The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

November 17, 2022

Possible biomarkers of posttreatment Lyme disease

Lyme disease has been a controversial illness over the last two decades because of a fundamental disconnect between the standard-of-care treatment paradigm, a short course of antibiotics that cures the tick-borne bacterial infection, and the large number of people who claim it’s not enough. There are 30,000 reported U.S. cases of Lyme a year and an estimated 15 times as many that go unreported. Perhaps as many as 10–20 percent of all people who are treated for Lyme complain of suffering lingering, often long-term symptoms like pain, fatigue, and brain fog post-infection. An official medical classification “posttreatment Lyme disease” has also emerged and has been controversial because there are no biomarkers available to definitively diagnose it. Do we finally have some possible candidates? Researchers at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore say they may have now identified some. Analyzing gene expression levels in the blood of 152 people with posttreatment Lyme disease and comparing them to gene levels in people with acute infections and uninfected people, they discovered 35 possible biomarkers—which, interestingly, were not linked to obvious inflammation or immune pathways. Cell Reports Medicine

A principal-component analysis showing the similarities and distinctions in gene expression profiles of people with acute Lyme disease (purple), posttreatment Lyme disease (green), and healthy controls (red). Each dot represents one person, and clustered dots mean those people have similar gene expression profiles. Cell Press

Monoclonal antibodies prevent malaria

An experimental approach to protecting people against malaria has proven effective in a phase 2 clinical trial involving 330 people in the rural towns of Kalifabougou and Torodo in the Republic of Mali. The U.S.-sponsored trial divided participants into three groups, each given a single injection. One shot contained a 10 milligram dose of monoclonal antibodies targeting the malaria pathogen Plasmodium falciparum, the second a 40 milligram dose, and the third a placebo. It worked. After six months, the people who received the antibodies were protected against malaria with 75 and 88 percent efficacy, depending on the dose they received, which is a lot better than the 36 percent efficacy seen after 4 doses of Mosquirix, the first and only malaria vaccine to hit the market. But then there’s the question of access. Vaccines are often inexpensive, while monoclonal antibodies can be exorbitantly pricey. With 200–400 million people worldwide living in areas at risk of malaria, many in low-income settings, how many are likely to have access? NEJM

AirPods as hearing aids

Have you ever used your phone’s camera to blow up an image of something too small to read? Researchers at Taipei Veterans General Hospital in Taiwan looked at the electroacoustic features of common hearing aids and compared them to smartphone-bundled AirPods Pro. Testing their performance among adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss, the researchers found that the AirPods Pro were good enough to be considered competent “personal sound amplification products.” That raises the question: Could earbuds and smartphones be an inexpensive solution for bringing hearing assistance to the masses? The researchers caution clinical studies are needed to investigate questions of safety and efficacy, but the study is promising. For one thing, there’s a tremendous growing need. The number of Americans with hearing loss is expected to double in the next 40 years. Moreover, there continues to be social stigma associated with wearing hearing aids, while wearing earbuds all day long is almost normal. iScience

Uterine fibroid growth linked to common chemicals

Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, have found an association between levels of a chemical called MEHHP in the urine of 712 women and their risk of uterine fibroid diagnosis. MEHHP belongs to a common class of chemicals known as phthalates, more commonly called plasticizers, which are used to increase the durability of plastics. They are found in hundreds of products—from soaps to shampoos to hair sprays to food packaging to medical products. The researchers also found a potential mechanism linking the chemical exposure to the fibroid growth. “These findings are expected to open new avenues in the [fibroid] research field and facilitate the development of novel intervention strategies for the treatment or prevention of the disease,” the researchers write. PNAS

A whole new meaning to grass-fed milk

Dairy cows fed industrial hemp byproducts containing high concentrations of THC and other cannabinoids may suffer behavioral changes and reduced milk yields, warn researchers at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin. Policy revisions within the European Union now allow for expanded use of industrial hemp products in animal feed, but it’s unclear what risks that may pose. The researchers conducted a series of experiments that showed cows given hemp feed derived from whole plants with very low cannabinoid concentrations exhibited no behavioral effects. But animals fed a more cannabinoid-rich diet of feed consisting of leaves, flowers, and seeds showed behavior changes like yawning, drooling, unsteady movement, and lower milk production. Cannabis-fed cows could potentially express THC in their milk, but more research is needed to determine the exact risk. Nature Food