• Flu hospitalizations climb as U.S. season hits new heights

    Flu hospitalizations across the United States are still increasing, and at least by one metric the season has reached a height not seen since the 2009-10 pandemic, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s). In addition, despite elderly adults being the most hospitalized group, they often do not receive influenza tests, new research shows.

  • Flu spreads by aerosols, not just coughs, sneezes

    It is easier to spread the influenza virus (flu) than previously thought, according to a new study. People commonly believe that they can catch the flu by exposure to droplets from an infected person’s coughs or sneezes or by touching contaminated surfaces. But, new information about flu transmission reveals that we may pass the flu to others just by breathing.

  • Ban on deadly pathogen research lifts, but controversy remains

    “Those who support such research think that it is necessary to develop strategies to fight rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health, such as the flu virus, the viruses causing Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), or Ebola,” says Marc Lipsitch of Harvard Chan School. “But others, like myself, worry that human error could lead to the accidental release of a virus that has been enhanced in the lab so that it is more deadly or more contagious than it already is. There have already been accidents involving pathogens. For example, in 2014, dozens of workers at a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab were accidentally exposed to anthrax that was improperly handled. Another accident like that—if it involved a virus that was both newly created and highly contagious—has the potential to jeopardize millions of people.”

  • Supercharged antibiotics could combat superbugs

    Antibiotic-resistant bacteria – superbugs – cause 700,000 deaths worldwide each year, and a UK government review has predicted this could rise to 10 million by 2050. An old drug supercharged by researchers has emerged as a new antibiotic that could destroy some of the world’s most dangerous superbugs.

  • Antibiotic alternatives should focus on mild infections: Experts

    Given the challenge of discovering and developing new antibiotics for the most serious multidrug-resistant pathogens, and how quickly antibiotic resistance can emerge, scientists and biotechnology companies have in recent years turned their attention to alternative therapies to target these bacteria. These antibiotic alternatives include bacteriophages, phage lysins, antimicrobial peptides, antibodies, probiotics, and vaccines. The hope is that, ultimately, products other than classic antibacterial agents will help provide a long-term solution to the antibiotic resistance crisis. Yet, many of these alternative therapies are a long way off, and even those in phase 2 and 3 clinical trials will likely be used as adjuncts to antibiotics, rather than true alternatives.

  • U.S. ends 3-year ban on research involving enhanced-lethality viruses

    The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) yesterday announced it was ending its three-year moratorium on funding of gain-of-function research, that is, research which aims to make extremely dangerous viruses even more dangerous in order to find a vaccine or cure for them. The U.S. government instituted the ban in 2014, against the backdrop of rising worries that these “gain-of-function” studies would allow scientists to increase the ability of the infectious disease to spread by enhancing its pathogenicity, or its ability to cause disease. Scientists who supported continuing research involving enhancing the transmissibility of infectious disease were not helped by a series of safety mishaps at federal research facilities.

  • DNA has gone digital – what could possibly go wrong?

    Biology is becoming increasingly digitized. Researchers like us use computers to analyze DNA, operate lab equipment and store genetic information. But new capabilities also mean new risks – and biologists remain largely unaware of the potential vulnerabilities that come with digitizing biotechnology. In 2010, a nuclear plant in Iran experienced mysterious equipment failures which paralyzed Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Months later, a security firm was called in to troubleshoot an apparently unrelated problem, and found a malicious computer virus called Stuxnet, which was telling uranium-enrichment centrifuges to vibrate. Stuxnet demonstrated that cybersecurity breaches can cause physical damages. What if those damages had biological consequences? Could bioterrorists target government laboratories studying infectious diseases? What about pharmaceutical companies producing lifesaving drugs? As life scientists become more reliant on digital workflows, the chances are likely rising. The emerging field of cyberbiosecurity explores the whole new category of risks that come with the increased use of computers in the life sciences.

  • Social media trends can predict vaccine scares tipping points

    Analyzing trends on Twitter and Google can help predict vaccine scares that can lead to disease outbreaks, according to a new study. Researchers examined Google searches and geocoded tweets with the help of artificial intelligence and a mathematical model. The resulting data enabled them to analyze public perceptions on the value of getting vaccinated and determine when a population was getting close to a tipping point.

  • Managing antibiotics insufficient to reverse resistance

    Researchers have discovered that reducing the use of antibiotics will not be enough to reverse the growing prevalence of antibiotic resistance for some types of bacteria. Besides passing along the genes bestowing antibiotic resistance to their offspring, many bacteria can also swap genes amongst themselves through a process called conjugation. There has long been a debate, however, as to whether this process occurs fast enough to spread through a population that is not under attack by antibiotics.

  • Flesh-eating parasites come closer, but a vaccine against them does, too

    Parasites that ulcerate the skin, can disfigure the face, and can fatally mutilate internal organs are creeping closer to the southern edges of the United States. No vaccine is yet available against Leishmania — the second-deadliest parasites in the world, topped only by malaria — but researchers have now come closer to changing that. A new experimental vaccine has immunized laboratory mice that were genetically altered to mimic the human immune system. The vaccine exploits a weakness in Leishmania’s tricky chemical camouflage, which normally hides it from the victim’s disease-fighting cells, to trigger a forceful immune response against the parasite.

  • New computer model assesses risk of a Zika epidemic in real-time

    New research describes a new model for assessing real-time risk of a Zika virus epidemic in the United States. The computer simulation, based on data from Texas including population dynamics, historical infection rates, socioeconomics, and mosquito density, is designed to help policymakers gauge the underlying epidemic threat as cases first appear in U.S. cities.

  • Cost of Zika outbreak in U.S. could be high

    Even a relatively mild Zika outbreak in the United States could cost more than $183 million in medical costs and productivity losses, a computational analysis suggests. A more severe outbreak could result in $1.2 billion or more in medical costs and productivity losses. “This is a threat that has not gone away. Zika is still spreading silently and we are just now approaching mosquito season in the United States, which has the potential of significantly increasing the spread,” says one researcher.

  • New tools to combat superbugs

    Antibiotic resistance is a growing global health threat. So much so that a 2014 study commissioned by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom predicted that, if the problem is left unchecked, in less than 35 years more people will die from antibiotic resistant superbugs than from cancer. It is critical that researchers develop new antibiotics informed by knowledge of how superbugs are resistant to this medication.

  • Killing drug-resistant bacteria dead with bioinspired agent

    Microbial resistance to antibiotics and biocides is increasing, and our ability to effectively treat bacterial infections and contamination is under threat. It is important that scientists develop new antibiotic drugs, but we also need new strategies to deal with bacterial contamination that are not reliant on antibiotics. Researchers have developed a bioinspired antimicrobial treatment that can rapidly kill drug-resistant bacteria. The treatment consists of iodo-thiocyanate complexes, which are inspired by enzymes and reactive molecules produced by our immune system.

  • Addressing the threat of Zika virus to the U.S. blood supply

    Investigators have shown that certain screening methods that detect the genetic material of Zika virus can be used to ensure that donated blood supplies remain free of the virus. The methods, called Zika virus nucleic acid amplification technology assays, demonstrated similar excellent sensitivities to assays currently used for screening for transfusion-transmitted viruses. The methods were substantially more sensitive than most other laboratory-developed and diagnostic Zika virus assays.