The Ik, a small ethnic group in Uganda, are not incredibly selfish and mean as portrayed in a 1972 book by a prominent anthropologist, according to a Rutgers-led study.
Instead, the Ik are quite cooperative and generous with one another, and their culture features many traits that encourage generosity, according to the study in the journal Evolutionary Human Sciences.
“The Mountain People,” an ethnography by anthropologist Colin M. Turnbull, made a big splash for an academic work. The New York Times and Time magazine reviewed the book, which inspired a stage play, and physician Lewis Thomas included an essay about the Ik in his bestselling book “The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher.”
The Ik live in the far northeast corner of Uganda, near its borders with Kenya and South Sudan. A Rutgers-led team of scientists studied them as part of The Human Generosity Project, a transdisciplinary effort to better understand generosity and other forms of cooperation among people around the world.
The scientists included the Ik in their project because of Turnbull’s claim that, far from being generous, the Ik were extraordinarily selfish and mean. He attributed the selfish behaviors he witnessed to a culture of selfishness.
Lead author Cathryn Townsend, a former Rutgers post-doctoral scientist and faculty member now at Baylor University, spent 2016 with the Ik and returned briefly in 2017. She discovered that their culture includes many traits that encourage generosity. For example, a favorite Ik saying is tomora marang, which means “it’s good to share,” and many Ik believe that Earth spirits called kijawika monitor people’s behavior, punish those who fail to share and reward the very generous.
Townsend also documented Ik generosity quantitatively using an experimental game, finding they’re no less generous, on average, than any of the hundreds of other groups of people in the world who have played the same game.
Why, then, did Turnbull observe so much selfishness among the Ik? Although Turnbull was aware that they experienced a severe famine while he was there, he failed to appreciate the impact starvation has on human behavior. Instead, he followed a common tendency among cultural anthropologists to attribute all human behavior to culture.
“One implication of Townsend’s work is that we must always consider the possibility that factors other than culture, including but not limited to starvation, can also shape human behavior,” said senior author Lee Cronk, a professor in the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “Another implication is that we can no longer use the Ik as an example of a society that has embraced selfishness. Far from being an exception, the Ik are just as cooperative and generous as other people around the world. They do not deserve the reputation they have been given by Turnbull’s book.”
Townsend plans to return to the Ik to continue her studies of how they cooperate. She will be looking in particular at how they are interdependent with one another.
Coauthors include Athena Aktipis at Arizona State University and Daniel Balliet at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
CRISPR Therapeutics Announces Huge €400M Public Fundraise
The Swiss firm CRISPR Therapeutics has priced a public offering on the Nasdaq Global Market at around €400M, which it will use to develop therapies based on the gene editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 for genetic disorders and cancer.
This fundraise is the second-highest global share offering from a European biotech so far this year after the €784.7M raised by the Dutch antibody company argenx at the end of May.
The proceeds from the offering will be used to finance the development of unspecified candidate therapies on the company’s pipeline. The most advanced programs include phase I-stage cell therapies for blood disorders — co-developed with US partner Vertex Therapeutics — and off-the-shelf CAR T-cell immunotherapies for blood cancer and solid tumors.
Additionally, CRISPR Therapeutics plans to fund further development of its CRISPR/Cas9-based technology and improve its manufacturing infrastructure. The company announced last week that it will be building a new manufacturing facility in Massachusetts, USA, which will enable the scaling-up of the clinical and commercial production of its therapies.
CRISPR Therapeutics has been a trailblazer in the field of gene editing since 2015. In partnership with Vertex, it developed the first CRISPR/Cas9-based therapy to enter a clinical trial in Europe. The aim of the phase I/II trial was to test the treatment’s potential in patients with the genetic conditions beta-thalassemia and sickle cell disease, where the blood has a lower capacity for carrying oxygen.
According to interim results from two patients published in November, the treatment improved symptoms for months after injection. The data were also updated last month, with CRISPR Therapeutics’ CEO Samarth Kulkarni saying that the company is beginning to see early evidence of a durable treatment benefit.
As well as blood disorders, CRISPR Therapeutics and Vertex signed a separate deal last year worth up to €890M to co-develop treatments for genetic diseases causing muscle weakness such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy and myotonic dystrophy type 1.
Alongside its main pipeline, CRISPR Therapeutics is working with the US company Viacyte to develop gene-edited cell therapies for diabetes, and is also researching ways to inject CRISPR/Cas9-based therapies directly into patients without using a cell therapy.
Image from Shutterstock
‘Fang’tastic: researchers report amphibians with snake-like dental glands
Utah State University and Butantan Institute scientists publish evolutionary findings in ‘iScience.’
LOGAN, UTAH, USA – Utah State University biologist Edmund ‘Butch’ Brodie, Jr. and colleagues from São Paulo’s Butantan Institute report the first known evidence of oral venom glands in amphibians. Their research, supported by the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, appears in the July 3, 2020, issue of iScience.
“We think of amphibians – frogs, toads and the like — as basically harmless,” says Brodie, emeritus professor in USU’s Department of Biology. “We know a number of amphibians store nasty, poisonous secretions in their skin to deter predators. But to learn at least one can inflict injury from its mouth is extraordinary.”
Brodie and his colleagues discovered the oral glands in a family of caecilians, serpent-like creatures related to frogs and salamanders. Neither snakes nor worms, caecilians are found in tropical climates of Africa, Asian and the Americas. Some are aquatic and some, like the ringed caecilian (Siphonops annulatus) studied by Brodie’s team, live in burrows of their own making.
In 2018, the team reported the species secreted substances from skin glands at both ends of its snake-like body. Concentrated at the head and extending the length of the body, the creature emits a mucous-like lubricant that enables it to quickly dive underground to escape predators. At the tail, caecilians have glands armed with a toxin, which acts as a last line of chemical defense, blocking a hastily burrowed tunnel from hungry hunters.
“What we didn’t know is these caecilians have tiny fluid-filled glands in the upper and lower jaw, with long ducts that open at the base of each of their spoon-shaped teeth,” Brodie says.
His research colleague Pedro Luiz Mailho-Fontana, who studied with Brodie as a visiting graduate student at USU’s Logan campus in 2015, noticed the never-before-described oral glands. Using embryonic analysis, Mailho-Fontana, first author of the paper, discovered the glands – called “dental glands” – originated from a different tissue than the slime and poison glands found in the caecilian’s skin.
“The poisonous skin glands form from the epidermis, but these oral glands develop from the dental tissue, and this is the same developmental origin we find in the venom glands of reptiles,” he says.
The researchers surmise caecilians, equipped with no limbs and only a mouth for hunting, activate their oral glands when they bite down on prey, including worms, termites, frogs and lizards.
The team doesn’t yet know the biochemical composition of the fluid held in the oral glands.
“If we can verify the secretions are toxic, these glands could indicate an early evolutionary design of oral venom organs,” Brodie says. “They may have evolved in caecilians earlier than in snakes.”
Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 Vaccine Shows Phase I Promise
A vaccine made out of messenger RNA (mRNA), developed by the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, has produced antibodies against the Covid-19 pathogen in healthy volunteers.
The results come from an interim analysis of an ongoing phase I clinical trial in 45 participants. So far, all test subjects who received two injections of the vaccine candidate have developed antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind Covid-19. The blood levels of these antibodies in vaccinated subjects also significantly exceeded those of patients that have recovered from Covid-19.
With no serious side effects reported so far, a decision on whether to launch a phase II/III trial could come as early as this month.
BioNTech and Pfizer are developing four different mRNA vaccine candidates against Covid-19 and the interim results come from the most advanced of the four. All of the candidates consist of delivering mRNA molecules into the body that cause the patient’s cells to produce fragments, or ‘antigens,’ of the Covid-19 coronavirus. The immune system then detects these antigens and produces antibodies ready for when the real virus shows up.
Two of the candidates carry mRNA instructions for making an antigen found on the surface of the novel coronavirus called the spike glycoprotein, which is thought to play a key role in the virus’ ability to enter cells. The other two candidates — which include the one that produced the latest clinical interim results — encode a small part of the spike glycoprotein called the receptor-binding domain.
“The receptor-binding domain candidates contain the piece of the spike that we think is most important for eliciting neutralizing antibodies for inactivation of the virus,” a Pfizer representative told me.
In addition, the four Covid-19 candidates developed by Pfizer and BioNTech use different mRNA formats that tweak key drug characteristics such as immunogenicity. The partners’ most advanced Covid-19 candidate comes in a format called nucleoside modified mRNA, which is designed to stop the immune system from attacking the drug molecules before they reach the cells.
Most traditional vaccines deliver antigens to stimulate the body’s immune system to develop corresponding antibodies. But because mRNA vaccines instruct the patients’ own cells to build the antigens, they could have a faster development than traditional vaccines.
“mRNA vaccines have the potential to offer rapid manufacturing, including to large scale,” Sarah Gilbert, Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Oxford, UK — who wasn’t involved in the study — told me.
“Up to now, there has been very little data on safety or immunogenicity of this new technology in clinical trials, but the pandemic has provided both the need and the opportunity to assess that. In a few months’ time, I expect the world will have a great deal more data on how this technology performs in comparison to more established technologies.”
Of the dozens of vaccine candidates in development against Covid-19 globally, a large group of them uses mRNA technology. One of the most advanced mRNA candidates is being developed by the US biotech Moderna, which released positive interim phase I results in May. Moderna’s project is about to enter phase III trials, though international media recently reported a likely delay in those plans due to last-minute protocol changes.
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