Friday, December 16, 2016

Conflicting New Research Frustrates Efforts to Shed Light on Zika

Two new studies seeking to determine how often Zika causes severe birth defects in fetuses have returned conflicting results, frustrating scientists' efforts to pin down how the virus works. Both studies are products of esteemed research teams and reported in high-quality journals.

The first study found that out of 125 Brazilian women infected with Zika, 46% of pregnancies were negatively affected by the infection. The second study, however, found that 6% of the 442 American women who tested positive for Zika and were included in the study had pregnancies that resulted in birth defects.

Despite these differences, the teams are not disputing each others' results, partially because other findings held across both studies. For example, both studies found that around 10% of fetuses infected in the first trimester ended up with microcephaly. In addition, the technical definition of and criteria for microcephaly vary from country to country. This and other inconsistencies in methodology mean that the greatest takeaway is perhaps that more research is still needed to understand Zika's effects, as the truth has been elusive thus far.

by Julia Daniel


A New Approach to Virus Prevention - Seek Them Out

A New Approach to Virus Prevention - Find Them Before They Find You

I was very intrigued by this article, titled "Finding the World's Unknown Viruses - Before They Find Us." This article described a new and innovative way to target virus prevention; rather than waiting for viruses to emerge and then develop vaccines, scientists are hoping to catalogue unknown viruses FIRST, identify which ones are the biggest threats (with mathematical modeling, public health experts etc), and then prepair to fight these viruses! This entire project is part of the Global Virome Project, which comprised of a team of virologists and doctors from around the globe. The organizers predict that to map out 99% of viral threats would cost $3.4 billiondollars!

While $3.4 billion does seem like a lot, this project could truly end up protecting millions and millions of people and perhaps end up saving billions of dollars in the future! There is currently a pilot PREDICT project funded by USAID in the worlds, which has already discovered 1,000 new viruses. I would be curious to learn about the results of PREDICT's work (which has been around for the past 7 years), and see if it has actually made actually predictions.

Nevertheless, this article gives me great hope that we will, as an international community, work to be able to try and prevent huge epidemics - by nipping viruses in the bud BEFORE they drastically affect billions of people. As one of the lead scientists of this project, Dennis Carroll from USAID describes, "let data drive a much more robust line of investment against risk, not just what it is that’s kicking the door in at the moment.”

Ashley Jowell

Source: (December 13, 2016).

New Link Between CMV & Childhood Cancer

New Link Between CMV & Childhood Cancer

A recent study, performed by scientists at the University of Nevada and UCSF has found that the risk of children developing acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is significantly higher if they were infected with CMV (cytomegalovirus) at birth. Specifically, children who had ALL (which normally develops in kids between 2-6) were 3.71 times more likely to have had CMV at birth. Furthermore, when looking at ethnic identity, the study found that Hispanic children actually had a 5.9 times increased risk of having been infected with CMV at birth if the children were ALL.

This study was absolutely fascinating to me; as the article describes, this is the first time that ALL has been connected to a specific virus that is now identified!

I wonder what other viruses might be connected to childhood cancer that we have yet to discover, and what ways we can think about preventing teratogenesis, and further understanding how the teratogenesis actually occurs so it can be eliminated . Furthermore, I am curious to learn more about why Hispanic children are at the highest risk for developing ALL as a result of CMV - what could be the cause of this?

Source: (December 15, 2016)

Ashley Jowell

A Scary Look into Trump Vaccination Policy

A Scary Look into Trump Vaccination Policy

This article looked into the Trump vaccination policy; while Trump is not actually anti vaccination (which I must say is a relief!) this article described how he has adopted a "slow vaxxing'policy - this is essentially the idea that children are vaccinated very slowly to make sure that they are not allergic to vaccines, and apparently occupies a "middle ground" between vaxers and anit-vaxers.

However, as this Slate article amplified, slow vaxxing is completely contrary to scientific research - vaccines havent been shown to cause the illnesses that Trump could be worrying about, and Trump's argument that slow vaxxing delays vaccination risk is FALSE as not vaccinating children actually increases risk! His stance only enables anti-vaxxers to keep pushing their position that vaccines are in fact dangerous... which is flat out untrue.

I couldn't agree with this article more - it is absolutely terrifying that trump is ignoring blatant, scientific fact while enabling people to wait to vaccinate our children. Our president should be at the forefront of research and promotion for the public health benefits of vaccination, and not endorsing non scientific, blatant lies. I wonder what, if anything, could be done to change this.
Source: (Published December 5th, 2016)

- Ashley Jowell

Looking at Our "Percent Virus"

Looking at Our "Percent Virus"
This SUPER interesting article described the idea that our human genome is actually made up of about 8% viruses!! The reason for this is because some viruses, specifically those within the retrovirus family undergo reverse transcription, and inserts a DNA copy of its RNA sequence into the genome of the host cell! This cell, however, can continue to reproduce and spread the viruses sequence across teh body! 

This has been occurring for millions of years, according to this article!By sequencing our genomes and looking at viruses on evolutionary trees, scientists have been able to calculate our "percent virus." In fact, over 100,000 sequences have come from viruses in this manner! While many people think of viruses in a negative light, these viruses have been incredibly helpful for the growth of our cells - in fact, scientists  think that retroviruses have led to enormous contributions for placental mammalian cell development. 

I would be excited to learn more about what parts of our genomes have viruses encoded in us, and how that might be able to both help and harm people!

Source (posted Dec 14, 2016)

Ashley Jowell

Brownsville, Texas is a Zika 'Yellow Zone'

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared Brownsville, Texas a Yellow Zone for Zika virus, meaning it is a cautionary area and all pregnant women are advised to avoid the area if possible. Last week, officials found 5 local cases of Zika virus in the city. As it is still warm enough for insects to be active, there is risk of contracting Zika. Women who live in the town should do everything they can to avoid mosquito bites, by wearing mosquito repellent and protective clothing. 

The CDC also advises anyone living in an area with Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, particularly pregnant women and women planning on getting pregnant, to protect themselves from mosquito bites. Although so far Zika virus has only been seen transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, theoretically there is potential for Aedes albopictus mosquitoes to transmit it as well. If so, this would greatly increase areas affected by Zika virus. 

-Anne Sommer

Hunting for viruses

On multiple occasions viruses that were never talked about suddenly gained national headlines because of their rapid increase in prevalence and high mortality. While these pseudo-new viruses are taking many lives researchers are scrambling to definitively characterize the virus and conduct research for a vaccine. Often times it is too late and it is behavioral interventions that contain the disease. There is a big push to end this cycle of retrospective virus research and to discover these viruses with outbreak potential before they actually cause one so measures can be implemented to reduce impact or possibly prevent one form ever occurring. This is the goal of Global Virome Project. This project has proposed the cataloging of nearly all of the unknown viruses undiscovered in nature around the world. There is an estimated 1.3 million undiscovered viruses around the world and the planner of the Viral Genome project estimate it would cost 3.4 billion to locate and gain preliminary data on all of the viruses. This is lofty price tag is why they want to increase collaboration and have many stakeholders in the project.

-Vander Harris

Occupational hazard in Canadian BSL-4 laboratory

The Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health is located in Winnipeg Canada. It is one of only a few places in North America with the clearance and equipment to handle Ebola. Last month there was an incident at the is laboratory that showed that even the label of BSL-4 does not make you immune to mistakes or equipment failures. On November 7th an employee noticed a split in his suit’s seam when he was doing the decontamination procedure while exiting the lab from working with Ebola virus. The employee was immediately given the experimental Ebola vaccine as a preventative measure. The employee was also placed on 21 days of self-isolation. There were no symptoms that formed and he was eventually released. This did cause major changes in the safeguards that the facility uses including better record keeping, testing, and inspection. One thing that is concerning is that they were utilizing the same suits for up to 5 years. This is most likely the weak link in their safety procedures as usage of a suit for that can definitely reduce the effectiveness of protecting the wearer as wear and tear is accumulated.

-Vander Harris

Undergraduate gene drive research making scientist uneasy

This year for the international synthetic biology competition iGEM students at the University of Michigan adventured in new territory by doing research in gene drives. The team based there work on that of Harvard Genetics professor George Church who described how to build a a gene drive. A gene drive is a relatively new technique and is a sequence of DNA inserted into a cell that promotes the inheritance of a particular gene and increases its prevalence in a population. This is a powerful tool because the accidental release of a drive can cause enormous consequences as the gene would propagate very quickly across wild type populations and possibly have immense ecological consequences. Due to this possibility George Church created an entire paper about the safeguards and regulations that should be utilized with regard to gene drives. This also why so many scientists have an eye on the young University of Michigan students. The students did place in many safety features during their research to make sure that release was extremely unlikely such as splitting the genes drive components amongst two different strains of yeast. Stitching the gene drive components was difficult and the group were actually unable to make the complete gene drive. This research is very pertinent to viral spread as if a gene drive that made mosquitoes infertile was created then many arthropod-borne viruses would not be able to spread as their vectors population would be decimated.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

New Evidence of Continued Zika Virus Replication in Infected Infants

A recent study in the Emerging Infectious Disease Journal, led by Julu Bhatnagar, has provided some new information regarding replication of Zika virus in infected mothers, and in their infants. Studying 52 cases – 44 women suspected of getting infected with Zika virus during pregnancy, and 8 infants with microcephaly who later died, the group found that Zika virus continues replicating in infant neurons and degenerating glial cells after birth, via in situ hybridization assay. This reaffirms work from previous in vitro and mice studies, which suggested that the virus infects neural progenitor cells. The team also found that Zika virus mRNA levels were over 1,000 times greater in infant brain tissues than in placentas, where they also continue to persist, through use of real time quantitative reverse transcription PCR.

These findings have strengthened the virus’ link to microcephaly, and demonstrated its longevity in both infected mothers and newborn infants. In addition, it supports the notion of the viral infection being extremely detrimental during the first trimester of pregnancy, as 12 of 14 women who had spontaneous abortions, appeared to contract the virus then.

Ahmed Mustafa (’18)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Sex-Specific Virulence in HTLV-1

Though not common knowledge, infectious diseases often prove more fatal in men than in women. In the past, this difference has been attributed to women having more robust immune responses, but a recently published article in Nature Communications may prove otherwise. Researchers Francisco Ubeda and Vincent Jansen, of Royal Holloway, University of London, studied the progression of Human T-cell Lymphotropic Virus I (HTLV-1) into adult T-cell leukemia, in Japanese and Caribbean cohorts to try and learn more about these sexually-based differences. In the Japanese group, the progression occurs 2 to 3.5 times more frequently in men, while the progression occurs at an equal rate within the Caribbean cohort. The team has proposed that cultural differences in breast feeding may help to explain the discrepancy between the two groups.

HTLV-1 is a virus transmitted through sexual contact and breastfeeding. In Japan, mothers breast feed their children for longer durations, and in larger quantities than Caribbean women do. Ubeda and Jansen argue that the virus has developed a lower virulence within Japanese women relative to Caribbean women, due to its increased vertical transmission rate in the Japanese group (due to the increased duration and frequencies of breastfeeding in the Japanese group). To back their hypothesis, the team developed a mathematical model, which did show increased selection for viruses with differing mortalities between sexes, for viruses transmitted both horizontally and vertically. Ubeda and Jansen hope that this work helps lead to more effective, sex specific treatments for HTLV-1, and other viruses with sex-specific virulences.

Ahmed Mustafa ('18)


CCHF Virus Detected in 2500-Year-Old German Pottery

Archaeologists and molecular biologists recently analyzed the contents of pottery shards from a burial mound in Germany and discovered traces of Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever virus. The discovery was remarkable for multiple reasons: it is the first discovery of a hemorrhagic fever virus in the archaeological record, and it is the first time this type of burial in pottery has been observed in this region.

Evidence suggests that a man contracted and died of Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever between 600 and 450 B.C.E, and his blood and organs were stored in pottery and buried in a burial mound. Over time, the contents of the pottery decayed, but they left a thin film of proteins on the insides of the vessels. When researchers analyzed the proteins, they surprisingly found traces of human blood proteins - but more surprisingly, they found evidence of CCHF virus as well. The CCHFV RNA did not survive the years, but they found peptides that CCHFV uses to bind to a host cell.

This discovery raises questions about CCHFV in ancient Germany - does this sample indicate a larger epidemic, or was it an isolated case? How did it get to Germany? In addition, it opens up the possibility that other pottery shards previously overlooked may in fact hold fascinating insights into the ancient viral world.

CCHFV is a Bunyavirus, so it has an enveloped virion and a three-segmented negative linear RNA genome. It is transmitted by tick bite and causes hemorrhagic fever in humans.

by Julia Daniel


Birth Defects Found in 6% of Pregnancies with Zika

Dr. Margaret Honein and her colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined 442 cases of women infected with Zika virus. 26 of these pregnancies resulted in Zika-linked birth defects, or about 6 percent. 21 babies were born with defects such as microcephaly, which is a condition where the skull is abnormally small due to improper brain development. The 5 other cases were stillbirths, miscarriages, and abortions. The proportion of pregnancies with birth defects increased to 11 percent when only examining women who were infected with Zika during the first trimester of pregnancy. Women who did did not have noticeable symptoms from Zika had the same rate of birth defects as women who had noticeable symptoms. 

The study included foreign women whose pregnancies ended in the U.S., but did not include women in Puerto Rico, an area that currently has a lot of Zika transmission. Almost all women in the study contracted Zika while on travel, or from having sexual activity with someone infected with Zika. 

-Anne Sommer


Viruses May Have Evolved to Affect Men and Women Differently

Many viruses are known to cause worse illness in men than women. For example, human papilloma virus infections are 5 times more likely to cause cancer in men than in women, and Epstein-Barr virus infections are twice as likely to cause Hodgkin's lymphoma in men than in women. Although many people credit such divergences to sex differences in the immune system, a new proposed explanation owes them to the ability of women to transmit viruses more.

Researchers Francisco Ubeda and Vincent Jansen at Royal Holloway University of London theorize that viruses may cause less severe disease in women than in men to increase transmission. Women may be considered more valuable hosts since they have the potential to transmit viruses during pregnancy, birth, and breast-feeding. Using mathematical modeling, the researchers have shown that natural selection should favor weaker illness in women as long as they can transmit the virus to their offspring. If viruses are indeed adapting to sex and behaving differently in women and men, there is an even greater need to conduct clinical trials on both men and women (as opposed to just testing on male cohorts). 

-Anne Sommer

Zika Virus Keeps Replicating in Baby Brains After Birth

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that Zika virus infection can persist in a fetus's brain and/or a mother's placental tissue for nearly seven months after the mother's initial infection. Furthermore, the virus can continue replicating in the brain even after birth. 

They tested placental tissues of 44 women who had been infected with Zika, half of whom delivered healthy babies and half had complications due to Zika (miscarriage, microcephaly, still birth, abortion). Brain tissues were also tested from 8 infants who were born with microcephaly and later passed away. All 8 of the infants' mothers had contracted Zika in the first trimester of pregnancy, which supports previous findings that Zika infection can be most harmful to the fetus early in a pregnancy. Overall, the CDC's findings help explain why Zika virus can cause such severe birth defects and complications in pregnancies. 

-Anne Sommer