Catching colds may help protect kids from Covid
A common cold virus causes the immune system to produce T cells that also provide protection against SARS-CoV-2, according to new research. The study, published last month in PNAS, shows that this effect is most pronounced in young children. The finding may help explain why most young people who have been exposed to the cold-causing coronavirus have not developed serious cases of COVID-19.
One curiosity stood out in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic – why were so few kids getting sick. Generally young children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to disease outbreaks, particularly viral infections, either because their immune systems are not fully developed or they are starting to fail.
But solid information on the new infection was so scarce that many public health officials acted on the precautionary principle, assumed a worst-case scenario, and applied the broadest, most restrictive policies to all people to try to contain the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.
One early thought was that lockdowns worked and kids (ages 6 months to 17 years) simply were not being exposed to the virus. So it was a shock when data started to come in showing that well over half of them carried antibodies to the virus, indicating exposure without getting sick. That trend grew over time and the latest tracking data from the CDC shows that 96.3 percent of kids in the U.S. now carry those antibodies.
Antibodies are relatively quick and easy to measure, but some scientists are exploring whether the reactions of T cells could serve as a more useful measure of immune protection.
But that couldn't be the whole story because antibody protection fades, sometimes as early as a month after exposure and usually within a year. Additionally, SARS-CoV-2 has been spewing out waves of different variants that were more resistant to antibodies generated by their predecessors. The resistance was so significant that over time the FDA withdrew its emergency use authorization for a handful of monoclonal antibodies with earlier approval to treat the infection because they no longer worked.
Antibodies got most of the attention early on because they are part of the first line response of the immune system. Antibodies can bind to viruses and neutralize them, preventing infection. They are relatively quick and easy to measure and even manufacture, but as SARS-CoV-2 showed us, often viruses can quickly evolve to become more resistant to them. Some scientists are exploring whether the reactions of T cells could serve as a more useful measure of immune protection.
Kids, colds and T cells
T cells are part of the immune system that deals with cells once they have become infected. But working with T cells is much more difficult, takes longer, and is more expensive than working with antibodies. So studies often lags behind on this part of the immune system.
A group of researchers led by Annika Karlsson at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden focuses on T cells targeting virus-infected cells and, unsurprisingly, saw that they can play a role in SARS-CoV-2 infection. Other labs have shown that vaccination and natural exposure to the virus generates different patterns of T cell responses.
The Swedes also looked at another member of the coronavirus family, OC43, which circulates widely and is one of several causes of the common cold. The molecular structure of OC43 is similar to its more deadly cousin SARS-CoV-2. Sometimes a T cell response to one virus can produce a cross-reactive response to a similar protein structure in another virus, meaning that T cells will identify and respond to the two viruses in much the same way. Karlsson looked to see if T cells for OC43 from a wide age range of patients were cross-reactive to SARS-CoV-2.
And that is what they found, as reported in the PNAS study last month; there was cross-reactive activity, but it depended on a person’s age. A subset of a certain type of T cells, called mCD4+,, that recognized various protein parts of the cold-causing virus, OC43, expressed on the surface of an infected cell – also recognized those same protein parts from SARS-CoV-2. The T cell response was lower than that generated by natural exposure to SARS-CoV-2, but it was functional and thus could help limit the severity of COVID-19.
“One of the most politicized aspects of our pandemic response was not accepting that children are so much less at risk for severe disease with COVID-19,” because usually young children are among the most vulnerable to pathogens, says Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco.
“The cross-reactivity peaked at age six when more than half the people tested have a cross-reactive immune response,” says Karlsson, though their sample is too small to say if this finding applies more broadly across the population. The vast majority of children as young as two years had OC43-specific mCD4+ T cell responses. In adulthood, the functionality of both the OC43-specific and the cross-reactive T cells wane significantly, especially with advanced age.
“Considering that the mortality rate in children is the lowest from ages five to nine, and higher in younger children, our results imply that cross-reactive mCD4+ T cells may have a role in the control of SARS-CoV-2 infection in children,” the authors wrote in their paper.
“One of the most politicized aspects of our pandemic response was not accepting that children are so much less at risk for severe disease with COVID-19,” because usually young children are among the most vulnerable to pathogens, says Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco and author of the book, Endemic: A Post-Pandemic Playbook, to be released by the Mayo Clinic Press this summer. The immune response of kids to SARS-CoV-2 stood our expectations on their head. “We just haven't seen this before, so knowing the mechanism of protection is really important.”
Why the T cell immune response can fade with age is largely unknown. With some viruses such as measles, a single vaccination or infection generates life-long protection. But respiratory tract infections, like SARS-CoV-2, cause a localized infection - specific to certain organs - and that response tends to be shorter lived than systemic infections that affect the entire body. Karlsson suspects the elderly might be exposed to these localized types of viruses less often. Also, frequent continued exposure to a virus that results in reactivation of the memory T cell pool might eventually result in “a kind of immunosenescence or immune exhaustion that is associated with aging,” Karlsson says. https://leaps.org/scientists-just-started-testing-a-new-class-of-drugs-to-slow-and-even-reverse-aging/particle-3 This fading protection is why older people need to be repeatedly vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2.
Following the numbers on COVID-19 infections and severity over the last three years have shown us that healthy young people without risk factors are not likely to develop serious disease. This latest study points to a mechanism that helps explain why. But the inertia of existing policies remains. How should we adjust policy recommendations based on what we know today?
The World Health Organization (WHO) updated their COVID-19 vaccination guidance on March 28. It calls for a focus on vaccinating and boosting those at risk for developing serious disease. The guidance basically shrugged its shoulders when it came to healthy children and young adults receiving vaccinations and boosters against COVID-19. It said the priority should be to administer the “traditional essential vaccines for children,” such as those that protect against measles, rubella, and mumps.
“As an immunologist and a mother, I think that catching a cold or two when you are a kid and otherwise healthy is not that bad for you. Children have a much lower risk of becoming severely ill with SARS-CoV-2,” says Karlsson. She has followed public health guidance in Sweden, which means that her young children have not been vaccinated, but being older, she has received the vaccine and boosters. Gandhi and her children have been vaccinated, but they do not plan on additional boosters.
The WHO got it right in “concentrating on what matters,” which is getting traditional childhood immunizations back on track after their dramatic decline over the last three years, says Gandhi. Nor is there a need for masking in schools, according to a study from the Catalonia region of Spain. It found “no difference in masking and spread in schools,” particularly since tracking data indicate that nearly all young people have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2.
Both researchers lament that public discussion has overemphasized the quickly fading antibody part of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 compared with the more durable T cell component. They say developing an efficient measure of T cell response for doctors to use in the clinic would help to monitor immunity in people at risk for severe cases of COVID-19 compared with the current method of toting up potential risk factors.
Story by Freethink
Try burning an iron metal ingot and you’ll have to wait a long time — but grind it into a powder and it will readily burst into flames. That’s how sparklers work: metal dust burning in a beautiful display of light and heat. But could we burn iron for more than fun? Could this simple material become a cheap, clean, carbon-free fuel?
In new experiments — conducted on rockets, in microgravity — Canadian and Dutch researchers are looking at ways of boosting the efficiency of burning iron, with a view to turning this abundant material — the fourth most common in the Earth’s crust, about about 5% of its mass — into an alternative energy source.
Iron as a fuel
Iron is abundantly available and cheap. More importantly, the byproduct of burning iron is rust (iron oxide), a solid material that is easy to collect and recycle. Neither burning iron nor converting its oxide back produces any carbon in the process.
Iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again.
Iron has a high energy density: it requires almost the same volume as gasoline to produce the same amount of energy. However, iron has poor specific energy: it’s a lot heavier than gas to produce the same amount of energy. (Think of picking up a jug of gasoline, and then imagine trying to pick up a similar sized chunk of iron.) Therefore, its weight is prohibitive for many applications. Burning iron to run a car isn’t very practical if the iron fuel weighs as much as the car itself.
In its powdered form, however, iron offers more promise as a high-density energy carrier or storage system. Iron-burning furnaces could provide direct heat for industry, home heating, or to generate electricity.
Plus, iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again (as long as you’ve got a source of clean electricity or green hydrogen). When there’s excess electricity available from renewables like solar and wind, for example, rust could be converted back into iron powder, and then burned on demand to release that energy again.
However, these methods of recycling rust are very energy intensive and inefficient, currently, so improvements to the efficiency of burning iron itself may be crucial to making such a circular system viable.
The science of discrete burning
Powdered particles have a high surface area to volume ratio, which means it is easier to ignite them. This is true for metals as well.
Under the right circumstances, powdered iron can burn in a manner known as discrete burning. In its most ideal form, the flame completely consumes one particle before the heat radiating from it combusts other particles in its vicinity. By studying this process, researchers can better understand and model how iron combusts, allowing them to design better iron-burning furnaces.
Discrete burning is difficult to achieve on Earth. Perfect discrete burning requires a specific particle density and oxygen concentration. When the particles are too close and compacted, the fire jumps to neighboring particles before fully consuming a particle, resulting in a more chaotic and less controlled burn.
Presently, the rate at which powdered iron particles burn or how they release heat in different conditions is poorly understood. This hinders the development of technologies to efficiently utilize iron as a large-scale fuel.
Burning metal in microgravity
In April, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a suborbital “sounding” rocket, carrying three experimental setups. As the rocket traced its parabolic trajectory through the atmosphere, the experiments got a few minutes in free fall, simulating microgravity.
One of the experiments on this mission studied how iron powder burns in the absence of gravity.
In microgravity, particles float in a more uniformly distributed cloud. This allows researchers to model the flow of iron particles and how a flame propagates through a cloud of iron particles in different oxygen concentrations.
Existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Insights into how flames propagate through iron powder under different conditions could help design much more efficient iron-burning furnaces.
Clean and carbon-free energy on Earth
Various businesses are looking at ways to incorporate iron fuels into their processes. In particular, it could serve as a cleaner way to supply industrial heat by burning iron to heat water.
For example, Dutch brewery Swinkels Family Brewers, in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, switched to iron fuel as the heat source to power its brewing process, accounting for 15 million glasses of beer annually. Dutch startup RIFT is running proof-of-concept iron fuel power plants in Helmond and Arnhem.
As researchers continue to improve the efficiency of burning iron, its applicability will extend to other use cases as well. But is the infrastructure in place for this transition?
Often, the transition to new energy sources is slowed by the need to create new infrastructure to utilize them. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with switching from fossil fuels to iron. Since the ideal temperature to burn iron is similar to that for hydrocarbons, existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio improves about 10 minutes into the episode. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/