Pandora Report 3.17.2017

Happy Friday! In honor of  John Snow‘s birthday (the father of epidemiology), our featured image is the Broad Street pump map he used to combat cholera in the 19th century. Don’t miss out on the early registration discount for our biodefense summer workshop!

NAS Calls for Increased Federal Regulatory Agency Preparation for Growing Biotechnology Products 
The National Academies of Science (NAS) recent press release is emphasizing the need for federal regulatory agencies to prepare for greater quantities and ranges of biotechnology products. As the biotech world constantly evolves, regulatory agencies have struggled to keep up and this latest report states that in the next five to ten years, the pace will outmatch the U.S. regulatory system. According to the report, biotechnology, like CRISPR, has a rapidly growing scale and scope, which already stresses existing staff, expertise, and resources available at agencies like the EPA, FDA, and USDA. “To respond to the expected increase and diversity of products, the agencies should develop risk-analysis approaches tailored to the familiarity of products and the complexity of their uses, the report says. For biotechnology products that are similar to products already in use, established risk-analysis methods can be applied or modified, and a more expedited process could be used. For products that have less-familiar characteristics or more complex risk pathways, new risk-analysis methods may need to be developed.  Regulatory agencies should build their capacity to rapidly determine the type of risk-analysis approaches most appropriate for new products entering the regulatory system.” Within the report, NAS notes that the federal government needs to develop a strategy to combat the current issues and strengthen their ability to scan for future biotechnology products to better prioritize.

GMU Schar School Master’s Open House 
Have you ever wanted to study topics like CRISPR, bioterrorism, global health security, and pathogens of biological weapons? Good news – we’ve got just the program for you! Come check out GMU’s biodefense MS program at our Open House on Wednesday, March 22nd at our Arlington Campus, Founders Hall (Room 126) at 6:30pm. You can talk to some of our biodefense faculty and learn about our program. Whether you’re looking to take classes in person or earn a degree online, the biodefense MS is the best for the intersection of science and policy.

DARPA Works Towards “Soldier Cell” To Fight Bioweapons 
A bio-control system to fight off invading pathogens? Sounds like something out of a science fiction movie! Well, researchers at Johns Hopkins University just received funding from DARPA to develop the capacity to “deploy single-cell fighters” that would target and eliminate the lethality of certain pathogens. “‘Once you set up this bio-control system inside a cell, it has to do its job autonomously, sort of like a self-driving car,’ said Pablo A. Iglesias, principal investigator on the project. Iglesias, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Whiting School, shifted his research focus from man-made to biological control systems about 15 years ago. ‘Think about how the cruise control in your car senses your speed and accelerates or slows down to stay at the pace you’ve requested,’ Iglesias said. ‘In a similar way, the bio-control systems we’re developing must be able to sense where the pathogens are, move their cells toward the bacterial targets, and then engulf them to prevent infections among people who might otherwise be exposed to the harmful microbes’.” This angle, which is being focused on bacteria outside of the body, is just one potential tool in the biodefense arsenal.

Yellow Fever Outbreak in Brazil 
Since December of 2016, Brazilian health officials have reported an ongoing outbreak of yellow fever. The CDC has moved the alert to a  Level 2 – Practice Enhanced Precautions. A report recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine looks at the outbreak and the potential for cases in U.S. territories. In Brazil, there were 234 cases and 80 deaths reported between December and February. “Although it is highly unlikely that we will see yellow fever outbreaks in the continental United States, where mosquito density is low and risk of exposure is limited, it is possible that travel-related cases of yellow fever could occur, with brief periods of local transmission in warmer regions such as the Gulf Coast states, where A. aegypti mosquitoes are prevalent.”

GMU Biodefense Represented At Biothreats Conference
If you missed out on our coverage of ASM’s 2017 Biothreats conference, here’s a spotlight on GMU biodefense students attending this captivating three-day event. GMU’s biodefense program sent four graduate students to experience and report on the conference, which addressed biothreat research, policy, and response. “The program was exciting, according to the George Mason students in attendance. Mercer and Goble recall that the conference engaged topics of specific interest to them, their degree, and their futures. ‘I attended a panel that was very closely related to disease forecasting, my graduate thesis topic,’ Mercer said. ‘I was able to hear some of the cutting-edge research in that field, which was really helpful’. ‘I didn’t really have a part I didn’t like,’ Goble said. ‘I enjoyed the niche topics that were presented in both panel discussions and poster  sessions, from emergency operations to the FDA. All of these specific topics were extremely interesting to hear about and to know they are being researched’.”

Just How Well Did the 2009 Pandemic Flu Vaccine Strategy Work?
Researchers from the University of Nottingham recently looked at the success of vaccines in terms of preventing pandemic flu and reducing hospitalizations. Their work looked at the 2009 WHO-declared pandemic of the novel A(H1N1) virus, which infected around 61 million people around the world. Vaccines against the virus were rolled out globally between September and December of 2009, with the majority being inactivated A(H1N1)pdm09 influenza virus. Their work involved reviewing 38 studies between June 2011 and April 2016 regarding the effectiveness of the inactivated vaccine, which covered around 7.6 million people. “We found that the vaccines produced against the swine flu pandemic in 2009 were very effective in both preventing influenza infection and reducing the chances of hospital admission due to flu. This is all very encouraging in case we encounter a future pandemic, perhaps one that is more severe,” noted Professor Van Tam said. “Of course, we recognize that it took five to six months for pandemic vaccines to be ready in large quantities; this was a separate problem. However, if we can speed up vaccine production times, we would have a very effective strategy to reduce the impact of a future flu pandemic.” The 2009 pandemic A(H1N1) vaccine was 73% effective against laboratory confirmed cases and 61% against preventing hospitalizations. Interestingly, when looking at the vaccines’ effectiveness in different age groups, “they were shown to be less effective in adults over 18 years than in children, and effectiveness was lowest in adults over 50 years of age. Adjuvanted vaccines were found to be particularly more effective in children than in adults against laboratory confirmed illness (88 per cent in children versus 40 per cent in adults) and hospitalization (86 per cent in children versus 48 per cent in adults).”

Deadly Fungal Infection Arrives in U.S. 
While many are asking if surveillance methods for tracking the deadly CRE bacteria are adequate, a new issue is emerging in U.S. hospitals. Despite WHO’s recent plea for increased R&D surrounding certain resistant pathogens, it seems that more and more organisms of concern are springing up in U.S. hospitals. Since last summer, roughly three dozen people have been diagnosed with a highly resistant Candida auris infection. The fungal infection has caused worry ever since it was identified in 2009 due to its capacity as an emerging and resistant organism. Candida yeast infections are pretty common and known to cause urinary tract infections however, this strain is especially concerning because it easily causes bloodstream infections, has a stronger capacity for transmission between people, and is much more hardy in terms of living on skin and environmental surfaces. “Of the first seven cases that were reported to the CDC last fall, four patients had bloodstream infections and died during the weeks to months after the pathogen was identified. Officials said they couldn’t be sure whether the deaths were caused by the infection because all the individuals had other serious medical conditions. Five patients had the fungus initially isolated from blood, one from urine, and one from the ear.”

CDC Director Warns Loss of DHHS Funds Could Weaken Infectious Disease Prevention
Acting CDC director, Anne Schuchat, recently testified before Congress to make the case for for increased funding for several programs (one being the DHHS’s Prevention and Public Health Fund). Among other things, the Prevention and Public Health Fund is responsible for 12% of the CDC’s budget. Dr. Schucat’s testimony emphasized the previous usage of these funds in terms of vaccine delivery, disease surveillance, monitoring of water supplies, and tracking hospital-acquired infections. The growth of antibiotic resistance made her testimony and plea to Congress that much more relevant and urgent. “The CDC and other government agencies have in recent years cited the numerous public health threats posed by infectious diseases in general, and have lobbied officials for increased funding for research and development of novel vaccines and treatments as well as programs to effectively distribute interventions as needed. In 2016, for example, the CDC, DHHS, and National Institutes of Health requested federal funding to combat Zika, a request that was not approved until late in the year.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Science on Screen – Don’t miss this great event hosted by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory! On March 18th, you can watch the second installment of the Science on Screen series, featuring “Lawrence Livermore scientists Monica Borucki and Jonathan Allen, who will present ‘Reconstructing a Rabies Epidemic: Byte by Byte.’ This informative and entertaining lecture will explain how biologists and computer scientists used cutting-edge, ultra-deep sequencing technology to study the dynamics of a 2009 rabies outbreak. This case study, based on a dramatic increase (more than 350 percent) in the gray fox population infected with a rabies variant for which striped skunks serve as the reservoir hosts, will be used to help illustrate the changes in the viral genome during cross-species viral transmission. This lecture is appropriately paired with the feature-length film, “Contagion” (PG-13).”
  • Clorox Gets Spot on EPA A-Team – Clorox just earned its varsity spot on the team against hospitality-acquired infections. The EPA approved two of the company’s products in killing clostridium difficile spores. C-diff is a constant battle in healthcare facilities, so having the new tool in the infection prevention and environmental disinfection toolkit, is a huge advantage for many. “In addition, the cleaners and wipes recently become EPA-registered to disinfect against other bacterial infections, such as those caused by Staphylococcus epidermidis, Candida glabrata, and Enterococcus hirae. Moreover, the products are also effective against several viral pathogens, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), measles, and Influenza A and B, among others.”