The Week That Wasn't: New Virus, Child Dementia Treatment, Chemo Bubbles

Donavyn Coffey


November 15, 2019

Exciting stories about a never-before-seen virus, a 5-year-old dementia patient responding to treatment, and cancer drugs delivered by sound wave flooded news sites and social media threads this week. You didn't find those stories on Medscape Medical News, though. Here's why.

A New Virus Discovered in Humans

Researchers in Austria isolated a previously unknown virus from 111 samples of human bodily fluids. Their study was published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology. The scientists were digging into what they call "viral dark matter": the populations of bacteriophages — viruses that infect bacteria — that occupy the human body. Bacteriophages are of interest because they can transfer antibiotic resistance genes to the bacteria they infect, which becomes a problem for humans.

Almost one in seven of the research samples contained bacteriophages, and one contained a phage that had not been previously identified. Just as surprising, two thirds of the samples that contained bacteriophages didn't contain their supposed host Escherichia coli, which suggests phages can be transported without bacteria, the researchers said in a press release.

Clearly, headlines about a "new virus in humans" were a bit misleading. This exploratory research conducted with a small number of samples can improve scientific understanding of phages in the human body, but it does not inform clinical practice. The study offers no new evidence that phages affect human health.

Five-Year-Old With Dementia Recovers

At the age of 3, Harley Bond was diagnosed with Sanfilippo syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that results in childhood dementia and fatal brain damage. Children like Harley are missing one of four enzymes required to metabolize a large sugar molecule called heparan sulphate. Without the enzyme, waste accumulates in the brain, causing brain damage. After enrolling in a clinical trial, Harley is starting to show improvements, according to news reports.

There are currently no treatments for the condition, and most children don't survive to adulthood. The clinical trial, offered by two US pharmaceutical companies, involves an implanted device that releases small amounts of the missing enzyme. A total of 22 children are enrolled in the trial worldwide. With the implant, Harley's speech has improved, and he can recognize his parents most days. The drug isn't a cure, but his parents hope it could prevent the disease's progression.

While Harley's progress is certainly good news for his family, a single case described in the media can't tell us much from a clinical standpoint. A peer-reviewed analysis of the drug's overall performance in all the children treated, which hasn't yet been published, would be more valuable to neurologists treating children with Sanfilippo syndrome.

Cancer Drug Delivery by Sound Wave

Scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles, say they may be able to use sound waves to direct cancer drugs straight to the site of a tumor. In a study published in Applied Physics Letters, the researchers used acoustic vibrations to maneuver tiny water bubbles that are 13% the width of a human hair through tubes in pig tissue. Using ultrafast imaging, they tracked the bubbles' movement through the model. If the microbubbles contained cancer drugs, the researchers say, the method could deliver treatment more precisely and with fewer adverse effects.

The testing is currently limited to the tubes inserted into pig flesh. The authors hope their next step will involve live animal studies, so this treatment method is years away from testing in the clinic. It's interesting sci-fi but not yet relevant for busy oncologists.

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