Scientists call for a contact tracing app regulator

Rolling out contact-tracing apps for COVID-19 without considering their wide ethical and social implications can be “dangerous, costly and useless,” argue four digital-ethics experts in a Comment piece in Nature.

COVID-19 contact-tracing apps alert people who have come into contact with someone carrying the virus SARS-CoV-2 and advise them how to respond. They are already in use, for example, in Australia and Singapore, and are being developed by France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States and others. However, Jessica Morley, Josh Cowls, Mariarosaria Taddeo and Luciano Floridi argue that collecting sensitive personal data potentially threatens privacy, equality and fairness.

The authors set out 16 questions that governments and app developers should answer to assess whether an app is ethically justifiable. Most attention so far has focused on data privacy, but the authors outline other concerns. For instance, if not everyone can access the app—such as people who do not have a smartphone—then take-up might be too low to slow the pandemic’s spread, and would amplify inequalities in society. If the app fails, it becomes unnecessary and thus unethical. An independent body needs to be in place to oversee its development and use. Different countries have various levels of digital literacy, and therefore have different impacts to weigh.

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Canadian scientists testing whether cannabis can block COVID-19

Canadian scientists are testing whether compounds in marijuana can prevent coronavirus from ‘hijacking’ human cells

  • Researchers from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada looked at 400 cannabis strains and focused on about a dozen
  • They studied how extracts high in CBD, the main nonpsychoactive ingredient in, interacted with receptors coronavirus uses to attack cells
  • The extracts lowered the number of receptors the virus uses to infects cells and multiply by more than 70%
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

A team of Canadian scientists is testing whether or not marijuana compounds can block coronavirus infection.

Researchers at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta looked at 400 cannabis strains and focused on about a dozen that showed promise in preventing the virus from ‘hijacking’ our cells.

They say extracts of cannabidiol (CBD), the main non-psychoactive component of pot – helped lower the number of cell receptors available for coronavirus to attach to by more than 70 percent.  

However, the team says people should not rush out and by cannabis products and that clinical trials are needed to confirm the results. 

Researchers from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada looked at 400 cannabis strains and focused on about a dozen (file image)

They studied how extracts high in CBD, the main nonpsychoactive ingredient in, interacted with receptors coronavirus uses to attack cells. Pictured: A nurse suctions the lungs of a COVID-19 patient at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Yonkers, NY, April 20

For the study, published the pre-peer reviewed journal Preprints, the scientists partnered with Pathway Rx, a cannabis therapy research company, and Swysh Inc, a cannabinoid-based research company.

The team created artificial 3D human models of oral, airway and intestinal tissues with a sample of high CBD extracts from Cannabis Sativa plants. 

The extracts were low in THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.   

Next, researchers tested the effect the extracts had on angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), the receptors required for the virus to enter human cells. 

Results showed that the extracts helped reduce the number of receptors that are the  ‘gateway’ for the coronavirus to ‘hijack’ host cells.

‘A number of them have reduced the number of [virus] receptors by 73 percent, the chance of it getting in is much lower,’ lead researchers Dr Igor Kovalchuk, CEO of Pathway Rx, told The Calgary Herald.

‘If they can reduce the number of receptors, there’s much less chance of getting infected.’ 

They also looked at other receptors such as TMPRSS2, which allows the virus to invade cells more easily and multiply quickly.   

‘Imagine a cell being a large building,’ Kovalchuk told CTV News. 

‘Cannabinoids decrease the number of doors in the building by, say, 70 percent, so it means the level of entry will be restricted. So, therefore, you have more chance to fight it.’  

However, the team says this does not mean that people should go out and buy marijuana products as prophylactics. 

Cannabis and CBD products that are currently on the market are not designed to treat or prevent infection from COVID-19. Therefore, clinical trials are needed. 

‘Given the current dire and rapidly developing epidemiological situation, every possible therapeutic opportunity and avenue needs to be considered,’ Kovalchuk said in an April press release. 

‘Our research team is actively pursuing partnerships to conduct clinical trials.’ 

If trials proves to be successful, he says the CBD strains may be used as mouth wash, gargle, inhalants or gel caps,

‘It would be cheaper for people and have a lot less side-effects,’ Kovalchuk told The Herald.  

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Scientists identify promising immunotherapy combination for pediatric brain cancer

Scientists at Sanford Burnham Prebys have discovered that combining immunotherapy with a drug called tumor necrosis factor (TNF) eradicated a deadly type of pediatric brain tumor in mice. The discovery, published in Nature Neuroscience, is expected to lead to a clinical trial to test the benefits of the treatment in patients. The findings also hold implications for other cancers that do not respond to immunotherapy.

“I’ve studied medulloblastoma for more than 20 years. I’ve seen many therapies that prolong survival in mice. But this is first time I have ever seen a therapy essentially melt the tumor away,” says Robert Wechsler-Reya, Ph.D., senior author of the paper, professor and director of the Tumor Initiation and Maintenance Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys, and program director of the Joseph Clayes III Research Center for Neuro-Oncology and Genomics at the Rady Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine. “We look forward to testing this approach in the clinic and are hopeful that this discovery might be able to save children’s lives.”

One in four children does not survive medulloblastoma, and tumors with mutations in p53, a protein that stops the growth of tumors, are especially deadly. The standard treatments for the disease are surgery, whole brain and spine radiation, and intensive chemotherapy. Although these aggressive treatments can cure some patients, those who survive often suffer devastating long-term side effects, including intellectual disabilities, hormonal disorders and an increased risk of developing cancer later in life. Scientists have been striving to use immunotherapy, which harnesses an individual’s immune system to destroy the cancer, as a safer and more effective treatment for medulloblastoma.

“We are very encouraged by these study results and hope to initiate a Phase 1 clinical trial as soon as possible,” says Sabine Mueller, M.D., Ph.D., co-founder of the Pediatric Pacific Neuro-Oncology Consortium (PNOC), a network of children’s hospitals that aims to advance personalized therapies to children and young adults with brain tumors. “Undergoing chemotherapy and radiation is difficult for adults, and even more so for children. Treatment advances cannot come soon enough for these vulnerable pediatric patients.”

Removing the tumor’s invisibility cloak

In the study, Wechsler-Reya and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments investigating why immune responses differed between two different mouse models of medulloblastoma—one with p53 mutations and one without. Often called the “guardian of the genome,” p53 scans DNA for errors and is the most frequently mutated gene in human cancer.

These experiments revealed that tumors lacking p53 do not display an important protein—called the major histocompatibility complex I (MHC-I)—on their surface. MHC-I allows tumors to be recognized and killed by the immune system; without it, a tumor is invisible to the immune system and continues to grow uninterrupted.

The scientists found that low doses of TNF increased expression of MHC-I on p53-mutant tumors—removing their “invisibility cloak” and allowing them to be detected and destroyed by the immune system. Importantly, when mice with p53-mutant tumors received both TNF and a type of immunotherapy called an immune checkpoint inhibitor, the tumor completely disappeared.

“This work suggests that adding TNF to immunotherapy could benefit medulloblastoma patients with tumors lacking p53,” says Alexandra Garancher, Ph.D., first author of the study and a postdoctoral associate in the Wechsler-Reya lab. “If p53 is missing, low doses of TNF may boost MHC-I to the levels needed for immunotherapy to work.”

The scientists also tested the combination treatment in a mouse model of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a deadly pediatric brain tumor that has a nearly 100% fatality rate. After receiving the treatment, approximately half of these mice survived the cancer.

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