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The Rutgers Global Health Institute, part of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey – A New Venture Designed to Improve Health and Wellness Globally  

Author: Gail S. Thornton, M.A.

Co-Editor: The VOICES of Patients, Hospital CEOs, HealthCare Providers, Caregivers and Families: Personal Experience with Critical Care and Invasive Medical Procedures


The newly formed Rutgers Global Health Institute, part of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS) of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey (http://rbhs.rutgers.edu/), represents a new way of thinking by providing positive health outcomes to potential patients around the world affected by disease and/or by a negative environmental impact. The goal of the Institute is three-fold:

  • to improve the health and wellness of individuals and populations around the world,
  • to create a healthier world through innovation, engineering, and technology, and
  • to educate involved citizens and effective leaders in global health.

Richard G. Marlink, M.D., a former Harvard University professor recognized internationally for research and leadership in the fight against AIDS, was recently appointed as the inaugural Henry Rutgers Professor of Global Health and Director of the Rutgers Global Health Institute.

The Rutgers Global Health Institute was formed last year after research by the University into the most significant health issues affecting under-served and under-developed populations. While conducting research for its five-year strategic plan, the RBHS looked for bold and ambitious ways that they could take advantage of the changing health care environment and band together to tackle the world’s leading health and environmental causes, contributing to the betterment of society. One of the results was the formation of the Rutgers Global Health Institute, supporting cross-functionally Rutgers faculty, scientists, and clinicians who represent the best in their respective fields of health innovation, research and patient care related to global health.

More broadly, the RBHS, created in 2013, is one of the nation’s leading – and largest — academic health centers that provides health care education, research and clinical service and care. It is an umbrella organization that encompasses eight schools – Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, New Jersey Medical School, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, School of Health Professions, School of Nursing and School of Public Health.

In addition, the RBHS encompasses six centers and institutes that provide cancer treatment and research, neuroscience, advanced biotechnology and medicine, environmental and occupational health and health care policy and aging research. Those centers and institutes are the Brain Health Institute, Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, and Rutgers Institute for Translational Medicine and Research. And lastly, the RBHS includes the University Behavioral Health Care.


Rutgers Institute For Health Building

Image SOURCE: Photograph courtesy of the Rutgers Global Health Institute, Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey.   


Below is my interview with the Inaugural Henry Rutgers Professor of Global Health and Director of the Rutgers Global Health Institute Richard G. Marlink, M.D., which occurred in April, 2017.

You were recently appointed as the inaugural Henry Rutgers Professor of Global Health and Director of the new Rutgers Global Health Institute at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS). What are the goals of the new Institute?

Dr. Marlink: The overarching goal of the Rutgers Global Health Institute is to improve the health and wellness of individuals and populations in need both here and around the world, to create a healthier world through innovation, engineering, and technology, and to educate involved citizens and effective leaders in global health. We will do that by building on the aspiration of our originating organization — RBHS, which is to be recognized as one of the best academic health centers in the U.S., known for its education, research, clinical care, and commitment to improving access to health care and reducing health care disparities.

As the newly formed Rutgers Global Health Institute, we are embarking on an ambitious agenda to take advantage of the changing health care environment. Working across schools and disciplines at Rutgers University, we plan to have a significant impact within at least four signature programs identified by RBHS, which are cancer, environmental and occupational health, infection and inflammation, and public health. We also will include all other parts of Rutgers, as desired, beyond RBHS.

My background as a global health researcher, physician, and leader of grassroots health care delivery will help develop programs to undertake global health initiatives that assist populations locally and around the world. I believe that involved citizens, including students, can greatly impact major societal issues.

A key role in the strategic growth of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences – an umbrella organization for eight schools, four centers and institutes and a behavioral health network — is to broaden the Rutgers University’s presence in the public health community globally to improve health and wellness. How will the new Rutgers Global Health Institute be part of this growth?

Dr. Marlink: Our RBHS Chancellor Brian Strom [M.D., M.P.H.] believes that we are positioned to become one of the finest research universities in the country, working cross-functionally with our three campuses in Newark, Camden and New Brunswick. In developing the strategic plan, Dr. Strom notes that we become much stronger and more capable and productive by leveraging our strengths to collaborate and working together across disciplines to best serve the needs of our community locally and globally.

Specifically, we are formulating plans to focus on these areas: old and new infectious disease epidemics; the expanding burden of noncommunicable diseases in poor populations; the social and environmental threats to health, poverty and humanitarian crises; and inadequate local and developing country health systems. We will support the development of global health research programs university-wide, the recruitment of faculty with interests in global health, and the creation of a web-based global health resource center for faculty and students with interests in these areas.

We are still a very young part of RBHS, and of Rutgers overall, so our plans are a work in progress. As tangible examples of our commitment to improving health and wellness globally, we plan to enhance global public health by establishing links between global public health and environmental and occupational health faculty in studies related to air pollution, climate change, and pesticide health.

Another example the Institute has in the works is expanding links with the School of Engineering. In fact, we are creating a senior-level joint faculty position with the School of Engineering and Rutgers-New Brunswick. Still other plans involve forging collaborative relationships between the Rutgers Cancer Program, under the auspices of Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, which is New Jersey’s only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center, and other organizations and partners around the world, especially in poor and less-developed countries.

How is the Rutgers Global Health Institute strategically prepared for changing the health care paradigm?

Dr. Marlink: We intend to be an international global health leader in the health sciences, in public health, and in other related, but non-biomedical professions. This means that we will incorporate our learnings from laboratory sciences and the clinical, behavioral, and public health sciences, as well as from engineering, business, economics, law, and social sciences. This broad approach is critical in this health care environment as accountability for patient care is shifting to large groups of providers. Health care will be more value-driven and our health care teams must work collaboratively to be innovative. Our focus on health care is now also population-based, rather than only individual-based, and we are moving from large regional centers toward community centers, even in small and remote areas of the world. We are encouraged by rapid changes in technology that will provide new opportunities for shared knowledge, patient care and research.

Additionally, we are exploring ways to identify and recruit key faculty who will increase our breadth and depth of key disease areas as well as provide guidance on how to pursue science grants from the National Institute of Health (NIH)-funded program project grants and specialized research programs.

Currently, Rutgers University receives NIH funding for research in public health, population health, health promotion, wellness, health behavior, preventive medicine, and global health.

As a researcher, scholar and leader of grassroots health care delivery, how have your past positions prepared you for this new challenge? Your last position was the Bruce A. Beal, Robert L. Beal, and Alexander S. Beal Professor of the Practice of Public Health at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Executive Director of the Harvard AIDS Initiative.

Dr. Marlink: I have been a global health practitioner, researcher, and executive leader for almost three decades. I am trained in medical oncology and HIV medicine and have conducted clinical, epidemiological and implementation research in Africa since 1985. I was first introduced to global health when finishing my Hematology/Oncology fellowship at what is now the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in the mid-1980’s in Boston.

During my Hematology/Oncology fellowship and after the co-organizing the first, hospital-based AIDS care clinic in the New England region, I was trying to learn the ropes in virology and molecular biology in the laboratory group of Max Essex at Harvard University. During that time in the mid-1980s, our laboratory group along with Senegalese and French collaborators discovered the first evidence for the existence of a new human retrovirus, HIV-2, a distinct second type of human AIDS virus, with its apparent origins in West Africa.

As a clinician, I was able to assist in Senegal, helping set up clinical care and create a research cohort in Dakar for hundreds of women sex workers infected with this new human retrovirus and care for them and their families. I discovered that a little can go a long way in poor settings, such as in Senegal. I became hooked on helping create solutions to help people in poor settings in Africa and elsewhere. Long-term partnerships and friendships have subsequently been made in many developing countries. Throughout my career, I have built successful partnerships with many governments, companies, and non-profit organizations, and those relationships have been the foundation to build successful public health partnerships in poor regions of the world.

In the 1990s, I helped create the Botswana-Harvard Partnership for HIV Research and Education (BHP). Through this partnership, the Government of Botswana and BHP have worked together to combat the AIDS epidemic in Botswana. Under my direction, and in partnership with the Botswana Ministry of Health, BHP launched the KITSO AIDS Training Program in 1999. Kitso is the Setswana word for ‘knowledge.”

KITSO is the national training program for physicians, nurses, and pharmacists, which has trained more than 14,000 health professionals in HIV/AIDS care and antiretroviral treatment. KITSO training modules address issues, such as antiretroviral therapy, HIV/AIDS-related disease management, gender-specific HIV issues, task-sharing, supportive and palliative care, and various psychosocial and counseling themes.

In addition, I was the Botswana County Director for Harvard Chan School’s 3-country President’s Emergency Plan AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) grant, The Botswana PEPFAR effort includes a Clinical and Laboratory Master Training Program and the creation of the Botswana Ministry of Health’s Monitoring and Evaluation Unit. Concurrently, I was the Principal Investigator of Project HEART in five African countries with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

Also in Botswana, in 2000, I was a co-founder of a distinct partnership involving a large commitment to the Government of Botswana from the Bill and Melinda Gates and Merck Foundations.  This commitment continues as an independent non-governmental organization (NGO) to provide support for various AIDS prevention and care efforts in Botswana and the region.

All these global health experiences, it seems, have led me to my new role at the Rutgers Global Health Institute.

What is your advice for ways that the business community or university students can positively impact major societal issues?

Dr. Marlink: My advice is to be optimistic and follow that desire to want to make a difference. Margaret Mead, the American cultural anthropologist, said years ago, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I believe that to be our guiding principle as we embark on this new initiative.

I also believe that students should become specialized in specific areas prior to going fully into “global health,” as they develop in their careers, since they will then add more value later. For example, students should be grounded in the theory of global health in their undergraduate studies and then develop a specialization, such as becoming a statistician, economist, or medical doctor, to make a longer and greater impact in improving global health. As for the business community, we are looking for committed individuals who are specialized in specific areas to bring their knowledge to our organization, as partners in the fight against disease, improving the environment, or helping with humanitarian issues. We are committed to improving health and wellness, increasing access to the best health care, and reducing health disparities.

What is it about your current role that you enjoy the most?

Dr. Marlink: I enjoy building research, learning, and clinical programs, as I have in the HIV arena since the early 1980s. At that time, there were limited resources and funding, but a willingness among universities, non-governmental organizations, hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry to make a difference. Today in my new role, I’d like all of us to have an impact on health and wellness for those in need – to build programs from the ground up while partnering with organizations with the same goal in mind. I know it can be done.

Over my career, when I have a patient here or in a developed country who has been diagnosed with cancer, but is cured or in remission, that puts a huge smile on my face and in my heart. It also impacts you for the rest of your life. Or when I see an infant born without HIV because of the local country programs that are put in place, that also makes me feel so fulfilled, so happy.

I have worked with many talented individuals who have become great friends and partners over my career who have helped create a positive life for under-served populations around the world. We need to remember that progress happens with one person at a time or one program at a time. That’s how you truly improve health around the world.


Headshot - 2016

Image SOURCE: Photograph of Inaugural Henry Rutgers Professor of Global Health and Director of the Rutgers Global Health Institute at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, courtesy of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Richard G. Marlink, M.D.
Inaugural Henry Rutgers Professor of Global Health

Director of the Rutgers Global Health Institute

Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences

Richard G. Marlink, M.D., a Harvard University professor recognized internationally for research and leadership in the fight against AIDS, was recently appointed as the inaugural Henry Rutgers Professor of Global Health and Director of a new Rutgers Global Health Institute at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS). His role is to develop the strategic growth of RBHS by broadening the Rutgers University’s presence in the public health community to improve health and wellness.

Previously, Dr. Marlink was the Bruce A. Beal, Robert L. Beal, and Alexander S. Beal Professor of the Practice of Public Health at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Executive Director of the Harvard AIDS Initiative.

At the start of the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Marlink was instrumental in setting up the first, hospital-based HIV/AIDS clinic in Boston, Massachusetts, and studied the impact of the HIV virus in west and central Africa. After helping to start the Botswana-Harvard Partnership in 1996, he founded the Kitso AIDS Training Program, which would become Botswana’s national AIDS training program. Kitso means knowledge in the local Setswana language.

Dr. Marlink was the principal investigator for the Tshepo Study, the first large-scale antiretroviral treatment study in Botswana, in addition to conducting other clinical and epidemiological studies in the region. Also in Botswana, he was the country director for Harvard’s contribution to the joint Botswana and United States governments’ HIV/AIDS and TB training, monitoring and evaluation PEPFAR effort.

In the mid-1980s in Senegal, Dr. Marlink was part of the team of Senegalese, French and American researchers who discovered and then studied the second type of human AIDS virus, HIV-2. Since then, he has been involved in multiple HIV/AIDS care, treatment and prevention programs in many African countries, including in Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. He has also organized initiatives to enhance HIV/AIDS care in Brazil, Puerto Rico and Thailand.

Dr. Marlink has served as the scientific director, the vice president for implementation and the senior adviser for medical and scientific affairs at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, where he was principal investigator of Project HEART, a five-country CDC/PEPFAR effort in Africa. That project began in 2004 and by 2011 had placed more than 1 million people living with HIV into care clinics. More than 565,000 of these people were placed on life-saving antiretroviral treatment.

Since 2000, Dr. Marlink has been the founding member of the board of directors of the African Comprehensive HIV/AIDS Partnerships, a public-partnership among the government of Botswana and the Bill and Melinda Gates and Merck Foundations to provide ongoing support for numerous HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment efforts in that country.

He has authored or co-authored more than 130 scientific articles; written a textbook, Global AIDS Crisis: A Reference Handbook; and co-edited the book, AIDS in Africa, 2nd Edition. Additionally, he served as chief editor for two special supplements to the journal AIDS and as executive editor of the seminal 320-author, three-volume textbook, From the Ground Up: A Guide to Building Comprehensive HIV/AIDS Care Programs in Resource Limited Settings.

A trained fellow in hematology/oncology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Marlink received his medical degree from the University of New Mexico and his bachelor’s degree from Brown University.


Editor’s note:

We would like to thank Marilyn DiGiaccobe, head of Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives, at the Rutgers Global Health Institute, for the help and support she provided during this interview.



Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (http://rbhs.rutgers.edu/)

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Nanosensors for Protein Recognition and Gene Proteome Interaction

Larry H Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Synthetic Antibody Detects Proteins


Research could lead to nanosensors that recognize fibrinogen, insulin, or other biomarkers

Using carbon nanotubes, MIT chemical engineers have devised a new method for detecting proteins, including fibrinogen, one of the coagulation factors critical to the blood-clotting cascade.

This approach, if developed into an implantable sensor, could be useful for monitoring patients who are taking blood thinners, allowing doctors to make sure the drugs aren’t interfering too much with blood clotting.

The new method is the first to create synthetic recognition sites (similar to natural antibodies) for proteins and to couple them directly to a powerful nanosensor such as a carbon nanotube. The researchers have also made significant progress on a similar recognition site for insulin, which could enable better monitoring of patients with diabetes. It may also be possible to use this approach to detect proteins associated with cancer or heart disease, says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor in Chemical Engineering at MIT.

A targeted search

The new sensor is the latest example of a method developed in Strano’s lab, known asCorona Phase Molecular Recognition (CoPhMoRe).

This technique takes advantage of the interactions between a given polymer and a nanoparticle surface such as that of a fluorescent single-walled carbon nanotube, when the polymer is wrapped around the nanotube.

Certain regions of the polymers latch onto the nanoparticle surface like anchors, while other regions extend outwards into their environment. This outward-facing region, also known as the adsorbed phase or corona, has a 3-D structure that depends on the composition of the polymer.

CoPhMoRe works when a specific polymer adsorbs to the nanoparticle surface and creates a corona that recognizes the target molecule. These interactions are very specific, just like the binding between an antibody and its target. Binding of the target alters the carbon nanotubes’ natural fluorescence, allowing the researchers to measure how much of the target molecule is present.

Strano’s lab has previously used this approach to find recognition sites and develop nansensors for estradiol and riboflavin, among other molecules. The new paper represents their first attempt to identify corona phases that can detect proteins, which are larger, more complex, and more fragile than the molecules identified by their previous sensors.

For this study, Bisker began by screening carbon nanotubes wrapped in 20 different polymers including DNA, RNA, and polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer often added to drugs to increase their longevity in the bloodstream.

On their own, none of the polymers had any affinity for the 14 proteins tested, all taken from human blood. However, when the researchers tested polymer-wrapped nanotubes against the same proteins, they turned up a match between one of the modified nanotubes and fibrinogen.

“A chemist or a biologist would not be able to predict ahead of time that there should be any kind of affinity between fibrinogen and this corona phase,” Strano says. “It really is a new kind of molecular recognition.”

Fibrinogen, one of the most abundant proteins in human blood, is part of the blood-clotting cascade. When a blood vessel is damaged, an enzyme called thrombin converts fibrinogen into fibrin, a stringy protein that forms clots to seal the wound.

A sensor for fibrinogen could help doctors determine if patients who are taking blood thinners still have enough clotting capability to protect them from injury, and could allow doctors to calculate more finely tuned dosages. It could also be used to test patients’ blood clotting before they go into surgery, or to monitor wound healing, Bisker says.

Synthetic antibodies

The researchers believe their synthetic molecular recognition agents are an improvement over existing natural systems based on antibodies or DNA sequences known as aptamers, which are more fragile and tend to degrade over time.

“One of the advantages of this is that it’s a completely synthetic system that can have a much longer lifetime within the body,” Bisker says.

In 2013, researchers in Strano’s lab demonstrated that carbon nanotube sensors can remain active in mice for more than a year after being embedded in a polymer gel and surgically implanted under the skin.

In addition to insulin, the researchers are also interested in detecting troponin, a protein that is released by dying heart cells, or detecting proteins associated with cancer, which would be useful for monitoring the success of chemotherapy. These and other protein sensors could become critical components of devices that deliver drugs in response to a sign of illness.

“By measuring therapeutic markers in the human body in real time, we can enable drug delivery systems that are much smarter, and release drugs in precise quantities,” Strano says. “However, measurement of those biomarkers is the first step.”


New Device Uses Carbon Nanotubes to Snag Molecules
Nanotube “forest” in a microfluidic channel may help detect rare proteins and viruses.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Nanotube “forest” in a microfluidic channel may help detect rare proteins and viruses.

Engineers at MIT have devised a new technique for trapping hard-to-detect molecules, using forests of carbon nanotubes.

The team modified a simple microfluidic channel with an array of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes — rolled lattices of carbon atoms that resemble tiny tubes of chicken wire. The researchers had previously devised a method for standing carbon nanotubes on their ends, like trees in a forest. With this method, they created a three-dimensional array of permeable carbon nanotubes within a microfluidic device, through which fluid can flow.

Now the researchers have given the nanotube array the ability to trap certain particles. To do this, the team coated the array, layer by layer, with polymers of alternating electric charge.

“You can think of each nanotube in the forest as being concentrically coated with different layers of polymer,” says Brian Wardle, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “If you drew it in cross-section, it would be like rings on a tree.”

Depending on the number of layers deposited, the researchers can create thicker or thinner nanotubes and thereby tailor the porosity of the forest to capture larger or smaller particles of interest.

The nanotubes’ polymer coating may also be chemically manipulated to bind specific bioparticles flowing through the forest. To test this idea, the researchers applied an established technique to treat the surface of the nanotubes with antibodies that bind to prostate specific antigen (PSA), a common experimental target. The polymer-coated arrays captured 40 percent more antigens, compared with arrays lacking the polymer coating.

Wardle says the combination of carbon nanotubes and multilayer coatings may help finely tune microfluidic devices to capture extremely small and rare particles, such as certain viruses and proteins.

“There are smaller bioparticles that contain very rich amounts of information that we don’t currently have the ability to access in point-of-care [medical testing] devices like microfluidic chips,” says Wardle, who is a co-author on the paper. “Carbon nanotube arrays could actually be a platform that could target that size of bioparticle.”

The paper’s lead author is Allison Yost, a former graduate student who is currently an engineer at Accion Systems. Others on the paper include graduate student Setareh Shahsavari; postdoc Roberta Polak; School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Innovation Gareth McKinley; professor of materials science and engineering Michael Rubner, and Raymond A. And Helen E. St. Laurent Professor of Chemical Engineering Robert Cohen.

A porous forest

Carbon nanotubes have been a subject of intense scientific study, as they possess exceptional electrical, mechanical, and optical properties. While their use in microfluidics has not been well explored, Wardle says carbon nanotubes are an ideal platform because their properties may be manipulated to attract certain nanometer-sized molecules. Additionally, carbon nanotubes are 99 percent porous, meaning a nanotube is about 1 percent carbon and 99 percent air.

“Which is what you need,” Wardle says. “You need to flow quantities of fluid through this material to shed all the millions of particles you don’t want to find and grab the one you do want to find.”

What’s more, Wardle says, a three-dimensional forest of carbon nanotubes would provide much more surface area on which target molecules may interact, compared with the two-dimensional surfaces in conventional microfluidics.

“The capture efficiency would scale with surface area,” Wardle notes.

A versatile array

The team integrated a three-dimensional array of carbon nanotubes into a microfluidic device by using chemical vapor deposition and photolithography to grow and pattern carbon nanotubes onto silicon wafers. They then grouped the nanotubes into a cylinder-shaped forest, measuring about 50 micrometers tall and 1 millimeter wide, and centered the array within a 3 millimeter-wide, 7-millimeter long microfluidic channel.

The researchers coated the nanotubes in successive layers of alternately charged polymer solutions in order to create distinct, binding layers around each nanotube. To do so, they flowed each solution through the channel and found they were able to create a more uniform coating with a gap between the top of the nanotube forest and the roof of the channel. Such a gap allowed solutions to flow over, then down into the forest, coating each individual nanotube. In the absence of a gap, solutions simply flowed around the forest, coating only the outer nanotubes.

After coating the nanotube array in layers of polymer solution, the researchers demonstrated that the array could be primed to detect a given molecule, by treating it with antibodies that typically bind to prostate specific antigen (PSA). They pumped in a solution containing small amounts of PSA and found that the array captured the antigen effectively, throughout the forest, rather than just on the outer surface of a typical microfluidic element.

Wardle says that the nanotube array is extremely versatile, as the carbon nanotubes may be manipulated mechanically, electrically, and optically, while the polymer coatings may be chemically altered to capture a wide range of particles. He says an immediate target may be biomarkers called exosomes, which are less than 100 nanometers wide and can be important signals of a disease’s progression.

“Science is really picking up on how much information these particles contain, and they’re sort of everywhere, but really hard to find, even with large-scale equipment,” Wardle says. “This type of device actually has all the characteristics and functionality that would allow you to go after bioparticles like exosomes and things that really truly are nanometer scale.”

This research was funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation.


A Natural Light Switch

MIT scientists identify and map the protein behind a light-sensing mechanism.

MIT scientists, working with colleagues in Spain, have discovered and mapped a light-sensing protein that uses vitamin B12 to perform key functions, including gene regulation.

The result, derived from studying proteins from the bacterium Thermus thermophilus, involves at least two findings of broad interest. First, it expands our knowledge of the biological role of vitamin B12, which was already understood to help convert fat into energy, and to be involved in brain formation, but has now been identified as a key part of photoreceptor proteins — the structures that allow organisms to sense and respond to light.

Second, the research describes a new mode of gene regulation, in which the light-sensing proteins play a key role. In so doing, the scientists observe, the bacteria have repurposed existing protein structures that use vitamin B12, and put them to work in new ways.



“Nature borrowed not just the vitamin, but really the whole enzyme unit, and modified it … and made it a light sensor,” says Catherine Drennan, a professor of chemistry and biology at MIT


The paper describes the photoreceptors in three different states: in the dark, bound to DNA, and after being exposed to light.

“It’s wonderful that we’ve been able to get all the series of structures, to understand how it works at each stage,” Drennan says.

The paper has nine co-authors, including Drennan; graduate students Percival Yang-Ting Chen, Marco Jost, and Gyunghoon Kang of MIT; Jesus Fernandez-Zapata and S. Padmanabhan of the Institute of Physical Chemistry Rocasolano, in Madrid; and Monserrat Elias-Arnanz, Juan Manuel Ortiz-Guerreo, and Maria Carmen Polanco, of the University of Murcia, in Murcia, Spain.

The researchers used a combination of X-ray crystallography techniques and in-vitro analysis to study the bacteria. Drennan, who has studied enzymes that employ vitamin B12 since she was a graduate student, emphasizes that key elements of the research were performed by all the co-authors.

Jost performed crystallography to establish the shapes of the structures, while the Spanish researchers, Drennan notes, “did all of the control experiments to show that we were really thinking about this right,” among other things.


By studying the structures of the photoreceptor proteins in their three states, the scientists developed a more thorough understanding of the structures, and their functions, than they would have by viewing the proteins in just one state.

Microbes, like many other organisms, benefit from knowing whether they are in light or darkness. The photoreceptors bind to the DNA in the dark, and prevent activity pertaining to the genes of Thermus thermophilus. When light hits the microbes, the photoreceptor structures cleave and “fall apart,” as Drennan puts it, and the bacteria start producing carotenoids, which protect the organisms from negative effects of sunlight, such as DNA damage.

The research also shows that the exact manner in which the photoreceptors bind to the DNA is novel. The structures contain tetramers, four subunits of the protein, of which exactly three are bound to the genetic material — something Drennan says surprised her.

“That’s the best part about science,” Drennan says. “You see something novel, then you think it’s not really going to be that novel, but you do the experiments [and it is].”

Other scientists say the findings are significant. “It’s a very exciting development,” says Rowena Matthews, a professor emerita of biological chemistry at the University of Michigan, who has read the paper. Of the newly discovered use of vitamin B12 and a derivative of it, adenosylcobalamin, Matthews adds, “There was very limited knowledge of its versatility.”

Drennan adds that in the long run, the finding could have practical applications, such as the engineering of light-directed control of DNA transcription, or the development of controlled interactions between proteins.

“I would be very interested in … thinking about whether there could be practical applications of this,” Drennan says.


HIV Protein Manipulates Hundreds of Human Genes

Findings search for new or improved treatments for patients with AIDS.

UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers have deciphered how a small protein made by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS manipulates human genes to further its deadly agenda.

The findings, published in the online journal eLife, could aid in the search for new or improved treatments for patients with AIDS, or to the development of preventive strategies.

“We have identified the molecular mechanisms by which the Tat protein made by HIV interacts with the host cell to activate or repress several hundred human genes,” said Dr. Iván D’Orso, Assistant Professor of Microbiology at UT Southwestern and senior author of the study. “The findings clearly suggest that blocking Tat activity may be of therapeutic value to HIV patients.”

It has long been known that HIV causes AIDS by hijacking the body’s immune cells, transforming them into HIV factories and killing other immune cells that normally fight disease. HIV also hides in cells and continues to undermine the host’s immune system despite antiretroviral therapy that has improved the outlook of those with AIDS.

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2012, estimated 1.2 million Americans were living with HIV, including 156,300 whose infections had not been diagnosed. About 50,000 people in the U.S. are newly infected with HIV annually, the CDC projects. In 2013, the CDC estimated that over 26,000 Americans had the advanced form of HIV infection, AIDS.

Like all retroviruses, HIV has very few genes of its own and must take over the host’s cellular machinery in order to propagate and spread throughout the body. Although the broad aspects of that cellular hijacking were known, the nuances remain to be explored, Dr. D’Orso said.

“We observed that HIV methodically and precisely manipulates the host’s genes and cellular machinery. We also observed that HIV rewires cellular defensive pathways to benefit survival of the virus,” he added.

The study provides insights into HIV’s ability to survive despite antiretroviral therapy, findings that could lead to new therapeutic targets or ways to make current therapies more effective, he said.

“Our study indicates that this small viral protein, Tat, directly binds to about 400 human genes to generate an environment in which HIV can thrive. Then, this protein precisely turns off the body’s immune defense. It is striking that such a small viral protein has such a large impact,” Dr. D’Orso said. “The human genes and pathways that Tat manipulates correlate well with symptoms observed in these patients, such as immune system hyperactivation, then weakening, and accelerated aging,” Dr. D’Orso said, describing the situation in which HIV infection leads to AIDS.

Italy’s National Institute of Health in Rome recently completed a phase II clinical trial of an experimental vaccine that targets the Tat protein. That trial, which followed 87 HIV-positive patients for up to three years, reported that the vaccine was well-tolerated without significant side effects. However, it will take several years to determine if the vaccine works, Dr. D’Orso said.

Although someone can have HIV for years without showing symptoms, AIDS occurs when HIV blocks the body’s ability to fight off illness. The person then becomes overrun by the opportunistic infections and specific cancers that are hallmarks of AIDS.


New Light Shed on Genetic Regulation

A team of scientists has uncovered greater intricacy in protein signaling than was previously understood, shedding new light on the nature of genetic production.

Christine Vogel, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Biology and one of the study’s senior authors, explains that “to make a protein, we need to make a messenger RNA molecule from the gene encoded in the DNA, and then, in a second process, make proteins from these RNA molecules. Both processes are highly regulated and coupled.”

This coupling is similar to the coupling between a moving escalator and a person walking on it at the same time.

The research takes a closer look at how the two coupled processes change in the cell responding to an outside stimulus.

“Until recently, it has been very difficult to study these systems and researchers have thought that the movement of the escalator is most important during the cellular response,” Vogel explains. “We now show that is not necessarily the case, and under some circumstances, the person’s walking determines the overall outcome.”

In biology, this means that both of the processes—to make RNAs and proteins—play important roles, but with different patterns.

In their study, the scientists, who also included researchers from National University Singapore and Berlin’s Max Delbruck Center, took a closer look at how the two processes exactly respond over time.

Their results showed notable distinctions between DNA and mRNA in the nature of their signaling. Notably, the process of making RNA from DNA was pulse-like—a brief messaging over the studied period that returned to the normal levels by the end of the measurements. By contrast, the process of making a protein from RNA was akin to an on/off switch: once started, levels remained constant for consistent periods before reverting back to long stretches of dormancy.

While the reasons for these differences in cell behavior remain unknown, the researchers believe the answer may lie in the nature of the two tasks.

“It is very costly for the cell to make proteins, but making RNA messages from DNA is a relatively low-energy and simple process, so it makes sense that we see frequent, or pulsating, signaling at this stage,” observes Vogel. “By contrast, creating proteins is an intricate undertaking, requiring a great deal of time and energy. This may be why, once you decided to stop production of proteins, you do not turn it back on that easily—and the other way around.”


Where Cancer Cells May Begin

Scientists use fruit fly genetics to understand how things could go wrong in cancer.

Cancer cells are normal cells that go awry by making bad developmental decisions during their lives. In a study involving the fruit fly equivalent of an oncogene implicated in many human leukemias, Northwestern University researchers have gained insight into how developing cells normally switch to a restricted, or specialized, state and how that process might go wrong in cancer.

The fruit fly’s eye is an intricate pattern of many different specialized cells, such as light-sensing neurons and cone cells. Because flies share with humans many of the same cancer-causing genes, scientists use the precisely made compound eye of Drosophila melanogaster (the common fruit fly) as a workhorse to study what goes wrong in human cancer.



A multidisciplinary team co-led by biologist Richard W. Carthew and engineer Luís A.N. Amaral studied normal cell behavior in the developing eye. The researchers were surprised to discover that the levels of an important protein called Yan start fluctuating wildly when the cell is switching from a more primitive, stem-like state to a more specialized state. If the levels don’t or can’t fluctuate, the cell doesn’t switch and move forward.

“This mad fluctuation, or noise, happens at the time of cell transition,” said Carthew, professor of molecular biosciences in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “For the first time, we see there is a brief time period as the developing cell goes from point A to point B. The noise is a state of ‘in between’ and is important for cells to switch to a more specialized state. This limbo might be where normal cells take a cancerous path.”

The researchers also found that a molecular signal received by a cell receptor called EGFR is important for turning the noise off. If that signal is not received, the cell remains in an uncontrolled state.

By pinpointing this noise and its “off” switch as important points in the normal process of cell differentiation, the Northwestern researchers provide targets for scientists studying how cells can go out of control and transform into cancer cells.

The “noisy” protein the Northwestern researchers studied is called Yan in the fly and Tel-1 in humans. (The protein is a transcription factor.) The Tel-1 protein instructs cells to turn into white blood cells; the gene that produces the protein, oncogene Tel-1, is frequently mutated in leukemia.

The EGFR protein that turns off the noise in flies is called Her-2 in humans. Her-2 is an oncogene that plays an important role in human breast cancer.

“On the surface, flies and humans are very different, but we share a remarkable amount of infrastructure,” said Carthew, a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. “We can use fruit fly genetics to understand how humans work and how things go wrong in cancer and other diseases.”

Fruit fly cells are small and closely packed together, making study of them challenging. Carthew and Amaral’s team of biologists, chemical and biological engineers, computer scientists and chemists together figured out how to identify and analyze thousands and thousands of individual cells in the flies’ eyes.

“In the past, people have built models of regulatory networks that control cell differentiation mostly by genetically perturbing one or two components of the network at a time and then compiling those results into models,” said Amaral, professor of chemical and biological engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering. “We instead measured the retina as it developed and found the unexpected behavior of the key regulatory factors Yan and EGFR.”

Nicolás Peláez, first author of the study and a Ph.D. candidate in interdisciplinary biological sciences working with Amaral and Carthew, built new tools to study this strange feature of noise in developing flies. His methods enabled the researchers to easily measure both the concentration of the Yan protein and its fluctuation (noise).

It takes 15 to 20 hours for a fruit fly cell to go from being an unrestricted cell to a restricted cell, Carthew said. Peláez determined the Yan protein is noisy, or fluctuating, for six to eight of those hours.

“Studying the dynamics of molecules regulating fly-eye patterning can inform us about human disease,” Peláez said. “Using model organisms such as fruit flies will help us understand quantitatively the basic biological principles governing differentiation in complex animals.”


Mechanism of Tumor Suppressing Gene Uncovered

The most commonly mutated gene in cancer,p53, works to prevent tumor formation by keeping mobile elements in check that otherwise lead to genomic instability, UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers have found.

The p53 gene long has been known to suppress tumor formation, but the mechanisms behind this function – and why disabling the gene allows tumors to form – were not fully understood.

Findings from the study answer some of these questions and could one day lead to new ways of diagnosing and treating cancer, said the study’s senior author, Dr. John Abrams, Professor of Cell Biology at UT Southwestern.

The investigators found that normal p53 gene action restrains transposons, mobile genetic elements called retroelements that can make copies of themselves and move to different positions on chromosomes. But, they discovered, when p53 is disabled by mutation, dramatic eruptions of these mobile elements occur. The study revealed that in mice with cancer and in human samples of two types of cancer (Wilms’ tumors and colon tumors) disabled for p53, transposons became very active.

In a healthy state, certain mechanisms work to keep these retroelements quiet and inactive, explained Dr. Abrams. One of those mechanisms is p53 action. Conversely, when p53 is mutated, retroelements can erupt.

“If you take the gene away, transposons can wreak havoc throughout the genome by causing it to become highly dysregulated, which can lead to disease,” Dr. Abrams said. “Our findings help explain why cancer genomes are so much more fluid and destabilized than normal genomes. They also provide a novel framework for understanding how normal cells become tumors.”

Although much more research is needed, Dr. Abrams said, the potential clinical implications of the team’s findings are significant.

“Understanding how p53 prevents tumors raises the prospect of therapeutic interventions to correct cases in which p53 is disabled,” Dr. Abrams said. “If retroelements are at the heart of certain p53-driven cancers, finding ways to suppress them could potentially allow us to prevent those cancers or intervene to keep them from progressing.”

This understanding also could lead to advances in diagnosing some cancers through biomarkers related to p53 and transposon activity.

“One possibility is that perhaps blood or urine tests could detect dysregulated retroelements that could be indicative of certain types of cancer,” Dr. Abrams said.

Read Full Post »

Concerns about Viruses

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator




Zika: The Unexpected Pandemic

by Michael Smith

Sanjay Gupta, MD   Medscape     http://www.medpagetoday.com/InfectiousDisease/GeneralInfectiousDisease/55915

No one really saw Zika virus coming or cared much if it did.

In general, it has been regarded “clinically inconsequential,” Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told MedPage Today — so much so that it wasn’t even on a recent World Health Organization list of pathogens that need urgent research to prevent epidemics.

And — absent its apparent association with a spike in cases of microcephaly in Brazil — it probably still would be thought of as a minor nuisance, experts told MedPage Today.

But Zika virus illustrates a worrisome fact — the pace of emerging infectious diseases is both increasing and unpredictable.

Zika is a flavivirus, discovered in 1947, that is carried mainly by the mosquito Aedes aegypti. It causes a mild, self-limiting febrile illness in 20% to 25% of the people it infects; most people would never know they had it.

Until recently, it was pretty much confined to its ancestral home in Africa. Then in 2007 it was found in Micronesia and in 2013 ongoing transmission was documented in French Polynesia.

Early last year, it made its appearance in Brazil and it now appears to be established in 20 countries or territories in the Americas, including Puerto Rico.

Given that much of the region also has endemic dengue fever and chikungunya — with similar but more serious symptoms and also carried by A. aegypti — the appearance of Zika virus was originally just recorded with the notation that it would be nice to know more about these concurrent infections.

Then in September 2015, reports emerged of a spike in cases of microcephaly in the region of Brazil where the outbreak of Zika had been noted. It was an alarm bell, even though there’s still no definitive proof that Zika infection causes microcephaly.

“Microcephaly is obviously where the significant global public health concern is,” according to Michael Diamond, MD, PhD, of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

But, he told MedPage Today, there have also been reports of a spike in Guillain-Barré syndrome during the Polynesian outbreak. Again, it’s an association with nothing to prove that Zika was responsible.

Still, there are now two clinical syndromes that have appeared at the same time as a Zika outbreak. It might be coincidence but health officials are urging precautions anyway.

And it’s yet another instance of a pathogen emerging from the shadows.

‘Emerging’ Pathogens?

The term “emerging diseases” is widely used but it’s often bit of a misnomer. Many such pathogens are bugs that have moved into new places, while a few are actually novel. In the latter group, put HIV, SARS and MERS. But Zika — like dengue, chikungunya, and West Nile virus — is a traveller.

Previously known or not, the list of such pathogens has grown in recent years. Consider a partial list: West Nile in 1999, SARS in 2002, the H1N1 pandemic influenza in 2009, MERS in 2012, Ebola in 2013, chikungunya in 2013.

And now Zika.

Is the apparent increase real? If so, what’s causing it? And what can we do?

The answers, experts told MedPage Today, are:

  • Yes, it’s probably a real phenomenon
  • It has multiple causes
  • And while there are steps we can take to minimize the effects — if we have the will and the cash — emerging diseases are going to be a continuing problem

“We’re definitely seeing more, there’s no question about it,” according to James LeDuc, PhD, director of the Galveston National Laboratory.

And it really shouldn’t be a surprise, he told MedPage Today: The National Academy of Sciences warned in 1992 that infectious disease had not been conquered and that — as a consequence of human activities — we were likely to see more and more pathogens spreading beyond their ancestral ranges.

The causes, that 1992 report said, include:

  • Increasing human populations, often pushing into new places and coming in contact with new pathogens
  • More and faster travel
  • Growing urbanization
  • Erosion of some traditional public health infrastructure, such as mosquito control programs

To those, we might have to add climate change, LeDuc said. For some of the mosquito-borne diseases especially, climate change might expand or move their ranges, as temperate regions become semi-tropical.

What propels Zika into the headlines is the link with birth defects. And however nuanced health officials try to be — it’s only an association, we still need more research, there might be other causes — just making the link creates fear.

“We’re still trying to figure out what’s going on with Zika and microcephaly,” commentedHeidi Brown, PhD, of the University of Arizona in Tucson. That’s going to take a lot of study and some time.

Put simply, an outbreak of disease needs three pro-conditions, Brown told MedPage Today: “You need the vector, you need the virus, and you need a human population that is susceptible.”

In the case of Zika, as well as dengue fever and chikungunya, the vector is A. aegypti, a mosquito that historically was implicated in the spread of yellow fever. In the early part of the last century, huge public health programs aimed to eradicate A. aegypti, with some success at reducing yellow fever.

But it’s the fate of successful public health programs to wither once they’ve achieved success and A. aegypti has made a comeback.

And, Brown said, A. aegypti is an “urban mosquito” — it likes to feed on people and to breed in the pools of standing water we all-too-often leave around our dwellings. The increasingly large cities of South and Central America, usually with slums where people can’t afford window screens or other protection against mosquito bites, offer a huge pool of targets.

Then an outbreak is just one plane ride away. “It’s very easy now for an infected person or an infected mosquito to move from one area to another,” Diamond said.

Of course, local conditions play an important role. Fauci told MedPage Today that it’s unlikely Zika will make huge inroads into the U.S. for two reasons. In the first place, most of the country has a severe enough winter to cause the mosquitoes to die off. And second, he said, “we can do vector control if we want to do vector control” — a capability that some other countries in the Americas don’t have.

Other experts noted that our cities are less densely populated than those in South and Central America and conditions are better — there’s air conditioning and household screens.

The same applies to other pathogens carried by A. aegypti, like dengue. But not every pathogen needs a mosquito. It’s still not clear what is the animal reservoir for Ebola, for instance, but in the recent epidemic, the vector was good old Homo sapiens. And other pathogens have intermediate hosts that don’t necessarily die off in the winter.

If the pathogens are likely to keep coming, what can we do? Slowing the pace and speed of travel is a nonstarter, we’re not going to stop living in cities, and our numbers, while growth is slowing, continue to rise.

In other words, the third of Brown’s triad — the pool of susceptible people — is going to remain.

That leaves the vector or the pathogen.

Mosquito Control

“Mosquitoes, in the end, don’t contribute much to society,” Diamond said, so A. aegypti is an obvious target if we want to prevent Zika, dengue, chikungunya, or yellow fever. And it’s something we know how to do, noted LeDuc, citing the mass eradication campaigns of the 20th century.

But that effort used “armies of people,” LeDuc noted. “That kind of commitment is just not economically feasible today,” he said.

On the other hand, the modern age has brought new tools. For instance, Australian researchers, focusing on dengue, think they can use Wolbachia, bacteria found in many insects, as a way to reduce the ability of A. aegypti to transmit viruses.

And the Brazilian city of Piracicaba is working with a British company, Oxitec, to release male mosquitoes genetically modified so their offspring don’t survive. The males don’t bite, so they can’t transmit disease, but if they outcompete normal males for mates, the net result would be a reduction in adult mosquitoes.

A similar program to prevent screwworm among livestock has been working in the U.S. since the 1950s, Brown said, so it’s not a pipe dream. But neither approach is a “silver bullet,” she said, and will need to be used in combination with other approaches.

Some approaches are decidedly low-tech. Eliminate sources of standing water. Wear insect repellent if you’re somewhere with mosquitoes. Ditto long sleeves and long pants. Put up bednets.

Those have the advantage that they work against all mosquito species, Diamond said, and therefore lots of pathogens.

No Help

A recurring theme in the story of emerging diseases is that there are no specific treatments and no vaccines. And if you think about it, that makes perfect sense — if we don’t know something is coming (because it’s emerging, after all), how can we have a vaccine or a therapy?

So consider the current Zika outbreak. Most people working in the field would not have predicted it for the next viral epidemic in the Americas and if they had would not have been especially worried.

“It took a lot of people by surprise and they were perhaps a little bit dismissive,” Brown said.

Other pathogens — Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, Marburg, and MERS among them — might well have been higher on the priority list. Indeed, they are higher on the WHO’s blueprint for future research into epidemic prevention.

And who pays for the research? It’s not as if there is a huge commercial market for a vaccine or treatment for Zika, which in most cases causes mild or no illness. There might be a better market for other pathogens but how do you know where to focus?

The problem with vaccinology in this field, LeDuc said, is that vaccines generally have to be pathogen-specific and they are costly to develop. They’re also technically challenging; work on a dengue vaccine has been going on for years, he noted.

That said, Fauci commented, researchers on West Nile virus have developed a “platform” for a flavivirus vaccine that might be quickly adaptable to Zika. The issue then would be getting it through the regulatory hurdles and into the field — a long expensive process.

Even if a vaccine were available, how would it be used?

Writing with a colleague recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, Fauci noted that outbreaks are unpredictable, so vaccinating a population against a given pathogen would not be cost-effective, while stockpiling a vaccine for later deployment might be too slow to stop an epidemic.

And, of course, both approaches depend on knowing the pathogen is there or on its way.

The Ebola epidemic, which left thousands dead in West Africa, was missed for months because health officials in the region weren’t expecting it and didn’t recognize it when it arrived. In the case of Zika, the silent circulation of the virus in asymptomatic people makes it hard for surveillance systems to pick it up.

Then there’s treatment.

Broad-Spectrum Antivirals?

There is a specific therapy for just a handful of viruses, Diamond noted: hepatitis C, HIV, herpes simplex, and influenza. Such drugs are not easy to develop, especially in the throes of reacting to a crisis.

But LeDuc, for one, is “quite optimistic” that broad-spectrum antivirals can be developed. “The more we understand how pathogens cause disease,” he said, “the more we see common pathways” that might be avenues for intervention.

Once again, though, we run into the issue of getting drugs to people when they need it. Even if a Zika treatment were available, the vast majority of infected people would not take it because they would never know they were infected.

“One of the biggest challenges is diagnosis — and early diagnosis — so that we have a chance to intervene,” LeDuc said.

Mug’s Game

So what’s next?

Predicting the next outbreak is a mug’s game, as the case of Zika illustrates.

“There are many viruses that could emerge,” Diamond said, but whether they do or not depends on a host of variables, such things as the presence or absence of a vector and the titer needed to cause infection.

But the world could do better at being prepared, he said. “You can be reactionary or you can be proactive,” Diamond said.

The reactionary approach is to wait until something happens and then wheel out the fire trucks to put out the blaze. But we’d be better off, Diamond said, investing in “ways to make your house fireproof.”

Those investments would certainly include better surveillance, drugs, and vaccines, he said.

But first on the list, Diamond said, should be basic research on the nature of viruses so that we are “prepared to deal not just with the pandemic du jour but to really respond to any virus that comes up.”


HIV Growing Resistant to Common Treatment

Ryan Bushey, Associate Editor    http://www.dddmag.com/news/2016/01/hiv-growing-resistant-common-treatment


Scientists from the University College London made a new discovery regarding the HIV virus.

The researchers learned the common HIV therapy tenofovir was less effective against certain strains of the pathogen after studying an estimated 2,000 patients, writes theBBC. Tenofovir is typically used in combination with other medication to suppress the growth of this infection.

A comparison was done between HIV patients in Africa versus those in Europe. Individuals in Africa were 60 percent more resistant to tenofovir whereas European patients experienced 20 percent more resistance.

Irregular dosing of the drug was partly to blame as well as sub-standard administration of the medication.

Lead author Dr. Ravi Gupta told the BBC, “If the right levels of the drug are not taken, as in they are too low or not regularly maintained, the virus can overcome the drug and become resistant.”

Gupta added that there should be a simultaneous global initiative and cash investment to improve facilities and disease monitoring in African countries.


Zika Update

The virus continues to spread as countries issue pregnancy advisories and drug firms pick up on vaccine development.

By Kerry Grens | January 28, 2016

As the mosquito-borne Zika virus has now spread to at least 23 countries in the Americas in recent months, the World Health Organization (WHO) is convening an emergency meeting on International Health Regulations Monday (February 1), Director-General Margaret Chan announced today (January 28).

Meanwhile, four countries—Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Colombia—have asked women to delay getting pregnant for fear the virus can cause severe brain damage in fetuses. And some airlines have offered refund to pregnant travelers who booked trips to countries where Zika is circulating.

President Obama chimed in this week, calling for an acceleration of “research efforts to make available better diagnostic tests, to develop vaccines and therapeutics, and to ensure that all Americans have information about the Zika virus and steps they can take to better protect themselves from infection,” according to a White House statement.

There is currently no immunization or cure for Zika, but several pharmaceutical companies and academic labs have expressed interest in developing a vaccine. The University of Texas Medical Branch has already begun work on a Zika vaccine, which could be ready for testing in a year or two.

“What would take the longest time would be the process of passing it through the [US Food and Drug Administration] and other regulatory agencies to allow it for public use and that may take up to 10 to 12 years,” Nikos Vasilakis, who is working on the vaccine, told BBC News. His team is also advancing diagnostics that could help answer questions about the risks of fetal Zika exposure. (See “New Tests for Zika in the Works,” The Scientist, January 25, 2016.)

Sanofi, which has had a dengue shot recently approved in several countries, and GlaxoSmithKline have expressed interest in starting a vaccine program, while another firm, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, announcedMonday (January 25) it was beginning work on a Zika vaccine.

On Tuesday (January 26), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines for screening babies whose mothers may have contracted Zika while pregnant. Infants should be tested for Zika if their mother tested positive or if they have microcephaly and their mothers were in a country with circulating virus while they were pregnant.

Microcephaly is not the only concern for exposed fetuses; these babies should also be screened for hearing and vision impairments, the CDC urged. “One rationale is we don’t know the spectrum of problems that perhaps are related to Zika virus, so we want to do a lot of screenings of infants out of an abundance of caution,” Cynthia Moore, the director of the CDC’s division of birth defects and developmental disabilities, told The New York Times. “We worry because other intrauterine infections may have some effects that last or show up after birth.”

Meanwhile, US health officials this week said a massive outbreak stateside is unlikely, given the geographic range of the mosquito species that transmit the virus and Americans’ housing conditions, with screens and air conditioning. “If you look at historically what we’ve seen, I think we can say that it’s a remote possibility and unlikely to happen,” Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told NPR’s Shots.


Interim Guidelines for the Evaluation and Testing of Infants with Possible Congenital Zika Virus Infection — United States, 2016

The Lancet Infectious Diseases   JANUARY 28, 2016

Global epidemiology of drug resistance after failure of WHO recommended first-line regimens for adult HIV-1 infection: a multicentre retrospective cohort study


Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is crucial for controlling HIV-1 infection through wide-scale treatment as prevention and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Potent tenofovir disoproxil fumarate-containing regimens are increasingly used to treat and prevent HIV, although few data exist for frequency and risk factors of acquired drug resistance in regions hardest hit by the HIV pandemic. We aimed to do a global assessment of drug resistance after virological failure with first-line tenofovir-containing ART.


The TenoRes collaboration comprises adult HIV treatment cohorts and clinical trials of HIV drug resistance testing in Europe, Latin and North America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. We extracted and harmonised data for patients undergoing genotypic resistance testing after virological failure with a first-line regimen containing tenofovir plus a cytosine analogue (lamivudine or emtricitabine) plus a non-nucleotide reverse-transcriptase inhibitor (NNRTI; efavirenz or nevirapine). We used an individual participant-level meta-analysis and multiple logistic regression to identify covariates associated with drug resistance. Our primary outcome was tenofovir resistance, defined as presence of K65R/N or K70E/G/Q mutations in the reverse transcriptase (RT) gene.   Findings

We included 1926 patients from 36 countries with treatment failure between 1998 and 2015. Prevalence of tenofovir resistance was highest in sub-Saharan Africa (370/654 [57%]). Pre-ART CD4 cell count was the covariate most strongly associated with the development of tenofovir resistance (odds ratio [OR] 1·50, 95% CI 1·27–1·77 for CD4 cell count <100 cells per μL). Use of lamivudine versus emtricitabine increased the risk of tenofovir resistance across regions (OR 1·48, 95% CI 1·20–1·82). Of 700 individuals with tenofovir resistance, 578 (83%) had cytosine analogue resistance (M184V/I mutation), 543 (78%) had major NNRTI resistance, and 457 (65%) had both. The mean plasma viral load at virological failure was similar in individuals with and without tenofovir resistance (145 700 copies per mL [SE 12 480] versus 133 900 copies per mL [SE 16 650; p=0·626]).


We recorded drug resistance in a high proportion of patients after virological failure on a tenofovir-containing first-line regimen across low-income and middle-income regions. Effective surveillance for transmission of drug resistance is crucial.


More than 35 million people worldwide are living with HIV-1.1 There is no effective vaccine and therefore control of the HIV pandemic relies heavily on combination antiretroviral therapy (cART). WHO treatment guidelines for adult HIV-1 infection recommend the nucleotide reverse-transcriptase inhibitor (NRTI) tenofovir for first-line ART, in combination with lamivudine or emtricitabine and the non-nucleoside reverse-transcriptase inhibitor (NNRTI) efavirenz.2 Older NRTIs such as the thymidine analogue drugs are being replaced by tenofovir and the NNRTI nevirapine, although mentioned in WHO guidelines, is being phased out from first-line regimens.2

The global scale-up of cART has now reached 15 million treated individuals.1 The administration of cART at the time individuals with HIV-1 are initially diagnosed prevents immunological deterioration as early as possible and interrupts the spread of HIV-1 from newly diagnosed individuals.3 This strategy, referred to as treatment as prevention, is being studied especially in high-incidence regions and nearly always includes the use of first-line tenofovir-containing ART regimens. Likewise, the strategy of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) depends entirely on the administration of tenofovir or tenofovir and emtricitabine to uninfected individuals at high risk of HIV-1 infection.4

In individuals receiving tenofovir, HIV-1 develops phenotypically and clinically significant resistance usually as a result of one mutation at position 65 (lysine to arginine; K65R) in the reverse transcriptase (RT) gene.5 Data from clinical trials and cohorts in high-income settings using tenofovir combined with NNRTI have reported low prevalence of tenofovir resistance at viral failure,6, 7, 8 in stark contrast with reports from low-income and middle-income countries where prevalence seems to be much higher.9, 10 Similarly, high-level resistance to NNRTI and the cytosine analogue component (emtricitabine and lamivudine) arise through changes to one aminoacid, which suggests a low genetic barrier to resistance for these drugs as well. In view of the pivotal role of tenofovir-containing ART as both treatment and prophylaxis, and the striking potential for drug resistance, we did a global assessment of drug resistance after virological failure with first-line tenofovir-containing ART.

Research in context

Evidence before this study

We searched PubMed for studies of the prevalence of tenofovir resistance after failure of first-line antiretroviral therapy with efavirenz or nevirapine (non-nucleoside reverse-transcriptase inhibitors [NNRTIs]) in patients with HIV-1, published between January, 1999, and June, 2015, using the search terms “HIV” AND “tenofovir” AND “resistance”. We identified studies done in untreated adults (age >15 years) in which either efavirenz or nevirapine was combined with tenofovir and either emtricitabine or lamivudine as first line antiretroviral therapy. Several studies reported resistance data for tenofovir when the drug was started after initial use of stavudine or zidovudine; these studies were not reviewed further. We also excluded studies that reported tenofovir use without NNRTI because standard first-line antiretroviral therapy under a public health approach is based on NNRTI in adults.

We identified randomised controlled trials and a meta-analysis comparing NNRTI with protease inhibitors, in combination with tenofovir, which reported resistance data. Patients in high-income settings reported tenofovir resistance in 0–25% of virological failures and those in sub-Saharan Africa in 28–50%. The only other prospective study in sub-Saharan Africa was PASER-M, and was limited by few resistance data for patients given tenofovir plus NNRTI-based combination antiretroviral therapy (cART). The remaining studies were largely from South Africa and reported a wide range of prevalence (between 23% and 70%) of tenofovir resistance after virological failure. In west Africa, one study reported that 57% of virological failures were tenofovir resistant in a very small sample of 23 patients. Although aforementioned studies also reported NNRTI and cytosine analogue resistance, they were unable to quantify to what extent tenofovir resistance was a marker for high-level compromise of the regimen. We found no studies that specifically reported resistance data for patients given first-line tenofovir in east Africa. No study reported resistance data from more than one continent, and none seemed adequately powered to establish the effect of co-administered reverse-transcriptase inhibitors on the emergence of tenofovir resistance.

Added value of this study

This study reports the most comprehensive assessment of HIV-1 drug resistance after scale-up of first-line WHO recommended tenofovir-based antiretroviral regimens, showing that tenofovir resistance is surprisingly common in patients with treatment failure across many studies in all low-income regions. Importantly, these individuals also have notable resistance to other drugs in their regimen, leading to almost complete compromise of combination treatment. Challenging current perceptions in the specialty, our findings show that tenofovir resistant viruses have substantial transmission potential. Furthermore, our results show that viral strain affects tenofovir resistance in Europe but is not the main driver for resistance in viruses circulating in sub-Saharan Africa. Newly identified risk factors for resistance to tenofovir and NNRTI drugs include pre-treatment CD4 cell count (but not viral load) and co-administered antiretrovirals.

Implications of all the available evidence

Improvements in the quality of HIV care and viral load monitoring could mitigate the emergence and spread of tenofovir resistance, thereby prolonging the lifetime of tenofovir-containing regimens for both treatment and prophylaxis. Surveillance of tenofovir and NNRTI resistance should be a priority both in untreated and treated populations.

Methods …..


The TenoRes collaboration included 1926 individuals from 36 countries (figure 1 and appendix).Table 1 summarises the median size and year of ART initiation for the cohorts comprising the collaboration. Viral load monitoring was done in about 50% of the cohorts including nearly all of cohorts from upper-income regions and from a small proportion of the cohorts in low-income and middle-income countries (appendix shows income status for each cohort; table 1).



Figure 1

(A) Countries contributing data to resistance analysis and HIV-1 subtype distribution, (B) prevalence of drug resistance by mutation and by region

NNRTI=non-nucleotide reverse-transcriptase inhibitor. TDF=tenofovir disoproxil fumarate. *24% (n=462) of participants had tenofovir resistance when genotypes from viral load >1000 copies HIV-1 RNA per mL were considered.


Table 1

Characteristics of resistance studies included in analysis

Data are n, range, or n (%). cART=combination antiretroviral therapy.

*Multinational studies were treated as separate studies within each country.


The region-level pre-ART median CD4 cell count ranged from 44 to 104  cells per μL in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America (table 2). As expected, in north America pre-ART median CD4 cell count was 144 cells per μL and 190  cells per μL in Europe. The proportion of individuals using emtricitabine (vs lamivudine) and efavirenz (vs nevirapine) varied significantly by region. Emtricitabine was used significantly more than lamivudine in Europe, North America, and west and central Africa, and efavirenz was used significantly more than nevirapine in all regions apart from east and west and central Africa. The median duration of ART ranged from 11 to 26 months. Pre-treatment viral load ranged between 4·80 and 5·58 log copies per mL and was significantly higher in eastern and western and central Africa and Latin America than the other regions (table 2).



Table 2

Participant characteristics and details of antiretroviral therapy

Data are n (%) or median (IQR). TDF=tenofovir disoproxil fumarate.


Crude prevalence of tenofovir resistance in patients with treatment failure was highest in low-income and middle-income regions (figure 1). Prevalence of cytosine analogue resistance (M184V/I) was highest in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and lowest in western Europe. By contrast, resistance to NNRTI did not show this pattern (figure 1). Furthermore, the M184V/I mutation was less common than NNRTI resistance across all regions except in eastern Africa. Of the 700 patients with tenofovir resistance in the dataset, 457 (65%) had resistance to both remaining drugs. Participants with tenofovir resistant viruses were likely to be resistant to one or both accompanying drugs and therefore have profound compromise of their regimen, as compared with those without tenofovir resistance (figure 1).

Low baseline CD4 cell count was consistently associated with a higher prevalence of tenofovir resistance across regions. The pooled OR for tenofovir in individuals with a CD4 cell count of less than 100 cells per μL versus 100  cells per μL was 1·50 (95% CI 1·27–1·77; figure 2). By contrast, a high baseline viral load was only associated with a small, not significant increase in tenofovir resistance (OR for viral load ≥100 000 copies per mL vs <100 000 copies per mL was 1·17, 95% CI 0·94–1·44;appendix). We compared tenofovir resistance by use of co-administered antiretrovirals with tenofovir as first-line therapy. Use of lamivudine rather than emtricitabine (NRTIs) was associated with a higher prevalence of tenofovir resistance (OR 1·48, 95% CI 1·20–1·82), as was use of the NNRTI nevirapine rather than efavirenz (OR 1·46, 1·28–1·67; appendix). Subgroup analysis showed that as well as associations being consistent across regions, they were also generally similar across a range of study settings (appendix), although there was some evidence of a greater effect size of baseline CD4 when efavirenz was co-administered with tenofovir, as compared with nevirapine.

Figure 2

Pooled odds ratios for tenofovir resistance after viral failure for baseline CD4 cell count <100 vs≥100 × 106 cells per μL

TDF+ denotes presence of tenofovir resistance. TDF=tenofovir disoproxil fumarate.


When considering the effect of baseline CD4, baseline viral load (figure 3), and co-administered antiretrovirals (appendix) on cytosine analogue and NNRTI resistance, we noted that the magnitude of associations were smaller than those recorded for tenofovir resistance.



Figure 3

Odds ratios for NNRTI resistance for (A) baseline CD4 cell count <100 vs ≥100 cells per μL, (B) viral load ≥100 000 vs <100 000 copies HIV-1 RNA per mL

NNRTI=non-nucleotide reverse-transcriptase inhibitor.

We also assessed the relation between viral subtype C on acquisition of tenofovir resistance. We restricted this analysis to western European studies in view of the consistent standard of care available in this region and relatively lower level of subtype diversity in other regions (figure 1A). We also limited the comparison to subtypes found in immigrant populations to minimise bias due to socioeconomic factors (thereby excluding subtype B infections mainly recorded in participants born in western Europe). Tenofovir resistance was higher in subtype C compared with non-C, non-B infections with a pooled OR of 2·44 (1·66–3·59).

As a sensitivity analysis we studied risk factors for tenofovir resistance using univariate (adjusted only for region) and multivariate logistic regression analyses (appendix). We noted a dose-response relationship for baseline CD4, which was not markedly altered by adjustment for baseline viral load, viral subtype, or type of co-administered drug used (appendix). Baseline viral load of 100 000 or more copies of HIV-1 RNA per mL was not significantly associated with tenofovir resistance (OR 1·31, 95% CI 0·91–1·91) and we noted no clear trend across increasing viral loads (appendix). Adjustment for several risk factors also had little effect on associations with tenofovir resistance of emtricitabine versus lamivudine and nevirapine versus efavirenz.

Finally, we compared the viral load at treatment failure in the presence and absence of tenofovir-associated mutations. The mean plasma viral load at treatment failure was not different in the presence or absence of tenofovir associated mutations (145 700 copies HIV RNA per mL [SE 12 480]vs 133 900 copies [SE 16 650]; p=0·626; figure 4 shows the within-study viral load by region). These results did not change when analysis was restricted to individuals who had evidence of the K65R mutation, either with or without M184V/I (appendix). Mutations at aminoacids K65 and M184 in the RT gene have been associated with suboptimum replication.13


Figure 4

Boxplot of log viral load by presence (TDF-positive) or absence (TDF-negative) of tenofovir resistance at viral failure in studies with at least ten patients with TDF resistance and a viral load measurement at treatment failure

We restricted to studies with at least ten TDF-resistant mutations to help with graphical clarity, although the pattern of similar distributions of failure viral load in the presence or absence of TDF resistance was true for all studies. TDF=tenofovir disoproxil fumarate. Blue dots represent outliers.



Our study has three main findings relating to the prevalence, risk factors for, and transmissibility of tenofovir resistance. First, we noted that levels of tenofovir resistance in individuals with viral failure ranged from 20% in Europe to more than 50% in sub-Saharan Africa. Second, a CD4 cell count of less than 100 cells per μL, treatment with nevirapine rather than efavirenz, and treatment with lamivudine rather than emtricitabine, were consistently associated with a 50% higher odds of tenofovir resistance in those with viral failure. Third, we noted that in patients with viral failure, viral loads were similar in the presence or absence of tenofovir resistance.

Our findings are important in view of the fact that following WHO recommendations,2 tenofovir is replacing thymidine analogues (zidovudine and stavudine) as part of the NRTI backbone in first-line regimens in resource-limited settings. Every drug in these regimens can be compromised by one aminoacid mutation, and the combination therapy is therefore potentially fragile. In view of the crucial role of tenofovir-containing ART in both treatment and prevention of new infections, restriction of drug resistance in high-burden settings is of paramount importance. Understanding how common tenofovir resistance is, and how and why it varies, is key to its prevention. Although our risk factors are only associated with a modest 50% increase in odds, this translates to a roughly 10% increase in resistance in those who fail when the overall tenofovir resistance prevalence is about 50% (as recorded in sub-Saharan Africa).

We hypothesise that the regional differences in tenofovir resistance are due to the frequency of viral load monitoring with close patient follow-up and feedback of results. For example, although viral load monitoring is not routinely done in most low-income and middle-income countries, in high-income countries viral load is tested three to four times per year with close patient follow-up and adherence support. Such an approach is likely to lead to earlier detection of viral failure, before selection of drug resistance mutations against tenofovir has occurred.14 This view is supported by the uncommon detection of drug resistance mutations in specimens with low viral load (400–1000 copies per mL) from patients given tenofovir in both high-income settings (figure 1; see higher prevalence of tenofovir resistance where viral load >1000 copies per mL is used as threshold in western Europe)15 and sub-Saharan Africa (Chunfu Yang, Centres for Disease Control, Atlanta, GA, USA, personal communication). Tenofovir resistance could be limited by viral load monitoring,16with rapid feedback to clinicians followed by adherence counselling to preserve first line, or switch to second line when this approach fails. Furthermore, pre-ART (baseline) resistance testing for key NNRTI mutations could potentially protect against tenofovir resistance by avoiding use of partly active treatment regimens. In our report, transmitted NNRTI resistance was low in the regions studied (<10%),17 and therefore not likely to be a major driver of wide variation in drug resistance across income settings.

Other factors that vary geographically could also affect success of ART and should be noted. Treatment failure is associated not only with drug resistance, but also side-effects. Efavirenz is associated with CNS side-effects such as sleep disturbance and is associated with treatment discontinuation.18 Furthermore, drug stock-outs and other indicators of quality of HIV services that have shown geographic variation would also predispose to treatment failure.19 The issue of regional variation in adherence levels has received considerable attention, with data from several studies suggesting that adherence is not worse in sub-Saharan Africa compared with North America.20, 21

With regards to increased tenofovir resistance in individuals with low baseline CD4 counts, this finding is consistent with results from the ACTG 5202 trial22 suggesting higher frequency of RT mutations in patients given ART with low CD4 cell counts, and offer a benefit of CD4 cell count measurement after diagnosis of HIV infection beyond establishing prophylaxis against opportunistic infections.23 Lamivudine warrants further study in first-line regimens in view of data presented in our study and the conflicting reports regarding virological efficacy of lamivudine versus emtricitabine.24,25, 26 Of note, the differences between lamivudine and emtricitabine might become less important in high-income regions where implementation of the second generation integrase inhibitor dolutegravir occurs, in view of the fact that this agent has not been associated with any cytosine analogue resistance at virological failure.27

Viral load has been associated with transmission risk.28 Despite evidence for diminished replication of tenofovir resistant viruses (containing the K65R mutation in the RT gene) in vitro, we noted similar viral loads in participants with and without tenofovir resistance. Therefore, there might be substantial potential for onward transmission to uninfected individuals,29 despite little evidence of K65R transmission up to now.30 This finding reinforces the need for drug resistance surveillance activities in both untreated and treated HIV-positive individuals.

There are several important limitations of our study. First, because we only included patients with virological failure related to existing study cohorts,1 our estimates of the prevalence of tenofovir resistance might not be representative in certain high-burden regions. Although this situation might have biased our findings on absolute prevalences of tenofovir resistance, it is unlikely to have affected associations with baseline CD4 or co-administered drugs. Second, we only included patients at failure so were unable to assess overall rates of tenofovir resistance in all patients starting first-line treatment. We used this method because many of the contributing studies had no clear denominator, especially those done in resource-limited settings. However, extensive WHO-led analysis reported that 15–35% (on treatment vs intention to treat) of patients in sub-Saharan Africa have virological failure by 12 months.31 Therefore, using a conservative 50% prevalence of tenofovir resistance at failure from our analysis, we suggest that it is likely that 7·5–17·5% of individuals given tenofovir plus cytosine analogue plus efavirenz will develop tenofovir resistance within 1 year of treatment initiation under present practices in sub-Saharan Africa.

Third, our findings on risk factors for tenofovir resistance were derived from an unadjusted meta-analysis involving very different study populations. Although this enhances the generalisability of results, it has the potential to lead to biased comparisons. However, we took measures to minimise biases. We exclusively used within-study and within-country comparisons for our primary analyses, thereby ensuring that comparisons were for participants undergoing similar treatment monitoring practices. We tested associations between risk factors and found that they were generally weak. For example, baseline CD4 cell count and viral load were only weakly associated with one another and neither was strongly associated with type of co-administered drug. Additionally, we undertook sensitivity analyses, which suggested that adjustment for other covariates had minimum effect on estimated associations. Lastly, our data tended to be consistent with previous studies—eg, our findings of higher resistance in subtype C patients are consistent with in-vitro data suggesting subtype C viruses are more susceptible to developing the K65R mutation.32

Fourth, despite our analysis being the largest drug resistance study ever undertaken after failure of first-line tenofovir-containing cART, patient numbers were somewhat limited by the slow uptake of tenofovir-based regimens in west and central Africa, eastern Europe, and Asia (in particular China and Russia), and information about baseline viral load in these settings was uncommon. As a result, European countries, Thailand, and South Africa contributed substantially to the analysis.

In summary, extensive drug resistance emerges in a high proportion of patients after virological failure on a tenofovir-containing first-line regimen across low-income and middle-income regions. Optimisation of treatment programmes and effective surveillance for transmission of drug resistance is therefore crucial.

Correspondence to: Dr Ravindra K Gupta, UCL, Department of Infection, London WC1E 6BT, UK ravindra.gupta@ucl.ac.uk

Cross-Reactive Ebola Antibodies

Human monoclonal antibodies induced during Ebola infection are able to neutralize related viral species, scientists show.

By Anna Azvolinsky | January 21, 2016




Structure of Bundibugyo survivor antibodies (colors) bound to viral glycoproteinSCRIPPS RESEARCH INSTITUTE; CHARLES MURIN, ANDREW WARD

From blood samples of survivors of a 2007 Ebola outbreak in Uganda, researchers have isolated antibodies that are protective and can neutralize two other species of Ebolavirus, including ­­Zaire ebolavirus—the one responsible for the massive 2014 outbreak in West Africa. The binding specificities of these human monoclonal antibodies and their activity in animal models of Ebolavirus appeared today (January 21) in Cell.

“What is exciting is that the authors demonstrated that cross-reactive antibodies exist in survivors, and these antibodies are protective in animal models,”Larry Zeitlin, president of Mapp Biopharmaceutical, who was not involved in the current study but is collaborating with its authors as part of a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded project to develop and test vaccines and therapeutics against Ebolaviruses, told The Scientist in an email. “This gives real hope that a single product could be developed for treating all the Ebolavirus species.”

“This is a very good paper,” said Lisa Hensley, who has worked on the pathogenesis of viruses including Ebola and is associate director for science at the NIH’s Integrated Research Facility in Maryland. “Looking in people who survived Bundibugyo ebolavirus,” the species behind the 2007 outbreak, “brings our understanding of these viruses a step further. The study moved what we only knew anecdotally into convincing and strong data,” Hensley said.

Within the genus, there are currently three identified viral species that have caused deadly human outbreaks: Z. ebolavirus, B. ebolavirus, and Sudan ebolavirus.

Isolating peripheral blood B cells from seven survivors of B. ebolavirus, James Crowe, Jr., a viral immunologist and director of the Vanderbilt University Vaccine Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and his colleagues identified 90 antibodies that bound to the virus’s outer glycoprotein. Characterizing these human antibodies, the researchers found that 63 percent of them bound the glycoprotein of at least two of the three Ebolavirus species in vitro. Thirty-one (34 percent) of these antibodies were able to neutralize B. ebolavirus in an assay that is commonly used as a surrogate of an in vivo infection, and seven of these neutralized all three viral species, binding to one of three highly conserved regions of the glycoprotein.

The researchers found two different neutralizing antibodies, each used separately to treat Ebola-infected mice, effective. A single treatment with one of these antibodies successfully rescued Ebola-infected guinea pigs, while a combination of two antibodies resulted in complete protection of guinea pigs infected with Z. ebolavirus, the scientists showed.

“Protection against Ebola virus achieved in the guinea pig model is quite predictive of what can happen in humans, and in this model we can achieve protection,” said study coauthor Alexander Bukreyev, a virologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “The key [result] is that the human immune system does produce protective antibodies. We just need to choose the right ones and give them at a high concentration.”

Crowe agreed. “Some of [the human antibodies] are extremely potent, some of the most potent antivirus antibodies ever isolated. Some of these antibodies possess the two major qualities you want to see in a therapeutic treatment—potent neutralization and breadth of activity against multiple Ebolavirus species.”

A recent study showed that serum isolated from Ebola survivors did not improve patient prognosis. But Mapp Biopharmaceutical’s cocktail of three mouse-derived, humanized monoclonal antibodies against Z. ebolavirus, ZMapp, was last year shown to be an effective treatment in Ebola-infected macaques. “Our goal for the second generation ZMapp product is a pan-Ebola virus antibody cocktail,” Zeitlin told The Scientist.The results of the present study, he added, “provides proof-of-concept for our effort.”

“The previously developed mouse monoclonal antibodies that were part of ZMapp were a solid start,” said Crowe. “But now, this study with antibodies from human survivors shows that we may have been underestimating the ability of antibodies to kill Ebola.”

The Ebola epitopes to which the cross-reactive antibodies bind will not only be helpful to develop new antibody cocktails as treatments but also point to a vaccine that could be used for multiple Ebola species. “This is the deeper implication of this work,” said Crowe.

Crowe, Bukreyev, and their colleagues are now isolating and analyzing antibodies against Z. ebolavirusstrains from the most recent outbreak. The researchers are also looking to combine the two types of therapies that have so far been shown to be most potent against Ebola, for a one-two punch: antibodies, which can neutralize already formed viral particles, and small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) that block viral replication.

The ultimate test will be whether the antibodies might be used in a protective vaccine or to treat people infected in the next outbreak. “That is everyone’s goal,” said Hensley. “What we do in animal models is nice, but how does it reflect what will happen in humans?”

A.I. Flyak et al., “Cross-reactive and potent neutralizing antibody responses in human survivors of natural Ebolavirus infection,” Cell, doi:10.1016/j.cell.2015.12.022, 2016.





Lung Cancer


The term “HER2-positive lung cancer” may actually refer to two distinct entities, according to a new study. HER2 mutations and HER2 amplifications were found in similar numbers of lung adenocarcinoma cases, but they did not occur in the same samples, suggesting HER2-targeted agents should differentiate between mutation and amplification.

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Clinical Laboratory Challenges

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator




The Lab and CJD: Safe Handling of Infectious Prion Proteins

Body fluids from individuals with possible Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) present distinctive safety challenges for clinical laboratories. Sporadic, iatrogenic, and familial CJD (known collectively as classic CJD), along with variant CJD, kuru, Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker, and fatal familial insomnia, are prion diseases, also known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Prion diseases affect the central nervous system, and from the onset of symptoms follow a typically rapid progressive neurological decline. While prion diseases are rare, it is not uncommon for the most prevalent form—sporadic CJD—to be included in the differential diagnosis of individuals presenting with rapid cognitive decline. Thus, laboratories may deal with a significant number of possible CJD cases, and should have protocols in place to process specimens, even if a confirmatory diagnosis of CJD is made in only a fraction of these cases.

The Lab’s Role in Diagnosis

Laboratory protocols for handling specimens from individuals with possible, probable, and definitive cases of CJD are important to ensure timely and appropriate patient management. When the differential includes CJD, an attempt should be made to rule-in or out other causes of rapid neurological decline. Laboratories should be prepared to process blood and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) specimens in such cases for routine analyses.

Definitive diagnosis requires identification of prion aggregates in brain tissue, which can be achieved by immunohistochemistry, a Western blot for proteinase K-resistant prions, and/or by the presence of prion fibrils. Thus, confirmatory diagnosis is typically achieved at autopsy. A probable diagnosis of CJD is supported by elevated concentration of 14-3-3 protein in CSF (a non-specific marker of neurodegeneration), EEG, and MRI findings. Thus, the laboratory may be required to process and send CSF samples to a prion surveillance center for 14-3-3 testing, as well as blood samples for sequencing of the PRNP gene (in inherited cases).

Processing Biofluids

Laboratories should follow standard protective measures when working with biofluids potentially containing abnormally folded prions, such as donning standard personal protective equipment (PPE); avoiding or minimizing the use of sharps; using single-use disposable items; and processing specimens to minimize formation of aerosols and droplets. An additional safety consideration is the use of single-use disposal PPE; otherwise, re-usable items must be either cleaned using prion-specific decontamination methods, or destroyed.

Blood. In experimental models, infectivity has been detected in the blood; however, there have been no cases of secondary transmission of classical CJD via blood product transfusions in humans. As such, blood has been classified, on epidemiological evidence by the World Health Organization (WHO), as containing “no detectible infectivity,” which means it can be processed by routine methods. Similarly, except for CSF, all other body fluids contain no infectivity and can be processed following standard procedures.

In contrast to classic CJD, there have been four cases of suspected secondary transmission of variant CJD via transfused blood products in the United Kingdom. Variant CJD, the prion disease associated with mad cow disease, is unique in its distribution of prion aggregates outside of the central nervous system, including the lymph nodes, spleen, and tonsils. For regions where variant CJD is a concern, laboratories should consult their regulatory agencies for further guidance.

CSF. Relative to highly infectious tissues of the brain, spinal cord, and eye, infectivity has been identified less often in CSF and is considered to have “low infectivity,” along with kidney, liver, and lung tissue. Since CSF can contain infectious material, WHO has recommended that analyses not be performed on automated equipment due to challenges associated with decontamination. Laboratories should perform a risk assessment of their CSF processes, and, if deemed necessary, consider using manual methods as an alternative to automated systems.


The infectious agent in prion disease is unlike any other infectious pathogen encountered in the laboratory; it is formed of misfolded and aggregated prion proteins. This aggregated proteinacious material forms the infectious unit, which is incredibly resilient to degradation. Moreover, in vitro studies have demonstrated that disrupting large aggregates into smaller aggregates increases cytotoxicity. Thus, if the aim is to abolish infectivity, all aggregates must be destroyed. Disinfectant procedures used for viral, bacterial, and fungal pathogens such as alcohol, boiling, formalin, dry heat (<300°C), autoclaving at 121°C for 15 minutes, and ionizing, ultraviolet, or microwave radiation, are either ineffective or variably effective against aggregated prions.

The only means to ensure no risk of residual infectious prions is to use disposable materials. This is not always practical, as, for instance, a biosafety cabinet cannot be discarded if there is a CSF spill in the hood. Fortunately, there are several protocols considered sufficient for decontamination. For surfaces and heat-sensitive instruments, such as a biosafety cabinet, WHO recommends flooding the surface with 2N NaOH or undiluted NaClO, letting stand for 1 hour, mopping up, and rinsing with water. If the surface cannot tolerate NaOH or NaClO, thorough cleaning will remove most infectivity by dilution. Laboratories may derive some additional benefit by using one of the partially effective methods discussed previously. Non-disposable heat-resistant items preferably should be immersed in 1N NaOH, heated in a gravity displacement autoclave at 121°C for 30 min, cleaned and rinsed in water, then sterilized by routine methods. WHO has outlined several alternate decontamination methods. Using disposable cover sheets is one simple solution to avoid contaminating work surfaces and associated lengthy decontamination procedures.

With standard PPE—augmented by a few additional safety measures and prion-specific decontamination procedures—laboratories can safely manage biofluid testing in cases of prion disease.


The Microscopic World Inside Us  

Emerging Research Points to Microbiome’s Role in Health and Disease

Thousands of species of microbes—bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa—inhabit every internal and external surface of the human body. Collectively, these microbes, known as the microbiome, outnumber the body’s human cells by about 10 to 1 and include more than 1,000 species of microorganisms and several million genes residing in the skin, respiratory system, urogenital, and gastrointestinal tracts. The microbiome’s complicated relationship with its human host is increasingly considered so crucial to health that researchers sometimes call it “the forgotten organ.”

Disturbances to the microbiome can arise from nutritional deficiencies, antibiotic use, and antiseptic modern life. Imbalances in the microbiome’s diverse microbial communities, which interact constantly with cells in the human body, may contribute to chronic health conditions, including diabetes, asthma and allergies, obesity and the metabolic syndrome, digestive disorders including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, research shows.

While study of the microbiome is a growing research enterprise that has attracted enthusiastic media attention and venture capital, its findings are largely preliminary. But some laboratorians are already developing a greater appreciation for the microbiome’s contributions to human biochemistry and are considering a future in which they expect to measure changes in the microbiome to monitor disease and inform clinical practice.

Pivot Toward the Microbiome

Following the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Human Genome Project, many scientists noted the considerable genetic signal from microbes in the body and the existence of technology to analyze these microorganisms. That realization led NIH to establish the Human Microbiome Project in 2007, said Lita Proctor, PhD, its program director. In the project’s first phase, researchers studied healthy adults to produce a reference set of microbiomes and a resource of metagenomic sequences of bacteria in the airways, skin, oral cavities, and the gastrointestinal and vaginal tracts, plus a catalog of microbial genome sequences of reference strains. Researchers also evaluated specific diseases associated with disturbances in the microbiome, including gastrointestinal diseases such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, IBS, and obesity, as well as urogenital conditions, those that involve the reproductive system, and skin diseases like eczema, psoriasis, and acne.

Phase 1 studies determined the composition of many parts of the microbiome, but did not define how that composition affects health or specific disease. The project’s second phase aims to “answer the question of what microbes actually do,” explained Proctor. Researchers are now examining properties of the microbiome including gene expression, protein, and human and microbial metabolite profiles in studies of pregnant women at risk for preterm birth, the gut hormones of patients at risk for IBS, and nasal microbiomes of patients at risk for type 2 diabetes.

Promising Lines of Research

Cystic fibrosis and microbiology investigator Michael Surette, PhD, sees promising microbiome research not just in terms of evidence of its effects on specific diseases, but also in what drives changes in the microbiome. Surette is Canada research chair in interdisciplinary microbiome research in the Farncombe Family Digestive Health Research Institute at McMaster University
in Hamilton, Ontario.

One type of study on factors driving microbiome change examines how alterations in composition and imbalances in individual patients relate to improving or worsening disease. “IBS, cystic fibrosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease all have periods of instability or exacerbation,” he noted. Surette hopes that one day, tests will provide clinicians the ability to monitor changes in microbial composition over time and even predict when a patient’s condition is about to deteriorate. Monitoring perturbations to the gut microbiome might also help minimize collateral damage to the microbiome during aggressive antibiotic therapy for hospitalized patients, he added.

Monitoring changes to the microbiome also might be helpful for “culture negative” patients, who now may receive multiple, unsuccessful courses of different antibiotics that drive antibiotic resistance. Frustration with standard clinical biology diagnosis of lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients first sparked Surette’s investigations into the microbiome. He hopes that future tests involving the microbiome might also help asthma patients with neutrophilia, community-acquired pneumonia patients who harbor complex microbial lung communities lacking obvious pathogens, and hospitalized patients with pneumonia or sepsis. He envisions microbiome testing that would look for short-term changes indicating whether or not a drug is effective.

Companion Diagnostics

Daniel Peterson, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, believes the future of clinical testing involving the microbiome lies in companion diagnostics for novel treatments, and points to companies that are already developing and marketing tests that will require such assays.

Examples of microbiome-focused enterprises abound, including Genetic Analysis, based in Oslo, Norway, with its high-throughput test that uses 54 probes targeted to specific bacteria to measure intestinal gut flora imbalances in inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome patients. Paris, France-based Enterome is developing both novel drugs and companion diagnostics for microbiome-related diseases such as IBS and some metabolic diseases. Second Genome, based in South San Francisco, has developed an experimental drug, SGM-1019, that the company says blocks damaging activity of the microbiome in the intestine. Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Seres Therapeutics has received Food and Drug Administration orphan drug designation for SER-109, an oral therapeutic intended to correct microbial imbalances to prevent recurrent Clostridium difficile infection in adults.

One promising clinical use of the microbiome is fecal transplantation, which both prospective and retrospective studies have shown to be effective in patients with C. difficile infections who do not respond to front-line therapies, said James Versalovic, MD, PhD, director of Texas Children’s Hospital Microbiome Center and professor of pathology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “Fecal transplants and other microbiome replacement strategies can radically change the composition of the microbiome in hours to days,” he explained.

But NIH’s Proctor discourages too much enthusiasm about fecal transplant. “Natural products like stool can have [side] effects,” she pointed out. “The [microbiome research] field needs to mature and we need to verify outcomes before anything becomes routine.”

Hurdles for Lab Testing

While he is hopeful that labs someday will use the microbiome to produce clinically useful information, Surette pointed to several problems that must be solved beforehand. First, molecular methods commonly used right now should be more quantitative and accurate. Additionally, research on the microbiome encompasses a wide variety of protocols, some of which are better at extracting particular types of bacteria and therefore can give biased views of communities living in the body. Also, tests may need to distinguish between dead and live microbes. Another hurdle is that labs using varied bioinfomatic methods may produce different results from the same sample, a problem that Surette sees as ripe for a solution from clinical laboratorians, who have expertise in standardizing robust protocols and in automating tests.

One way laboratorians can prepare for future, routine microbiome testing is to expand their notion of clinical chemistry to include both microbial and human biochemistry. “The line between microbiome science and clinical science is blurring,” said Versalovic. “When developing future assays to detect biochemical changes in disease states, we must consider the contributions of microbial metabolites and proteins and how to tailor tests to detect them.” In the future, clinical labs may test for uniquely microbial metabolites in various disease states, he predicted.


Automated Review of Mass Spectrometry Results  

Can We Achieve Autoverification?

Author: Katherine Alexander and Andrea R. Terrell, PhD  // Date: NOV.1.2015  // Source:Clinical Laboratory News



Paralleling the upswing in prescription drug misuse, clinical laboratories are receiving more requests for mass spectrometry (MS) testing as physicians rely on its specificity to monitor patient compliance with prescription regimens. However, as volume has increased, reimbursement has declined, forcing toxicology laboratories both to increase capacity and lower their operational costs—without sacrificing quality or turnaround time. Now, new solutions are available enabling laboratories to bring automation to MS testing and helping them with the growing demand for toxicology and other testing.

What is the typical MS workflow?

A typical workflow includes a long list of manual steps. By the time a sample is loaded onto the mass spectrometer, it has been collected, logged into the lab information management system (LIMS), and prepared for analysis using a variety of wet chemistry techniques.

Most commercial clinical laboratories receive enough samples for MS analysis to batch analyze those samples. A batch consists of a calibrator(s), quality control (QC) samples, and patient/donor samples. Historically, the method would be selected (i.e. “analysis of opiates”), sample identification information would be entered manually into the MS software, and the instrument would begin analyzing each sample. Upon successful completion of the batch, the MS operator would view all of the analytical data, ensure the QC results were acceptable, and review each patient/donor specimen, looking at characteristics such as peak shape, ion ratios, retention time, and calculated concentration.

The operator would then post acceptable results into the LIMS manually or through an interface, and unacceptable results would be rescheduled or dealt with according to lab-specific protocols. In our laboratory we perform a final certification step for quality assurance by reviewing all information about the batch again, prior to releasing results for final reporting through the LIMS.

What problems are associated with this workflow?

The workflow described above results in too many highly trained chemists performing manual data entry and reviewing perfectly acceptable analytical results. Lab managers would prefer that MS operators and certifying scientists focus on troubleshooting problem samples rather than reviewing mounds of good data. Not only is the current process inefficient, it is mundane work prone to user errors. This risks fatigue, disengagement, and complacency by our highly skilled scientists.

Importantly, manual processes also take time. In most clinical lab environments, turnaround time is critical for patient care and industry competitiveness. Lab directors and managers are looking for solutions to automate mundane, error-prone tasks to save time and costs, reduce staff burnout, and maintain high levels of quality.

How can software automate data transfer from MS systems to LIMS?

Automation is not a new concept in the clinical lab. Labs have automated processes in shipping and receiving, sample preparation, liquid handling, and data delivery to the end user. As more labs implement MS, companies have begun to develop special software to automate data analysis and review workflows.

In July 2011, AIT Labs incorporated ASCENT into our workflow, eliminating the initial manual peak review step. ASCENT is an algorithm-based peak picking and data review system designed specifically for chromatographic data. The software employs robust statistical and modeling approaches to the raw instrument data to present the true signal, which often can be obscured by noise or matrix components.

The system also uses an exponentially modified Gaussian (EMG) equation to apply a best-fit model to integrated peaks through what is often a noisy signal. In our experience, applying the EMG results in cleaner data from what might appear to be poor chromatography ultimately allows us to reduce the number of samples we might otherwise rerun.

How do you validate the quality of results?

We’ve developed a robust validation protocol to ensure that results are, at minimum, equivalent to results from our manual review. We begin by building the assay in ASCENT, entering assay-specific information from our internal standard operating procedure (SOP). Once the assay is configured, validation proceeds with parallel batch processing to compare results between software-reviewed data and staff-reviewed data. For new implementations we run eight to nine batches of 30–40 samples each; when we are modifying or upgrading an existing implementation we run a smaller number of batches. The parallel batches should contain multiple positive and negative results for all analytes in the method, preferably spanning the analytical measurement range of the assay.

The next step is to compare the results and calculate the percent difference between the data review methods. We require that two-thirds of the automated results fall within 20% of the manually reviewed result. In addition to validating patient sample correlation, we also test numerous quality assurance rules that should initiate a flag for further review.

What are the biggest challenges during implementation and continual improvement initiatives?

On the technological side, our largest hurdle was loading the sequence files into ASCENT. We had created an in-house mechanism for our chemists to upload the 96-well plate map for their batch into the MS software. We had some difficulty transferring this information to ASCENT, but once we resolved this issue, the technical workflow proceeded fairly smoothly.

The greater challenge was changing our employees’ mindset from one of fear that automation would displace them, to a realization that learning this new technology would actually make them more valuable. Automating a non-mechanical process can be a difficult concept for hands-on scientists, so managers must be patient and help their employees understand that this kind of technology leverages the best attributes of software and people to create a powerful partnership.

We recommend that labs considering automated data analysis engage staff in the validation and implementation to spread the workload and the knowledge. As is true with most technology, it is best not to rely on just one or two super users. We also found it critical to add supervisor level controls on data file manipulation, such as removing a sample that wasn’t run from the sequence table. This can prevent inadvertent deletion of a file, requiring reinjection of the entire batch!


Understanding Fibroblast Growth Factor 23

Author: Damien Gruson, PhD  // Date: OCT.1.2015  // Source: Clinical Laboratory News


What is the relationship of FGF-23 to heart failure?

A Heart failure (HF) is an increasingly common syndrome associated with high morbidity, elevated hospital readmission rates, and high mortality. Improving diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of HF requires a better understanding of its different sub-phenotypes. As researchers gained a comprehensive understanding of neurohormonal activation—one of the hallmarks of HF—they discovered several biomarkers, including natriuretic peptides, which now are playing an important role in sub-phenotyping HF and in driving more personalized management of this chronic condition.

Like the natriuretic peptides, fibroblast growth factor 23 (FGF-23) could become important in risk-stratifying and managing HF patients. Produced by osteocytes, FGF-23 is a key regulator of phosphorus homeostasis. It binds to renal and parathyroid FGF-Klotho receptor heterodimers, resulting in phosphate excretion, decreased 1-α-hydroxylation of 25-hydroxyvitamin D, and decreased parathyroid hormone (PTH) secretion. The relationship to PTH is important because impaired homeostasis of cations and decreased glomerular filtration rate might contribute to the rise of FGF-23. The amino-terminal portion of FGF-23 (amino acids 1-24) serves as a signal peptide allowing secretion into the blood, and the carboxyl-terminal portion (aa 180-251) participates in its biological action.

How might FGF-23 improve HF risk assessment?

Studies have shown that FGF-23 is related to the risk of cardiovascular diseases and mortality. It was first demonstrated that FGF-23 levels were independently associated with left ventricular mass index and hypertrophy as well as mortality in patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD). FGF-23 also has been associated with left ventricular dysfunction and atrial fibrillation in coronary artery disease subjects, even in the absence of impaired renal function.

FGF-23 and FGF receptors are both expressed in the myocardium. It is possible that FGF-23 has direct effects on the heart and participates in the physiopathology of cardiovascular diseases and HF. Experiments have shown that for in vitro cultured rat cardiomyocytes, FGF-23 stimulates pathological hypertrophy by activating the calcineurin-NFAT pathway—and in wild-type mice—the intra-myocardial or intravenous injection of FGF-23 resulted in left ventricular hypertrophy. As such, FGF-23 appears to be a potential stimulus of myocardial hypertrophy, and increased levels may contribute to the worsening of heart failure and long-term cardiovascular death.

Researchers have documented that HF patients have elevated FGF-23 circulating levels. They have also found a significant correlation between plasma levels of FGF-23 and B-type natriuretic peptide, a biomarker related to ventricular stretch and cardiac hypertrophy, in patients with left ventricular hypertrophy. As such, measuring FGF-23 levels might be a useful tool to predict long-term adverse cardiovascular events in HF patients.

Interestingly, researchers have documented a significant relationship between FGF-23 and PTH in both CKD and HF patients. As PTH stimulates FGF-23 expression, it could be that in HF patients, increased PTH levels increase the bone expression of FGF-23, which enhances its effects on the heart.


The Past, Present, and Future of Western Blotting in the Clinical Laboratory

Author: Curtis Balmer, PhD  // Date: OCT.1.2015  // Source: Clinical Laboratory News


Much of the discussion about Western blotting centers around its performance as a biological research tool. This isn’t surprising. Since its introduction in the late 1970s, the Western blot has been adopted by biology labs of virtually every stripe, and become one of the most widely used techniques in the research armamentarium. However, Western blotting has also been employed in clinical laboratories to aid in the diagnosis of various diseases and disorders—an equally important and valuable application. Yet there has been relatively little discussion of its use in this context, or of how advances in Western blotting might affect its future clinical use.

Highlighting the clinical value of Western blotting, Stanley Naides, MD, medical director of Immunology at Quest Diagnostics observed that, “Western blotting has been a very powerful tool in the laboratory and for clinical diagnosis. It’s one of many various methods that the laboratorian brings to aid the clinician in the diagnosis of disease, and the selection and monitoring of therapy.” Indeed, Western blotting has been used at one time or the other to aid in the diagnosis of infectious diseases including hepatitis C (HCV), HIV, Lyme disease, and syphilis, as well as autoimmune disorders such as paraneoplastic disease and myositis conditions.

However, Naides was quick to point out that the choice of assays to use clinically is based on their demonstrated sensitivity and performance, and that the search for something better is never-ending. “We’re constantly looking for methods that improve detection of our target [protein],” Naides said. “There have been a number of instances where we’ve moved away from Western blotting because another method proves to be more sensitive.” But this search can also lead back to Western blotting. “We’ve gone away from other methods because there’s been a Western blot that’s been developed that’s more sensitive and specific. There’s that constant movement between methods as new tests are developed.”

In recent years, this quest has been leading clinical laboratories away from Western blotting toward more sensitive and specific diagnostic assays, at least for some diseases. Using confirmatory diagnosis of HCV infection as an example, Sai Patibandla, PhD, director of the immunoassay group at Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics, explained that movement away from Western blotting for confirmatory diagnosis of HCV infection began with a technical modification called Recombinant Immunoblotting Assay (RIBA). RIBA streamlines the conventional Western blot protocol by spotting recombinant antigen onto strips which are used to screen patient samples for antibodies against HCV. This approach eliminates the need to separate proteins and transfer them onto a membrane.

The RIBA HCV assay was initially manufactured by Chiron Corporation (acquired by Novartics Vaccines and Diagnostics in 2006). It received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in 1999, and was marketed as Chiron RIBA HCV 3.0 Strip Immunoblot Assay. Patibandla explained that, at the time, the Chiron assay “…was the only FDA-approved confirmatory testing for HCV.” In 2013 the assay was discontinued and withdrawn from the market due to reports that it was producing false-positive results.

Since then, clinical laboratories have continued to move away from Western blot-based assays for confirmation of HCV in favor of the more sensitive technique of nucleic acid testing (NAT). “The migration is toward NAT for confirmation of HCV [diagnosis]. We don’t use immunoblots anymore. We don’t even have a blot now to confirm HCV,” Patibandla said.

Confirming HIV infection has followed a similar path. Indeed, in 2014 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated recommendations for HIV testing that, in part, replaced Western blotting with NAT. This change was in response to the recognition that the HIV-1 Western blot assay was producing false-negative or indeterminable results early in the course of HIV infection.

At this juncture it is difficult to predict if this trend away from Western blotting in clinical laboratories will continue. One thing that is certain, however, is that clinicians and laboratorians are infinitely pragmatic, and will eagerly replace current techniques with ones shown to be more sensitive, specific, and effective. This raises the question of whether any of the many efforts currently underway to improve Western blotting will produce an assay that exceeds the sensitivity of currently employed techniques such as NAT.

Some of the most exciting and groundbreaking work in this area is being done by Amy Herr, PhD, a professor of bioengineering at University of California, Berkeley. Herr’s group has taken on some of the most challenging limitations of Western blotting, and is developing techniques that could revolutionize the assay. For example, the Western blot is semi-quantitative at best. This weakness dramatically limits the types of answers it can provide about changes in protein concentrations under various conditions.

To make Western blotting more quantitative, Herr’s group is, among other things, identifying losses of protein sample mass during the assay protocol. About this, Herr explains that the conventional Western blot is an “open system” that involves lots of handling of assay materials, buffers, and reagents that makes it difficult to account for protein losses. Or, as Kevin Lowitz, a senior product manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific, described it, “Western blot is a [simple] technique, but a really laborious one, and there are just so many steps and so many opportunities to mess it up.”

Herr’s approach is to reduce the open aspects of Western blot. “We’ve been developing these more closed systems that allow us at each stage of the assay to account for [protein mass] losses. We can’t do this exactly for every target of interest, but it gives us a really good handle [on protein mass losses],” she said. One of the major mechanisms Herr’s lab is using to accomplish this is to secure proteins to the blot matrix with covalent bonding rather than with the much weaker hydrophobic interactions that typically keep the proteins in place on the membrane.

Herr’s group also has been developing microfluidic platforms that allow Western blotting to be done on single cells, “In our system we’re doing thousands of independent Westerns on single cells in four hours. And, hopefully, we’ll cut that down to one hour over the next couple years.”

Other exciting modifications that stand to dramatically increase the sensitivity, quantitation, and through-put of Western blotting also are being developed and explored. For example, the use of capillary electrophoresis—in which proteins are conveyed through a small electrolyte-filled tube and separated according to size and charge before being dropped onto a blotting membrane—dramatically reduces the amount of protein required for Western blot analysis, and thereby allows Westerns to be run on proteins from rare cells or for which quantities of sample are extremely limited.

Jillian Silva, PhD, an associate specialist at the University of California, San Francisco Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, explained that advances in detection are also extending the capabilities of Western blotting. “With the advent of fluorescence detection we have a way to quantitate Westerns, and it is now more quantitative than it’s ever been,” said Silva.

Whether or not these advances produce an assay that is adopted by clinical laboratories remains to be seen. The emphasis on Western blotting as a research rather than a clinical tool may bias advances in favor of the needs and priorities of researchers rather than clinicians, and as Patibandla pointed out, “In the research world Western blotting has a certain purpose. [Researchers] are always coming up with new things, and are trying to nail down new proteins, so you cannot take Western blotting away.” In contrast, she suggested that for now, clinical uses of Western blotting remain “limited.”


Adapting Next Generation Technologies to Clinical Molecular Oncology Service

Author: Ronald Carter, PhD, DVM  // Date: OCT.1.2015  // Source: Clinical Laboratory News


Next generation technologies (NGT) deliver huge improvements in cost efficiency, accuracy, robustness, and in the amount of information they provide. Microarrays, high-throughput sequencing platforms, digital droplet PCR, and other technologies all offer unique combinations of desirable performance.

As stronger evidence of genetic testing’s clinical utility influences patterns of patient care, demand for NGT testing is increasing. This presents several challenges to clinical laboratories, including increased urgency, clinical importance, and breadth of application in molecular oncology, as well as more integration of genetic tests into synoptic reporting. Laboratories need to add NGT-based protocols while still providing old tests, and the pace of change is increasing.What follows is one viewpoint on the major challenges in adopting NGTs into diagnostic molecular oncology service.

Choosing a Platform

Instrument selection is a critical decision that has to align with intended test applications, sequencing chemistries, and analytical software. Although multiple platforms are available, a mainstream standard has not emerged. Depending on their goals, laboratories might set up NGTs for improved accuracy of mutation detection, massively higher sequencing capacity per test, massively more targets combined in one test (multiplexing), greater range in sequencing read length, much lower cost per base pair assessed, and economy of specimen volume.

When high-throughput instruments first made their appearance, laboratories paid more attention to the accuracy of base-reading: Less accurate sequencing meant more data cleaning and resequencing (1). Now, new instrument designs have narrowed the differences, and test chemistry can have a comparatively large impact on analytical accuracy (Figure 1). The robustness of technical performance can also vary significantly depending upon specimen type. For example, LifeTechnologies’ sequencing platforms appear to be comparatively more tolerant of low DNA quality and concentration, which is an important consideration for fixed and processed tissues.


Figure 1 Comparison of Sequencing Chemistries

Sequence pile-ups of the same target sequence (2 large genes), all performed on the same analytical instrument. Results from 4 different chemistries, as designed and supplied by reagent manufacturers prior to optimization in the laboratory. Red lines represent limits of exons. Height of blue columns proportional to depth of coverage. In this case, the intent of the test design was to provide high depth of coverage so that reflex Sanger sequencing would not be necessary. Courtesy B. Sadikovic, U. of Western Ontario.


In addition, batching, robotics, workload volume patterns, maintenance contracts, software licenses, and platform lifetime affect the cost per analyte and per specimen considerably. Royalties and reagent contracts also factor into the cost of operating NGT: In some applications, fees for intellectual property can represent more than 50% of the bench cost of performing a given test, and increase substantially without warning.

Laboratories must also deal with the problem of obsolescence. Investing in a new platform brings the angst of knowing that better machines and chemistries are just around the corner. Laboratories are buying bigger pieces of equipment with shorter service lives. Before NGTs, major instruments could confidently be expected to remain current for at least 6 to 8 years. Now, a major instrument is obsolete much sooner, often within 2 to 3 years. This means that keeping it in service might cost more than investing in a new platform. Lease-purchase arrangements help mitigate year-to-year fluctuations in capital equipment costs, and maximize the value of old equipment at resale.

One Size Still Does Not Fit All

Laboratories face numerous technical considerations to optimize sequencing protocols, but the test has to be matched to the performance criteria needed for the clinical indication (2). For example, measuring response to treatment depends first upon the diagnostic recognition of mutation(s) in the tumor clone; the marker(s) then have to be quantifiable and indicative of tumor volume throughout the course of disease (Table 1).

As a result, diagnostic tests need to cover many different potential mutations, yet accurately identify any clinically relevant mutations actually present. On the other hand, tests for residual disease need to provide standardized, sensitive, and accurate quantification of a selected marker mutation against the normal background. A diagnostic panel might need 1% to 3% sensitivity across many different mutations. But quantifying early response to induction—and later assessment of minimal residual disease—needs a test that is reliably accurate to the 10-4 or 10-5 range for a specific analyte.

Covering all types of mutations in one diagnostic test is not yet possible. For example, subtyping of acute myeloid leukemia is both old school (karyotype, fluorescent in situ hybridization, and/or PCR-based or array-based testing for fusion rearrangements, deletions, and segmental gains) and new school (NGT-based panel testing for molecular mutations).

Chemistries that cover both structural variants and copy number variants are not yet in general use, but the advantages of NGTs compared to traditional methods are becoming clearer, such as in colorectal cancer (3). Researchers are also using cell-free DNA (cfDNA) to quantify residual disease and detect resistance mutations (4). Once a clinically significant clone is identified, enrichment techniques help enable extremely sensitive quantification of residual disease (5).

Validation and Quality Assurance

Beyond choosing a platform, two distinct challenges arise in bringing NGTs into the lab. The first is assembling the resources for validation and quality assurance. The second is keeping tests up-to-date as new analytes are needed. Even if a given test chemistry has the flexibility to add analytes without revalidating the entire panel, keeping up with clinical advances is a constant priority.

Due to their throughput and multiplexing capacities, NGT platforms typically require considerable upfront investment to adopt, and training staff to perform testing takes even more time. Proper validation is harder to document: Assembling positive controls, documenting test performance criteria, developing quality assurance protocols, and conducting proficiency testing are all demanding. Labs meet these challenges in different ways. Laboratory-developed tests (LDTs) allow self-determined choice in design, innovation, and control of the test protocol, but can be very expensive to set up.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved methods are attractive but not always an option. More FDA-approved methods will be marketed, but FDA approval itself brings other trade-offs. There is a cost premium compared to LDTs, and the test methodologies are locked down and not modifiable. This is particularly frustrating for NGTs, which have the specific attraction of extensive multiplexing capacity and accommodating new analytes.

IT and the Evolution of Molecular Oncology Reporting Standards

The options for information technology (IT) pipelines for NGTs are improving rapidly. At the same time, recent studies still show significant inconsistencies and lack of reproducibility when it comes to interpreting variants in array comparative genomic hybridization, panel testing, tumor expression profiling, and tumor genome sequencing. It can be difficult to duplicate published performances in clinical studies because of a lack of sufficient information about the protocol (chemistry) and software. Building bioinformatics capacity is a key requirement, yet skilled people are in short supply and the qualifications needed to work as a bioinformatician in a clinical service are not yet clearly defined.

Tumor biology brings another level of complexity. Bioinformatic analysis must distinguish tumor-specific­ variants from genomic variants. Sequencing of paired normal tissue is often performed as a control, but virtual normal controls may have intriguing advantages (6). One of the biggest challenges is to reproducibly interpret the clinical significance of interactions between different mutations, even with commonly known, well-defined mutations (7). For multiple analyte panels, such as predictive testing for breast cancer, only the performance of the whole panel in a population of patients can be compared; individual patients may be scored into different risk categories by different tests, all for the same test indication.

In large scale sequencing of tumor genomes, which types of mutations are most informative in detecting, quantifying, and predicting the behavior of the tumor over time? The amount and complexity of mutation varies considerably across different tumor types, and while some mutations are more common, stable, and clinically informative than others, the utility of a given tumor marker varies in different clinical situations. And, for a given tumor, treatment effect and metastasis leads to retesting for changes in drug sensitivities.

These complexities mean that IT must be designed into the process from the beginning. Like robotics, IT represents a major ancillary decision. One approach many labs choose is licensed technologies with shared databases that are updated in real time. These are attractive, despite their cost and licensing fees. New tests that incorporate proprietary IT with NGT platforms link the genetic signatures of tumors to clinically significant considerations like tumor classification, recommended methodologies for monitoring response, predicted drug sensitivities, eligible clinical trials, and prognostic classifications. In-house development of such solutions will be difficult, so licensing platforms from commercial partners is more likely to be the norm.

The Commercial Value of Health Records and Test Data

The future of cancer management likely rests on large-scale databases that link hereditary and somatic tumor testing with clinical outcomes. Multiple centers have such large studies underway, and data extraction and analysis is providing increasingly refined interpretations of clinical significance.

Extracting health outcomes to correlate with molecular test results is commercially valuable, as the pharmaceutical, insurance, and healthcare sectors focus on companion diagnostics, precision medicine, and evidence-based health technology assessment. Laboratories that can develop tests based on large-scale integration of test results to clinical utility will have an advantage.

NGTs do offer opportunities for net reductions in the cost of healthcare. But the lag between availability of a test and peer-evaluated demon­stration of clinical utility can be considerable. Technical developments arise faster than evidence of clinical utility. For example, immuno­histochemistry, estrogen receptor/progesterone receptor status, HER2/neu, and histology are still the major pathological criteria for prognostic evaluation of breast cancer at diagnosis, even though multiple analyte tumor profiling has been described for more than 15 years. Healthcare systems need a more concerted assessment of clinical utility if they are to take advantage of the promises of NGTs in cancer care.

Disruptive Advances

Without a doubt, “disruptive” is an appropriate buzzword in molecular oncology, and new technical advances are about to change how, where, and for whom testing is performed.

• Predictive Testing

Besides cost per analyte, one of the drivers for taking up new technologies is that they enable multiplexing many more analytes with less biopsy material. Single-analyte sequential testing for epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), anaplastic lymphoma kinase, and other targets on small biopsies is not sustainable when many more analytes are needed, and even now, a significant proportion of test requests cannot be completed due to lack of suitable biopsy material. Large panels incorporating all the mutations needed to cover multiple tumor types are replacing individual tests in companion diagnostics.

• Cell-Free Tumor DNA

Challenges of cfDNA include standardizing the collection and processing methodologies, timing sampling to minimize the effect of therapeutic toxicity on analytical accuracy, and identifying the most informative sample (DNA, RNA, or protein). But for more and more tumor types, it will be possible to differentiate benign versus malignant lesions, perform molecular subtyping, predict response, monitor treatment, or screen for early detection—all without a surgical biopsy.

cfDNA technologies can also be integrated into core laboratory instrumentation. For example, blood-based EGFR analysis for lung cancer is being developed on the Roche cobas 4800 platform, which will be a significant change from the current standard of testing based upon single tests of DNA extracted from formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded sections selected by a pathologist (8).

• Whole Genome and Whole Exome Sequencing

Whole genome and whole exome tumor sequencing approaches provide a wealth of biologically important information, and will replace individual or multiple gene test panels as the technical cost of sequencing declines and interpretive accuracy improves (9). Laboratories can apply informatics selectively or broadly to extract much more information at relatively little increase in cost, and the interpretation of individual analytes will be improved by the context of the whole sequence.

• Minimal Residual Disease Testing

Massive resequencing and enrichment techniques can be used to detect minimal residual disease, and will provide an alternative to flow cytometry as costs decline. The challenge is to develop robust analytical platforms that can reliably produce results in a high proportion of patients with a given tumor type, despite using post-treatment specimens with therapy-induced degradation, and a very low proportion of target (tumor) sequence to benign background sequence.

The tumor markers should remain informative for the burden of disease despite clonal evolution over the course of multiple samples taken during progression of the clinical course and treatment. Quantification needs to be accurate and sensitive down to the 10-5 range, and cost competitive with flow cytometry.

• Point-of-Care Test Methodologies

Small, rapid, cheap, and single use point-of-care (POC) sequencing devices are coming. Some can multiplex with analytical times as short as 20 minutes. Accurate and timely testing will be possible in places like pharmacies, oncology clinics, patient service centers, and outreach programs. Whether physicians will trust and act on POC results alone, or will require confirmation by traditional laboratory-based testing, remains to be seen. However, in the simplest type of application, such as a patient known to have a particular mutation, the advantages of POC-based testing to quantify residual tumor burden are clear.


Molecular oncology is moving rapidly from an esoteric niche of diagnostics to a mainstream, required component of integrated clinical laboratory services. While NGTs are markedly reducing the cost per analyte and per specimen, and will certainly broaden the scope and volume of testing performed, the resources required to choose, install, and validate these new technologies are daunting for smaller labs. More rapid obsolescence and increased regulatory scrutiny for LDTs also present significant challenges. Aligning test capacity with approved clinical indications will require careful and constant attention to ensure competitiveness.


1. Liu L, Li Y, Li S, et al. Comparison of next-generation sequencing systems. J Biomed Biotechnol 2012; doi:10.1155/2012/251364.

2. Brownstein CA, Beggs AH, Homer N, et al. An international effort towards developing standards for best practices in analysis, interpretation and reporting of clinical genome sequencing results in the CLARITY Challenge. Genome Biol 2014;15:R53.

3. Haley L, Tseng LH, Zheng G, et al. Performance characteristics of next-generation sequencing in clinical mutation detection of colorectal ­cancers. [Epub ahead of print] Modern Pathol July 31, 2015 as doi:10.1038/modpathol.2015.86.

4. Butler TM, Johnson-Camacho K, Peto M, et al. Exome sequencing of cell-free DNA from metastatic cancer patients identifies clinically actionable mutations distinct from primary ­disease. PLoS One 2015;10:e0136407.

5. Castellanos-Rizaldos E, Milbury CA, Guha M, et al. COLD-PCR enriches low-level variant DNA sequences and increases the sensitivity of genetic testing. Methods Mol Biol 2014;1102:623–39.

6. Hiltemann S, Jenster G, Trapman J, et al. Discriminating somatic and germline mutations in tumor DNA samples without matching normals. Genome Res 2015;25:1382–90.

7. Lammers PE, Lovly CM, Horn L. A patient with metastatic lung adenocarcinoma harboring concurrent EGFR L858R, EGFR germline T790M, and PIK3CA mutations: The challenge of interpreting results of comprehensive mutational testing in lung cancer. J Natl Compr Canc Netw 2015;12:6–11.

8. Weber B, Meldgaard P, Hager H, et al. Detection of EGFR mutations in plasma and biopsies from non-small cell lung cancer patients by allele-specific PCR assays. BMC Cancer 2014;14:294.

9. Vogelstein B, Papadopoulos N, Velculescu VE, et al. Cancer genome landscapes. Science 2013;339:1546–58.

10. Heitzer E, Auer M, Gasch C, et al. Complex tumor genomes inferred from single circulating tumor cells by array-CGH and next-generation sequencing. Cancer Res 2013;73:2965–75.

11. Healy B. BRCA genes — Bookmaking, fortunetelling, and medical care. N Engl J Med 1997;336:1448–9.




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antibody-like proteins to awaken and destroy HIV holdouts

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator


Two-Faced Proteins May Tackle HIV Reservoirs

Researchers design antibody-like proteins to awaken and destroy HIV holdouts.

By Amanda B. Keener | October 21, 2015


For the millions of people living with HIV worldwide, a life-long commitment to antiretroviral drugs is a must. Without these drugs, reservoirs of HIV hiding within resting T cells throughout the body can easily resurge and cause disease. In a study published yesterday (October 20) in Nature Communications, researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, described a bispecific antibody-like protein that attacks those reservoirs by coaxing HIV out of hiding and targeting infected cells for destruction.

“In order to kill the [infected] cell, the cell has to be activated,” said study coauthor John Mascola, director of NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center. This is because HIV has a way of hiding out inside inactive CD4+ T cells where the virus adopts a dormant-like state known as latency. In this state, the virus is impervious to antiretroviral drugs as well as antibodies that might otherwise alert other immune cells to the virus’ presence inside an infected cell. “By definition, latently-infected cells don’t express virus proteins,” Oliver Schwartz, the head of the virus and immunity laboratory at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who was not involved in the work, told The Scientist.

Mascola and his colleagues designed a protein that activates latently-infected T cells by targeting a protein found on the surface of all T cells called CD3. Engagement of CD3 signals infected CD4+ T cells to start dividing, which revamps HIV’s replication machinery causing the virus to make proteins that appear on the surface of the infected cell. Mascola’s team tested the protein, called VRC07-αCD3, on T cells donated by HIV patients on antiretroviral therapies. The researchers found that VRC07-αCD3 caused the T cells to display Env, indicating that latent virus had become reactivated.

In recent years, researchers have come up with a handful of approaches to activate latent HIV, such ashistone deacetylase inhibitors, which increase viral gene expression. VRC07-αCD3, however, doesn’t just activate latent HIV—it also binds Env on the surface of infected CD4+ T cells and tags the cells for killing by another sort of cell called CD8+ killer T cells. Using T cells in culture, Mascola’s team demonstrated that the CD3-binding region of the protein triggers killer CD8+ T cells to lyse CD4+ T cells expressing Env.

The NIAID study was preceded by one in The Journal of Clinical Investigation that described a similar protein with dual specificities for CD3 and Env, but with a slightly different structure. Both designs share features that allow the proteins to activate latent cells, tag Env, and activate and bring killer CD8+ T cells into close proximity of their infected targets.

The dual specificity for CD3 and Env also provides a layer of safety: it ensured the killer CD8+ T cells only acted in full force when HIV was present. “That was an encouraging part of the data,” Mascola said.

Schwartz said this feature potentially addresses the concern that nonspecific activation of large numbers of T cells could elicit a dangerous overactivation of the immune system called a cytokine storm.

Mascola and his colleagues tested the safety of VRC07-αCD3 in five HIV-infected Rhesus macaques by giving the animals six doses over the course of three weeks. The monkeys were also on antiretroviral drugs, and the virus remained undetectable throughout the treatment. Although the monkeys tolerated the drug well, VRC07-αCD3 did activate T cells and caused serum cytokine levels to increase. “So this type of treatment is not risk-free,” Caltech virologist Pamela Bjorkman, who was not involved in the work, wrote in an email to The Scientist.

Mascola said his group plans to continue testing VRC07-αCD3 in macaques and in humanized mice to work out a balance between T cell activation and HIV killing. However, neither model “really tells you what’s going to happen in people,” he said. “We’ll have to proceed slowly in the clinic.”

A. Pegu et al., “Activation and lysis of human CD4 cells latently infected with HIV-1,”Nature Communications, 6:8447 doi:10.1038/ncomms9447, 2015.

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Heroes in Medical Research: Dr. Robert Ting, Ph.D. and Retrovirus in AIDS and Cancer

Curator and Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, PhD

This is the second posting in this series in which I highlight the basic research which led to seminal breakthroughs in the medical field, brought on by the result of basic inquiry, thorough and detailed investigation, meticulously following the scientific method, and eventually leading to development of important medical therapies.

In his autobiography, Virus Hunting: AIDS, Cancer & the Human Retrovirus: A Story of Scientific Discovery, Dr. Robert Gallo, M.D. describes a wonderful story of the history behind, scientific biographies, and chronology of the discoveries which led he and his colleagues (including co-discoverer Dr. Luke Montagnier) to recognize retroviruses (in particular HIV) as the leading culprit for the cause of AIDS and in the etiology of Kaposi’s sarcoma.   For anyone who appreciates the history behind scientific discoveries and appreciates learning about the multitude of individual efforts which are the crux of seminal research, this book is a must read.

Recommendations from the back cover include:

Virus Hunting will be read and reread, for years to come.” —New York Newsday

“Provides a human, revealing look into the arcane, usually secret confines of laboratory science.”

Martin Delany, Project Inform

..as well as others.

While a fascinating aspect of this book is the description, like fitting pieces of a puzzle, of the important discoveries throughout history which are the necessary foundations for further investigations and discoveries, more important is a telling, personal narrative of the people involved in those initial and subsequent discoveries.  In fact, the book has over 396 colleagues, mentors, technicians, students, and even critiques who are given credit, in one form or another, for the ultimate discovery of HIV as a causative agent for the development of AIDS. The book is a literal Who’s Who in Science and shows how important personal collaboration and friendships are in the process of scientific discovery.

In 1972, Dr. Seymour Perry had appointed the young Dr. Robert Gallo as head of a new department, the Human Tumor Cell Biology Branch, renamed the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology.  The lab was carrying on the work on tRNA that Dr. Gallo had performed in Dr. Sid Perska’s group at NIH.  However, with the help of new lab members Dr. David Gillespie, Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal, and Dr. Marjorie Robert-Guroff the lab focused on the search for disease-causing retroviruses, especially in human leukemias.  This was, in part, due to conversations with Dr. Robert Huebner and Todaro, who insisted that

“within the genetic makeup of this endogenous retroviral material was, they suggested, a special gene, the oncogene, that was the parent of the cancer-causing protein”

which may explain some of the early work by Rous concerning the Rous sarcoma virus.

Enter in Gallo’s good friend Dr. Bob Ting.  Dr. Gallo had known Dr. Ting socially since 1966, shortly after Gallo had arrived at NIH.  Dr. Bob Ting was a well-established NCI investigator, who was doing work on DNA and RNA oncogenic viruses of animals.  Originally from a large and wealthy family in Hong Kong, Dr. Ting had worked with Nobel Prize winners Salvatore Luria (who worked on phages) and Renato Dulbecco, who, along with his well-known cell culture media, had made the seminal discoveries that led to our knowledge how some DNA viruses can transform normal animal cells into neoplastic-like cells in culture.

Bob Ting gave a talk on these oncogenic viruses and Gallo was very interested in his observations that oncogenic viruses like Rous and Maloney, could transform cells in vitro in a matter of days.

A friendship developed between the two over tennis matches and Chinese food.  During this time, Dr. Ting made the important suggestion that they both collaborate and use the viral systems developed by Dulbecco.  Ting also introduced him to RNA viruses, Dr. Robert Huebner, and Dr. Howard Temin.  It was, in part, due to these associations that Gallo started looking, in earnest, at the possibility of RNA retroviruses in leukemias. Thus, just like the internet today, connections and networking provided new insights into current research, and helped lead the advent of new discoveries, therapies, and scientific disciplines.

Therefore, “after some late-night discussion with Bob Ting, I decided to enter the fray. My own laboratory, … would immediately be set up to compare the properties of reverse transcriptase enzymes from many different animal retroviruses”.

Although the rest is more history, this early friendship, collaboration, and mentoring by Bob Ting had “transformed” Gallo’s research efforts to set him up to make some of the important discoveries eventually leading to the discovery of the role of HIV in AIDS.

A video interviewing Dr. Gallo can be found here:



A very nice writeup/obituary for Dr. Ting was written by Patricia Sullivan of the Washington Post and is included below.

Robert Ting, 77; Biotech Pioneer


Dr. Robert Ting’s biotech company in Rockville developed the first FDA-approved diagnostic test kits to test for HIV antibodies. (By Gerald Martineau — The Washington Post)


By Patricia Sullivan

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006

Robert C.Y. Ting, 77, a research scientist who started one of the early biotechnology companies in the Washington area, died Sept. 11 of complications after cardiac surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland.

Dr. Ting founded Biotech Research Laboratories Inc. in Rockville in 1973, producing cells for government scientists to use in research. Eleven years later, his firm obtained a federal license to develop and produce the first FDA-approved diagnostic test kits for HIV antibody confirmation.

Robert C. Gallo, who co-discovered the HIV virus as the cause of AIDS, called Dr. Ting a pioneer in the field who popularized the term “biotechnology” when he moved from research to entrepreneurship.

“He introduced me to virology, and he did it twice,” said Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore. The men had known each other since the 1960s, and while playing tennis one day, Dr. Ting advised the cancer researcher to look at new research in viruses. Later, when Gallo was studying leukemia, Dr. Ting directed him to animal research in leukemia. “First he showed me how viruses change cells. Then he introduced me to retrovirology. . . . I went into retrovirology solely because of those discussions with Bob Ting on tennis courts,” Gallo said.

Dr. Ting, whom Gallo described as a quiet, modest man, was born in Shanghai, the son of a physician to Gen. Chiang Kai-Shek. His family fled the country during the Japanese invasion of China during World War II and moved to Hong Kong. Soon after, he moved to the United States, where he received a bachelor’s degree and in 1956 a master’s degree in genetics from Amherst College.

He received a doctoral degree in microbiology and biochemistry from the University of Illinois in 1960 under Salvador E. Luria, who later won the 1969 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology. Dr. Ting spent the next two years on a postdoctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology, working with Renato Dulbecco, who later won the 1975 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology. Their work focused on how viruses cause tumors.

“A lot of molecular biology developed from this,” Dr. Ting told The Washington Post in 1984 from his Rockville office, cluttered with scientific journals, awards and a large blackboard. “There was so much evidence in animal systems [that viruses cause tumors], that the next question was obvious — can you find the equivalent in humans.”

Dr. Ting joined the National Institutes of Health in 1962 as a visiting fellow and then a senior research scientist at the National Cancer Institute. From 1966 to 1968, he was an associate editor for the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

In 1969, he joined Litton Bionetics Inc. in Rockville as director of experimental oncology, leading a project funded by the institute to search for viruses in human leukemia patients. He became scientific director of the cancer research branch the next year.

With academic, government and private business experience under his belt, Dr. Ting decided to go into business on his own and in 1973 started Biotech Research Laboratories in Rockville. It was a profitable supplier of research services and supplies until 1981, when it went public and produced the HIV diagnostic test kits. It became one of the most successful public biotech companies in the area in the mid-1980s.

The Economic Development Board of Singapore invited him to return to Asia to start a biotech company, which he did in 1985, forming Diagnostic Biotechnology Ltd. He also joined the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology at the National University of Singapore, which Gallo called “the most prominent Asian academic biotechnology center.”

He returned to the United States in 1998 to join the board of Cell Works Inc. in Baltimore, and became chair and chief executive of a joint venture, Cell Works Asia Limited, in 2000.

Most recently, Dr. Ting was the founding president and chief executive of Profectus Biosciences Inc. of Baltimore, previously known as Maryland BioTherapeutics Inc.

Dr. Ting was past chairman of the F.F. Fraternity, one of the oldest Chinese fraternities in the United States. He was also a member of the Organization of Chinese Americans in the D.C. area since its inception in the early 1970s. He enjoyed tennis, golf, ballroom dancing and international travel. He also was a wine connoisseur.

Survivors include his wife of 44 years, Sylvia Han Ting of Potomac; three children, Anthony Ting of Shaker Heights, Ohio, Andrew Ting of Beverly, Mass., and Jennifer Chow of Potomac; seven sisters; and seven grandchildren.

An obituary written from his son Anthony can be found here:





Other articles/postings related to this topic and HIV on this site includes:

Heroes in Medical Research: Barnett Rosenberg and the Discovery of Cisplatin

History of medicine, science, and society: 200 Years of the New England Journal of Medicine

Why did Pauling Lose the “Race” to James Watson and Francis Crick? How Crick Describes his Discovery in a Letter to his Son

John Randall’s MRC Research Unit and Rosalind Franklin’s role at Kings College

Interview with the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA: Watson on The Double Helix and his changing view of Rosalind Franklin

Otto Warburg, A Giant of Modern Cellular Biology

Inspiration From Dr. Maureen Cronin’s Achievements in Applying Genomic Sequencing to Cancer Diagnostics

Nanotechnology and HIV/AIDS treatment

HIV vaccine: Caltech puts us One step further

Getting Better: Documentary Videos on Medical Progress — in Surgery, Leukemia, and HIV/AIDS.

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Author: Tilda Barliya, PhD

AIDS was first reported in 1981 followed by the identification of HIV as the cause of the disease in 1983 and is now a global pandemic that has become the leading infectious killer of adults worldwide. By 2006, more than 65 million people had been infected with the HIV virus worldwide and 25 million had died of AIDS (Merson MH. The HIV-AIDS pandemic at 25 – the global response. (1, 2). This has caused tremendous social and economic damage worldwide, with developing countries, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, heavily affected.

A cure for HIV/AIDS has been elusive in almost 30 years of research. Early treatments focused on antiretroviral drugs that were effective only to a certain degree. The first drug, zidovudine, was approved by the US FDA in 1987, leading to the approval of a total of 25 drugs to date, many of which are also available in fixed-dose combinations and generic formulations for use in resource-limited settings (to date, only zidovudine and didanosine are available as true generics in the USA).

However, it was the advent of a class of drugs known as protease inhibitors and the introduction of triple-drug therapy in the mid-1990s that revolutionized HIV/AIDS treatment (3,4). This launched the era of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), where a combination of three or more different classes of drugs are administered simultaneously.

Challenges of HIV/AIDS treatment

  • HIV resides in latent cellular and anatomical reservoirs where current drugs are unable to completely eradicate the virus.
  • Macrophages are major cellular reservoirs, which also contribute to the generation of elusive mutant viral genotypes by serving as the host for viral genetic recombination.
  • Anatomical latent reservoirs include secondary lymphoid tissue, testes, liver, kidney, lungs, the gut and the brain.
  • The major challenge facing current drug regimens is that they do not fully eramacrdicate the virus from these reservoirs; requiring patients take medications for life. Under current treatment, pills are taken daily, resulting in problems of patient adherence. The drugs also have side effects and in some people the virus develops resistance against certain drugs.

Current treatment in HIV/AIDS

The use of the HAART regimen, particularly in the developed world, has resulted in tremendous success in improving the expectancy and quality of lives for patients. However, some HAART regimens have serious side effects and, in all cases, HAART has to be taken for a lifetime, with daily dosing of one or more pills. Due to the need to take the medication daily for a lifetime, patients fail to adhere to the treatment schedule, leading to ineffective drug levels in the body and rebound of viral replication.Some patients also develop resistance to certain combinations of drugs, resulting in failure of the treatment. The absence of complete cure under current treatment underscores the great need for continued efforts in seeking innovative approaches for treatment of HIV/AIDS.

Drug resistance is mainly caused by the high genetic diversity of HIV-1 and the continuous mutation it undergoes. This problem is being addressed with individualized therapy, whereby resistance testing is performed to select a combination of drugs that is most effective for each patient (5). In addition, side effects due to toxicities of the drugs are also a concern. There are reports that patients taking HAART experience increased rates of heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, cancer and accelerated aging. Most experts agree that these effects could be due to the HIV infection itself or co-infection with another virus, such as co-infection with hepatitis C virus resulting in liver disease. However, the toxicities resulting from the drugs used in HAART could also contribute to these effects.

Under current treatment, complete eradication of the virus from the body has not been possible. The major cause for this is that the virus resides in ‘latent reservoirs’ within memory CD4+ T cells and cells of the macrophage–monocyte lineage. A major study recently found that, in addition to acting as latent reservoirs, macrophages significantly contribute to the generation of elusive mutant viral genotypes by serving as the host for viral genetic recombination (6).  The cells that harbor latent HIV are typically concentrated in specific anatomic sites, such as secondary lymphoid tissue, testes, liver, kidney, lungs, gut and the CNS. The eradication of the virus from such reservoirs is critical to the effective long-term treatment of HIV/AIDS patients.

Therefore, there is a great need to explore new approaches for developing nontoxic, lower-dosage treatment modalities that provide more sustained dosing coverage and effectively eradicate the virus from the reservoirs, avoiding the need for lifetime treatments.

Nanotechnology for HIV/AIDS treatment

The use of nanotechnology platforms for delivery of drugs is revolutionizing medicine in many areas of disease treatment.

Nanotechnology-based platforms for systemic delivery of antiretroviral drugs could have similar advantages.

  • Controlled-release delivery systems can enhance their half-lives, keeping them in circulation at therapeutic concentrations for longer periods of time. This could have major implications in improving adherence to the drugs.
  • Nanoscale delivery systems also enhance and modulate the distribution of hydrophobic and hydrophilic drugs into and within different tissues due to their small size. This particular feature of nanoscale delivery systems appears to hold the most promise for their use in clinical treatment and prevention of HIV. Specifically, targeted delivery of antiretroviral drugs to CD4+ T cells and macrophages as well as delivery to the brain and other organ systems could ensure that drugs reach latent reservoirs
  • Moreover, by controlling the release profiles of the delivery systems, drugs could be released over a longer time and at higher effective doses to the specific targets. Figure 1. Various nanoscale drug delivery systems.

Optional treatments:

  •    Antiretroviral drugs
  •    Gene Therapy
  •    Immune Therapy
  •    Prevention

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The use of nanotechnology systems for delivery of antiretroviral drugs has been extensively reviewed by Nowacek et al. and Amiji et al. (7,8).

In a recent study based on polymeric systems, nanosuspensions (200 nm) of the drug rilpivirine (TMC278) stabilized by polyethylene. A series of experiments by Dou et al. showed that nanosuspension of the drug indinavir can be stabilized by a surfactant system comprised of Lipoid E80 for effective delivery to various tissues. The indinavir nanosuspensions were loaded into macrophages and their uptake was investigated. Macrophages loaded with indinavir nanosuspensions were then injected intravenously into mice, resulting in a high distribution in the lungs, liver and spleen. More significantly, the intravenous administration of a single dose of the nanoparticle-loaded macrophages in a rodent mouse model of HIV brain infection resulted in significant antiviral activity in the brain and produced measureable drug levels in the blood up to 14 days post-treatment.polypropylene glycol (poloxamer 338) and PEGylated tocopheryl succinate ester (TPGS 1000) were studied in dogs and mice. A single-dose administration of the drug in nanosuspensions resulted in sustained release over 3 months in dogs and 3 weeks in mice, compared with a half-life of 38 h for free drug. These results serve as a proof-of-concept that nanoscale drug delivery may potentially lower dosing frequency and improve adherence.

Active targeting strategies have also been employed for antiretroviral drug delivery. Macrophages, which are the major HIV reservoir cells, have various receptors on their surface such as formyl peptide, mannose, galactose and Fc receptors, which could be utilized for receptor-mediated internalization. The drug stavudine was encapsulated using various liposomes (120–200 nm) conjugated with mannose and galactose, resulting in increased cellular uptake compared with free drug or plain liposomes, and generating significant level of the drug in liver, spleen and lungs. Stavudine is a water-soluble drug with a very short serum half-life (1 h). Hence, the increased cellular uptake and sustained release in the tissues afforded by targeted liposomes is a major improvement compared with free drug. The drug zidovudine, with half-life of 1 h and low solubility, was also encapsulated in a mannose-targeted liposome made from stearylamine, showing increased localization in lymph node and spleen. An important factor to consider here is that although most of the nucleoside drugs such as stavudine and zidovudine have short serum half-lives, the clinically relevant half-life is that of the intracellular triphosphate form of the drug. For example, despite zidovudine’s 1 h half-life in plasma, it is dosed twice daily based on intracellular pharmacokinetic and clinical efficacy data. Therefore, future nanotechnology-based delivery systems will have to focus in showing significant increase of the half-lives of the encapsulated drugs to achieve a less frequent dosing such as once weekly, once-monthly or even less.

Gene Therapy for HIV/AIDS

In addition to improving existing antiretroviral therapy, there are ongoing efforts to discover alternative approaches for treatment of HIV/AIDS. One promising alternative approach is gene therapy, in which a gene is inserted into a cell to interfere with viral infection or replication. Other nucleic acid-based compounds, such as DNA, siRNA, RNA decoys, ribozymes and aptamers or protein-based agents such as fusion inhibitors and zinc-finger nucleases can also be used to interfere with viral replication.

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RNAi is also considered to have therapeutic potential for HIV/AIDS. Gene silencing is induced by double stranded siRNA, which targets for destruction

he mRNA of the gene of interest. For HIV/AIDS, RNAi can either target the various stages of the viral replication cycle or various cellular targets involved in viral infection such as CD4, CCR5, and/or CXCR4, the major cell surface co-receptors responsible for viral entry. HIV replicates by reverse transcription to form DNA and uses the DNA to produce copies of its mRNA for protein synthesis; siRNA therapy could be used to knock down this viral mRNA. As with other gene therapy techniques, delivery of siRNA to specific cells and tissues has been the major challenge in realizing the potential of RNAi.

New nanotechnology platforms are tackling this problem by providing nonviral alternatives for effective and safe delivery. The first nontargeted delivery of siRNA in humans via self-assembling, cyclodextrin polymer-based nanoparticles for cancer treatment have recently entered Phase I clinical trials.

Although at an early stage, nonviral delivery of siRNA for treatment of HIV infection is also gaining ground. A fusion protein, with a peptide transduction domain and a double stranded RNA-binding domain, was used to encapsulate and deliver siRNA to T cells in vivo. CD4- and CD8-specific siRNA delivery caused RNAi responses with no adverse effects such as cyto-toxicity or immune stimulation. Similarly, a protamine-antibody fusion protein-based siRNA delivery demonstrated that siRNA knockdown of the gag gene can inhibit HIV replication in primary T cells

Single-walled nanotubes were shown to deliver CXCR4 and CD4 specific siRNA to human T cells and peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Up to 90% knockdown of CXCR4 receptors and up to 60% knockdown of CD4 expression on T cells was observed while the knockdown of CXCR4 receptors on peripheral blood mononuclear cells was as high as 60%. In a separate study, amino-terminated carbosilane dendrimers (with interior carbon-silicon bonds) were used for delivery of siRNA to HIV-infected lymphocytes.

These pioneering studies demonstrate that nonviral siRNA delivery is possible for HIV/AIDS treatment. However, more work needs to be done in optimizing the delivery systems and utilizing designs for efficient targeting and intracellular delivery. The recent developments in polymer- and liposome-based siRNA delivery systems could be optimized for targeting cells that are infected with HIV, such as T cells and macrophages. Moreover, since HIV mutates and has multiple strains with different genetic sequences, combination siRNA therapy targeting multiple genes should be pursued. For these applications, nanotechnology platforms with capability for co-delivery and targeting need to be developed specifically for HIV-susceptible cells. A macrophage and T-cell-targeted and nanotechnology-based combination gene therapy may be a promising platform for efficient HIV/AIDS treatment.

Immunotherapy for HIV/AIDS

The various treatment approaches described above focus on treating HIV/AIDS by directly targeting HIV at the level of the host cell or the virus itself. An alternative approach is immunotherapy aimed at modulating the immune response against HIV. CD8+ cytotoxic T-cell responses to acute HIV infection appear to be relatively normal, while neutralizing antibody production by B cells is delayed or even absent.

Immunotherapy is a treatment approach involving the use of immunomodulatory agents to modulate the immune response against a disease. Similar to vaccines, it is based on immunization of individuals with various immunologic formulations; however, the purpose is to treat HIV-infected patients as opposed to protect healthy individuals (preventive vaccines will be discussed in an upcoming section). The various immunotherapy approaches for HIV/AIDS could be based on delivering cytokines (such as IL-2, IL-7 and IL-15) or antigens. The development of cellular immunity, and to a large degree humoral immunity, requires antigen-presenting cells (APCs) to process and present antigens to CD4+and CD8+ T cells. Dendritic cells (DCs) are the quintessential professional APCs responsible for initiating and orchestrating the development of cellular and humoral (antibody) immunity.

Various polymeric systems have been explored for in vivo targeting of DCs and delivery of small molecules, proteins or DNAs showing potential for immunotherapy. Poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) stabilized poly(propylene sulfide) polymer nanoparticles accumulated in DCs in lymph nodes. Following nanoparticle injection, DCs containing nanoparticles accumulated in lymph nodes, peaking at 4 days with 40–50% of DCs and other APCs having internalized nanoparticles.

In another study, nanoparticles of the copolymer poly(D,L-lacticide-co-glycolide) (PLGA) showed efficient delivery of antigens to murine bone marrow-derived DCs in vitro, suggesting their potential use in immunotherapy. More recently, a very interesting work showed that HIV p24 protein adsorbed on the surface of surfactant-free anionic poly(D,L-lactide) (PLA) nanoparticles were efficiently taken-up by mouse DCs, inducing DC maturation. he p24-nanoparticles induced enhanced cellular and mucosal immune responses in mice. Although this targeting is seen in ex vivo-generated DCs and not in vivo DCs, the efficient delivery of the antigen to DCs through the nanoparticles is an important demonstration that may eventually be applied to in vivo DC targeting.

Clinical Trial

he most clinically advanced application of nanotechnology for immunotherapy of HIV/AIDS is the DermaVir patch that has reached Phase II clinical trials (9). DermaVir is a targeted nanoparticle system based on polyethyleimine mannose (PEIm), glucose and HIV antigen coding DNA plasmid formulated into nanoparticles (~100 nm) and administered under a patch after a skin preparation. The nanoparticles are delivered to epidermal Langerhans cells that trap the nanoparticles and mature to become highly immunogenic on their way to the lymph nodes. Mature DCs containing the nanoparticles present antigens to T cells inducing cellular immunity. Preclinical studies and Phase I clinical trials showed safety and tolerability of the DermaVir patch, which led the progression to Phase II trials. This is the first nanotechnology-based immunotherapy for HIV/AIDS that has reached the clinic and encourages further work in this area.

Table 1

Summary of nanotechnology-based treatment approaches for HIV/AIDS.

Type of therapy Therapeutic agent (drug or gene) Nanotechnology delivery platform Development stage Refs.
Antiretroviral therapy Rilpivirine (TMC278) Poloxamer 338/TPGS 1000 Preclinical [35]
Indinavir Liposome-laden macrophages Preclinical [3638]
Stavudine Mannose- and galactose-targeted liposome Preclinical [3941]
Zidovudine Mannose-targeted liposome Preclinical [42]
Efavirenz Mannose-targeted dendrimer Preclinical [43,45]
Lamivudine Mannose-targeted dendrimer Preclinical [46]
Nanomaterials Fullerene derivatives Preclinical [4955]
Dendrimers Preclinical [56,57]
Silver nanoparticles Preclinical [58,59]
SDC-1721/gold nanoparticles Gold nanoparticles Preclinical [60]
Gene therapy siRNA Peptide fusion proteins, protamine–antibody fusion proteins, dendrimers, single walled carbon nanotubes, peptide–antibody conjugates Preclinical [7781]
Immunotherapy P24 protein Poly (D,L-lactide) nanoparticles/dendritic cells Preclinical [98]
Plasmid DNA Mannose-targeted polyethyleimine polymers Phase II clinical trials [99]

Note:  to open the references in the table 1, please go to ref 1 in this post to see full ref info.

Nanotechnology for HIV/AIDS prevention

The search for a safe and effective HIV/AIDS vaccine has been challenging in the almost three decades since the discovery of the disease. Recently, high-profile clinical trial failures have prompted great debate over the vaccine research, with some suggesting the need for a major focus on fundamental research, with fewer efforts on clinical trials.

The major challenges in the development of a preventive HIV/AIDS vaccine have been the extensive viral strain and sequence diversity, viral evasion of humoral and cellular immune responses, coupled with the lack of methods to elicit broadly reactive neutralizing antibodies and cytotoxic T cells. The challenge associated with delivery of any exogenous antigen (such as nanoparticles) to APCs, is that exogenous antigens require specialized ‘cross-presentation’ in order to be presented by MHC class I and activate CD8+cytotoxic T cells.

his requirement for cytosolic delivery of antigens and cross-presentation represents yet another hurdle for HIV intracellular antigen vaccine, but potentially an advantage of nanodelivery. Humoral responses (neutralizing antibodies produced by B cells) are generated to intact antigen presented on the surface for the virus, or nanoparticles, but these humoral responses typically require ‘help’ from CD4+ T cells, but rather both. Nanoparticles have potential as adjuvants and delivery systems for vaccines. Table 2 present the different approaches.

Table 2

Summary of nanotechnology developments for prevention of HIV/AIDS.

Type of preventive agent Antigen/adjuvant or drug Nanotechnology platform Development stage Refs.
Protein or peptide vaccine gp41, gp120, gp160, p24, Env, Gag, Tat Liposomes, nanoemulsion, MF59, PLA nanoparticles, poly(γ-glutamic acid) nanoparticles Preclinical [108111]
DNA vaccine env, rev, gag, tat, CpG ODN Liposomes, nanoemulsion, PLA nanoparticles Preclinical [115,121]
Inactivated viral particle Inactivated HIV viral particle Polystyrene nanospheres Preclinical [126127]
Microbicides L-lysine dendrimer L-lysine dendrimer Phase I/II [136138]
PLGA nanoparticles
PSC-RANTES PLGA Preclinical [139]
siRNA Nanoparticles, lipids, cholesterol conjugation Preclinical [141144]

ODN: Oligonucleotides; PLA: Poly(D,L-lactide); PLGA: Poly(D,L-lacticide-co-glycolide).

Note:  to open the references in the table 2, please go to ref 1 in this post to see full ref info.



Nanotechnology can impact the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS with various innovative approaches. Treatment options may be improved using nanotechnology platforms for delivery of antiretroviral drugs. Controlled and sustained release of the drugs could improve patient adherence to drug regimens, increasing treatment effectiveness.

While there is exciting potential for nanomedicine in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, challenges remain to be overcome before the potential is realized. These include toxicity of nanomaterials, stability of nanoparticles in physiological conditions and their scalability for large-scale production. These are challenges general to all areas of nanomedicine and various works are underway to tackle them.

Another important consideration in investigating nanotechnology-based systems for HIV/AIDS is the economic aspect, as the hardest hit and most vulnerable populations reside in underdeveloped and economically poor countries. In the case of antiretroviral therapy, nanotherapeutics may increase the overall cost of treatment, reducing the overall value. However, if the nanotherapeutics could improve patient adherence by reducing dosing frequency as expected, and furthermore, if they can eradicate viral reservoirs leading to a sterile immunity, these advantages may effectively offset the added cost.



1. Mamo T, Moseman EA., Kolishetti N., Salvadoe-Morales C., Shi J., Kuritzkes DR., Langer R., von-Adrian U and Farokhzad OF.   Emerging nanotechnology approaches for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. Nanomedicine (Lond) 2010; 5(2): 269-295.


2. Merson MH. The HIV-AIDS pandemic at 25 – the global response. N Engl J Med.2006;354(23):2414–2417

3. Walensky RP, Paltiel AD, Losina E, et al. The survival benefits of AIDS treatment in the United States. J Infect Dis. 2006;194(1):11–19

4. Richman DD, Margolis DM, Delaney M, Greene WC, Hazuda D, Pomerantz RJ. The challenge of finding a cure for HIV infection. Science. 2009;323(5919):1304–1307)

5.Sax PE, Cohen CJ, Kuritzkes DR. HIV Essentials. Physicians’ Press; Royal Oak, MI, USA: 2007.

6. Lamers SL, Salemi M, Galligan DC, et al. Extensive HIV-1 intra-host recombination is common in tissues with abnormal histopathology. PLoS One. 2009;4(3):E5065.

7. Vyas TK, Shah L, Amiji MM. Nanoparticulate drug carriers for delivery of HIV/AIDS therapy to viral reservoir sites. Expert Opin Drug Deliv. 2006;3(5):613–628.

8. Amiji MM, Vyas TK, Shah LK. Role of nanotechnology in HIV/AIDS treatment: Potential to overcome the viral reservoir challenge. Discov Med. 2006;6(34):157–162

9. Lori F, Calarota SA, Lisziewicz J. Nanochemistry-based immunotherapy for HIV-1. Curr Med Chem. 2007;14(18):1911–1919

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