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Ontario researchers invent way to store vaccines at higher temperatures

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Ontario researchers say they’ve come up with a simple way to store vaccines at higher temperatures for weeks at a time, potentially solving a major problem in the fight against preventable diseases around the world.

The cheap technology from the team at McMaster University involves the use of a sugary gel that allows for easier, longer shipments of vaccines that typically need to be consistently stored at cold temperatures.

“If we can make vaccines easier and more accessible through technology, then we can save a lot of lives,” said Vincent Leung, a chemical engineering professor and the lead author of the study that was published Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Most vaccines require the “cold chain,” an uninterrupted refrigerated supply chain where they’re stored at temperatures between 2 C and 8 C at all times. Otherwise, the effectiveness of vaccines can be greatly affected, the study notes.

Leung worked for four years on the project as part of his doctoral research and had help from other disciplines, including biochemists and immunologists, he said.

The solution the researchers devised is simple.

McMaster chemical engineers had previously created a sugary gel for use in various applications, including an edible coating that can prolong the shelf life of fruits and vegetables.

The research team mixed two sugars — pullulan and trehalose — with the vaccines and let them dry, either by air, or vacuum to speed up the process. The gel seals in the vaccine, which can later be reconstituted with water by clinicians in the field and given to patients.

“It’s easier to think of Listerine breath strips because that’s the main material,” Leung explained. “It will form a film like that, then (is) put into a vial for deployment.”

For the study, the research team stored mixtures of the sugary gel and numerous vaccine types at various temperatures for different lengths of time and then tested the vaccines.

They found, for example, that “enveloped DNA vaccines” that usually require consistent cold storage, such as the herpes simplex virus type 2 vaccine, retained their efficacy for at least two months of storage at 40 C with the use of the sugary gel. The team also showed the inactivated influenza vaccine remained effective after three months of storage at 40 C.

“This can really improve deployment and give easier access to those that don’t have refrigeration or access to electricity,” Leung said.

The fact that the dried gel vaccine can easily be reconstituted by clinicians in the field could make the storage and transportation method invaluable in certain situations, such as the delivery of Ebola vaccines in remote areas of Africa.

“Part of our goal was to have a very simple and cost-effective solution to address this accessibility issue for vaccines,” Leung said.

The research team is now looking at partnerships and more funding to further develop the technology, and is also going through the proper regulatory procedures to be approved by the likes of Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“The good thing is the sugars we’re using are already used in the food and drug industry and approved by FDA and Health Canada,” Leung said. “On that end, it should not be as hard to get it approved.”

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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Blair says more gun-control action needed, signals no new steps before election

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OTTAWA — Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair says more must be done to address gun violence, but is also signalling that no new measures will be taken before the fall election.

Steps could — and should — be taken to prevent the theft, illegal diversion and cross-border smuggling of handguns, Blair said Tuesday. 

As he entered a cabinet meeting, Blair emphasized the importance of secure storage of firearms to prevent them from being stolen and ending up in the wrong hands.

The government is also open to working with municipalities to allow them to decide exactly where, or even if, firearms can be stored within their boundaries, he said.

However, the parliamentary sitting is expected to conclude shortly and the government is scrambling to tie up loose ends before the summer recess and an election campaign likely to begin in September.  

“Some of this would require regulatory and legislative change,” Blair said. “And I think it’s important not only to do the right thing, but to take the time to do it right.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Blair last August to study the possibility of a ban on handguns and assault-style rifles after a shooting spree in Toronto.

A recently released summary of a federal consultation said Canadians were divided on the idea.

Still, Blair’s office said late last month that no options had been ruled out to clamp down on guns “designed to hunt people” as it weighed new measures.

Rumours of a federal ban on the popular AR-15 semi-automatic rifle began to circulate.

While Blair reiterated Tuesday there are firearms the government considers “so dangerous that there really is no place in a safe and civil society for them,” he made no firm commitment to ban or buy back such guns from owners.

Blair stressed a need for measures to ensure secure storage, prevent people from buying firearms on behalf of criminals and deter smuggling into Canada from the United States, which he called “the largest handgun arsenal in the world.”

“There are a number of very effective measures that I believe that we can and must take to create a safer environment.”

The law already requires safe storage of firearms, but there has been a “significant increase” in the theft of large numbers of handguns from homes and retailers, with the guns ending up on the street in the wrong hands, he said.

Blair acknowledged there are responsible handgun owners who obey all the rules. “We may ask them to undertake additional measures to secure their weapons to make sure that they’re not vulnerable to being stolen.”

Allowing municipalities to enact additional restrictions on handguns would not only be “wholly inadequate,” it would also be inefficient, said Heidi Rathjen, co-ordinator of PolySeSouvient, which wants an overhaul of the gun classification system with the ultimate aim of banning weapons specifically designed to kill people.

“All one has to do is consider the glaring disaster resulting from a patchwork of state and local gun laws south of the border,” she said Tuesday.

“And one has to ask: why would stricter controls on handguns be justified in cities and not in rural areas? It seems more like the Liberals chose not to deal with the highly politicized issue of banning handguns and instead decided to pass the buck to municipalities.”

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press


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Prevention key focus of dementia strategy released by federal government

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OTTAWA — The cornerstone philosophy behind the federal government’s long-awaited strategy for confronting dementia is a simple one: prevent Canadians from developing the condition in the first place.

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, who unveiled the strategy Monday at an event in Toronto, said she has an intimate understanding of the difficulty that comes with dealing with a family member who’s in cognitive decline.

“Being the daughter of a mother who lives with dementia, it is certainly near and dear to my heart,” Petitpas Taylor said in an interview.

“When I see many family members that have had to deal with the challenges, I know, because I’ve been there and we certainly want to make sure that we do all that we can to alleviate the stress that’s involved.”

The government’s dementia plan, which focuses primarily on prevention, advancing therapies and helping patients and caregivers, includes $50 million over five years to support the strategy, money that was announced in the federal budget earlier this year.

It defines dementia as a collection of symptoms affecting the brain that include a decline in cognitive abilities such as memory, language, basic math skills, judgment and planning. Mood and behaviour can also change as a result, the document notes.

The report says more than 419,000 Canadian seniors have been diagnosed with some form of dementia, and they rely on an average of 26 hours a week of help from relatives and friends. Some 78,600 new cases of dementia are diagnosed every year among those aged 65 years and older, with 63 per cent of those being women.

At its current rate, the condition will cost caregivers and the health care system a staggering $16.6 billion a year by 2031.

“As this number does not include those under age 65 who may have a young onset diagnosis, nor those that have not been diagnosed, the true picture of dementia in Canada may be somewhat larger,” it says.

“While dementia is not an inevitable part of aging, age is the most important risk factor. As a result, with a growing and aging population, the number of Canadians living with dementia is expected to increase in future decades.”

Canadians can stave off the danger as they get older by getting more exercise, adopting healthier eating habits and avoiding tobacco, all of which can increase the risk of stroke, a common cause of dementia.

“There is growing persuasive scientific evidence that healthy living from an early age may prevent or delay the onset of dementia.”

Petitpas Taylor also announced $46 million over five years for the second phase of Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, a hub for research on dementia created in 2014.

The federal government plans to contribute $31.6 million through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, with an additional $14.4 million being provided by partners, including the Alzheimer Society.

Alzheimer Society of Canada CEO Pauline Tardif sent out a email Monday urging supporters to keep up the pressure on the government through this fall’s election campaign, in order to ensure dementia remains “top of mind for our politicians.”

—Follow @kkirkup on Twitter

Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press

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