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May 18, 2024

Science news in review: Nov. 5

By VICKY ZHU | November 5, 2023



A new drug can treat patients with the antimicrobial-resistant strain of N. gonorrhoeae, a bacteria that causes the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea. 

As we enter the November stretch of the semester, researchers around the world are also working hard to advance efforts that can be beneficial to human health. This week’s science news highlights endeavors to understand various health challenges and identify treatments to combat them. 

New drug for treating antimicrobial-resistant gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease. Patients are infected by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae at mucous membranes such as the uterus and fallopian tubes in females and the urethra in males.

Antimicrobial-resistant gonorrhea has become an urgent public health issue because the bacteria has developed resistance to nearly all existing antibiotic treatments. If untreatable, gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease in females, epididymitis in males and increased risk for infertility in both sexes. The infection can also spread from the reproductive system to other parts of the body through the bloodstream and lead to further complications. 

Fortunately, a recent large-scale phase 3 clinical trial identified a new drug to which the bacteria has not yet developed resistance. 

The study included patients from the U.S., the Netherlands, South Africa, Thailand and Belgium. They evaluated outcomes in patients taking the standard treatment ceftriaxone, along with azithromycin and a new drug called  zoliflodacin

A ceftriaxone-resistant bacteria strain has emerged around the world. Although no participants were infected with the ceftriaxone-resistant strain, the researchers found that zoliflodacin was equally as effective as the standard drugs in treating gonorrhea. 

The new drug can be the weapon against antimicrobial-resistant gonorrhea. However, given the fact that N. gonorrhoeae has developed a resistance to many drugs, regulating the new drug to prevent misuse is important to maintain its effectiveness in treating gonorrhea. 

The Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership, which is part of the research team, now has the license to sell zoliflodacin. The team hopes that the new drug can quickly become financially accessible, like previous drugs for gonorrhea. 

Mysterious severe eye infection in Nepal continues to present challenges

Seasonal hyperacute panuveitis (SHAPU) is an eye infection unique to Nepal that can lead to childhood blindness. First identified in 1979, SHAPU cases had been sparse until a relatively large outbreak in 2021. Doctors in Nepal are determined to unravel the mysteriousness of SHAPU in 2023

Results of lab cultures from infected eyes were inconclusive, suggesting multiple possible infectious agents. Geographical distribution also seemed scattered, failing to indicate a specific region that showed increased vulnerability to SHAPU. 

In 2020, anecdotal evidence gave Nepalese doctors a clue. Many patients mentioned encountering a white moth before the onset of SHAPU. This was the only statistically significant difference between SHAPU patients and healthy controls. 

The white moths may belong to the Gazalina genus, and their presence in the environment increases especially during the monsoon season, which coincides with the increase in SHAPU cases during post-monsoon time.

However, SHAPU cases in 2023 have not mentioned contact with the white moth, and the infection also occurs in the cornea, which doctors consider unusual. SHAPU continues to challenge Nepalese doctors. 

The doctors plan to uncover more about SHAPU through DNA sequencing to identify microorganisms present in the infection. However, their efforts are limited by the lack of funds and available lab resources in Nepal. Samples have to be sent to the U.S. for analysis, but this process is costly and prevents timely findings. 

Cytoplasmic lattices in oocytes store proteins important for embryonic development

Cytoplasmic lattices are cellular structures in oocytes whose functional role have remained enigmatic for the past few decades. Recently, a study uncovered that those structures act as storage and prevent premature degradation of proteins for early embryonic development. 

Oocytes, like other specialized cells in our body, break down and recycle unused cellular materials, including proteins. However, it is necessary for oocytes to selectively conserve materials that will have essential function after fertilization. 

Using mammalian cells, the researchers identified cytoplasmic lattices’ functional role in maintaining those important cellular materials for fertilization that can happen at any time to the oocyte in the fallopian tube. Cytoplasmic lattices are organized in a staggered manner, with a large surface area for storage of proteins. The lattices consist of filaments made from proteins such as PADI6 and SCMC whose disruption is associated with embryonic arrest in humans

The findings can have implications for in-vitro fertilization (IVF), an assisted reproductive treatment that can be costly and potentially have negative psychological effects on patients. Abnormality in genes that contribute to cytoplasmic lattices’ functional importance to early embryonic development can serve as a marker to advise couples against IVF early because those embryos would not survive. Therefore, patients can avoid the financial and psychological burdens of IVF. 

A drug mixture that delivers toxic chemicals can treat cancers

Antibody drug conjugates (ADCs) target cancerous cells and release toxic chemicals to disrupt their cell division process. Thomas Powles from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London showed that ADCs lengthened the survival time by two times in patients with bladder cancer compared to another treatment. 

This finding can not only benefit patients with bladder cancer but also other types of cancer. There are 14 ADCs that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and more than 100 ADCs are currently being evaluated through clinical trials.

ADCs consist of a protein that encourages the immune system to launch better attacks against tumors and an antibody that attaches to proteins expressed at higher rates in cancerous cells to disrupt cell division. 

However, ADCs are not perfect. Since ADCs travel through the bloodstream before they reach the target cancerous site, the toxic chemicals they carry might lead to issues such as low counts of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets, as well as lung, liver and nerve damage. Researchers will work to decrease the toxicity of ADC to mitigate those side effects. 

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