Biotech - The Cutting Edge: cool stuff from the frontiers of medicine

Innovations that caught our eye this week include a promising approach to making universal vaccines using a method worthy of Dr Frankenstein. Meanwhile, “organs-on-a-chip” are helping to unravel the mysteries of Parkinson’s and other complex diseases, which could unlock new avenues to potential cures.

Building a universal flu vaccine.
Scientists have just completed the first human trial of what could be a universal flu vaccine. The scientists built a Frankenstein’s monster of a virus from pieces of different flu strains to train the body’s immune system to recognise and react to multiple variants. Flu virus surfaces are studded with proteins that look a bit like flower buds with a “head” and a “stalk”. The head is the bit that gets the virus into our cells, and is also the part that attracts the most attention from our body’s natural defences. That in turn means it is also the bit that mutates fastest to “escape” our immune systems. The “stalk” is much more stable, so if the body can be persuaded to fight the stalk too, that could bring immunity to a wide range of flu strains. A phase 1 clinical trial of a vaccine based on this idea, using different heads and stalks, has boosted human subjects’ “stalk antibodies” eight-fold, and the antibodies the subjects produced reacted to stalks from several different viruses. Mice injected with the antibodies were also 95% healthier after virus exposure than mice who got serum from unvaccinated volunteers. Though early, these results could signpost the way to future universal vaccines.

Organs-on-a-chip get us closer to solving Parkinson’s Disease.
A team of biology, medical and engineering researchers at MIT has been developing small devices that grow engineered “tissue models” of different organs connected together by tiny (microfluidic) channels − a kind of halfway house between a petri dish and a living research animal. The goal is to build the simplest possible system to see how complex diseases affect different parts of the body, and how those effects interact with each other. The researchers believe this can help drive breakthroughs in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, where they say “the overwhelming disease complexity on a whole organismal level is a roadblock to progress”.

The key insight published in a new article is that certain kind of nutrients (shortchain fatty acids) are good for healthy brain cells, but lead to higher rates of cell death in the brain cells of Parkinson’s patients. By selectively adding and removing different components to the organ-on-a-chip model, researchers also found clues about why and how the effect is being produced, which could in turn signpost useful pathways to explore for a cure. Among our coverage, Oxford BioMedica# has a partnered gene therapy product for Parkinson’s in the pipeline, and PureTech Health is focused on the brain-immune-gut axis that underlies this new work.