Let’s Clean Up Our Oceans! New Technique Can Find Even the Tiniest Pieces of Plastic

Current research suggests that we only remove 1% of the plastic waste in our oceans. Thankfully, researchers in the UK have developed a technique to find the rest!

Researchers at the University of Warwick, UK, have developed a new and cheap method to find even the smallest bits of plastic that are floating around in oceans. The research published in Environmental Science & Technology outlines how the fluorescent dye specifically binds to plastic particles, making it possible to see them under a microscope and easily distinguishable from natural materials. The researchers found that tiny pieces of plastic are present at much higher levels than previously thought, which challenges current beliefs regarding the fate of plastic waste.

We produce almost 300 million tons of plastic each year, and more than 8 million tons of this is thought to end up in our oceans. Large pieces of plastic break down over time through weathering, producing tiny particles called ‘microplastics’. These microplastics often go undetected and can be very dangerous for the wildlife living there.

Seawater samples from Plymouth, on the South West coast of England, were taken and used to test the researchers’ dye. The plastic-binding dye could effectively quantify very small fragments of microplastics, less than 1mm, under a fluorescent microscope. The researchers found that these microplastics were present at higher levels than previously thought, as the new technique could detect significantly more than traditional methods.

Ocean microplastics of less than 1mm made visible with a fluorescent dye and microscopy.

They also discovered that the majority of microplastic was polypropylene, which is commonly used for food packaging. Carbios, a pioneer in the bioplasturgy field, is tackling this problem head-on by developing infinitely recyclable bioplastics. This overcomes issues with the current process of recycling plastic, which requires high temperatures and a lot of energy. In contrast, Carbios’ system uses enzymes to break down plastics into their original monomers, which can be re-used.

Carbios recently teamed up with cosmetics giant, L’Oréal, which has agreed to use the biotech’s technology for its new packaging. More and more firms are keen to make themselves ‘green’. Coca Cola and Danone are working with Dutch biotech Avantium to develop sustainable bottles and yoghurt pots, while Audi is collaborating with the French Global Bioenergies for the production of renewable gasoline. Even Lego is investigating the possibility of making its toy blocks out of bioplastics.

Big firms getting involved in renewable materials and energy sets a great example for smaller companies. With companies making an effort to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in our oceans – and throughout the rest of the environment – the challenge of finding a way to remove what’s already there remains within reach.

Our propensity to dump our waste in the sea could have a big impact on our lives, not just the wildlife living in our oceans. Image taken from the How Ocean Pollution Affects Humans infographic on www.plasticoceans.org.

Images – Lycia Walter / shutterstock.com; University of Warwick; Plastic Oceans

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This British Biotech Could Treat T-Cell Lymphoma without Leaving the Body Unprotected

Autolus has revealed a new strategy to treat T-cell lymphoma without harming healthy, protective T cells. The therapy is expected to start human tests soon.

T-cell lymphoma is a form of cancer that affects the cells responsible for protecting our body against infections. Unlike it’s done with cancer types that affect other blood cells, it’s not possible to just wipe all T-cells, which would leave the patient at the mercy of viruses and bacteria.

Autolus, a young biotech spun from University College London (UCL), wants to end this situation with a therapy that selectively removes cancerous T-cells while leaving enough healthy T-cells required for protection. In a study published today in Nature, researchers from Autolus and UCL detail their strategy and prove it works in mice.

The basis of Autolus approach is based on two subtypes of receptors that T-cells naturally produce, called TRBC1 and TRBC2. While healthy T-cells randomly express one of either, those affected by lymphoma always express only one of either in each patient. In the study, the researchers created CAR-T cells engineered to recognize and kill T-cells expressing TRBC1 in mice, which killed tumoral cells while sparing the portion of healthy T cells that expressed TRBC2.

This strategy is the basis of AUTO4, a CAR-T cell therapy being developed by Autolus. The company, which recently closed a big €68M Series C fundraising to boost its technology, expects the treatment to enter a first clinical trial in humans in the coming months. AUTO4 will be the fourth cancer therapy from Autolus to enter the clinic, and the first for T-cell lymphoma.

CAR-T cell therapies have been hailed as a “miracle cure” for cancer. However, the first ones, which were approved just this year, are directed at blood cancers affecting B-cells instead of T-cells. If successful, Autolus could bring the first effective therapy for T-cell lymphoma, for which current treatment options are not good enough. So much so that the US National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) recommends clinical trials as the preferred option after a first treatment for patients diagnosed with this form cancer.

Images via Christoph Burgstedt /Shutterstock; Autolus

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Interviewing Europe’s Most Intense Investor about Trends in Biotech

I interviewed Kate Bingham of SV Health Investors about Alzheimer’s, checkpoint inhibitors, gender diversity and more at BIO Europe.

BIO Europe 2017 was off to a racing start on Monday morning when I chatted with Kate Bingham, Managing Partner of SV Health Investors, formerly SV Life Sciences. Since she joined the firm in 1991, she has become a household name in biotech and usually moderates the opening panel of the conference. Before the session, she was kind enough to make time for my questions.

We started with a general one on her biggest lessons so far, but she turned it around: “What are the things have we not put in place that have caused things to fail?” she countered. “If it’s not really disruptive science, if it’s a me-too drug, or if it’s not radically interesting to make a significant impact on patients, then partners will not be as interested.”

Since drugs to be combined with checkpoint inhibitors seem to be all the rage nowadays, I asked Bingham if such drugs would cut it for SV’s investment strategy. She didn’t rule it out, telling me that checkpoint inhibitors do need a boost to be most effective and describing a very broad space for improvement.

“If you think about why cancers don’t respond to therapy, one is that they’ve got a repressive tumor microenvironment — a checkpoint inhibitor is good to decloak it,” she said. “The second thing you need is some form of antigen that tells the immune system that [a cancer] is foreign and has to be removed, and then you need a third thing to really elicit a strong immune response.”

Bingham has some doubts that personalized medicine will make up for the efficacy deficit in checkpoint inhibitor strategies. “If you have to develop drugs for individuals, that’s going to be a huge cost for health systems, and I don’t’ think it’s a broad durable system,” she remarked, but she clarified that “What I’m rejecting is that every person is going to have a personalized vaccine based on their tumor makeups. I know there’s plenty of evidence that people are doing that now, but I think in the long term, that’s nondurable.”

Speaking of sustainable economics, Bingham also shared her thoughts on the current pricing debate, describing the two extremes of the UK, where “only very exceptional drugs with very strong health economics arguments are reimbursed” and the US, “where there is much less pricing pressure.” Bingham sees the best position as between the two and that there is much more work to be done.

She also remarked that she would ask companies to consider how they would develop drugs that are financially accessible. “The onus is on us to start building some of that cost-benefit argument early into the trials we do so that we ultimately end up with pricing that is acceptable,” she said.

On the subject of money, Bingham was careful to note that when it comes to the challenge of finding the right people for a biotech company, “people” includes investors: “We can have some really fun and exciting science but if you don’t have good people to execute, that can be a real problem — and I would include investors in people.” 

At ON Helix, I heard about the rise of charity investors, so I seized the opportunity to ask about the concern that charities and VCs have misaligned interests. “I think [charity investment] is entirely consistent,” she responded. “They’re completely motivated to invest and make returns to be able to continue to invest, so I don’t think that’s a conflict at all.”

We then shifted gears to discuss the Dementia Discovery Fund that she launched in 2015. For a sense of why Bingham went for it, I asked her about her sense of the space, especially as one of the most commons forms is Alzheimer’s Disease. “My fundamental view on dementia is that unusually we’ve had an incredibly narrow-minded view of the disease,” she said. “If you look at the dollars that have been invested both in academia and pharmaceutical R&D, it has been largely focused around the amyloid-beta cascade.”

“There have been multiple failures for interventions at all parts of that cascade,” she continued. “It’s not that we reject that association between amyloid beta and Alzheimer’s, but we reject that this is the only biological hypothesis that people are using. In the dementia Discovery Fund that we’ve launched, we are explicitly looking for biological interventions outside amyloid beta.”

She remarked that the field could go the way of oncology: fifteen years ago, a tumor was classified according to the organ in which it occurs, but now we talk about drivers of the disease. “We’ve seen what oncology has done by unpicking the different biological mechanisms that drive the cancer with genetics tools that actually allow you to target cell types and tumor types. I think we’ve got exactly this opportunity in dementia.” 

For this reason, the Fund’s explicit goal is to “open up whole new areas of biology in ways that haven’t been looked at before,” and Bingham described her interests in microglial biology, mitochondrial dynamics, synaptic health and signaling, and DNA damage response. “It’s a wide-open space and really exciting,” she said.

Finally, I asked her about the state of gender affairs in biotech since she and another woman penned an infamous letter in response to the hiring of models at JP Morgan in 2016. Bingham is optimistic: “They certainly haven’t gotten worse; in fact, I think they’ve generally gotten better. Here in Europe, I think we’re generally better on gender balance than in the US.”

But there’s still more work to be done, and she doesn’t think quotas will help. “We’re in such a high-risk area that if I have to recruit someone for diversity rather than because they’re the best possible person, I won’t do that,” she told me. “But, should we enrich recruitment processes to make sure that we have the broadest range of candidates from which to choose? I think we should be doing that.”

Importantly, since the two companies were called out, “one of them, Life Science Advisors, has become a very serious advocate and are pioneers now in gender diversity,” said Bingham. The firm has created a nonprofit, for which Bingham is a board member, to help well-qualified senior women join the boards of companies; so far, they’ve completed twelve placements.

“I think that’s a very clever way of increasing diversity,” she commented. Bingham views board membership as a stepping stone to more experience that will hopefully see women to the position of CEO. “I’m really amazed by how much progress has been made and really pleased by the broad attention it has got from industry,” she concluded. 

Images from the author



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Study Reveals No Evidence to Support Most European Cancer Drug Approvals

A new study concludes the majority of cancer drugs approved by the EMA between 2009 and 2013 weren’t backed by sufficient evidence that they are effective. A team of researchers from King’s College London and the London School of Economics …

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