Tag Archives: cholera

Some amusements in the time of COVID-19

Gold stars for everyone who recognized the loose paraphrasing of the title, Love in the Time of Cholera, for Gabrial Garcia Marquez’s 1985 novel.

I wrote my headline and first paragraph yesterday and found this in my email box this morning, from a March 25, 2020 University of British Columbia news release, which compares times, diseases, and scares of the past with today’s COVID-19 (Perhaps politicians and others could read this piece and stop using the word ‘unprecedented’ when discussing COVID-19?),

How globalization stoked fear of disease during the Romantic era

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the word “communication” had several meanings. People used it to talk about both media and the spread of disease, as we do today, but also to describe transport—via carriages, canals and shipping.

Miranda Burgess, an associate professor in UBC’s English department, is working on a book called Romantic Transport that covers these forms of communication in the Romantic era and invites some interesting comparisons to what the world is going through today.

We spoke with her about the project.

What is your book about?

It’s about global infrastructure at the dawn of globalization—in particular the extension of ocean navigation through man-made inland waterways like canals and ship’s canals. These canals of the late 18th and early 19th century were like today’s airline routes, in that they brought together places that were formerly understood as far apart, and shrunk time because they made it faster to get from one place to another.

This book is about that history, about the fears that ordinary people felt in response to these modernizations, and about the way early 19th-century poets and novelists expressed and responded to those fears.

What connections did those writers make between transportation and disease?

In the 1810s, they don’t have germ theory yet, so there’s all kinds of speculation about how disease happens. Works of tropical medicine, which is rising as a discipline, liken the human body to the surface of the earth. They talk about nerves as canals that convey information from the surface to the depths, and the idea that somehow disease spreads along those pathways.

When the canals were being built, some writers opposed them on the grounds that they could bring “strangers” through the heart of the city, and that standing water would become a breeding ground for disease. Now we worry about people bringing disease on airplanes. It’s very similar to that.

What was the COVID-19 of that time?

Probably epidemic cholera [emphasis mine], from about the 1820s onward. The Quarterly Review, a journal that novelist Walter Scott was involved in editing, ran long articles that sought to trace the map of cholera along rivers from South Asia, to Southeast Asia, across Europe and finally to Britain. And in the way that its spread is described, many of the same fears that people are evincing now about COVID-19 were visible then, like the fear of clothes. Is it in your clothes? Do we have to burn our clothes? People were concerned.

What other comparisons can be drawn between those times and what is going on now?

Now we worry about the internet and “fake news.” In the 19th century, they worried about what William Wordsworth called “the rapid communication of intelligence,” which was the daily newspaper. Not everybody had access to newspapers, but each newspaper was read by multiple families and newspapers were available in taverns and coffee shops. So if you were male and literate, you had access to a newspaper, and quite a lot of women did, too.

Paper was made out of rags—discarded underwear. Because of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars that followed, France blockaded Britain’s coast and there was a desperate shortage of rags to make paper, which had formerly come from Europe. And so Britain started to import rags from the Caribbean that had been worn by enslaved people.

Papers of the time are full of descriptions of the high cost of rags, how they’re getting their rags from prisons, from prisoners’ underwear, and fear about the kinds of sweat and germs that would have been harboured in those rags—and also discussions of scarcity, as people stole and hoarded those rags. It rings very well with what the internet is telling us now about a bunch of things around COVID-19.

Plus ça change, n’est-ce pas?

And now for something completely different

Kudos to all who recognized the Monty Python reference. Now, onto the frogfish,

Thank you to the Monterey Bay Aquarium (in California, US).

A March 22, 2020 University of Washington (state) news release features an interview with the author of a new book on frogfishes,

Any old fish can swim. But what fish can walk, scoot, clamber over rocks, change color or pattern and even fight? That would be the frogfish.

The latest book by Ted Pietsch, UW professor emeritus of aquatic and fishery sciences, explores the lives and habits of these unusual marine shorefishes. “Frogfishes: Biodiversity, Zoogeography, and Behavioral Ecology” was published in March [2020] by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pietsch, who is also curator emeritus of fishes at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, has published over 200 articles and a dozen books on the biology and behavior of marine fishes. He wrote this book with Rachel J. Arnold, a faculty member at Northwest Indian College in Bellingham and its Salish Sea Research Center.

These walking fishes have stepped into the spotlight lately, with interest growing in recent decades. And though these predatory fishes “will almost certainly devour anything else that moves in a home aquarium,” Pietsch writes, “a cadre of frogfish aficionados around the world has grown within the dive community and among aquarists.” In fact, Pietsch said, there are three frogfish public groups on Facebook, with more than 6,000 members.

First, what is a frogfish?

Ted Pietsch: A member of a family of bony fishes, containing 52 species, all of which are highly camouflaged and whose feeding strategy consists of mimicking the immobile, inert, and benign appearance of a sponge or an algae-encrusted rock, while wiggling a highly conspicuous lure to attract prey.

This is a fish that “walks” and “hops” across the sea bottom, and clambers about over rocks and coral like a four-legged terrestrial animal but, at the same time, can jet-propel itself through open water. Some lay their eggs encapsulated in a complex, floating, mucus mass, called an “egg raft,” while some employ elaborate forms of parental care, carrying their eggs around until they hatch.

They are among the most colorful of nature’s productions, existing in nearly every imaginable color and color pattern, with an ability to completely alter their color and pattern in a matter of days or seconds. All these attributes combined make them one of the most intriguing groups of aquatic vertebrates for the aquarist, diver, and underwater photographer as well as the professional zoologist.

I couldn’t resist the ‘frog’ reference and I’m glad since this is a good read with a number of fascinating photographs and illustrations.,

An illustration of the frogfish Antennarius pictus, published by George Shaw in 1794. From a new book by Ted Pietsch, UW professor of emeritus of aquatic and fishery sciences. Courtesy: University of Washington (state)

h/t phys.org March 24, 2020 news item

Building with bacteria

A block of sand particles held together by living cells. Credit: The University of Colorado Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science

A March 24, 2020 news item on phys.org features the future of building construction as perceived by synthetic biologists,

Buildings are not unlike a human body. They have bones and skin; they breathe. Electrified, they consume energy, regulate temperature and generate waste. Buildings are organisms—albeit inanimate ones.

But what if buildings—walls, roofs, floors, windows—were actually alive—grown, maintained and healed by living materials? Imagine architects using genetic tools that encode the architecture of a building right into the DNA of organisms, which then grow buildings that self-repair, interact with their inhabitants and adapt to the environment.

A March 23, 2020 essay by Wil Srubar (Professor of Architectural Engineering and Materials Science, University of Colorado Boulder), which originated the news item, provides more insight,

Living architecture is moving from the realm of science fiction into the laboratory as interdisciplinary teams of researchers turn living cells into microscopic factories. At the University of Colorado Boulder, I lead the Living Materials Laboratory. Together with collaborators in biochemistry, microbiology, materials science and structural engineering, we use synthetic biology toolkits to engineer bacteria to create useful minerals and polymers and form them into living building blocks that could, one day, bring buildings to life.

In one study published in Scientific Reports, my colleagues and I genetically programmed E. coli to create limestone particles with different shapes, sizes, stiffnesses and toughness. In another study, we showed that E. coli can be genetically programmed to produce styrene – the chemical used to make polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam.

Green cells for green building

In our most recent work, published in Matter, we used photosynthetic cyanobacteria to help us grow a structural building material – and we kept it alive. Similar to algae, cyanobacteria are green microorganisms found throughout the environment but best known for growing on the walls in your fish tank. Instead of emitting CO2, cyanobacteria use CO2 and sunlight to grow and, in the right conditions, create a biocement, which we used to help us bind sand particles together to make a living brick.

By keeping the cyanobacteria alive, we were able to manufacture building materials exponentially. We took one living brick, split it in half and grew two full bricks from the halves. The two full bricks grew into four, and four grew into eight. Instead of creating one brick at a time, we harnessed the exponential growth of bacteria to grow many bricks at once – demonstrating a brand new method of manufacturing materials.

Researchers have only scratched the surface of the potential of engineered living materials. Other organisms could impart other living functions to material building blocks. For example, different bacteria could produce materials that heal themselves, sense and respond to external stimuli like pressure and temperature, or even light up. If nature can do it, living materials can be engineered to do it, too.

It also take less energy to produce living buildings than standard ones. Making and transporting today’s building materials uses a lot of energy and emits a lot of CO2. For example, limestone is burned to make cement for concrete. Metals and sand are mined and melted to make steel and glass. The manufacture, transport and assembly of building materials account for 11% of global CO2 emissions. Cement production alone accounts for 8%. In contrast, some living materials, like our cyanobacteria bricks, could actually sequester CO2.

The field of engineered living materials is in its infancy, and further research and development is needed to bridge the gap between laboratory research and commercial availability. Challenges include cost, testing, certification and scaling up production. Consumer acceptance is another issue. For example, the construction industry has a negative perception of living organisms. Think mold, mildew, spiders, ants and termites. We’re hoping to shift that perception. Researchers working on living materials also need to address concerns about safety and biocontamination.

The [US] National Science Foundation recently named engineered living materials one of the country’s key research priorities. Synthetic biology and engineered living materials will play a critical role in tackling the challenges humans will face in the 2020s and beyond: climate change, disaster resilience, aging and overburdened infrastructure, and space exploration.

If you have time and interest, this is fascinating. Strubar is a little exuberant and, at this point, I welcome it.

Fitness

The Lithuanians are here for us. Scientists from the Kaunas University of Technology have just published a paper on better exercises for lower back pain in our increasingly sedentary times, from a March 23, 2020 Kaunas University of Technology press release (also on EurekAlert) Note: There are a few minor grammatical issues,

With the significant part of the global population forced to work from home, the occurrence of lower back pain may increase. Lithuanian scientists have devised a spinal stabilisation exercise programme for managing lower back pain for people who perform a sedentary job. After testing the programme with 70 volunteers, the researchers have found that the exercises are not only efficient in diminishing the non-specific lower back pain, but their effect lasts 3 times longer than that of a usual muscle strengthening exercise programme.

According to the World Health Organisation, lower back pain is among the top 10 diseases and injuries that are decreasing the quality of life across the global population. It is estimated that non-specific low back pain is experienced by 60% to 70% of people in industrialised societies. Moreover, it is the leading cause of activity limitation and work absence throughout much of the world. For example, in the United Kingdom, low back pain causes more than 100 million workdays lost per year, in the United States – an estimated 149 million.

Chronic lower back pain, which starts from long-term irritation or nerve injury affects the emotions of the afflicted. Anxiety, bad mood and even depression, also the malfunctioning of the other bodily systems – nausea, tachycardia, elevated arterial blood pressure – are among the conditions, which may be caused by lower back pain.

During the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, with a significant part of the global population working from home and not always having a properly designed office space, the occurrence of lower back pain may increase.

“Lower back pain is reaching epidemic proportions. Although it is usually clear what is causing the pain and its chronic nature, people tend to ignore these circumstances and are not willing to change their lifestyle. Lower back pain usually comes away itself, however, the chances of the recurring pain are very high”, says Dr Irina Klizienė, a researcher at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) Faculty of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts.

Dr Klizienė, together with colleagues from KTU and from Lithuanian Sports University has designed a set of stabilisation exercises aimed at strengthening the muscles which support the spine at the lower back, i.e. lumbar area. The exercise programme is based on Pilates methodology.

According to Dr Klizienė, the stability of lumbar segments is an essential element of body biomechanics. Previous research evidence shows that in order to avoid the lower back pain it is crucial to strengthen the deep muscles, which are stabilising the lumbar area of the spine. One of these muscles is multifidus muscle.

“Human central nervous system is using several strategies, such as preparing for keeping the posture, preliminary adjustment to the posture, correcting the mistakes of the posture, which need to be rectified by specific stabilising exercises. Our aim was to design a set of exercises for this purpose”, explains Dr Klizienė.

The programme, designed by Dr Klizienė and her colleagues is comprised of static and dynamic exercises, which train the muscle strength and endurance. The static positions are to be held from 6 to 20 seconds; each exercise to be repeated 8 to 16 times.

Caption: The static positions are to be held from 6 to 20 seconds; each exercise to be repeated 8 to 16 times. Credit: KTU

The previous set is a little puzzling but perhaps you’ll find these ones below easier to follow,

Caption: The exercises are aimed at strengthening the muscles which support the spine at the lower back. Credit: KTU

I think more pictures of intervening moves would have been useful. Now. getting back to the press release,

In order to check the efficiency of the programme, 70 female volunteers were randomly enrolled either to the lumbar stabilisation exercise programme or to a usual muscle strengthening exercise programme. Both groups were exercising twice a week for 45 minutes for 20 weeks. During the experiment, ultrasound scanning of the muscles was carried out.

As soon as 4 weeks in lumbar stabilisation programme, it was observed that the cross-section area of the multifidus muscle of the subjects of the stabilisation group has increased; after completing the programme, this increase was statistically significant (p < 0,05). This change was not observed in the strengthening group.

Moreover, although both sets of exercises were efficient in eliminating lower back pain and strengthening the muscles of the lower back area, the effect of stabilisation exercises lasted 3 times longer – 12 weeks after the completion of the stabilisation programme against 4 weeks after the completion of the muscle strengthening programme.

“There are only a handful of studies, which have directly compared the efficiency of stabilisation exercises against other exercises in eliminating lower back pain”, says Dr Klizienė, “however, there are studies proving that after a year, lower back pain returned only to 30% of people who have completed a stabilisation exercise programme, and to 84% of people who haven’t taken these exercises. After three years these proportions are 35% and 75%.”

According to her, research shows that the spine stabilisation exercises are more efficient than medical intervention or usual physical activities in curing the lower back pain and avoiding the recurrence of the symptoms in the future.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Effect of different exercise programs on non-specific chronic low back pain and disability in people who perform sedentary work by Saule Sipavicienea, Irina Klizieneb. Clinical Biomechanics March 2020 Volume 73, Pages 17–27 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2019.12.028

This paper is behind a paywall.

Australia’s nanopatch: a way to eliminate needle vaccinations

Tristan Clemons has written a Nov. 9, 2016 essay for The Conversation on one of my favourite stories, the nanopatch,

Who likes getting a needle? I know I definitely don’t.

Someone else who doesn’t is Mark Kendall from the University of Queensland, winner of the Young Florey Medal 2016.

Mark’s work in developing the nanopatch has provided a clear pathway for vaccine delivery science to move beyond 160 year-old needle and syringe technology.

… There are approximately 20,000 projections per square centimeter on each patch, each around 60 to 100 micrometres in length. One micrometre is one million times smaller than a metre, so the height of these tiny spikes is approximately the width of a human hair.

The nanopatch is produced using a technique known as “deep reactive ion etching”, which essentially makes use of ions (charged atoms) in an electric field to selectively etch the surface of a material away. Controlling the electric field and the ions allows a high degree of control, so the microprojections are regularly spaced and of similar dimensions.

An added advantage of this approach is it has been used in the electronic circuit and solar energy industries for many years, and has the potential for increasing the scale of production.

The tiny projections on each nanopatch are invisible to the naked eye, but are long enough to breach the outermost skin layer, the stratum corneum. The stratum corneum is a layer of dead skin cells which acts as the first barrier in protecting us from infection and skin water loss.

The nanopatch projections penetrate through the stratum corneum to reach the living skin layers directly below, the epidermis and the dermis. In the epidermis are several types of immune cells that are vital for the vaccine to work.

Hence the nanopatch is well suited to the delivery of vaccines where targeting immune cells is vital for vaccination success. Examples include influenza, polio and cholera.

Mark Kendall and his colleagues have shown they are able to coat nanopatch microprojections with a vaccine, apply the nanopatch to the skin and achieve vaccination with one tenth to one thirtieth of the dose required using traditional needle and syringe approaches.

… it’s more than just a good idea. Mark Kendall and his colleagues are now running human clinical trials of nanopatches in Brisbane, and the WHO is planning a polio vaccine trial in Cuba in 2017.

The latest information I have about this research is from a Feb. 26, 2016 University of Queensland press release,

Needle-free Nanopatch technology developed at The University of Queensland has been used to successfully deliver an inactivated poliovirus vaccine.

Delivery of a polio vaccine with the Nanopatch was demonstrated by UQ’s Professor Mark Kendall and his research team at UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and vaccine technology company Vaxxas.

Professor Kendall said the Nanopatch had been used to administer an inactivated Type 2 poliovirus vaccine in a rat model.

“We compared the Nanopatch to the traditional needle and syringe, and found that there is about a 40-fold improvement in delivered dose-sparing,” Professor Kendall said.

“This means about 40 times less polio vaccine was needed in Nanopatch delivery to generate a functional immune response as the needle and syringe.

“To our knowledge, this is the highest level of dose-sparing observed for an inactivated polio vaccine in rats achieved by any type of delivery technology, so this is a key breakthrough.”

The next step will be clinical testing.

Dr David Muller, first author of the research published in Scientific Reports, said the work demonstrated a key advantage of the Nanopatch.

“The Nanopatch targets the abundant immune cell populations in the skin’s outer layers; rather than muscle, resulting in a more efficient vaccine delivery system,” he said.

Clinical success and widespread use of the Nanopatch against polio could help in the current campaign to eradicate polio. It could be produced and distributed at a cheaper cost, and its ease of use would make it suitable for house-to-house vaccination efforts in endemic areas with only minimal training required.

World Health Organisation Global Polio Eradication Initiative Director Mr Michel Zaffran said only Afghanistan and Pakistan remained polio-endemic, but all countries were at risk until the disease was eradicated everywhere.

“Needle-free microneedle patches such as the Nanopatch offer great promise for reaching more children with polio vaccine as well as other antigens such as measles vaccine, particularly in hard-to-reach areas or areas with inadequate healthcare infrastructure,” Mr Zaffran said.

Nanopatch technology is being commercialised by Vaxxas Pty Ltd, which has scaled the Nanopatch from use in small models to prototypes for human use.

Vaxxas CEO Mr David Hoey said the first human vaccination studies are scheduled for this year [2016].

“Key attributes of the Nanopatch, including its ease of use and potential to not require refrigeration, could improve the reach and efficiency of vaccination campaigns in difficult-to-reach locations, including those where polio remains endemic,” Mr Hoey said.

The work was funded by the World Health Organisation, Vaxxas, Rotary District 9630 and the Rotary Foundation.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Inactivated poliovirus type 2 vaccine delivered to rat skin via high density microprojection array elicits potent neutralising antibody responses by David A. Muller, Frances E. Pearson, Germain J.P. Fernando, Christiana Agyei-Yeboah, Nick S. Owens, Simon R. Corrie, Michael L. Crichton, Jonathan C.J. Wei, William C. Weldon, M. Steven Oberste, Paul R. Young, & Mark A. F. Kendall. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 22094 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep22094 Published online: 25 February 2016

This paper is open access.

As befitting a ‘favourite story’, I’ve been following it for a number of years starting with this April 23, 2009 posting (scroll down about 25% of the way) although you might prefer to read this more substantive July 26, 2010 posting. The last time (Aug. 3, 2011 posting) I featured the story, it was to announce an investment of AUD $15M in Vaxxas (Kendall is not listed as member of the company) in order to bring the nanopatch to market.

Haiti, cholera, University of Alberta, and nano-syringes

As I’ve noted before the word nano pops up in unexpected places, in this case, in a news release about a University of Alberta medical researcher’s work on cholera bacteria. We tend not to think about cholera in Canada these days but it was a serious problem here as it still is elsewhere. From the Canadian Encyclopedia essay on cholera in Canada,

Cholera first reached Canada in 1832, brought by immigrants from Britain. Epidemics occurred in 1832, 1834, 1849, 1851, 1852 and 1854. There were cases in Halifax in 1881. The epidemics killed at least 20 000 people in Canada. Cholera was feared because it was deadly and no one understood how it spread or how to treat it. The death rate for untreated cases is extremely high. Grosse Île, near Québec, was opened in 1832 as a quarantine station and all ships stopped there for inspection.

The essay goes on to note that between 1995 and 2004 Canada’s reported annual number of cases ranged from one to eight. Meanwhile, Haiti is experiencing a serious outbreak of cholera as it recovers from last year’s earthquake. From the University of Alberta’s Feb. 3, 2010 news release,

Just over a year after the earthquake in Haiti killed 222,000 people there’s a new problem that is killing Haitians. A cholera outbreak has doctors in the area scrambling and the water-borne illness has already claimed 3600 lives according to officials with Médicin Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) [sic].

Bacteriologist Stefan Pukatzki recently achieved a breakthrough understanding of cholera’s disease process which will hopefully help stem outbreaks in the future.

Pukatzki discovered that Vibrio cholerae uses molecular nano-syringes to puncture host cells and secrete toxins straight in to the other organism; this is called the type six secretion system. [emphasis mine]

“Vibrio cholerae uses these syringes so when it comes in contact with another bacteria, like E. coli, which is a gut bacterium, it kills it,” said Pukatzki. “That’s a novel phenomenon. We knew it [Vibrio cholerae] competed with cells of the immune system but we didn’t know it was able to kill other bacteria.

“Keep in mind these syringes are sitting on the outside of the bacterium so they make good vaccine targets,” said Pukatzki. “That’s actually better because you could either inhibit the type six function or you could induce an immune response with these components that are sitting on the outside.”

I’m very interested to see that he (or the writer of the news release) used ‘nano’ as a prefix given that it was already described as molecular. I don’t make much of it other than the fact that it served to grab my attention.