Tag Archives: viruses

Threading the NEIDL

After two long days of shooting and hundreds of hours of editing, the American Society for Microbiology and This Week in Virology are proud to release the documentary “Threading the NEIDL.” This video provides an unprecedented (and probably never-to-be-duplicated) look inside a state-of-the-art Biosafety Level 4 laboratory. BSL-4 labs are the ones that work on the most dangerous human pathogens, and the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) at Boston University is the newest facility with labs built to the incredibly strict standards this type of science requires.

As you’ll see, we were able to get a detailed view of the inner workings of the NEIDL because it’s not operating yet. It seems that opening a high-level containment lab in the middle of a densely populated city didn’t sit well with the neighbors, and lawyers and government officials are still haggling over its fate. Meanwhile, this brand-new $200 million building is mostly empty. The silver lining is that the TWiV team was able to get inside and see spaces that would normally be inaccessible to outsiders. We also tried on some BSL-4 suits to see what it’s like to work in that environment, and chatted at length with the scientists who hope to do research in the NEIDL’s containment labs if and when they open.

The video ends on a positive note about the need to study dangerous pathogens, but it’s not a promotional piece. Community objections and BU’s handling of them get some coverage, and we went into more detail about those controversies in the associated podcast episode we released back in September. I’m still not convinced downtown Boston was the best place to stick the NEIDL. However, it does seem to have been built well, and I’d really hate to see a nine-figure sum of NIH funding flushed down the toilet now that the deed is done. Check out the video and make up your own mind:

Virologists Shouldn’t Bring Their Work Home

In a brilliantly titled Science Now story, Martin Enserink reports on a strange cluster of patients infected with an extremely odd virus:

A U.S. vector biologist appears to have accidentally written virological history simply by having sex with his wife after returning from a field trip to Senegal. A study just released in Emerging Infectious Diseases suggests that the researcher, Brian Foy of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, passed to his wife the Zika virus, an obscure pathogen that causes joint pains and extreme fatigue. If so, it would be the first documented case of sexual transmission of an insect-borne disease.

The paper coyly explains that “Patient 1″ and “Patient 2″ apparently acquired the virus from mosquito bites during their field studies in Africa. “Patient 3,” who didn’t go on the trip, and who lives in northern Colorado where Zika-carrying mosquitoes are nonexistent, seems to have gotten the pathogen by having sex with Patient 1.

Foy is the first author of the paper, which describes three anonymous patients. But in an interview with Science, he confirmed that he is the anonymous “patient 1″; his Ph.D. student Kevin Kobylinski, who accompanied him on the trip to Senegal and also got sick, is “patient 2.” Foy’s wife, Joy Chilson Foy, a nurse at the Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, is “patient 3″; she is also a co-author of the paper.

Well, at least she got authorship. Next time, Brian, just get her a t-shirt.

Chronic Fatigue and (Not Quite) XMRV

A much-anticipated paper on the potential role of retroviruses in chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) just came out in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Before it was published, many people had speculated that this work would “confirm” the XMRV-CFS link. It does not. However, it does provide more evidence that people with CFS may be more likely than the general population to harbor murine-like retroviruses.

As a Science news article covering the new work explains:

Part of the problem, skeptics say, is that the researchers didn’t exactly replicate the Science paper. XMRV is a so-called xenotropic murine virus, which means it can no longer enter mouse cells but can infect cells of other species. (Murine means “from mice.”) The researchers in the PNAS paper say the viral sequences they find are more diverse than that and resemble more closely the so-called polytropic viruses, which is why they adopted the term MLV-related virus, for murine leukemia virus. “Let’s be clear: This is another virus. They did not confirm [Mikovits's] results,” says retrovirologist Myra McClure of ICL, a co-author of one of the four negative studies.

Still, “in the grand scheme of things,” the viral sequence found in the PNAS paper closely resembles those of XMRV, says Celia Witten, the director of FDA’s Office of Cellular, Tissue and Gene Therapies, who was not an author of the paper herself but spoke on Lo’s behalf. Witten adds that the data “support” the Science paper. Mikovits — who is “delighted” by the new paper — says the difference is not important. In as-yet-unpublished results, her group finds more genetic diversity in the virus as well, she says.

So now we have two studies suggesting a correlation between CFS and murine-like retroviral infection, four studies finding no evidence of these murine-like viruses in any humans, and the newest results suggesting that we’re not dealing with a single virus at all, but perhaps a whole family of them. Interestingly, the two studies that did detect murine-like viruses in CFS found them in both CFS patients and healthy controls – they’re just much more frequent in the CFS patients. Similarly clear-as-mud data sets have now accumulated for prostate cancer, both claiming and denying a link between that disease and murine-like viruses.

This raises a whole passel of new questions. Are we simply awash in murine retroviruses, which can start opportunistic infections in humans who are already sick with other diseases? Do any of these viruses actually cause any disease? And if 3-6% of the healthy population really is walking around with these viruses in them, is there any point in restricting blood donations from CFS patients?

Not What I Expected, Either

I see anywhere from dozens to hundreds of scientific news releases and stories each day. Even if it weren’t my job to keep up on these developments, I’d probably still be addicted to reading them, because once in a great while one of them puts my jaw on the floor. Today it happened again:

An experimental vaccine prevented HIV infections for the first time, a breakthrough that eluded scientists for a quarter century.

A U.S.-funded study involving more than 16,000 volunteers in Thailand found that a combination of ALVAC, made by Paris- based Sanofi-Aventis SA, and AIDSVAX, from VaxGen Inc., of South San Francisco, cut infections by 31.2 percent in the people who received it compared with those on a placebo, scientists said today in Bangkok. Neither vaccine had stopped the virus that causes AIDS when tested separately in previous studies.

I think it’s fair to say that most virologists weren’t expecting this result. Or, as one HIV vaccine expert put it:

The latest result will transform future research, said Mitchell Warren, director of the New York-based AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition.

“Wow,” said Warren, who was not involved in the study, in a telephone interview today. “We are in a new place in the search for an AIDS vaccine. It’s safe to say that the scientific community is caught off-guard.”

Now it’s time to start asking the interesting questions, like “why would two vaccines that didn’t work separately suddenly work when combined?” and “can we boost protection even higher by adding more components to this vaccine?”

via: Bloomberg.

Darwin Day Blast from The Archives

I can’t let Darwin Day pass without a post, but I’m also a) on deadline for some paying work and b) dreadfully lazy by nature, so I’ll take the blogger’s easy way out. Reaching back into the Dovdox archives, I’ll blow the dust off this one:

Recently, I was talking to a researcher about a particular virus, and he mentioned that it has infected us “since fish.” Yes, fish have a time dimension. In two words, he had communicated reams of information: this virus has infected vertebrates ever since the divergence of the common ancestors of fish and mammals – somewhere around 395 million years ago. That implies that all of the species descended from those ancestors should have their own strains of the virus, which will have co-evolved alongside their host species. “Since fish” is a point in time, a testable prediction about present conditions, and a suggestion of how things might change in the future.

The immensely powerful organizing framework that makes that kind of shorthand possible is, of course, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Besides spawning an argot that includes phrases like “since fish” (which would be a great name for a band, by the way), Darwin built one – or perhaps two – of the most useful conceptual structures in all of science.

Read more…

Civic Duties

It’s that time again, and this year it’s more important than ever. No matter what race, creed, color, or political persuasion you are, you need to join your neighbors and take care of a crucial civic duty: getting a flu shot.

After the disastrous shortages of a few years ago, vaccine makers and public health officials have really come through, making sure there’s plenty of vaccine to go around. There’s also a new formulation available, for those who are squeamish about the little poke in the arm: an attenuated strain of the virus can now be sniffed up the nose instead (though it might cost more and be slightly harder to find).

Speaking of finding the vaccine, there’s a really easy way to do that now, with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation’s flu shot finder. Vaccination sessions are now being held at grocery stores, pharmacies, and election polling locations, and a few major hospitals are even offering drive-throughs.

An electron micrograph of the 1918 flu strain. Photo provided by Cynthia Goldsmith/CDC, via Science-AAAS.

An electron micrograph of the 1918 flu strain. Photo provided by Cynthia Goldsmith/CDC, via Science-AAAS.

This is also the season when research journals like to publish new influenza-related work, and there’s a good crop of it this time around. For example, one report showed that giving higher doses of vaccine to elderly patients boosted their immunity considerably, which could help this vulnerable population a lot. Meanwhile, three studies (follow links here and here) underscore the impact of “herd immunity,” in which people with solid immunity against the virus help protect those with weaker immune responses, especially newborns and the elderly.

So line up, stick out your arm (or nose), and protect yourself against a disease that still kills 36,000 Americans annually. Oh, and you should probably remember to vote, too.