obviously, a few slow days are to be expected – we’re only human, after all. You don’t want them to become regular things, however – there’s money to be made.

Stopping the slowdowns and making sure the business is continually being productive isn’t just something you can wish up and make happen immediately. It takes a little work, and you need to make a few decisions. If you sit idle, then nothing will change. Here are a few things you can do to avoid slowdowns and serious lapses:

Keep the workplace neat and organized

If your office, warehouse, factory, or other workplace is completely cluttered and all over the place, then that’s only going to hinder the speed and efficiency of everything. Make sure you have a place for everything and that everything is in its place. If keeping things clear is a little difficult due to being busy, then you could always hire cleaners to come in and sort a few things out. The place overall should be neat, but each individual workstation should also be organized properly.

Hire competent and driven individuals

This is a simple point, but one that should still probably be said. If you have the right people on board, then you’re going to get more work done. If you have people that literally want to work for you, and are willing to put in the hard yards to reach the top, then that’s only going to speed things up for you. Now, bringing in these kinds of people isn’t exactly a walk in the park – everyone would have great employees if so. Perhaps creating a recruitment policy, and narrowing down searches based on it would be the right way to go.

Regularly check that your equipment is working fine

If your equipment is malfunctioning or completely kaput, then you’re not going to get anything done, are you? Check on everything every week or so. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a huge machine tool or some of your direct thermal barcode label printers; you need your equipment and apparatus working properly.

Set goals for staff members

Motivation isn’t something that stays with a person twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The brain needs to be stimulated every now and again in order to get the wheels moving quickly. You can motivate them by putting challenges in front of them. Setting goals will make them actively look to tick certain boxes. Sure, they probably have goals anyway, but they’ll probably reach them in their own time. New challenges will make them more interested in getting stuff done.

Make sure your business is completely protected

If your business is damaged in any way, then that’s not exactly going to help productivity and output. You need to keep everything protected. Hire security guards to stand outside. Install CCTV cameras. Make sure the entire workplace is safe and sound. Hire a lawyer to run through anything that might seem a little untoward. Really tighten things up.

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Safety Reports Analyzed with A.I. to Reduce Medical Errors

Data and person graphic

(Gerd Altmann, Pixabay)

13 Nov. 2019. Research is underway to write algorithms for analyzing free text and other unstructured data in safety report databases to reduce medical errors. The new project joining researchers at a university and hospital system is funded by a three-year, $815,000 award from National Library of Medicine, part of National Institutes of Health.

A team led by statistics professor Srijan Sengupta at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, with colleagues from the MedStar Health National Center for Human Factors in Healthcare in Washington, D.C., aims to fill a gap in analyzing patient safety event reports. These reports, residing in a number of databases, usually have both structured data — predefined fields with predictable types of information — but also unstructured data, usually free text narratives. Structured data lend themselves to quantitative analysis, but the free text narratives are not easily processed. As a result, this rich source of information on medical errors is often ignored.

The unstructured data often describe in detail an entry in a structured data code or category. Thus, when put together they offer a richer and more detailed story. Sengupta and colleagues plan to mine patient safety event reports with natural language processing and statistical models to identify where near-misses occur, and quantify further deterioration and severity of errors. The end deliverable is a set of algorithms offering statistical tools to identify these factors for faster and more accurate identification of conditions contributing to medical errors.

Identifying timing factors and patterns in unstructured data is a key objective of the project. “What may seem like an infrequent hazard at a hospital,” says Sengupta in a Virginia Tech statement, “may be part of a broader national trend when viewed across health care systems. Using our algorithms to effectively analyze documents from reporting systems has the potential to dramatically improve the safety and quality of care by exposing possible weaknesses in the care process.”

MedStar Health’s Human Factors Center is providing its expertise on patient safety, natural language processing, and machine learning for the project. Raj Ratwani, director of the Human Factors Center and co-investigator on the project, says tens of thousands of safety issues are reported to FDA, but the data are not adequately analyzed, allowing potentially unsafe products to continue on the market that could threaten patients’ well-being.

“This research,” notes Ratwani, “is critical to identifying patterns in the reported data and turning data into knowledge that the health care provider can then use to assess the safety of their technologies and processes and develop actions and interventions to prevent patients from being harmed by recognized hazards.”

The team plans to issue open-source software as one of its deliverables. “Releasing open-source software that will enable other practitioners in public and private health care systems to implement our methods on their own proprietary data sets,” adds Sengupta, “will be one of the most important outcomes of our research.”

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Spray Fiber Process Designed for Wound Bandages

EStAD device drawing

EStAD device drawing (L.G. Huson and E.A. Kooistra-Manning, Montana Tech)

13 Nov. 2019. An engineering team created a portable device that in lab tests sprays bio-compatible fibers on simulated wound surfaces to promote healing. Researchers from Montana Technological University in Butte describe the device and process in yesterday’s issue of the Journal of Vacuum Science & Technology B, published by American Institute of Physics.

A team led by Montana Tech mechanical engineering student Lane Huston is seeking to apply electrospinning, a technique that sprays electrically-charged polymer micro- and nano-scale fibers toward a surface, where the fibers form a mat-like structure. Electrospinning can also be used to create dressings and even engineered tissue to heal wounds. Most of today’s electrospinning systems, including those in health care, are large, table-top systems with high-voltage power supplies.

Huston and colleagues aim to develop a portable electrospinning device needing far less power than current systems, for use at the point of care in clinics. Their solution combines an electrospinning unit with electrodes and an air blower to propel the fibers on a target surface, but is powered by a battery enclosed in a portable, self-contained device, called an electrostatic and air driven or EStAD system. The system produces electrospun bandages with two types of polymer fibers used in biomedical applications — polyethylene oxide and cellulose diacetate — at a lower volume than table-top systems.

“In spray painting, pressurized gas forces direct particles toward a surface, creating a sort of deposited material,” says Huston in an American Institute of Physics statement. “Like spray painting, the EStAD device is used by directing its nozzle at the desired surface during operation, causing a fiber mat to be deposited onto that surface.”

The Montana Tech team tested the EStAD system with two applications. The researchers first used the system to create direct bandages on simulated wounds, spraying the fibers on a gloved hand from a distance of up to 16 centimeters. In a second test, the team created transitional bandages, sprayed on parchment paper for later application. The team also added the antibiotic vancomycin to electrospun bandages, which when tested with live Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. In addition, the researchers created fiber bandages with gold nanoparticles, used for drug delivery.

Results of the tests show the EStAD system created both direct and transitional bandages on various surfaces, including a simulated wound in pig skin. The system’s bandages, both direct and transitional, with the antibiotic vancomycin killed staph bacteria in a petri dish. And tests of EStAD system bandages seeded with gold nanoparticles showed the bandages release the gold particles on simulated surfaces.

The authors expect their device can help clinics, particularly those in rural areas, can benefit from the EStAD system. “The bandage material, as well as the drug used,” adds Huston, “can be chosen on demand as the situation warrants, making modular and adaptable drug delivery accessible in remote locations.”

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Digital Meds Boost Hepatitis C Drug Adherence

Proteus Discover system

Proteus Discover system — pill with sensor, patch, mobile app (Proteus Digital Health)

12 Nov. 2019. A system with electronic sensors added to pills helps people known to skip taking medications stick with their drugs prescribed for hepatitis C. Findings from a clinical trial evaluating the DigiMeds system made by Proteus Digital Health in Redwood City, California, among patients with a history of non-adherence to drugs, were presented on Sunday, 10 November at a meeting of American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases in Boston.

Hepatitis C is a viral infection affecting the liver, with some 2.4 million living with the virus in the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease is transmitted through contact with infected blood, with intravenous drug users sharing needles among those at the highest risk of contracting the disease. The virus causes inflammation of the liver and can lead to cirrhosis or scarring and poor liver function over many years.

Because there are no symptoms early on, many people with hepatitis C infections do not get treatment until more serious complications occur. And even when treatment is started, many individuals with the virus are often at high risk of not adhering to their therapies, often due to difficult life circumstances associated with substance abuse, such as psychiatric disorders or alcoholism.

Proteus Digital Health offers what the company calls its digital medicines or DigiMeds program that adds a tiny electronic sensor to medications in a capsule to track adherence. The system, formerly called Discover, also has an electronic patch worn on the torso that reads signals from the sensor, a mobile app that reads data from the patch to record the individual’s taking of medications, and a web portal used by health care providers and caregivers to track patients’ adherence to treatments.

The clinical trial, led by Mark Sulkowski, a Johns Hopkins University medical school professor that studies management of viral hepatitis, recruited 288 individuals with hepatitis C at 18 clinics in the U.S. The study team was particularly interested in enrolling people with a history of medication non-adherence, and the trial’s sample reflected that profile: 52 percent of participants reported alcohol or substance abuse, while 23 percent had a serious psychiatric disorder. About one in five participants (19%) also had HIV infections. Most trial participants reported that their families earned less than $25,000 per year and nearly 1 in 10 participants said they were homeless.

In the trial, the Proteus DigiMeds sensor was added to direct acting antiviral medications, combinations of drugs taken daily to reduce hepatitis C viral loads. Participants were asked to report back to the clinics after 4 and 12 weeks to assess their sustained virologic responses, indicating the treatments were clearing their blood of hepatitis C, while the DigiMeds system tracked medication adherence.

Among the initial participants, 205 reported for the 4-week check and 217 for the 12-week check. The study team says drop-outs occurred for a variety of reasons, including 30 participants who did not respond to follow-ups and 6 individuals reporting adverse effects, of which 3 rash cases were attributed to the treatments. Of those reporting after 4 weeks, all were found with sustained virologic responses, and after 12 weeks nearly all — 216 of 217 — likewise had sustained virologic responses. At both points, adherence to prescribed medications averaged 93 percent among participants.

“This is encouraging data showing how DigiMeds can make a significant impact on curing patients at high risk of non-adherence,” says  Andrew Thompson, CEO of Proteus Digital Health in a company statement. “As we pursue the use of DigiMeds across therapeutic areas, we believe we will continue to see improved patient outcomes.”

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Liquid Injectable Electrodes Designed for Nerve Stimulation

Kip Ludwig with syringe

Kip Ludwig holds a syringe with the injectable electrode material (Renee Meiller, University of Wisconsin – Madison)

12 Nov. 2019. In lab animal tests, an injectable silicon-metal material performs as well as conventional electrodes for electrical nerve stimulation, an emerging therapy for pain. Researchers at University of Wisconsin in Madison and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland describe the material and test results in the 7 November issue of the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials (paid subscription required).

Stimulating nerve pathways with implanted electrodes is used increasingly as a non-drug alternative treatment for pain and other neurological conditions. Implanting electrodes, however, is an invasive procedure, usually requiring surgery, which adds cost and complexity to the treatments. Researchers led by Wisconsin biomedical engineering professor Kip Ludwig and Case Western Reserve adjunct professor Andrew Shoffstall are seeking a simpler and less expensive method for inserting electrodes into the body for electrical nerve stimulation.

The solution devised by Ludwig, Shoffstall, and colleagues is a material they call an “injectrode,” a material injected as a liquid that coats the nerves being stimulated. The team’s injectrode is a liquid, uncured bio-compatible silicon plastic, mixed with enough metallic particles, silver in this case, to attract and conduct an electric current.

The injectrode material is injected to the nerve requiring stimulation, where the silicon cures in the body and forms a conductive contact with the nerve. “Typical implants are really stiff, and so as the body moves, they wear and tear and break down,” says Ludwig in a University of Wisconsin statement. “Our liquid cures, and the result is much closer to the normal elasticity of tissue. You can actually stretch it and increase its size 150 percent to 200 percent without losing its conductivity.”

The researchers first bench-tested the material’s conductivity in the lab, and found the material performs as well as pure silver wire and commercially-available nerve stimulation electrodes. Then, to prove the concept, the team tested the injectrode with rats and pigs. For the animal tests, the team injected the material around the target nerve and retracted the syringe leaving a thin, wire-like residue that reached to a small well of injectrode under the skin’s surface. The tests used a low voltage current similar to today’s transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation with implanted electrodes.

In the tests with pigs, animals with organs similar in size and function as humans, the researchers injected the material around the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve pathway extends from the brain stem to the abdomen, connecting other major organs including the heart, esophagus, and lungs. Results show the injectrode enables stimulation of the pig’s vagus nerve that induces changes in the animal’s heart rate.

In September, the Ludwig-Shoffstall team received a three-year, $2 million grant from National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of National Institutes of Health, to develop an injectrode system to stimulate the dorsal root ganglion, a complex of sensory nerve cells in the spinal cord, as a less expensive and more widely available non-opioid treatment for pain. Collaborating on the project is the company Neuronoff Inc., in Valencia, California, founded by Ludwig and Shoffstall in 2017, to commercialize the injectrode technology.

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New Company Using A.I. to Discover Mental Health Drugs

Artificial intelligence graphic

(Gerd Altmann, Pixabay)

11 Nov. 2019. A new enterprise combining resources from biotechnology and artificial intelligence aims to find safer and more effective treatments for psychiatric disorders. The company called Entheogenix Biosciences Inc., incorporated in the U.S., is a joint venture of ATAI Life Sciences AG in Berlin and Cyclica Inc. in Toronto, but no funding nor personnel were disclosed for the company.

Entheogenix Biosciences plans to discover new small-molecule, or low molecular weight, therapies for complex psychiatric diseases such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, including drugs based on psychedelic compounds. The company’s founders in ATAI Life Sciences and Cyclica say current therapies with individual drugs are inconsistent or do not adequately treat the disorder, often leaving physicians to prescribe multiple drugs, which can lead to adverse effects or low medication adherence.

ATAI Life Sciences offers a biotechnology platform that the company says addresses the complexity of treating mental health. Founded last year, ATAI acts as a framework company for individual enterprises developing new therapies addressing specific mental health targets. Among the company’s proposed solutions are psychedelic drugs, many of which are considered dangerous or controlled substances by law enforcement authorities, yet are beginning to receive serious consideration as a basis for psychiatric therapies. While only about a year old, ATAI Life Sciences so far raised $68 million in two full venture funding rounds, according to Crunchbase.

Cyclica applies computational biology and biophysics to drug discovery to assess the total effects of proposed treatments on the body, not just the prime targets. The company’s Ligand Design service starts with what the company calls seed molecules, then designs more complex molecules with artificial intelligence to achieve specific chemical interactions in the body, as well as reflect desired ADMET — for absorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion, and toxicity — properties.  Cyclica’s Ligand Express is a complementary cloud-based service that screens small molecule compounds against a large simulated protein repository with artificial intelligence routines to visualize and predict multiple interactions in the body.

Entheogenix Biosciences expects to apply Cyclica’s technology to discover new treatments for psychiatric disorders. The new company plans to start with a number of seed molecules from existing small molecule compounds, as well as psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin and mescaline. The aim is to synthesize new compounds that work faster to address debilitating psychiatric diseases, but without hallucinogenic side effects associated with psychedelic drugs.

“Entheogenix will use state-of-the-art technology to identify the most promising candidates for drug development quickly and precisely,” says ATAI Life Sciences CEO Florian Brand in a joint statement. “We are especially passionate,” adds Naheed Kurji, CEO of Cyclica, “about advancing health outcomes for patients suffering with the most complex and prevalent disorders like depression, which is the leading cause of disability worldwide.”

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Opioids Provide Few Pain Benefits, Yet Abuse Growing

Dispensing pills


11 Nov. 2019. Opioids appear to provide little benefit for patients with pain from osteoarthritis, yet opioid use disorder rates among patients with painful conditions continue to rise. These conclusions are reported in two separate papers presented at this week’s annual American College of Rheumatology meeting in Atlanta.

A team led by Raveendhara Bannuru, a professor specializing in comparative effectiveness research at Tufts University medical school in Boston, is seeking to better define benefits from opioid pain relievers. These drugs are often prescribed to osteoarthritis patients for pain relief, and while their addictive properties are well documented, evidence of actual benefits are sketchy, according to the authors.

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disorder affecting cartilage in joints. Over time, the wear and tear of joints, mainly in hands, feet, knees, and back gradually hardens and deteriorates cartilage causing pain and inflammation.

Bannuru and colleagues from Tufts and Lund University in Sweden searched the Medline and Cochrane databases to April 2019 for randomized clinical trials testing the efficacy and safety of opioid pain relievers against a placebo, among patients with knee or hip osteoarthritis. Their search yielded 23 studies, both published and unpublished, enrolling some 11,400 participants. The researchers looked for evidence of opioid safety and benefits at 2, 4, 8, and 12 weeks after the initial prescription, as well as differences between strong versus weak opioid drugs.

The researchers found small yet statistically reliable improvements in pain relief and function at 2, 4, and 12 weeks and more sleep among patients. However, the team found no difference in benefits in the occurrence of depression among patients nor improvements in overall quality of life. In addition, the authors found dosage level made no difference in benefits to patients. Moreover, patients generally fared better with weaker rather than stronger opioids, although stronger opioids were associated with more safety problems, including withdrawal symptoms and other adverse effects.

Opioid abuse hospitalizations continue to rise

Another team led by Jasvinder Singh, a rheumatology and immunology professor at University of Alabama in Birmingham, reviewed hospitalizations for opioid use disorder among people with common musculoskeletal diseases. Singh and colleagues looked specifically at patients with five disorders: gout, osteoarthritis, lower back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia, a chronic condition marked by pain throughout the body.

The researchers searched and reviewed data from the National Inpatient Sample, a collection of databases on hospitalizations maintained by the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The team took data from 1998 through 2016, looking for opioid use disorder hospitalizations reflected in insurance claims among patients with these conditions.

The authors found low initial rates of opioid use disorder among pain patients, but then the rates began climbing, and quickly. For the first three years, through 2000, hospitalizations for opioid use disorder were low. Beginning in 2001, however, hospitalization rates started rising and by 2016 the rates increased from 3.5 times higher for lower back pain to 24 times higher for gout. After 2011, hospitalizations for opioid use disorder or OUD plateaued for lower back pain and gout, but continued rising for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia.

“This study’s findings should alert the patients and providers regarding the chronic opioid use in people with rheumatic diseases and should encourage them to have an open dialogue regarding the risk/benefit ratio at the time of starting or deciding to continue opioids,” says Singh in an American College of Rheumatology statement. “The dramatic increase in OUD hospitalizations in these five common rheumatic conditions should highlight these diseases for policy initiatives.”

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