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Science Policy Around the Web – February 26, 2019

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By: Jennifer Patterson-West, Ph.D.

Source: Ellsworth Airforce Base

Scientists Release Controversial Genetically Modified Mosquitoes In High-Security Lab

Malaria is a parasitic disease that affects more than 200 million people each year.  Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and include high fever, chills, and flu-like symptoms.  These symptoms are more dangerous to children under the age of 5, which account for 77% of related deaths.

The life cycle of malaria requires two hosts: humans and female Anopheles mosquitoes.  It is important to note that not all species of Anopheles mosquitoes are good vectors, in fact, only 30-40 of the approximately 430 species transmit malaria in nature. The life cycle of malaria is also dependent on additional environmental factors including ambient temperature and humidity. Together these factors account for the geographic distribution of malaria. Although malaria is found more than 100 countries, transmission is most prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of Oceania including Papua New Guinea. 

In the past decade, major gains have been made to control the disease in developing nations thanks to increased funding. Current preventative measures include insecticide-treated netsindoor residual spraying, and intermittent preventative treatment for individuals at increased risk including pregnant women and infants.

In early February, a high-security laboratory in Terni, Italy launched a study to evaluate a new powerful weapon against the mosquito vector.  This new weapon is a genetically modified mosquitothat can spread a genetic mutation lethal to its own species. Researchers targeted the gene “doublesex” to producing female mosquitos that are sterile and have mouths resembling male mosquitos, which are unable to bite.  

The goal is to dramatically crash or reduce the local population of the main species of malaria spreading mosquitoes, Anopheles gambiae. To increase heritability of the mutation, researchers utilized CRISPR technology to engineer a “gene drive” into the genetically modified species. Gene drive inheritance ensures that nearly all progeny inherits the mutation.

Despite the need for new methods for reducing malaria, activists and other scientists warn that the technology can have unforeseen effects on the environment.  The environmental group, Friends of the Earth, is part of international coalition protesting the use of these new genetically modified organisms. Jim Thomas of the ETC group, has noted concern that gene drive technologies can also be used to develop biological weapons.  

To reduce the risk associated with releasing the gene-drive mosquitoes, the project plans years of additional study that will methodically and cautiously evaluate the mosquitoes and their potential environmental impacts with close consultation from other scientists, government officials, and local residents in Africa.

(Rob Stein, NPR)

With one manufacturer and little money to be made, supplies of a critical cancer drug are dwindling

Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) is a potent immunotherapy for the treatment of fast-growing bladder cancer.  BCG was initially used in 1921 as a tuberculosis vaccine.  In the 1970s, BCG was shown to stimulate the immune system to attack tumor cells when administered through a catheter into the bladder of cancer patients. Since then, BCG has become a potent treatment for intermediate and high-risk non-muscle invasive (NMI) urothelial cancer (UC) of the bladder.

Bladder cancer is the nation’s sixth most prevalent cancer with approximately 80,000 new cases each year.  About 20% of these patients are diagnosed with a type of bladder cancer that can be treated with BCG.  Although BCG doesn’t work for all eligible patients, the response rate is more than 70%.

Despite the established potency of BCG, there is a critical national shortage.  Supplies of BCG have been erratic since 2011, when the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) promptly shut down the Sanofi manufacturing lab after a failed inspection.  After continued regulatory issues, Sanofi stopped production of BCG in 2016. Merck is now the only manufacturer of BCG for the Unite States and European markets.

Merck has acknowledged short supplies and indicated that they are currently working at capacity.  Tyrone Brewer, the vice president of global oncology marketing at Merck, has indicated that the company intends to continue producing BCG for “the foreseeable future.”

During shortages, chemotherapies, such as mitomycin, can be used as alternative therapies.  However, they have lower efficacy and a higher price tag than BCG. During the 2014 BCG shortage, the cost of mitomycin increased by 99% further exacerbating the financial burden of these alternative therapies. 

In response to erratic supply of BCG, the Southwest Oncology Group has launched a clinical trial (S1602) to compare the TICE BCG strain currently used in the United States to the Tokyo Strain.  The FDA will consider the results of this trial as critical information for approving the Tokyo strain for use in the United States. 

In the meantime, urologists have begun to divide dosages into thirds to prolong supplies.  However, a recent literature review indicated that a large scale, well-designed, prospective study is need to establish a standard dose and maintenance instillation for reducing recurrence rate since the efficacy of lower dosage is unclear from existing data.

The University of Utah Drug information Service reported that in 2015 approximately 265 generic drugs were in short supply in the United States.  Of potentially greater concern than the current shortage of BCG are generic drugs that can have immediate life and death consequences. For instance, a retrospective study of the norepinephrine shortage in 2011 indicated a 10% higher mortality rate during hospitalization when the alternative vasopressor, phenylephrine was used.

A recent perspective from Davies et al. argues that current policy efforts have not sufficiently prevented supply disruptions of important generic drugs.  A major consideration for dealing with generic drug shortages are the unintended consequences of current policies. For instance, the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act, which sought to protect consumers by limiting the cost increase for generic drugs to 6% above the Medicare average sale price (ASP). This restriction may not provide manufactures with sufficient proficient to invest in production facilities.  

Further compounded these issues is the fact that manufacturers face few negative consequences during shortages, whereas an excess in supply cuts in to profit margins. To provide additional incentive for maintaining reliable supplies of generic-drugs, Davies et al. suggested that the FDA prioritize the review of future generic-drug applications from companies that “maintain generic drug production without quality-control problems”.  In November, the FDA issued a news release about efforts to address drug shortages, which included remedying the underlying problems when a shortage arise within their current authorities.  In today’s political climate, any policy reform or expanse to FDA’s authority to mitigate future shortages and provide incentives for the production of generic medications will require cross-party support. 

(Meghana Keshavan, STAT news)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 26, 2019 at 1:44 pm

Genetically Modified Animal Vectors to Combat Disease

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By: Sarah L Hawes, PhD

Mosquito larvae: ©ProjectManhattan via Wikimedia Commons

Diseases transmitted through contact with an animal carrier, or “vector,” cause over one million deaths annually, many of these in children under the age of five. More numerous, non-fatal cases incur a variety of symptoms ranging from fevers to lesions to lasting organ damage. Vector-borne disease is most commonly contracted from the bite of an infected arthropod, such as a tick or mosquito. Mosquito-borne Zika made recent, regular headlines following a 2015-2016 surge in birth defects among infants born to women bitten during pregnancy. Other big names in vector-borne disease include Malaria, Dengue, Chagas disease, Leishmaniasis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme.

Vaccines do not exist for many of these diseases, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Division of Vector-Borne Diseases focuses on “prevention and control strategies that can reach the targeted disease or vector at multiple levels while being mindful of cost-effective delivery that is acceptable to the public, and cognizant of the world’s ecology.” Prevention through reducing human contact with vectors is classically achieved through a combination of physical barriers (i.e. bed nets and clothing), controlling vector habitat near humans (i.e. dumping standing water or mowing tall grass), and reducing vector populations with poisons. For instance, the Presidential Malaria Initiative (PMI), initiated under President Bush in 2005, and expanded under President Obama, reduces vector contact through a complement of educating the public, distributing and encouraging the use of bed nets, and spraying insecticide. Now a 600 million dollar a year program, PMI has been instrumental in preventing several million Malaria-related deaths in the last decade.

But what if a potentially safer, cheaper and more effective solution to reduce human-vector contact exists in the release of Genetically Modified (GM) vector species? Imagine a mosquito engineered to include a new or altered gene to confer disease resistance, sterility, or to otherwise impede disease transmission to humans. Release of GM mosquitos could drastically reduce the need for pesticides, which may be harmful to humans, toxic to off-target species, and have led to pesticide-resistance in heavily-sprayed areas. Health and efficacy aside, it is impossible to overturn or poison every leaf cupping rainwater where mosquitos breed. GM mosquitos could reach and “treat” the same pockets of water as their non-GM counterparts. However, an insect designed to pass on disease resistance to future generations would mean persistence of genetic modifications in the wild, which is worrisome given the possibility of unintended direct effects or further mutation. An elegant alternative is the release of GM vector animals producing non-viable offspring – and this is exactly what biotech company Oxitec has done with mosquitos.

Oxitec’s OX513A mosquitos express a gene that interferes with critical cellular functions in the mosquitos, but this gene is suppressed in captivity by administering the antibiotic tetracycline in the mosquitos’ diet. Release of thousands of non-biting OX513A males into the wild results in a local generation of larvae which, in the absence of tetracycline, die before reaching adulthood. Release of OX513A has proven successful at controlling mosquito populations in several countries since 2009, rapidly reducing local numbers by roughly 90%. Oxitec’s OX513A line may indeed be a safe and effective tool. But who is charged with making this call for OX513A and, moreover for future variations in GM vector release?

Policy governing use of genetically modified organisms must keep pace with globally available biotechnology. Regulatory procedures for the use of GM vector release are determined by country, and there is a high degree of international policy alignment. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is a treaty involving 170 nations currently (the US not included) that governs transport of “living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology” with potential to impact environmental or human health. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) published the 2014 guidelines for evaluating safety and efficacy of GM mosquitos.

Within the US, the 2017 Update to the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology was published this January in response to a solicitation by the Executive Office of the President for a cohesive report from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Separately, biotech industry has been given fresh guidance on whether to seek FDA or EPA approval (in brief):  if your GM product is designed to reduce disease load or spread, including vector population reduction, it requires New Animal Drug approval by FDA; if it is designed to reduce pest population but is un-related to disease, it requires Pesticide Product approval by EPA under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.

Thus, for a biotech company to release GM mosquitos in the US with the intent of curbing the spread of mosquito-borne disease, they must first gain FDA approval. Oxitec gained federal approval to release OX513A in a Florida suburb in August 2015 because of FDA’s “final environmental assessment (EA) and finding of no significant impact (FONSI).” These FDA assessments determined that the Florida ecosystem would not be harmed by eliminating the targeted, invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito. In addition, they affirmed that no method exists for the modified gene carried by OX513A to impact humans or other species. Risks were determined to be negligible, and include the accidental release of a few, disease-free OX513A females. For a human bitten by a rare GM female, there is zero risk of transgene transfer. There is no difference in saliva allergens, and therefore the response to a bite, from GM and non-GM mosquitos. In addition, as many as 3% of OX513A offspring manage to survive to adulthood, presumably by spawning in tetracycline-treated water for livestock. These few surviving offspring will not become a long-term problem because their survival is not a heritable loop-hole; it is instead analogous to a lucky few mosquitos avoiding contact with poison.

Solid scientific understanding of the nature of genetic modifications is key to the creation of good policy surrounding the creation and use of GMOs. In an updated draft of Guidelines For Industry 187 (GFI 187), the FDA advises industry seeking New Animal Drug Approval to include a molecular description of the intentional genetic alteration in animals, method for alteration, description of introduction to the animal, and whether the alteration is stable over time/across generations if heritable, and environmental and food safety assessments. Newer genomic DNA editing techniques such as CRISPR offer improved control over the location, and thus, the effect of genetic revisions. In light of this, the FDA is soliciting feedback from the public on the GFI 187 draft until April 19th, 2017, in part to determine whether certain types of genetic alteration in animals might represent no risk to humans or animals, and thus merit reduced federal regulation.

Following federal clearance, the decision on whether to release GM vectors rests with local government. Currently, lack of agreement among Florida voters has delayed the release of OX315A mosquitos. Similar to when GM mosquito release was first proposed in Florida following a 2009-2010 Dengue outbreak, voter concern today hinges on the perception that GM technology is “unproven and unnatural.” This illustrates both a healthy sense of skepticism in our voters, and the critical need to improve scientific education and outreach in stride with biotechnology and policy. Until we achieve better public understanding of GM organisms, including how they are created, controlled, and vetted, we may miss out on real opportunities to safely and rapidly advance public health.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 16, 2017 at 9:46 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 15, 2016

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By: Sarah Hawes, PhD

Source: PHIL

Zika

Florida voters weigh in on GM mosquito releases: What are the issues?

Concern over mosquito-borne Zika virus arriving in the United States this year spurred rapid allocation of resources toward identifying solutions. Clinical trials are just beginning for a traditional, attenuated vaccine while parallel efforts include research into injecting small DNA segments to effectively vaccinate by engaging a patient’s own cells to produce harmless, Zika-like proteins. However the risk of severe birth defects in infants born to Zika infected mothers is a powerful incentive for expediency. One answer exists in the use of genetically modified (GM) mosquitos to reduce vector number by breeding them in the wild. In August, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agreed for the first time to release of GM mosquitoes in the U.S.

The GM mosquitos in question are almost exclusively non-biting males of the Zika vector species Aedes aegypti, modified by British biotech company Oxitec, to carry a gene that prevents their offspring from reaching sexual maturity. Oxitec has used similar techniques successfully since 2009 in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia, Brazil, and Panama. A document prepared by the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine examines myriad concerns, and determines program risks to be negligible. It includes ecosystem reports showing lack of predators reliant on the invasive Aedes aegypti, and explains that no recognized method exists for the genome-integrated transgene to impact or spread among other species. However a small percentage of GM mosquitos survive to adulthood and could transfer modified genes (or transgene resistance) to next-generation Aedes aegypti. In addition, some fear that population reduction among one disease-carrying mosquito species will make way for another, such as Aedes albopictus, which is also capable of carrying Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya.

On Election Day, the final word on whether or not to release Oxitec GM mosquitos was given to voters living in the proposed release-site in the small peninsula neighborhood of Key Haven, Florida, and in surrounding Monroe County. Countywide, 58 percent of voters favored release. Within Key Haven, 65 percent opposed it. Following this divide, the decision now rests with Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board. (Kelly Servick, Science Insider)

HIV Vaccine

Controversial HIV vaccine strategy gets a second chance

The first participants in a $130 million HIV vaccine study, funded primarily by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, received injections last week in South Africa. The study is a modified repetition of a study conducted in Thailand seven years ago that used nearly three times the number of participants and reported a modest 31.2% risk reduction through vaccination. In a nation with 6 million HIV positive persons, this would still be valuable if reproduced, but there is concern that alterations in the vaccine intended to boost efficacy could have the opposite effect.

No mechanism has been found for the vaccine’s efficacy in Thailand, making it hard to improve on. In hopes of extending the duration of protection, twice the amount of an HIV surface protein will be given. A canary-pox virus carrying pieces of HIV virus common in Thailand seven years ago (targets on which to hone the body’s immunity) has instead been loaded with strains common in South Africa. Finally, a stronger immune stimulant, or “adjuvant,” is included in the injection. However, in May, a study by National Cancer Institute vaccine researcher Genoveffa Franchini found that monkeys were protected from HIV by the old but not by the new adjuvant. Franchini suggests that the new adjuvant may even leave vaccinated persons more susceptible to infection. The South Africa study leader Glenda Gray says that Franchini makes a “compelling” argument for adding a group to repeat use of the old adjuvant, if more money can be found.

The enormity of South Africa’s AIDS epidemic (18% of global cases) compels empathy for the perspective held by Gray, who said, “Someone has to put their stake in the ground and have the courage to move forward, knowing we might fail.” At the same time one would hope that the use of $130 million in HIV research funds is being fueled more by quality medical science than by desperation and action-bias. (Jon Cohen, Science Magazine)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 15, 2016 at 9:45 am