Tag Archives: Oxford University

The most promising coronavirus vaccine passes key safety trial

Credit: Pixabay.

As the pandemic brings unprecedented economic damage to the world, most governments have funneled billions into accelerating vaccine development. Now, researchers at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca have published preliminary results for the phase 1, single-blind, randomized controlled trial for a candidate vaccine — and the results have been extremely promising.

The hunt for a coronavirus vaccine is the ‘space race’ of our times

Researchers around the world are developing more than 160 vaccines against the coronavirus, 26 of which are undergoing human trials, meaning they’re beingly actively tested for both safety and efficacy.

Perhaps the most promising candidate out of the bunch is Oxford’s chimpanzee adenovirus-vectored vaccine (ChAdOx1 nCoV-19), which expresses the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

The vaccine was tested on healthy humans with no prior history of COVID-19 across five sites in the UK. A total of 1077 volunteers participated in the clinical trial between April 23 and May 21. Half received the ChAdOx1 vaccine, also known as AZD1222, while the other half were randomly assigned a meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY) as control.

All of the volunteers who received the vaccine developed neutralizing antibodies against COVID-19, according to the preliminary results published in The Lancet. However, those who received a single injection of the vaccine did not produce significantly more antibodies than persons who had recovered from COVID-19 infection. Ideally, you’d want more antibodies for enhanced protection.

So far, no vaccine has been tested to see whether or not it can prevent a coronavirus infection. It would be highly unethical to intentionally expose an inoculated person to the virus at this stage of research.

“In conclusion, ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 was safe, tolerated, and immunogenic, while reactogenicity was reduced with paracetamol. A single dose elicited both humoral and cellular responses against SARS-CoV-2, with a booster immunisation augmenting neutralising antibody titres. The preliminary results of this first-in-human clinical trial supported clinical development progression into ongoing phase 2 and 3 trials,” the authors of the study wrote.

The Oxford vaccine also produces a T cell response — a type of white blood cell that plays a critical role in the immune system by attacking cells infected by viruses.

Both the antibodies and T cell production were anticipated and designed into the vaccine.

“We hope this means the immune system will remember the virus, so that our vaccine will protect people for an extended period,” Andrew Pollard of the University of Oxford said in a statement.

The AZD1222 produced mild side effects, which resolved themselves over the course of the study

About 60% of the participants experienced side effects, including fever, headaches, muscle aches, and injection site reactions. These effects were mild or moderate, and all resolved themselves over the course of the study.

AZD1222 is already being tested in phase 3 clinical trial, the final and most important test for a vaccine. During this phase, the vaccine will be administered to thousands of people from various sites across the world. Researchers then follow up with these persons over time to see how many contract COVID-19 from their environments, compared with volunteers who received a placebo. These trials can determine if the vaccine protects against the coronavirus.

If all goes well, reviewers in each country approve the manufacturing or procurement of the vaccine. Typically, vaccine development and testing is a long and arduous process that takes about a decade to complete. However, the pandemic has greatly accelerated each phase of a vaccine’s development.

Hopefully, AZD1222 will prove effective during its final test, which is expected to be made public in September. Meanwhile, other promising vaccine candidates have also produced antibodies for SARS-CoV-2.

In the past couple of weeks, vaccines developed by Moderna, a Massachusetts biotech firm, and the drug giant Pfizer both increased levels of neutralizing antibodies in patients. Moderna’s vaccine is already moving towards phase 3 clinical trials, while Pfizer’s offering is not lagging far behind.

If all goes well, we might have multiple efficient and safe vaccines against the coronavirus by the end of the year. Then, the problem and challenges surrounding containing the spread of the virus will be of a different nature.

Demand will skyrocket from the moment a vaccine is approved. Who, then, should have priority? Is it vulnerable countries with weak healthcare systems and high infection rates, or the most wealthy who have the resources to pay cash for the privilege?

The UK has already secured millions of doses not only of the Oxford vaccine but of candidates from France and Germany, the Financial Times reported. Meanwhile, in the United States, President Trump has made it no secret that “America comes first”, so we can expect his Administration to pursue aggressive bidding once candidate vaccines pass their clinical trials.

Disclaimer: the author of this article owns stocks in AstraZeneca and Moderna.

Oxford starts first UK coronavirus vaccine trial

Despite the fact that they are not easy to develop, vaccines can help end the coronavirus pandemic and the race to find one has officially begun, with 150 development projects currently ongoing worldwide.

One of the first persons injected with the vaccine. Credit: Oxford University

In the UK, more than 800 volunteers at Oxford University are set to be given the first dose of a potential vaccine. Half will receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and half a control vaccine — not telling them which they are getting in order to avoid placebo effects.

The vaccine was created in under three months by a team at Oxford University. Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the Jenner Institute, led the pre-clinical research. She said she was “80% confident” that the vaccine would work.

“Personally I have a high degree of confidence in this vaccine,” she said. “Of course, we have to test it and get data from humans. We have to demonstrate it actually works and stops people getting infected with coronavirus before using the vaccine in the wider population.”

The vaccine was made from a weakened version of a common cold virus from chimpanzees that have been modified so it cannot infect human cells. This is not the first vaccine created by the Oxford team, who had developed one against MERS, another type of coronavirus, using the same approach.

The only way for the experts to know if the COVID-19 vaccine works is by comparing the number of people who get infected with coronavirus in the months ahead from the two arms of the trial. That could be a problem if cases fall rapidly in the UK, because there may not be enough data.

“We’re chasing the end of this current epidemic wave. If we don’t catch that, we won’t be able to tell whether the vaccine works in the next few months. But we do expect that there will be more cases in the future because this virus hasn’t gone away,” Prof Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, who is leading the trial, said.

As they have higher chances of being exposed to the virus, local healthcare workers have a priority to participate in the trial. Nevertheless, there will be a larger trial with about 5,000 volunteers, which will start in the coming months and will have no age limit.

The trial volunteers will be carefully monitored in the coming months. There could be some side effects on the first days after the vaccination, such as sore arm, headaches, and fever. There is also a theoretical risk that the virus could induce a serious reaction to coronavirus, which arose in some early SARS animal vaccine studies.

Scientists at Oxford are hopeful regarding the vaccine and they hope to have one million doses ready by September. If that happens, they will dramatically scale up manufacturing. Three other clinical trials have been approved worldwide since mid-March, with Chinese and US developers also working on vaccines.

Nevertheless, Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant said a coronavirus vaccine will probably not be ready before the end of 2021. Vaccines need to be fully tested and approved, but then also manufactured and widely distributed, which takes time. That means scaling production for millions or billions of doses is not exactly a trivial task, especially in a struggling global economy. It will probably take months if not years before a sufficient part of the population is immunized and safe from the virus.

Vaccines are the most effective way of controlling the virus. Nevertheless, drugs are also being developed that could help manage the effects of the virus. There are also blood tests, which can determine whether someone has had COVID-19 and if they are likely to be immune to the virus.

The “Yeti” is a bear… but which kind?

I’m not a big fan of pseudoscientific conspiracies, and yeti-like creatures are no exception. It seems like something humans just choose to believe in, even without any evidence. But I do admire the scientists that treat this issue seriously. Researchers from Oxford University and the Lausanne Museum of Zoology have publicly asked anyone with “yeti” biological material to hand it in for DNA analysis, in order to see if the species actually exists or is nothing more than a myth. A year ago, Oxford University professor of human genetics Bryan Sykes and his colleagues took some unusual hair samples found in the Himalayas and concluded that they actually belong to a now extinct bear which once inhabited Norway. Now, another team analyzed the results and concluded that while it’s clearly no yeti, the remains might actually belong to a brown bear instead.

No yeti, just bear

A picture taken at 19,000 feet in the Menlung Basin, Nepal, showing, according to the photographer, the footprints of the “Abominable Snowman” or “Yeti.” Photo by Popperfoto/Getty

Sykes’ team examined two different hair samples from the region: one belonged to a “creature that walked upright” and was shot by an Indian hunter 40 years ago, while the other was discovered in one of Bhutan’s bamboo forests, at a high altitude. The team suspected that both samples belonged to an extinct species of bear which lived 40,000 years ago – perhaps a hybrid between two species called Ursus arctos and Ursus maritimus. He suspects that this species might actually be behind the inspiration for yetis.

His results made quite a splash in the pseudoscientific community (yes, there’s a community), where a surprisingly high number of people were expecting positive results – that is, reporting a new, yeti species. But for serious scientists, it was just an issue about figuring out what type of bear they were dealing with. Two researchers actually disagreed with Sykes and his findings.

“There is essentially no reason to believe that they (the hairs) belong to a species other than the brown bear,” said Eliecer Gutierrez, who is a postdoctoral fellow of evolutionary biology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

From pseudoscience to science

Gutierrez and his colleague became a bit suspicious when they noticed that Sykes only used a fragment of the gene for species identification. He started to suspect that there was actually nothing special about this bear, and it was simply a Himalayan brown bear.

“Rawr, I’m a bear” – the Himalayan brown bear.

“We made this discovery that basically that fragment of DNA is not informative to tell apart two species of bears: the brown bear and [modern-day Alaskan] polar bear,” said Gutiérrez who along with his colleague tested the hair’s genetic sequence in GenBank, which is a database of DNA sequences available to the public. Once they had determined that two of their samples were a match to a polar bear, they should have run further analyses on the extracted DNA to look at other regions of the mitochondrial genome (DNA passed down by the mother) in order to double-check this controversial result,” said paper co-author Ceiridwen Edwards, who researches in ancient DNA studies at the University of Oxford. This is the second study refuting Sykes’ research.

He then went on to make some very serious accusations, blaming Sykes that he misinformed the public to gain more publicity for his paper.

“Instead, after (incorrectly) establishing a direct link to a 40,000-year-old polar bear sequence, they then used this misinformation in the publicity for the paper,” Edwards said to Live Science.

But Sykes and his team stand by their research.

“The explanation by Gutierrez and Pine might be right, or it might not be,” Sykes wrote. “The only way forward, as I have repeatedly said, is to find a living bear that matches the 12S RNA and and study fresh material from it. Which involves getting off your butt, not an activity I usually associate with desk-bound molecular taxonomists.”

He went on to emphasize that “the real heroes of the piece are the people who actually went to the Himalayas, spoke to the local people, found these hairs, had the wit to keep a few, and then contributed them to the study.” Well, we might have to wait a while before we know for sure what kind of bear species it truly was, but one thing seems to be certainȘ there’s no yeti in sight.

How cockroaches make democratic group decisions

For cockroaches, it seems, collaboration comes naturally: when 50 cockroaches are presented with 3 shelters which can only host 40 (each), they’ll split into two groups, leaving the third shelter empty. Basically, they find a way to split themselves equally, in a democratic fashion.

In cockroach groups, there are no members higher than others – everybody is equal, apparently. Thus, group decision making is simplified, leading to patterns which can be understood and studied. What makes it even more interesting is that cockroaches don’t make sounds, so they must therefore communicate without vocalizing.

“Cockroaches use chemical and tactile communication with each other,” says Dr José Halloy, who co-authored the research in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “They can also use vision,” says Halloy, a scientist in the Department of Social Ecology at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium. “When they encounter each other they recognise if they belong to the same colony thanks to their antennae that are ‘nooses’, that is, sophisticated olfactory organs that are very sensitive,” he says.

Halloy wanted to see how the cockroaches would behave when faced with a decision. He placed the insects in a dish that contained three shelters. Initially, the shelters could only host 40 insects each, so the 50 bugs decided to split equally – 25 into one, 25 into the other, leaving the third one empty. However, when the shelters were larger than 50, they all moved into just one shelter, showing that they make rational, democratic group decisions.

“Cockroaches are gregarious insects [that] benefit from living in groups. It increases their reproductive opportunities, [promotes] sharing of resources like shelter or food, prevents desiccation by aggregating more in dry environments, etc,” he says.”So what we show is that these behavioural models allow them to optimise group size.”

The way they behave is so basic and rational, that it can be quite predictable to model. Researchers hope to draw insights for other insects as well – and not only insects.

“It looks both at the mechanisms underlying decision-making by animals and how those mechanisms produce a distribution of animals amongst resource sites that optimizes their individual fitness,” says Dr David Sumpter, a University of Oxford zoologist.”Much previous research has concentrated on either mechanisms or optimality at the expense of the other.”

The study documenting this behavior was published in PNAS in 2006.

Bionic glasses aim to replace guide dogs for the visually impaired

On display at one of the featured stands at this year’s Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition is a pair of special glasses developed by scientists at Oxford University, which mixes technology already developed by gaming and smartphone manufacturers, and allows people with next to none vision orientate.

‘We want to be able to enhance vision in those who’ve lost it or who have little left or almost none,’ explains Dr Stephen Hicks of the Department of Clinical Neurology at Oxford University. ‘The glasses should allow people to be more independent – finding their own directions and signposts, and spotting warning signals,’ he says.

By using common elements found in, say, a touch-screen mobile or gaming portable, the Oxford researchers managed to build together video cameras, position detectors, face recognition and tracking software, and depth sensors to make the glasses. Seeing how the tech is widely available, this makes the glasses cheap too. A way of making them esthetically pleasing and non-intrusive was seen as one of the team’s design priorities, as well, seeing how any kind of social interaction is heavily based on eye contact. Imagine seeing a 65 year old senior with a metal box on his head asking you for directions; it would’ve been awkward. Scientists are trying to make lives easier, not more complicated.

It’s not like these glasses will be able to make people see better, there are other types of glasses for that. These are intended for people with severe optical deformities, either blind or almost (able only to distinguish vague shapes and shadows around).

‘The types of poor vision we are talking about are where you might be able to see your own hand moving in front of you, but you can’t define the fingers,’ explains Stephen.

How they work

A tiny camera placed in the corner of the glasses feeds a live stream of the wearers surroundings, while a display of tiny lights embedded in the see-through lenses of the glasses feed back extra information about objects, people or obstacles in view. The feed-back is driven by a smartphone computer located in the wearer’s pocket which interprets data fed by the camera and outputs signals to the LED lights.

‘The glasses must look discrete, allow eye contact between people and present a simplified image to people with poor vision, to help them maintain independence in life,’ says Stephen.

Different colors and brightness intensities each would mean something different to the wearer, from how close an object or a person is or how far an object of interest is located. With character recognition, it’s possible to add to the glass a “text read” feature, so reading the newspaper could become once again a possibility. Same thing goes for a bar code reader, so people would be able to shop and tell what kind of product and how much it costs is in the shelve – many other ideas could be implemented easily. Of course, the learning curve might be a bit stiff to attain, considering the numerous signals the wearer needs to learn how to interpret themselves, but with practice and patience a person could taste independence once again.

I mentioned before these would be cheap; well, considering the tech employed and their capabilities, an estimated of £500 sounds affordable, as opposed to a guide dog which lallygagged costs between £25-30,000 to train.

The project is still in its infancy, but viable prototypes are already on display at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, where people are invited to try them on and see how well they can navigate around with them. The group has also received funding from the National Institute of Health Research to do a year-long feasibility study and plan to try out early systems with a few people in their own homes later this year.

via Physorg | source Oxford