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MD Anderson teams up with Pfizer to advance cancer immunotherapy | MD Anderson Cancer Center

MD Anderson teams up with Pfizer to advance cancer immunotherapy | MD Anderson Cancer Center | Laboratory Science |
MD Anderson, Pfizer collaborate on approach to cancer treatment.
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The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Pfizer will collaborate in the development of immune-based approaches to cancer treatment, the first such agreement made through MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program immunotherapy platform.

Jim Allison, Ph.D.

“The pioneering work of platform leader Jim Allison on why tumors evade the immune system has provided patients with a new class of medicine that can activate the immune system to attack cancer and, in some patients, bring about cure. Cancer immunotherapy is the most exciting and promising advance in the cancer field today,” MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho, M.D., said.

“Pfizer’s strong experience in immunology and cancer therapeutics is an outstanding match for the talent and capabilities available through MD Anderson’s immunotherapy platform,” he continued. “This agreement also recognizes our substantial investment in resources, expertise and immunotherapy leadership in the past year under our Moon Shots Program.”

MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program is an ambitious effort to dramatically reduce cancer deaths, starting with six moon shots that target eight cancers and are backed by several platforms – infrastructure, technology or expertise – that support research efforts.

The three-year agreement is designed to accelerate the progress of immune-based treatments to cancer patients and to more efficiently identify and exploit new combination therapies, as well as biomarkers to guide and monitor treatment.

“This collaboration offers a unique opportunity to work directly with recognized pioneers in the rapidly advancing field of cancer immunotherapy,” said Jaume Pons, Ph.D., Chief Scientific Officer of Pfizer’s Rinat biotech unit. “We look forward to partnering with the researchers and clinicians in the Moon Shots Program to potentially bring new treatment approaches to cancer patients.”

“Pfizer’s Rinat unit is a leader in antibody drug development and has a strong track record of scientific innovation, making it an excellent partner for our first alliance,” said Allison, MD Anderson chair of Immunology and executive director of the immunotherapy platform.

In December, the journal Science designated cancer immunotherapy as its 2013 Breakthrough of the Year, noting Allison’s leadership in the field, The Economist named Allison winner of its 2013 Innovations Award for Biosciences and he received a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences from the foundation of the same name launched last year by internet and social media entrepreneurs.  

The first of a few select agreements

MD Anderson’s immunotherapy platform has enhanced and increased the institution’s capabilities in expertise, technology and techniques since Allison’s arrival in November of 2012. 

Patrick Hwu, M.D

Allison’s basic research and subsequent drug development established immune checkpoint blockade, a new treatment that takes the brakes off of immune T cells, freeing them to combat cancer. The drug ipilimumab (Yervoy) became the first ever approved for late-stage melanoma, with more than 20 percent of patients achieving complete responses for five years and longer, unheard of results for the disease.

Patrick Hwu, M.D., chair of Melanoma Medical Oncology is co-director of the platform.  Translational physician-scientistPadmanee Sharma M.D., Ph.D., associate professor ofGenitourinary Medical Oncology, is scientific director.

Allison noted that MD Anderson has invited leading companies in the field to establish similar collaborations, which will be limited to a few agreements, negotiated through the office of Ferran Prat, Ph.D., J.D., vice president of strategic industry ventures.

“Our industry collaborators will benefit from our state-of-the-art facilities, access to MD Anderson’s unique and large patient population for clinical trials through novel research protocols, and an opportunity to work with the best,” Prat said. 

Padmanee Sharma M.D., Ph.D.

“One example is the capacity for studies that provide one or two doses of an investigational drug to patients who consent before they have surgery to remove a tumor. This allows comprehensive analysis of both tumor and peripheral blood to assess the impact of the drug’s activity, evaluate biomarkers, identify new ones and provide a solid basis for generating new hypotheses for combination therapies,” Prat said.

MD Anderson has invested $40 million in the platform, including philanthropic funds and a $10 million Established Investigator grant from theCancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texasto recruit Allison from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

A center of immunotherapy excellence

Since approval of ipilimumab in 2011, additional immune checkpoints and drugs to target them have been discovered and are advancing in clinical trials. At MD Anderson, clinical trials of ipilimumab and other agents target melanoma, lymphoma, lung, breast, gastric and prostate cancers, with more to come. 

Ferran Prat, Ph.D., J.D.

In addition, methods to vastly increase a patient’s own cancer-targeting T cells in the lab or to customize their T cells via gene transfer to more efficiently attack tumors and then infusing them back into the patient are in clinical trials. Therapeutic vaccine development includes efforts for melanoma, lymphoma and breast cancer.

“The era of immune system therapies for cancer is really just beginning,” Allison said. “MD Anderson is a center of immunotherapy excellence now that will grow, improve and significantly contribute to development of more effective drugs for cancer patients.”

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Building a better malaria vaccine: Mixing the right cocktail

Building a better malaria vaccine: Mixing the right cocktail | Laboratory Science |

A safe and effective malaria vaccine is high on the wish list of most people concerned with global health. Results published on December 26 in PLOS Pathogens suggest how a leading vaccine candidate could be vastly improved.

The study, led by Sheetij Dutta, from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, USA, and colleagues, focused on a protein called AMA1 needed by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite to invade blood cells and cause disease. Study results suggest that a cocktail of AMA1 proteins from only a few different strains can overcome major limitations of an earlier designed version of AMA1-based vaccines.

The challenge with the malaria parasite in general and its AMA1 surface protein in particular is that both exist as multiple strains. Using AMA1 in a vaccine readies the human immune system for subsequent encounters with the parasite, but when such a vaccine was previously tested in humans, it was effective mostly against one particular P. falciparum strain. To explore the potential for a more broadly protective vaccine, the scientists tested different cocktails of AMA1 from different parasite strains for their ability to elicit a diverse range of antibodies that are active in parasite inhibition assays. They confirmed that a cocktail of AMA1 proteins from three different parasite strains was better than one or two, and one they call Quadvax, which contained AMA1 proteins derived from four different strains, led to an antibody response that was broader than the sum of strain-specific antibodies elicited by the four individual strains. Moreover, Quadvax-elicited antibodies inhibited a range of parasites, including many strains that were different from those in the Quadvax mix. In different laboratory tests, Quadvax-induced antibodies inhibited the growth of 26 different parasite strains, and the scientists suggest that “the combination of four AMA1 variants in Quadvax may be sufficient to overcome global AMA1 diversity”.

Besides varying a lot from strain to strain, AMA1 also contains less variable (conserved) exposed parts (so-called epitopes) on its surface. The researchers found that vaccination with Quadvax yielded not only antibodies against the variable epitopes, but also against more conserved epitopes of the AMA1 protein. Such antibodies were not seen when using individual strains for immunization, but Quadvax appeared to enhance the immunogenicity—the ability to provoke an antibody response—of these conserved parts of the protein. Since the epitopes are identical across strains, the resulting antibodies are broadly active rather than strain-specific.

The scientists conclude “we had set out to study broadening of antibody responses achieved by mixing AMA1 proteins and were surprised and delighted to find not only greater variety of strain-specific antibodies but also increased antibodies against conserved epitopes were induced by the Quadvax. Perhaps even more exciting, when mixed, combinations of these antibodies were synergistic in their broad inhibition of many parasite strains. Novel conserved epitopes described here can be targets for further improvement of the vaccine. Most importantly, our data strongly supports continued efforts to develop a blood stage vaccine against malaria”.

In spite of the extreme variability, a vaccine containing only a few diverse AMA1 strains, the scientists hope, could provide universal coverage by redirecting the immune response towards conserved epitopes. The next steps will be to test human-use formulations of Quadvax in primate models and in a human blood-stage challenge model.

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Highlights of the DNA cutters: a short history of the restriction enzymes

In the early 1950’s, ‘host-controlled variation in bacterial viruses’ was reported as a non-hereditary phenomenon: one cycle of viral growth on certain bacterial hosts affected the ability of progeny virus to grow on other hosts by either restricting or enlarging their host range. Unlike mutation, this change was reversible, and one cycle of growth in the previous host returned the virus to its original form. These simple observations heralded the discovery of the endonuclease and methyltransferase activities of what are now termed Type I, II, III and IV DNA restriction-modification systems. The Type II restriction enzymes (e.g. EcoRI) gave rise to recombinant DNA technology that has transformed molecular biology and medicine. This review traces the discovery of restriction enzymes and their continuing impact on molecular biology and medicine.

Via Integrated DNA Technologies, Mel Melendrez-Vallard
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Using genetic algorithms to discover new nanostructured materials

Using genetic algorithms to discover new nanostructured materials | Laboratory Science |

Researchers at Columbia Engineering, led by Chemical Engineering Professors Venkat Venkatasubramanian and Sanat Kumar, have developed a new approach to designing novel nanostructured materials through an inverse design framework using genetic algorithms. The study, published in the October 28 edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is the first to demonstrate the application of this methodology to the design of self-assembled nanostructures, and shows the potential of machine learning and "big data" approaches embodied in the new Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering at Columbia.

"Our framework can help speed up the materials discovery process," says Venkatasubramanian, Samuel Ruben-Peter G. Viele Professor of Engineering, and co-author of the paper. "In a sense, we are leveraging how nature discovers new materials—the Darwinian model of evolution—by suitably marrying it with computational methods. It's Darwin on steroids!"


Using a genetic algorithm they developed, the researchers designed DNA-grafted particles that self-assembled into the crystalline structures they wanted. Theirs was an "inverse" way of doing research. In conventional research, colloidal particles grafted with single-stranded DNA are allowed to self-assemble, and then the resulting crystal structures are examined. "Although this Edisonian approach is useful for a posteriori understanding of the factors that govern assembly," notes Kumar, Chemical Engineering Department Chair and the study's co-author, "it doesn't allow us to a priori design these materials into desired structures. Our study addresses this design issue and presents an evolutionary optimization approach that was not only able to reproduce the original phase diagram detailing regions of known crystals, but also to elucidate previously unobserved structures."

Via Dr. Stefan Gruenwald
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Aggressive new HIV strain leads to AIDS more quickly

Aggressive new HIV strain leads to AIDS more quickly | Laboratory Science |
A new aggressive strain of HIV - a combination of two strains common in West Africa, where it has so far only been seen - appears to lead to AIDS more quickly than any other.
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Press Announcements > FDA warns consumers not to use muscle growth product

Press Announcements > FDA warns consumers not to use muscle growth product | Laboratory Science |

For Immediate Release: Dec. 23, 2013
Media Inquiries: Tara Goodin, 240-402-3157,
Consumer Inquiries: 888-INFO-FDA

En Español


FDA warns consumers not to use muscle growth product

Product marketed as a dietary supplement contains potentially harmful synthetic steroids

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is advising consumers to immediately stop using a product called Mass Destruction, marketed as a dietary supplement for muscle growth. The product is labeled to contain at least one synthetic anabolic steroid and has been linked to at least one reported serious illness.

The FDA was alerted by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services of a serious injury associated with use of Mass Destruction. The report described a previously healthy 28-year-old male with liver failure requiring transplant after several weeks of product use. Liver injury is generally known to be a possible outcome of using products that contain anabolic steroids and steroid-like substances. The product’s ingredients are undergoing further analysis by the FDA.

Mass Destruction is manufactured for Blunt Force Nutrition in Sims, N.C. and sold in retail stores, fitness gyms, and on the Internet. An investigation is underway to identify the product’s manufacturer. Consumers who suspect they are experiencing problems associated with Mass Destruction or other body building products should consult a health care professional, especially if they have experienced unexplained fatigue, abdominal or back pain, discolored urine, or any other unexplained changes in their health.

“Products marketed as supplements that contain anabolic steroids pose a real danger to consumers,” said Howard Sklamberg, director of the Office of Compliance in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “The FDA is committed to ensuring that products marketed as dietary supplements and vitamins do not pose harm to consumers.”  

In general, anabolic steroids may cause other serious long-term consequences in women, men and children. These include adverse effects on blood lipid levels; increased risk of heart attack and stroke; masculinization of women; shrinkage of the testicles; breast enlargement; infertility in males; and short stature in children.  

Health care professionals and consumers are encouraged to report adverse events that may be related to this or similar products to FDA’s MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting program by:


completing and submitting the report online; ordownloading and completing the form, then submitting it via fax at 800-FDA-0178. 

The FDA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, protects the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, and security of human and veterinary drugs, vaccines and other biological products for human use, and medical devices. The agency also is responsible for the safety and security of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, dietary supplements, products that give off electronic radiation, and for regulating tobacco products.

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From Triggers to Targets: Less-Explored Regions of DNA Reveal Uninvestigated Cancer Triggers

From Triggers to Targets: Less-Explored Regions of DNA Reveal Uninvestigated Cancer Triggers | Laboratory Science |

DNA, the key to our individuality and the unique traits that make us who we are, is also the key to many of our medical problems. However, due to technological limitations we have not been able to fully utilize the information stored in DNA until recently. Advancements in technology have made full genome sequencing faster and cheaper, making its information accessible to researchers across the nation. One such research team, Professor Mark Gerstein’s lab at Yale University, recently made a breakthrough by collaborating with groups that have extensive databases of human genomes. The joint teams discovered specific regions of the genome which act as signals for particular types of cancer. These regions are termed “cancer triggers.”

Via Integrated DNA Technologies
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Laboratory Stack

Laboratory Stack | Laboratory Science |
Laboratory Stack is an online archive of laboratory protocols, automation and an online source of laboratory product suppliers.
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CDC: More states reporting widespread flu

CDC: More states reporting widespread flu | Laboratory Science |
The number of states reporting widespread seasonal flu activity jumped from four to 10 last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.
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