BREAKTHROUGHS BLOG

January 17, 2017

Research Roundup: A virus-killing mask, testing drugs on pregnant women, and DARPA’s global health portfolio

Kat Kelley
Senior Program Assistant
GHTC

Surgical masks are a popular accessory worn in public spaces during outbreaks of airborne diseases, however, in reality, they provide limited protection against pathogens; they may trap viruses, but they can’t kill them. Consequently, even just the act of removing the mask can expose the wearer to a virus. A team of scientists at University of Alberta are hoping to change that. They have adapted the standard surgical mask so that it can both trap and deactivate viruses. The inspiration for the mask came from a challenge faced by lead researcher Dr. Hyo-Jick Choi in his work adapting vaccines for oral administration: when liquids (i.e., vaccines) turn into solids (i.e., pills), they crystallize, damaging the viral components that make the vaccine effective. Dr. Choi realized he could turn this challenge into an advantage to target viruses that come in contact with surgical mask. He and his team developed and applied a safe, salt-based solution to the masks. As predicted, when a virus—in this case, influenza—came in contact with the mask, it was destroyed, as the droplet carrying it crystallized. Dr. Choi has received a provisional patent and plans to further advance the innovation.

Pregnant woman in Baniantwe, Ghana
Pregnant woman in Baniantwe, Ghana (Photo: PATH/Evelyn Hockstein).

Advocates are calling for greater inclusion of pregnant women in clinical trials, a necessary step to address critical knowledge gaps and improve health care for pregnant women and their fetuses. In the United States, nearly two-thirds of women receive at least one prescription during pregnancy, yet more than 90 percent of drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration over the past three decades have not been proven safe for use in pregnancy. The hesitancy to include pregnant women in clinical trials is well-founded: drugs and vaccines can cross the placental barrier, resulting in complications or birth defects. However, pregnant women need safe, effective medicines, and clinical trials ensure that negative side effects are caught early, limiting the number of patients impacted. Further, pregnant women are more susceptible to certain pathogens, and as illustrated by the ongoing Zika outbreak, pathogens can cross the placental barrier too, making treatment during pregnancy all the more imperative. Additionally, women may process drugs at higher rates during pregnancy, consequently requiring higher doses. Advocates argue that while testing experimental drugs in pregnant women is risky, it is much safer than allowing a medicine to enter the market, leaving the decision to physicians and patients.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an entity within the US Department of Defense, invests in high-risk, high-reward research, developing innovative technologies to advance US national security, with its health portfolio spanning research from neural and psychiatric health to infectious diseases. Through its Biological Technologies Office, DARPA scientists are taking an innovative approach to drug development. Rather than relying on chemicals to generate novel drug compounds, researchers are genetically modifying yeast, bacteria, and other microbes to do the job. Already, BARDA’s work with yeast has resulted in nearly 100 new molecules, and officials hope to reach 1,000 over the next three years. DARPA is also devising new platform technologies to expedite the development and improve the efficacy of vaccines against emerging infections. One method uses nucleic acids (i.e., RNA and DNA) to signal to the immune system how to respond to a pathogen, rather than introducing a pathogen and allowing the immune system to learn how to respond on its own. If successful, this technology could be adapted for different diseases and would provide instantaneous protection—a significant advantage as most vaccines take at least two weeks to provide protection.

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