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Coronavirus-sniffing dogs and the dangers of embryo gene editing – this week’s Friday Five

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Health minister reveals he is ‘extremely hopeful’ sniffer dogs will be used to detect Covid-19 

Health minister Lord Bethell has praised a trial by researchers at London School Of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Scientists there have been assessing whether dogs -which can already detect epileptic fits, cancer and Parkinson’s disease – can identify unique odours emitted by patients with coronavirus.

The £500,000 trail was Government funded, and the Health Secretary Matt Hancock visited experts carrying out the trial yesterday. If successful, each dog could be used to sniff out up to 250 people an hour to screen crowds at airports and other busy venues.

Finland and the United Arab Emirates have already deployed coronavirus-sniffing dogs at major international airports for trials that began in summer.

Read the full story in the Daily Mail.

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Oxford University and AstraZeneca vaccine produces an immune response in all age groups 

One of the world’s leading Covid-19 vaccines produces an immune response in older adults as well as young people, raising hopes of protection for those most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

The phase 2 trials have shown that people over the age of 56 – and some over 70 – produced the same antibody response as younger volunteers. A key question in the development of Covid-19 vaccines has been whether older people would be protected. The body’s natural immune system and therefore its ability to fight any virus weakens with age, which is why the Covid-19 death rate is higher in older people.

The data also shows that fewer side-effects – known as “reactogenicity” – were reported in the older volunteers. “It is encouraging to see immunogenicity responses were similar between older and younger adults and that reactogenicity was lower in older adults, where the Covid-19 disease severity is higher. The results further build the body of evidence for the safety and immunogenicity of the vaccine” said an AstraZeneca spokesman.

Read the full story in The Guardian. 

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Experiment aimed at correcting defective DNA in human embryo shows the dangers of gene editing 

Columbia University researchers describe their recent work, published in the journal Cell. They used CRISPR-cas9, a tool which lets scientists cut and edit DNA in a precise location. This same tool was used by a Chinese scientist on embryos in 2018 to help make the world’s first gene-edited babies, which resulted in his imprisonment and international condemnation.

The scientists edited 40 embryos which had a gene mutation which causes blindness. Editing was aimed at correcting the mutation so the gene would work. However, in more than half of the cases, the editing resulted in unintended changes, such as loss of an entire chromosome.

The tool has the potential for good — it’s already used to raise better crops and livestock, and holds promise for treating diseases and earned its discoverers a Nobel Prize earlier this month. But, using it on embryos, sperm or eggs makes changes that can pass to future generations. Several international panels of scientists and ethicists have said it’s too soon to know whether that can be done safely, and the new Columbia work shows the possible harm.

“This takes the concerns that have already been expressed about human embryo editing to another level,” said Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego.

Read the full story in The Independent.

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Novartis partners with Molecular Partners to develop Covid-19 antivirals 

Molecular Partners is developing a new class of antiviral therapeutics and Novartis has signed a license agreement to develop, manufacture and commercialise the anti-COVID-19 programme.

The collaboration aims to utilise Molecular Partners’ technologies combined with Novartis’ expertise in global drug development, regulatory affairs, manufacturing and commercialisation to advance the programme.

“This Swiss led partnership, which could deliver both prophylactic and treatment options at scale for COVID-19 patients across the globe, is another demonstration of our sustained commitment to addressing one of the greatest health challenges of our time,” said Vas Narasimhan, Chief Executive Officer of Novartis.

Read the full story in the PharmaTimes.


Quote of the week

In Carol Verner’s recent article for the HSJ, she reflects on promoting equality and diversity through the BAME NHS Staff Network. The BAME network she is a part of aims to create an inclusive workplace culture, making sure BAME staff feel valued and know they are vital to the success of the services that are provided. She said ”Our network is working hard to influence recruitment at the hospital by training Diversity Recruitment Champions, who will sit on recruitment panels for the entire recruitment process.”

Read the full article in the HSJ.

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