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Strain of flu eradicated during pandemic? The latest health stories from around the world

Article by Lalita Panicker, Consulting Editor, Views and Editor, Insight, Hindustan Times, New Delhi 

An influenza virus variant that circulated widely before the COVID-19 pandemic has disappeared, leading an expert group that advises the World Health Organization (WHO) to recommend last week that it no longer be included in flu vaccines. 

The strain, known as Yamagata, has not been detected since March 2020, and some scientists suspect it went extinct because of social distancing measures imposed during the pandemic. WHO’s advisory committee, which meets every February and September to determine which viral strains should be in flu vaccines, noted that because making flu vaccines requires growing the virus, a lab accident could in theory reintroduce Yamagata. To reduce this risk, “every effort should be made to exclude it as soon as possible,” it concluded. National regulators ultimately decide on the composition of flu vaccines in their own countries. 


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to start regulatine a slew of medical tests that now lack stringent oversight. 

These “lab-developed tests” are made and used within a single lab and include everything from predictors for Alzheimer’s disease to genetic analyses of tumours, but they have faced concerns about their validity. Under the new rule, which FDA proposed last week, the test makers would be required to submit data on their tests’ accuracy as medical device–makers do now. In a statement, FDA noted concerns over misdiagnoses and patients being over- or undertreated for common conditions such as heart disease. Commercial labs and academic medical centres that develop the tests argue that additional regulation will delay scientific advances. FDA will accept public comments on the rule until 4 December. 


A new partnership announced this week will preserve the cells of one-quarter of all threatened and endangered mammal species in the United States to aid in current and future recovery efforts. 

To date, scientists have cryopreserved tissue for only 14% of the approximately 1,700 U.S. species listed as threatened or endangered. So the non-profit Revive & Restore is funding a project with several partners to develop a biobank pipeline. In a pilot, biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are collecting tissue samples from 24 endangered mammal species, including the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, the Mexican wolf, and the Sonoran pronghorn. The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and the cloning company ViaGen Pets & Equine will sequence the genomes and create cell lines, which will be preserved in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national repository for cryopreservation. Such specimens could be used to clone endangered species and boost the genetic diversity of wild populations. 


The recent mpox virus (MPXV) outbreak has highlighted the need for high-quality and safe Orthopoxvirus vaccines. The vaccine administered in response to the outbreak, a modified vaccinia ankara (MVA), was effective at reducing mpox severity and transmission; however, a next-generation vaccine may have performed even better. Freyn et al. tested such a candidate vaccine, a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine encoding four highly conserved MPXV antigens. The mRNA vaccine performed as well as or better than an MVA comparator in terms of eliciting immune responses and protecting against lethal infection in mice. —CSM 

RNA-based vaccines were the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their success has revved up interest in ring-shaped RNA, which is more resilient to being chewed up by enzymes in the body than is the usual linear form. This could increase its potential in vaccines, rare-disease treatments and anti-cancer agents. The first human trial, of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine containing circular RNA, kicked off in August. Next year could see more circular RNA enter clinical trials, including in two cancer therapeutics. Nature | 11 min read 


Commonly used grease repellents are found in higher concentrations in the blood of women previously diagnosed with melanoma or ovarian cancer than in unaffected women, a study of more than 48,000 adults has found. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — ‘forever chemicals’ — are a health concern because they can build up in the body and take decades to degrade in the environment. They are found in many consumer products, including non-stick pans, stain-resistant carpets and make-up. 

Reference: Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiologypaper (18 September) 


Researchers have tricked cancer cell lines into swallowing and digesting harmful cell-surface proteins. Cancer cells need large amounts of iron to proliferate, and rely on surface receptors to shuttle the iron across the cell membrane. A team of researchers developed antibodies called transferrin receptor targeting chimeras, which bind to these iron receptors and to other cell-surface proteins, one of which is involved in suppressing the immune system. When the iron is pulled into the cell, both proteins are dragged inside with it. The iron receptor is released and returns to the cell surface, but the other protein is destroyed by digestive enzymes inside the cell. This prevents the cancer cell from using a protein that helps it to hide from the immune system. 

New Scientist | 4 min read (paywall)
Reference: bioRxiv preprint (not peer reviewed) 


The radiotherapy doses given to men with prostate cancer could safely be slashed by three-quarters by giving 5 higher doses instead of 20 smaller ones, according to a study presented at the American Society for Radiation Oncology annual meeting. (The Guardian | 4 min read) 


Cancer-killing toxins found in tiny marine organisms called dinoflagellates have been synthesized in the laboratory, solving the problem of scalability. The synthetic version of the molecule portimine A had a potent effect against 20 types of mouse and human tumour cells, including leukaemia, breast cancer and glioblastoma. It also slowed tumour growth in mice. The small size of single-celled dinoflagellates means it is almost impossible to extract large quantities of portimine A and B from them, so synthesis is the only way to turn these molecules into cancer drugs. 

Reference: Nature paper (20 September) 

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