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The new tools scientists are deploying to fight the COVID-19 pandemic may soon go to work against cancer, autoimmune diseases, and other illnesses.
The vaccines from drug companies Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech use a new way to train the body’s immune system to respond to infection.
They are testing the same techniques to recruit the immune system to attack tumors. And when immune system attacks go wrong, as in multiple sclerosis or other autoimmune diseases, the same tools may be able to call them off.
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The active ingredient in vaccines from drug companies Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech is called mRNA. These mRNA vaccines for various ailments have been under development for several years, but the COVID-19 vaccines are the first to make it into widespread use.
“Certainly the COVID epidemic has sped that up,” said Drew Weissman, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, “and has really shown the world what RNA vaccines are and what they can do.”
Carriers of genetic instructions
RNA is similar to DNA, the chemical that stores our genes. The “m” in mRNA stands for messenger. DNA stores our genetic blueprints, while mRNA carries a copy of those blueprints to the molecular factories where cell parts are built.
In the coronavirus vaccines, the mRNA carries instructions for building a piece of the virus. The patient’s body builds that virus piece, which primes the immune system to respond if the real virus should come along.
That’s a major change from how vaccines traditionally have worked. Most vaccines contain an actual piece of the virus or a killed or weakened version of the virus itself.
Producing traditional vaccines has meant growing large quantities of the virus or its parts in finicky living systems such as chicken eggs or vats of cells, and then purifying it to produce a safe product.
The mRNA vaccines are much faster and easier to produce. RNA is simply a string of molecules that can be assembled by a laboratory instrument. That’s one reason the coronavirus mRNA vaccines were produced so quickly.
Custom tumor treatment
That’s also why scientists see promise in mRNA vaccines for cancer. While existing drugs target just a few specific mutations commonly found in cancer cells, mRNA vaccines can be customized to an individual patient’s tumor.
Each tumor has a unique array of mutations. In melanoma, for example, exposure to sunlight damages DNA in random places throughout the genes of a patient’s skin cells. Some of those mutations are what turns the cell cancerous.
But since these mutations are found only in the cancerous cells, they provide a target for the immune system to attack without harming the patient’s healthy cells.
The first, early-stage clinical trial of an mRNA cancer vaccine was published in 2017 in the journal Nature. Researchers from BioNTech and colleagues took tumors removed from 13 patients with melanoma. They read the entire genomes of the cancer cells and identified 10 mutations in each tumor. The researchers gave each patient a unique mRNA vaccine based on the mutations in their own tumors.
Eight of those patients were still tumor-free when scientists checked up on them again a year or two later — an unexpectedly high rate of remission. One patient’s tumor returned, but went into remission when given another drug.
A larger study is needed before the treatment could go on the market. And the results would need to hold up in a larger study before the treatment could go on the market.
But Weissman, who was not involved with the study, called them “pretty fantastic results.”
Other companies are pursuing mRNA cancer vaccines, too, including Moderna, the other mRNA COVID-19 vaccine maker.
While these treatments prime the immune system to attack, others are developing vaccines that will trigger a retreat.
In multiple sclerosis, patients’ immune systems attack the myelin sheath surrounding their nerve fibers. The disease can cause muscle weakness, vision problems and other debilitating symptoms.
Treating MS can involve wholesale suppression of the immune system, raising the patient’s risk of infections.
In addition to its attackers, the immune system has a set of cells that tamp down their action. It’s these cells that researchers targeted in a recent study in the journal Science.
They developed an mRNA vaccine that primes these peacemakers to quiet the immune cells going after myelin.
The vaccine blocked all symptoms in laboratory mice, and it halted progression of the disease in mice already showing symptoms.
“Until you can get it into people, we won’t know for sure” how well it works, Weissman cautioned. “But I think it has fantastic potential.”
Weissman and his colleagues are working on mRNA vaccines to treat allergies. He has another in development against sickle cell anemia.
While the COVID-19 vaccines may be the first to market, they could be just the tip of the iceberg for RNA therapies. (IANS)
Japan has successfully launched a new navigation satellite into orbit that will replace its decade-old navigation satellite.
The satellite, QZS-1R, was launched onboard an H-2A rocket that lifted off from the Tanegashima Space Center at 10.19 p.m. on Monday night, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries said in a statement.
The company builds and operates H-2A rockets the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
QZS-1R is a replacement for Quasi-Zenith Satellite System 1 satellite first launched in 2010. “It was a really beautiful launch," the company said in a tweet after a successful lift-off.
"H-IIA F44 flight proceeded nominally. Approximately 28 minutes 6 seconds after launch, as planned, the payload separated from the launch vehicle," the statement said.
The official QZSS website lists four satellites in the constellation: QZS-1, QZS-2, QZS-3 and QZS-4, Space.com reported.
The QZSS constellation will eventually consist of a total of seven satellites that fly in an orbit passing through a near-zenith (or directly overhead) above Japan, and QZS-R1 is meant to share nearly the same transmission signals as recent GPS satellites, according to JAXA.
It is specially optimised for mountainous and urban regions in Japan, JAXA said.
Mitsubishi's H-2A 202 rocket launch system has been operational since 2003 and has sent satellites to locations such as Venus (Akatsuki) and Mars (Emirates Mars Mission).
The latest H2-A rocket launch is the first since November 29, 2020, when Japan launched an advanced relay satellite with laser communications tech into orbit, the report said. (IANS/JB)
Keywords: Science, Space Satellite, Communications, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, satellite QZS-1R
Everyone loves firecrackers, even the most environment-friendly advocates cannot hide their joy when they see these delightful lights colour the skies. India celebrates Diwali in the true spirit of her culture and heritage by spraying the navy-blue skies with sparkling hues of gold, silver, red, and green. Firecrackers are not just a tradition in this country, they are a legacy.
The original connotation one makes with fireworks in China. The elaborate Chinese celebrations with dragons and zapping firecrackers have left their mark in human memory, but the use of fireworks is not limited to heralding the Chinese New Year. All over the world, fireworks have come to symbolise the ultimate celebration. During Diwali in India, this spirit is re-ignited every year.
Indians have known the use of gunpowder for many centuries now. Sanskrit texts name a substance called 'agnichura' which is described as a 'powder that creates fire'. This is believed to be saltpetre.
A single firecracker ablaze Photo by Unsplash
Sometime during the rule of the Vijayanagar Empire, and the Adil Shah Dynasty in South India, the use of the Chinese pyrotechnic formulae became extensively common in entertaining the royals. Weddings, Festivals, and other special celebrations in the palace were marked with a spectacular display of fireworks.
Between the 1920s and 1940s, the dynamics of fireworks changed in India. Ayya Nadar and Shanmuga Nadar, from Tamil Nadu's Sivakasi who migrated to Kolkata, set up a fireworks factory there. It began as a match factory, but after receiving the required permission, it was converted into a fireworks unit. Within a few years, another factory was set up in Sivakasi. Before long, multiple units were set up there, and today, it is India's fireworks hub. Most of the crackers that are used during Diwali come from Sivakasi.
Recently, environmental concerns have caused the ban of fireworks as it causes air pollution. The sale of crackers has reduced drastically after this new law. During the lockdown, the factory labourers underwent great losses, especially in Sivakasi. But keeping the spirit of Diwali in mind. crackers cannot be entirely done away with, and continue to light up the skies at least for a few hours every year.
Keywords: Diwali festival, Fireworks, Sivakasi, the Vijayanagar Empire, culture and heritage in India.
PARIS — In a decision with potential ramifications across European museums, France is displaying 26 looted colonial-era artifacts for one last time before returning them home to Benin.
The wooden anthropomorphic statues, royal thrones and sacred altars were pilfered by the French army in the 19th century from Western Africa.
President Emmanuel Macron suggested that France now needed to right the wrongs of the past, making a landmark speech in 2017 in which he said he can no longer accept "that a large part of many African countries' cultural heritage lies in France." It laid down a roadmap for the controversial return of the royal treasures taken during the era of empire and colony. The French will have a final glimpse of the objects in the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac from 26-31 October.
French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot tried to assuage jitters among European museums, emphasizing that this initiative "will not create a legal precedent."
A royal seat of the 'Royal treasures of Abomey kingdom' (Œuvres des tresors royaux d'Abomey) on display at the Musee du quai Branly in Paris, Sept. 10, 2021. Photo Credit: VOA
A French law was passed last year to allow the restitution of the statues to the Republic of Benin, as well as a storied sword to the Army Museum in Senegal.
But she said that the French government's law was intentionally specific in applying solely to the 27 artifacts. "[It] does not establish any general right to restitution" and "in no way calls into question" the right of French museums to hold on to their heritage.
Yet critics of such moves — including London's British Museum that is in a decades-long tug-of-war with the Greek government over a restitution of the Elgin Marbles — argue that it will open the floodgates to emptying Western museums of their collections. Many are made up of objects acquired, or stolen, during colonial times. French museums alone hold at least 90,000 artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa.
A woman looks at the Parthenon Marbles, a collection of stone objects, inscriptions and sculptures. Photo Credit: VOA
The story of the "Abomey Treasures" is as dramatic as their sculpted forms. In November 1892, Colonel Alfred Dodds led a pilfering French expeditionary force into the Kingdom of Danhomè located in the south of present-day Benin. The colonizing troops broke into the Abomey Palace, home of King Behanzin, seizing as they did many royal objects including the 26 artifacts that Dodds donated to the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris in the 1890s. Since 2003, the objects have been housed at the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac.
One hundred and twenty-nine years later, their far-flung journey abroad will finally end.
Benin's Culture Minister Jean-Michel Abimbola called the return of the works, a "historic milestone," and the beginning of further cooperation between the two countries, during a news conference last week. The country is founding a museum in Abomey to house the treasures that will be partly funded by the French government. The French Development Agency will give some 35 million euros toward the "Museum of the Saga of the Amazonians and the Dan home Kings" under a pledge signed this year.
The official transfer of the 26 pieces is expected to be signed in Paris on Nov. 9 in the presence of Macron and the art is expected to be in Benin a few days later, Abimbola said.
While locals say the decision is overdue, what's important is that the art will be returned.
"It was a vacuum created among Benin's historical treasures, which is gradually being reconstituted," said Fortune Sossa, President of the African Cultural Journalists Network. (VOA/RN)
Keywords: Benin art, Emmanuel Macron, European museums, Abomey Treasures, anthropomorphic statues