The Week That Wasn't: Cold Cure, Sickle Cell, Polluted Placenta

Donavyn Coffey


September 20, 2019

This week you may have read headlines about a protein that's key to defeating the common cold, an Alabama man cured of a genetic disease, or pollution particles reaching the placenta. Here's why you didn't see those stories covered by Medscape Medical News.

The Common Cold, Cured?

Two teams of California researchers are making headway toward the ever-elusive cure for the common cold. The trick, it seems, is not altering the virus but altering the human cells they infect.

Research teams from Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco, found that the enzyme SETD3 is critical to viral replication. In human cell lines lacking SETD3, replication of enteroviruses was reduced 100- to 1000-fold, depending on the cell type. The researchers attempted to infect the cells with multiple types of enterovirus, including poliovirus and three types of rhinovirus, none of which were able to thrive without SETD3.

"Our results reveal a crucial role of a host protein in viral pathogenesis, and suggest targeting SETD3 as a potential mechanism for controlling viral infections," the authors write in an article published in Nature Microbiology.

This study provides a mechanistic foundation for further drug research, not yet a cure for the common cold. Scientists will need to find a way to block the part of SETD3 the virus needs without hindering the enzyme from performing its other cellular functions. Such a drug could treat the common cold and a host of other enteroviral infections, but since it doesn't yet exist, this is not must-read news for a busy clinician.

Sickle Cell Free

After 2 years of gene therapy at the National Institutes of Health, Lynndrick Holmes, a 29-year-old Mobile, Alabama, native born with sickle cell anemia, has been declared sickle cell free, according to news reports. He's one of seven participants in a clinical trial by bluebird bio, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, biotech firm, that finished in February. The therapy, LentiGlobin, involves removing and editing patients' stem cells using a lentiviral vector to produce an engineered form of hemoglobin (HbAT87Q) instead of the problematic S-hemoglobin.

Although Holmes' improvement illustrates the exciting promise of gene therapy for patients with sickle cell, it will take years of monitoring a large group of patients to confirm LentiGlobin as an efficacious, long-term treatment. Clinical trials are ongoing. We decided not to cover an early result from a study that involved one patient and that has not been peer reviewed for publication in the medical literature.

Atmospheric Soot Reaching the Fetus

A new study published in Nature Communications reported that soot inhaled by people who are pregnant can make its way into — but maybe not across — the placenta. Research has previously connected air pollution to adverse birth outcomes, including premature birth. In this study, Belgian researchers used a scanning technique called femtosecond pulsed illumination to illuminate black carbon in placenta samples and quantify it.

They analyzed 20 samples: 10 placentas from mothers exposed to high levels of pollution, and 10 from mothers exposed to lower levels of pollution. The researchers found that higher exposure to black carbon during pregnancy corresponded to higher concentrations of black carbon in the placenta. Besides the small sample size, the study didn't show any evidence that black carbon crosses the placenta or affects the fetus. Although the study introduces an interesting methodology, it doesn't change how clinicians should counsel pregnant women, so we decided not to cover it.

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