Science Policy For All

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Science Policy Around the Web – November 4, 2014

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By: Agila Somasundaram, Ph.D.

photo credit: Storm Crypt via photopin cc


Algal virus found in humans, slows brain activity

Humans have traditionally caught viruses from closely related species like monkeys and pigs, but recent studies show that algal viruses can reside in our bodies. Scientists at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland have implicated the virus ATCV-1, which infects algae in lakes and rivers, in reduced cognitive function in humans. The group found the ATCV-1 virus in a study of 92 otherwise healthy people. People infected with the virus performed poorly on visual processing tasks, and exhibited shorter attention spans. The team tested if the virus had a causal role in cognitive decline by injecting mice with infected and uninfected algae. The infected mice exhibited poorer attention spans and spatial memory when compared with the uninfected mice. The researchers have also found a change in activity of almost 3000 genes in the infected animals in the hippocampal region of the brain, which is important for learning and memory. The researchers speculate that the virus might stimulate certain immune responses that might in turn affect gene activity in the brain. It is unclear if and how ATCV-1 infects people, even though the virus has been found in many samples around the world. These new findings raise concerns about whether workers who work around water bodies are more susceptible to this virus. Only more studies will tell. (Elizabeth Pennizi, Science)




Science suffers in rocket explosion

The surging enthusiasm for the rocket launch was crushed when Antares exploded 6 seconds after takeoff from the Virginia launch pad on 28th October. Also crushed were all of the scientific experiments that were to be sent to the International Space Station. About one-third of the cargo on Antares was scientific equipment, including a miniature satellite developed by Planetary Resources to mine asteroids for valuable deposits, a high-definition video camera built at the Chiba Institute of Technology to study the properties of meteor showers, and satellites made by Planet Labs to add to their constellation of small satellites to image Earth. A radiometer to measure atmospheric water vapor, one to study how satellites break-up when they de-orbit, and experiments to grow pea shoots to feed astronauts are among other cargo lost in the explosion. Fortunately, nobody was hurt in the explosion, and the six astronauts aboard the space station should be fine with the existing cargo for another six months, says Michael Suffredini, the space station program manager for NASA in Houston. However, the biggest challenge now seems to be getting a ride for the cargo to space in future launches. A significant amount of rescheduling needs to be done given that Orbital Sciences, the company that launched Antares, will not be able to fly for some time, pending investigations, and so cargo needs to be accommodated in other missions. “Nobody likes to see a rocket blow up on a launch pad,” says Dante Lauretta, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. (Alexandra Witze, Nature)



Ebola in the Maternity Ward

 The World Health Organization recently estimated the mortality rate for Ebola at seventy percent, but the viral infection is even more deadly for pregnant women. In the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Zaire, the virus killed fourteen out of fifteen infected pregnant women. This has created a serious ethical and practical problem in the Ebola stricken West African countries. Pregnant women in labor bleed profusely, and they are therefore highly infectious. The staff is at high risk of contamination, and there is a shortage of medical supplies and trained obstetricians or midwives. This, coupled with the belief that pregnant women infected with Ebola are highly likely to die anyway and the resources could instead be given to some other patient, results in them not being permitted in the standard Ebola wards. “They aren’t even given beds. They get put in an area where they get no interventions. They are assumed to die,” says Gabriel Warren, who runs West African Medical Missions, a nonprofit in Sierra Leone. If the Zaire mortality rate of pregnant women were to be applied to the present Ebola outbreak, then only around five percent of infected pregnant women would survive. But if that figure is wrong, then excluding pregnant women is too, says Nir Eyal, a bioethicist at Harvard Medical School. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that of the eight hundred thousand women projected to give birth in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in the coming year, a hundred and twenty thousand are at risk of dying due to insufficient medical care. Ethics being one side of the argument, a large amount of funding is required to manage the projected maternal deaths in the coming year. How to deal with pregnant women infected with Ebola “is a challenging medical-ethics scenario. There’s no easy answer,” says Joseph Bresse, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control mission in Sierra Leone. (Joshua Lang, The New Yorker)



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Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 4, 2014 at 11:03 am

Posted in Linkposts

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