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The Germ Guy: Confessions of a Mercurial Microbiologist

Worming Our Way Around Peanut Allergies…

If you’re a parent, you’ve no doubt come across this image…

peanut(Or any nut for that matter…)

Over the last few decades, the rise of peanut allergies in children has been called everything from a spike to an epidemic. Regardless of how you describe it, more kids than ever are at risk of a life-threatening situation.

The statistics don’t lie…

allergies(Pretty scary when you think about it…)

The reason for this increase is quite an enigma and researchers have been stymied by a lack of any strong connection between human behaviour and allergy occurrence.

However, there is one very interesting statistic most people don’t know. It can be best explained like this…

allergy-rise(A rainbow of risk…)

For some reason, allergies appear to be a problem only in certain regions of the world. More interesting, these areas are more developed, meaning they are richer and have improved standards for food, water, and sanitation safety.

While this may not sound any alarm bells, for certain researchers, this revelation can be best described as an…

ahamoment(A-Ha! Moment…)

Maybe…just maybe there is something in the food, water, or environment giving children in these less hygienic environments an added defense against allergy. If researchers could find that one factor, they might be able to find a way to ensure kids in the more developed countries don’t suffer.

The search has been going on for years and it appears one prime suspect has been found. It’s known as…

shistosoma(Schisto!)

Actually, it’s Schistosoma masoni and it’s better known as a blood fluke.

If you are up to date on your pathogenic microbiology – which I am sure you are – then you also know it’s a rather important infection causing diarrhea, abdominal pain, and an enlarged spleen. It’s prevalent in 78 different countries and up to 700 million people are at risk.

I can imagine what you’re thinking…

crazy(Unlike more cowbell…)

Yet, the signs have continued to point to worm exposure as the one reason children do not develop allergies.

If you happen to be fully versed in immunology – which again, I am sure you happen to be – then you might think of an explanation for this strange coincidence. As far-fetches as it may sound, there may be a protein in worms that helps to prevent peanut allergies.

For years, the usual reaction to this theory was…

twilight(It does not make a Serling argument…)

But, it seems the critics have been proven wrong. It’s all thanks to a recent paper entitled,

Antigenic cross‐reactivity between Schistosoma mansoni and peanut: a role for cross‐reactive carbohydrate determinants (CCDs) and implications for the hygiene hypothesis

You can read the whole paper by clicking on the link but as the name implies, the researchers have shown a link between Schistosoma and protection against allergies. It all comes down to a group of proteins known as glycoproteins.

If you happen to be an expert in organic chemistry – and let’s face it, who isn’t – then you know that this is a molecule containing both amino acids and sugars. These are relatively large molecules allowing them to take on a three-dimensional shape. Sometimes, that formation can appear to be like another completely different glycoprotein.

Here’s where it gets interesting…

When a glycoprotein enters the body, the immune system reacts to the visitation in one of a few ways. It can either recognize it as harmless and do nothing. It can distinguish it as a foe and attack. Or it can see it as a serious threat that needs to be expelled. This latter process is what is also known as an allergic response.

What the researchers found in this study is that the glycoprotein known to cause peanut allergies is very similar in formation to a harmless component found in worm eggs. However, the response to the egg is far more powerful than the peanut. This means having the eggs present in the gastrointestinal tract could ultimately block any response to peanuts.

At its core, this study suggests children should have Schistosoma worm eggs to prevent peanut allergies. Which probably leads to the following reaction…

interseting(Yet evil too…)

After all, no one wants to infect children and put them at risk just to prevent allergies.

Thankfully, there is an alternative option. The eggs can be rendered inert such that they cannot grow into worms. They then could be ingested without worry.

While this concept is still being tested in labs, the potential does appear to be real. If the results continue to be positive, we may even see clinical trials in the near future. The treatment may even reach the level of regulatory approval. Should this ever happen, we may one day be able to help children deal with allergies and never have to worry about a life-to-death situation again.

There is just one catch. Even if this idea gains widespread approval, don’t expect the worm eggs to be widely available. Unlike those other types of eggs…

breakfast(I always prefer sunny side up…)

These will only be available through a doctor.

Are Cell Phones Bringing Us Closer To The Post-Antibiotic Era?

Whenever there is a crisis, people start to play the blame by association game. It’s a natural process. But sometimes, the game gets a little…

preposterous(Out of hand…)

A perfect example of this happened a few weeks ago. In response to the antibiotic resistance crisis, a few researchers decided to publish a paper entitled…

Evaluation of the Effect of Radiofrequency Radiation Emitted From
Wi-Fi Router and Mobile Phone Simulator on the Antibacterial Susceptibility
of Pathogenic Bacteria Listeria monocytogenes and Escherichia coli

You can click on the title to read the whole study. But as the name implies, researchers have attempted to link the use of Wi-Fi and Mobile Phones to increasing rates of antibiotic resistance.

Just hearing this concept may make you want to say…

malarkey(Or balderdash for that matter…)

Yet, a few years ago, researchers did happen to notice an odd occurrence in bacteria placed in the presence of both Wi-Fi and cell phone radiation. The bacteria somehow gained the ability to resist antibiotics. At the time, it was considered to be a…

fluke(Fasciola hepatica to everyone else…) 

However, as with all experimental science, the results did create some interest and led to the aforementioned study.

The bacteria were placed in a zone where either Wi-Fi or cell phone radiation could be absorbed. At the same time, antibiotics were administered in an assay known as a…

zone-inhibition(Zone of Inhibition Test…)

Sensitivity and resistance are measured by the size of the zone of inhibition. The larger the diameter, the more sensitive the bacteria to the antibiotic. If there’s no zone, the bacteria are completely resistant.

The team focused on Escherichia coli and Listeria monocytogenes, two well known pathogens with a penchant for antibiotic resistance. No one actually expected the bacteria to gain resistance and yet…well, it gets weird…

ecoli-gsm
(This is E. coli in the presence of cell phone radiation…)

As you can see, the inhibition zone shrank for all the antibiotics after as little as three hours. This meant the bacteria had somehow figured out a way to resist the drugs. We’re not talking just penicillin but stronger types such as ciprofloxacin, or as we like to call it, cipro.

If you look at the 6 hour mark, you might decide the best thing to do is…

power-off(But can you get out of your contract?)

Mind you, this effect was short-lived. By 9 hours, the resistance began to wane and by 12 hours, there was no difference from the start of the test. As for the Wi-Fi, this is what the researchers observed…

ecoliwifi
(Not so bad…)

In contrast to the E. coli experiments, Listeria monocytogenes was not affected dramatically by the presence of either type of radiation. The bacteria seemingly had no radiation-resistance capability.

Usually when these studies come about, they fall into the type of category I like to call…

provocative(Or if you wish, intriguing…)

There was clearly some type of change going on in E. coli in the presence of cell phone radiation. Whatever it was somehow aided in resisting antibiotics.

This was not an evolutionary shift, mind you. It was instead a reaction to the presence of cell phone radiation. After getting used to the new environment, the bacteria went back to normal and started dying again.

From a microbiological perspective, this result definitely is worth following up. If we can figure out what is happening at the molecular level, we may be able to identify new coping mechanisms in the bacteria. We may also find new targets for therapy.

But in regards to the question posed in the title of this post, the best response happens to be…

no(Especially if you’re reading this post on your cell phone…)

Smog and Heartbreak in a Changing Climate…

One of the risks of science communication is the inevitable shift in topics to subjects considered to be politically sensitive. Usually, when these issues are brought up, people end up asking a universal question…

urkel(Or, are humans really to blame?)

Usually – and for some, unfortunately – the answer is yes. Mind you, scientists have been clever about hiding the blame behind jargon. For example, instead of saying certain troubles are due to humans, they tend to lay the blame on activities considered to be…

anthro(Which is a fancy word for “performed by humans”)

Sometimes, anthropogenic actions are easy to point out as the cause for troubles. In the last decade alone, our actions have led to…

  • The Ebola epidemic (hunting primates for food)
  • The cholera outbreak in Haiti (foreign rescue workers brought it in)
  • The influenza pandemic (high intensity farming)
  • SARS and MERS (co-habitation with viral vectors)

But when the conversation turns to a much more contentious topic, the mere inference of human fault can turn into…

fight(Trouble…)

There are many topics in which science and human interest collide. It’s also not new as this struggle has been going on in different forms for centuries. Topics such as evolution, the true source of certain diseases, and even the shape of the Earth – round or flat – has resulted in a conflict. But in this day and age, the most prevalent topic pitting the public against the scientist happens to be…

climate-change(The Earth is a changin’…)

Depending on the crowd, mention of this topic can quickly alter the atmosphere from clear, sunny, and calm to dark and gloomy with an excellent chance for verbal storms.

When people bring up the evil double-C, I tend to veer away from the debate as to whether the effects are indeed caused by humans. Instead, I like to discuss consequences of the Earth’s changing environment on our health. Regardless of the cause, we need to deal with the effects on us. I find taking this route helps to keep people calm and not end up…

angry(You get the idea…)

Over the years, I’ve used a number of examples to demonstrate the health effects of climate change without heading into the anthropogenic. Now it seems a new one has developed thanks to a paper released earlier this month. It focuses on a topic we all know and many of us have experienced. It’s a portmanteau of two words, “smoke,” and “fog.” Of course, I’m talking about…

to-cn-smog(Smog…and yes, that’s Toronto in the backdrop…)

Smog is the accumulation of tiny particles, about a millionth-of a metre in size. They float around in the air and obscure our ability to see great distances. As to the nature of those particles they vary but some of the substances can be described as…

chem_compo_pm_e(Nasty…)

When the body becomes exposed to these chemicals, the body ends up being rather unhappy. Most of the time, our focus is on the lungs and the impact on our ability to breathe. But there is another relatively unknown victim of smog…

heart(Cardiovascular health)

This may not seem a little strange considering the chemicals in smog don’t actually get into our blood. Yet, research has shown air pollution can contribute to poor heart health. As to how this happens, it all comes down to the immune system and, you know where this is going…

inflammation(When all else fails…blame inflammation…)

But while we can show smog is related to inflammation, we don’t have a good explanation as to how the immunological condition is initiated. This gap can be troublesome particularly when immersed in a climate change debate.

Now we may have an answer thanks to a fascinating scientific paper released last week. It’s called, Ambient Ultrafine Particle Ingestion Alters Gut Microbiota in Association with Increased Atherogenic Lipid Metabolites and if you click on the title, you can read the whole paper.

The researchers wanted to find out what could be the link between exposure to smog and the higher risk for cardiovascular problems. They could think of no better place to look than…

gut(The gut…and its microbes…)

Although the choice may seem strange, the rational made sense. Research had already shown a lack of proper diversity of the microbial population could lead to an increased risk for heart disease. Perhaps smog was somehow altering that diversity in the gut. All that was needed was to try…which they did…and subsequently found this…

inflammation(It’s pretty frightening…)

Okay, maybe it’s less frightening and more confusing without the appropriate background. Let me explain how the researchers got to this point…

The first step was to get some smog. This was not too difficult as they were located in the smog-capital of Los Angeles. After about a month, they had more than enough particles for the test.

Next, they needed some mice. They chose a strain known to be an excellent model for monitoring cardiovascular disease.

The third step was rather straightforward. They fed the mice the smog…

whatouse(What the…?)

Okay, perhaps this step doesn’t make much sense without context. When we inhale smog, it goes into our entire respiratory tract. Those particles end up trapped in our mucus, saliva, and other protective juices formed in our mouth, sinuses, throat, and lungs. When these surfaces are released, they only have two ways to go. One is out of the body…

spitting(Which may be socially unacceptable…)

The other is to swallow, which we all do at some point. As this happens, the smog particles eventually make their way to the gut where they may alter the normal function in the intestines. That’s why the mice were forced to eat smog.

The doses were similar to a normal smoggy day in LA. The animals were fed the same amount for a period of ten weeks. To ensure the situation closely mimicked humans living in LA, the mice also were fed a standard Western Diet. The only thing the researchers didn’t do was make the mice…

sunglasses(Look the part…)

At the end of the study, the mice were examined for any signs of inflammation. Which brings us back to the frightening figure…

inflammation(So you don’t need to scroll up…)

On the left, the team examined the intestinal cells of the mice and found a higher level of inflammation in those exposed to smog. On the right is an enumeration of inflammatory cells known as macrophages and neutrophils. In relation to the control, those exposed to smog (or as the authors called them, ultrafine particles or UFP), there were significantly more of both cell types.

As to why the inflammation was present, the team found a lack of microbial diversity in the gut. Once this was detected, the rest was simply a matter of putting the pieces of the puzzle together:

Diversity was down, thus inflammation was going to be up. Because inflammation was up, cardiovascular disease markers were going to be increased. When disease markers are higher, an individual is at a greater risk for a cardiovascular event.

The end result could be summed up in one very easy to say phrase…

unhappymouse(Smog Can Lead To Heartbreak…)

This study is fascinating on its own but for me, it offers yet more ammunition in climate change discussions. We now have a possible microbial link between smog and heart disease, making it easier to point out the effects of pollution on the body.

But more importantly, the information opens up a new direction for the debate. While we may haggle over the cause, we can provide some perspective on how we may be able to prevent the consequences. Put it this way…

If you want to keep your heart healthy, you can do one of two things…

  1. Get rid of the smog, in which you are a part of a global effort.
  2. Get rid of the diversity troubles, which is an individual effort comprised of changing your eating behaviour including reducing the sugars and fats, eating more fruits and vegetables, get those good probiotic bacteria, and increase the amount of that beneficial and yet horrid-tasting fibres.

When faced with these options, it’s incredible how people may decide to choose the global route over the individual one. After all, when faced with a decision, you can always count on people to choose…

easyway(Even if it means going against ideology…)

 

Watch What Happens When Immune Systems Attack!

Every now and then an article comes around that just fascinates me. A perfect example is the following paper from 2014…

Leukotriene B4 amplifies eosinophil accumulation in response to nematodes.

I know what you’re thinking…

awesome(Okay, maybe not…)

The study is actually pretty straightforward. It focuses on how a certain molecule, leukotriene B4, which is produced by a particular type of immune cell, an eosinophil, prompts other eosinophils to migrate to a particular enemy, in this case a parasitic worm. Simple, right?

sayagain(Okay, maybe not…)

The problem with a scientific article such as this one is the rather complex nature of the work and the mechanism the researchers discovered. Trying to explain this process could be an exercise in frustration. One needs to understand the cascade effect of immunity, the arachidonic acid biochemical pathway, and the biology of worms. Getting to the point could take as many or perhaps more words than the original article.

But there may be a better way to describe what is happening….

attack(You have to feel a little sorry for the worm…)

What you are seeing in this GIF is a time lapse video of eosinophils migrating towards a worm. Even more incredible is the length of time this video covers…only 80 minutes. In the context of the usually slow process by which biological life exists, this is what we call as fast as…

bolt(You get the idea…)

But while the rapid effect of a leukotriene on eosinophil migration in the battle against a worm may be just the bees knees for me, I can understand why this may not make you sit back in awe.

Of course, that is until I tell you there is a reason why you may find this information of interest. The same process witnessed above also happens when some people suffer…

asthma(Asthma or allergies or other respiratory distress…)

Even though the paper may not be worth the entire read, the GIF may be able to provide perspective on a significant health problem.

What I hope this also does is highlight the importance of fundamental research. While these types of studies may not seem to have any link to human health, when you widen the scope to what plagues us, then you may end up saying…

relevant(Even if the paper is upside down…)

After all, not all science is glamorous, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.

Want To Remove Political Bias? Get ‘Em Curious…

There has been quite a bit of attention on science as of late. Granted, most of it has been negative; manifested in an ongoing backlash against recommendations made by scientists. No matter how much evidence is provided, there’s always that recurring refrain:

jerry(SHOW ME THE PROOF!)

I completely understand this sentiment. After all, science is not absolute and as such, has difficulties dealing with questions based on analysis. As researchers, we are trained to deal with these types of questions and find ways to respond to them accurately.

But the current situation is far worse. Instead of an argument of evidence vs evidence, questions are being asked based on fear, ideology, or what I consider to be the worst, political leanings. When this happens, a seed of doubt can quickly turn into an epidemic of distrust in the public. Most scientists are not ready for this type of dissent and many find themselves facing a…

mission-impossible-1(Mission Impossible…)

When you think about it, scientists are not alone. We are seeing similar actions against some of our most valued institutions such as the media, the justice system, and public health. In all of these cases, hard working people are doing their best to improve society and yet, at the end of the day, they always feel like they are…

money(Behind the 8-Ball)

In light of this, researchers have attempted to figure out how to dampen the fierce opposition, especially that which is not based on evidence and/or mechanisms. Unfortunately, in most cases, the results have suggested most strategies simply cannot get through the wall of politics. No matter how much scientists wish people would say it, in general, they are unwilling to state…

want-truth(I WANT THE TRUTH!) 

As to why people do not wish to learn more, you might say the answer is the same line you may have said to yourselves after seeing the above image…

handle(Which usually is the case…)

But researchers continue undeterred and finally it seems a group of researchers may have found one possible solution to this problem. The paper was published in the journal Political Psychology and as you might expect, goes after the concept of politics in the rejection of science.

You can read the whole article here: Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing but the answer is so simple, it could be considered laughable…

fashion(Unless you compare it to this…)

The team of researchers wanted to find out what could negate politically-motivated reasoning not based on evidence or mechanism. To do this, they first had to figure out what the difference was between normal reasoning and those based on political viewpoints. They provide a nice summary in this figure…

reasoning(Politics, um, trumps facts…)

This is troublesome to say the least because no matter how well scientists may communicate their views, they are destined to lose out because of those political predispositions. In order to succeed at gaining interest in science, something had to be done to negate the political viewpoints. But rather than use evidence, they decided to rely on something a little more…

risky(Risqué…work with me here…)

Instead of detailing evidence, such as those you might see in news stories, the team decided to go a different route. They wanted to offer something much more intrinsic to every human, regardless of political viewpoint. It’s been around for thousands of years and yet, from a scientific perspective, never seems to be a viable option when trying to convince people of the value of research. I’m talking about…

magnolia(Entertainment…)

The group asked volunteers to watch portions of scientific films with names such as, “Your Inner Fish,” “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” and “Mass Extinction: Life on the Brink.” The excerpts were chosen such that they wouldn’t overtly point to evidence or mechanisms. Rather, they would merely offer hints of the natural course of the world in the hopes of developing a sense of curiosity.

It was a gamble to say the least. After all, it could be disastrous to take a chance against the political grain…

lestat(Or the political fans for that matter…)

Yet, it worked. When people were asked about their curiosity on several politically-sensitive topics, climate change or fracking, individuals on both side of the spectrum seemed to have a similar patterns of interest.

But this wasn’t the real shocker. That came when the authors asked about the volunteers’ attitudes to these topics. Even the most die-hard conservatives changed their views in comparison to controls. Watching the films helped these individuals believe the concerns regarding these issues were real and without action, pose a threat to humanity.

For the authors, this was a complete surprise. By simply showing science in the form on entertainment, they had developed a change that was equivalent to…

knight-and-day(Okay, you can groan about this one…)

I admit, the results may seem incredible. Yet, from a purely human perspective, this should come as no surprise. No matter how deep political views may be entrenched, we all can be drawn from them through entertainment, particularly if it’s done well. Our belief system is hijacked by what we see and this can negate or at least lessen the impact of what is ingrained in us.

The results of this study reveal the importance of curiosity and entertainment in ensuring scientific success. However, there is one potential drawback to going the route of entertainment as opposed to evidence. No matter how slick and professional the output, there should always be a link back to the original research. If the public cannot identify the science within the style, then they may not realize why they are watching, listening, or reading. In essence, they might completely miss…

lessrossman
(Who the real actor may be…)

While this research may suggest going the entertainment route will lead to a more scientifically-based society, scientists also need to understand this approach can only go so far. Even though curiosity may help negate political bias, it may not be enough to get individuals to act in a manner that befits the concern. That will require a different type of convincing that so far, no one has figured out. But you can be sure, should that strategy every be found, those who come up with it will most definitely be considered at least in the scientific world…

topgun(I know you were waiting for it…)

The Trouble With Cause By Association…

If you happen to keep up with the media, you’ll no doubt encounter health stories focusing on behaviour and disease. Usually, the reports go along these lines…

“A new study has revealed that doing/not doing X can lead to a higher/lower risk for Y.”

The whole point is to make you, as the audience take a step back and think…

hmm1(Hmm…)

These studies are useful as they can help us determine whether certain actions can lead to subsequent health events. They can also help guide policy.

But, there is a rather unfortunate catch. Sometimes, the recommendations arising from these reports contradict each other. The epitome of this conundrum happens to centre around a drink we all know and many of us love…

coffee(A Cup o’ Joe…)

Over the last few years, we’ve been inundated with reports on the health benefits and risks associated with coffee consumption.

On the good side, two to four cups a day may reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease, ovarian cancer, liver cancer, colon cancer and depression. If you’re a caffeine fiend (like me), six cups a day could reduce the chances for skin cancer.

Reading this list may make you want to say…

garfield(Never mess with an upset Garfield…)

But before you start purchasing those boxes of beans, there is a flip side. Other studies have revealed distinctly different outcomes. Some suggest more than four cups a day may decrease bone density and increase cholesterol. Then there are studies suggesting this much coffee may increase the risk of death by fifty-six percent.

Looking at these numbers might make change your answer to any java offering to…

lemur(I would rather not die…)

From a policy perspective, this information is useful in developing certain recommendations. You can drink two to four cups a day but don’t go any higher. Makes sense, right?

Yet the public perspective is more inclined to be based on an all or nothing principle.  The compilation of these reports can muddy the waters and lead you to drift from Hmm to…

hmm2(Ugh…)

As to why this type of study divergence happens, there is a simple answer. All these studies are observational. The researchers are only looking at links between certain activities in a population of people and what happens to their health over time. This means the results, no matter how robust, only show association, not cause.

We tend to use a specific saying to stress this point:

corecauseCORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION

While this term is extremely useful in scientific realms, in the public forum, it may be considered yet another example of academic elitism.

To get a real grasp of the importance of this cautionary advice, a more appreciable example would provide a stronger perspective. I originally had thought about going through the coffee craziness, but a recent happening may be far more valuable.

This past weekend, I went to a concert for one of my favorite bands…

(Red Hot Chili Peppers…)

I’ve been a fan of their funky music for decades and have loved almost every album. Not to mention, they are perhaps the only group that regularly uses microbes in their lyrics.

Before the concert, I had reached out to the band on Twitter expressing my deep desire to hear a particular song, “Higher Ground.” Many of you might know it from the original singer…

wonder(Stevie Wonder…)

When the concert began however, the set list appeared to follow a path down which this song would not be included. While I was happy to be at the concert, I was feeling a little disappointed.

Then, about two-thirds into the 90 minute show, something magical happened. An incredible bass riff sounded through the concert hall. If you are not aware of it, just listen to the first few seconds…

(The whole song is worth a listen…)

I arose from my seat and starting singing – well screaming – along with the band. This was a singular moment of joy. But I also had another thought that made this experience even more special…

ididit(I caused the song to be played!)

I mean, I did send them a social media request and they did change their song list to suit me. I had to be the cause…right?!

Well, much to my chagrin, the answer is most likely…

goahead(and say NO…)

As hard as it is for me to accept, my one tweet most likely did not lead to a change in the set list. Sure, it might have happened but there was no evidence or mechanism to suggest I was the cause.

Now, if the member of the band I tweeted sent me a response, then there would be a mechanism in place…

  1. I tweeted.
  2. He saw it.
  3. He changed policy.
  4. I benefited.

But without proof, all I can do is surmise and apply conjecture similar to a…

fishing(You get the idea…)

Although the difference between my story and making recommendations for improved public health is an obvious stretch, I hope this at least provides some perspective on the limited power of observational studies. They are useful but need to be examined as a part of a larger picture. Changing one’s actions based on an individual report may lead to trouble.

I hope this example also will engage you to ask a very simple and yet incredibly important question the next time you see/hear/read one of these studies associating behaviour with health…

mechanism(Is there a mechanism?)

If the answer is no, then maybe it’s best to ignore the recommendations until better evidence comes around.

 

Another Reason Why We Should Never Bet Against Nature…

Over the last decade and a half, one entity has arisen from relative obscurity to being one of the most feared threats. Teams have come together to try and defeat this incredible opponent. Officials have tried to slow down the seemingly indomitable force. Yet, each and every time, failure is the end result and millions are left with what could be described as an itching feeling. It has become clear that when it comes to battle, you simply do not mess with…

(Bill Belichick!)

There is, of course, another threat that emulates the relative craftiness of the head coach of the New England Patriots. This one, however, casts a much wider net across the globe and leaves many more people suffering in its wake. I’m talking about…

mosquito (The Mosquito…)

This small insect has quickly risen to become one of humanity’s greatest public health concerns. Granted, for most of us, the annoyance of a mosquito bite is similar to watching the Pats win yet another Super Bowl…it’s temporary and eventually goes away.

mcnabb(Except maybe in the case of the Eagles…)

Heartbreak aside, for millions around the world, the mosquito situation is far more dire. A single bite can lead to a life-threatening illness. The problem has become so bad that this insect has become recognized as the world’s greatest killer…

deaths(Sorry sharks…)

For years, researchers have been trying to figure out how to stop the mosquito from causing so much trouble. Spraying pesticides has been an old-time favorite but this has proven to be inadequate. Attempts at using natural mosquito killers such as wasps and bacteria may work but they are not widely supported by the general public.

More recently, another approach has shown promise. Instead of focusing on killing the insects, some scientists have attempted to take out critical molecular components needed for reproduction. By genetically modifying these regions, females can be rendered infertile.

In essence, these researchers are trying to take out what I like to call the…

brady(Tom Brady Factor)

The process is rather straightforward. Mutations are incorporated into one generation of mosquitoes such that they simply cannot use the genes. The insects are then allowed to integrate into a community and mate with natural members of the population. The end result is fewer offspring and an overall reduction in the number of these biting pests. Biologically, this is what is known as a…

gene-drive(Gene Drive…)

If you want more information on this technique, you can read more about it here:
‘Gene drive’ mosquitoes engineered to fight malaria.

Early results have seemed promising, yet a major obstacle has been identified. While gene drives may be effective in the short term, researchers are learning they are probably not as useful as once believed. Instead of being a part of a winning strategy, they seem to be ending up being little more than a…

helmet-catch(Helmet catch…)

Granted, this moment was dazzling in display and helped the New York Giants defeat the Patriots. But it was also a fluke that could never be repeated. After all, Belichick returned to raise the trophy not long afterwards.

seattle(Sorry, Seattle…)

As to why gene drives don’t seem to be a long-lasting option, the answer appears to be something scientists always seem to be forgetting when they come up with these ideas. It’s even more unstoppable than Belichick and mosquitoes. We all know it and yet few ever seem to give it the credit it deserves. It’s known as…

nature(Nature…)

It apparently abhors these types of interventions and will do all it can to mitigate them and render them useless. In the case of the mosquito, the introduced mutations are targeted and taken out in a variety of ways. Sometimes, the fully functioning gene is returned. In other cases, natural mutations in the drive can shut it down. Then there is a behavioural component whereby those with the gene drives may interfere with mate selection.

In all of these cases, the end result is the same. The mosquito population thrives and we end up having to once again face…

brady-belichick(A Winning Combination…)

While this discovery may mean gene drives could be going the way of the Rams, Eagles, Panthers, and Seahawks in the fight against mosquitoes, research is always working to find new answers. Sure, the discoveries may not be worthy of your New York Football Giants, but they may eventually offer up a means to keep these insects at bay and help us to improve public health worldwide.

Of course, to accomplish this, researchers will have to be given the resources they need. In addition, they have to be sure to be as sharp and keen eyed as…

falcons
(Yeah, yeah, I know it’s hawks…work with me here!)

One more thing…even if you are not watching the game, don’t forget to check out my “Super Bowl Commercials” from a few years back. You can find them here: Super Bowl 2012 Commercials.

A Case of Extreme Vexing…

Every year, an infectious disease spreads like wildfire across North America bringing along with it misery for those who ends up being afflicted. People find themselves rushing to run to the bathroom to relieve that feeling of being sick to their stomachs. Although the condition only lasts a few days, the nightmare is not soon forgotten.

For those wondering, I’m not talking about…

bieber_fever(Although it it quite contagious…)

Instead I’m talking about an illness with many names. Some fifty years ago, it was known as the Winter Vomiting Disease. Then in the 1970s, it was called Norwalk Virus, named after the city in which the virus was originally isolated. Some know it as the cruise ship virus due to its ability to turn a joyful voyage on the sea into a ugly nightmare. Officially, however, it’s known as…

(Norovirus…or noro)

Having studies this organism in the lab, I can tell you it is quite possibly the perfect outbreak pathogen. It has everything going for it…

  1. It can survive for weeks on surfaces – it can be picked up quite easily;
  2. It has a low infectious dose – you only need to ingest a few to develop illness;
  3. It continues to spread after you feel better;
  4. It can resist regular disinfection procedures.

To say the least, this is a true…

eenie-meenie(Eenie Meenie…)

The moment noro finds its way into a confined environment, such as a cruise ship, college dormitory, school, or hospital ward, the situation becomes one of extreme vexing. The virus simply moves its way around from person to person until the entire population has been affected.

To gain any kind of control over this problem, officials need to use equally extreme interventions, such as closing a ward, cancelling the cruise ship trip, or banishing dorm residents for a week. If this were to happen under any other circumstance, it would lead to a massive request for these authorities to say…

sorry(And here’s some money too…)

But when the cause of the conflict is noro, there really is no other recourse.

Although noro hits each year around this time, some seasons end up being far more troublesome than others. The virus seems to affect more people and cause even greater damage. Even more vexing, those who believe they are immune to the virus – because they already had suffered from it – suddenly find themselves back at the toilet again wondering…

mean(What Do You Mean?!)

This happens to be one of those years. It’s not really anyone’s fault, mind you. The trouble is due to the natural ability of the virus to evolve. Much like that other, more famous virus, influenza, noro has several circulating strains, known as genotypes. Just this year alone, the CDC has estimated the number of virus types spreading in the United States is at least six…

norovirus(Although not distributed evenly…)

Unless a person happens to have had come into contact with all of these different genotypes, the risk for infection is always present. This sets up a rather inconvenient truth in which we much admit no matter how many times we may end up with the illness, we must…

neversaynever(No matter how much we would like to…)

There is a small bright side to this situation. Unlike respiratory viruses, noro needs to get into our gastrointestinal tracts in order to harm us. There is only one cell type the virus likes to attack and it’s deep inside the intestines. If we can prevent entry of the invader, we may be able to stay safe.

Granted, this does mean we have to ask one question…

wherenow(Where Are U Now?)

Yet as this image suggests, the answer is relatively easy. Most of the time noro spreads, it’s because it was on someone’s hands. People can pick up the virus from a surface, such as a sink tap or a washroom door handle and readily transfer it to other surfaces or, in the case of self-inoculation, the mouth.

Contamination of objects may not lead to an outbreak. But, when hands come into contact with food, all bets are off. This route usually is the one causing large numbers of infections in restaurants and on cruise ships. Usually, the incident occurs because one or more people simply did not wash their hands properly prior to handling fresh foods not meant for cooking. The end result sadly, is a mass of people disposing of their recent meals from both ends.

This latter situation is exactly why adhering to food safety protocols is so important. It’s also why I feel avoiding even the simplest actions to keep food safe makes…

nosense(No Sense!)

As each year passes and more cases are recorded, I imagine the virus will reach a certain level of infamy. People all over the world may find themselves wanting to avoid the gut-wrenching symptoms and those days of vexation. Granted, it won’t be easy as noro is an able opponent. Yet, as far as I can see, all we need is a combination of purpose, prowess, power and possibly…

bieber-pronger(Pronger!)

With these in place, we can do our best to ensure the virus stays out of our guts for good.

PS: Have you ever had norovirus? If you have, let me know how it felt.

PPS: For the record, I had it and hated it although not as much as when Chris Pronger pretty much did the same thing to the Ottawa Senators during the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals as he did to Bieber yesterday.

A New Type of Vaccination…Against Alternative Facts

This week, the average American experienced a taste of what it is like to be a public health official or researcher. It wasn’t due to an outbreak or epidemic, mind you. It had to do with this…

inauguration(Inauguration Day…)

Despite what your eyes might see above, several people claimed the crowd attending the 2017 event was more populous than that in 2009. A variety of statistics were thrown around to support this view. Even the centre of all that attention entered the debate suggesting he felt there were far more people than the visual evidence suggests.

This all culminated when a spokesperson who was questioned about these obviously inaccurate conclusions suggested they were…

alternative-facts(Alternative Facts…)

As you might expect, this started a rather heated debate in the media and the term itself went viral on social media. Even Merriam-Webster, the dictionary company, entered the discussion pointing out…

fact(To much rejoicing I might add…)

Yet despite all this, those siding with the 2017 claim did not budge.

Right about now, you might find yourself experiencing a tinge of malcontent. Depending on how long this simmers (or festers), you may end up wanting to…

scream(Scream!)

But as much as I hate to say it, for public health officials and researchers, this is par for the course. Each and every day, these wonderful people watch helplessly as evidence is set aside and replaced by a combination of alternative facts, feelings, and conjecture. If they try to set the record straight, they are met with a combination of derision, defamatory comments, and accusations of…

dog-cat(Illiteracy…my favorite)

Using alternative facts to push a claim is a common practice in many different scientific arenas. Three of the most popular – and for the record, false – claims happen to be…

  • Vaccines cause autism.
  • GMOs are going to harm us.
  • Climate Change is not real

No matter what evidence from the scientific literature is presented, those who stand by these claims never let up. Instead, they share a variety of alternative facts in the hopes of confusing the public. What they are doing is relying on one of the fundamental tenets of science:  it is not absolute…

zero(Except, of course for Absolute Zero…)

Because scientists cannot conclude with complete certainty, alternative facts can squeeze into the discussion and eventually overtake it. Depending on the index case – the person who introduced these falsehoods – misinformation can spread like a virus. An outbreak may ensue and if not caught early enough, quickly turn into an epidemic of speculation, doubt, and lack of trust.

This analogy, while depressing, does offer some hope and a possible hypothesis to counter alternative facts. It goes something like this…

Because alternative facts are viruses of fiction,
we can vaccinate against them using factual information.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking…

what(He’s lost it this time…)

I admit, it does seem far-fetched. Yet, a group of researchers based in America and the UK, this theory appeared to be worthy of at least a preliminary test.

The team focused on climate change as the topic of interest. The virus, if you will, is the continuing perception that it does not exist. The vaccine was comprised not of a liquid injected into the arm, but a flood of factual information injected into the brain through communication.

Here’s how the experiment worked. The team conducted an online survey in which hundreds of people were asked about their view on climate change. Then, they were exposed to information regarding the phenomenon. The messages fell into one of the following categories:

  1. A consensus statement on climate change – it is happening;
  2. Alternative facts (which they called a counter-message);
  3. A simple vaccine comprised of easy to understand information about climate change;
  4. A stronger vaccine comprised of detailed knowledge and information on climate change.

After the exposures were complete, the volunteers were asked again for their views.

When the results came back, this is what they saw…

conesnsus

(The numbers here reveal the change in people’s views from their original stance…)

As you can see, the power of alternative facts (Line 3) is undeniable. These untrue perspectives were able to change the viewpoint of close to 10% of the people. They also are effective at in neutralizing an opposing message. Just look at Line 4. Even though the consensus statement was made, as soon as those viral entities made their way into the brain – especially for Republicans – the stance changed for the worse.

When you think about it, this is why people who want to avoid the truth turn to alternative facts. They know these distractions from reality can sway a person to doubt and possibly force them to turn away from what is known to be true.

But the real story comes in the subsequent lines. Line 5 is the simple vaccine while Line 6 is the stronger version. Both were effective at helping to sway the stance towards the evidence. Even when those alternative facts were presented, they had little effect. In essence, the vaccine had worked.

When it was all said and done, the vaccine wasn’t quite as effective as they hoped. The effectiveness was only about 20%. If this were a real biological vaccine, it would have to go back to the drawing board. However, for this purpose, a change of 20% of the population could be regarded as…

yuge(Sorry, I had to…)

When you think about a population of hundreds of millions of people such as America, swaying that many minds towards reality over fiction would be considered a triumph.

Of course, this study was done in a controlled setting using surveys and volunteers. No one quite knows if it would be as effective in the real world. However, for those who continue to spread the good word, this study should provide some comfort. The more these people continue to vaccinate the public, the greater the chance we may all be able to live in a world ruled by scientific evidence instead of…

pinocc(You get the idea…)

If you want to read the entire study, you can find it here: Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change – van der Linden – 2017 – Global Challenges – Wiley Online Library

 

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