Tag Archives: biotechnology

Keeping the eggs in the omelette

I feel like a pincushion.  I’ve had so many pre-emptive shots this season to ward off flu and pneumonia and such that I am thinking I might as well go ahead and get a tattoo.

When I was younger, I laughed at the flu and never got a shot.  In fact I laughed at the people who ran around getting the shots in the fall, and called them all sorts of effeminate names.  But for the past few years the flu decided to remind me that I am not 25 years old any more, so now I get the shots.

When I can get them, that is.  There always seems to be a shortage of vaccine when I need the shot, and I can tell you one reason.  Eggs.

Yep, you need about 2 eggs to make a single dose of flu vaccine, and the vaccine itself generally doesn’t cover all the possible ways you might get the flu anyway.  Plus, it takes about six months to crank up the amount of production needed for the general population, so if something new and slightly unexpected comes along, it’s hard to get the vaccine to people in time.

Eggs are used to make vaccine?  Yup.  It’s the traditional method.  Eleven days after fertilization the embryos are injected with live virus, which then incubates inside the fluid sac until it is harvested.  Obviously not a wonderful experience for the embryo, I’m guessing.  So, that means that you need millions of fertilized eggs to make the product, and it all seems rather difficult and messy to me.  And slow, which means that some people, like about 36,000 per year, could die from the disease.

But, Dr. Paul Roberts of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine is coming to the rescue.  Roberts has been experimenting with a different method of producing the vaccine, based on cell cultures.  His goal is to develop a faster way to produce vaccine which will also be more adaptable to changing mixes of flu variants that occur during a typical flu season.  To accomplish this, Roberts essentially makes the flu produce its own poison.

The way your body fights an invader, such as a flu virus, is to produce antibodies against it.  It’s sort of like tagging the invading cells with a little red flag, and then sending out other killer cells to wipe out anything with red flags.  Unfortunately, antibodies work best when they are very specific to a particular invader, but the flu doesn’t consist of just one flavor of threat.

Roberts is using new cell culture technology to coax infected cells to produce their own antidotes, so to speak.  He tags the envelope of the host cell containing the virus with proteins that will induce the body to make antibodies, and so when the virus emerges, or ‘buds’ from the host cell, it gets wrapped in the envelope, effectively painting itself with a big bullseye for the immune system.  The virus itself is killed and then it can be safely injected into the host (me, for example) where my own body will stimulate my immune system against it without my having to actually get the flu.  Later, when real flu bugs invade me because my office mate spent the last three days coughing and sneezing on me, I’ve already got my antibodies lying in ambush.

I love it when a plan comes together.

So, the point is that eventually this cell culture technique might replace the egg incubation technique, which means that vaccines could be produced more rapidly to address emerging health threats.

Plus, since you no longer need millions of eggs to produce vaccine, demand for eggs will go down, resulting in lower egg prices for consumers…well, we won’t go there.  I like to discuss topics that have predictable outcomes, like science.  Not economics.

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Bovine flatulence

One thing I have found about social media is that headlines featuring references to bodily functions always attract more readers.  Today’s technology discussion is actually about software, but I promise to work it around to flatulence eventually, just to preserve my journalistic honesty.

When I was in college, back in the ‘olden days’ when computers still used punch cards, freshmen engineering students had to learn to use drafting tools and techniques and actually DRAW pictures of things on a piece of paper.  Yep, T-squares, drafting tables, and drafting pencils were the tools of the trade for an engineer, along with something called a slide rule.  But enough tripping down memory lane.  The point is, computer technology eventually developed to the point where engineers can now use Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs to build up 3-D models of their cool widgets, and transfer that information directly to a computer controlled fabrication machine and just like magic, they can be holding a solid model or even a finished part in their hand, sometimes in just a few minutes.

But what about the flatulence?  I’m getting there…

So these CAD programs are wonderful ways to increase efficiency and reduce both cost and time to market in the manufacturing world.  But what if the thing you want to manufacture is, say, a new kind of bacterium?  Can CAD systems help us engineer living organisms?  I’m glad you asked, because it gives me a chance to talk about ….bovine flatulence.

But first, let’s talk about gene sequencing.  As we all learned in our high school biology class, during those brief moments when we were not terrorizing the girls by hiding  in their purses tiny preserved crustacean parts that we had just dissected, living things grow and develop according to a pattern of proteins called genes.  These genes are composed of combinations of a few building blocks arranged in particular ways.  The sequence of building blocks is responsible for directing some cells to be fingernails, for example, while other cells are mustaches.  Smart biology type scientists have been figuring out how to adjust these building blocks to change how the cells function, in an attempt to create a master race of superhuman beings that will take over the world.  Oops, sorry, didn’t mean to let the cat out of the bag.

Seriously, by altering the genetic makeup of the cells, all sorts of good things result, such as gene therapy for many different hereditary conditions, and such.  Also, you can modify the structure of certain types of bacteria so that they produce less methane gas when digesting plant matter inside the gut of, say, a cow or a Talk Radio personality.  But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

Dr. Jean Peccoud’s  Synthetic Biology Group in the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute has just received a $1.4 million grant from the  National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a CAD system to design genes.  His GenoCAD software is a collaborative framework for the entire research community, and Peccoud is making the code available through the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB).  Follow the links to learn more detail about GenoCAD, but let me just say that it will provide to the biology community the same sort of tools for designing living things that the regular CAD systems provided to the manufacturing and engineering communities.

Of course, just because they have this new GenoCAD system, it doesn’t mean that biologists will now be able to clone dinosaurs or create those cool creatures I saw in Avatar.  Probably not.  But it does mean that they might be able to make  adjustments to bacteria that live in the gut of cows and produce huge, and I mean HUGE, amounts of methane gas from digesting plants.

So, we finally come to the part of the story about bovine flatulence.  But since I have reached my word limit, I’ll just let you wander on over to this site where you can read all about how rumen methanogen bacteria in cows are responsible for global warming, and how tools like GenoCAD may be able to reduce gas production.  In cows, at least.

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Clot, Unclot. Rinse, Repeat.

Are you worried about excessive blood clotting?  Well, you should be.

A blood clot is a jelly-like mass of tissue formed by clotting (coagulating) factors in the blood as a normal reaction to injury of a blood vessel. This is a great mechanism of the body when it occurs to stop the bleeding caused by an injury. However, blood clots can become very dangerous, like when plaque deposits in the blood vessel walls rupture and a blood clot forms. If a piece of the blood clot breaks away and gets into the bloodstream, it can block the flow of blood to the heart or brain and cause a heart attack or stroke.

Luckily there are drugs available to prevent excessive clot formation.  Unfortunately, if too much of these blood “thinners” are used, the patient can have a reverse problem – not enough clotting which could then increase the risk of hemorrhage or uncontrolled bleeding.  The problem is, once these anticoagulants are used, they are difficult to clear out of the blood quickly, which can lead to serious problems.

In a recent publication, researchers  Daniel Capelluto and Carla Finkielstein together with students Karen Drahos and John Welsh identified a novel protein/ligand interaction that regulates the initial process of platelet aggregation and leads to clot formation.  That is great all by itself, but the exciting part is that this mechanism is reversible.   So it provides a way to quickly reverse the treatment if a patient is injured or otherwise needs to reduce blood levels of the pharmaceutical.   In addition, it may be a useful adjunct to control the extent of bleeding during a normal surgical procedure or promote wound healing.

An added bonus:  unlike some treatments, this type of intervention is unlikely to stimulate an immune response.

You can read more about this specific invention  here, and you can talk about it with a real live person by contacting  Jackie Reed (jreed@vtip.org, 540-443-9217).  Also you can learn more about the researchers and their work by reading some articles written about them.  Here is one.  Here is another.

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