Scientists are banking on the idea the structure of a future pathogen to threaten human health will be like the ones they already know about as they design next-generation vaccines.
Aug. 6, 2021 — Find it. Kill it. This is the simple premise behind new biomaterial-based vaccines that experts are designing to fend off future pathogens, or germs that could threaten human health.
As they plan next-generation vaccines, scientists are banking on the idea that the structure of a future pandemic-scale pathogen will be like the ones they already know about.
The new class of vaccines are being developed to supercharge the immune system to help the body quickly respond to a range of pathogens.
How the Pandemic Is Affecting Our Bodies
Sign of the Times
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the stress that has come with it, have changed our lives in many ways. Those changes can take a toll on your health, both physically and mentally. But you can do a few things to limit their effects.
Many aspects of the pandemic can make you more anxious or worried than usual. If you have trouble sleeping or notice changes in your appetite or energy, it’s a good idea to take breaks from the news and social media and find time for hobbies and exercise, even if it’s just doing some stretching or taking a daily walk.
The hardships caused by the pandemic can be even tougher to deal with if you feel isolated because of social distancing. If you feel sad, hopeless, or cranky a lot of the time, it’s important to connect with friends or family and talk about how you’re feeling. If you feel down for several days, or you have thoughts of hurting yourself, reach out to your doctor or a mental health hotline for help.
Anxiety can affect you physically, too. Headaches and migraines are among the most common symptoms caused by worry and uncertainty during the pandemic. In addition to unplugging and being more active, meditation or breathing exercises can help ease your stress.
Thinning or falling clumps of hair can be a troubling sign of pandemic stress, but it’s only temporary. It happens when more hairs than usual go into the “shedding phase” at the same time. You may start to notice it 2 to 3 months after the stress kicks in, and that it stops after the stress eases up.
If your jaw feels sore or your teeth hurt or are sensitive, you might be clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth without knowing it. Stress can cause this, and it usually happens when you’re asleep or concentrating really hard. Along with muscle-relaxing exercises, your dentist also might recommend that you sleep with a mouth guard.
Washing your hands is an important part of curbing the spread of COVID-19, but doing it often can break down the natural oils that protect your hands and dry them out. If you notice that your hands are drier than usual, especially if you have a condition like eczema, try using a smaller amount of soap, and warm water instead of hot. When you’re done, pat your hands with a towel, then use hand cream or petroleum jelly right away.
During the pandemic, screens have become a connection to the outside world, whether it’s a monitor for work, a TV for entertainment, or a phone for social media. But spending too much time in front of one can lead to burning, itchy, watery eyes and even blurry or double vision. To protect yourself, turn off overhead lights to ease glare, make sure your corrective lenses are the right prescription, use artificial tears to help with dry eyes, and be sure to take frequent breaks.
During the pandemic, several things have made it easier to put on extra pounds, like working from home, exercising less, and stress-related snacking. Don’t be too hard on yourself, but if you feel like you need to get a handle on your eating habits, you can make a weekly plan for meals and snacks, keep track of what you eat each day, or, if you work from home, go to the kitchen only when you can sit and enjoy food.
Bad habits are even harder to ditch with time on your hands and few distractions. Whether it’s drinking alcohol, smoking, or playing video games for hours on end, it’s easy to slip and miss (or ignore) the warning signs. If you’re doing something in secret or a loved one has tried to talk to you about it, it’s probably time to cut back. If you have trouble breaking an unhealthy habit, your doctor can help.
Neck and Back Pain
The dining table or kitchen counter isn’t necessarily a good substitute for the ergonomic workstation in your office. Over time, sitting in a slouched position or having your monitor at the wrong height can damage parts of your spine and cause all kinds of neck and back issues. It’s best to designate a work area and follow guidelines to make it as comfortable as possible. And don’t forget to get up and walk around often.
Hand and Wrist Pain
A comfortable work setup is important for other parts of your body, too. Make sure the height of your chair is set so that your forearms are level with your keyboard. Keep your keyboard flat or tilted away from you (never toward you). It’s also a good idea to take breaks and shake your wrists often. It can help to keep your hands warm, too.
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario on 3/26/2021
The new biomaterial-based vaccines are also shelf-stable, meaning they wouldn’t have to be refrigerated like some the COVID-19 shots. This is encouraging news for faster vaccine rollouts, and it will help poorer countries that lack refrigeration for supplies.
New biomaterial vaccines tap into the body’s natural immune response, explains Michael Super, PhD, from the Wyss Institute at Harvard University in Boston, who is first author on a new study exploring what the vaccines can do.
Previous research has shown that scientists can create a depository under the skin that acts like a protective lymph node, or a small bean-shaped structure that works as part of the body’s immune system to help fight infection and disease.
Supercharging the Immune System
This opens the possibility that a biomaterial, such as silica, an important trace mineral already in connective tissues of the body, could be used to inject a pathogen to help the body produce antibodies to it and support how the immune system rallies, explains Super.
“We recruit the immune system to that site, and then the dendritic cells pick up the antigen you put in that biomaterial,” he says. “That creates a danger signal that activates those dendritic cells in a very natural manner. The immune system doesn’t overproduce, but it does respond, and we’ve found that it responds very quickly. We are essentially recapturing what the immune system normally does.”
As cells mature at the deposit site, they learn what signals to send to the rest of the immune system so that it responds to the pathogen targeted by the vaccine. Those cells then travel through the body, stimulating other immune-responsive cells.
In their study, Super and his research team took this process a step further and used their biomaterial vaccine to introduce live attenuated pathogens into the body. This process kept the pathogen viable, but harmless.
This process is different from the recombinant spike protein vaccines used for COVID-19 that use genetically engineered agents to produce antibodies that target the coronavirus.
“We found we could take live pathogens and kill them with an antibiotic or something else and use that directly as part of the vaccine of our choice,” says Super. “You don’t have to do that complex manufacturing; you can simply take it, capture it, kill it, and mix it with the biomaterial and inject or implant it. We’ve seen that you’ve then got these native antigens to fight the pathogen.”
The team used this process to target a form of E. coli, a type of bacteria that’s scientifically known as Escherichia coli that is particularly dangerous in livestock. They infected a pig and then gave it an antibiotic to kill the infection. They extracted that dead bacteria from the pig’s blood and combined it with a biomaterial, in this case mesoporous silica, to create a vaccine.
After they gave this vaccine to mice, they exposed the mice to a different strain of E. coli, and the mice fought off the infection.
“It’s not just the pig-to-mouse aspect that is exciting, it’s that we were able to protect against a lethal challenge from a different strain,” Super says. Results were similar when they tested the vaccine on mice infected with Staphylococcus aureus, he says.
Most of this study, which focused on immune responses to bacteria, was completed before the COVID-19 pandemic started. But the researchers say the work has important implications for preparing for future pandemics.
Stockpiling for Future Threats
“One of the problems is that, very often, you don’t know what the pathogen is that you’re dealing with, especially in the case of a biothreat,” Super points out. But “we believe the structure of a microbial pathogen will be similar to the native, normal pathogens we already know about.”
If that holds true — and the research suggests it will — then a vaccine for a little-studied pathogen could be created using pathogens that target structurally similar but well-studied bacteria.
Biomaterials can be made in bulk at low cost and dried for future use.
“We see this as something that could be made and stored and ready to use whenever it is needed,” Super explains.
This content was originally published here.