Tag Archives: research

H5N1 Avian Influenza: Pending Pandemic?

On January 8, 2014, an Albertan resident died after contracting H5N1 avian influenza. This was the first H5N1 related death in North America. Federal and provincial health officials were quick to reassure the public that person-to-person transmission of H5N1 influenza is “extremely rare”. In fact, of the 386 H5N1-related deaths reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) since 2003, almost all involved close contact with birds. Sure enough, later reports suggested that the Albertan resident may have contracted the virus whilst passing through an illegal bird market in Beijing.

But could H5N1 be transmitted between humans? Researchers at the Erasmus Medical Center sought to answer this question and on June 22, 2012 they published a highly controversial paper detailing how they re-engineered the H5N1 virus so that it could be transmitted between humans.

Before we discuss this exciting study, we need to take a brief look at the structure and life cycle of the Influenza virus. There are 3 subtypes of the Influenza virus: Influenza A, B and C. H5N1 is an Influenza A virus and these viruses have 2 types of proteins on their surface: Hemagglutinin and Neuraminidase. There are 18 known forms of Hemagglutinin and 11 known forms of Neuraminidase.  A  H5N1 virus has a type 5 Hemaggluttinin and a type 1 Neuraminidase on its surface.

Hemagglutinin is the protein responsible for viral cell entry. On the surface of the cells of our respiratory system are molecules called Sialic acid. Hemagglutinin on the surface of the virus binds to Sialic acid on the cell, triggering the cell to engulf the virus. Upon entry into the cell, the virus takes over and using an enzyme called a polymerase it makes many copies of itself. Eventually the cell bursts and the virus copies are released.

Influenza A virus: Courtesy of www.flickr.com

In the experiment, the researchers made H5N1 virus particles that were transmissible between ferrets (often used as an animal model for human Influenza infection). The researchers began by introducing 3 substitution mutations that had been identified in other highly transmissible Influenza viruses. A substitution mutation is a type of mutation that exchanges one base for another in the nucleotide sequence of a gene. Mutations change the structure of the associated protein. In this case, the mutated virus’s had altered Hemagglutinin on their surface.

The mutated virus’s were then manually placed in the nose of ferrets. Following infection, the researchers swabbed the noses of the infected ferrets and proceeded to infect another group of ferrets. This process was repeated multiple times. By the 10th cycle the mutant H5N1 was airborne and was being transmitted between ferrets in different cages.

The genome (genetic material) of the mutant H5N1 was analyzed and it was found that a total of 5 mutations, 4 mutations in Hemagluttinin and 1 mutation in the polymerase, was necessary for the virus to become transmissible between humans.  Researchers at Cambridge University looked for the same mutations in naturally occurring H5N1 virus’s. They found that the mutations existed individually or in pairs, but never all together in one virus.

So, is a H5N1  pandemic eminent? This is still unknown, but researchers have taken important steps in better understanding the mechanism of transmission of H5N1 Influenza virus.

For a more detailed look at the lifecycle of  Influenza viruses, check out this video.

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Fardowsa Yusuf




Cure for Malaria on the way?

Each year, more than a million people die of the harmful parasitic disease known as Malaria and this number is increasing each day. Approximately 3.3 billion people (this is almost half the population of the world!) live in Malaria-affected region; most prominently in the Sub-Saharan Africa. This harmful plague has been circulating our planet for a long time now and yet there is no known cure for this disease. In the past recent years, the parasite has developed resistance to a lot of drugs. According to some researchers, some prosperous nations were able to get rid of Malaria; it is the third-world countries where the number of deaths due to this disease keeps increasing. Figure 1. below shows the regions that are at risk of  Malaria. Fortunately, Malaria is no longer overlooked and there is extensive research being done to find the cure for this malicious disease.

Figure 1. World map showing the risk of Malaria across the world.


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From the genus Anopheles, the female mosquito attacks the human when it is sound asleep and drinks the blood without acknowledgement. In the process, she releases saliva to prevent blood coagulation, and it is at this point when the infection spreads in the human body. This saliva contains one-celled malaria parasites (plasmodia) that act like tiny microscopic worms and burrow themselves in different liver cells. From this point on the disease spreads in the body through red blood cells and causes symptoms such as fever, headache, chills, nausea etc. The following video shows what happens in detail once the parasite attacks the host:

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Researchers and doctors from all around the world are working hard to develop, not just vaccines, but drugs that might help cure Malaria. Through the use of chemical insecticides or drainage of the water where the larvae of these mosquitos live in, could result in a significant reduction of their population.

Additionally, several drugs are under work that may be effective on a small scale. One such company is GlaxoSmithKline that developed a vaccine and conducted a clinical trial on 15,000 babies and children in Africa. Up to 18 months of age, the drug worked effectively and protected the babies. But the effectiveness wore off afterwards. A Research team at the University of Cape Town have been working on a drug that worked adequately on animals with no adverse side effects. Once this drug is put to use in clinical trials and positive results are found, it might be the breakthrough to the cure for this disease.

Even though there isn’t a set cure for this disease yet, there is still some ongoing progress. Until further research is done and results are found, we can only hope that this plague is cured before it gets too late.

– Hiba Rajpar








A “Nutty” Remedy for your Peanut Allergy?


Image from Aktron on Wikimedia Commons

If you are allergic to peanuts, you must know how annoying and potentially deadly an allergic reaction is. It is the most common and severe food allergy, as it  affects one in fifty children. It causes problem with breathing and can even induce anaphylactic shock upon ingestion in severe cases. Peanut allergies can even go as far as making an impact on one’s social life as well when all action has to be taken to avoid making contact with peanuts at all cost. Needles to say, a peanut allergy is a big inconvenient. However, it seems as though scientists might have found a cure!

In an attempt to find a cure for the peanut allergy in children, scientists conducted a study where small increments of peanuts were exposed to children’s diet. They first started with peanut proteins equivalent to 1/70 of a peanut, then slowly increased the amount. After a few months, 88% of the participants built the tolerance to eat 5 peanuts a day, and 58% were able to eat as much as 10 peanuts. The experiment was carried out in two six-month periods; in the first six months, the children were given a placebo. Actual peanuts were prescribed in the second six months. No peanut tolerance was observed when the children were given the placebo, so the results in the end were definitely not due to the placebo effect. This study was recently published and the scientists hope that one day this will become a treatment for peanut allergies.

This is a video the details the overall experiment:

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The peanut treatments were conducted in a controlled environment in case of the occurrence of an allergic reaction. This should not be tried at home. This study is still in it’s early stages and can not be considered a cure just yet. However, the results are significant and are a beacon of light for those who have severe allergies. If a cure for peanut allergy is possible, then perhaps a remedy for other allergies might someday be a reality as well. Hopefully, in the near future, allergies will no longer exist as a limit to people’s everyday activities.

By: Kimberley Xiao







Bisphenol A (BPA)

Recently, I came across this acronym, BPA, and thought to myself, “what is BPA?” To my surprise, it turned out to be an industrial chemical I was being exposed to everyday and I didn’t even know! Similar to myself, there are many people in our society who are unaware of the use and exposure of this chemical. Therefore, the purpose of my blog is to familiarize students of Science 300 and our society with what BPA is, its use in industry, and the possible health risks it poses to human health.

Bisphenol A (BPA), is an industrial chemical used to make polycarbonate and epoxy resins which are used in many consumer products.

Chemical Representation of BPA (from http://neuroamer.wordpress.com/page/4/)

Polycarbonate is used in a variety of products because of its unique attributes. It is a light weight, high performance plastic used by industries to make consumer products such as infant bottles.

Epoxy resins are also used in a variety of consumer products, such as paints,  because they maintain the quality of the canned product. Many canned foods and beverages have epoxy resins used as liners to maintain food quality.

Canned foods contain BPA which leaches out into the product. (from http://inhabitat.com/the-dirty-dozen-guide-reveals-12-hormone-disruptors-other-than-bpa/)

Over the years, BPA has been one of the most extensively researched chemicals.  Safety assessments have concluded that the exposure level to humans “is more than 400 times lower than the safe level of BPA set by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.” Then why is BPA still a topic of debate?

Many people are still worried about BPA exposure because this chemical mimics the hormone estrogen. It is also widely known to be an endocrine disruptor. Research studies have indicated that the tiniest exposures to the chemical can increase risks for cancer and disrupt the hormone system. Other studies have shown high levels of BPA in urine samples of six year old children.

The question which arises now is, “what has the government done to prevent BPA exposure?” According to an article published in New York Times, Canada has banned the use of BPA for infant bottles. Additionally, many industries are making BPA-free products available to people. Nevertheless, the controversy which still remains is whether or not these substituted chemicals are safe?

The video below further discusses this issue:

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In conclusion, there is a lot of debate over the topic of BPA exposure to humans as well as its health consequences. Daily news reports are being published on this issue which keep us updated on what the government is doing in regards to using this chemical in the industry. Furthermore, researchers all over the globe are continuously experimenting with BPA on rodents to provide concrete evidence about the health risks it may cause. As for now, to avoid BPA exposure, consumers should avoid using plastic containers which have recycle codes 3 or 7 on them as they may contain BPA as well as not use plastic bottles for hot liquids.