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Just a Shot Away

Researchers are on the verge of developing a universal vaccine that will provide immunity to all kinds of flu viruses:-

Like all professionals, medical researchers also have grand ambitions. One of the grandest of these ambitions is to find a universal vaccine for influenza. This disease kills about 5 lakh people worldwide every year. Its potential to wreak havoc is enormous, and the only way to stop this virus in its tracks is a universal vaccine. Such a vaccine could protect us from any kind of flu, whether serious or benign. Not long ago this was considered an impossible dream , but now scientists are inching closer to achieving this dream.

At least five research groups in the world — three in the US, one in Belgium and one in Israel — have developed a kind of universal flu vaccine, and they have either already started Phase I clinical trials or will start them this year. Initial results are good in all of them — patients seem to tolerate the low doses and develop an immune response. But the big test is to come in the next year or two, when the vaccine is given to a large population and tested for efficacy. If these vaccines are good enough to stop the disease, the days of global flu-related panic may be over in about five to seven years.

Making a vaccine against a virus is a trivial or an impossible exercise, depending on the nature of the virus. Some viruses are very stable over a long time, which means that they do not mutate quickly. This means that the proteins on their surface remain the same in all varieties, as in the case of small pox, which makes it possible to develop a vaccine that remains effective over long periods. The influenza virus, on the other hand, keeps mutating all the time. Most of the mutations are small, but occasionally they change in a significant way. In fact, even in seasonal flu, the vaccine does not afford full protection because there are different kinds of flu viruses and it is not possible to design a vaccine for all of them.

Periodically, the influenza virus acquires genes from flu viruses that inhabit other animals. This is how the recent swine flu emerged. This mixing of genes makes it literally impossible to design vaccines as it is impossible to predict how and when the genes will mix and in what combination.

However, scientists had not given up trying to develop a universal flu vaccine. And now there are signs that some of them will succeed.

At the Saint Louis University (SLU) in the US, like elsewhere, researchers looked for a portion of the virus that does not change even if the virus mutates. They did find such portions, called M2, on all flu viruses. This portion is involved in most of the universal vaccines under development. “All flu viruses will have an M2 portion,” says Donald Kennedy, professor of infectious diseases at the university. SLU had done Phase I clinical trials on 377 patients and found that it was tolerated well on low doses. People also developed antibodies at levels known to protect against viral infections.

This vaccine is designed to work against the so-called A strains of the influenza virus. It is the cause of two-thirds of all flu infections and all the pandemic cases. Of the other two viruses, the C type is rare and is not fatal and the B type does not cause global pandemics. The current swine flu is an A type flu, and so is the avian flu that periodically causes a pandemic scare.

At the University of Ghent in Belgium, scientist Walter Fiers also used a similar approach to develop a universal vaccine. This vaccine was licensed to the British-American company Acambis, and Phase I clinical trials are over. Acambis had also tested whether vaccinated ferrets could survive an infection from a highly lethal avian flu strain. About 70 per cent of the vaccinated animals survived, while all the placebo controls (ferrets that were administered dummy vaccines) died.

While these two groups (from the US and Belgium) — and a few others — use the M2 portion of the virus, a private company in Israel is using a combination of regions in the virus that remain the same in all types. This company, BiondVax Pharmaceuticals Ltd, licensed the technology from the Weizmann Institute in Tel Aviv. It is using a portion of the virus called M1 in combination with other portions. “It is based on peptides that are conserved in the vast majority of the flu strains,” says Ron Babecoff, president and CEO of BiondVax. A single vaccination is supposed to provide immunity for several years for many kinds of flu viruses.

Some viruses keep mutating all the time, but while most mutations are small, occasionally they change significantly.
BiondVax has tested the vaccine in animals. In a humanised mouse — a genetically engineered mouse that carries human genes — the vaccine was found to be 95 per cent effective, a level that is good enough for any vaccine. BiondVax has government approval to start human trials, and will do so this month. It is also working on what it calls the second generation universal flu vaccine.

But, at the moment, let us watch the progress of the first one.

Sources: The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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Healthy Tips

How to Achieve Deep, Uninterrupted Sleep

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Americans now get about 25 percent less sleep than they did a century ago. This isn’t just a matter of fatigue, it causes serious damage to your body.

click to see the pictures

Sleep deprivation can alter your levels of thyroid and stress hormones, which play a part in everything from your memory and immune system to your heart and metabolism. Over time, lack of sleep can lead to:

  • Weight gain
  • Depression
  • High blood sugar levels and an increased risk of diabetes
  • Brain damage

Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to get the sleep your body craves. Here are 10 to start with (and the link below has 14 more):

1. Sprinkle just-washed sheets and pillowcases with lavender water, and then iron them before making your bed. The scent is proven to promote relaxation.

2. Hide your clock, so that its glow won’t disturb you and make sure there is no light coming from other sources including your windows as this will seriously impair your body’s ability to produce melatonin.

3. Choose the right pillow — neck pillows, which resemble a rectangle with a depression in the middle, can enhance the quality of your sleep and reduce neck pain.

4. Paint your bedroom sage green, or another soothing color, which will provide a visual reminder of sleep.

5. Move your bed away from outside walls, which will help cut down on noise.

6. Kick your dog or cat out of your bedroom — studies have shown that they snore!

7. Take a hot bath 90 to 120 minutes before bedtime; it increases your core body temperature, and when it abruptly drops when you get out of the bath, it signals your body that you are ready for sleep.

8. Keep a notepad at your bedside — if you wake in the middle of the night with your mind going, you can transfer your to-do list to the page and return to sleep unworried.

9. Put heavier curtains over your windows –– even the barely noticeable light from streetlights, a full moon, or your neighbor’s house can interfere with the circadian rhythm changes you need to fall asleep.

10. Eat a handful of walnuts before bed — they’re a good source of tryptophan, a sleep-enhancing amino acid.


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