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USAID slashes funding for scheme identifying zoonotic diseases; The latest health stories from around the world

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

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has prematurely ended a $125 million program aimed at identifying viruses that might harm humans in animals. Many see this as a fallout from the concern that researchers studying bat viruses may have triggered the COVID-19 pandemic.

USAID launched the program, known as the Discovery & Exploration of Emerging Pathogens – Viral Zoonoses (DEEP VZN), in October 2021. It tapped the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health at Washington State University (WSU) to lead a consortium that planned to work in up to 12 foreign countries over 5 years. Goals included training people in those countries to safely collect and characterize viruses found in animals, and to identify and develop strategies to thwart pathogens that might gain the capacity to jump to humans and spark a global pandemic.

In late July, however, USAID officials notified WSU investigators that they had cancelled DEEP VZN (pronounced “deep vision”), as first reported last week by The BMJ. “This decision is in no way a reflection on the performance or capability of the prime partner, Washington State University, or its consortium of partners,” a spokesperson for USAID told ScienceInsider.

USAID did not reply to questions about whether the early death of DEEP VZN was linked to intense concerns voiced by lawmakers in the US Congress—mostly Republicans—and some scientists that

SARS-CoV-2 originated from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, that studied bat coronaviruses. No compelling evidence supports this theory, but it has gained some traction with the public, too.

WSU’s Guy Palmer, a veterinarian who founded the global health school there in 2007, says he’s disappointed by the decision. “Stepping away from global surveillance is not wise,” Palmer says. “It creates a vacuum, and there are certainly other nations that are less committed to data transparency that are more than happy to fill that gap.”

Researchers who have been critical of what they see as risky virus research applauded the decision. “Wow! USAID has terminated DEEP VZN! This is a major win in the global fight against lab-generated pandemics,” quantitative biologist Justin Kinney of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory posted on X (formerly Twitter). Kinney is a co-founder of Biosafety.

Epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo, who heads the Brown University Pandemic Centre, saw value in DEEP VZN but said it likely was going to trigger a “land mine of hearings” in Congress. She also questioned why it was housed at USAID in the first place. “It seems like the wrong vehicle for this kind of work,” Nuzzo says. “If anything, you’d want to do it through a science agency that goes through an external peer-review process to make sure that the projects being proposed are the most rigorous and most likely to net scientific benefit. And that just seems like a weird line of work for a development agency.”


Researchers have coaxed human stem cells to form early-stage human kidneys in pigs—the first time a human organ has been produced in another animal. The advance, stem cell researchers say, could bring pig-grown human organs closer to reality, offering a new solution for the many people on waitlists for transplants.

“This is a big step forward in the field,” says developmental biologist Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte of Altos Labs, whose team has experimented with growing human stem cells in other species but who was not involved with the current work. The kidneys the scientists generated weren’t intended to be transplanted into patients, but Izpisúa Belmonte says the new research “hints that the ultimate goal of developing human organs in other mammals might be possible.”

Transplant surgeons seeking to address the scarcity of human organs have already implanted pig kidneys and hearts into a few brain-dead people and terminal patients in experimental procedures. Although these came from pigs that had been genetically modified so their organs would avoid immediate rejection by the human recipients, this strategy would still likely require lifelong treatment with immune-suppressing drugs. Growing human organs in pigs instead is an alluring alternative for transplants because patients could receive organs derived from their own stem cells, which shouldn’t spark an immune attack.


Paris last week sprayed insecticides to kill the Aedes albopictus mosquito that spreads dengue, in the city’s first mosquito fumigation campaign. The trigger for the spraying was two cases of dengue in people who reportedly developed the disease shortly after having travelled outside the country. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says France also had many locally acquired cases—65 in 2022 and four this year, most in the southern part of the country that has the Mediterranean climate this mosquito species prefers.

Neighbouring Spain and Italy have also reported locally acquired cases over the past 5 years. France first detected A. albopictus—also known as the Asian tiger mosquito—in 1999, but it died out, only becoming endemic after a new introduction in 2004. The species, which can also transmit chikungunya and Zika virus, may be heading northward in Europe because of climate change.


Tumour cells trick the immune system into complacency by persistently activating the stimulator of interferon genes (STING) pathway. This pathway normally alerts the body to foreign or damaged cells, but it becomes desensitized when overstimulated. Researchers tracked interactions between cells using a new computational method called ContactTracing. Chronic activation of the STING pathway led to the rewiring of downstream signalling, stifling the immune response and allowing cancer cells to spread. The finding might explain why drugs that stimulate this pathway have so far failed as cancer treatments.


Inserting tiny devices into brain tumours for a few hours during surgery might help oncologists to determine which chemotherapy will be most effective for each patient. In a proof-of-concept study, microdevices smaller than the tip of a pen were implanted into the brain tumours of six adults for up to 3 hours during surgery. The devices released nine chemotherapies into different parts of the tumours. After surgery, the response of cancer cells to each chemotherapy was analysed, revealing that some drugs were more effective than others at damaging and killing the tumours, and that each patient had a different response to each chemotherapy.


A protein called interferon-ε could be the first effective immunotherapy for ovarian cancer. Experiments using tumour-cell lines and mice revealed that this cytokine is expressed in the fallopian tube, where some types of ovarian cancer originate, and that tumours occur when the protein is absent.


Solid tumours in eight mice disappeared after treatment with chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells that had been base edited six times.

Base editing creates a single alteration in the genetic code. Three of these base edits allowed the T cells to survive transfer from a donor to a recipient; the other three helped the immune cells to fight solid tumours. Alyssa, a teenage girl with leukaemia, was successfully treated last year with CAR T cells that had been base-edited four times. “Six, I think, is the most that we’ve ever seen,” says molecular biologist and co-author Ryan Murray.


Researchers have doubled up on tactics to develop an immunotherapy strategy that could treat most cancers of the blood. The first layer of the approach involves infusing into the body immune cells that are genetically modified to target a protein found on most blood cancer cells. In the second layer, researchers use CRISPR gene editing to make normal blood-making stem cells invisible to the cancer-attacking immune cells. The two-pronged approach was used to treat mice with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), a blood cancer that cannot currently be treated with this kind of immunotherapy. Another piece of research uses a similar strategy to treat AML in mice. Researchers made immune cells that targeted a different protein on cancer cells and then modified that protein on the animals’ stem cells to protect them. Because the strategy involves replacing the stem cells that make blood in a person, it has risks and needs further testing.


A drug designed to help children with a common form of dwarfism to grow taller has sparked controversy. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Voxzogo (vosoritide) in 2021 for children 5 years of age and older with achondroplasia, a genetic condition that leads to short stature. The European Medicines Agency approved the drug for children aged 2 and older. Many hope that Voxzogo and similar drugs in development will also address the life-threatening complications that come with the disorder, such as sleep apnoea, ear infections, pinched spinal cords and a build-up of fluid in the skull. But the effectiveness of such treatments beyond boosting height is yet to be fully understood and could take decades to find out. Meanwhile, disability advocates worry that parents of average height children will make a treatment decision out of fear, without understanding what it means to live with achondroplasia.

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