Thursday, January 29, 2015

Stanford Recieves $50 million to Make Vaccines

Measles, Mumps, Chickenpox, HPV, Polio, Smallpox, yellow fever. All are viruses that we’ve ben able to eliminate or make a rarity from our ability to vaccinate against them.
Dengue, Ebola, HIV, Malaria, Chikungunya, ross river virus. All viruses with terrible costs and still no vaccine.

Never fear though, the Bill and Melinda Gates have proven once again their dedication to bringing health to every corner of the planet.  They recently announced a new 10-year, $50 million grant to create a new Human Systems Immunology Center at Stanford University. The effort is to be headed by Stanford professor Mark Davis with partnerships in the School of Engineering and plenty of current immunology faculty. A short (incomplete) list of names includes Garry Nolan, Yvonne Maldonado, Holden Maecker, Atul Butte, and Karla Kirkegaard. 

The goal of the new program is to not only understand more about how vaccines work (our current understanding of immunity induction still has a lot of holes in it) but also to develop entirely new ways of vaccinating. Additionally, they hope to analyze people who seem to have unusual immunity development to pathogens leading to better protection than most.

The center has big plans and will hopefully lead to some major advances in some of the world’s most deadly, difficult to vaccinate diseases.

--Lauren S


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Foster Farms Caught H5N8 Before it Flu the Coop

Flu season is literally for the birds this year. A California turkey farm operated by poultry corporation Foster Farms (also the sponsor of our recent bowl game) has confirmed its first case of H5N8 avian influenza in one of its sick birds. According to the USDA, the company had recently experienced a rise in turkey mortality rates. Currently, the facility is in quarantine, although the USDA may decide that the best route is to depopulate the farm entirely. The virus hadn’t been found before in US commercial poultry. It is possible that this strain originated in wild birds, as it has been found in wild turkeys before. Poultry farms in Taiwan, South Korea, and several European countries have experience outbreaks of H5N8 before.

Of course, not all avian influenza viruses pose a significant threat to public health, but it’s generally better to be safe than sorry. The virus does seem highly pathogenic for turkeys, so the farm has been quick to put down sick birds and destroy dead ones to reduce the chance that any other domestic or wild birds, or humans, become infected.

This outbreak happened as China cracked down on poultry imports from the US.

It seems for the time being that it’s safe to gobble up turkey.

--Joe Getsy 

Ominous Amount of Mosquitos Haunting Sydney

--> It has been widely announced that last year (2014) was one of the hottest in history. In Australia, this follows in the wake of 2013, which was considered the hottest year ever recorded by the country.
The normal shape of pest inhabitance in the southern city of Sydney follows a typically seasonal pattern: in the summer, all the things people hate--mosquitoes, spiders etc –are blown south and reproduce for a short time before freezing to death in the colder winter months. Essentially, providing a restart to the pest populations of the city.

However, due to the unusually warm years, not enough of these bugs are disappearing.  This means an increasingly annoying—and from a public health standpoint—worrying number of aedes aegypti (also known as the yellow fever mosquito) and aedes vigilax (also known as the saltmarsh mosquito) establishing populations in the city of Sydney…and not buzzing off in the winter.

Public health workers fear that the increase in mosquitoes might herald a soon to be increase in disease. While yellow fever is not found in Australia, it is still not a good idea to have a large population of ready and potential reservoirs for the virus. Of concern however is the possibility of A. aegypti transmitting one of the equally deadly diseases that do occur in Australia: dengue fever, ross river fever or Murray valley encephalitis.  A. vigilax  is known to be responsible for a large number of Ross River fever cases.

If the warm weather keeps up, Sydney may need to take some action into its own hands to stamp out this dangerous vector. Time to get the buzz kill.

---Lauren S


Avian Flu Found in Canadian Woman

--> I’d like to start by apologizing to the Canadians—it might make them feel better after the latest news.

For several months now, an outbreak of Avian influenza (strain H7N9) has been circulating throughout Chain. The WHO reported that 453 people in china were infected in 2014, with a 39% mortality rate in those cases.  It has been reported in several provinces, with two deaths already reported this month. This particular strain was seen for the first time in March of 2013.

The reported case, a woman in her 50s, had recently traveled to China with a partner and fell ill approximately 2 days after arriving back in Canada.  The male partner currently has symptoms but not a confirmed case of the virus. The woman represents the first case of avian influenza in North America.

The majority of cases in this outbreak have been associated with direct contact with birds, and as it is unclear how this Canadian woman came down with the virus, the Canadian health agency has said that there is not enough evidence to suspect human-to-human transmission yet.

-----Lauren S


Beating the clock: researchers develop new post-exposure prophylaxis rabies vaccine

A new study published by Prof. Biao He et al in the Journal of Virology suggests that a rabies vaccine in development could reverse the progression of the disease even after it has taken root in the central nervous system (CNS).

He and his University of George colleagues published the paper, entitled "Parainfluenza virus 5 expressing the G protein of rabies virus protected mice after rabies virus infection," in the December 2014 issue of the journal. A Science Daily article summarizing the findings aptly described traditional rabies therapies as a "race against the clock," as post-exposure prophylaxis must be administered in a critical period before the virus infiltrates the brain.

In contrast, the new vaccine, caused reversal of rabies which had progressed to the CNS in 50% of tested mice. The key innovation of this new rabies vaccine is its use of the innocuous (to humans) virus PIV5 (parainfluenza virus 5) as a vehicle for the delivery of the rabies G protein. When this particular protein is presented to the immune system, antibodies to this antigen are more rabidly produced.

Researchers explained that this represents an improvement over the weakened and modified rabies virus currently administered to patients. Importantly, the new vaccine only contains the antigen that catalyzes immune response, so risk of vaccine complications is much lower.

The efficacy of this vaccine in human patients remains to be seen.

--Shubha Raghvendra


Researchers Identify a Potential Contributor to Ebola Infectiousness

Researchers lead by Dr. William Gallaher at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center have published findings that may clarify the mechanism of Ebola infection and illness in the January 2015 issue of the journal Viruses. The article, "Modeling of Ebola Virus Delta Peptide Reveals a Potential Lytic Sequence Motif" was published in a special issue of the journal focusing on advances in Ebola and a few other diseases.

Specifically, their research traces the dangerously infectious quality of the Ebola virus to a small, toxic protein fragment that is synthesized in tandem with Ebola attachment proteins. The fragment is known as the "Delta peptide," (pictured above) and its function was known to block the Ebola virus from infecting cells already affected by the disease. The novel contribution of Gallaher's group is the suggestion that the Delta peptide may contribute to membrane permeability, thereby easing the process of entering a host cell for an Ebola virion.

This discovery is exciting because Gallaher and his colleagues have already identified potential inhibitors that could disrupt the function of the Delta Peptide, and if further studies corroborate the importance of the Delta peptide in Ebola virulence, such chemicals could be used to make drugs.

--Shubha Raghvendra


To Protect His Son, A Father Asks School To Bar Unvaccinated Children

For this week's New & Hot Blog, I chose to highlight an NPR story from this morning, posted on KQED's health blog, State of Health. "To Protect His Son, A Father Asks School To Bar Unvaccinated Children" highlights the story of father Carl Krawitt who is rallying against the elementary school, Reed Elementary, of his six-year-old son Rhett.

Krawitt's issue with Reed Elementary is that it permits an unusually high percentage of unvaccinated children to attend school on the basis of "personal belief exemptions," reflecting a suspicion of vaccines that pervades Marin County, California, where Reed is located. Krawitt cares deeply about this issue because it potentially has a huge impact on Rhett, who cannot be vaccinated against measles due to a recent fight with leukemia. A startlingly high 7% of children at Reed Elementary lack immunity to measles, among other highly infectious diseases.

Normally, individuals who battle childhood cancers rely on herd immunity to shield them from infectious disease, but below the threshold of 98% vaccination (normally understood as necessary for measles herd immunity), Rhett is vulnerable to the measles outbreak that has been cropping up in communities with low vaccination rates across California (most famously at Disneyland).

Krawitt and his wife Jodi have requested the district superintendent to consider barring all unvaccinated children from attending Reed and surrounding schools.

--Shubha Raghvendra


Confessions of a Podcast Junkie: Part I

I love podcasts.  Whether I'm biking around campus, pipetting under the hood, or out for a run around Lake Lag, I often have my earbuds in streaming Planet Money, This American Life, Nature Podcast, or some other production of fun and informative sound bytes.  In this first post of a two-part blog entry series for Humans & Viruses, I review This Week in Virology.  If you'd like to listen to the episode I discuss, check it out at
This Week in Virology (TWiV), a weekly podcast focused on virus biology and its implications for human societies, is produced by a small collection of expert hosts based at the Columbia University Medical Center.  In episode 287, entitled “A Potentially Pandemic Podcast,” four TWiV hosts spend an hour and 40 minutes discussing Middle East Respiratory Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) with coronavirus expert Dr. Matt Freeman, a recurring guest on the show.  Reminiscent of its viral subject matter---viruses were first recognized as a class of infectious agents distinct from bacteria because they easily pass through filters in solution---the audio content of this podcast all seems to have easily passed through the “filter” of editing without significant loss of content.  This ‘unfiltered’ style becomes apparent as soon as the show begins, when host and guest introductions are intermixed with tangential discussions about the weather (it turns out this weather discussion is something of a tradition/running joke in the TWiV community).   The podcast is riddled with “ um”s, pauses, stuttering and participants talking over one another.  It seems almost as if there were no segments cut or reshuffled in order whatsoever.  Episode 287 is also completely devoid of the bells and whistles that often accompany spoken content in other podcasts.   While this relatively unedited approach does make the conversation comfortably informal, some aspects are distracting, such as the heavy breathing of one host audible for a period of about 10 minutes.
In addition to being ‘unfiltered,’ this podcast is also largely unstructured.  The hosts alternate asking questions of the guest expert.  They seem to have an arsenal of questions on hand at the time of the interview but intermix those with more spontaneous questions.  The overall flow of the discussion begins with an overview of the current global context for MERS-CoV (where it appears, how case numbers have changed, how those individuals contracted the virus) and then moves into a discussion what might be done to address unanswered scientific questions or prevent a pandemic of MERS-CoV.  This unstructured flow contributes to the informal ease of listening for the podcast’s audience.  However, it also alienates less-scientifically-literate listeners because this lack of strict structure leads to an absence of timely definitions of virology terms like quasi-species, Dengue, Chikungunya, or 229E.  I was grateful for the arsenal of background virology knowledge I have developed through Humans & Viruses!
If you have a few hours on your hands, at least an amateur virologist's background, and an interest in exploring and critiquing recently published findings or events in virology, TWiV might be the perfect podcast for you.
--Laurie Rumker

Monday, January 26, 2015

HPV Vaccines Not Delivered at Proper Time

We've talked extensively in class about the efficacy of the HPV vaccine in protecting against viral infection as well as future cancer morbidity and mortality. While Dr. Bob heralds the HPV vaccine as one of the most effective created thus far, a recent study suggests that this efficacy is being undermined by improper following of vaccination schedules. According to a University of Texas at Galveston study, only about half of girls in the US receive the vaccination at the recommended age. This trend is observed across all racial and ethnic groups surveyed. This presents a public health issue -- that people are not being vaccinated adequately despite the availability of a strong vaccine. Additionally, there is no present research about the efficacy of the vaccine at a later age. This delay in vaccination may be due to cultural beliefs, a lack of awareness about vaccines, or other educational barriers. There needs to be more research work done about what these factors are that are impeding the proper delivery of vaccines and consequently to address those issues via public health or policy measures. Interestingly, the article, in line with the CDC's lack of recommendation, does not comment on recommending the HPV vaccine for men, who are also at risk of infection. Perhaps the solution to the stigma or perceptions about the vaccine could be resolved with a gender neutral vaccine recommendation (pending medical safety) that would make the vaccine more culturally accepted.

If you're interested in reading the primary text of the article, here it is (along with the science daily article)!

-- Nicole

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Chimera Cows to Send Ebola out to Pasture??

            Ebola continues to be a tender subject. 8,500 Africans have already died in this outbreak, and the virus doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Additionally, there seems to be a shortage of antibodies used for ZMapp and other experimental anti-Ebola drugs. Currently, these drugs rely on the blood of survivors, which has limited production. It would be a real mis-steak not to try and ramp up production.

One solution has been to genetically engineer cows that produce human antibodies.

These cows actually have pieces of human DNA that allow them to produce human anti-Ebola antibodies. Each cow can produce 30-60 liters of blood plasma every month—about 500-1000 human doses. The company testing this approach, Canadian pharmaceutical manufacturer Tekmira, has been working on experimental drugs for Ebola and Hantavirus. While this approach is promising, the cow-derived drugs haven’t been shown to work for Ebola Makona (which has mutations in many of the sites targeted by ZMapp), although it looks better against Ebola Zaire (which ZMapp seems to be helping against).

During his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama cited the outbreak and the progress on a vaccine as reasons for the US Government to keep funding scientific research. Will the drugs produced from these cows send Ebola over the hill once and for all? Or will we have to mooove on to another solution? 

--Joe Getsy

Monday, January 19, 2015

Viral Epidemic Amongst Northeastern Turkeys: Widespread, Not Very Deadly

According to ABC News, there is a virus that is responsible for causing tumors in the spleens, kidneys, and livers of turkeys all over the Northeastern United States. The virus is apparently present in up to 50 percent of turkey populations in regions of New York, and was previously thought to be the causative agent behind the 15 percent drop in turkey populations in the past few years. However, new research indicates that tumor formation due to the virus is actually a rare event, and mortality associated with the infection is low.

In ABC's article, the news source states that the etiological agent responsible for the disease is Lymphoproliferative Disease Virus (LPDV). Being a curious virologist, I went to viralzone to investigate what type of virus LPDV was. This is what I found:

Weird right? Knowing that ICTV, not viralzone, was the actual virology bible, I consulted the taxonomical omniscient resource. Surely I would find out what family this virus belonged to. Survey says:

Hmmmm. No dice from the ICTV either. My next supposition was that this virus is newly discovered and simply hasn't been included in the ICTV database. But, according to ABC News, this virus was discovered by scientists at the University of Georgia in 2009. 

Educated guess: ABC gave the name of the syndrome associated with the virus, not the virus itself. Apparently there is a research paper coming out about the not-so-deadly virus promptly, so hopefully the ecologists and turkey biologists reference the actual virus that is doing meager amounts of damage. 

- Marcus Munoz 

Alisertib Used to Treat HPV Induced Cancers in Mice

Alisertib is now being used to treat HPV induced cancers in mice with incredible efficacy. Researchers from Griffith University, located in Gold Coast, Australia, have successfully cured cancers of the cervix, head, neck, and skin in mice caused by Human Papilloma Virus.

The drug is a a small-molecule inhibitor of the Aurora A Kinase (AAK), an enzyme that is over expressed in several types of tumors and has been associated with oncogenesis. According Crane et al., the Aurora family of kinases is integral in ensuring successful cell division, and is involved in Mitotic progression and checkpoint control pathways in the cell.

Although there are already effective vaccines against cervical cancers caused by HPV, Nigel McMillan and Brian Gabrielli think this drug may be the next step towards reducing the overall mortality rates. Due to the specificity of the drug and the use of Alisertib to treat other cancers in humans already, McMillan and Gabrielli believe they have found a more appropriate and new use for compound developed by The Takeda Oncology Company.

The treatments available to those diagnosed with cervical cancer are radiation, chemotherapy, or a full hysterectomy. This drug may provide women with a more effective and desirable treatment.

- Marcus Munoz

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Modeling Public Health Epidemic Interventions

Hi everyone!

I'm back again -- three posts back to back about public health related to viruses! A vital part of public health is to be able to predict the course of the progression of disease. Based on research from MIT, there is a new model to predict the progression of disease and social networks contributing to responses to outbreaks. They have devised a method to analyze social media messages, hospital records, and other information sources about the incidence and progression of disease. Their study is based upon studying 3 different outbreaks -- the 2009 H1N1 outbreaks in Mexico and Hong Kong along with the 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong. They determined that the public health responses were often disproportionate to the actual risk posed in these outbreaks. Additionally, they identified various events that can interfere with the public health measures that are implemented and can worsen the disease spread. An interesting point is that the disease spread may be increased because of publicity, leading to public health facilities being over-populated.  This research and the resulting computational technology may be able to help best allocate resources to facilitate public health resources to large-scale epidemics in the future.

-- Nicole

Mali: Ebola Free!

Hey all!

Since we've been monitoring Ebola cases for the past few months, we've been looking for inflection points in the number of cases of Ebola. Many West African countries have been affected, particularly Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. While the numbers we have studied from the New York times have yet to demonstrate an inflection point for many of these countries, this data is interesting to track over time!

According to the WHO, an epidemic is declared to be over after 42 days without any cases. Mali has, as of today, been declared officially Ebola free. This is in contrast to the height of the epidemic in Mali, when there were 300 contact cases. However, there are still over 50 Ebola hotspots in the other countries in West Africa, so there is still much that needs to be done to contain the epidemic.

-- Nicole


Anti-Vaccination: Social Considerations

Hi everyone!

I thought I'd write a blog post about a question that I raised in class in response to Luis's blog post about the anti-vaccine movement amongst affluent people. When we were discussing Luis's blog post in class, I was perplexed by the idea that more affluent individuals, despite access to resources and educational materials, choose not to vaccinate their children. However, according to a 2004 study, unvaccinated children tended to come from families with college educated parents and a relatively higher income.

Public health surveillance has shown that vaccination rates have been reduced in several affluent communities, such as in Santa Monica and Malibu. In Orange County, California, some doctors have noted that almost 10% of kindergarteners have not received their vaccinations. A speculated reason as to why vaccination rates have dropped in this demographic include the idea that not vaccinating their children is a "status symbol" to distinguish their children from other children. Additionally, as we discussed in class, it may be that because the rates of vaccine-preventable diseases have dropped in these communities, people remember the dire effects of these potentially fatal illnesses on a smaller scale. While these parents may consider themselves "well-educated" and helping their children, they are in turn undermining community health on a far greater level. In fact, studies have demonstrated that lower income families may be 70% more likely to vaccinate their children than higher income families, suggesting a skew in the information that these patients are receiving. There needs to be education to dispel these myths among individuals who may not understand the importance of receiving the vaccination, especially targeting these groups that are most susceptible to misinformation. 

This Paul Offit article also provides great insight into the anti-vaccination movement and the social factors contributing to it:

- Nicole

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Rare outbreak of HPeV3 Virus in New Zealand

Human parechovirus 3 (HPeV3), a rare picornavirus, was discovered in a 2012 sample of fecal matter of an infant in New Zealand this past week.  First detected a little over a decade ago in Japan, HPeV3 may be the etiological agent of certain cases of unresolved human gastroenteritis.  HPeV3 is transmitted fecal-orally, and has a broad tissue tropism that includes membranes of the brain. It is also implicated in sepsis in newborn babies, and thus can be potentially fatal.  However, the link between gastroenteritis and the virus is unclear, as infants and children infected with the virus typically do not develop symptoms.  Furthermore, the exact pathogenesis of HPeV3 is unknown. Further research on HPeV3 is needed to address these gaps in our knowledge, and could shed light on the virulence and pathogenesis of the virus.


--Andrew Duong

CDC Flu Vaccine Efficacy Not Ideal but Not Useless

--> The numbers are in on this year's flu vaccine and they look less than spectacular.

According to the CDC’s finally published study, the estimated feectiveness of this year’s flu concoction is about 23%. Not so hot—but not useless.

On average, the vaccine can be anywhere from 10$ to 60% effective. Thus, while this year’s vaccine is not brilliant and is admittedly on the low end of the spectrum, it could be worse.  To put it into perspective,  it is estimated that a vaccine which can be just 10%  effective can in fact reduce hospitalzitions by about 13,000 cases. That means this years vaccine has the potential to keep almost 30, 000 people out of hospitals. Honestly, not bad.

Of note however, was that the study indactes that the vaccine actually had a greater benefit for children.

So basically, get vaccinated—you could be one of those 30,000 that DOESN’T have to go to the hospital.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Pandas Just Can't Catch a Break... But They Can Catch Canine Distemper Virus (CDV)

Pandas: Those adorable, clumsy bears that seem too useless and specialized to survive. Their fertility rate is extraordinarily low, and they can even die of acute constipation ( But we love them, and they’ve become a symbol of conservation.
            Unfortunately, even captive pandas just can’t seem to catch a break. A third panda has become critically ill following infection by the canine distemper virus, a paramyxovirus of the genus Morbillivirus. Two pandas have already died in Chinese zoos because of this virus. The most recent animal to fall ill, 5-year old female Feng Feng, currently suffers from serious liver, kidney and lung damage, as well as neurological symptoms. A fourth infected panda, 14-year-old female Zhu Zhu, is in currently in stable condition.
            Canine distemper virus, despite its name, actually infects a wide variety of carnivorous mammals besides dogs. These include coyotes, foxes, pinnipeds, skunks, raccoons, and ferrets. It causes a variety of symptoms such as high fever eye inflammation, coughing, vomiting, diarrhea and lethargy. CDV has an approximately 50% mortality rate, and can transmitted through the air or through other bodily secretions. A vaccine exists and is widely used in dogs. Perhaps more zoo animals should be vaccinated and/or quarantined to contain this outbreak.

Have a happy panda!

 --Joe Getsy