Posts by Ben Johnson

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The diverse ecology of the Brazilian Amazon – spare a thought for the viruses

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In February 1541, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana led a force from modern-day Ecuador into the South American interior to discover the fabled land of cinnamon. Constantly threatened by the native Omaguas tribe, they reached the Rio Negro and became the first Europeans to witness the mighty Amazon. Over 450 years later, scientists are still adding to our understanding of the world’s greatest rain forest, the most ecologically rich region on the planet, including the discovery of a new giant virus in the Rio Negro.

Home to one in ten known species in the world, the Amazon is a rich region for discovering new life. Along with the many species of insects, mammals and birds, a recent expedition identified …

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Rabies – does it have to be fatal?

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Rabies is a reliable killer – the only known infection with a near 100% fatality rate. That is until 2004 when a pediatrician in Milwaukee, USA, tried an experimental protocol that saved the life of 15-year-old Jeanna Geise. Dr Willoughby’s treatment, published here, was to induce a coma to protect her brain from the disease, while waiting for her to develop antibodies that could fight the virus.

While in a coma, Jeanna was given anti-viral drugs ribavirin and amantadine, although neither of these is proven to be effective against rabies. She had been bitten by a bat over a month earlier, too late for post-exposure vaccination, but the novel treatment worked, making Jeanna the sixth documented person to ever …

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Is cancer preventable? The role of diet and obesity

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Cancer is a metabolic disease. So asserts a growing body of evidence, supported by twin pillars. On one hand is strong data from population studies showing that those with metabolic disorders, such as obesity and diabetes, have altered risks of specific types of cancer. Elio Riboli, Director of the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, lists the cancers associated with obesity in a revealing interview for BMC Biology: breast post-menopausal, colorectal, endometrium, kidney, adenocarcinoma of the esophagus and cardia, and prostate (tentatively).

The second line of evidence is the severe metabolic dysfunction within cancer cells. Familiar oncogenes such as c-myc, that are known to drive forward cancer growth, are now known to also reprogram cellular …

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Who’s been sitting in my chair? The microbes that live indoors.

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When the three bears returned to their house in the woods, they found that their porridge had been eaten, their chairs had been sat in and ultimately that Goldilocks was fast asleep in baby bear’s bed. Unbeknownst to Goldilocks, she would have left more than a broken chair behind. Each of her interactions with the bears’ house would have transferred microbes from her to the built environment in which they lived.

We know that humans are covered in microbial life, with more bacterial cells than the cells in our own bodies. We know much less about the microbes living in the built environment – the homes we live in, our offices, farms and factories. Most humans in industrialized countries now spend …

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Mosquito survey identifies reservoir of disease

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Mosquito borne viruses are a major cause of mortality and morbidity, especially in the developing world. As warmer weather increases the habitat for these disease vectors the problem is spreading to the developed world. A five-year study published today in Virology Journal shows for the first time the extent of mosquito-borne viruses (known as arboviruses) in diverse regions of Kenya.

The researchers surveyed almost half a million mosquitoes from varied habitats including savannah grassland, semi-arid Acacia thorn bushes, and mangrove swamps, and sequenced the genomes of the viruses they found. 83 different viruses were found, both known and unknown species that cause disease in humans and livestock. Predominant virus families were alphaviruses, flaviviruses and orthobunyaviruses; …

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A novel coronavirus capable of causing fatal disease

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In September 2012 a patient in Saudi Arabia died of acute respiratory illness and kidney failure due to an unknown infectious agent. A novel species of coronavirus was later identified and shown to be the cause of this and eleven subsequent cases, which were spread across the Middle East and the UK. A timely review, published today in Virology Journal, summarises the outbreak and timeline of events so far.

The most common initial symptoms were reported to be fever, cough and shortness of breath, which developed to severe pneumonia and in some cases renal failure. Interestingly, all other known human coronaviruses cause mild respiratory disease and contribute to the common cold, with the exception of the SARS coronavirus, which …

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New journal Cancer & Metabolism launches today

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New journal Cancer & Metabolism launches today with a selection of articles that highlight the altered metabolic pathways that drive cancer. Altered glucose metabolism of tumor cells was first noted by Otto Warburg in the 1920s, for which he won the Nobel Prize. In later years, the discovery of oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes transformed our understanding of cancer, but left metabolism neglected. Now recent advances show that many oncogenes drive cancer by altering metabolic pathways, leading to an explosion of research. It is also clear that metabolic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, are linked to cancer in ways that are not entirely clear.

The launch issue of Cancer & Metabolism includes pioneering research that for the first …

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Synthetic “poop” as a treatment for C. Difficile published in new journal Microbiome

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A new treatment for superbug Clostridium difficile is published today in the launch issue of Microbiome. Canadian researchers have developed a “super-probiotic”, a synthetic stool called the RePOOPulate, as an alternative to stool transplantation. The RePOOPulate is composed of 33 different bacterial strains isolated from the stool of a healthy 41 year old female at the University of Guelph. The bacteria were purified on agar plates, identified by rRNA sequencing and then pooled together in fixed ratios to form the RePOOPulate.

A pilot study was conducted at Kingston General Hospital, Canada, where the RePOOPulate probiotic was inoculated into two female patients in their 70s, both of whom had severe C. difficile infection and had not responded …

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New Editors for Virology Journal

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Professor Linfa Wang has joined Virology Journal as Editor-in-Chief. Professor Wang is a leading researcher in emerging infections, including the discovery of novel, potentially zoonotic, viruses in bats. He is joined by ten new Section Editors and over eighty Associate Editors who together cover all aspects of virology, including the viruses of animals, plants and microbes. A full list of the journal’s Section and Associate Editors can be found here.

Research from Professor Wang has significantly advanced our understanding of the role of bats as a key reservoir of human pathogens. His lab played a leading role in identifying bats as the natural host of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus. He has …

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New animal model to study chronic hepatitis B virus infection

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Research published today in Virology Journal describes a new model to study chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection, which could be used to determine risk factors and test treatments for the disease. HBV is estimated to infect one third of the world’s population at some point in their lives, leading to cirrhosis of the liver and in some cases liver cancer. The virus usually causes an acute, self-limiting, infection but it can also persist in the liver leading to chronic hepatitis and a greatly increased risk of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). With over 240 million people chronically infected worldwide, this makes HBV a major cause of cancer. Although there is a successful vaccine, there is currently …

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