HIV: IT’S TIME TO RAISE OUR AWARENESS, AGAIN

by Alessandro Zancla, MD     I sometimes share experience and points of view with colleagues who work abroad and we talk about the differences between countries and healthcare systems. One of the most important topics in Public Health is HIV and its prevention: on this, we all seem to agree that not enough is being done to inform and educate the public (especially young people) on HIV and STDs in general. Family and the school system have left an educational void on sex and STD prevention; without that education, adolescents often turn to the Web for answers. If we take a quick look at online forums and websites boys and girls use to share information and advice on sexual matters, we immediately realize one thing: they know little, and what they do know is often dangerously incorrect. Some teenagers are even convinced that there is a vaccine for HIV or that the contraceptive pill can protect against STDs. It is clear that there is a desperate and urgent need for correct information and education.   We all share responsibilities in this. – Families need to acknowledge that the average age for having sexual intercourse for the first time is about 17 years old (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg/key_statistics/s.htm). Parents should talk about sex and health with their children, and they should do so in time. – Governments should seriously consider their role in safeguarding public health and put more effort and resources into education and prevention. This is difficult since it means fighting against pressure from certain ideological and religious groups who insist on standing, for example, against the use of condoms;...

What is DNA?

Edited by: Chiara Bertipaglia, Science Editor, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University & Kaitlyn Powers, Blog Editor, Marketing Student at Fordham University     The DNA is a molecule that encodes all the information needed to build and maintain living organisms. One could say the DNA is the blueprint of life. It is stored inside the nucleus of every cell, and is made up of two helices, intertwined to form a long thread. Each living being you can think of (bacteria, fungi, plants, animals, humans) has its own unique DNA that distinguishes it as an individual from the rest of the organisms on Earth. By translating its information into any characteristics of a living being, the DNA is responsible for encoding the instructions to build any part of our body i.e. a muscle, the eyes, the skin, the heart. How can this be achieved? Within every organism, every cell contains the exact same, identical copy of DNA (depicted as a red thread in every cell). If we think of a neuron and a skin cell, we quickly realize how different they are from one another. Neurons are responsible for our thoughts, memories and feelings, while skin cells form a barrier that offers mechanical protection from the environment. However, both these types of cells carry the same copy of DNA, and both use the same blueprint to define themselves and to perform their very distinct functions. What makes these cells diverse is that they use only some parts of the DNA and not others. In a way, a skin cell has all the information to be a neuron but “chooses” to...

Know Science at the March for Science

by Chiara Bertipaglia, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University and KnowScience editor   Yesterday, Saturday 22nd April 2017, on Earth Day, Know Science marched together with thousands of protesters at the March for Science in New York City. We are incredibly proud to have joined such a big event. We felt relieved to be part of a lively community of science supporters that care about science and realize how fundamental it is to society. Following the statement issued by our founder and president Dr. Simona Giunta, we manifested to express our deep concern about recent political orders that undermine the independence of scientific research and jeopardize scientific funding. We hope that all the science supporters that joined the satellite marches in more than 600 cities from all 7 continents have been successful in shaking the conscience of those that get to decide about science funding.   Please follow and like...

RAGE AGAINST THE VACCINES

VACCINES, AMONG URBAN LEGENDS AND COLLECTIVE PSYCHOSIS by Alessandro Zancla, MD   An anti-vaccination philosophy has spread for long among people, supported by blogs and websites that have taken advantage of people’s fears and susceptibility. As a consequence of this, we may risk destroying the progress reached in more than two hundred years of scientific research. This anti-vaccination attitude thrives thanks to general disinformation, a false sense of safety against infectious diseases and lack of historical memory, and it is starting to produce its results: in some areas of developed countries vaccine coverage levels risk being insufficient to guarantee adequate protection. Maybe we forgot too quickly that not many years ago diseases such as Diphtheria, Poliomyelitis, Pertussis and Rubella were a daily hazard, and so were the deaths they would cause and the serious consequences they would leave in the survivors (mainly children). Perhaps we physicians have some responsibility in this too. We evidently failed to reassure and inform the public proficiently, but believe me when I say it is terribly hard to speak convincingly against fears and persuasions that are stuck in the deepest irrational psychological sphere of mankind, especially when people are not willing to get informed. Sometimes a doctor proposing a vaccination is treated like a salesman you quickly want to get rid of. Trust me, it is not nice at all. When a doctor proposes a vaccine to a patient he only does so because he believes that it is useful and that the risks-to-benefits ratio is favorable to the vaccination, otherwise he would not.   I think it is time to clear a few...

Genetic loot transformed little viruses into giants

by Giorgia Guglielmi Giant viruses are the sperm whales of the microscopic world, dozens of times larger than typical viruses. They’re also richer in genes and much more complex—so much so, in fact, that scientists have speculated whether they evolved from ancient single-celled organisms. But the discovery of a novel group of giant viruses, reported today in Science, indicates that was likely not the case. These mammoth viruses, named Klosneuviruses, started out similar in size to their tiny, simpler brethren, and increased in complexity by gradually pilfering genes from the cells they infected. Compared to other known viruses, the newfound giants contain a more complete set of molecules able to translate genetic instructions into proteins. The researchers found that the genes that produce these protein-making molecules do not derive from an individual organism but rather from several single-celled algae—Klosneuviruses’ favorite hosts. This suggests that, over the course of evolution, Klosneuviruses—and probably other giant viruses—repeatedly gained new genes from the cells they took over. Over billions of years, this genetic larceny turned them into something unique: a cell-like virus that straddles the line between living and non-living.   Publication: Frederik Schulz, Natalya Yutin, Natalia N. Ivanova, Davi R. Ortega, Tae Kwon Lee, Julia Vierheilig, Holger Daims, Matthias Horn, Michael Wagner, Grant J. Jensen, Nikos C. Kyrpides, Eugene V. Koonin, Tanja Woyke. Giant viruses with an expanded complement of translation system components. Science, 2017; 356 (6333): 82 http://science.sciencemag.org/content/356/6333/82     Giorgia Guglielmi is a graduate student in the MIT Program in Science Writing and a freelance science journalist based in Cambridge, MA. She received a PhD in Biology from the European Molecular...

Zika hijacks host cells’ skeleton, persists in a wide range of tissues for weeks

By Giorgia Guglielmi       Scientists moved one step closer to understanding how Zika virus takes hold of host cells, and where and for how long it lurks inside the body. A new study, published in Cell Reports, showed that Zika reshapes the cell’s skeleton to fortify hollow structures where it makes daughter viruses. When scientists used a drug that makes the cell’s structural fibers immovable, the virus was unable to make copies of itself. These drugs might provide a therapeutic option against Zika. To develop new Zika therapies, it’s crucial to know where and when the virus is present within the organism. To address this issue, researchers studied Zika’s spread in infected macaques. The results are detailed in PLOS Pathogens. Zika infected a wide range of tissues, including peripheral nervous system, joints, and muscles, and it persisted in those tissues up to five weeks. What’s more, Zika was found in the reproductive tract of infected animals. The virus’ persistence in reproductive organs might be key to its sexual transmission. It could also explain why Zika infection during pregnancy is associated with crippling birth defects such as abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly.   Giorgia Guglielmi is a graduate student in the MIT Program in Science Writing and a freelance science journalist based in Cambridge, MA. She received a PhD in Biology from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, where she studied how embryos get their final shape.   Please follow and like...
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