Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Blog Updates: From Antarctica to Dr. Oz

Although my posts are less frequent these days, I do intend to keep this blog going when I’m not otherwise occupied in the lab. In the last few months I have noticed some new research developments related to things I have posted on previously.   And so here are some updates on past blog articles, beginning with my very first post about the MERS virus: the topic nearest and dearest to my own research.

Back in September 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the emergence of what is now known as the MERS virus (or, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome virus).  Two years have now passed, and the MERS virus has spread from the Arabian Peninsula to a short list of countries.  It has even found its way as far as the U.S., as reported this past May.

In the media, the MERS virus is sometimes referred to as the ‘SARS-like virus’.  This is because the MERS and SARS virus are both classified in a virus family called coronaviruses – a group of about 30 related viruses with genetic and physical commonalities that infect various mammals and birds.  As with the SARS virus of a decade ago, there has been some discussion about which animal the newly identified MERS virus originated from before it leaped into the human population.  A study was just recently published that pins the blame for MERS on camels (I’m sure they didn’t mean to do it).

The study looked at a group of camels infected with the MERS virus and their caretaker, who also had MERS.  Tests showed that the MERS virus found in the camels was genetically identical to the MERS virus found in the person taking care of them.  Also, the virus tested positive in samples of air taken from the barn where the camels and the owner resided.  And so the implications of this study are that:

1.       The virus can be transmitted to humans from camels, and
2.      The transmission can potentially occur without physical contact (although like a cold or flu virus, it’s always easier to get if someone is sneezing or slobbering on you).

Previous observations also supported this hypothesis that camels may be transmitting the virus to humans. So how many cases of MERS have there been so far?

The most recent report from the WHO is that in 2 years there have been 837 laboratory confirmed cases of MERS, with 291 deaths resulting (35% death rate, yikes!).  So, how does this compare to SARS – the cousin of MERS that showed up 10 years ago that we never hear from anymore? 

SARS by comparison had at least 8096 cases confirmed by the WHO, with 774 deaths (close to 10% death rate).  Unlike MERS, most SARS cases occurred soon after it was first identified in February of 2003.  Within a year after the initial outbreak, it was essentially gone.  Two years later now with the MERS virus on the other hand, and we continue to see a slow trickle of new cases.

Most of these cases seem to be restricted to Arabian Penninsula – kind of like how SARS transmission was mostly restricted to China

So in a nutshell, SARS was more widespread, but MERS so far has a higher fatality rate.  Fortunately, there is much we learned about quarantine, containment, and communication from the SARS epidemic that helped prepare us to deal with MERS.  Hopefully, it will soon go the way of SARS.
A notice I came across at an airport during international travel in 2013.

In January 2013 a team of mostly US scientists reported that they had drilled into a sub-glacial lake in Antarctica, and found signs of life.

Now, in a follow up report published in an August 2014 issue of the journal Nature, the scientists report more specifically on what that life is.  This team drilled through 800 meters of glacier ice to get into Lake Whillans and collect a sample of the water trapped beneath.  They reported finding 130,000 cells of bacteria or archaea per 1 milliliter (or, 1 cubic centimeter) of lake water.  And in these samples, there appears to be about 4,000 different species represented.

This is interesting to scientists because Lake Whillans has been completely sealed under ice for an estimated 120,000 years (perhaps up to 1 million years).  That means no sunlight, and so there is no photosynthesis going on down there to drive the food chain like it does on the rest of the planet.

This discovery at Lake Whillans will open up a lot of discussion about how those microorganisms got there to begin with, what they are feeding on, and what life might be like if it exists on other frozen planets or moons in our solar system with conditions similar to Antarctica.

In March of 2013, an announcement was made that a Mississippi baby who contracted HIV through birth, appeared to no longer carry the infection after an unorthodox aggressive early treatment.  Although researchers were cautious not to overplay what was then an early observation, it appears now unfortunately that we hoped too soon. 

The child, now 4 years of age, has once again tested positive for the virus following a 27-month hiatus from treatments.  This June 2014 announcement was discussed the following month at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia (the same conference that a plane full of AIDS researchers on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was en route to before tragic circumstances dictated otherwise).

This finding is obviously a disappointment on a rational and emotional level for those involved in the trials.  Disappointment is common in research, but it is not necessarily synonymous with discouragement. 

Often, negative results can be viewed as part of the feedback loop that shapes the direction of future experiments and studies, which ultimately bring you closer to the desired outcome.  In this case, it is likely that future research will look more closely at where in the body of this child the HIV virus was able to hide and evade treatment, and why it apparently waited 27 months to continue its life cycle.

In recent months it seems that there has been somewhat of a public backlash against the idea that vaccines cause autism (at least in my facebook newsfeed, anyways).  Unfortunately, a change in current beliefs will not immediately undo the consequences of misinformed decisions of the past.  And so it follows that there has been a recent resurgence in vaccine preventable diseases. 

Whooping cough has seen a steady rise in cases.  California has particularly been affected and has already dealt with a handful of infant deaths in recent years as the number of cases reported approaches pre-vaccine levels.  2014 has so far also seen a huge spike in the number of measles cases, as reported by the CDC.  This is reportedly caused in large part by a few Americans choosing not to vaccinate.

Meanwhile, studies continue to show that there is no cause/effect relationship between vaccines and autism.  In June of this year, a meta-analysis of 10 separate peer-reviewed studies reported in various journals between 2002 and 2012 was published in the journal Vaccine.  The total number of children included in all the studies was 1,266,407 (compared to the 12 in Wakefield’s infamous 1998 report).  Researchers summarized data from all studies, averaged it, and concluded the following:

No relationship between vaccination and autism or autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
No relationship between MMR vaccine and autism or ASD.
No relationship between mercury and autism or ASD.
No relationship between thimerosal and autism or ASD.

So let it be written, so let it be done.

In 2013 researchers reported the discovery of what they called Pandoravirus (Don’t worry, it infects amoebas and not people).  Although it is a virus, it is comparable to smaller bacteria both in terms of genetic complexity as well as size.  It was the largerst virus known to man….until this year.

The same researchers reported in March the discovery of another ginormous virus, now even bigger than that freakish Pandoravirus.  They call it ‘Pithovirus’.  While this Pithovirus is 1.5 micrometers in diameter compared to 1.0 micrometers for Pandoravirus, it has far fewer genes (only 467 compared to 2556 in Pandoravirus). 

Unlike other large viruses discovered in the past decade, Pithovirus was not extracted from a living water or sediment sample.  Instead, it was resurrected from a soil sample that had been frozen in Siberia for the last 30,000 years until scientists extracted it for study.  This discovery adds to the debates about whether or not viruses are ‘living’ or at least undead; and which came first, the virus or the cell?

As noted, the dietary supplement industry is at liberty to make claims that their products can perform great miracles and magic wonders.  Such supernatural product testimonials are also a regular occurrence on Dr. Oz’s daytime show, in spite of the dearth of scientific evidence to support even modest assertions. 

In June this year, Dr. Mehmet Oz appeared before U.S. Senate to be questioned by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), who chairs the senate consumer protection sub-committee.  The issue at hand was weight loss supplements that may have the side effects of false hope and throwing your money away.  While the use of “flowery or passionate” rhetoric (as described by Dr. Oz) may boost ratings in the world of daytime television, it will also likely invite criticism and mockery everywhere else.