Two New Approaches to Treating COVID-19

There’s a lot of very cool immunology research being done right now in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Anti-virals and vaccines top the list for many. But there are significant problems with each — anti-virals have not proven to be wonder drugs, offering only modest help for those already seriously ill, and an effective vaccine is still months or years away. Vaccines may have to be tailored to the age and immune status of various groups, just the way flu vaccines are. But there are other ways of thinking about minimizing both mortality (deaths) and morbidity (illnesses).

Coronavirus and cancer hijack the same parts in human cells to spread – and our team identified existing cancer drugs that could fight COVID-19

This is from Nevan Krogan, Professor and Director of Quantitative Biosciences Institute & Senior Investigator at the Gladstone Institutes, University of California, San Francisco

Kinases are proteins found in every cell of our body. There are 518 human kinases, and they act as major control hubs for virtually all processes in the body. They are able to add a small marker – a process called phosphorylation – to other proteins and thus change how, if and when a phosphorylated protein can do its work. Many cancers are caused by overactive kinases leading to uncontrolled cell growth, and drugs that slow kinases down can be highly effective at treating cancer.

Kinases are also fairly easy to target with drugs because of how they add phosphorylation markers to proteins. Researchers have developed a huge number of drugs, particularly cancer drugs, that work by essentially throwing a wrench into the mechanics of specific kinases in order to stop cell growth.

Viruses also change the function of cellular machinery – albeit on purpose – but instead of causing cell growth, the machinery is repurposed to produce more viruses. Not surprisingly, viruses take control over many kinases to do this.

It is impossible to actually see which kinases are activated at any time, but since each kinase can attach phosphorylation markers to only a few specific proteins, researchers can look at the phosphorylated proteins to determine what kinases are active at any time.

Some of the more interesting ones include Casein Kinase 2, which is involved in controlling how a cell is shaped. We also identified several kinases that work together in what is called the p38/MAPK signaling pathway. This pathway responds to and controls our body’s inflammation reaction. It is possible these kinases could be involved in the cytokine storm – a dangerous immune system overreaction – that some patients with severe COVID-19 experience.

While identifying the kinases involved in SARS-CoV-2 replication, we were also able to learn a lot about how the virus changes our bodies. For example, CK2 becomes much more active during the course of coronavirus infection and causes the growth of little tubes that extend from the surface of the cell. Under a microscope, it looks as if the cell has a full head of hair. We think SARS-CoV-2 might be using these long cell outgrowths – called filopodia – as viral highways to get new viruses closer to neighboring cells, thereby making infection easier.

There are 87 existing drugs that change the kinase-controlled pathways used by the coronavirus. Most of these drugs are already approved for human use or are currently in clinical trials to treat cancer, and could be quickly repurposed to treat COVID-19 patients.*

Continue reading “Two New Approaches to Treating COVID-19”

Marine Life Thrives at Mote Aquarium in Sarasota, FL

Everyone who knows me knows how I feel about wildlife and nature. I don’t support old-fashioned zoos that keep animals in cages, but I do support wildlife conservation efforts and study. I completely support organizations like the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota. The Mote says,

We are guardians of the sea and all living things that depend upon it

It’s a wonderful place, and they’ve put good procedures in place to ensure that visitors, staff, and resident sealife can continue safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitors are allowed as long as they wear masks and follow safety procedures. Many “hands on” experiences are not possible at this time, but as Dr. Oliver Sacks pointed out to his friend Shane Fistell in one of the videos we used to watch in class, “We see with the eyes, but sometimes we see with the hands.” Right now for everyone’s safety, it’s important to keep “seeing with the eyes,” especially when we’re near living creatures who might get sick if we touch them.

Just like people, animals have personalities, and the personalities at Mote Aquarium are remarkable. One of the first animals I met while visiting there was a sprightly small turtle.

Very calm and interested, he swam for a bit, then settled back on a rock to watch the interesting, strange creatures peering into his home.

Here’s a link to the Manatee Cam so you can see what a great environment the Mote provides.

I’ve seen several manatee since we moved to Florida, but the Mote manatee, Hugh and Buffett, are “movie stars” compared to wild manatee. Their skin and tails are spotless and perfect. In the wild, manatee are covered by all manner of sea creatures and usually as well as sadly, many scars. Despite laws to protect them and lots of education, they are still injured by boating mishaps. They still suffer because of boating destruction of the sea grass they eat.

This is my best manatee picture from the aquarium – is it Hugh or Buffett – I don’t know!

I also had an interesting visit with one of the sea turtles that lives at the aquarium. They care for several sea turtles, all of which are rescues and which have different injuries or other circumstances that mean they won’t be able to safely return to the wild. Again, as everyone who knows me knows, sea turtles are among my favorite living creatures. One of the high points of my life was swimming alongside of one while snorkeling in Kauai.

So, here are two of the sea turtles at the Mote Aquarium, and the one on the right took an interest in me. Shortly after I took this picture, she took a swim around the tank, fixed me in her gaze, and swam swiftly back in my direction, at the last moment slapping the water with her right fin. Not only did she achieve a mighty splash, getting me and my phone wet, I’m certain she was laughing heartily in her turtle way at her excellent trick.

I understand that some people won’t like this picture, but I also have some friends who will love it. These are three Southern toads, who should be distinguished from the cane toad, which is an invasive species in South Florida. These three pals were just hanging out taking it easy when we walked by.

Have you ever seen such a large hermit crab? I haven’t, either, but a note – I’ve seen “adopt a hermit crab” displays in tourist areas recently and a word – just don’t. Leave them on the beach or in a facility like Mote Aquarium. Don’t try to take animals like this home and force them to live in painted shells.

This is a really nice, curious, and friendly cuttlefish. Not only does he share his ability to change his skin color and patterns instantly, he seems as curious about human onlookers as we are about him.

The Mote has a number of active, friendly pufferfish, so here’s a tip. YES, they can be poisonous. Do not touch them if you see them washed up on the beach. I’ve seen several and fortunately, what little common sense I have told me “Don’t touch it,” because they do contain toxins. Pufferfish can be blown ashore during storms and this just a sad fact of life.

So, of course they also have axolotls at the Mote Aquarium. And this delightful snapping turtle, ready to catch me with the lure inside his mouth.

As I was warned as a child, don’t play around with these snapping turtles: they can take your finger off.

I was talking to a native Floridian the other day and told her how sad it was the environment in California had deteriorated so much, even with so many environmental efforts and so much education. She said that Florida had also experienced severe environmental degradation, and that in recent years, things had been improving because people recognized the problems and made changes on their own. So, the beautiful environment that we enjoy so much today is the product of immense efforts on the part of many people. I think institutions like the Mote Aquarium are vital. The Aquarium educates everyone who goes, and they haven’t stopped with the COVID pandemic. They’ve added many virtual programs for all ages. They also have eco tours on the “Mote Boat.”

I’m poor at describing the deep emotion that washes over me when I’m in nature or around a large number of animals that are – for lack of a better word – happy. I know it’s not particularly sophisticated, but I have a measure to judge if a place like Mote Aquarium is “good” or “not so good.”

A couple of years ago when I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, they have an exhibit which includes hundreds of sardines swimming in a tank that encircles the viewer at eye level. The environment isn’t constructed to force the fish to confront human visitors, it’s shaped in a way that allows you to stand amid the fish in their normal behavior without disturbing them. Anyway, these hundreds of fish were doing their thing and as I stood there, I felt this overwhelming joy emanating from the hundreds and hundreds of silver, flashing, slender sardines.

I felt similar feelings from nearly all the animals at the Mote Aquarium. The Mote, and a place I’ll write about soon, Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, primarily have animals that cannot survive in the wild. They are teaching, conservation, and education institutions. They do not engage in capturing animals in the wild to force them to perform for paying customers like a sea park I won’t name. They take injured animals, rescued animals, abandoned animals, or orphaned animals and care for them. So, the animals are happy because they are cared for by people who care about them, and because they are living their lives — if not for the Mote, they would probably not survive. They also live in environments that are made as healthy as possible for them, and human visitors are constantly cautioned not to harass, bother, and certainly not harm them.

I was feeling “the feeling” of well-being at the Mote long before I met the saucy, mischievous sea turtle. When she splashed me, I knew she was living in a safe place where she could, as much as possible, be herself. There are many more special turtles that I met at Theater of the Sea — I’ll write more about them soon.

Disappearing Stars and Other Cool Science Stuff

A ‘monster’ star 2 million times brighter than the sun disappears without a trace

In 2019, scientists witnessed a massive star 2.5 million times brighter than the sun disappear without a trace. Now, in a new paper published today (June 30) in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a team of space detectives (see: astrophysicists) attempt to solve the case of the disappearing star by providing several possible explanations. Of these, one twist ending stands out: Perhaps, the researchers wrote, the massive star died and collapsed into a black hole without undergoing a supernova explosion first — a truly “unprecedented” act of stellar suicide.

Long-term exercise impacts genes involved in metabolic health

This suggests that even short training programs of 6–12 months are enough to positively influence the health of people suffering from metabolic disorders,” says last author Carl Johan Sundberg, professor at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Karolinska Institutet. “The study identifies important ‘exercise-responsive’ genes that may play a role in metabolic diseases. Continue reading “Disappearing Stars and Other Cool Science Stuff”