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6 Things You Might Not Know About Ebola

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More than 3300 people have died of an Ebola outbreak in Africa, and now, the virus has made the jump to United States: In Dallas, Texas, 100 people who came in contact with a Liberian national who has the disease have been quarantined. Here are some things you might not have known about the haemorrhagic fever.

1. It’s not even alive.

The criteria to be considered a living organism includes being able to eat and to reproduce on your own. Ebola can reproduce aggressively inside an infected host, but it needs to insert itself into the host cells to do it—no host cell, no more new viruses. (Just don’t call it a prion: bits of protein that influence other proteins to adopt their misshapen forms, causing diseases. Ebola has genetic material held inside a protective protein coat, while prions don’t.) Ebola doesn’t metabolize anything on its own, either, making it not dead but not really alive. Ebola is something like a zombie—a bundle of genetic programming with replication skills and bad intentions.

2. This is not the first U.S. outbreak.

There’s a whole family tree of Ebola. There are 5 species that have been identified, each named after the place they sprung up: Zaire, Bundibugyo, Sudan, Reston and Taï Forest. The current outbreak is the Zaire strain—which is creepy because the crisis is not in Zaire. The Reston subtype is named after a town in Virginia, where an outbreak occurred in 1989, followed by incidents in Texas and Pennsylvania. These all had one thing in common: infected monkeys exported by a single facility in the Philippines. These outbreaks are different than the current patient in Dallas for one big reason: No humans suffered illness in any of the previous cases.

3. It has a military mindset for invasion.

Researchers are finding out just how clever Ebola is as they reveal some of the virus' murderous Modus Operandi. One key to its lethal success is the stealth way it shuts down immune system defenses, the same way an air force will disable air defenses before sending in the bombers. Ebola obstructs parts of an immune system that are activated by molecules called interferons. These interferons have a vital role in fighting Ebola, usually with scorched earth tactics. “It makes a variety of responses to viral infection possible, including the self-destruction of infected cells,” says Christopher Basler, professor of microbiology at Mount Sinai and co-author of recent studies done by a consortium of Ebola researchers. That group also said, in a paper published in the August 13 edition of the journal Cell Host & Microbe, that they figured out exactly how Ebola craftily disables signals the cells use to defend against attack: An Ebola protein called VP24 binds to a specific protein that takes signaling molecules in and out a cell’s nucleus. Without communication, the cell can’t call for help or kill itself. The virus then hijacks the cell, uses it to make more viruses, and spreads them to more cells. Next thing you know, the infected victim is bleeding from every orifice.

4. No one knows how it came to infect people.

There is a lot we think we know about Ebola’s origins. For starters, human beings are not its natural host, what epidemiologists charmingly call a “reservoir.” Scientists believe that Ebola’s reservoirs are fruit bats. Infected bats can pass the virus to a bunch of other mammals, like rats, primates, and other bats. No one is sure how people became exposed to Ebola, but the best guess is that the monkeys were the conduit. Local hunters in Africa likely became infected while butchering the animals. Anyone who became sick likely infected their family and, if hospitalized in an unsanitary facility, other patients.

5. Gumshoe detective work is the only way to stop an outbreak.

For all the biotech and medical savvy, it takes the investigative skill of a homicide detective to stop an outbreak. Professionals call it “contact tracing,” but it’s really man hunting. Here’s how it works: Ebola victim A is isolated and interviewed. Anyone who had close contact with A is put into isolation for 21 days. (In Texas, there are emergency medical technicians in this quarantine limbo right now.) If they exhibit no symptoms, they’re free to go. If they come down with Ebola, they become victim B, and another contact trace begins. If the investigators miss anyone, the outbreak will continue. The CDC even put out a cool poster of the process.

6. You can order it from a catalog.

The home page of BEI Resources has an interesting tab that reads “Ebola reagents available.” With a couple of clicks of the mouse, you reach a catalog of infectious disease materials available for order. Just what is going on here?

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has set up BEI to make sure research facilities have access to microbiological materials that can help them develop diagnostics and vaccines for emerging diseases. Scientists must be registered with BEI to request materials. The real key here is the word “reagent,” which means the virus is not an active threat. For example, they have Gamma-irradiated Sudan Ebola virus that has been spun in a centrifuge to separate out cell fragments. Reagents won't spread, but they can serve as stand-ins during the development of tests. (On the Biosafety Level, or BSL, scale—which ranks the severity of infectious disease and sets baselines of which safety protocols need to be enforced to work with them in a lab—reagents are treated at Biosafety level 1; Ebola is a BSL-4, the top of the scale for risky bugs.) The best part of the catalogue is the disclaimer: “BEI Resources products are intended for laboratory research purposes only. They are not intended for use in humans.”

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Medicine
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
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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]

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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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