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C. Goldsmith
C. Goldsmith

Happy Virus Appreciation Day!

C. Goldsmith
C. Goldsmith

According to several of those sites where you can find a holiday for anything, October 3rd is Virus Appreciation Day. Nobody seems to know why this is Virus Appreciation Day, or whose idea is it, or whether they meant computer viruses or the biological cell-invading kind. But hey, it's a holiday, so we will celebrate, well, not viruses, but the success we've had so far in fighting them.

Smallpox virus.

Most viruses are not much to celebrate, but we can celebrate the fact that medical science is fighting them and making a lot of progress. One of the best virus stories is that of smallpox. Smallpox is caused by the Variola virus, and documented human cases go back 3,000 years. Scientists studying viral DNA estimate the disease invaded humans as far back as 10,000 years ago. Smallpox viruses com in two forms, with the more dangerous resulting death to a third of those who contract it. It wasn't a huge problem until people began to settle into crowded cities during the Middle Ages. It then devastated the natives of the Americas, who had no natural immunity, when Europeans arrived in the 1500s.

The value of inoculation was known for hundreds of years, and methods were developed to induce a mild case of smallpox, so the body would develop immunity. It wasn't perfect, and people still died. Dr. Edward Jenner knew that milkmaids who had suffered cowpox were immune to smallpox, so in 1796 he introduced pus from a cowpox-infected milkmaid to the body of eight-year-old James Phipps. Phipps was not the first to be inoculated with cowpox in hopes of smallpox protection, but Phipps was later exposed to smallpox (by Jenner) several time and his immune system fought it off.

An 1802 cartoon makes a joke of cowpox inoculation.

The World Health Organization announced an initiative in 1967 to eradicate smallpox from the entire world. The vaccine, which had been steadily improved since Jenner's day, was sent everywhere to inoculate children and adults. Ten years later, smallpox could not be found in the natural world. Only two research repositories remain, one in Atlanta, the other in Russia.

HIV, in green, attacking a lymphocyte. Image by C. Goldsmith.

The world felt pretty good about vaccines against viruses, but in the 1980s, we got a wakeup call. A new and deadly diseases that was eventually called AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) was found to be growing in certain populations in which the virus transferred from person to person. It is caused by Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. The presence of HIV suppresses the body's immune system (particularly a white cell type known as T-cells), allowing any common infection to become life-threatening.

An HIV infected T-cell. Photograph by Flickr user NIAID.

The virus is transmitted by body fluids in close contact, as in sex, sharing needles among drug addicts, childbirth, and in blood transfusions. In addition, the fact that it was initially most prevalent in the gay community in America stigmatized the disease's victims and politicized the fight against it. The lethality of the disease terrified people, no matter how difficult it is to become infected. In the thirty years since we became aware of AIDS, retroviral therapy has helped those infected with HIV to keep from developing AIDS, and safe sex education has popularized the use of condoms for prevention against contracting the virus. However, there is still no effective vaccine or cure for AIDS.

Common polio virus.

Just last week, I posted a story and said, "And we wondered for so long if viruses served any purpose." It was about the trials of Fritz Anderson, who was diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor that did not respond to surgery or chemotherapy. Then he enrolled in an experiment involving a genetically-engineered polio virus that is deadly to cancer cells and does not invade healthy brain tissue. Anderson's skull was opened and the virus was infused into his exposed brain. Two years later, Anderson's tumor appears as only a shadow in his brain. Perhaps viruses are good for something after all. 

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Emery Smith
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
The 'Alien' Mummy Is of Course Human—And Yet, Still Unusual
Emery Smith
Emery Smith

Ata has never been an alien, but she's always been an enigma. Discovered in 2003 in a leather pouch near an abandoned mining town in Chile's Atacama Desert, the tiny, 6-inch mummy's unusual features—including a narrow, sloped head, angled eyes, missing ribs, and oddly dense bones—had both the “It's aliens!” crowd and paleopathologists intrigued. Now, a team of researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and UC-San Francisco has completed a deep genomic analysis that reveals why Ata looks as she does.

As they lay out in a paper published this week in Genome Research, the researchers found a host of genetic mutations that doomed the fetus—some of which have never been seen before.

Stanford professor of microbiology and immunology Garry Nolan first analyzed Ata back in 2012; the mummy had been purchased by a Spanish businessman and studied by a doctor named Steven Greer, who made her a star of his UFO/ET conspiracy movie Sirius. Nolan was also given a sample of her bone marrow; his DNA analysis confirmed she was, of course, human. But Nolan's study, published in the journal Science, also found something very odd: Though she was just 6 inches long when she died—a typical size for a midterm fetus—her bones appeared to be 6 to 8 years old. This did not lead Nolan to hypothesize an alien origin for Ata, but to infer that she may have had a rare bone disorder.

The current analysis confirmed that interpretation. The researchers found 40 mutations in several genes that govern bone development; these mutations have been linked to "diseases of small stature, rib anomalies, cranial malformations, premature joint fusion, and osteochondrodysplasia (also known as skeletal dysplasia)," they write. The latter is commonly known as dwarfism. Some of these mutations are linked to conditions including Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects connective tissue, and Kabuki syndrome, which causes a range of physical deformities and cognitive issues. Other mutations known to cause disease had never before been associated with bone growth or developmental disorders until being discovered in Ata.

scientist measures the the 6-inch-long mummy called Ata, which is not an alien
Emery Smith

"Given the size of the specimen and the severity of the mutations … it seems likely the specimen was a pre-term birth," they write. "While we can only speculate as to the cause for multiple mutations in Ata's genome, the specimen was found in La Noria, one of the Atacama Desert's many abandoned nitrate mining towns, which suggests a possible role for prenatal nitrate exposure leading to DNA damage."

Though the researchers haven't identified the exact age of Ata's remains, they're estimated to be less than 500 years old (and potentially as young as 40 years old). Genomic analysis also confirms that Ata is very much not only an Earthling, but a local; her DNA is a nearest match to three individuals from the Chilote people of Chile.

In a press statement, study co-lead Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at UC-San Francisco, stressed the potential applications of the study to genetic disorders. "For me, what really came of this study was the idea that we shouldn't stop investigating when we find one gene that might explain a symptom. It could be multiple things going wrong, and it's worth getting a full explanation, especially as we head closer and closer to gene therapy," Butte said. "We could presumably one day fix some of these disorders."

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Health
Just Two Cans of Soda a Day May Double Your Risk of Death From Heart Disease
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iStock

If you've been stocking your refrigerator full of carbonated corn syrup in anticipation of warmer weather, the American Heart Association has some bad news. The advocacy group on Wednesday released results of research that demonstrate a link between consumption of sugary drinks—including soda, fruit juices, and other sweetened beverages—and an increased risk of dying from heart disease.

Study participants who reported consuming 24 ounces or more of sugary drinks per day had twice the risk of death from coronary artery disease of those who averaged less than 1 ounce daily. There was also an increased risk of death overall, including from other cardiovascular conditions.

The study, led by Emory University professor Jean Welsh, examined data taken from a longitudinal study of 17,930 adults over the age of 45 with no previous history of heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. Researchers followed participants for six years, and examined death records to determine causes. They observed a greater risk of death associated with sugary drinks even when they controlled for other factors, including race, income, education, smoking habits, and physical activity. The study does not show cause and effect, the researchers said, but does illuminate a trend.

The study also noted that while it showed an increased risk of death from heart disease, consumption of sugary foods was not shown to carry similar risk. One possible explanation is that the body metabolizes the sugars differently: Solid foods carry other nutrients, like fat and protein, that slow metabolism, while sugary drinks provide an undiluted influx of carbohydrates that the body must process.

The news will likely prove troublesome for the beverage industry, which has long contended with concerns that sugary drinks contribute to type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. Some cities, including Seattle, have introduced controversial "soda tax" plans that raise the sales tax on the drinks in an effort to discourage consumption.

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