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New Study May Explain How Zika Virus Causes Microcephaly

Dr. Stella Guerra performs physical therapy on an infant born with microcephaly at Altino Ventura Foundation on June 2, 2016 in Recife, Brazil. Image Credit: Mario Tama // Getty Images

 
One question underlies the race for a Zika vaccine: What is this virus, exactly, and how does it work? A new paper in the journal Cell Host & Microbe takes us one step closer to understanding by illuminating the relationship between Zika infection and microcephaly.

Babies with the congenital condition called microcephaly are born with unusually small heads and often have difficulties with brain development. Women who become infected with Zika virus while pregnant are at risk for transmitting the virus to their infants, who may be at higher risk for microcephaly. But just how Zika causes microcephaly has remained something of a puzzle.

To take a closer look, researchers at Stanford University cultured human stem cells in petri dishes and infected them with the virus. As the cells developed into embryos, the team was able to monitor exactly what went wrong with which cells.

Previous studies had focused on neural progenitor cells, which eventually grow into the nervous system. The Stanford team found a vital element in a second type of cell: cranial neural crest cells (CNCC). But where neural progenitor cells are easily killed off by the virus, cranial neural crest cells responded quite differently, secreting two kinds of cytokines, or inflammatory immune response signaling molecules, in reaction to the presence of the virus. That triggered the growth of more new neural cells—and sent the process of brain and skull development off the rails. Some cells split prematurely, and others died. The virus effectively interfered by confusing communication—or "crosstalk," as the researchers describe it—between cranial neural crest cells and neural progenitor cells.

"Our results suggest that CNCC infection by ZIKV may contribute to associated embryopathies through signaling crosstalk between developing face and brain structures," they write.

Co-senior author Joanna Wysocka is a chemical and systems biologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. She says it’s possible that the virus is affecting still other cell types in addition to these two.

“Neural crest cells are one example,” she said in a press statement, “but such mechanisms may also be relevant to other tissues that come in contact with the developing brain during head formation and could be infected by Zika virus.”

Wysocka emphasized that microcephaly is a congenital issue and not a risk for adults who contract the virus.

The team’s findings are “remarkable,” physician Larry Brilliant tells mental_floss. (Brilliant was unaffiliated with the study.) The notion of crosstalk between the cell types is “phenomenally important,” he said, because “they lead to questions of [whether] therapeutic interventions might be possible even after the virus is transmitted.”

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