Friday News Roundup!

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Highlights include cannibalistic Salmonella, more BioWatch problems, DHS wanting to know if you’re sick, pigs and airborne Ebola, a new Ebola outbreak (juxtaposition unintentional, I swear), the UK government going in big for synthetic bio, and a political look at the fungal meningitis outbreak. Happy Friday!

Study finds how bacteria inactivate immune defenses

Don’t let the spellings put you off (the English – “defence,” honestly), their study is quite interesting. Apparently Salmonella prevents bacteria-killing enzymes from reaching your lysosomes, making the lysosomes essentially harmless. What does Salmonella do with the suddenly defenseless lysosomes? Raids them for nutrients, of course. It’s a bug eat bug world people. – “A new study by researchers at Imperial College London has identified a way in which Salmonella bacteria, which cause gastroenteritis and typhoid fever, counteract the defence mechanisms of human cells. One way in which our cells fight off infections is by engulfing the smaller bacterial cells and then attacking them with toxic enzymes contained in small packets called lysosomes. Published today in Science, the study has shown that Salmonella protects itself from this attack by depleting the supply of toxic enzymes. Lysosomes constantly need to be replenished with fresh enzymes that are generated from a factory within our cells. These enzymes are carried from the factory along a dedicated transport pathway.”

Anti-terrorism expert advises against BioWatch upgrade

More problems for the hapless BioWatch. First it emerged that the Gen 2 BioWatch kits had difficulty with the sensitivity of its “multiplex” assays – assays selected to detect multiple pathogens at once –  which were quietly phased out following a series of problems with basic detection and false positives (double whammie). Now BioWatch 3 is at serious risk of being de-funded, in favor of increased spending on disease surveillance and communications instead. Which is more important?

LA Times – “Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s top expert on anti-terrorism technology has privately advised her to spike a long-planned, multibillion-dollar upgrade of BioWatch, the nation’s troubled system for detecting a biological attack. Dr. Tara O’Toole, the department’s undersecretary for science and technology, doubts that the so-called Generation 3 version of BioWatch could be relied on to detect anthrax, smallpox, plague or other deadly germs in the event of a biological attack, scientists familiar with the matter said.O’Toole is also concerned that the cost of the upgrade — $3.1 billion for the initial five years — would divert money from measures she considers more beneficial, such as establishing computer links between hospitals, large HMOs and public health agencies to speed the distribution of medicine after an attack, the scientists said.”

Homeland Security to Test Social Media as Disease-Tracking Tool

Homeland Security gets Facebook, and is now checking to see if you’re sick. I’m not sure if this is really cool or a really creepy.

Livescience – “Can Facebook or Twitter reveal the spread of the ordinary cold or a possibly deadly pandemic? The U.S. Department of Homeland Security wants to find out by monitoring popular social media networks in a yearlong project. The project will search for disease-related warning signs by using publicly available data found through Facebook, Twitter and blogs, according to news site NextGov. Accenture, a global consulting firm, won a $3 million contract from the Department of Homeland Security to set up a pilot program that will try to predict possible public health crises.”

Terrifying Prospect of the Day: Ebola May Go Airborne

I feel like at some point I’ve asked us all to take a minute and be grateful that Ebola isn’t normally transmissible via airborne routes. According to the study, Ebola-infected pigs managed to transmit the virus to macaques housed in the same room (bad day to be a pig or a macaque), despite the lack of direct contact. Don’t freak out yet – of the 2,200 cases of human Ebola, just 13 occurred without a known direct-contact.

Science News – “Transmission of the virus — which causes an often fatal hemorrhagic fever in people and primates — was thought to require direct contact with body fluids from an infected animal or person. But in the new study, published online November 15 in Scientific Reports, piglets infected with Ebola passed the virus to macaques housed in the same room even though the animals never touched…Although pigs transmitted Ebola in the laboratory, there is still no evidence that anyone has been sickened from contact with infected pigs in Africa, where the virus occurs naturally, or that the virus passes through the air under normal conditions, says study coauthor Gary Kobinger, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. ‘It’s definitely not an efficient route of transmission.’ ”

Ebola Outbreak in Uganda Kills Two

Ebola emerges again in Uganda (via direct contact, jeez). For an interesting argument that Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa shouldn’t be classified as “emergent”, check out this article in Science.

BBC – “A fresh outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in Uganda has killed at least two people, the health minister has said.Christine Ondoa said two members of the same family died over the weekend not far from the capital – and a third person was also suspected to have died in that area of the haemorrhagic fever.”

UK Awards $32M for New Synthetic Biology Research

C’mon people, we can’t let the Brits out innovate us. Sure, first it’s larger funding for synthetic bio, next thing you know they’ll be forcing us all to switch to “Biodefence”.  No, in all seriousness, increased funding and government interest in synthetic biology is a good thing – which we should try and match!

GenomeWeb – “The UK has pumped £20 million ($31.8 million) into several new research projects pursuing biotechnology and bioenergy goals as part of a new push to capitalize on the potential of synthetic biology technologies. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council on Friday said it provided the majority of the funding for the six new projects, but £3 million came from industry partners and £2 million was provided by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.”

Elections Have Consequences: Fungal Meningitis and Compounding Pharmacies

The fungal meningitis outbreak has continued to grow, with 480 cases and 33 deaths. For an interesting take on the why we use compounding pharmacies at all , and the politics behind the outbreak’s inception, check out the Scientific American article below.

Scientific American blog – “Compounded drugs used to be mixed by a relatively small and generally local pharmacy and are intended for a specific patient. The law regulating compounding pharmacies, in fact requires that each compounded drug be prepared based upon a prescription from a physician for a specific patient. They are custom produced to meet specific allergies, for example, or to mask flavor. However, New England Compounding Center (NECC), was were essentially acting as a small pharmaceutical company, mass producing the steroids for injection…But, as in keeping with tradition, the main question has been, ‘Why doesn’t the FDA regulate compounding pharmacies?'”

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