AccuWeather interviewed experts, including pathologists who have analyzed the virus, who say SARS-CoV-2 is susceptible to heat, light, and humidity, while others study weather patterns for their predictions
AccuWeather, as it watched the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, wanted to know what effect that warmer spring temperatures might have on curbing the spread of the virus. There is a good reason to ask this question. As microbiologists, infectious disease doctors, and primary care physicians know, the typical start and end to every flu season is well-documented and closely watched.
As SARS-CoV-2 ravages countries around the world, clinical pathologists and microbiologists debate whether it will subside as temperatures rise in Spring and Summer. Recent analyses suggest it may indeed be a seasonal phenomenon. However, some infectious disease specialists have expressed skepticism.
CNN reported that Nicholls was part of a research team which reproduced the virus in January to study its behavior and evaluate diagnostic tests. Nicholls was also involved in an early effort to analyze the coronavirus associated with the 2003 SARS outbreak involving SARS-CoV, another coronavirus that originated in Asia.
“Sunlight will cut the virus’ ability to grow in half, so the half-life will be 2.5 minutes and in the dark it’s about 13 to 20,” Nicholls told AccuWeather. “Sunlight is really good at killing viruses.” And that, “In cold environments, there is longer virus survival than warm ones.” He added, “I think it will burn itself out in about six months.”
Can Weather Predict the Spread of COVID-19?
Other researchers have analyzed regional weather data to see if there’s a correlation with incidence of COVID-19. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that the number of cases has been relatively low in areas with warm, humid conditions and higher in more northerly regions. They published their findings in SSRN (formerly Social Science Research Network), an open-access journal and repository for early-stage research, titled “Will Coronavirus Pandemic Diminish by Summer?”
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The MIT researchers found that as of March 22, 90% of the
transmissions of SARS-CoV-2 occurred within a temperature range of three to 17
degrees Celsius (37.4 to 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and an absolute humidity
range of four to nine grams per cubic meter. Fewer than 6% of the transmissions
have been in warmer climates further south, they wrote.
“Based on the current data on the spread of [SARS-CoV-2], we
hypothesize that the lower number of cases in tropical countries might be due
to warm humid conditions, under which the spread of the virus might be slower
as has been observed for other viruses,” they wrote.
In the US, “the outbreak also shows a north-south divide,”
with higher incidence in northern states, they wrote. The outliers are Oregon,
with fewer than 200 cases, and Louisiana, where, as of March 22, approximately
1,000 had been reported.
There’s been a recent spike in reported cases from warmer
regions in Asia, South America, and Africa, but the MIT researchers attribute
this largely to increased testing.
Still, “there may be several caveats to our work,” they
wrote in their published study. For example, South Korea has been engaged in
widespread testing that includes asymptomatic individuals, whereas other
countries, including the US, have limited testing to a narrower range of
people, which could mean that more cases are going undetected. “Further, the
rate of outdoor transmission versus indoor and direct versus indirect
transmission are also not well understood and environmental related impacts are
mostly applicable to outdoor transmissions,” the MIT researchers wrote.
Even in warmer, more humid regions, they advocate “proper
quarantine measures” to limit the spread of the virus.
The New York Times (NYT) reported that other recent studies have shown a correlation between weather conditions and the incidence of COVID-19 outbreaks as well, though none of this research has been peer reviewed.
Why the Correlation? It’s Unclear, MIT Says
Though the MIT researchers found a strong relation between
the number of cases and weather conditions, “the underlying reasoning behind
this relationship is still not clear,” they wrote. “Similarly, we do not know
which environmental factor is more important. It could be that either
temperature or absolute humidity is more important, or both may be equally or
not important at all in the transmission of [SARS-CoV-2].”
Some experts have looked at older coronaviruses for clues. “The coronavirus is surrounded by a lipid layer, in other words, a layer of fat,” said molecular virologist Thomas Pietschmann, PhD, Director of the Department for Experimental Virology at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Hanover, Germany, in a story from German news service Deutsche Welle. This makes it susceptible to temperature increases, he suggested.
However, Pietschmann cautioned that because it’s a new
virus, scientists cannot say if it will behave like older viruses. “Honestly
speaking, we do not know the virus yet,” he concluded.
How should pathologists and clinical laboratories in this country prepare for COVID-19? Lipsitch wrote that Influenza does tend to be seasonal, in part because cold, dry air is highly conducive to flu transmission. However, “for coronaviruses, the relevance of this factor is unknown.” And “new viruses have a temporary but important advantage—few or no individuals in the population are immune to them,” which means they are not as susceptible to the factors that constrain older viruses in warmer, more humid months.
So, we may not yet know enough to adequately prepare for
what’s coming. Nevertheless, monitoring the rapidly changing data on COVID-19
should be part of every lab’s daily agenda.
Genetic data captured by this new technology could lead to a new understanding of how different types of cells exchange information and would be a boon to anatomic pathology research worldwide
What if it were possible to map the interior of cells and view their genetic sequences using chemicals instead of light? Might that spark an entirely new way of studying human physiology? That’s what researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believe. They have developed a new approach to visualizing cells and tissues that could enable the development of entirely new anatomic pathology tests that target a broad range of cancers and diseases.
Joshua Weinstein, PhD, a postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute and first author of the study, said in a news release that DNA microscopy “is an entirely new way of visualizing cells that captures both spatial and genetic information simultaneously from a single specimen. It will allow us to see how genetically unique cells—those comprising the immune system, cancer, or the gut for instance—interact with one another and give rise to complex multicellular life.”
The news release goes on to state that the new technology “shows
how biomolecules such as DNA and RNA are organized in cells and tissues,
revealing spatial and molecular information that is not easily accessible
through other microscopy methods. DNA microscopy also does not require
specialized equipment, enabling large numbers of samples to be processed
New Way to Visualize Cells
The MIT researchers saw an opportunity for DNA microscopy to
find genomic-level cell information. They claim that DNA microscopy images
cells from the inside and enables the capture of more data than with
traditional light microscopy. Their new technique is a chemical-encoded
approach to mapping cells that derives critical genetic insights from the
organization of the DNA and RNA in cells and tissue.
And that type of genetic information could lead to new precision medicine treatments for chronic disease. New Atlas notes that “ Speeding the development of immunotherapy treatments by identifying the immune cells best suited to target a particular cancer cell is but one of the many potential application for DNA microscopy.”
In their published study, the scientists note that “Despite enormous progress in molecular profiling of cellular constituents, spatially mapping [cells] remains a disjointed and specialized machinery-intensive process, relying on either light microscopy or direct physical registration. Here, we demonstrate DNA microscopy, a distinct imaging modality for scalable, optics-free mapping of relative biomolecule positions.”
How DNA Microscopy Works
The New York Times (NYT) notes that the advantage of DNA microscopy is “that it combines spatial details with scientists’ growing interest in—and ability to measure—precise genomic sequences, much as Google Street View integrates restaurant names and reviews into outlines of city blocks.”
And Singularity Hub notes that “ DNA microscopy, uses only a pipette and some liquid reagents. Rather than monitoring photons, here the team relies on ‘bar codes’ that chemically tag onto biomolecules. Like cell phone towers, the tags amplify, broadcasting their signals outward. An algorithm can then piece together the captured location data and transform those GPS-like digits into rainbow-colored photos. The results are absolutely breathtaking. Cells shine like stars in a nebula, each pseudo-colored according to their genomic profiles.”
“We’ve used DNA in a way that’s mathematically similar to photons in light microscopy,” Weinstein said in the Broad Institute news release. “This allows us to visualize biology as cells see it and not as the human eye does.”
In their study, researchers used DNA microscopy to tag RNA
molecules and map locations of individual human cancer cells. Their method is
“surprisingly simple” New Atlas reported. Here’s how it’s done,
according to the MIT news release:
Small synthetic DNA tags (dubbed “barcodes” by the MIT team) are added to biological samples;
The “tags” latch onto molecules of genetic material in the cells;
The tags are then replicated through a chemical reaction;
The tags combine and create more unique DNA labels;
The scientists use a DNA sequencer to decode and reconstruct the biomolecules;
A computer algorithm decodes the data and converts it to images displaying the biomolecules’ positions within the cells.
“The first time I saw a DNA microscopy image, it blew me away,” said Aviv Regev, PhD, a biologist at the Broad Institute, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator, and co-author of the MIT study, in an HHMI news release. “It’s an entirely new category of microscopy. It’s not just a technique; it’s a way of doing things that we haven’t ever considered doing before.”
Precision Medicine Potential
“Every cell has a unique make-up of DNA letters or genotype. By capturing information directly from the molecules being studied, DNA microscopy opens up a new way of connecting genotype to phenotype,” said Feng Zhang, PhD, MIT Neuroscience Professor,
Core Institute Member of the Broad Institute, and
Investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, in the HHMI
In other words, DNA microscopy could someday have applications in precision medicine. The MIT researchers, according to Stat, plan to expand the technology further to include immune cells that target cancer.
The Broad Institute has applied for a patent on DNA
microscopy. Clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology group leaders seeking
novel resources for diagnosis and treatment of cancer may want to follow the MIT
“On-a-chip” devices continue to advance and medical laboratories will be natural repositories for patient data as the technology continues to improve
Dark Daily has predicted that the future of clinical laboratory testing will include highly complex multi-analyte test panels. The biomarkers, however, could number in the hundreds or thousands. So, it’s interesting to see new research by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) team currently developing a multi-biomarker organ test device for clinical purposes.
Motivated by the costly failure of animal testing efforts to develop drug safety and efficacy in humans, the MIT research engineers created a microfluidic platform technology they dubbed “physiome-on-a-chip,” or more colloquially, “body-on-a-chip.” Their goal is to identify drug reaction in different cell groups within the body (in vivo).
They acknowledged contributions of in vitro microphysiological systems (MPSs), AKA “organ-on-a-chip” (OOC) systems. They note, however, in their paper published in Scientific Reports, that more complex systems that interconnect and receive data from multiple MPSs are needed due to increasing limitations arising from drugs’ “lack of efficacy” rather than toxicity.
“Here we describe the development and implementation of multi-MPS platforms, AKA physiome-on-a-chip, supporting four-way, seven-way, and 10-way MPS interactions for several weeks,” the MIT engineers wrote.
Though MIT’s new technology needs further research and development time, as well as clinical trials, this type of chip design and its ability to scale is a positive development and progress toward Dark Daily’s prediction. Once finalized, it could be adopted in medical laboratories for many types of diagnostic testing purposes.
Researchers Motivated to Improve Drug Efficacy
According to an MIT news release, “MIT engineers have developed new technology that could be used to evaluate new drugs and detect possible side effects before the drugs are tested in humans. Using a microfluidic platform that connects engineered tissues from up to 10 organs, the researchers can accurately replicate human organ interactions for weeks at a time, allowing them to measure the effects of drugs on different parts of the body.”
The “body-on-a-chip” technology, MIT says, is aimed at determining how drugs may affect one organ while also having side effects on others.
“Some of these effects are really hard to predict from animal models because the situations that lead to them are idiosyncratic. With our chip, you can distribute a drug and then look for the effects on other tissues and measure the exposure and how it is metabolized,” said Linda Griffith, PhD, Professor of Teaching Innovation at MIT’s School of Engineering, and a senior author of the study, in the news release.
According to MIT, factors affecting the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals may include:
Personal lifestyles; and,
Interactions with other drugs.
TechCrunch called the study “unprecedented,” pointing to the platform’s connection of so many tissues and the technology’s ability to keep them stable for weeks.
“An advantage of our platform is that we can scale it up or down and accommodate a lot of different configurations,” Linda Griffith, PhD, MIT Professor, MIT School of Engineering, told Science Daily. “I think the field is going to go through a transition where we start to get more information out of a three-organ or four-organ system, and it will start to become cost-competitive because the information you’re getting is so much more valuable.” (Photo copyright: MacArthur Foundation.)
How “Body-on-a-Chip” Works
“Body-on-a-chip” is about the size of a tablet computer and links 10 organ types, including: liver, lung, gut, endometrium, brain, heart, pancreas, kidney, skin, and skeletal muscle.
Using microfluidic platform technology, the researchers placed one- to two-million cells from human tissue samples into the device and then pushed fluid through the chip to resemble blood flow, the Daily Mail reported, adding that MIT’s MPS platform design features:
Compartments made from a plastic block;
Passages for fluid to move (as a circulatory system does) between the compartments;
A water reservoir to limit fluid evaporation; and,
Ability to monitor flow of molecular exchanges and drug distribution.
Essentially, using the MIT device, a drug can be introduced to one organ, processed normally, and then passed to other organs for processing and use in other ways, TechCrunch summarized.
The physiome-on-a-chip system (above schematic) comprises bioengineered devices that nurture many interconnected 3D MPSs representing specified functional behaviors of each organ of interest, designed to capture essential features of in vivo physiology based on quantitative systems models tailored for individual applications such as drug fate or disease modeling. This technology could eventually be utilized for clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology testing. (Image and caption copyright: Victor O. Leshyk/Scientific Reports.)
Drug Delivery, Effects on Multiple Tissues Noted in MIT Study
The MIT researcher engineers reported these findings and accomplishments:
Delivering a drug to the gastrointestinal tissue;
Replicating digesting a drug;
Observing as a drug was transported to other tissues and metabolized;
Measuring a drug’s path; and,
Noting effects of a drug on different tissues and how drugs break down.
“The huge potential of MPS technology is revealed by connecting multiple organ chips in an integrated system for in vitropharmacology. This study beautifully illustrates that multi-MPS ‘physiome-on-a-chip’ approaches, which combine the genetic background of human cells with physiologically relevant tissue-to-media volumes, allow accurate prediction of drug pharmacokinetics and drug absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion,” said Kevin Healy, PhD, Professor of Bioengineering and Materials Science and Engineering, at University of California Berkeley in the MIT news release. Healy was not involved in the research.
Unique Device Design
In addition to making it possible to study so many different tissue types, the device design, according to MIT, is unique for these reasons:
Its open microfluidic system, rather than a closed system, means the lid can be removed to manipulate tissue samples;
Instead of external pumps common in closed systems, the MIT team used “on-board pumps” to control flow of liquid between the organs; and,
The pumps used enabled larger engineered tissues, such as those from tumors in an organ, to be assessed.
The MIT engineers next plan to focus on specific organs—including the brain, liver, and gastrointestinal tissue—to model Parkinson’s disease, Digital Trends reported.
As healthcare providers and medical laboratories adopt precision medicine, MIT’s contributions are both timely and important. The ability to accommodate many different configurations in one platform is impressive, and something Dark Daily has been anticipating.
Three innovative technologies utilizing CRISPR-Cas13, Cas12a, and Cas9 demonstrate how CRISPR might be used for more than gene editing, while highlighting potential to develop new diagnostics for both the medical laboratory and point-of-care (POC) testing markets
Now, scientists at three universities are investigating ways to expand CRISPR’s use. They are using CRISPR to develop new diagnostic tests, or to enhance the sensitivity of existing DNA tests.
One such advancement improves the sensitivity of SHERLOCK (Specific High Sensitivity Reporter unLOCKing), a CRISPR-based diagnostic tool developed by a team at MIT. The new development harnesses the DNA slicing traits of CRISPR to adapt it as a multifunctional tool capable of acting as a biosensor. This has resulted in a paper-strip test, much like a pregnancy test, that can that can “display test results for a single genetic signature,” according to MIT News.
Such a medical laboratory test would be highly useful during pandemics and in rural environments that lack critical resources, such as electricity and clean water.
One Hundred Times More Sensitive Medical Laboratory Tests!
MIT News highlighted the high specificity and ease-of-use of their system in detecting Zika and Dengue viruses simultaneously. However, researchers stated that the system can target any genetic sequence. “With the original SHERLOCK, we were detecting a single molecule in a microliter, but now we can achieve 100-fold greater sensitivity … That’s especially important for applications like detecting cell-free tumor DNA in blood samples, where the concentration of your target might be extremely low,” noted Abudayyeh.
“The [CRISPR] technology demonstrates potential for many healthcare applications, including diagnosing infections in patients and detecting mutations that confer drug resistance or cause cancer,” stated senior authorFeng Zhang, PhD. Zhang, shown above in the MIT lab named after him, is a Core Institute Member of the Broad Institute, Associate Professor in the departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering at MIT, and a pioneer in the development of CRISPR gene-editing tools. (Photo copyright: MIT.)
They published the results of their development of CRISPR-mediated analog multi-event recording apparatus (CAMERA) systems, in Science. The story was also covered by STAT.
“The order of stimuli can be recorded through an overlapping guide RNA design and memories can be erased and re-recorded over multiple cycles,” the researchers noted. “CAMERA systems serve as ‘cell data recorders’ that write a history of endogenous or exogenous signaling events into permanent DNA sequence modifications in living cells.”
This creates a system much like the “black box” recorders in aircraft. However, using Cas9, data is recorded at the cellular level. “There are a lot of questions in cell biology where you’d like to know a cell’s history,” Liu told STAT.
While researchers acknowledge that any medical applications are in the far future, the technology holds the potential to capture and replay activity on the cellular level—a potentially powerful tool for oncologists, pathologists, and other medical specialists.
Using CRISPR to Detect Viruses and Infectious Diseases
Despite the current focus on HPVs, the researchers told Gizmodo they believe the same methods could identify other viral or bacterial infections, detect cancer biomarkers, and uncover chromosomal abnormalities.
Future Impact on Clinical Laboratories of CRISPR-based Diagnostics
Each of these new methods highlights the abilities of CRISPR both as a data generation tool and a biosensor. While still in the research phases, they offer yet another possibility of improving efficiency, targeting specific diseases and pathogens, and creating new assays and diagnostics to expand medical laboratory testing menus and power the precision medicine treatments of the future.
As CRISPR-based diagnostics mature, medical laboratory directors might find that new capabilities and assays featuring these technologies offer new avenues for remaining competitive and maintaining margins.
However, as SHERLOCK demonstrates, it also highlights the push for tests that produce results with high-specificity, but which do not require specialized medical laboratory training and expensive hardware to read. Similar approaches could power the next generation of POC tests, which certainly would affect the volume, and therefore the revenue, of independent clinical laboratories and hospital/health system core laboratories.
While healthcare consumers seem enamored with the idea of investigating their genomic ancestry in growing numbers, the question of how the data is collected, secured, and distributed when and to whom, is under increased scrutiny by federal lawmakers, bioethicists, and research scientists.
However, should public demand for DTC testing find support in Congress, some lab companies offering direct-to-consumer genetic tests could find their primary source of revenue curtailed.
DTC Sales Skyrocket as FDA Authorizes Genetic Tests for Certain Chronic Diseases
Nevertheless, consumer demand for DTC tests continues to rise. In a press release, Ancestry, a family genetic history and consumer genomics company, reported:
Record sales of AncestryDNA kits during the 2017 four-day Black Friday to Cyber Monday weekend, selling more than 1.5 million kits; and,
The 2017 sales were triple the amount of kits sold during the same period in 2016.
Possibly helping the sale of DTC genetic tests may be the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorization last year of 23andMe’s Personal Genome Service Genetic Health Risk tests for 10 diseases or conditions, including:
Senator Calls for Investigation of DTC Genetic Test Company Use of Patient Data
These are impressive sales. However, medical professionals may wonder how so much genetic data can be kept private by the testing companies. And medical laboratory leaders are not the only ones asking about privacy and the use of genetic test results.
However, lawmakers also recently introduced House Bill 1313, the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act. It reads, in part, “… the collection of information about the manifested disease or disorder of a family member shall not be considered an unlawful acquisition of genetic information with respect to another family as part of a workplace wellness program offered by an employer ….”
“We’re injecting terrible opportunities for discrimination in the workplace,” Robert Green, MD, Professor of Medicine (Genetics) at Harvard Medical School, told Gizmodo.
Robert C. Green, MD, MPH (above), Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Associate Physician, Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Geneticist, Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and Director, Genomes2People Research Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, believes weak genetic privacy laws are inhibiting research and clinical care. “People decline genetic tests because of concerns over privacy and genetic discrimination, especially insurance discrimination,” he told Gizmodo. “This is stymying biomedical research and people’s access to healthcare.” (Photo copyright: Harvard Medical School.)
HIPAA Enables Selling of Anonymized Patient Genetic Data
“The Portability Act was passed when genetic testing was just a distant dream on the horizon of personalized medicine,” Pitts wrote in a Forbes commentary. “But today that loophole has proven to be a cash cow. 23andMe has sold access to its database to at least 13 outside pharmaceutical firms … AncestryDNA recently announced a lucrative data-sharing partnership with the biotech company Calico.”
For its part, in an online privacy statement, 23andMe noted, “We will use your genetic information or self-reported information and share it with third parties for scientific research purposes only if you sign the appropriate consent document.”
Similarly, Ancestry points out in its posted privacy statement, “We share your genetic information with research partners only when you provide us with your express consent to do so through our informed consent to research.
Consumers Speak Out on Privacy; States Study Laws and Genetic Testing by Research Hospitals
How do consumers feel about the privacy of their genetic test data? According to a news release, a survey by 23andMe found the following:
80% of Americans are concerned about DNA testing privacy; however,
88% have no awareness or understanding of what testing companies do to protect information; and,
74% of people are, nonetheless, interested in genetic testing.
Meanwhile, as states promulgate various genetic privacy laws, a paper published at SSRN by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Virginia (UV) examined how different state laws affect patients’ decisions about having genetic testing performed at various research hospitals.
The MIT/UV study focused on genetic testing by research hospitals as opposed to the DTC genetic testing by private companies. The paper explained that states have one of three types of laws to protect patients’ privacy in genetic testing:
“Require the provider to notify the individual about potential privacy risks;
“Restrict discriminatory use of genetic data by employers or insurance companies; and,
“Limit redisclosure without consent.”
Findings, netted from more than 81,000 respondents, suggest:
When genetic data are explained in state laws as patient property, more tests are performed;
Conversely, state laws that focus on risk, and ask patients to consent to risk, lead to less people giving the go-ahead for genetic testing.
“We found a positive effect [on the number of tests] was an approach where you gave patients the potential to actually control their own data,” Catherine Tucker, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Management at MIT and one of the study researchers, told MIT News.
Whether the provider of genetic tests is a private testing company or a research hospital’s clinical laboratory, privacy continues to be a concern, not just to physicians but to federal lawmakers as well. Nevertheless, healthcare consumers and patients who receive comprehensible information about how their genetic data may be used seem to be agreeable to it. At least for now, that is.