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. 

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]

A New Analysis of Chopin's Heart Reveals the Cause of His Death

For years, experts and music lovers alike have speculated over what caused celebrated composer Frederic Chopin to die at the tragically young age of 39. Following a recent examination of his heart, Polish scientists have concluded that Chopin succumbed to tuberculosis, just as his death certificate states, according to The New York Times.

When Chopin died in 1849, his body was buried in Paris, where he had lived, while his heart was transported to his home city of Warsaw, Poland. Chopin—who appeared to have been ill with tuberculosis (TB)—was terrified of the prospect of being buried alive, and nostalgic for his national roots. He asked for his heart to be cut out, and his sister later smuggled it past foreign guards and into what is now Poland.

Preserved in alcohol—likely cognac—and stored in a crystal jar, Chopin's heart was laid to rest inside Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. (It was removed by the Germans in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising, and later returned.) But rumors began to swirl, as the same doctor tasked with removing the heart had also conducted an autopsy on the composer's body, according to the BBC.

The physician's original notes have been lost, but it's said he concluded that Chopin had died not from TB but from "a disease not previously encountered." This triggered some scholars to theorize that Chopin had died from cystic fibrosis, or even a form of emphysema, as the sickly musician suffered from chronic respiratory issues. Another suspected condition was mitral stenosis, or a narrowing of the heart valves.

Adhering to the wishes of a living relative, the Polish church and government have refused to let scientists conduct genetic tests on Chopin's heart. But over the years, teams have periodically checked up on the organ to ensure it remains in good condition, including once in 1945.

In 2014, a group of Chopin enthusiasts—including Polish scientists, religious officials, and members of the Chopin Institute, which researches and promotes Chopin's legacy—were given the go-ahead to hold a clandestine evening meeting at Holy Cross Church. There, they removed Chopin's heart from its perch inside a stone pillar to inspect it for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Fearing the jar's alcohol would evaporate, the group added hot wax to its seal and took more than 1000 photos of its contents. Pictures of the surreptitious evening procedure weren't publicly released, but were shown to the AP, which described Chopin's preserved heart as "an enlarged white lump."

It's unclear what prompted a follow-up investigation on Chopin's heart, or who allowed it, but an early version of an article in the American Journal of Medicine states that experts—who did not open the jar—have newly observed that the famed organ is "massively enlarged and floppy," with lesions and a white, frosted appearance. These observations have prompted them to diagnose the musician's cause of death as pericarditis, which is an inflammation of tissue around the heart. This likely stemmed from his tuberculosis, they said.

Some scientists might still clamor at the prospect of testing tissue samples of Chopin's heart. But Michael Witt of the Polish Academy of Sciences—who was involved in this latest examination—told The Guardian that it was unnecessary to disturb what many consider to be a symbol of national pride.

"Some people still want to open it in order to take tissue samples to do DNA tests to support their ideas that Chopin had some kind of genetic condition," Witt said. "That would be absolutely wrong. It could destroy the heart, and in any case, I am quite sure we now know what killed Chopin."

[h/t The New York Times]


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