Cell therapy startup Immusoft lands deal with Takeda worth potentially more than $900M

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Immusoft CEO Sean Ainsworth. (Immusoft Photo)

Seattle-based cell therapy startup Immusoft will collaborate with pharma giant Takeda to develop treatments targeted to the central nervous system in a deal worth potentially more than $900 million.

Immusoft’s technology involves engineering a patient’s B cells to mass produce therapeutic proteins. These immune cells are good at pumping out large amounts of proteins, such as an enzyme missing in a particular condition.

“This advances our leadership position in B cells as biofactories for therapeutic protein delivery,” said Immusoft CEO Sean Ainsworth in a statement.

The new partnership will focus on delivering protein therapeutics across the blood-brain barrier to treat rare neurometabolic conditions. Under the agreement, Takeda has options to exclusively license programs at the preclinical stage and will take products to the clinic and through commercialization. Immusoft will receive research funding support and an undisclosed upfront payment, with total value of option fees and milestone payments of potentially more than $900 million.

Immusoft’s most advanced therapeutic program is designed to treat a rare enzyme deficiency disorder, Hurler syndrome. The company aims to file an investigational new drug application for the condition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by the end of the year, according to its website, a key step toward a clinical trial.

Ainsworth, a veteran biotech exec, has led the company since 2018 when he replaced Matthew Scholz, who founded the company in 2009 and is now CEO of Oisín Biotechnologies. Ainsworth previously founded gene therapy company RetroSense Therapeutics, which sold to Allergan in 2016 in a deal worth up to $555 million.

Immusoft closed a $33 million Series B round last year, noted FierceBiotech.

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Why this cephalopod expert is impressed with Seattle Kraken branding, as NHL team debuts on ice

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This east Pacific red octopus is in the same family as squid, cuttlefish — and kraken. (UW Laboratory of Comparative Systems Neuroscience Photo)

With Seattle Kraken hockey franchise making its NHL debut Tuesday, a lot of people have cephalopods on their mind.

That includes David Gire, an octopus researcher and neuroscientist at the University of Washington who also happens to play hockey.

“The Kraken really did a great job branding their team,” Gire told GeekWire on Monday.

A kraken is a giant sea monster with roots in Scandinavian folklore. The legends of the monstrous kraken likely originated with sightings of the giant squid, known to reach 43 feet in length.

David Gire. (University of Washington Photo)

And like the kraken, they are elusive. The first giant squid was only first filmed in its deep sea habitat in 2013. A specimen was shipped on ice from Alaska to the University of Washington in 2002. And nobody has been known to see one in Pacific Northwest waters, said Gire — at least to his knowledge.

So to understand giant squid, or kraken, it’s best to look at their more accessible cousins.

Gire studies creatures such as the giant Pacific octopus, which typically reaches 16 feet across at maturity and is found throughout the waters of Puget Sound.

Given his love for hockey, Gire can discern similarities with the kraken and the sport that few others can. The arms of the beast are key, he said. It’s where most of the brain is, with little ganglia (collection of neurons) that are located behind each sucker in the arm.

“It turns out the ganglia actually operate kind of semi-autonomously, so they’re controlling the local movement of the arm and they’re also sensing the stuff that’s around the arm,” Gire said. “They can smell, taste, and touch.”

And that’s similar to how a hockey team operates, said Gire, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Psychology.

“All these ganglia need to work together to control the arm, in a similar manner in which you could imagine a good hockey team would have to work together, where there are six independent people on the ice, all trying to work together to get to a goal,” he said. “Similar to the octopus arm, they’re going to coordinate their movements with each other. But they’re also all able to make their own decisions.”

If a hockey player is like a ganglion, a mini-brain, and the team is like an octopus arm — what about the coach?

“There’s no direct communication from the coach to a player during the game, it’s all kind of a low bandwidth indirect guidance to the team,” said Gire. “And that’s similar to how the octopus brain would interact with the arms.”

Gire explained that the central brain of an octopus has few connections to the arms, enabling only general guidance, such as which general direction to go in. “And so this kind of emergent pattern of a successful hockey team would look a lot like the emergent pattern of a coordinated cephalopod,” he said.

The Seattle Kraken sweater. (Seattle Kraken Image)

Gire appreciates that the Kraken have brought his favorite creatures a brief moment of fame. And he loves hockey.

As kids, Gire and his brothers participated in a contest to name the new San Jose hockey team. They entered the name of their soccer team, the Sharks, winning the contest along with hundreds of other kids who chose the same name. “We got to visit the guy who ran the team and meet some of the players. It was pretty cool. So it really got me into hockey,” Gire said. And he’s been playing ever since. He’s looking forward to attending a Sharks-Kraken game in the future.

Gire’s research has been the featured in documentaries on the deep, WNYC’s Science Friday, and at TEDxSeattle. He shared some more cephalopod science and lore with GeekWire below.

GeekWire: How does the octopus hunt?

David Gire: We’ve done a lot of work on how they do prey capture in the dark, because a lot of the local species do most of their hunting at night. And so what we found was that it seems like the the suckers will kind of initiate the attack on prey.

The octopuses also can can kind of coordinate their movement to approach, for example a fast moving shrimp, in a way that doesn’t scare it away. So they know it’s there, but they can’t see it, and yet they are able to move their arms kind of skillfully to surround it and eventually eat it.

One of the things that we study is just how the arms can coordinate so well when they’re actually operating as these kind of like semi-autonomous little brains that are all coordinating with each other without real direct, exact control of what each is doing.

Gire collects octopus specimens for research and then later releases them back into Puget Sound. (UW Photo)

GW: Why study the octopus mind? You liken it to an emergent system, in which the properties of the whole emerge from the parts.

Gire: I think it’s very similar to how our brains actually work…I think that you have this emergent pattern where if you have a lot of little semi-intelligent brains [octopus ganglia] interacting with each other, you can generate a much more complex behavior out of the whole system. I don’t think you would be able to put an electrode into an octopus and say that’s where it’s making its decision. And the disadvantage for us, when we study vertebrates like humans, is that all that kind of interesting chaos is happening inside the skull, where it’s really hard to see. But with the octopus, with two thirds of its neurons in its arms, the interesting chaos of the interactions between neural networks is happening out where you can see it [measure it with electrodes]. And so, they’re a really cool animal to study in that that sense.

What do you think it’s like being an octopus?

Gire: It’s one of one of those questions we like asking because it’s really makes you think about what it would be like to not be able to directly control your body. When I was talking about the distributed brain of the octopus, a colleague in the department who studies human vision said that if you want to think about what it would be like to be an octopus, think about the people who have a split brain. They [physicians] section the corpus callosum [which connects the two brain hemispheres], usually because of intractable epilepsy. And when they do that the two sides of the brain actually operate independently. So you almost have what the philosophers and philosophers of science might call actual split consciousness.

So octopuses have a divided consciousness?

Gire: There’s cognitive studies on people with this condition where it looks like there’s one personality and approach on one side of the brain and another on the other side. They are processing different kinds of information. Extend a human split brain out thousands of times, and you’re probably getting a little closer to what their world might be like.

Are cephalopods becoming more common worldwide because of climate change and ecosystem changes, as one study suggests?

Gire: I don’t think there’s a real definite way for us to know. But the thing that cephalopods have going for them is that they have a short generation time and they produce thousands of offspring. If you wanted to create an animal that could adapt quickly to a new environment, cephalopods are a good species for that. All of these offspring are going to have genetic variability to them, and so you can have some offspring that might have some kind of polymorphism [genetic change] to let them survive in a slightly changed environment. And so the population might just shift towards those guys. They are able to adapt quickly to environments and so that’s probably what would enable them to thrive as things change.

Other researchers have suggested that the jumbo Humboldt squid — also known as the red devil — is becoming more common in Pacific Northwest waters. Have you observed that?

Gire: As global warming has been progressing, unfortunately the range in which the Humboldts can operate starts to expand. I say unfortunately because these schools, when they come into an ecosystem, they’ll just eat everything.

They go up and down the east coast of California and down to Mexico, but as water temperatures change you can imagine they’ll start expanding northward, which is not so great. I haven’t heard of anything in the areas that we study, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their range is starting to expand.

Tell us about the jumbo squid.  

Gire: They have this really intense color display that they flash at each other. They’re always doing this in these giant schools. I’m not sure if anyone really understands what makes them do it. I think it’s a form of communication. The colors are just dramatic, it almost looks like they are fluorescent, it can span the range of colors.

What makes them so terrifying as a denizen of the deep is that they operate in these massive schools. You have thousands of individuals and this one giant group that travels together, and then during the day they go deep down in the ocean. And then at night they come up to the surface, kind of right out of a horror movie. They’re individually about the size of a human. Imagine a thousand voracious creatures, similar in size to a person, surrounding a boat and thrashing about in the water.

Will these squid attack divers?

Gire: Not that I’ve heard of…it’s not really in the diving lore.

How are octopuses different than squid?

Gire: They kind of started with the same toolbox, probably in some ancestral nautilus type thing. But then as they diversified and entered these ecological niches, they started to obtain their own kind of personality and traits that that really set them apart. The octopus, because it’s living on the ocean floor, uses camouflage to blend into its environment and prevent itself from being eaten by pretty much everything else in the ocean that really would like to eat it.

Squids are out in the open ocean where they can do some camouflaging, maybe with tracking to look lighter at the bottom and darker at the top. But they mainly are using this really extensive chromatophore [colored cell] system to communicate with each other. If one were more interested in rapid visual processing or social communication through visual display, studying the squid would be much better. But their arms have a very different level of complexity than the octopus, they seem to do much more simple motor control.

Do we know what squid are saying to each other with their color displays?

Gire: It’s really some of the squid and cuttlefish, they just have these amazing displays. They must be sending some kind of message to each other, but it’s hard to decode, probably also because they’re in these huge groups. It’s hard to know who’s talking to who.

And the giant Pacific octopus, what makes it different?

Gire: The giant Pacific octopus is very different than the Humboldt squid. It tends to live alone for pretty much its entire life, except to reproduce. They grow to be very big. The biggest ones that people have recorded were in the realm of a couple hundred kilograms, bigger than a person. They can grow to have arms that can span across a medium sized room, several meters across. They’re this giant species that evolved in the deep ocean, but then they radiated out and now live all around the Puget Sound.

Around where we study them, which is up at Friday Harbor Labs in the San Juan Islands, divers find them all the time. You can tell when you found where one lives because they have a little cave that they make into their house, and they’ll live in that for their whole life and then just go out and forage for food. But then they’re really messy eaters, so they just leave a pile of garbage basically in front of their house. If you’re diving, you know you’ve found a giant Pacific octopus den if you see a bunch of empty shells of crabs and shellfish just sitting in a pile next to a hole in the rock.

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Washington State U. lands $10M in effort to bolster nutrition and uptake of whole-grain foods

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WSU associate professor Kevin Murphy. (WSU Photo)

Washington State University has landed $10 million to increase the nutrient quality of whole-grain crops and help bring them to market. The funding, announced Wednesday, is part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to promote a resilient food and agricultural system.

The project involves more than 20 WSU researchers and three investigators from Johns Hopkins University, and bolsters WSU’s existing “Soil to Society” program. Researchers in the program will grow and test six crops: barley, wheat, peas, lentil, quinoa and buckwheat.

“In addition to research to better understand the interaction between soil, plants and human health, we want to develop flavorful products from each of these crops,” said Kevin Murphy, program director and WSU associate professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, in a statement.

“One of the keys to success is releasing new varieties and having farmers grow them. Another key is getting more nutritious and affordable foods out into the mainstream and into households,” added Murphy.

Project researchers plan to assess nutrient value of the crops and its relationship with growing conditions in test fields near Mount Vernon and Pullman, Wash., with the aim of breeding more nutritious, easily grown crops.

Health scientists will assess the effects of improved crops on the human body, including on the gut microbiome, the collection of microbes in the intestine. Epidemiologists and economists will take a broader view, modeling how increased whole grain-based food consumption will affect society.

Other components of the project include developing and taste testing recipes and other outreach measures.

The long-term goal of the project is to “create more nutritious, affordable and accessible whole grain-based foods,” according to a statement in the WSU grant proposal.

The news of the funding comes the same week that WSU also landed $125 million to help prevent pandemics by surveying and analyzing animal viruses that have the potential to leap to humans.

Other partners in the new Soil to Society project include the U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Council, Washington Grain Commission, Ardent Mills, Rebellyous Foods, WSDA Regional Markets, Patagonia Provisions, and the King Arthur Baking Company.

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Preventing the next pandemic: WSU will lead $125M global project to find, analyze animal viruses

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WSU researchers Tom Kawula (right), Kariuki Njenga (center), and colleagues work on a project to test for the MERS-COV virus. (WSU Photo)

Washington State University this week launched a new $125 million program to collect and analyze animal viruses with the aim of preventing the next pandemic. The program is funded with an award from the U.S. Agency for International Development and includes researchers at the University of Washington and the Seattle-based nonprofit PATH.

The project will partner with up to 12 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to build up lab capacity for surveillance of animal viruses that have the potential to “spillover” into humans and cause disease.

“I’m excited about this potential of getting better at predicting viral spillover before there’s a pandemic,” Tom Kawula, director of WSU’s Allen School for Global Health, told GeekWire in an interview. “Equally exciting to me is this capacity building in countries.”

The project will survey unknown animal viruses in wildlife and domesticated animals from three viral families — coronaviruses, filoviruses (which includes Ebola), and paramyxoviruses (which are in the same family as the measles and Nipah viruses).

The project will emphasize safety. “We will build in the safe handling of samples, that is a huge part of the project,” said Kawula. Researchers will not be working in the lab with the live viruses and will kill them as part of the collection process.

Animals host a vast unknown reservoir of viruses, and occasionally one of them can spark an epidemic in humans. Ebola likely originated with bats, HIV-1 with chimpanzees, and the 2002 SARS virus likely journeyed from bats to civets to humans.

The origins of the virus that causes COVID-19 are still murky and debated by scientists. Many say an animal origin is most likely. But some say there is also a possibility that the virus may have originated as an unintentional accident in a lab studying bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, China, and that scientists don’t have enough information yet to know whether a lab or direct animal origin is more likely.

The debate over the origins of current pandemic has highlighted the need for greater transparency and control over lab experiments on whole, living animal viruses — such as the cultivation of such viruses in human cells. Such risky experiments are not going to be performed in the new program, emphasized Kawula, who is involved in coordinating the project.

Instead, researchers will detect the viruses through DNA analysis, and perform experiments in the lab on noninfectious viral components to assess the potential for human infection. For instance, researchers will assess viral proteins in isolation to see how well they stick to human cells.

Ultimately as the team gathers more information, scientists will be better able to predict the potential to infect humans based on DNA sequence and lab findings. “Part of this will be developing some of those algorithms and the data analysis to try and be more predictive about those that have potential for spillover into the human population,” said Kawula.

And that information could lead to ways to stop such spillover, for instance through the design of ready-to-go vaccines or drugs.

The team aims to collect more than 800,000 samples in the five years of the project, called Discovery & Exploration of Emerging Pathogens – Viral Zoonoses, or DEEP VZN. The project is expected to yield 8,000 to 12,000 novel viruses for analysis.

The program has parallels with another USAID-funded program, STOP Spillover, which assesses risk factors for animal-to-human disease transmission and implements interventions to stop it.

Kawula and other researchers in the program have experience building up lab capacity and training researchers in other countries, a focus of WSU’s Allen School for Global Health. For example, Kawula’s research group works with partners in northern Kenya to study the evolution of MERS coronaviruses in camels.

DEEP VZN will select partner sites outside the U.S. based on factors such as commitment to data sharing and whether there are lots of interactions between humans and animals in the region. Other partners for the project include Washington University in St. Louis and the nonprofit FHI 360.

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Allen Institute helps release comprehensive atlas of mammalian brain region

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Digital reconstruction of human neurons in slice of brain tissue. (Allen Institute Image)

Scientists have released a trove of research comparing, cell by cell, a key region of the brains of humans, monkeys and mice. Scientists at Seattle’s Allen Institute had a central role in the 17 studies, published today in the international journal Nature.

The data provides the most comprehensive and detailed atlas of any part of the mammalian brain ever published.

The map of brain cells in the primary motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement, involved hundreds of researchers collaborating as part of the BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network (BICCN) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The Allen Institute for Brain Science leads three of the nine large grants funded in the project.

“The hope with these studies is that by making this fundamental classification of cell types, we can lay the groundwork for understanding the cellular basis of disease,” said Ed Lein, a senior investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and lead investigator in a statement. Such diseases include amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and other conditions involving the degeneration of neurons that control movement.

Previous studies from the Allen Institute include a high-resolution 3-D map showing the connections between 200,000 cells in a clump of mouse brain involved in vision, about as big as a grain of sand.

The new work examines brain cells inside and out. Scientists assessed factors such as cell shape, which genes are turned on and off, the electrical properties of the cells and how they are connected to each other.

Scientists at the Allen Institute for Brain Science led or co-led six of the published studies and played a role in three others. Key findings and outcomes from research led by the Allen investigators include:

  • Most motor cortex brain cells have similar counterparts across all three species. But there are key differences. For instance, humans have more than twice as many neurons involved in excitatory signals than mice.
  • The second and third layers of the six-layered neocortex are more complex in humans and other primates, compared to rodents. The region is larger and contains a larger diversity of cells in primates.
  • The researchers provided a complete three-dimensional brain-wide reconstruction of 1,700 neurons in the mouse brain.
  • Scientists also yielded information on cell types in the mouse primary motor cortex, examining the suite of genes expressed in about 500,000 neurons and other brain cells.
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Icosavax co-founder and UW researcher Neil King talks vaccine development in the ‘digital era’

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University of Washington vaccine researcher and Icosavax co-founder Neil King at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle on Tuesday. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

We are now in the “digital era” of vaccine development, University of Washington researcher Neil King said at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle on Tuesday.

King talked about how to prevent the next pandemic and also discussed the development of experimental vaccines for COVID-19, flu and other viruses based on research from the UW’s Institute for Protein Design, where he is an assistant professor.

“Ultimately I think computational protein design, in combination with technologies both old and new, is going to allow us to make vaccines that are safer and more effective against targets that have historically been really difficult,” said King, who co-founded the vaccine company Icosavax, which went public this summer. Icosavax is moving forward with phase 1 and 2 clinical trials for a COVID-19 shot based on IPD research.

King’s lab deploys computational methods to predict how proteins behave and fold into specific shapes.

Icosavax creates virus-like particles with technology licensed from the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design. (Icosavax Photo)

“That gives us the ability to make up scaffolds of different sizes and shapes and symmetries and test which one works best,” he said. After landing on a design, the researchers engineer protein scaffolds with viral proteins stuck to them. That is the basis of their experimental vaccines.

“We find when we attach viral and bacterial proteins to these scaffolds, just as we hypothesize, they instruct the immune system to make higher levels of protective antibodies, and that makes a more potent vaccine,” said King.

Icosavax’s COVID-19 vaccine candidates are studded with 60 copies of the spike protein on a spherical scaffold. The experimental vaccine is shelf-stable, key for nimble global distribution. Icosavax is also conducting trials for a shot against respiratory syncytial virus, which causes pneumonia in infants and the elderly.

The experimental flu vaccine contains proteins from four flu viruses on a single particle. It’s designed to prompt an exceptionally strong immune response to potentially “protect not only against this year’s flu virus, but next year, too, and the years after that,” said King. Developing such a “universal” flu vaccine has long been a goal of vaccine developers, and has the potential to supplant the annual cycle of flu shot manufacture to the strains that arise each year. The shot is now moving forward into clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health.

(GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

King talked about how far vaccine development has come. For much of the 20th century, vaccines were made from whole viruses or bacteria, typically highly weakened versions of microbes that did not cause infection but protected from disease. In the 1980’s, researchers began to make vaccines with single viral or bacterial proteins or parts of proteins, such as improved vaccines for whooping cough and hepatitis C.

Today, the RNA-based COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer typify the “digital” era, he said. These shots are built from RNA, which disappears from the body shortly after instructing the manufacture of a protein similar to one in the virus, prompting an immune response. And that design makes for nimble development. The first clinical trials for the RNA vaccines were underway last year barely two months after the sequence of the COVID-19 virus was published in early January.

In the question and answer period after his power talk, King explored the possibility of making a broad vaccine against multiple coronavirus strains.

One approach is to stud a scaffold with proteins picked from multiple strains, much like King’s group is doing with the flu. Research in King’s lab and that of other scientists is currently laying the early groundwork for “universal” coronavirus vaccines.

“Ideally, you prevent the next pandemic, rather than responding to it,” said King.

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Misinformation and vaccines: How public health messaging and experts can help curb distrust

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Washington State Department of Health’s Care-A-Van vaccinated people in Vancouver, Wash. last week. (DOH Photo)

When Howard Frumkin first started inviting speakers for a meeting held last week on the effects of the pandemic, he thought it would be mostly over.

“When we planned this symposium a year ago, we thought we would be talking about the pandemic in the past tense at this point,” said Frumkin at the meeting, held last week online by the Washington Academy of Sciences.

University of Washington emeritus professor Howard Frumkin. (UW Photo)

He was hopeful that the virus would now be on the wane as vaccinations took hold. “But it hasn’t worked out that way,” said Frumkin, professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Health, and former dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.

Frumkin joined state officials, misinformation researchers, and journalists at the symposium, “COVID-19: Science and Society.” And though speakers focused on different topics, each circled back to the ongoing toll of the virus amidst the slow uptake of vaccines.

‘How do we reckon with the fact that some members of our society are very skeptical about science to the point of disbelieving it?” asked Frumkin. “We are surrounded by a lot of disinformation, and how do we deal with that?”

Social media is rife with misinformation and anti-vaccination material couched as science, and large swaths of the public are susceptible. Speakers discussed the spread of anti-vaccination messages, community distrust, and solutions such as in-person engagement.

Washington’s Department of Health Director Umair Shah. (DOH Photo)

“Misinformation and mistrust is a real critical piece of this,” said Umair Shah, Washington state’s secretary of health. More than 1,000 people in the state were admitted to hospitals for COVID-19 during the week ending Sept. 26. Close to 70% of Washingtonians are fully vaccinated, but the vast majority of the hospitalized are not.

In Seattle’s King County, for instance, people who are not vaccinated are 41 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19. The state’s latest wave of infections may be cresting, but strained hospitals face an uncertain winter. 

“Misinformation seems to go further,” said Shah. “And when you are fighting it with Nicki Minaj and other popular figures in the in the media, I think it really becomes challenging.”

Shah is referring to Minaj’s recent tweet to her almost 23 million followers that her cousin’s friend’s testicles swelled and he became impotent after a COVID-19 shot, leading health officials to swiftly debunk her tweet.

COVID-19 hospital admission rates in Washington State.  (DOH Graph)

Social media companies have taken steps to combat misinformation. Twitter and YouTube, for instance, have banned or suspended some notable purveyors of vaccine conspiracy theories.

But a lot of material gets through. Despite being rebuked weeks ago by U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Amazon still sells material such as “The truth about COVID-19,” a book by Joseph Mercola, a supplements seller with a degree in osteopathic medicine. He’s been named a top spreader of coronavirus misinformation, and YouTube recently removed his channel.

University of Washington Center for an Informed Public Director Jevin West. (UW Photo)

“The way that these systems are set up and the objectives that these algorithms are trying to solve creates more polarization, less diversified ideas and certainly less common understanding of even basic facts,” said Jevin West, director of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. And they are a major driver of vaccine misinformation, he said.

Such material reaches groups of people with poor science literacy, or with distrust of health systems because of historical abuse or inequities, said speakers.

“I find myself sometimes dispirited by the economic incentive that is in place to pick on vulnerable communities that have been victimized in so many ways,” said Stephan Blanford, executive director of the Children’s Alliance. “This is just another manifestation of that victimization.”

Close to 80% of eligible people are fully vaccinated in King County, but only 68% of Hispanic and Black people. Vaccination also varies regionally, with rates in King County double that of eastern Washington’s Stevens County. Rural Americans are twice as likely to die from COVID-19.

“The problem we have is that in certain communities you have 80-to-90% uptake and others are at 30-to-40%,” said Umair Shah, the state’s secretary of health. “That’s the biggest challenge that we have.”

Despite the prevalence of misinformation, experts still have sway, said West. Early findings from his group suggest that they can “gain a little more traction” in social media exchanges than other voices.

“Everyone seems to cite science. That’s a good thing, that there’s still levels of trust in science that are relatively high compared to other institutions,” said West.

Children’s Alliance Executive Director Stephan Blanford. (Children’s Alliance Photo)

The flip side of such trust is that providers of misinformation cherry pick sources, finding outliers who may have fancy degrees but views far outside scientific consensus, said West.

West points to a video released last year touting COVID-19 conspiracy theories, “Plandemic,” featuring a discredited and fired former researcher at the University of Nevada. The video was viewed more than 8 million times the week it was released.

YouTube removed the video, but West’s group found they could still access it through ads. “And so we let Google know, and they said ‘oops’ and they took it down.”

“This is why researchers and scientists really have to engage with the public and with the platforms that are governing a lot of the conversations,” said West. “Because they are sort of algorithmically at the front door of these conversations.”

Experts can have an effect not only on social media but through individual conversations, he said. He noted that amidst the noise on social media, scientists have delivered highly effective and safe vaccines with urgency.

“You can’t blame people for not knowing all of these things. They’re running businesses and they’re taking care of their kids and they don’t have time. Most people don’t know what’s in the Cheetos that they eat, let alone what’s going into vaccines,” said West.

“We need to invest in that dialogue and have a forum where people can honestly ask questions and not be ridiculed.” He added: “The easiest thing that we can do is just ask who’s telling you this, how do they know it and what’s in it for them.”

New York Times science reporter Apoorva Mandavilli receiving her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. (Twitter Photo via @apoorva_nyc)

“I think it’s easy to bash the public and say oh, they just don’t understand science,” said New York Times science journalist Apoorva Mandavilli, who spoke about covering the pandemic. But there are broader systemic issues, she said.

Public health messaging has been weak for years, so people in the U.S. were less prepared for concepts like how vaccines protect the people around you, she said. She noted that many countries in Asia had lived through earlier outbreaks such as SARS, and more readily adapted to masking and other measures.

Long before the first shots went into arms, people who study the anti-vaccination movement anticipated broad vaccination resistance. “They were shouting from the rooftops, ‘This is going to be bad,’” said Mandavilli. But many health officials were slow to prepare. And they are facing well-funded anti-vaccination groups.

Mercola, for example, has donated millions of dollars to the National Vaccine Information Center, one of several anti-vaccination advocacy groups. Mercola.com and the center also received loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Related: We’ll explore both vaccines and misinformation during sessions at the GeekWire Summit on Oct. 4-5. Find details and tickets here.

“These people are incredibly organized, incredibly good at what they do, because their messages are really easy and simple and take root, whereas science complicated and nuanced,” said Mandavilli.

“As soon as this pandemic started, some of those groups really sprang into action,” she said. Layered on that was a political divide stoked by the election. “It was just really a tinderbox.”

The pandemic hit a populace poorly equipped to evaluate a shifting landscape of advice as scientists scrambled to figure out the new virus, contributing to polarized responses to public health measures. “Our education system doesn’t really train people very well in science or to understand how the scientific process works,” Mandavilli said. “How scientists get to where they get to.”

Mandavilli suggested that educators focus more on teaching the scientific process, how science unfolds through the generation and testing of hypothesis. “I think people could apply that understanding to just about any controversial science topic,” she said.

Percent of eligible people in Washington who are fully vaccinated, by county. (CDC Graphic)

New mandates are coming on line, such as Washington’s vaccine requirement for health care workers and state employees.

Lisa Brown, director of the Washington State Department of Commerce, shared her perspective. She did not specifically speak about vaccines, but she viewed mandates through her lens as an economist.

In general, “most people are thinking about what their perceived costs and benefits are to making those decisions,” said Brown. “And even if we in the public sector create a mandate to do something, we haven’t taken away that framework if we’ve only changed the way in which people will then measure those costs and benefits.”

Washington’s Commerce director Lisa Brown. (Wash. state Photo)

People who earlier spurned a shot or had trouble accessing one are still coming in to get protected. After a huge spike in the spring, vaccination rates in the U.S. increased slightly again as the Delta variant took hold.

And while some people may never change their mind, many have.

One third of people in a recent study who had expressed vaccine hesitancy in 2020 became vaccinated early the next year. “There is a clear public health opportunity to convert higher vaccine willingness into successfully delivered vaccinations,” noted the researchers in the report, from Emory University and Georgia State University in Atlanta.

In Washington, there has been a 25% increase since mid-August in the number of people getting their first shots.

That’s in line with a survey released Wednesday, showing an increase in people in the U.S. getting a shot this summer out of concern for the Delta variant. More Latinos have been getting vaccinated — but the survey also found a widening national gap in vaccine status dependent on political party.

While discussion at the symposium centered on the effects of social media on vaccine hesitancy, speakers did not explore the effects of commentators at traditional news outlets such as Fox News. Meanwhile, death rates in the U.S. are eight times higher than in other high-income countries, according to a recent analysis by The Economist.

“We’re still dealing with the many questions at the interface of science and our social and political responses to the pandemic,” said Frumkin.

Number of vaccine doses administered daily in the U.S. An average of about 595,000 shots per day were administered for the week ending Sept. 22. (CDC Chart)

100% of cases assessed for variants in Washington are from the highly infectious Delta virus, giving extra urgency to the state’s vaccination efforts.

After winding down mass vaccination sites earlier this year, Washington’s public health officials began working on ways to reach communities and individuals who still need shots.

“We have got to be in the world of engagement and communications and being a part of the very community that looks to us for that science guidance,” said Shah.

In July, the department launched Care Connect, a program to engage medical providers to champion vaccinations, “which they have been doing in droves across the state,” said Shah.

Related: How disparities for women and minorities widened during the pandemic. 

The department also delivers vaccines to smaller groups like churches and community centers through its Care-a-Van program. As part of the service, the DOH assesses if trusted community members are engaged with the event.

That type of engagement is critical, said Blanford. In some communities, “there’s a huge lack of confidence and that stems from long history of mistrust of Western medicine,” he said. But such mistrust can be countered by deep social networks, he said: “Trusted advisors and advocates, people who’ve been in that community for a long time and can speak to the value of getting the shot and moving on with your lives.”

In the last few months, health department employees have been working days, nights, weekends and holidays, said Shah. DOH’s vaccination work continues on top of other initiatives, such as WA Notify, a privacy-preserving app downloaded by 40% of the state’s cell phone users that can let them know if they’ve been exposed.

Earlier this month, the DOH Care-a-Van partnered with the King County’s Afghan Health Initiative to vaccinate newly-arrived refugees. And this week the van makes stops in Chewelah and other towns in eastern Washington with low vaccination rates.

GeekWire also covered other topics at the meeting in the following stories:

Editor’s note: We’ll explore both vaccines and misinformation during two separate sessions at the GeekWire Summit on Oct. 4-5. Find details and tickets here.

Editor’s note: Charlotte Schubert worked with Mandavilli at Nature Medicine from 2003 to 2007.

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Seattle healthcare data startup Truveta lands investment from Microsoft and forms partnership

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Truveta CEO Terry Myerson. (Truveta Photo)

Seattle-based Truveta will leverage Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform to analyze health data under a new partnership with the software giant announced Wednesday.

Microsoft is also investing an undisclosed amount in Truveta, which emerged from stealth mode last year and already has more than 100 employees.

Truveta has access to health data representing 15% of the U.S. through its 17 healthcare system members. Microsoft and Truveta will work together to build up Truveta’s customer base and health system membership.

Truveta’s CEO is Terry Myerson, a former Microsoft executive who led the company’s Windows and Devices Group before departing in 2018 after a 21-year career at the tech giant.

“He understands the company, he understands the DNA, he understands the values,” said Tom McGuinness, Microsoft’s corporate vice president, global healthcare and life sciences, in an interview with GeekWire. “There’s a deep embedded trust in our business model alignment.”

Tom McGuinness, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of global healthcare and life sciences. (Microsoft Photo)

The partnership comes on the heels of a $95 million investment in Truveta in July by its healthcare partners. These include Providence, the largest health system in Washington state, which was involved in forming the company.

Truveta pools de-identified data from these providers, which cover most states and a racially and ethnically diverse population.

Health data is in demand by medical providers, as well as drug companies and academic researchers developing new tools and treatments. Linking treatments with outcomes and underlying health can enable researchers to better understand the effectiveness of health interventions.

Ultimately, Truveta will enable researchers to “learn how to treat patients better and help families make more informed decisions about their care,” Myerson told GeekWire. Truveta will not use the data for targeted advertising to patients or physicians.

The company also aims to build up capabilities for analyzing data in real-time. The pandemic highlighted the need for such an approach, which can enable researchers to rapidly identify which interventions work most effectively.

Researchers within Truveta’s member health systems are beginning to query the datasets, which may be ready for wider customer use within months.

McGuinness said Truveta’s data will create value in three ways. “First, clinicians are going to be able to make better decisions for their patients with existing therapies. Second, it’s going to enable pharmaceutical firms to develop better therapies for tomorrow,” said McGuinness. “Finally, it’s going to support payers to make sure that reimbursement is really helping ensure that the strongest healthcare outcomes can be brought to their members.”

Truveta’s healthcare partners. (Truveta Image)

Truveta has a strong emphasis on privacy and it de-identifies data in accordance with guidelines issued by the U.S. government. “It’s a massive amount of data, and a massive responsibility,” said Myerson.

The data will be stored on Microsoft’s cloud platform in partnership with Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare. That service combines Microsoft’s cloud services, like Microsoft 365, Teams, and Azure, with components designed for the healthcare industry.

The Microsoft platform provides flexibility and scalability of storage, but also advanced analytic and developer tools, said McGuinness, who joined the tech giant last year after a stint as president and CEO of GE Healthcare Imaging. Microsoft’s existing customers include Humana, Allscripts, Premera Blue Cross, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, and the pharmaceutical company Novartis.

“AI is technology’s most important priority, and healthcare is its most important application,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a video. “There is an incredible opportunity to convert the massive amount of health data generated each day into insights for researchers, clinicians, and most importantly patients.”

The software giant also has the outlook to help Truveta grow, said Myerson. Microsoft is a “partner with global reach and global thoughts on security audits, and global thoughts on privacy,” he said. That will help Truveta build up its international presence.

“Truveta has momentum in the United States,” added Myerson. But by signing up new healthcare partners in the rest of word, the company can provide more complete datasets on human health. “This is a global opportunity. We want to include the full diversity of the planet.”

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Fred Hutch’s Trevor Bedford receives ‘genius grant’ for work on COVID and other viruses

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Trevor Bedford, infectious disease scientist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. (Photo used with permission from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

In the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we desperately flailed for reliable information to comprehend what had previously been largely unimaginable, Seattle’s Trevor Bedford was a rare source of insight. Bedford, an infectious disease specialist with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, offered up-to-the-minute, science-based results widely shared on Twitter and through fast-breaking publications.

In recognition of his innovative work on COVID and other diseases, Bedford on Tuesday was named one of this year’s 25 MacArthur Fellows. The so-called MacArthur “genius grants” provide a recipient $625,000 in funding over five years to spend as they see fit.

“I’m immensely honored and moved to receive this recognition from the MacArthur Foundation,” Bedford said in a statement. “It’s been a trying and tragic 20 months for the world, but the scientific response to the pandemic has been unparalleled. I’m proud to have been able to play a role.”

When COVID struck, Bedford was part of the Seattle Flu Study, an effort to track seasonal flu. The program quickly began combing through samples searching for this new coronavirus. Using complex statistical methods, Bedford and colleagues zeroed in on evolutionary changes in the virus’ RNA code.

Based on what they found, Bedford in the first days of March 2020 warned that there were hundreds — if not more than a thousand — infected people in Washington, many of whom were asymptomatic. At the time, only 18 COVID cases had been confirmed in the state, which was home to the first known U.S. cases. The researchers cautioned that the number of infections were ballooning, with the cases doubling roughly every six days.

Not only was the work challenging from a research perspective, but Bedford and fellow researchers faced regulatory challenges as well. Early in the pandemic, federal and state regulators blocked the Seattle Flu Study’s efforts, citing various regulations — and Bedford vented his frustrations on Twitter.

“The underlying rationale for federal regulation of diagnostic assays is undisputed, but it was absolutely maddening trying to find a solution that would allow use of our high-throughput research assay for #COVID19 testing through much of Feb,” Bedford tweeted on March 10, 2020.

The New York Times covered the saga and the potential public health harm that was caused by preventing the testing.

Bedford, who is an associate professor in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease, Public Health Sciences and Human Biology Divisions at Fred Hutch, and his colleagues eventually gained permission to continue with their work under revised guidelines.

The researchers ultimately wound up interpreting SARS-CoV-2 genomic data for public health departments in Washington and other states, as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and others.

On Twitter Tuesday, Bedford shared his gratitude for the MacArthur Foundation’s recognition. “That said, it’s difficult for me to sort out my feelings about these awards, as they are so intertwined with the pandemic,” he added. “It feels perhaps uncomfortable to be professionally rewarded for doing something that felt like a moral imperative.”

In a series of tweets posted on March 2, 2010, Bedford shared initial projections on COVID’s spread.

In addition to working as a co-investigator on the Seattle Flu Study, Bedford also co-developed the open-source platform Nextstrain. The tool creates real-time views of viral phylogenetics, or virus “family trees.”

“Trevor is a gifted, creative scientist and communicator. He has humbly taken center stage as a trusted global leader during the COVID-19 pandemic and as a deep thinker in viral phylodynamics and genomic epidemiology,” Julie McElrath, a senior vice president and director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at Fred Hutch, said in a statement.

“His commitment to open science, public health and diversity have an impact on our daily lives,” she said, “and on our future preparedness against emerging pathogens.”

A colleague at the Institute for Disease Modeling, which is part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Division, offered Bedford his congratulations via Twitter.

That’s why I’m unreservedly happy for you and appreciative of @macfound for recognizing you. I’ve only ever seen you act to help the living, and never to exploit the dead. The independence of this reward recognizes your respect for the moral imperative. Your hands are clean,” principal research scientist Mike Famulare wrote.

In addition to Tuesday’s award, Bedford recently was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, a significant honor in biomedical research. Bedford said he was “completely overwhelmed” by the double dose of recognition. “Flexible funding with a multi-year commitment is the professional scientist’s ream,” he tweeted.

A second Washington state resident received a MacArthur grant: Seattle poet and translator Don Mee Choi. The MacArthur Foundation said Choi was recognized for “bearing witness to the effects of military violence and U.S. imperialism on the civilians of the Korean Peninsula.” Choi is an instructor at Renton Technical College.

Joshua Miele, a principal accessibility researcher at Amazon Lab126 in Sunnyvale, Calif., also was named a MacArthur Fellow. Miele is a blind adaptive technology designer whose work has included developing Braille compatibility with Amazon Fire tablets, and creating a “Show and Tell” feature on camera-enabled Echo devices for identifying pantry and food items.

Past MacArthur Fellows with Washington state connections include criminal justice reformer Lisa Daugaard (2019), University of Washington psychologist Kristina Olson (2018), computer scientist Shwetak Patel (2011), poet Heather McHugh (2009) and Hutch scientist Mark Roth, a 2007 fellow who studies metabolic hibernation and was featured this year on GeekWire’s Health Tech Podcast.

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Amazon Web Services launches $40M initiative that aims to reduce health inequities

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Max Peterson. (Amazon Photo)

Amazon Web Services will provide $40 million in credits and technical support over three years for organizations working to enhance health and reduce inequities in care.

“Applying modern technology to health systems is not a silver bullet to ending health inequity,” said Max Peterson, Amazon’s vice president of worldwide public sector at AWS, in a statement. “But it can speed health research and innovation, level the playing field for accessing care, help deliver trusted information to people when and where they need it, streamline supply chains, and more.”

The new global program, announced Monday, will operate in parallel to another launched in early 2020 to support COVID-19 diagnostics research and development. AWS has supported 87 organizations in 17 countries through that program, the AWS Diagnostic Development Initiative.

Organizations that operate in three key areas are invited to apply to the new initiative:

  • “Increasing access to health services for underserved communities.” Organizations in this area may receive support for efforts to develop tools to reach marginalized communities through telehealth and telemedicine, including through remote patient monitoring.
  • “Addressing social determinants of health.” AWS will support projects that use technology to address health outcomes influenced by broader social, economic and environmental factors.
  • “Leveraging data to promote more equitable and inclusive systems of care.” National and global health statistics reports often do not provide complete data on diverse groups, contributing to inequities. AWS will support projects that address this gap.
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