Melanoma, Soon to be “Mela-no-more”?

By Nick Gubitosi

Just last week (April 6, 2010), scientists at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago completed the second phase of trials for a very promising melanoma vaccine.  The trial, which had stunning results, was conducted on 50 patients with metastatic melanoma, which is melanoma that had spread to multiple parts of the body.  Currently treatments for advanced melanoma include chemotherapy and immunological drugs which are only effective 15 % of the time.  This new vaccine is not only easy to administer, but it also appears to have a much higher response rate in patients, potentially making it the best treatment option for anyone with advanced melanoma.

Melanoma is a rare but deadly cancer that typically begins in a mole or other pigmented tissue and can easily be removed if caught early.  If it advances it is much harder to treat and without treatment the patient usually has only a few years to live.

The vaccine being tested in this study is known as OncoVEX.  OncoVEX is effective because it is composed of an oncolytic virus, or a reprogrammed virus that is made to attack cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells undamaged.  The vaccine is injected directly into lesions that can be felt or seen, and its ease of administration allows it to be given right in a physician’s office.

According to Dr. Howard Kaufman, the director of the Rush Cancer Program, “The vaccine worked not just on the cells we injected, but on lesions in other parts of the body that we couldn’t reach.”  He explains how these injections prompt an immune response that circulates through the bloodstream to other affected parts of the body.

In the second phase of trials for OncoVEX, 50 patients were given up to 24 injections of the vaccine over the course of several months, leading to 4 partial and 8 full recoveries.  The scientists found these results very promising and Kaufman stated that, “These are the best results to date for any vaccine developed for melanoma, but they need to be confirmed in a larger population.”

To confirm these results, Kaufman is set to lead a third phase of trials which will enroll approximately 430 patients from cancer centers across the U.S.  These patients will be tracked for two years after their first dose and if the results are anything like the previous trial, this vaccine could turn an advanced melanoma diagnosis from a death notice into a treatable disease.

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Going Bananas to Prevent HIV

By Nick Gubitosi

Two weeks ago (March 19, 2010), scientists from the University of Michigan published a study about an ingredient known as BanLec which is derived from bananas and acts as a potent inhibitor of the HIV virus.  What stands out about BanLec is that it is a cheaper form of therapy that may provide a wider range of protection when compared to current anti-retrovirals which are commonly synthetic and made ineffective after small mutations to the virus.  The cost and effectiveness of BanLec make it a promising candidate for the future prevention of HIV and AIDS, giving it the potential to save millions of lives.

BanLec is a type of lectin found in bananas that can identify foreign invaders such as a virus and attach to it.  A lectin is a naturally occurring chemical in plants that is of great interest to scientists because of its ability to halt the chain of reaction that leads to a variety of infections.  The researchers in this study discovered that BanLec inhibits HIV infection by binding to the virus’s protein envelope, therefore blocking it from entering the body.

According to Michael D. Swanson, the lead author of the study, “The problem with some HIV drugs is that the virus can mutate and become resistant, but that is much harder to do in the presence of lectins.”  He goes on to explain that the lectins work by binding to sugars found all over the envelope of the HIV virus, and because of this the virus would have to go through multiple mutations for the lectin to stop working.  This makes drugs such as BanLec more effective than some current anti-retrovirals which could become ineffective after one mutation to the virus.

So far all tests have been conducted in the laboratory, but Swanson is currently working on making BanLec suitable for human patients.  Its clinical use is still considered to be far away but researchers believe it could ultimately be used as a self applied microbicide for the prevention of HIV infection.

While BanLec is no cure to AIDS, the information gained from this study is very exciting because according to researchers, millions of lives could be saved over the course of a few years with just a moderately successful treatment.

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Bird flu: A Thing of the Past?

By Nick Gubitosi

This past Friday (February 26, 2010) a group of scientists led by a virologist from the University of Wisconsin published a study about a new antiviral, which was found to be highly effective against the pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus.  What stands out about this new antiviral, known as CS-8958, is that it has been proven to be effective against Tamiflu resistant strains of H5N1. This makes it a promising candidate for the future treatment and prevention of the bird flu.

Antiviral drugs are used in the treatment of viral infections by inhibiting the development of disease causing pathogens, and are a vital component in the countermeasure against human influenza viruses.  Recently many new strains have been emerging, which show resistance to Tamiflu, an antiviral that slows the spread of the influenza virus within the body.  These resistant strains pose a threat and make the development of new antivirals a pressing issue.

Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka from the University of Wisconsin and his team of scientists tested a drug created from a novel neuraminidase inhibitor on mice in order to see its effectiveness against H5N1 strains of influenza.  Neuraminidase inhibitors are a class of antiviral drugs that specifically target the influenza virus by blocking one of its proteins, therefore preventing its replication within the body.

They began their tests by giving a single dose of the CS-8958 antiviral drug nasally to mice, two hours after infection with the H5N1 influenza virus.  The results showed that the survival rates were higher in the mice given this new drug when compared to mice given a standard five day treatment with Tamiflu.  In another experiment, CS-8958 was found to be effective against highly pathogenic and Tamiflu resistant strains of H5N1, while it was also shown to protect mice against lethal H5N1 infection when it was administered seven days before infection with the virus.

With the information gained from this study, future treatment and prevention of H5N1 with this CS-8958 antiviral could be the most effective treatment to date due to its ability to eliminate newly emerging drug resistant strains in only one dose.  While future studies still need to be conducted to make sure that these results are the same when tested on humans, the potential of this new antiviral is promising and could possibly put an end to the fear of the bird flu pandemic.

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What Doesn’t kill Them Makes Them Stronger

By Nick Gubitosi         February 13, 2010

This past Thursday, a group of scientists from Boston University released a new study which revealed that treating bacteria with low levels of antibiotics produces mutations in the bacteria instead of killing them, allowing them to gain resistance to a wide range of antibiotics.  This newly gained understanding for the biomolecular processes that produce these “superbugs” can lead to the development of new antibiotics or even enhanced treatments that could prevent the creation of these extremely dangerous cross-resistant bacteria.

The team of scientists led by Professor James Collins, performed their tests on strains of E. coli and Staphylococcus.  They started by administering low levels of five different antibiotics to the bacteria, which caused the introduction of mutations into the bacterial DNA.  They followed this by then giving lethal doses of antibiotics to these mutated bacteria.  The results revealed that many of the bacteria initially exposed to low levels of antibiotics now exhibited cross-resistance to a variety of antibiotics.

In lethal levels, antibiotics cause bacterial DNA to be shredded.  However, when the antibiotic is not at a lethal level, mutations are entered into the bacterial DNA instead.  The bacteria not only survive with these mutations, but gain protection from antibiotics including ones that the bacteria weren’t even exposed to.

This study helps to show the serious dangers involved with taking low or incomplete doses of antibiotics, which is common practice in many areas today.  Farmers who include antibiotics in their livestock feed, doctors who prescribe antibiotics at random, and patients who don’t follow their full course of drugs are all promoting the creation of these bacterial “superbugs.”

With the information gained from these findings, enhanced antibiotic treatments can be developed that could prevent the emergence of multi-drug resistant bacteria and even increase their DNA killing ability so that low doses of antibiotics would be enough to kill mutated bacterial cells.

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Newly discovered antiviral fights HIV, Ebola and other deadly viruses

By Nick Gubitosi            February 4, 2010

A picture of the HIV virus attacking a lymphocyte

A group of researchers lead by scientists from UCLA have identified a “broad spectrum” antiviral small molecule which targets the many envelope encased deadly viruses that exist today.  This antiviral would fight enveloped viruses such as HIV, Ebola, and influenza, as well as viruses that haven’t even been discovered yet.

Dr. Benhur Lee, an associate professor at UCLA, was working with colleagues on 23 various pathogens when they discovered that this antiviral molecule, known as LJ001, only interfered with enveloped viruses through a mechanism which is still not fully understood.

This LJ001 molecule binds to both healthy and viral cells within the body, but only causes harm to the viral cells.  Unlike the healthy cells in your body, viral cells lack the ability to repair themselves because they are not metabolically active.  Therefore the damage done to the viral cells is permanent, while it is completely harmless to the healthy body cells.

Broad spectrum antivirals are hard to find, and usually accompanied with many shortcomings.  One such antiviral, Ribavirin, targets RNA replication and is only effective against a few viruses, is too expensive for widespread use, and produces unwanted side effects.  LJ001 targets viral structure, does not appear to be toxic, and can attack a large group of viruses, making LJ001 the first antiviral of its kind.

Viruses can differ from one another and even mutate as seen with HIV, making them extremely hard to fight off.  Using an antiviral such as LJ001, which safely targets a feature common to an entire class of viruses, may be the potential answer to this problem.

See here for Press Release