A new Ebola vaccine is being tested on healthy volunteers at Oxford University.
In September 2014, a separate trial of another Ebola vaccine got under way in Oxford.
This latest trial involves 72 volunteers aged 18-50.
Initial tests in monkeys showed the vaccine, developed by Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson and Johnson, gave complete protection against Ebola.
The volunteers in Oxford are the first humans to receive the vaccine.
Dr. Matthew Snape, from the Oxford Vaccine Group, part of the University of Oxford Department of Paediatrics, said: “We aim to immunize all participants within a month.
“The main aim is to understand the safety profile of the vaccines.”
The trial involves volunteers receiving an additional booster dose one or two months after the initial injection.
Similar small trials will also get under way in the US and three African countries unaffected by Ebola.
The first dose is designed to prime the immune system with the second booster dose to enhance the immune response.
The two doses contain different components, but both include genes for a protein from the Zaire strain of the Ebola virus.
The trial organizers stress the vaccine cannot cause anyone to be infected with Ebola.
The immune response the vaccine generates – both antibodies and T cells – will be measured over the course of a year.
Johnson and Johnson said it hoped to begin a larger Phase II trial in Africa and Europe within three months and then to have the vaccine available for use in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone by the middle of 2015.
The pharmaceutical company says it could have 2 million doses of the vaccine available in 2015.
The health crisis triggered by the Ebola outbreak has led to a huge acceleration in the pace of vaccine research.
In September a separate team at the Jenner Institute in Oxford began a trial of an Ebola vaccine.
GSK and the National Institutes of Health in the US developed the vaccine.
Results of that trial are due shortly and there are plans for the vaccine to be offered to health workers in Ebola affected countries of West Africa later this month.
The study led by the Jenner Institute has now been modified to include a booster dose.
Merck has recently bought the rights to a third Ebola vaccine being developed by the biotech company NewLink Genetics.
That vaccine is being tested in Switzerland.
The trial, in Geneva, was halted in December 2014 after some volunteers complained of joint pain.
It resumed this week, with participants being given a lower dose.
Ebola vaccines are also being developed in Russia.
Dr. Matthew Snape said: “The fact that there are at least three Ebola vaccines entering these early safety trials is good news.
“We are not playing first past the post here. Having multiple vaccines progressing through clinical trials increases the likelihood of vaccine manufacturers having the capacity to meet production demands should mass immunization be required.
“The more vaccines and more manufacturers there are working on this, the better.”
According to a major scientific study, HIV is evolving into a milder form, becoming less deadly and less infectious.
The research team at the University of Oxford shows the virus is being “watered down” as it adapts to our immune systems.
It said it was taking longer for HIV infection to cause AIDS and that the changes in the virus may help efforts to contain the pandemic.
Some virologists suggest the virus may eventually become “almost harmless” as it continues to evolve.
More than 35 million people around the world are infected with HIV and inside their bodies a devastating battle takes place between the immune system and the virus.
HIV is a master of disguise. It rapidly and effortlessly mutates to evade and adapt to the immune system.
However, every so often HIV infects someone with a particularly effective immune system.
“[Then] the virus is trapped between a rock and hard place, it can get flattened or make a change to survive and if it has to change then it will come with a cost,” said Prof. Philip Goulder, from the University of Oxford.
The “cost” is a reduced ability to replicate, which in turn makes the virus less infectious and means it takes longer to cause AIDS.
This weakened virus is then spread to other people and a slow cycle of “watering-down” HIV begins.
The team showed this process happening in Africa by comparing Botswana, which has had an HIV problem for a long time, and South Africa where HIV arrived a decade later.
The findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also suggested anti-retroviral drugs were forcing HIV to evolve into milder forms.
It showed the drugs would primarily target the nastiest versions of HIV and encourage the milder ones to thrive.
The group did caution that even a watered-down version of HIV was still dangerous and could cause AIDS.
HIV originally came from apes or monkeys, in which it is frequently a minor infection.
A study by Oxford University suggests that playing video games for a short period each day could have a small but positive impact on child development.
Scientists found young people who spent less than an hour a day engaged in video games were better adjusted than those who did not play at all.
However, children who used consoles for more than three hours reported lower satisfaction with their lives overall.
The research is published in the journal Pediatrics.
Experimental psychologist Dr. Andrew Przybylski analyzed British surveys involving 5,000 young people aged 10 to 15 years old.
Some 75% of those questioned said they played video games daily.
Children were asked to quantify how much time they spent gaming on a typical school day – using consoles or computers.
Playing video games for a short period each day could have a small but positive impact on child development (photo Getty Images)
They then rated a number of factors, including:
Satisfaction with their lives
How well they got on with peers
How likely they were to help people in difficulty
Levels of hyperactivity and inattention
The answers were combined to assess levels of psychological and social adjustment.
When compared with all other groups, including those who played no video games at all, young people reporting under an hour of play each day were most likely to say they were satisfied with their lives and showed the highest levels of positive social interactions.
The group also had fewer problems with emotional issues and lower levels of hyperactivity.
According to the results, people who spent more than three hours playing games were the least well adjusted.
Dr. Andrew Przybylski points out that though the effect of video games on children is statistically significant in this study, factors such as the strength of family relationships play a larger role.
The world’s oldest undeciphered writing system, which has so far defied attempts to uncover its 5,000-year-old secrets, could be about to be decoded by Oxford University academics.
This international research project is already casting light on a lost bronze age middle eastern society where enslaved workers lived on rations close to the starvation level.
“I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough,” says Jacob Dahl, fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and director of the Ancient World Research Cluster.
Dr. Jacob Dahl’s secret weapon is being able to see this writing more clearly than ever before.
In a room high up in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, above the Egyptian mummies and fragments of early civilizations, a big black dome is clicking away and flashing out light.
This device, part sci-fi, part-DIY, is providing the most detailed and high quality images ever taken of these elusive symbols cut into clay tablets. This is Indiana Jones with software.
It’s being used to help decode a writing system called proto-Elamite, used between around 3200 BC and 2900 BC in a region now in the south west of modern Iran.
And the Oxford team think that they could be on the brink of understanding this last great remaining cache of undeciphered texts from the ancient world.
Dr. Jacob Dahl, from the Oriental Studies Faculty, shipped his image-making device on the Eurostar to the Louvre Museum in Paris, which holds the most important collection of this writing.
The clay tablets were put inside this machine, the Reflectance Transformation Imaging System, which uses a combination of 76 separate photographic lights and computer processing to capture every groove and notch on the surface of the clay tablets.
It allows a virtual image to be turned around, as though being held up to the light at every possible angle.
These images will be publicly available online, with the aim of using a kind of academic crowdsourcing.
He says it’s misleading to think that codebreaking is about some lonely genius suddenly understanding the meaning of a word. What works more often is patient teamwork and the sharing of theories. Putting the images online should accelerate this process.
But this is painstaking work. So far Dr. Jacob Dahl has deciphered 1,200 separate signs, but he says that after more than 10 years study much remains unknown, even such basic words as “cow” or “cattle”.
He admits to being “bitten” by this challenge.
“It’s an unknown, uncharted territory of human history,” he says.
But why has this writing proved so difficult to interpret?
Dr. Jacob Dahl suspects he might have part of the answer. He’s discovered that the original texts seem to contain many mistakes – and this makes it extremely tricky for anyone trying to find consistent patterns.
He believes this was not just a case of the scribes having a bad day at the office. There seems to have been an unusual absence of scholarship, with no evidence of any lists of symbols or learning exercises for scribes to preserve the accuracy of the writing.
The world’s oldest undeciphered writing system could be about to be decoded by Oxford University academics
This first case of educational underinvestment proved fatal for the writing system, which was corrupted and then completely disappeared after only a couple of hundred years.
“It’s an early example of a technology being lost,” he says.
“The lack of a scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made and the writing system may eventually have become useless.”
Making it even harder to decode is the fact that it’s unlike any other ancient writing style. There are no bi-lingual texts and few helpful overlaps to provide a key to these otherwise arbitrary looking dashes and circles and symbols.
This is a writing system – and not a spoken language – so there’s no way of knowing how words sounded, which might have provided some phonetic clues.
Dr. Jacob Dahl says that one of the really important historical significances of this proto-Elamite writing is that it was the first ever recorded case of one society adopting writing from another neighboring group.
But infuriatingly for the codebreakers, when these proto-Elamites borrowed the concept of writing from the Mesopotamians, they made up an entirely different set of symbols.
Why they should make the intellectual leap to embrace writing and then at the same time re-invent it in a different local form remains a puzzle.
But it provides a fascinating snapshot of how ideas can both spread and change.
In terms of written history, this is the very remote past. But there is also something very direct and almost intimate about it too.
You can see fingernail marks in the clay. These neat little symbols and drawings are clearly the work of an intelligent mind.
These were among the first attempts by our human ancestors to try to make a permanent record of their surroundings. What we’re doing now – my writing and your reading – is a direct continuation.
But there are glimpses of their lives to suggest that these were tough times. It wasn’t so much a land of milk and honey, but porridge and weak beer.
Even without knowing all the symbols, Dr. Jacob Dahl says it’s possible to work out the context of many of the messages on these tablets.
The numbering system is also understood, making it possible to see that much of this information is about accounts of the ownership and yields from land and people. They are about property and status, not poetry.
This was a simple agricultural society, with a ruling household. Below them was a tier of powerful middle-ranking figures and further below were the majority of workers, who were treated like “cattle with names”.
Their rulers have titles or names which reflect this status – the equivalent of being called “Mr. One Hundred”, he says – to show the number of people below him.
It’s possible to work out the rations given to these farm laborers.
Dr. Jacob Dahl says they had a diet of barley, which might have been crushed into a form of porridge, and they drank weak beer.
The amount of food received by these farm workers hovered barely above the starvation level.
However the higher status people might have enjoyed yoghurt, cheese and honey. They also kept goats, sheep and cattle.
For the “upper echelons, life expectancy for some might have been as long as now”, he says. For the poor, he says it might have been as low as in today’s poorest countries.
The tablets also have surprises. Even though there are plenty of pictures of animals and mythical creatures, Dr. Jacob Dahl says there are no representations of the human form of any kind. Not even a hand or an eye.
Was this some kind of cultural or religious taboo?
Dr.Jacob Dahl remains passionate about what this work says about such societies, digging into the deepest roots of civilization. This is about where so much begins. For instance, proto-Elamite was the first writing ever to use syllables.
If Macbeth talked about the “last syllable of recorded time”, the proto-Elamites were there for the first.
And with sufficient support, Dr. Jacob Dahl says that within two years this last great lost writing could be fully understood.
• Proto-Elamite is the name given to a writing system developed in an area that is now in south-western Iran
• It was adopted about 3200 BC and was borrowed from neighboring Mesopotamia
• It was written from right to left in wet clay tablets
• There are more than a thousand surviving tablets in this writing
• The biggest group of such texts was collected by 19th Century French archaeologists and brought back to the Louvre
• While other ancient writing, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, Sumerian and Mesopotamian, have been deciphered – attempts with proto-Elamite have proved unsuccessful
The sound of a crying baby is almost impossible to ignore, no matter how hard you try.
Now scientists may have worked out why.
They’ve shown that an infant’s wails rapidly pull at the heart-strings, in a way that other cries don’t.
In fact, within just a blink of an eye, brain regions involved in processing emotions are hard at work.
It had been thought that the brain was incapable of processing such complex facets of sound in such a short time.
With other types of cry, including calls of animals in distress failing to elicit the same response, the finding suggests that the brain is programmed to see something special in a baby’s cry.
The idea comes from Oxford University scientists who scanned the brains of 28 men and women as they listened to a variety of calls and cries.
After 100 milliseconds, roughly the time taken to blink, two regions of the brain that respond to emotion lit up.
Their response to the baby’s cry was particularly strong, the Society for Neuroscience’s annual conference in New Orleans heard.
What is more, the response was seen in both men and women – and in people who had no children of their own.
Researcher Dr. Christine Parsons said: “You might read that men should barely notice a baby and step over it and not see any of them but it’s not true.
“There is a specialized processing in men and women which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that both genders would be responding to these cues.
“The study was in people who were not parents, have no particular experience of looking after babies and yet they are all responding at 100 ms to these particular sound, so this might be a fundamental response present in all of us regardless of parental status.”
Colleague Katie Young added that it likely takes a bit longer for someone to recognize their own baby’s call.
“When it comes to differentiating your own baby’s sound, it might be that this happens much later in time because you will be doing much more fine-grained analysis.”
Previous work from the Oxford team showed that our reactions are also speeded up by the sound of a crying baby.
Adults did better on an arcade game that requires speed, accuracy and dexterity, when they heard the sound, than they did after being recordings of adults crying or high-pitched bird song.
Morten Kringelbach, who co-led that research and supervised the latest project, said then: “Few sounds provoke a visceral reaction quite like the cry of a baby.
“For example, it is almost impossible to ignore crying babies on planes and the discomfort it arouses, despite all the other noises and distractions around.”
The findings are not just of general interest, they also have a practical purpose.
Understanding out how the healthy brain responds to babies’ cries could shed light on post-natal depression, in which mothers struggle to bond with their newborn, and lead to new treatments.
British mathematician Max Little has come up with a non-invasive, cheap test which he hopes will offer a quick new way to identify Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s is a devastating disease for those living with the condition and currently there is no cure.
Diagnosis can also be slow as there are no blood tests to detect it.
Max Little will be kicking off the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh calling for volunteers to contribute to a huge voice database.
He has discovered that Parkinson’s symptoms can be detected by computer algorithms that analyze voice recordings.
In a blind test of voices, the system was able to spot those with Parkinson’s with an accuracy of 86%.
Max Little was recently made a TED Fellow.
The non-profit organization behind the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference creates 40 such fellowships each year. The programme aims to target innovators under the age of 40 and offers them free entry to conferences and other events.
Max Little’s technology works partly by tracking the motion of vocal cords
Max Little became interested in understanding voice from a mathematical perspective while he was studying for a PhD at Oxford University in 2003.
“I was looking for a practical application and I found it in analyzing voice disorders, for example when someone’s voice has broken down from over-use or after surgery on vocal cords,” he said.
“I didn’t occur to me at the time that people with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders could also be detected by the system.”
But a chance meeting with someone from Intel changed that.
Andy Grove, one of Intel’s founders and ex-chief executive, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2000 and has since pledged millions of his personal fortune to fund research into the disease.
This includes funds for the chipmaker to develop its own projects to monitor the symptoms.
“They were using devices that detect breakdown in dexterity and accelerometers but they had also recorded the voices of around 50 patients with Parkinson’s,” explained Max Little.
The recordings were detailed as the team had recorded the patients once a week over a six-month period.
“They had an enormous amount of data but they didn’t know what to do with it. So we wondered whether my technique would work,” said Max Little.
“They set me a blind test to see if I can tell them which ones had Parkinson’s. I had 86% accuracy using the techniques I’d developed.”
The system “learns” to detect differences in voice patterns.
“This is machine learning. We are collecting a large amount of data when we know if someone has the disease or not and we train the database to learn how to separate out the true symptoms of the disease from other factors.”
Voice patterns can change for a number of reasons, including throat surgery, heavy smoking and even just having a common cold.
But Max Little believes the system will be smart enough to tell the difference.
“It is not as simple as listening for a tremor in the voice. That tremor has to be in context of other measures and the system has to take in other factors such as if someone has a cold.”
Now he is looking for volunteers to contribute to a vast voice bank to help the database to learn even more.
He is aiming to record up to 10,000 voices and has set up local numbers in 10 countries around the world.
Anyone can call and they need to state whether or not they have been diagnosed with the disease.
There is also a website where people can find out more about the project.
“The more people that call in, the better,” he said.
“If we get 10,000 recordings we’d be very happy but even a tenth of that would be great.”
He hopes that the technology will be available to doctors within the next two years.
“We’re not intending this to be a replacement for clinical experts, rather, it can very cheaply help identify people who might be at high risk of having the disease and for those with the disease, it can augment treatment decisions by providing data about how symptoms are changing in-between check-ups with the neurologist,” he said.
There could also be a role for the technology in clinical trials.
“The technology makes it easy for people to report their progress whilst on a new drug, for example,” he added.
“If you can catch the disease early it will make a huge difference to care costs. It could become a key technology in reducing the burden of care on the NHS.”
Carbon dating tests carried out at Oxford University have provided scientific evidence to support the extraordinary claim that the bones found amid the ruins of an ancient Bulgarian monastery may be of John the Baptist.
A knucklebone has been dated to the 1st Century AD – a time when the revered Jewish prophet is believed to have lived.
Researchers were said to be “surprised” when they discovered the very early age of the remains, but admit “dating evidence alone cannot prove the bones to be of John the Baptist”.
The new dating evidence will be revealed in a TV documentary to be shown on the National Geographic channel on Sunday.
The remains – small fragments of a skull, bones from a jaw and an arm, and a tooth – were discovered two years ago embedded in an altar in the ruins of the ancient monastery, on an island in the Black Sea.
They were kept inside a reliquary – a container for holy relics – on Sveti Ivan – which translates into English as St. John – off Sozopol on Bulgaria’s southern coast.
The “key” clue to the relics” origins was a tiny sandstone box found alongside the reliquary with a Greek inscription: “God, save your servant Thomas. To St. John. June 24.” The date is believed to be John the Baptist’s birthday.
One theory is that the person referred to as Thomas had been given the task of bringing the relics to the island.
Oxford professors Thomas Higham and Christopher Ramsey attempted to radiocarbon date four of the human bones, but only one of them could be dated successfully.
Prof. Thomas Higham said: “We were surprised when the radiocarbon dating produced this very early age. We had suspected that the bones may have been more recent than this, perhaps from the third or fourth centuries.
“However, the result from the metacarpal hand bone is clearly consistent with someone who lived in the early first century AD. Whether that person is John the Baptist is a question that we cannot yet definitely answer and probably never will.”
DNA tests at the University of Copenhagen on three bones confirmed they were from the same person and probably from someone of Middle East origin – where John the Baptist came from.
They also established they were probably from a man.
Dr. Hannes Schroeder, who carried out the research, said: “Of course, this does not prove that these were the remains of John the Baptist but nor does it refute that theory.”
One theory is that the person referred to as Thomas in the inscription was given the task of bringing the relics to the island monastery.
Bulgarian researchers believe that the bones probably came to Bulgaria via Antioch, an ancient Turkish city, where the right hand of St. John was kept until the tenth century.
Many countries around the Mediterranean claim to have remains of St. John, including Turkey, Montenegro, Greece, Italy and Egypt.
The new dating evidence will be revealed in a TV documentary to be shown on the National Geographic channel on Sunday
According to the Bible, he was the cousin of Jesus and a revered holy man who baptized the son of God.
He is said to have foretold the coming of Christ before being beheaded on the orders of King Herod, with his head served up on a plate.
In a separate study, another Oxford researcher Dr. Georges Kazan has used historical documents to show that in the latter part of the fourth century, monks had taken relics of John the Baptist out of Jerusalem and these included portions of skull.
These relics were soon summoned to Constantinople by the Roman Emperor who built a church to house them there.
Further research by Dr. Georges Kazan suggests that the reliquary used to contain them may have resembled the sarcophagus-shaped casket discovered at Sveti Ivan.
Archaeological and written records suggest that these reliquaries were first developed and used at Constantinople by the city’s ruling elite at around the time that the relics of John the Baptist are said to have arrived there.
Dr. Georges Kazan said: “My research suggests that during the fifth or early sixth century, the monastery of Sveti Ivan may well have received a significant portion of St John the Baptist’s relics, as well as a prestige reliquary in the shape of a sarcophagus, from a member of Constantinople’s elite.
“This gift could have been to dedicate or rededicate the church and the monastery to St John, which the patron or patrons may have supported financially.”
The scientific analysis of the relics undertaken by Tom Higham and Christopher Ramsey at Oxford, and their colleagues in Copenhagen was supported by the National Geographic Society.
The documentary Head of John the Baptist, featuring the scientists’ work is due to be shown on the National Geographic Channel at 8:00 p.m. on 17 June 2012.
John the Baptist – the prophet who foretold the birth of Jesus Christ
John the Baptist was the son of Zachary, a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Elizabeth – who was related to the Virgin Mary.
He lived as a hermit in the desert of Judea until about A.D. 27.
When he was 30, John began to preach on the banks of the Jordan against the evils of the times and called men to penance and baptism “for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand”.
John anticipated a messianic figure who would be greater than himself and, in the New Testament, Jesus is the one whose coming John foretold.
When Christ came to him, John baptized Him, saying: “It is I who need baptism from You.” When Christ left to preach in Galilee, John continued preaching in the Jordan valley.
Fearful of his great power with the people, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Perea and Galilee, had him arrested and imprisoned at Machaerus Fortress on the Dead Sea after John denounced his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias, wife of his half brother Philip.
John was beheaded at the request of Salome, daughter of Herodias, who asked for his head at the instigation of her mother.
John is presented in the New Testament as the last of the Old Testament prophets.
William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well has a co-author, according to a research from Oxford University academics.
Thomas Middleton has been revealed as the most likely co-author, according to in-depth analysis of the play’s vocabulary, rhyming, style and grammar.
Professor Laurie Maguire says the latest literary research shows groups of writers working together on plays.
“The picture that’s emerging is of much more collaboration,” said Prof. Laurie Maguire.
“We need to think of it more as a film studio with teams of writers.”
This major study of All’s Well That Ends Well says that the most likely and logical explanation for differences in style and inconsistencies in the text is that it is the work of two authors.
Prof. Laurie Maguire says that a majority of plays written in this era had more than one writer – but the iconic status of Shakespeare has meant a reluctance to consider his work in this way.
She says she is “very confident” that there is “a second hand” in the authorship of the play.
The research by Prof. Laurie Maguire and Dr. Emma Smith, from Oxford University’s English faculty, suggests that the playwright Thomas Middleton, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, appears to be the likely candidate.
Writers have their own distinctive literary “fingerprints” – a kind of stylistic DNA – and a highly-detailed analysis of the language in the play shows “markers” strongly linked to Thomas Middleton.
Thomas Middleton has been revealed as the most likely co-author of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well by Oxford University academics
The rhyming and rhythms of sections of the play, the phrasing, spelling and even individual words suggest the involvement of Thomas Middleton.
As an example, the word “ruttish” appears in the play, meaning lustful – and its only other usage at that time is in a work by Thomas Middleton.
The distinctive way that stage directions are used in places is much closer to Thomas Middleton’s style than to William Shakespeare, says the study.
There cannot be any definite conclusion to this kind of literary detective work – and the academics say there could be other candidates such as John Fletcher – but Prof. Laurie Maguire says there is an “arresting” stylistic match with Thomas Middleton.
Thomas Middleton, who lived between 1580 and 1627, was a Londoner, younger than William Shakespeare, and Prof. Laurie Maguire says his more modern grammar can be detected in the text.
Thomas Middleton became a celebrated writer – remembered for works such as The Changeling and Women Beware Women.
But Dr. Emma Smith says that his collaboration with William Shakespeare in about 1607 could be likened to an established musician working with a rising star.
The question of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays has been a continued source of speculation and conspiracy.
Prof. Laurie Maguire says that there is no serious scholarship which challenges the idea that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him.
But she says the latest research suggests a much more collaborative approach to writing plays for the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage.
Plays were written quickly and for a commercial audience – and there were often stables of writers who worked together to produce a play.
Writers within these teams had specialized roles, she says, such as people who were particularly good at writing plots.
Prof. Laurie Maguire says the cultural reverence for Shakespeare – so-called “bardolatry” – has helped to support the idea of the playwright as a creative genius, producing his works in isolation.
While much of Shakespeare’s writing is his work alone, she says that in All’s Well That Ends Well there is another writer – so much so that in places one author seems to be handing over to the other.
The play itself recognizes the mixing and matching of life.
“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”
Or else, as it says later: “It is like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks.”