Tag Archives: influenza

The role of great sources

5 Jan

influenza virus particle: CDC Public Health image library, Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith; Content Providers: CDC/ Dr. Erskine. L. Palmer; Dr. M. L. Martin

Though my writing life ranges from writing health stories for teens to writing about research topics and careers issues for scientists, the sources that I speak with for the former type of article generally don’t overlap with those for the latter. Until now.

Last spring, I was working on an article about the common cold, and I asked a group of writer buddies: do you know a virologist who could talk about the common cold? I need someone who can leave out the jargon– someone who’s the best of what we all look for in an interview. The recommendation– Ben tenOever— a researcher who actually works on influenza viruses at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. But he gave me a great interview– explaining viruses, how they work in terms that teens could understand. My favorite analogy that didn’t make it into the story: “If you consider the Empire State Building to be the size average cell in the nose, the virus would be the size of a fist.” The resulting story was published in December– in Weekly Reader’s Current Health 2. [sorry, it’s not available online]

But Ben’s also a young scientist on the rise– studying both how the immune system responds to viral infection and a new bioengineering strategy for developing flu vaccines– more on that in my most recent article for Science Careers. Talking with him, particularly in person, I noticed his enthusiasm, about science in general, viruses, and his own research projects. Science is a tough business, but it’s clear from talking with him how much he loves the hunt for new discoveries– combing through new data and figuring out what it means.

It’s incredibly rare that I find a scientist who is so good at tuning his descriptions and who also effuses energy and enthusiasm with every analogy or anecdote. What fun that I get to tell their stories.

Molecule of the Week: Tamiflu

9 May
Tamiflu, also known as oseltamivir (courtesy of wikipedia)

Tamiflu, also known as oseltamivir (courtesy of wikipedia)

Okay, so I’m officially geeking out with a new idea for a regular blog feature. But here it is, Molecule of the Week!

What you see before you is a ball and stick model of oseltamivir, the drug Tamiflu, your friendly neighborhood antiviral drug for influenza, including H1N1.

How does this bad boy work? Flu viruses need humans or other animals solely to hijack the machinery of our cells to make many new copies of the virus. Tamiflu shuts the process down in the body by blocking  the release of the new viruses from those infected cells. Basically it puts the viruses in chemical lockdown so they can’t infect new cells.

Weekly Roundup: more interesting (swine) flu science

8 May

As swine flu concern seems to be simmering down a little, I want to highlight some of the interesting stories about science that should make a difference in infectious disease science, whether H1N1 turns out to be the next dangerous pandemic or not.

Negative stained transmission electron micrograph (TEM): image of swine flu virus from the CDC Influenza Lab

Negative stained transmission electron micrograph (TEM): image of swine flu virus from the CDC Influenza Lab

1. Why is the flu seasonal? Honestly, I was thinking about this question, too, but NPR got there first this morning.

Conventional wisdom is that flu transmission is all about physical proximity– more people crowded together inside in the winter helps the virus jump from person to person. But the movement of flu viruses probably has greater roots in how airborne viruses move in colder, drier air, and how we and the viruses respond to those environments.

Viruses are more stable under colder and drier conditions, for one. Secondly, those airborne droplets that we cough and sneeze are much smaller and travel farther. Breathe in droplets from the cold into the warm humidity of the lung, and they sink like boulders. Finally, cold dry air means thick mucous in the respiratory tract, which is harder to clear.

2. I’m also fascinated by the ways that seemingly non-medical tools can help crack medical problems (and a shout out to Suzanne for mentioning this in a comment to my earlier post). The New York Times reported on number crunching with several data sets that don’t actually include biological data, but are looking pretty accurate for predicting the spread of H1N1 or swine flu.

At the heart of his simulation are two immense sets of data: air traffic and commuter traffic patterns for the entire country, and the yield of a whimsical Web site, Where’s George?

Where’s George? was started more than 10 years ago by Hank Eskin, a programmer who marked each dollar bill he received with a note asking its next owner to enter its serial number and a ZIP code into the Web site, just for the fun of seeing how far and fast bills traveled. By 2006, the site had the histories of 100 million bills.

3. How fast and what are the logistics in making an H1N1 vaccine? Yep, we could be looking at two shots for the 2009-10 flu season in the Northern hemisphere. It takes a while to make vaccines, and a lot of the science to speed vaccine manufacture up is still untested. From Scientific American:

“For a number of reasons, it is unlikely that [a swine flu vaccine] will be included in the seasonal vaccine,” Gellin says. “As the seasonal vaccine is currently in the final phases of production, waiting for this additional strain would delay the availability of seasonal vaccine.”

In addition, if the new vaccine requires two doses, it would complicate use of the seasonal vaccine as most (except children vaccinated for the first time) require only a single dose each year. “We may learn something from the clinical trials,” he adds, “but the assumption going in is that a new virus that’s not been seen in people before will require two doses.”

Swine flu or H1N1: behind the virus pictures

4 May
Negative stained transmission electron micrograph (TEM): image of swine flu virus from the CDC Influenza Lab

Negative stained transmission electron micrograph (TEM): image of swine flu virus from the CDC Influenza Lab

Looking more closely at the some of the coverage of swine flu, I recognized the (probable) handiwork of a CDC researcher from a lecture I  covered recently at the New York Academy of Sciences about biological imaging.

Amazingly this technology (negative stained transmission electron micrograhs) actually dates back to the 1950s, but it’s fast and still the standard for the quick identification of emerging diseases like H1N1. But identification of viruses this way is still an art, as Charles Humphrey of the CDC pointed out. You can’t just plug an image into a computer and get a machine to identify what kind of virus it most closely matches. The technique requires real people with experience to gather the images and then to interpret them based on patterns of known viruses.

I imagine that Humphrey and his colleagues have been burning some serious midnight oil over the last few weeks.

MAY 5 UPDATE– @robinlloyd99 tweeted a beautiful graphic with images of all kinds of viruses