Here’s Waldo! Strange new alien-like clam species found

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    The following tentacles and foot of Waldo arthuri give it an alien appearance. (Diarmaid O’Foighil)

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    Waldo arthuri is shown crawling on a sea urchin spine. (Diarmaid O’Foighil)

A strange creature with a delicate, translucent shell and long, slender tentacles has been recognized as a new species, researchers say.

The unusual beast, Waldo arthuri, is a type of tiny clam that lurks among the spines of sea urchins.

It was discovered independently by marine invertebrate zoologists Paul Valentich-Scott of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in California and Diarmaid Ó Foighil of the University of Michigan. Valentich-Scott stumbled upon his odd specimens off the coast of Santa Barbara and in Morro Bay, Calif., while Ó Foighil unearthed his while trawling for life off Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

“It’s alienlike in appearance,” Valentich-Scott told LiveScience. “It’s got strange long tentacles, and although it’s a clam, like many of its relatives it crawls like a snail on its foot. It has a minimalist shell, so it’s pushing toward a slug look.”


“We found it ironic that the new species was in the genus Waldo and just couldn’t help but ask, ‘Where’s Waldo?'”

– zoologist Paul Valentich-Scott


At a conference in 1989, Valentich-Scott and Ó Foighil were chatting about new discoveries when they realized they had each discovered what they then suspected was a new species of clam, at the same time, but more than 1,000 miles apart. Neither scientist could identify the creature.

Since then, the scientists worked to confirm what type of animal it was, how it might be related to others, and whether it was truly a new species.

“We never anticipated this would be such a long project,” Valentich-Scott said. “But every time we started in one direction we hit a wall and needed to begin again.”

The novel clam is only about 0.2 inches long, or about three times the size of the head of a pin. The fragility and tiny size of this clam made it difficult to analyze properly. Eventually, Ó Foighil was able to collect and observe living specimens of the new species.

“We were looking closely at sea urchins and noticed something crawling on the fine spines covering the urchin body,” Ó Foighil said. “We were amazed to see that there were minute clams crawling all over the sea urchin.”

The clam lives between the spines of the heart urchin (Brisaster latifrons). Ultimately, the scientists discovered this creature is related to species within a genus known as Waldo, whose members also often live on urchins.

“We found it ironic that the new species was in the genus Waldo and just couldn’t help but ask, ‘Where’s Waldo?'” Valentich-Scott said.

Analysis of the clam’s DNA revealed it was genetically distinct from other species.

“We were surprised to find that its closest relative was from the South Atlantic Ocean, off Argentina,” said researcher Jingchun Li, a clam DNA specialist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The new species rears its young in a brood, with parents sheltering unborn progeny on their gills. Unlike most of its relatives, the offspring do not live a free-swimming life after they are born — they apparently go straight to crawling on urchins.

The symbiotic relationship between the strange clam and its urchin host remains a puzzle.

“What they get out of the relationship is pretty mysterious,” Valentich-Scott said. “The urchin might provide shelter to the clam, and there might be food flowing in the water to the urchin that the clam might be able to filter out and benefit from. What the clam gives to its host, if anything, is pretty unknown.”

The scientists detailed their findings July 12 in the journal ZooKeys.

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Jumbo viruses hint at ‘fourth domain’ of life

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    Electron microscopy image of a Pandoravirus particle (edited using Adobe Photoshop artistic filters). (Chantal Abergel / Jean-Michel Claverie)

The discovery of two new jumbo-sized viruses is blurring the lines between viral and cellular life and could point to the existence of a new type of life, scientists suggest.

The two large viruses, detailed in this week’s issue of the journal Science, have been dubbed “Pandoraviruses” because of the surprises they may hold for biologists, in reference to the mythical Greek figure who opened a box and released evil into the world.

The discovery of Pandoraviruses is an indication that our knowledge of Earth’s microbial biodiversity is still incomplete, explained study coauthor Jean-Michel Claverie, a virologist at the French National Research Agency at Aix-Marseille University.

“Huge discoveries remain to be made at the most fundamental level that may change our present conception about the origin of life and its evolution,” Claverie said.

Eugene Koonin, a computational evolutionary biologist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Md., who was not involved in the study, called the Pandoraviruses a “wonderful discovery,” but not a complete surprise.

“In a certain sense, it’s something that we saw coming, and it’s wonderful that it has come,” Koonin said.

A systematic search
Claverie’s lab found one of the viruses, Pandoravirus salinus, in sediments collected off the coast of Chile.  The other, Pandoravirus dulcis, was lurking in mud in a freshwater pond near Melbourne, Australia.


‘These viruses have more than 2,000 new genes coding for proteins and enzymes that do unknown things.’

– virologist and study coauthor Chantel Abergel


Both of the new viruses are so massive that they can be seen using a traditional light microscope. Their genomes are also super-sized: the genome of P. salinus is 1.91 million DNA bases long, while that of P. dulcis is 2.47 million DNA bases. For comparison, the size of the previous viral genome record holder, Megavirus chilensis, is 1.18 million bases.

M. chilensis is a marine relative of Mimiviruses, a class of large viruses that was first discovered more than a decade ago and forever changed scientists’ conceptions of how large viruses could be.

After sequencing the first Mimivirus genome in 2010, Claverie and his team began a systematic search for even larger viruses. They found P. salinus in the same environment in Chile where M. chilensis was found.

The discovery of P. dulcis was more serendipitous, being the result of water sample Claverie took during a trip to Melbourne.

At first, the French scientists thought both viruses were the same. But after comparing the two genome sequences and their encoded proteins, they realized that the pair represented a new virus family, said Claverie.

What are they?
The team also conducted several experiments to confirm that Pandoraviruses were indeed viruses. Using light and electron microscopes, the scientists followed their newfound entities through a complete replication cycle. The gigantic entities met all three key criteria to be labeled viruses.

First, instead of splitting in two like typical bacterium or cells, the Pandoraviruses spawned hundreds of new copies in one cycle. Secondly, they both lacked the genes needed for energy production. Finally, they could not produce proteins without infecting single-celled organisms known as amoebas, which seem to be the Pandoraviruses’ preferred hosts.

Further surprises awaited the team when they analyzed the Pandoraviruses’ genomes. That of P. dulciscontained about 1,500 genes, while that of P. salinus contained more than 2,500 genes. A typical flu virus can have as few as 10 genes, and M. chilensis has only about 1,000 genes.

What’s more, scientists don’t know what most of the Pandoravirus genes do. There are “a few recognizable genes involved in DNA replication, and a few transcription-related genes. Not much else is recognizable,” explained study co-first author Matthieu Legendre, who is also at CNRS.

The Pandoraviruses are also unlike other viruses in that they lack the gene for the capsid protein that typically forms the housing, or “capsid,” of giant viruses.

The fourth domain
These irregularities raise interesting questions about the origins of Pandoraviruses, scientists say.

According to a theory preferred by Claverie and his team, the ancient ancestors of Pandoraviruses were once free-living cells that gradually lost most of their genes as they became parasites.

Some scientists think this hypothetical ancestral cell could have constituted a so-called “fourth domain” of life — that is, a previously unknown branch of life that is distinct from the accepted three domains: Bacteria; Archaea, another type of single-celled organism; and Eukaryotes, the domain that animals and plants belong to.

Practical applications
Claverie and his team are now on the hunt for other Pandoraviruses to unravel their evolutionary origins and better study their genes.

“These viruses have more than 2,000 new genes coding for proteins and enzymes that do unknown things, and participate in unknown metabolic pathways,” explained virologist and study coauthor Chantel Abergel, who is also at CNRS.

“Elucidating their biochemical and regulatory functions might be of a tremendous interest for biotech and biomedical applications,” she added.

The scientists have reason to believe that many more Pandoraviruses await discovery.

“The fact that two of them were found almost simultaneously from very distant locations either indicate that we were incredibly lucky,” Claverie said, “or that they are not rare.”

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Woman declared ‘dead’ awakens just before doctors harvest her organs
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Imagine waking up to see operating room lights and doctors standing over you, armed with scalpels and other operating tools.

That’s exactly what happened to 41-year-old Colleen Burns, who had arrived at the emergency room at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center in Syracuse, N.Y., over a week earlier suffering from a drug overdose, Counsel and Heal reported.  Mistakenly believing Burns to be dead, doctors at the center were about to harvest the woman’s organs for transplant, before she opened her eyes.

The 2009 incident is detailed in a recently revealed report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which also lists the series of mistakes by doctors that led to the terrible event.

Burns had been found unresponsive, likely due to an overdose of Xanax and Benadryl.  According to the report, hospital specialists recommended treating her with activated charcoals in order to stop the drugs from being absorbed into her stomach and intestines – but the staff failed to follow through with this recommendation.

Burns eventually spent over a week at the hospital, with nothing being done to stop the drugs from being absorbed into her system.  She started to suffer from seizures, though CT scans revealed her brain was normal.

Allegedly, nurses had also indicated improvement in Burns’ condition, noting that she was capable of curling her toes when touched.  She could also move her mouth and tongue, as well as flare her nose, according to Counsel and Heal.  And despite being on a respirator, Burns was starting to breathe on her own, the report said.

However, doctors still misdiagnosed Burns with irreversible brain damage. Believing her to be beyond help, Burns’ family decided to take her off life support and donate her organs to patients in need.

The report maintained that not enough tests and brain scans were performed before the diagnosis.

“The patient did not suffer a cardiopulmonary arrest [as documented] and did not have irreversible brain damage,” the report revealed. “The patient did not meet criteria for withdrawal of care.”

Just before doctors were about to cut into her, Burns awoke, saving her own life.  However, Burns went on to commit suicide in 2011, and no one has ever filed charges against the hospital for the critical mistakes the doctors made.

After a review of the incident, the hospital was fined $6,000.

Click for more from Counsel and Heal.

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First test-tube baby born after new, cheaper genome screening

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The first test-tube baby to come from an embryo screened for genetic defects using a new, low-cost technique that could improve in-vitro fertilization success rates was born last month and is a healthy boy.

The birth in June was announced on Monday as part of a study that scientists said validated the concept of next-generation genome screening, although more clinical tests are needed before the system is used widely.

The new technique uses modern low-cost DNA sequencing to spot both whole chromosome abnormalities and specific gene defects before an embryo is implanted in the womb.

Only around 30 percent of embryos selected during in-vitro fertilization (IVF) – when eggs are fertilized with sperm in a lab dish – actually implant successfully, and chromosomal defects are a major factor in failures.

Other genetic screening methods have been developed over the past decade but the new system should be substantially cheaper, researchers believe.

“We can do this at a cost which is about a half to two-thirds of what current chromosome screening costs are,” said Dagan Wells of the University of Oxford.

“If further randomized trials confirm this, we could reach a point where there is a very strong economic argument that this should be offered very widely – perhaps to the majority of IVF patients.”

Screening of embryos in IVF is currently reserved for older women, who are at increased risk of chromosomal abnormalities, and those with recurrent miscarriages.

Wells will present his research, which also includes results of laboratory tests on cells with known genetic defects, at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) annual meeting in London.

A second woman who underwent the screening process is due to give birth shortly.

Stuart Lavery, director of IVF at Hammersmith Hospital in London, who was not involved in the work, said the rapid analysis of vast amounts of DNA using the new genome sequencing technique was “amazing science”.

“It gives us a very, very powerful tool for examining pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and gives us increased confidence when looking at multiple genetic abnormalities in a human embryo,” he told reporters.

But Lavery added there needed to be a randomized clinical trial program to confirm the efficacy of the approach – something Wells and his team plan to begin later this year.

One in six couples worldwide experience some form of infertility problem at least once in their lifetime, according to ESHRE.

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Princeton researchers create ‘bionic ear’

Published July 03, 2013

Associated Press
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    Princeton University graduate student Manu Mannoor holds a bionic ear as another is printed on a 3-D printer in Princeton, N.J. (AP)

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    A bionic ear rests in a petri dish, in Princeton, N.J. Scientists at Princeton University have created an ear with an off-the-shelf 3-D printer that can “hear” radio frequencies far beyond the range of normal human capability. (AP)

With a 3-D printer, a petri dish and some cells from a cow, Princeton University researchers are growing synthetic ears that can receive — and transmit — sound.

The scientists send bovine cells mixed in a liquid gel through the printer, followed by tiny particles of silver. The printer is programmed to shape the material into a “bionic ear,” and forms the silver particles into a coiled antenna. Like any antenna, this one can pick up radio signals that the ear will interpret as sound.

The 3-D ear is not designed to replace a human one, though; the research is meant to explore a new method of combining electronics with biological material.

“What we really did here was actually more of a proof of concept of the capabilities of 3-D printing,” said Michael McAlpine, the professor who led the project. “Because most people use 3-D printing to print passive objects — things like figurines and jewelry.”

After it’s printed, the 3-D ear is soft and translucent. It is cultivated for 10 weeks, letting the cells multiply, creating a flesh color and forming hardened tissue around the antenna.

Manu Mannoor, a graduate student who worked with McAlpine on the project, held up a petri dish in a lab at Princeton last week to show how the process works. The dish was filled with liquid and a partly cultivated ear, and Mannoor said the cells were secreting a matrix, the space between cells that exists in organisms.

“They make their own living space,” Mannoor said.

McAlpine and his team demonstrated the antenna’s ability to pick up radio signals by attaching electrodes onto the backs of the ears in the printing process. When they broadcast a recording of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” to a pair of fully cultivated ears, the electrodes transmitted the signal along wires to a set of speakers, and the music flowed out clear and without interference.

Although the new research is just one iteration in the field of cybernetics — an area that looks at combining biology with technology — McAlpine said the research could lead to synthetic replacements for actual human functions, and to a sort of electronic sixth sense.

“As the world becomes a more digital and electronic place, I think ultimately we’re going to care less about our traditional five senses,” he said. “And we’re going to want these new senses to give us direct electronic communication with our cellphones and our laptop devices.”

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No more root canals? Scientists aim to regrow teeth using stem cells

Smarter America

The Wall Street Journal
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Could the days of the root canal, for decades the symbol of the most excruciating kind of minor surgery, finally be numbered?

Scientists have made advances in treating tooth decay that they hope will let them restore tooth tissue—and avoid the painful dental procedure. Several recent studies have demonstrated in animals that procedures involving tooth stem cells appear to regrow the critical, living tooth tissue known as pulp.

Treatments that prompt the body to regrow its own tissues and organs are known broadly as regenerative medicine. There is significant interest in figuring out how to implement this knowledge to help the many people with cavities and disease that lead to tooth loss.

In the U.S., half of kids have had at least one cavity by the time they are 15 years old and a quarter of adults over the age of 65 have lost all of their teeth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated $108 billion was spent on dental services in 2010, including elective and out-of-pocket care, according to the CDC.

Tooth decay arises when bacteria or infections overwhelm a tooth’s natural repair process. If the culprit isn’t reduced or eliminated, the damage can continue. If it erodes the hard, outer enamel and penetrates down inside the tooth, the infection eventually can kill the soft pulp tissue inside, prompting the need for either a root canal or removal of the tooth. Pulp is necessary to detecting sensation, including heat, cold and pressure, and contains the stem cells—undifferentiated cells that turn into specialized ones—that can regenerate tooth tissue.

Researchers from South Korea and Japan to the U.S. and United Kingdom have been working on how to coax stem cells into regenerating pulp. The process is still in its early stages, but if successful, it could mean a reduction or even elimination of the need for painful root canals.

While much of the work has shown promise in the lab and in early work in animals, including dogs, there have only been a few reports of experiments in humans.

The root-canal procedure involves cleaning out the infected and dead tissue in the root canal of the tooth, disinfecting the area and adding an impermeable seal to try to prevent further infection.

But the seal does not always prevent new infection. While the affected tooth remains in the mouth, it is essentially dead, which could impact functions like chewing. That also means no living nerves remain in the tooth to detect further decay or infection. Infection could subsequently spread to surrounding tissue without detection. An estimated 15.1 million root canals are performed in the U.S. annually, according to a 2005-06 survey by the American Dental Association, the most recent data available.

“The whole concept of going for pulp regeneration is that you will try and retain a vital tooth, a tooth that is alive,” says Tony Smith, a professor in oral biology at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. “That means the tooth’s natural defense mechanisms will still be there.

“I think we are really just at the opening stages of what is going to be a very exciting time, because we’re moving away from traditional root-canal treatments.”

Some scientists have focused on growing entirely new teeth. More are focused on trying to grow healthy new pulp inside the hard shell of tooth enamel, either by stimulating or encouraging stem cells or by better controlling the inflammation that goes on in the mouth in response to an infection.

Some of the challenges with making new teeth are generating not just the right tissue but also the right structure, as well as how to place the tooth or the new pulp in the mouth, according to Rena D’Souza, a professor of biomedical sciences at Baylor College of Dentistry. Beyond anti-inflammatory medication, options for tackling the infection while the new treatments work are limited. And, as with stem-cell research efforts with other body parts, successfully regenerating dental tissue in the lab or another animal doesn’t mean it will work in a human body.

Dental stem cells can be harvested from the pulp tissue of the wisdom and other types of adult teeth, or baby teeth. They can produce both the hard tissues needed by the tooth, like bone, and soft tissues like the pulp, says Dr. D’Souza, a former president of the American Association for Dental Research who will become the dean of the University of Utah’s School of Dental Medicine Aug. 1.

She and colleagues at Baylor and Rice University focused on regrowing pulp using a small protein hydrogel. The gelatin-like substance is injected into the tooth and serves as a base into which pulp cells, blood vessels and nerves grow.

In a study published in November, they were able to demonstrate pulp regeneration in human teeth in a lab. They will soon be testing hydrogel on live dogs. In addition, they are looking at the potential of the hydrogel to calm dental inflammation.

Click for more from The Wall Street Journal.

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Man whose skull was bashed in during bar fight awarded $58 million in lawsuit

Associated Press
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    Antonio Lopez Chaj, a 43-year-old house painter, appears with his attorneys at a news conference in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

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    Antonio Lopez Chaj, a 43-year-old house painter, appears with his attorneys at a news conference in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

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    Antonio Lopez Chaj, left, a 43-year-old house painter, appears with his brother, Pedro Chang, right, at a news conference in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

A 43-year-old house painter so badly brain damaged that he can’t speak has been awarded $58 million by a jury after a beating at a bar left him with half his skull permanently bashed in.

Antonio Lopez Chaj appeared at a news conference Monday with lawyers who announced the award handed down against a security company Friday in Torrance Superior Court.

It was among the largest damage awards ever given to one person in California, the lawyers said. They said they expect an appeal and there could be settlement negotiations before Chaj receives anything.

Chaj had to be supported by relatives at the news conference. When he took off a baseball cap hiding his injuries, gasps could be heard from people present.

“His skull is like a pie with 25 percent cut out of it,” said attorney Federico Sayre.

Chaj was attacked at a mid-Wilshire bar after trying to intercede in an attack by a bartender and security guard on two relatives who were with him.

Lawyers said an unlicensed, untrained security guard beat Chaj with a baton, kicked him in the head eight times and smashed his skull against pavement four times.

“It was truly a horrendous and brutal beating by a guy who shouldn’t have been working at all,” said Sayre, who represented Chaj along with Fernando Chavez, the son of famed civil rights leader Cesar Chavez.

The security guard, Emerson Quintanilla, and the bartender-manager who sparked the attack have disappeared without a trace, Sayre said.

“I think the man went crazy, lost his mind,” he said of Quintanilla. “It was a species of road rage.”

Sayre said the confrontation begin April 20, 2010 when Chaj, his brother and two nephews, who all worked as house painters, went to Barra Latina, a neighborhood bar.

One of the relatives got into a dispute with the bartender-manager who came after him with brass knuckles, Sayre said. Quintanilla, who was working for DGSP Security and Patrol Services, began kicking and beating members of the group.

Chaj tried to intervene and said, “Stop beating my nephews.” At that point, Sayre said, the guard beat Chaj into unconsciousness. Part of his skull was gone when he reached the hospital.

“They saved his life but he has significant brain damage,” Sayre said. “He can’t speak and he requires 24-hour nursing care.”

He said Chaj faces more surgeries.

Phone messages seeking comment left with attorneys for the defendants were not immediately returned.

In civil courts, only nine of the 12 jurors have to agree on a verdict, Sayre said. But this jury was unanimous in finding for the plaintiffs on all claims, and it granted the $58 million award the plaintiffs requested.

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It’s alive! Scientist claims Frankenstein-like human head transplants are now possible
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One neuroscientist may soon get the nickname Dr. Frankenstein after making an ambitious claim about a completely novel medical procedure that has many experts’ ‘heads spinning.’

In a recent paper in the journal Surgical Neurology International, Dr. Sergio Canevero, a member of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, asserted that it soon may be possible to conduct full human head transplants, noting that they have been done in animals for the past 40 years, Quartz reported.

According to Canevero, the technical barriers that come with grafting one individual’s head to another person’s body can now be overcome.  However, the main issue scientists have had with animal head transplants has been being unable to connect the spinal cord of the head to the donor’s body.  This leaves the animal paralyzed from the neck down.

But recent medical advancements regarding the reconnection of surgically severed spinal cords has lead Canevero to believe the procedure can be done.

“It is my contention that the technology only now exists for such linkage,” he wrote in the paper “….[S]everal up to now hopeless medical connections might benefit from such a procedure.”

In his paper, Canevero details a head transplant procedure similar to that of Robert White – a neurosurgeon famous for his head transplants in living monkeys.  In order for the process to work, both the donor and recipient must be in the same operating room, and the donated head must be cooled to between 54.6 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit.  Then, surgeons must rapidly remove both heads at the exact same time, reconnecting the new head to the recipient’s body and circulatory system within one hour.

Once the new head is connected, the donor’s heart can be restarted – and the surgeons can continue to reconnect the head to the body’s spinal cord and to other vital systems, Quartz reported.

Canevero said that encouraging the body’s natural healing mechanisms help to connect the spinal cords together, but it’s imperative that the spinal cord be cut with an extremely thin knife.

“It is this ‘clean cut’ [which is] the key to spinal cord fusion, in that it allows proximally severed axons to be ‘fused’ with their distal counterparts,” Canevero wrote. “This fusion exploits so-called fusogens/sealants….[which] are able to immediately reconstitute (fuse/repair) cell membranes damaged by mechanical injury, independent of any known endogenous sealing mechanism.”

This type of procedure could not be used to help those with spinal cord injuries, however.  Also, the ethics surrounding this type of surgery are hotly debated.

Click for more from Quartz.

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The scariest infectious diseases right now
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    This electron microscope image shows the MERS virus, colorized in yellow. The mysterious new respiratory virus that originated in the Middle East spreads easily between people and appears more deadly than SARS, doctors reported. (AP2013)

Between the emergence of the deadly MERS and H7N9 viruses – and the success of Brad Pitt’s new “Word War Z” in which a viral outbreak turns half the world into zombies – it’s easy to be nervous about potentially dangerous germs and bacteria lurking around on surfaces and in the air. Dr. Daniel Caplivski, director of the Travel Medicine Program and associate professor in the division of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, detailed some of the most worrisome infectious diseases out there right now – and what’s being done about them.


The flu pops up throughout the world every year, but the virus is at its most dangerous when a new strain emerges –  such as the H7N9 bird flu currently circulating in Asia. So far, H7N9 has sickened more than 130 people and has proven fatal to over a third of patients hospitalized with the disease, according to researchers.

“(New strains) make it difficult for (our) bodies to respond adequately,” Caplivski said. “Anytime we see something new like that we get concerned it could become a pandemic. If it does have the ability to spread from person to person, (then) because of international travel, that would be a big problem.”

Though cases of H7N9 appear to be leveling off, Caplivski noted that experts will continue to monitor the virus. In the meantime, the best protection against the flu is to get the yearly vaccine.

“The flu vaccine from year to year is based on best predictions for what strains will be circulating,” Caplivski said. “(But) there will always be some hits and misses where they don’t get the vaccine right based on what they were predicting.”

Antibiotic-resistant superbugs

Health experts in the United States have become increasingly concerned about the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, bacteria that no longer respond to antibiotic treatment.

“Bacteria have found more and more ways around typical antibiotics,” Caplivski said. “There aren’t a lot of new antibiotics approved or in the pipeline, because it’s not a very profitable move. It’s more profitable to make cholesterol or weight loss drugs people will be on for the rest of their life.”

Some of the most concerning strains include CRE (carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae), MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and C. diff (Clostridium dificile).

Each of these superbugs can be potentially fatal in people, due to the lack of drugs available to treat them. Most of these strains are acquired in hospital settings, and Caplivski noted that it’s important to remind doctors and nurses to practice proper hand hygiene.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has more information on these different antibiotic-resistant superbugs.


Tuberculosis (TB), caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, typically attacks the lungs and can be fatal if left untreated, according to the CDC. In 2011, there were 10,528  reported cases of tuberculosis in the United States, and although TB cases in the U.S. have declined since 1992, doctors remain concerned.

“It remains one of these things which is difficult to get a lot of funding (for) – another one for which we need new drugs because there are more resistant strains,” Caplivski said.

Outbreaks of TB occur periodically throughout the U.S. Recently, three high school students at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, Va., were diagnosed with TB and health officials are investigating whether the disease spread to any others. Additionally, TB remains a major problem in the developing world; the World Health Organization stated that 8.7 million new cases of TB were reported in 2011, and 1.4 million people died of the disease.

“If you do complete the treatment, most of the time you’ll have good success,” Caplivski said. “But some of the more resistant strains we’re seeing, especially in places like South Africa, have made it more difficult to treat.”

MERS virus

Within the past year, 60 cases of the MERS virus, a respiratory infection reported to be more deadly than SARS, have been detected throughout the world. Though most cases have appeared in Saudi Arabia, the virus has also been reported in Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Tunisia.

Though there have been no confirmed cases of the MERS virus in the U.S., the CDC is currently preparing to combat the contagion should it make its way to American soil. Based on recent reports, more than 38 deaths from MERS have been reported around the world.

“We saw how quickly things could spread via airlines in 2003 (during the SARS outbreak),” Caplivski said. “I think that those lessons have been important in global surveillance of these infectious diseases. They’re tracking at a global level whether these things are becoming more widespread and moving from person to person.”

Caplivski added that while MERS is a concern, the number of cases remains low.


About 50,000 people still become infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the United States each year. And the disease continues to be a huge problem throughout the world as well, with 2.5 million new cases of HIV being diagnosed in 2011, according to the CDC. Since the start of the HIV epidemic, the CDC reported that nearly 30 million people have died of AIDS, which is caused by HIV infection.

However, tremendous progress has been made regarding the treatment of people currently living with HIV.

“We’ve had a lot of great success with HIV, because we’re now using pills that are one pill taken one time a day,” Caplivski said. “They are strong medications with pretty minimal side effects.”

Yet, lack of HIV testing continues to be a problem. Based on the most recent data, about 1.1 million people in the United States were living with HIV at the end of 2009, and of those people, about 18 percent do not know they are infected.

“There are still gaps in people who don’t know they have the disease, (we’re working on) moves to get them tested and get them treated,” Caplivski said.

National HIV Testing Day is on June 27, 2013.

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Immune to cancer: Naked mole rats reveal their secret

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    Naked mole rats are small, hairless, subterranean rodents that have never been known to get cancer. (Brandon Vick/University of Rochester)

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Apart from their hairless appearance, naked mole rats are known for several distinguishing characteristics: They have an unusually long life span for a rodent, and they seem to be protected from developing cancer. Now, researchers have pinpointed a natural substance found between the rodents’ tissues that may explain their cancer resistance.

Understanding how this substance, known as hyaluronan, protects naked mole rats from developing cancerous tumors could lead to novel cancer-prevention techniques for humans, said study lead author Vera Gorbunova, a professor in the department of biology at the University of Rochester in New York.

In animals, hyaluronan is a component of the extracellular matrix (the noncellular part of tissue) and is known to hold cells and tissues together. The substance also acts as a signal to control the growth of certain cells, said Andrei Seluanov, an assistant professor in the department of biology at the University of Rochester, and co-author of the new study.


The researchers studied tissue cultures from naked mole rats and found these small, subterranean rodents produce a unique, high-molecular-mass form of hyaluronan, which they referred to as HMW-HA. When this substance was removed, Gorbunova and her colleagues found that naked mole rat cells became susceptible to tumor growth, suggesting HMW-HA plays an important role in the rodents’ resistance to cancer. [10 Amazing Things You Didn’t Know About Animals]

“This is unique to this species, so it’s pretty amazing,” Seluanov said. “We were able to focus on the anti-cancer mechanism in naked mole rats.”

Hyaluronan also keeps tissues flexible, he added, something that would be beneficial for the burrowing rodents.

“Naked mole rats need good elasticity in their skin, because they don’t have any fur,” Seluanov said. “When they move through their tunnels, it’s important that they do not rupture their skin.”

The demands of their subterranean lifestyle may explain why naked mole rats developed higher levels of hyaluronan in their skin in the first place, the researchers said.

“What excites me is that this is just one component of a whole mosaic of strange characteristics that these animals have produced due to extreme adaptations to living underground,” said Chris Faulkes, a molecular ecology researcher at the Queen Mary University of London, who was not involved with the study.

In this way, natural selection may have influenced the cell biology of naked mole rats, he added.

“This high-molecular-mass hyaluronan may have been produced to give naked mole rats highly elastic skin so they don’t get stuck in burrows, and it’s almost a side consequence that it seems to be useful in preventing cancer as well,” Faulkes said.

Clinical applications

Whereas humans also produce hyaluronan naturally, it is in much smaller quantities, and the physical properties are different, according to the researchers. Still, determining the anti-cancer mechanism in naked mole rats could have far-reaching clinical applications for humans.

“By looking at this completely weird and unusual organism, we can find some novel mechanisms that apply across mammals,” Faulkes said. “Understanding some of these amazing things could have broad applicability for human health.”

Because of its elastic properties, hyaluronan injections are already used in clinical settings, most notably in dermatology and as a pain reliever for people with arthritis in knee joints, Seluanov explained. So far, no significant side effects have been reported, the researchers said.

In the future, the researchers plan to investigate whether HMW-HA can effectively protect human cells from cancer.

“We are very optimistic that the anticancer mechanism we found in the naked mole rat can be translated to humans,” Gorbunova said.

The detailed results of the study were published online June 19 in the journal Nature.

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