Scripps Florida scientists find 'functional cure' for HIV

Published: Friday, November 03, 2017 @ 5:21 PM

Scripps Florida researcher Susana Valente is working on “a functional cure” for HIV at her lab in Jupiter on November 1, 2017.
Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post
Scripps Florida researcher Susana Valente is working on “a functional cure” for HIV at her lab in Jupiter on November 1, 2017.(Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)

In findings that could point to a better treatment for HIV infections, Scripps Florida scientists say they’ve found a new way to manage the virus.

Scripps Associate Professor Susana Valente says she successfully tested a drug that promises a “functional cure” for HIV: The infection isn’t gone, but the virus lies dormant.

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The results of a study led by Valente were published in October in the journal Cell Reports. Valente and researchers from Scripps Florida, the University of North Carolina and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research used a natural compound known as didehydro-Cortistatin A, or dCA. It stops the spread of HIV by inhibiting the protein Tat.

“It is really the proof of concept for a functional cure,” Valente said.

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Immunotherapy plus chemo doubles lung cancer survival, study says

Published: Friday, April 20, 2018 @ 3:54 PM

Chemotherapy drugs are shown at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center June 17, 2003 in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chemotherapy drugs are shown at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center June 17, 2003 in Fayetteville, North Carolina.(Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Chemotherapy and radiation are common treatments for lung cancer. However, immunotherapy may be able to help double a patient’s survival, according to a new report.

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Researchers from New York University’s Perlmutter Cancer Center recently conducted a study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, to determine which treatments were most effective for those newly diagnosed with lung cancer.

To do so, they examined 616 people with non-squamous non-small cell lung cancer from 118 international sites. The participants did not have genetic changes in the EGFR or ALK genes, which have both been linked to the rapid reproduction of cells. 

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About 400 of the subjects underwent pembrolizumab, a form of immunotherapy that helps destroy cancer cells; platinum therapy, a procedure that uses cell damaging agents; and pemetrexed, a chemotherapy drug that targets the lungs. The other 200 only received platinum therapy and pemetrexed with a saline placebo. 

After analyzing the results, they found the risk of death was reduced by 51 percent for those treated with pembrolizumab, platinum therapy and pemetrexed, compared with those who only got chemo. Furthermore, those with the combined therapy also had a 48 percent decreased chance of progression or death. 

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Suresh Ramalingam, deputy director at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the finding is “very important” as “it moves the milestone forward.”

“This study shows that by combining the two treatments, you can maximize or even improve patient outcomes. From that standpoint, it does shift the treatment approach to lung cancer in a positive way,” said Ramalingam, who was not a part of the trial.

By using both approaches together, doctors can create a multiplying effect. During chemotherapy, cells die and leave behind protein. Immunotherapy activates the immune system, aiding its ability to kill any remaining cancer cells.

>> Related: New cancer 'vaccine' completely wipes out tumors in mice -- human trials are on way

The NYU researchers did note there are severe side effects to the combination treatment, including nausea, anemia, fatigue and an increased risk of acute kidney injury. 

However, Ramalingam believes the trial gives experts the ammunition to test the approach in many other cancers. He also said there are several ways to treat different types of the disease, and people should understand that some tumors may need to be tackled differently.

For example, he recently led a separate, large clinical trial that targeted lung cancer patients with the EGFR mutation, unlike the NYU analysts. As a result of his findings, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded the use of a lung cancer pill called Tagrisso to those with the EGFR gene.

>> Related: Pharmaceutical company touts 'breakthrough' cancer treatment

While it was initially only used for individuals whose lung cancer worsened after treatment with other EGFR therapies, Ramalingam and his team proved the medication almost doubled the survival outcome for newly diagnosed lung cancer patients with the EGFR mutation. In fact, it resulted in better outcomes than chemotherapy and immunotherapy. 

“Given all these exciting advances that there are in lung cancer, patients should not settle for what’s been told,” Ramlingam recommended. “Basically get a second option or go to a major center that specializes in lung cancer to make sure they’re getting the cutting-edge treatment options that are out there.”

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Scientists accidentally discover enzyme that could 'eat' plastic pollution

Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2018 @ 11:07 AM

Giant Garbage Patch in Pacific 16 Times Larger Than Estimates

Pollution has negative effects on our health, but scientists may be able to better combat the issue with a plastic-eating enzyme they discovered accidentally

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Researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently conducted a study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, to examine the natural molecules and chemicals found at a waste recycling center in Japan. 

During their assessment, they discovered that the enzyme, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, can “eat” polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the material used to make plastic bottles. 

While they intended to better understand the structure of it, they actually engineered an enzyme that breaks down PET products

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“This unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics,” co-author John McGeehan said in a statement

The scientists said PET can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. The chemicals can seep into the soil, affecting the groundwater and infecting drinking water.

>> On AJC.com: Climate change will internally displace 143 million people by 2050, scientists warn

While the analysts called their discovery a “modest” improvement, they hope to continue their investigations to improve the enzyme with the help of protein tools. They said they believe their work will be used to industrially break down plastics in a fraction of the time. 

“We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem,” McGeehan said, “but the scientific community who ultimately created these ‘wonder-materials’ must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions.” 

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11,000 years ago our ancestors survived major climate change

Published: Friday, April 13, 2018 @ 6:37 AM

In one scenario in a recent study, sea levels could rise over 10 feet near the Golden State by century's end.

As humanity faces the reality of a changing climate, we may be able to look to our ancient ancestors for insights on how to adapt. 

»RELATED: Antarctica's ice retreating 5 times faster than normal, study reveals

Some 11,000 years ago, our hunter-gatherer ancestors living in what is now the United Kingdom found ways to survive a cold front that lasted a century. Researchers studying a Middle Stone Age site named Star Carr in North Yorkshire, England published their findings in Nature Ecology & Evolution  last month, revealing how these ancient humans adapted to the major environmental change.

"The population at Star Carr, some of the earliest people to recolonize Britain after the last ice age, must have been highly resilient to climate instability, capable of persevering and maintaining a stable society in spite of these environmental stresses," Ian Candy, study author and professor of geography at the Royal Holloway University of London's Centre for Quaternary Research, told CNN.

Our ancient ancestors were forced to survive a harsher and less stable climate than we generally experience today, according to paleoclimatologists who study climates of the past. Such dramatic changes often forced communities to either move or die.

During the cold spells discussed in this newly published research, average temperatures dropped by as much as 10 degrees. Despite this significant dip, the inhabitants of Star Carr were able to survive and continue to thrive.

"It has been argued that abrupt climatic events may have caused a crash in Mesolithic populations in Northern Britain, but our study reveals, that at least in the case of the pioneering colonizers at Star Carr, early communities were able to cope with extreme and persistent climate events," Simon Blockley, Professor of Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway said in a media release.

Within the U.K., Star Carr is one of the most important archaeological sites, according to Science Alert. It was first discovered in the 1940s and is home Britain's earliest house as well as some of the oldest carpentry ever discovered in Europe.

»RELATED: Worst global warming predictions likely the most accurate, study finds

When digging at the site, researchers expected to find evidence that the community had struggled significantly during cooling periods 9,300 and 11,100 years ago. However, what they discovered was precisely the opposite.

Although the community's activity appears to have decreased somewhat during the first cold front, it pulled through without major problems. During the second period, it appears the ancient humans were able to carry on with minimal impact on their habits.

Putting the conclusions into perspective, Candy said they "really change the way that we think about the interaction between prehistoric societies and climate change."

"These hunter-gatherers had a lot of skills and knowledge of how to use the natural resources. They could make shelters and houses and hunt, fish and collect plant materials. It must have been a lot colder and harsher conditions to live in but they had structures and used fires to keep warm." 

Some experts suggest that looking to our ancient ancestors adaptability can provide insights to us today, as we face other severe changes to the climate.

"Such analyses of past climate-society dynamics can illuminate where and why problems emerged or successes occurred in response to abrupt climatic changes, such as this case at Star Carr," Mark Carey, a professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, who was not involved in the new research, told CNN.

"The depth of archaeological and climatic evidence presented in this study takes us in a positive step to show how societies adjust in the face of abrupt climatic change. It also sets up the next level of research to probe decision-making and cause-effect dynamics, allowing researchers to go beyond the correlation of events (climate change and societal change) and toward causal explanations for how and why societies persevere in the face of climate change."

At the same time, researchers caution that there are major differences between society then and now.

"Studies of this kind show correlation much better than they reveal causation, so it's difficult to know how exactly the people of Star Carr successfully endured even the most extreme climate changes," Dagomar Degroot, professor of environmental history at Georgetown University and co-founder of the Climate History Network, who was not involved in the study, said.

"Still, these dramatic results suggest that, in the wake of the great Ice Ages, past climate changes rarely determined the course of human history in a straightforward way. In my opinion, this article has great significance for our understanding of anthropogenic global warming."

Observing how our ancestors survived these ancient environmental shifts can also provide a bit of hope as the scientific community warns of the impending problems due to modern-day climate change.

A recent study by the World Bank predicted that more than 143 million people will be displaced by 2050 in just three developing regions of the world, forced to move within their countries to escape climate-related issues. In December, a major scientific study suggested that the worst-case predictions regarding the effects of global warming are the most likely to be true.

Similar dire predictions led more than 15,000 scientists from around the world to sign an open letter warning that quick and drastic actions should be undertaken by society to address the threat of climate change. The open letter, which was released last year, argued that "soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory." Scientists warned that "time is running out" for humanity to address the crisis.

Read the full study at Nature.com.

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People with ‘sweet tooth’ gene may have less body fat, study says

Published: Thursday, April 12, 2018 @ 3:26 PM

Research from a U.K. medical school says having a sweet tooth may be linked with lower body fat. (Photo illustration by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Research from a U.K. medical school says having a sweet tooth may be linked with lower body fat. (Photo illustration by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

According to research from a U.K. medical school, having a sweet tooth may be linked with lower body fat.

Researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School in Exeter, England, recently conducted a study, published in Cell Press, to explore the hormones that might be associated with fat loss. 

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To do so, they examined the health records of more than 450,000 individuals who allowed their data to be included in a biobank in the U.K. The documents contained blood samples, questionnaires on diet and genetic information. 

Related: 9 healthy-sounding foods that have more sugar than a Krispy Kreme doughnut

After analyzing the results, they found that people with a gene variation of FGF21 have less body fat than others. Previous studies suggest that people with this particular gene variation crave and eat more sugary foods than others. 

“It sort of contradicts common intuition that people who eat more sugar should have less body fat,” coauthor Niels Grarup said in a statement. “But it is important to remember that we are only studying this specific genetic variation and trying to find connections to the rest of the body. This is just a small piece of the puzzle describing the connection between diet and sugar intake and the risk of obesity and diabetes.”

Related: Sugar can fuel cancerous cells, study says

They also noted that those with a “genetic sweet tooth” have a slightly higher hypertension risk and also more fat around the waist than hips. This body type, known as the apple shape, can increase heart attack risk, especially among women. 

“Now that so many people are involved in the study, it gives our conclusions a certain robustness. Even though the difference in the amount of body fat or blood pressure level is only minor depending on whether or not the person has this genetic variation or not, we are very confident that the results are accurate,” Grarup said.

Scientists now hope to use their newfound knowledge for future investigations. They want to develop treatment for obesity and diabetes that will specifically target FGF21.

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