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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

Welcome to Wednesday! Here's what you need to know about health and medicine this morning. 

GOP's game plan to repeal ACA is dead on arrival

Mitch McConnell’s fresh plan to repeal Obamacare without replacing it right away has gone the same way as the Senate health care bill. Three GOP senators — Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia — have announced they won’t support his idea. However, there’s also still a laundry list of other health policy work to be done on the Hill — and the deadlines for some of those must-pass measures are rapidly approaching. Congress still has to authorize federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and several Medicare programs, all of which are set to expire in September.

Lab Chat: Spinning silk shields for drugs 

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bits of silk head into a microfluidic device. (knowles group)

Scientists that just kept spinning — and spinning and spinning — have woven tiny capsules that could one day protect pharmaceuticals like a cocoon protects a silkworm. Here’s what study author Tuomas Knowles of the University of Cambridge told me about the work, published this morning in Nature Communications.

How did you create the micro-cocoons?

The way we’ve done the processing is very similar to what the silkworm does. The silkworm stores the material inside a gland, then spins the silk. The force during the process cause the silk to gel and take the shape of a cocoon. We essentially scaled down that structure by around 1,000. In order to scale it down, we’ve made use of microfluidic devices, which have tiny channels built in. What goes in is liquid silk, and what comes out are capsules.

How could those be used?

We’re working on stabilizing biologically active antibodies to ensure the long-term storage and then subsequent release of those antibodies. We stored them inside the capsules and, exactly the same way the cocoon protects the silkworm, these silk micro-cocoons protect the molecules inside them.

NASA's new push to send drug discovery to space

Drug makers, biomedical researchers, and NASA officials are mingling this week at a big meeting on research and development on the International Space Station. On today’s docket: figuring out how to attract companies to do research in low Earth orbit, or the path around the planet that the ISS takes. Representatives from Merck, the NIH, and other research institutions are discussing the potential market for science in space. The microgravity environment is enviable — it allows researchers to produce bigger, purer protein crystals for drug development than they can on Earth, for example. Today’s talk points to a bigger push by NASA to bring in new funding and even out the playing field when it comes to who can do research in space.

Inside STAT: Hunting for plague among prairie dogs

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a prairie dog looks for the next edition of its favorite morning newsletter. (JOHN BURCHAM FOR STAT)

Authorities call David Wagner when there’s a suspected outbreak of plague in the small college town of Flagstaff, Ariz. Wagner pulls on long pants and long sleeves, drives to the scene, and starts working to determine whether the plague flare-up is, indeed, are the same plague once known as the Black Death. Often, the corpses are already underground — they’re prairie dogs, and they’ve crawled down into their burrows to die at home. Wagner coaxes out the fleas in the area using a homemade contraption and takes them back to his lab to test them for plague. The Departments of Defense and Homeland Security have taken an interest in his work, because inside the flea’s intestines lies an untapped stash of potential bioweapons. STAT’s Eric Boodman has the story here.

Illustrating new research with a crocheted capsid

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the proteins in the capsid, crocheted in green and orange, cluster into a cone shape. (jodi hadden)

After two years of toiling away on a supercomputer, scientists report they've created aa super-fast simulation of the life of an HIV capsid. The capsid is a cone-shaped coat that surrounds the virus's RNA, and helps ferry that genetic information into the nucleus of each cell that HIV infects. The new simulation — which stretches just 1.2 seconds — gives scientists a peek at how the capsid senses its surroundings to navigate its way to the nucleus. But my favorite part of the research? This crocheted capsid to illustrate the concept, created by Jodi Hadden, a computational scientist who studies hepatitis B capsids.

“Computational scientists spend most of our time working at computers, interacting with our research only through the keyboard and mouse,” she tells me. “Crochet was a way to physically interact with a project again.”

The biology of how PTSD impacts the brain

Knowing how post-traumatic stress disorder develops at a cellular level could help researchers develop better treatments: There are only two FDA-approved medications for PTSD, both of which target a network of neurotransmitters that includes serotonin. Now, researchers think they’ve discovered a clue about another cell receptor that might be involved. The name is a mouthful: mGluR5. Previous research has suggested it has a role in fear and anxiety. When scientists dosed people with PTSD and controls with a radioactive tracer, they found that the former group had much more of this receptor in their brain cells. “Lowering mGluR5 in individuals with PTSD might be of benefit, but future work needs to address this hypothesis,” lead researcher Irina Esterlis of Yale tells me.

What to read around the web today

  • Battling dementia: a mother and son's incredible journey. NBC
  • In South Asian social castes, a living lab for genetic disease. New York Times
  • The myth of drug expiration dates. ProPublica

More reads from STAT

The latest from STAT Plus

Thanks for reading! More tomorrow,

Megan

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