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Coronavirus Vaccine Candidate Shows Promise in Mice

Health + Wellness
Coronavirus Vaccine Candidate Shows Promise in Mice
The first peer-reviewed research into a promising coronavirus vaccine was published Thursday. Javier Zayas Photography / Moment / Getty Images

The world has reached a grim milestone with the number of confirmed coronavirus cases reported by the Johns Hopkins University tracker passing one million.


But there is hope in the fight against the deadly pandemic as well: The first peer-reviewed research into a new vaccine was published in Lancet publication eBioMedicine Thursday, and it shows promise.

"Our ability to rapidly develop this vaccine was a result of scientists with expertise in diverse areas of research working together with a common goal," co-senior author and dermatology chair at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Louis Falo said in a press release.

The University of Pittsburgh researchers said the new vaccine generated enough antibodies in mice to "neutralize" the virus that causes COVID-19 within two weeks of being administered, The Independent reported.

This isn't the first coronavirus vaccine in development. Another vaccine skipped animal testing and began human trials in Seattle in March. Dozens of other research teams are also working on vaccines. But this is the first of these vaccines to be peer reviewed, which means that the research behind it was published after scientists at other institutions looked it over.

The reason the Pittsburgh researchers were able to reach this step so quickly is that they had previously worked on two other deadly coronaviruses: the viruses that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Reuters reported.

Studying those viruses, which are closely related to the virus known as SARS-COV-2, taught the researchers that a certain protein called a "spike" protein was key to creating immunity against the disease.

"We knew exactly where to fight this new virus," co-senior author and associate professor of surgery at the Pitt School of Medicine Andrea Gambotto said in the press release.

Gambotto said the experience was an object lesson in the value of maintaining public health research.

"That's why it's important to fund vaccine research," Gambotto said. "You never know where the next pandemic will come from."

It is too soon to know how long the SARS-COV-2 antibodies will last in mice, but the mice the researchers vaccinated for MERS retained their immunity for at least a year, and the mice injected with the new vaccine seem to be showing similar antibody levels. The researchers are now applying for permission from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to start human testing within a few months. Clinical testing typically takes a year or longer, but Falo said there was a chance they could speed the process up.

If the vaccine pans out, the researchers say it is scalable. It also might be less intimidating to anyone with a fear of needles.

That's because the researchers administer it via a small Band-Aid-like patch containing 400 tiny needles that dissolve into the skin as they deliver the spike protein.

"We developed this to build on the original scratch method used to deliver the smallpox vaccine to the skin, but as a high-tech version that is more efficient and reproducible patient to patient," Falo explained in the press release. "And it's actually pretty painless — it feels kind of like Velcro."

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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