Stem cells and multiple sclerosis, an unusual deal to ensure the Ebola vaccine stockpile, a potential new planet on the horizon, and science at Davos. This week in Abstract Science.

An Unusual MS Treatment

(BBC, 1/18/2016, Fergus Walsh)

Twenty multiple sclerosis (MS) patients from the UK who underwent autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplants are making remarkable progress, the latest evidence that this cancer therapy reduces symptoms in people with aggressive forms of the neurodegenerative condition. Sheffield Hospital specialists say some of the MS patients they have been following over the past two years are even walking again. MS has long been thought to be an autoimmune disorder, influenced by an onslaught of inflammatory cells that infiltrate and degrade the myelin sheath and prevent nerve cells from transmitting signals to the brain. The stem cell therapy tries to reboot this faulty system by retrieving hematopoietic stem cells from the MS patients’ own bone marrow and then depleting the rest of the individual’s immune cells with chemotherapy and/or radiation. The stored stem cells are then reinfused, where they eventually repopulate the body with functional immune cells that hopefully will no longer attack myelin or other brain tissue.

Stockpiling Ebola Vaccine

(Nature, 1/20/2016, Erika Check Hayden)

An unusual deal announced this week between the Merck and Gavi, a public-private partnership dedicated to increasing access to immunizations in poor countries, was intended to make sure enough Ebola vaccine will be available to fight future outbreaks. Merck, the manufacturer of the first Ebola vaccine candidate to demonstrate efficacy against the filovirus that devastated West Africa last year, is being paid US$5 million from Gavi to stockpile the vaccine, the first time that the public-private partnership committed to purchase a vaccine before it is licensed. In return for the payment, Merck promises that it will seek to have the vaccine approved by a regulatory agency by 2017. In clinical trials conducted last year in West Africa, the vaccine candidate demonstrated remarkable efficacy. The company has also asked permission from the World Health Organization to use the vaccine if another epidemic arises before the vaccine is licensed, and to make a supply of at least 300,000 doses available by May for such use.

A Galactic Surprise

(Science, 1/20/2016, Eric Hand)

We may have lost Pluto from the planetary pack, but a new one appears to be lurking in the distance. Two planetary scientists from the California Institute of Technology provided calculations this week suggesting there is a Neptune-sized planet orbiting the sun every 15,000 years. The reason we haven’t discovered it until now, they say, is because during the solar system’s infancy the giant planet, which they have dubbed Planet X, was knocked out of the planet-forming region and settled into a distant elliptical orbit. The scientists published their results in The Astronomical Journal.

Science and the New Economy

(New Scientist, 1/20/2016, Lee Howell)

As the World Economic Forum got underway in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 20, Lee Howell, a member of the group’s managing board, notes how many scientific leaders are attending this year’s annual meeting compared to previous meetings. In his commentary, Howell says it’s become clear that “every major global challenge has a scientific dimension, often with the potential to provide at least part of the solution.” For this reason, the meeting, long dominated by economic topics, will be discussing how biotechnology can help aging populations, the potential of precision medicine in transforming health care and how a better understanding of the way brains work can improve decision-making.

—Compiled by Senior Scientific Writer Regina McEnery