Colorized transmission electron micrograph of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (Credit: NIAID via Flickr used under CC license)
In 2002 the first cases of a strange new flu-like illness began appearing in southern China. As case numbers mounted well into 2003, it became clear that this was not the flu. Patients began dying as their lungs filled with fluid and stopped functioning. Researchers rushed to determine what kind of virus was causing this disease before it could spread past hope of containment.
After the hard work of many dedicated individuals, it was determined that this new lethal virus was in fact a coronavirus (later named Sever Acute Respratory Syndrom virus, or SARS-CoV). This was odd, as this kind of virus was not known to cause serious disease in humans before this point. By comparing this new virus to older samples, it was determined that this virus was originally living in bats before jumping to civets, and then finally humans. Thankfully, due to this varied zoonotic background (which means to come from animals), SARS did not have the best person-to-person transmissibility during the early parts of the outbreak and was eventually contained once health care officials new what to look for and quarantine. Once the numbers were tallied it was determined that SARS infected over 8000 people, killing over 700 of the most unfortunate individuals. This would not be the last time a coronaviruses would make a dramatic jump into human hosts. In 2012 we were tested on what we learned during the first SARS outbreak in 2002. Continue reading The decade of the Coronavirus: What SARS and MERS have taught us about containing potential pandemics→
While I’ve written in the past about viruses that can cause cancer, today I want to introduce the concept of using viruses to selectively kill cancer cells. These types of viruses are called oncolytic viruses, meaning that they kill (-lytic) cancer cells (onco-) but not normal healthy cells.
This makes them potentially very powerful tools in treating cancers that don’t respond well to established approaches of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. This approach is still in its infancy, but the potential of viral oncology remains promising.
Why is it that members of the public health community are worried about falling vaccination rates in the US when getting vaccinated is treated as a largely personal choice? Do our personal health decisions for ourselves and our children have an impact on the health of society as a whole?
The answer to this is that yes, our individual decisions do matter to society when it comes to combating the spread of contagious disease.
A large part of this is herd or community immunity; the way in which mass immunity in a population can control the spread of disease among individuals. Herd immunity is a major reason behind why so many deadly diseases have all but disappeared from American society; our vaccination rates protect many of those who are unvaccinated from contagious diseases. However, this is beginning to change in the US and we are beginning to see outbreaks of diseases that have not been of major clinical concern for decades.
One of my very favorite aspects of being a scientist is being right on the cutting edge of modern research. I have the pleasure of working in an environment where new discoveries are made daily that span from the mundane to the revelatory. Today I want to take the time to write about a recent paper that for me came to my attention that falls solidly in the revelatory category.
As we enter another autumn season the memories of summer begin to fade and our minds turn towards the impending winter as the leaves begin to crisp and fall. This time of year also marks the appearance of flu-shots and news stories about the newest and scariest strains of influenza virus. Recently, there have been multiple reports in the US about a new form of swine flu that has been circulating at county fairs as people and pigs enter close proximity (see Related Articles after the jump).
Why is a strain of flu that infects pigs or dangerous or even relevant for people? As it turns out, from the point of view of the influenza virus a pig, bird, or human are not terribly different. Furthermore, pigs are also susceptible to certain strains of bird flu just like humans and can be multiply infected with different strains that could be human, avian, or porcine in origin. What this means is that pigs are an ideal breeding ground for reassortant viruses and their subsequent antigenic shift, and this is where things get dangerous.