💉 Seagen, Nurix marry cancer-fighting tech; Sanofi India wants to make polio vaccines no more; Paige, Microsoft get in on AI-based cancer diagnosis
#424 | Inter-species kidneys; Copycat embryos; Obesity-fighting insects
Hello there. Welcome back to our Friday Kable – your quickest, most convenient way to keep up with everything that happened in the life sciences this week. Yesterday, the Africa CDC launched a call for applications for the African Epidemic Service – Epidemiology Track Fellowship Programme. This two-year, competency-based training initiative is hosted by the Africa CDC and the African Union. The call for applications is open through 26 October for qualified candidates from AU Member States.
Shantha Biotechnics, Sanofi’s wholly-owned Indian subsidiary, was one of only two manufacturers of an essential cholera vaccine. Last year, the company halted production, terribly affecting global supply as cholera outbreaks took the world by storm. Now, we’re seeing a similar situation unfold again. Starting March 2024, Sanofi India will stop manufacturing the polio vaccine ShanIPV. Sanofi is one of the largest suppliers of the vaccine, so naturally, this is a cause for concern.
Meanwhile, cancer therapeutics are getting a whole new makeover as the technologies of targeted protein degradation and antibody-drug conjugation come together. Nurix Therapeutics and Seagen are collaborating to develop a portfolio of Degrader-Antibody Conjugates (DACs). This multi-year, multi-target collab will earn Nurix an upfront payment of $60 million and potential milestone payments of $3.4 billion.
Laborie Medical Technologies has inked a deal to acquire the Minnesota-based medical device company Urotronic for an upfront payment of $255 million, plus over $300 million more in potential milestone payments.
Valneva and Pfizer have good news to share on the Lyme disease vaccine front. A phase 2 study of their vaccine candidate, when given as a booster, showed positive paediatric and adolescent immunogenicity and safety data.
And finally, the health tech company Paige has announced a collaboration with Microsoft to build the world’s largest image-based AI model for cancer diagnosis and care.
Releasing this Monday: A comprehensive 60-page journey through the labyrinthine healthcare landscapes of sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa. This exhaustively researched, curated report by Team Kable uncovers the profound challenges these regions face and the seismic shifts brought about by digital health innovations. It's not just a study; it's a roadmap to collaborations, investments, and the dawn of self-reliance and expansive growth. If you are interested in the healthcare opportunities in these regions this is a report you can't afford to miss.
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The Week That Was
This week was rich with updates on the Africa Climate Summit, pharma manufacturing in Africa, the scourge of air pollution, and the status of plastic and pandemic treaties.
The Africa Climate Summit began on Monday in Nairobi. The continent attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in pledges from the UAE, Germany, and other countries. But leaders pointed out that while the deals announced were welcome, they were hardly enough. The Nairobi Declaration which capped the Summit was heavy on demands that major polluters and global financial institutions commit more resources to help low-income countries and also make it easier for them to borrow at affordable rates. The Nairobi Declaration proposed a global carbon taxation regime. It also urged multilateral banks to increase concessional lending to poor countries and to better use the IMF’s special drawing rights mechanism. It included proposals to help indebted countries avoid default, such as instruments granting 10-year grace periods and extended sovereign debt tenor. African countries are set to take the proposals in the Nairobi Declaration to a UN climate conference later this month and to the COP28 Summit in UAE in November.
On the Make in Africa front, news streamed in of the Kenya Medical Research Institute, or KEMRI, signing an MoU with Kenya Biovax Institute. The research institute and the biotech manufacturing giant will collaborate on vaccine manufacturing, health capacity building, and building supply security in the country. The partnership’s top priority is to localise the manufacturing of childhood vaccines.
Also, Korea’s International Vaccine Institute (IVI) and EuBiologics signed an agreement with DEK Vaccines to transfer tech to produce oral cholera vaccines (OCV) domestically in Ghana.
Plus, a partnership between Hospice Africa Uganda, National Medical Stores of Uganda, and the Government of Uganda improved access to morphine through local manufacturing.
Coming to this week's spotlight on air pollution, a UNICEF report claimed that in 2019, 5,800+ children and teenagers in Europe and Central Asia succumbed to causes linked to air pollution.
While the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service declared the summer of ’23 as the hottest ever recorded, in the Air Quality and Climate Bulletin for 2022, the World Meteorological Organisation warned that climate change and air quality are inextricably linked. Extreme weather like heatwaves worsens our poor air quality, resulting in indirect effects on human health, agriculture, and ecosystems.
Speaking of pollutants, we come to the plastic treaty, which has been stuck in draft mode. In March 2022, 175 countries agreed to draft a treaty addressing the plastic pollution crisis. A year and a half later, a "zero draft" has been released, highlighting proposals for reducing plastic production, eliminating hazardous chemicals, and focusing on recycling. The treaty discussions will continue in Nairobi this November where we will continue to witness the absence of any actual forward movement.
Talk of treaties is the perfect segue into this next story. Even with the pandemic treaty, progress has been slow as world leaders fail to agree on the basics like sharing information, costs, and vaccines. Risk factors for the next zoonotic pandemic - like deforestation, climate change, rapid urbanisation, and wildlife trade - disproportionately affect the developing world. But who will fund measures to overcome these challenges?
In more updates regarding the Africa story, the UK is providing £15 million from its Official Development Assistance budget to support the recruitment and retention of healthcare staff in Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana.
Things aren't looking as promising in South Africa, where newly disclosed documents reveal that the South African government signed incredibly one-sided contracts which, unfortunately, did much more in favour of pharma companies’ bottom lines than public health. A report writes that the contracts with Pfizer, Janssen, the Serum Institute of India (SII), and Covax forced governments in the Global South to secure vaccines with “unusually hefty demands and conditions, including secrecy, a lack of transparency, and very little leverage against late or no delivery of supplies or inflated prices, resulting in gross profiteering.” South Africa was pretty much held to ransom during a health emergency, and they questioned if other countries in the Global South were, too.
We rounded out the week with news of the Dengue Alliance setting itself a goal to deliver a new treatment for dengue within five years and a study from the University of Nottingham which claimed that a subtype of the avian influenza virus, endemic in poultry farms in China, is mutating in ways which could increase the risk of the virus making the jump to human hosts. With airborne transmission now possible, we possibly have another pandemic in the making.
Better late than never. Indian pharma’s quality control lapses have been quite evident in the past year. If the cough syrup deaths in the Gambia, Uzbekistan and elsewhere weren’t evidence enough, raids carried out by the Indian government in March resulted in 25+ companies receiving show-cause notices for violating regulations. And further assessments have revealed even more concerns in the pharmacy of the world.
Now, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) is embarking on a major drive to collate and compile the profiles of pharma companies in the country. Drugmakers have been asked to provide information regarding every unit operational in the country, their annual turnover, domestic turnover, export turnover, and production capacity. They must also report details of international approvals from the EU, the US FDA, Japan’s Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency, Brazil’s ANVISA, and other regulatory bodies. If Indian pharma companies export their products, the government also wants details of the importing countries, their units abroad, and whether they possess a WHO-GMP certificate.
(The Economic Times)
Seeing inside your brain. How do you feel about having some doctors stick a device in your brain? For patients with brain tumours, that may become a reality. Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have designed a microdevice which can be loaded into the brain tumours of patients undergoing standard-of-care surgery. Loaded with drugs, the intratumoral microdevice can release them in the tumour region and also provide real-time measurements of drug efficacy. A phase 1 trial of these rice grain-sized devices in patients with high-grade gliomas showed that they were safe and feasible to use in surgery. Further research could lead to the clinical adoption of these devices to treat brain and other cancers; they could transform doctors’ approaches to treatment decisions as real-time monitoring could enable more patient-specific drug regimens.
(Science Translational Medicine)
Human-porcine kidneys. In the past, rat organs have been grown in mice, and mouse organs have been produced in rats. But growing human organs in pigs? Now that’s something scientists haven’t been successful at – until these researchers from the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health came along. They successfully created chimeric embryos with a combination of human and pig cells. After some work with CRISPR and human pluripotent stem cells, they transferred these human-pig combos into surrogate porcine mothers and voila! The developing humanised kidneys had perfectly normal structure and tubule formation after four weeks. This marks a first! Soon, researchers may also be able to generate human hearts and pancreas in pigs. Initially, the main use of this technology would likely be to study the development of human organs and developmental diseases. Eventually, it may yield organs for transplantation. Luckily, in this experiment, human cells remained mostly localised to the kidneys, so you don’t have to worry about the ethical implications the next time you reach for those pork chops.
(Cell Stem Cell)
Copycat embryos. In other research which may help scientists study intrauterine development, scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science have grown an “embryo model”, or an entity that closely resembles an early human embryo, with no sperm, egg, or womb. Made using stem cells, this model looks like a textbook example of a 14-day-old embryo. This l'il fellow also released hormones which fooled pregnancy tests in the lab. This initial time after fertilization is a crucial period: it’s when birth defects or miscarriages can begin, but scientists currently have a very shallow understanding of it. It’s still early days, but this new model, which circumvents the ethical issues around studying the real deal, can help scientists understand how different cell types emerge and the mechanisms underlying genetic diseases.
Fighting obesity with food. Before you recoil at the thought of munching on some insects, think about all the good it could do you. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine have studied mice to find that crunchy insect exoskeletons can be pretty useful for your immune system. They contain the dietary fibre chitin in abundance; ingesting chitin engages a particular arm of the immune system and was linked to less weight gain, reduced body fat, and resistance to obesity. This effect was particularly significant in mice when chitin activated the immune system but was not digested. The research team’s next steps involve studying whether adding more chitin to human diets could help control the obesity epidemic. Want to do your bit for science and your waistline, but the thought of chomping on insects still creeps you out? Not to worry – mushrooms and crustacean shells can do the job just as well.
You can run, you can hide, but you can’t escape climate change. If you’ve been feeling lucky about having escaped the worst of it this past summer, don’t get too happy. The US-based research group Climate Central did quite an extensive study; they looked at temperatures in 180 countries and 22 territories. They found that 98% of the world’s population was exposed to higher temperatures than usual, and they had good ol’ carbon dioxide pollution to blame. Unfortunately, compared to G20 countries, countries with the lowest historical emissions experienced three to four times more days this summer in which high temperatures were thrice as likely due to climate change. But even in North America and southern Europe, heatwaves wouldn’t have been impossible without human-induced climate change. So you may have sheltered yourself in your air-conditioned buildings and vacations to relatively cool locations, but virtually no one on Earth really escaped climate change from June to August this year.
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