The Observatory & Fast Facts

Dec. 21, 2018

New blood test detects early stage ovarian cancer. Research on a bacterial toxin first discovered in Adelaide, Australia has led to the development of a new blood test for the early diagnosis of ovarian cancer, a global disease which kills over 150,000 women every year.

The new blood test has the potential to dramatically improve early detection of the disease, although it will require further testing before it is available for clinicians.

A research team from the University of Adelaide and Griffith University have been studying the interactions between the toxin and an abnormal glycan (sugar) expressed on the surface of human cancer cells and released into the blood.

The team has now engineered a harmless portion of the toxin to enhance its specificity for the cancer glycan and used this to detect it in blood samples from women with ovarian cancer.

A paper published in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications has shown that the new test detected significant levels of the cancer glycan in blood samples from over 90 percent of women with stage 1 ovarian cancer and in 100 percent of samples from later stages of the disease, but not in any of the samples from healthy controls.

“Ovarian cancer is notoriously difficult to detect in its early stages, when there are more options for treatment and survival rates are better. Our new test is therefore a potential game changer,” says Professor James Paton, Director of the University of Adelaide’s Research Center for Infectious Diseases.

Professor Michael Jennings, Deputy Director of the Institute for Glycomics at Griffith University said, “Detection of this tumor marker may also play a role in a simple liquid biopsy to monitor disease stage and treatment.”

The team is currently seeking scientific and commercial partners to further test the technology with larger numbers of patient samples and to adapt it for mass screening.


Cellphone technology developed to detect HIV. The management of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which cripples the immune system by attacking healthy cells, remains a major global health challenge in developing countries that lack infrastructure and trained medical professionals.

Investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital have designed a portable and affordable mobile diagnostic tool, utilizing a cellphone and nanotechnology, with the ability to detect HIV viruses and monitor its management in resource-limited regions. The novel platform is described in a paper published recently in Nature Communications.

“Early detection of HIV is critical to prevent disease progression and transmission, and it requires long-term monitoring, which can be a burden for families that have to travel to reach a clinic or hospital,” said senior author Hadi Shafiee, PhD, a principal investigator in the Division of Engineering in Medicine and Renal Division of Medicine at the Brigham. “This rapid and low-cost cellphone system represents a new method for detecting acute infection, which would reduce the risk of virus transmission and could also be used to detect early
treatment failure.”

Traditional virus monitoring methods for HIV are expensive, requiring the use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Shafiee and his colleagues sought to design an affordable, simple tool that makes HIV testing and monitoring possible for individuals in developing countries with less access to medical care.

Utilizing nanotechnology, a microchip, a cellphone, and a 3D-printed phone attachment, the researchers created a platform that can detect the RNA nucleic acids of the virus from a single drop of blood. The device detects the amplified HIV nucleic acids through on-phone monitoring of the motion of DNA-engineered beads without using bulky or expensive equipment. The detection precision was evaluated for specificity and sensitivity.

Researchers found that the platform allowed the detection of HIV with 99.1 percent specificity and 94.6 percent sensitivity at a clinically relevant threshold value of 1,000 virus particles/ml, with results within one hour. The total material cost of the microchip, phone attachment and reagents was less than $5 per test.

“Health workers in developing countries could easily use these devices when they travel to perform HIV testing and monitoring. Because the test is so quick, critical decisions about the next medical step could be made right there,” said Shafiee. “This would eliminate the burden of trips to the medical clinic and provide individuals with a more efficient means for
managing their HIV.”

“We could use this same technology as a rapid and low-cost diagnostic tool for other viruses and bacteria as well,” said lead author Mohamed Shehata Draz, PhD, an instructor in the Division of Engineering in Medicine and Renal Division of Medicine at the Brigham.


Shingles vaccine in short supply as demand increases. At least 1 million people get shingles every year in the United States, and 1 in 3 will get it in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. So, once you’ve had chickenpox, the virus is in your body and you can develop shingles.

Even if you’ve never had chickenpox, a person with shingles can pass the virus to anyone who isn’t immune to chickenpox. This usually happens with direct contact with the open sores from a shingles rash. But instead of shingles, the virus will produce chickenpox.

Shingles is more common in adults older than 50, but that doesn’t mean younger people won’t get shingles. For people younger than 50, it’s typically not on their radar. Dr. Craig Dolven, with Orange Park Medical Center, said it should be.

Dolven said in rare cases shingles develops from the chickenpox vaccine even if the patient never got chickenpox. The vaccine is a live virus that can leave people susceptible to shingles. People who are vaccinated are still better off because they get a milder cause of chickenpox or shingles in most cases. But no vaccine offers a 100 percent guarantee.

Shingles can be triggered by stress or anything that weakens your immune system. Symptoms of shingles include a painful, blistering rash on one side of the body. It attacks the nerves under the skin, which is why it’s so painful. Sufferers might also feel
tingling or numbness.

For people 50 and older, there’s a way to reduce the risk of getting shingles by more than 90 percent. Dolven speaks with great confidence about the shingles vaccine, Shingrix, which is 90 percent effective at preventing shingles. After the CDC designated Shingrix as the preferred shingles vaccine, demand prompted a shortage.

The CDC recommends two doses, two to six months apart, for adults age 50 and over, but the shortage has made getting the second dose within the recommended window difficult for some people.

Dolven said if you’re having trouble finding the second dose, don’t fret. It’s still recommended to get the vaccine as soon as you can get it.

“The CDC says go ahead and give it to them if they’re outside of that window and it should work just as good,” Dolven explained.

If you want to see where the Shingrix vaccine is available, enter your ZIP code on the following website and it will reflect pharmacies where the vaccine is available:

Parkinson’s disease

Appendix linked to toxic Parkinson’s protein. Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that leads to shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with walking, balance, and coordination. Symptoms usually begin gradually and get worse over time. Parkinson’s disease results from the loss of the dopamine-producing brain cells that control movement.

Many brain cells of people with Parkinson’s contain Lewy bodies, which are unusual clumps of the protein alpha-synuclein. Clumps of this protein are thought to be toxic to the cells and lead to their death. This protein has also been shown to accumulate in the gut of Parkinson’s patients. There is evidence that the protein may be able to travel from the gut to the brain via the connecting vagal nerve. Gastrointestinal symptoms are often associated with Parkinson’s disease and can start up to 20 years before the symptoms of brain cell degradation.

A team led by Dr. Viviane Labrie at the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, MI, sought to explore whether the gut could be involved in triggering Parkinson’s disease. They focused on the appendix. Despite its reputation as a useless organ, the appendix is an immune tissue involved in the body’s defense against microbes and helps regulate bacteria in the intestine.

The team analyzed the records of nearly 1.7 million people whose health information was tracked for up to 52 years. They compared the chances of developing Parkinson’s disease among those who’d had their appendix removed with those who hadn’t. The work was supported in part by NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Results appeared on October 31, 2018, in Science Translational Medicine.

People who’d had their appendix removed had a 19.3 percent lower chance of Parkinson’s disease. Those who lived in rural areas and had an appendectomy had an even lower chance, 25.4 percent. People who’d had an appendectomy and developed Parkinson’s showed a delayed onset of the disease relative to those who still had their appendix—an average delay of 3.6 years for those who’d had an appendectomy at least 30 years prior.

The team also found a build-up of the toxic form of alpha-synuclein in the appendixes of healthy volunteers, suggesting the appendix may be a reservoir for the disease-forming protein and may be involved in the development of Parkinson’s disease.