Monday, June 28, 2010

Scientists call for US to decrease trade of coral reef species

A recent article in the Journal of Marine Policy written by a group of 18 scientists including lead author Brian Tissot, (Washington State University) suggests that international law has failed to protect coral reefs and tropical fish from being threatened by a quickly growing collectors market. The authors point out that reforms in the U.S. could potentially lead to a more responsible, humane, and ecologically sustainable trade in reef material and livestock.

"Our actions have a big impact on what happens in these coral reef ecosystems, which are already hit hard by other forces like global warming, ocean acidification and overfishing," said Tissot, lead author and professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at WSU Vancouver.

Specifically damning data, collected by the United Nation's conservation monitoring program, targets the reefing industry and suggests that trade in coral and coral reef species results in the removal of 30 million fish and 1.5 million live stony corals per year. The aquarium industry alone targets 1,500 species of reef fish and many of these fish die in transit.

This over-harvesting has resulted in the "virtual" extinction of some species, e.g. the Humphead Wrasse, Coral Trout Grouper and Banggai Cardinalfish. The Humphead Wrasse and Coral Trout are both highly sought for food purposes, whereas the Cardinalfish is a very popular aquarium fish.

U.S. buyers account for the majority of trade in live coral, reef fish and invertebrates used in aquariums. The authors recommend leveraging the U.S.' market power to reduce the trade's environmental effects. Among their other recommendations are to protect a wider variety of species, better enforcement of current laws which include tracking a product's chain of custody and reforms in source countries. They also recommend changes in marketing to promote sales of species certified as being humane and sustainable.

"The U.S.," say the authors, "should assume its role as an international leader in coral reef conservation and take steps to reform the international trade it drives."

On a personal note, this story was intriguing to me as I am very interested in coral reefing and have been researching starting my own tank over the past year. At the beginning of my research I was under the naive impression that all fish/coral/invertebrates were originally taken from the reef and then bred in captivity. I now realize that many of these species are harvested directly from the environment (captive raised is becoming more popular and responsible sellers are properly labeling captive bred vs. harvested livestock). I don't plan on changing my plans to begin a reef tank, however I will definitely be making sure as best I can that my livestock is captive bred/raised in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Lance D. Presser has a PhD in Microbiology & Immunology, and is a Public Health Laboratorian.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Another Ph.D. Friend, Another Major Paper.

A report published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) journal Neglected Tropical Diseases shows two new approaches could form the basis for the first human vaccine for Rift Valley Fever (RVF), a dangerous zoonotic disease. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research have shown that experimental vaccines developed using these approaches produced strong immune responses in mice, and is potentially safe for human use.

RVF is a viral zoonosis which primarily affects domestic livestock, but can also be passed to humans and is potentially fatal. Viral spread is achieved by infected mosquitoes, typically the Aedes or Culex genera. Disease is caused by the RVF virus, a member of the Bunyaviridae family. Other notable Bunyaviridae family members include Crimean-Congo Hemorhagic Fever Virus and Hantavirus Hemorrhagic fever.

The disease, first reported in livestock in Kenya around 1915, wasn't isolated until 1931. RVF outbreaks occur across sub-Saharan Africa, with outbreaks occurring elsewhere infrequently (but sometimes severely - in Egypt in 1977-78, several million people were infected and thousands died during a violent epidemic. In Kenya in 1998, the virus claimed the lives of over 400 Kenyans. In September 2000 an outbreak was confirmed in Saudi Arabia and Yemen).

In humans the virus can cause several different syndromes. Typically, sufferers show no symptoms or only a mild illness with fever, headache, myalgia and liver abnormalities. However, in roughly 2% of people infected, the illness can progress to hemorrhagic fever syndrome, meningoencephalitis, or eye complications. Patients who become ill usually experience fever, generalized weakness, back pain, dizziness, and weight loss at the onset of the illness. Typically, patients recover within 2–7 days after onset.

RVF mainly affects farm animals however, the virus has spread to human populations causing serious illness and death in several regions in Africa and the Middle East. Additionally, it has been classified as a select agent by the U.S. federal government because of its potential use in biowarfare, prompting vaccine development research.

"RVF is a veterinary and public health threat that continues to spread," said Ted M. Ross, Ph.D., lead author of the study and associate professor, University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research. "At the same time, vaccine development has been challenging because of adverse side effects from live virus vaccines and uncertainty about whether the virus could revert to a more dangerous form during vaccine manufacturing."

Using DNA plasmids and alphavirus replicons expressing the Gn glycoprotein of RVFV alone or fused to three copies of complement protein, C3d, each vaccine was administered to mice in an all DNA, all replicon, or a DNA prime/replicon boost strategy and both the humoral and cellular responses were assessed. DNA plasmids expressing Gn-C3d and alphavirus replicons expressing Gn elicited high titer neutralizing antibodies that were similar to titers elicited by the live-attenuated MP12 virus. Mice vaccinated with an inactivated form of MP12 did elicit high titer antibodies, but these antibodies were unable to neutralize RVFV infection. However, only vaccine strategies incorporating alphavirus replicons elicited cellular responses to Gn. Both vaccines strategies completely prevented weight loss and morbidity and protected against lethal RVFV challenge. Passive transfer of antisera from vaccinated mice into na─▒ve mice showed that both DNA plasmids expressing Gn-C3d and alphavirus replicons expressing Gn elicited antibodies that protected mice as well as sera from mice immunized with MP12.

"These vaccine strategies may be advantageous to controlling RVF because they provide a safer alternative and appear to work as well as live virus vaccines," said Dr. Ross.

The graduate student responsible for the vast majority of the work is a friend/classmate of mine from Pitt, Nitin Bhardwaj DVM, MS.

I was at one time considering the Ross lab, however the wind took me elsewhere. Great job guys, nice paper.

Lance D. Presser has a PhD in Microbiology & Immunology, and is a Public Health Laboratorian.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Texas A&M: The Clone List Grows

Scientists at Texas A&M University (TAMU) College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences accomplished another successful cloning first after a foal was created and delivered using oocytes from a live mare. The successful delivery of this first of it's kinda clone, highlight TAMU's long tradition of veterinary science excellence.

Most notably, TAMU scientists created the first cloned domestic animal, a cat named 'cc', on December 22, 2001. TAMU is also the first academic institution to clone each of six different species: cattle, a Boer goat, pigs, a cat, a deer and a horse.

Kit Knotts, the owner of Mouse (the cloned foal) is very happy with the success. She had been emailing breeders around the world that she was looking for another horse, but she just couldn't find the right one. "I called and emailed breeders to spread the word that I was looking. Everything I could turn up was too small, too young, too old, not quite sound, etc. I realized I didn't want just another horse to have another body in the barn, I wanted another Marc." Knotts stated.

Knotts' efforts to find a horse that had the same qualities as her prized Lippizan stallion, Marc, (Pluto III Marcella) would lead her to TAMU's equine reproduction expert, Dr. Katrin Hinrichs.

Noted for achieving the first cloned foal in North American (the 3rd worldwide) in 2005, the lab has since produced twelve cloned foals. As of 2010, there are only three labs in the world that have reported the successful birth of cloned horses – TAMU, Viagen (a very successful commercial venture based in Texas), and the lab of Dr. Cesare Galli, in Italy.

"We have worked on this clone for about two years," said Hinrichs. "This is actually the first foal produced using oocytes, from live mares. We recovered the oocytes from our herd of research mares using the same method used to recover eggs from women for in vitro fertilization. We used the oocytes for the cloning process, which made it difficult as we had very few to work with at any one time. During the cloning process, we tested a new technique that has been reported in mice to decrease birthing problems. Mrs. Knotts has been very supportive of our efforts to clone her horse, and has even named the foal 'Mouse' in honor of the research that produced him."

For this successful clone, the experiment began with a biopsy of skin cells from Marc (the clone donor). Through the cloning process, using oocytes recovered from a live mare, viable embryos were developed and sent to Hartman Equine Reproduction Center, an embryo transfer facility in North Texas which serves a full range of specialized reproductive services. Minnie, the surrogate mare carrying Mouse, stayed at the Hartman Center for approximately 200 days, then was sent to her new home in Florida.

Minnie began to show signs of an early delivery, and was taken to the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine for observation and intervention. Mouse was eventually delivered and cared for at UF.

"Having Minnie with us for several months prior to foaling has been great," added Knotts. "The teamwork between Dr. Hinrichs and her colleagues at the University of Florida has been outstanding, frankly saving Mouse's life more than once before and after birth."

An important note, and one that Hinrichs was sure to bring up was that while Mouse is truly an identical twin to the original horse, Marc, but there will be differences as the foal grows due to environmental influences. This was highlighted in numerous news articles and a "This American Life" episode about Chance the bull, another TAMU clone.

Knotts was very happy about the whole process and concluded that she was very proud of the contributions the project has made to the body of knowledge about cloning, which "benefits far more areas of equine reproduction than most realize."

Lance D. Presser has a PhD in Microbiology & Immunology, and is a Public Health Laboratorian.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

CDC Confirms Efficacy of HPV Vaccine in Men

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed its provisional recommendation from 2009 that Gardasil (Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine from Merck) is both efficacious and safe against HPV infection in boys and young men ages 9 to 26, and helps protect against 90% of genital warts cases.

Gardasil was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006 for use in females from age 9 to 26 to prevent cervical cancer and genital warts. Soon after, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which helps to set the US's vaccination policies, recommended that Gardasil become part of routine vaccination for all girls 11 to 12 years old.

Recently, there were concerns about the safety of Gardasil. The CDC reported as of June 1, 2009, over 25 million doses of Gardasil, have been distributed in the U.S. and there was an average of 53.9 Vaccine Adverse Events (VAEs) reports per 100,000 vaccine doses. Of these, 40 percent occurred on the day of vaccination, and 6.2 percent were serious, including 32 reports of death.
Other controversies have arisen, which are summarized nicely in this link.
Last year, the ACIP added males to the list of who can benefit from Gardasil vaccination, but did not advise routine immunization. (The advice was specific to Gardasil and did not apply to the second HPV vaccine approved by the FDA, in 2009, called Cervarix, since that vaccine targets only the cancer-causing strains of HPV and not the strains primarily responsible for genital warts.) Health officials say that the HPV burden (both genital warts and cervical cancer) is heaviest in females. Therefore if herd immunity is established in the female population, this would decrease the HPV cases drastically in boys. They also stated that it would not be cost effective to push for vaccination of boys.

The CDC confirmed that while safe and efficacious in males, the HPV vaccine should not become part of the regular vaccination schedule. The recommendation remains vague on exactly how the vaccine should be used in men, and which males could benefit, stating only that the vaccine “would be most effective when given exposure to HPV through sexual contact.” More detailed advice on the use of HPV in specific, higher risk populations may be forthcoming, say CDC scientists, since the FDA is currently reviewing additional data on the vaccine's ability to prevent precancerous growths among men who have sex with men.

Lance D. Presser has a PhD in Microbiology & Immunology, and is a Public Health Laboratorian.

Banana Lectin, Anti-HIV Effects, & the Way We Interpret Science

I want to start this post by disclosing that I am very good friends with the lead author of this paper, soon to be Dr. Michael D. Swanson.

The title of the article "A lectin isolated from bananas is a potent inhibitor of HIV replication" (a superb title I might add) has caused quite a stir around many a news room.

University of Michigan Health System News Room
Science Daily
Fox News
Chicago Now

Among others, I also had the fortune of hearing it on the BBC World News podcast and it was mentioned that it was recently mentioned in Esquire.

All this publicity was great, but it shortly led to things like this letter to write-in Dr. Frascino. I won't reprint the whole letter, the question being the most interesting part.

Q: Doctor Bob what do you think about using squeeze banana as lubricant since scientist found something that can kill hiv in banana, in short rubbing banana on condom to reduce risk in case of breakage.

Amazing. I can't even begin to imagine what percentage of people hearing about this news story have already tried this. I think this situation exemplifies what happens often to scientists (an especially good cinematic example is Real Genius). We try to understand something, create something, or "fix" something and unfortunately there are always groups of people that misinterpret the results, or even worse, take advantage of those who misinterpret the results.

A prime example of that is occurring with the above study. BanLec Plus (an apparent BanLec oral capsule) is being sold by an anonymous company. If you read the website disclaimers carefully you get the idea that something shady is occuring. I highly doubt this is actually BanLec, and more likely it is a sugar pill. Also, oral BanLec? that doesn't even make sense. How is the protein going to be processed and active upon digestion? What is the mode of action? Obviously none of these tests have been done yet, so this leads me to believe this is a complete hoax. I cringe to think how many people have paid money for this thinking it will prevent them from contracting HIV.

I will never forget a conversation that me and Mike had late one night (probably taking a study break) because it is exactly how I feel, and how I hope most scientists and physicians feel. He mentioned how he hated watching TV and seeing the anti-HIV campaign commercials (my personal favorite seen here (SFWish)) because it made him feel like he wasn't doing enough and should be in the lab. I often feel the same way. But when something like this happens where your research gets twisted and used for nefarious purposes, it can be really disheartening.

"There are no facts, only interpretations" - Nietzsche
One last note. A link to 10 useful inventions that went bad, a scientist's worst nightmare.

Lance D. Presser has a PhD in Microbiology & Immunology, and is a Public Health Laboratorian.