Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Antibiotics to protect against Zika in fetal brain tissue

Researchers at UCSF have discovered that azithromycin, a non-teratogenic antibiotic, can protect specific fetal brain cells from Zika infection. It was determined that the AXL protein serves as a receptor for the Zika tropogen, and that fetal brain cells with an abundance of AXL expression are preferentially targeted by the virus. This finding is remarkable because it contrasts with previous studies of Zika infection in mice. The UCSF study notes that cells at high risk of infection are neural stem cells, progenitor cells, astrocytes, and microglia.

Researchers then tested 2,177 FDA-approved drugs to determine if any could prevent infection in cultured brain cells. They found that azithromycin and several other drugs were effective. Many of the effective drugs were not known to be safe during pregnancy, other than azithromycin, daptomycin and sofosbuvir. However, compared to azithromycin and sofosbuvir, daptomycin showed less effectivity in various cell types in vitro. Azithromycin and sofosbuvir were shown to decrease infection from 78% to below 5%, whereas daptomycin only lowered it to 46%. The study notes that pending in vivo studies testing the safety and efficacy of all three drugs, azithromycin may be the antibiotic of choice due to its low cost and availability.

Read the actual study (published 11/29/16) here:


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Experts warn of CRISPR Bioterror Threat

Recent technological advances in methods for gene editing allow scientists to quickly and accurately alter DNA. While this has increased the efficiency of research involving genetic diseases, many experts express the fear that gene editing could be potentially manipulated as a bioterror threat.

James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, recently testified before the Senate that gene editing is one of the six potential weapons of mass destruction that pose major threats to the United States. Clapper’s report described how the “deliberate or unintentional misuse” of gene editing technology “might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications.”

- Linda Shin

WHO declares Zika virus ‘no longer an emergency’

For nine months, the World Health Organization treated the Zika virus as an international medical emergency, as is was linked to significant birth defects like microcephaly in over 30 countries. The virus is primarily spread by mosquitoes, but it has also been reported to be sexually transmitted. Deaths are rare, but 20 percent of people infected by the virus develop symptoms including rash, fever, and joint pain.

The head of a WHO emergency committee, Dr. David Heymann, continued to describe the virus as a “significant and enduring” threat. However, the WHO will transition to a more long-term approach against the epidemic, which has expanded to Latin America and the Caribbean. The declaration signaling the end of an emergency state, however, prompted concern by some public health experts. They worry that this declaration may slow down the international response and create the false perception that people are safe.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested that the announcement was premature. He questions, “If they pull back on the emergency, they’d better be able to reinstate it. Why not wait a couple of months to see what happens?”

Moreover, Dr. Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University expressed that while the virus is not lethal nor deforming newborn babies at the rate anticipated, “the international response has been lethargic” and “WHO’s action to call off the global emergency has provided reason for governments and donors to pull back even more.”

- Linda Shin

Genetically modified mosquitoes may be released into the wild

To address the recent spread of Zika, voters in Monroe County, Florida, have approved the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. However, the British company Oxitec still needs approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

The genetically modified male mosquitoes are designed to control Aedes aegypti mosquito populations by mating with females and passing down a gene that prevents mosquitoes from reaching maturity. Only male mosquitoes will be released, as they do not bite. This measure is aimed at preventing the spread of Zika--a virus that has recently arrived in Puerto Rico and areas of Miami.

These genetically modified mosquitoes are marketed as a method of controlling mosquito populations without utilizing toxic insecticides. However, significant opposition to the trial was present in Key Haven, where only 35% of residents (as opposed to 58% of voters in Monroe County as a whole) supported the use of this method. Opponents of the measure are not confident about the impacts that this release may have, as the risks of releasing these genetically modified mosquitoes are not well studied.

- Linda Shin

New educational toolkits are implemented in response to recent spikes in dengue and Zika

 Due to steady spread of dengue and Zika, Red Cross and Red Crescent teams in Africa, the Americas, and the Asia Pacific area are implementing new educational toolkits aimed at helping communities prevent the transmission of diseases by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

Dr. Julie Hall, the Health and Care Director at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies explains how “knowledge is key to disease prevention, and prevention is the best weapon available in the battle against health threats posed by Aedes mosquitoes, including Zika, dengue, and chikungunya.”

Two teaching guides and toolkits have been developed--one designed for adults and one for children. These modules have been taught in countries long-plagued by dengue and chikungunya, as well countries more recently impacted by Zika. The learning modules emphasize transmission, symptoms, and treatment of Zika, dengue, and chikungunya. It teaches methods of preventing mosquito bites as well as ways to reduce mosquito breeding sites. Over time, Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers will integrate the toolkits into existing frameworks within local organizations and community groups.

- Linda Shin

Cases of Chikungunya increase in Brazil

Brazil’s Health Ministry reports a significant increase in cases of chikungunya. Last year, the total number of cases was 8.528. So far, there have been 134,910 confirmed cases of chikungunya in the country.

Chikungunya is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a common viral vector that also spreads dengue fever and Zika. Symptoms of chikungunya include fatigue, fever, nausea, joint pain or swelling.

At the 2016 meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, researchers also reported that mosquitoes can transmit Zika and chikungunya viruses simultaneously. This means that mosquitoes can infect an individual with both viruses through a single bite. Colorado State University researchers reported that “their saliva is clearly testing positive for both, which could mean that people bitten by this type of mosquito could be infected by both viruses at once. We need to understand more about what happens in both mosquitoes and people when all of these viruses are circulating in close proximity.”

Tanzania stops US-funded AIDS program in a vicious campaign against gays

Several East African countries have banned same-sex relationships and threatened jail time for offenders. For months, Tanzanian officials delivered several speeches and threats against the gay community and organizations serving HIV/AIDS patients. Police also raided HIV/AIDS organizations and took confidential patient information as well as supplies. Last month, through a measure that has alarmed health care workers, the minister of health of Tanzania announced a ban on HIV/AIDS outreach projects targeted at gay men. This measure resulted in a temporary cessation of US-funded programs that offer testing, condoms, and medical care to gay communities.

Nearly 30 percent of gay men in Tanzania are HIV-positive. Tanzania’s ban is the first time in history that a country has stopped portions of the United States’ foreign HIV/AIDS initiative in a move meant to strike out at the gay community. The US campaign was founded in 2003 and has been supported by $65 billion. Over the years, it has saved millions across the globe. According the the deputy minister of health, Hamisi Kigwangalla, HIV treatment organizations promote homosexuality and “any attempt to commit unnatural offenses is illegal and severely pushed by law.”


- Linda Shin