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Science Policy Around the Web – January 29, 2016

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By: Daniël P. Melters, Ph.D.

Infectious Diseases

Zika virus, linked to microcephaly, on the rise

Only a few months after the scare of the epidemic of chikungunya, a new virus has emerged on the American continents: Zika virus. The same mosquito (Aedes aegypti) that transmits yellow fever, dengue, and chikungunya also transmits this virus. In the last few months of 2015, there was a sharp rise in babies born with microcephaly. Some hospitals in north Brazil that would only see five cases a year, now see over 300 in six months. These babies have abnormally small heads and the rare neurological disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome. The rise in cases with microcephaly strongly correlated with an ongoing Zika virus epidemic in the north of Brazil. In addition, the Zika virus RNA was found in the amniotic fluid of two fetuses. It is thought that women who were pregnant became infected with the virus and gave it to the growing fetus. Nevertheless, there is no formal evidence that the Zika virus causes microcephaly. In fact, a recent report argues that a surge in finding birth defects is too blame for the increase in microcephaly cases in Latin America.

This has not stopped local and global authorities from warning people of the potential dangers of the Zika virus. Brazil has suggested its citizens in affected regions not get pregnant. The CDC in the U.S. is warning tourists who go to regions where Zika virus is epidemic to take precautionary measures to prevent being bitten by mosquitos. On Thursday, January 28th, the World Health Organization declared an International Emergency. The last International Emergency was the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Another complicating factor is the expected increase in number of mosquitos due to El Niño. Although most people who get infected by Zika virus will remain asymptomatic, some people will have a rash and a fever. As of now, no cure exists. Therefore, researchers around the world are rushing to develop a vaccine. Two potential vaccines against West Nile virus, after being repurposed for Zika, might enter clinical trials as early as late 2016, according to Dr. Fauci (NIH/NIAID) [recent talk by Dr. Fauci on emerging viruses]. But caution about a quick cure is warranted, as it might take several years before a Zika vaccine becomes commercially available. (, BBC News website)

Mental Health

One step closer to understanding schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a debilitating psychiatric disease that affects over two million people in the United States alone. Often, this disease start in the later years of adolescence and early adulthood. Delusional thinking and hallucinations characterize schizophrenia, but the drugs available to date to treat schizophrenia are blunt and frequently patients stop using them because of their side effects. Although this new study will not lead to new treatments on the short term, it does provide researchers with first firm biological handle on the disease.

The developing human brain is the site of neuronal pruning. At first, the brain makes an excessive number of connections between neurons, but as children grow-up, most of these redundant connections are lost. You can see this a competition between the connections where the strongest ones survive. Neuronal pruning in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in thinking and planning, happens in adolescence and early adulthood. The latest finding, published in Nature, found that people who carry genes that accelerate or intensify that pruning are at higher risk of developing schizophrenia than those who do not. To date, no specific genetic variant has been found, although the MHC locus seems a likely candidate. Indeed, one specific gene in this locus, C4 gene, is involved in neuronal pruning. The C4 gene produces two products: C4-A and C4-B. Too much of the C4-A variant results in too much pruning in mice, which would explain why schizophrenic patients have a thinner prefrontal cortex. These new findings help to connect the dots better than ever before. Next up will be developing drugs that regulate neuronal pruning and the hope is that this will create a new anti-schizophrenia drug. (Benedict Carey, New York Times)

Technology

Analyzing body chemistry through sweat sensor

A small, wearable sensor has been created that can measure the molecular composition of sweat send those results in real time to your smartphone. The sensor, a flexible plastic patch, can be incorporated into wristbands. Several labs have been working on developing such a patch for a while, but most of them could only detect one molecule at a time. This newly developed flexible printed plastic sensor can detect glucose, lactate, sodium, potassium, and body temperature. When the sensor comes in contact with sweat an electrical signal is amplified and filtered. Subsequently, the signal is calibrated with the skin temperature. This latter step is essential, according to the lead scientist Jarvey. The data is then wirelessly transmitted to your smartphone. Because the sensor is not as accurate as a blood test, rigorous testing for medical use is therefore required.

The potential of this new devise is that it can tell, for instance, a diabetic patient in real-time that his blood sugar levels are too low or too high. It could also tell someone who is physically active that she is getting dehydrated and needs to drink water. One particular project could greatly benefit from this new technology. Last year President Obama announced the Precision Medicine Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to enroll over one million American participants and follow them over time to learn about the biological, environmental, and behavioral influences on health and disease. After all, most disease still do not have a proven means of prevention or effective treatments. Having technology such as this that can monitor and track basic biological data in real time could provide a wealth of information to researchers looking to make connections between a person and a disease.  (Linda Geddes, Nature News)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 29, 2016 at 9:00 am

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