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vaccines

Preparing for H1N1

James Steinberg, MD

James Steinberg, MD

With the novel H1N1 virus gaining a foothold in the northern hemisphere, anxious doctors, researchers and members of the public are carefully watching its movement and behavior.

Even before WHO declared novel H1N1 a pandemic late last spring, Emory University had been readying for its arrival. James Steinberg, MD, chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital Midtown, has been at the forefront of that preparation.

“A few years ago a decision was made to fund a center for emergency preparedness and response,” says Steinberg. “Having CEPAR, headed by Dr. Alex Isakov, gave us a leg up on preparing for this pandemic. Concern about the avian flu a few years ago sparked a pandemic plan and an antiviral plan. Having those plans on board helped us hit the gate running with the swine flu.”

To listen to Steinberg’s own words about novel H1N1 and its effect on the current flu season, access Emory’s new Sound Science podcast.

An expert in infectious disease, Steinberg says three key factors go into the making of a pandemic. “A virus can cause a pandemic when it can cause significant disease, when it’s a new virus to which people don’t have any immunity, and when the virus has the capacity to spread from person to person,” Steinberg says. “The novel H1N1 virus appears to meet all three of these characteristics.”

Steinberg cautions that the word pandemic has a horrible connotation. “We think of the 1918 pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide, more people than were killed during World War I itself,” says Steinberg. “But there are pandemics in which the bumps in mortality have been modest.”

The H1N1 virus spreads from person to person via large droplets, the ones that fall quickly onto surfaces. These viruses can be spread by being close to an infected person who is coughing or sneezing or by touching contaminated surfaces. That’s why hand washing reduces the chance of infection.

Thus far, the novel strain of H1N1 has been relatively mild. Most of those infected have recovered without hospitalization or medical care, but according to the CDC some groups are at higher risk and should be vaccinated first. These include pregnant women, people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months of age, healthcare and emergency medical services personnel, persons between the ages of 6 months and 24 years, and people ages 25 through 64 who have chronic health conditions.

Initial supplies of the nasal mist H1N1 vaccine are expected to be available this week, followed soon by the injectable vaccine. The regular seasonal flu vaccine will not provide protection against the novel H1N1 strain, so people will need both vaccines.

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Jeff Koplan discusses H1N1 on panel

Experts on H1N1 influenza are collaborating all across the country to learn more about the virus and how to prevent its transmission. In a race against time, Emory studies are taking place in the lab and in human clinical trials to help find a vaccine that can be used in the near weeks to come.

Recently, Emory’s Jeff Koplan, MD, vice president for global health and past CDC director, participated in a Breakthroughs panel sponsored by Big Think, Pfizer and Discover to discuss the latest issues in pandemic and genomic science, fields that have not only made big headlines recently but also promise to be two of the most pressing topics in global science and medicine in coming years.

Jeffrey P. Koplan, MD, MPH

Jeffrey P. Koplan, MD, MPH

The panel focused on the real-time, round-the-clock scientific mission to understand the history, significance, and future of the new strain of flu that emerged suddenly this spring. Panelists included Koplan; Barry Bloom, Joan L. and Julius H. Jacobson Professor of Public Health at Harvard; Peter Palese, chairman of the microbiology department at Mt. Sinai Medical Center; and Michael Worobey, ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona.

View: Superbug – Are We Prepared for The Next Great Plague?


Emory began signing up several hundred interested volunteers several weeks ago for a clinical trial of the H1N1 vaccine along with the seasonal flu vaccine. About 170 adults have now been vaccinated in the trial, which will last about nine weeks and involve several vaccinations and blood tests. A clinical trial testing the H1N1 vaccine in children will begin at Emory and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta in the next few days, followed by another adult clinical trial adding an adjuvant to the H1N1 vaccine.

In addition, a multi-pronged attack against the H1N1 virus by Emory researchers is using a new method of rapidly producing highly targeted monoclonal antibodies to develop a diagnostic test as well as a temporary therapy to stave off the H1N1 virus. The antibodies, which can be isolated from a small amount of the blood of humans infected with the virus, could be targeted against H1N1 and rapidly reproduced to detect or attack the virus.

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H1N1 flu clinical studies start at Emory today

Emory doctors discuss H1N1 studies

Emory doctors discuss H1N1 studies

Today Emory researchers began vaccinating volunteer participants in the first of several planned clinical trials of a new H1N1 vaccine. A morning press briefing attended by Atlanta and national media provided Emory a platform to inform the public.

The clinical trials are expected to gather critical information that will allow the National Institutes of Health to quickly evaluate the new vaccines to determine whether they are safe and effective in inducing protective immune responses. The results will help determine how to begin a fall 2009 pandemic flu vaccination program.

Emory began signing up several hundred interested volunteers about two weeks ago and has been screening the volunteers to make sure they fit certain criteria. Volunteers will receive their first vaccinations over the first week of the trial and will return several times over the course of nine weeks to receive additional vaccinations and blood tests.

H1N1 clinical trial volunteer

H1N1 clinical trial volunteer

The clinical trials are in a compressed timeframe because of the possible fall resurgence of pandemic H1N1 flu infections that may coincide with the circulation of seasonal flu strains.

The clinical trials are being conducted by the eight Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Units (VTEUs), supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

For more information about the Emory flu clinical trials, call 877-424-HOPE (4673) for the adult and senior studies, or 404-727-4044 for the pediatric studies.

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A new and faster way to diagnose and fight flu

flu imageA new method of rapidly producing highly targeted monoclonal antibodies could soon be used to rapidly diagnose H1N1 influenza. Just a month after vaccinating people with a seasonal flu vaccine, the researchers were able to use just a few tablespoons of the vaccinated individuals’ blood to generate antibodies against that specific strain of flu. The research was published last spring in Nature.

The scientists believe their discovery could be applied to any infectious disease. By using a few drops of blood from infected people, they could isolate antibodies to rapidly diagnose a newly emerging flu strain such as H1N1.

There are many variations of H1N1, says Rafi Ahmed, director of the Emory Vaccine Center and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, but this technology could be used to identify a very specific strain, such as the one we’re dealing with in the current pandemic. The diagnostic tests available now are not specific to any particular H1N1 strain.

Ahmed and his colleagues, including postdoctoral fellow Jens Wrammert, and Patrick Wilson from the University of Chicago, hope their work will lead to a new, specific test for H1N1 within the next several months.

Conventional methods of making human monoclonal antibodies are time-consuming and laborious, says Ahmed. For example, one method involves sifting through human B cells —white blood cells that make human antibodies—and then looking for specific cells that make the right antibodies.

Not only is the new method quicker and less cumbersome, it could be applied to almost any infectious disease. In any kind of emerging infection, speed is essential, says Ahmed.

To listen to Ahmed describe the new monoclonal antibody method, listen to Emory’s Sound Science podcast.

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Many roads to memory T cells

When our bodies encounter a bacteria or a virus, the immune system sends some cells out to fight the invader and keeps others in reserve, in order to respond faster and stronger the next time around. Vaccination depends on this phenomenon, called immunological memory.

Several recent papers — from Emory and elsewhere – provide insight into this process, and highlight this area of research as especially active lately.

Researchers led by Rafi Ahmed and Chris Larsen at Emory found that rapamycin, a drug usually given to transplant patients to block rejection, actually stimulates the formation of memory T cells. Rapamycin appears to nudge immune cells when they have to make a decision whether to hunker down to become a memory cell.

The immunosuppressant drug rapamycin was discovered in soil from Easter Island

The immunosuppressant drug rapamycin was discovered in soil from Easter Island

Similarly, the anti-diabetes drug metformin, which affects fatty acid metabolism, can also stimulate the formation of memory T cells, according to research that was published in the same issue of Nature.

In addition, Wnt signaling, which plays critical roles in embryonic development and cancer, influences memory T cell formation as well, according to a July paper in Nature Medicine.

To summarize — pushing on several different “buttons” produces the same thing: more memory T cells. How are the wires behind the buttons connected? Work by Ahmed and others may eventually help enhance vaccine efficacy or fight cancer with the immune system.

Rapamycin, the focus of the Ahmed/Larsen paper, was also recently found to slow aging in mice. However, with previous anti-aging research findings, translating results into the human realm has been a considerable challenge.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology Leave a comment
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