Archive for February, 2016

Skin cells turned into brain tumor & cancer predators

Friday, February 26th, 2016


Reprogrammed stem cells (green) chase down and kill glioblastoma cells (pink) (Credit: UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy)

The 2006 discovery that mature skin cells can be converted into stem cells opened up exciting possibilities in regenerative medicine. Now almost a decade later, the Nobel-Prize winning research of Shinya Yamanaka is still opening doors for scientists across different arms of medical research. In what it labels as a first, a team from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) has built on this technology to transform adult skin cells into cancer-killing stem cells that seek and destroy brain tumors.

Glioblastomas are the most common and fatal form of brain cancer, carrying a survival rate beyond two years of just 30 percent. While surgeons can remove the tumor, often its cancerous tentacles take root deep in the brain and allow it to grow back. Most patients die within a year and a half of diagnosis.

Radiation and chemotherapy can be used to tackle tumors that cannot be surgically removed, but the UNC research team is working towards yet another treatment that zeroes in on these tentacles as a means of further boosting survival rates.

The team harvested adult skin cells called fibroblasts, which produce collagen and connective tissue, and engineered these to become induced neural stems cells. They then administered these cells to mice, observing that they had the ability to go hunting through the brain for remaining cancer cells and kill them off.

This led to an increase in survival times ranging from 160 to 220 percent, depending on the type of tumor. The team says it is also possible to engineer the stem cells to produce a tumor-killing protein, which would make them an even more potent weapon against cancer.

The team mixed stem cells into an FDA-approved surgical glue, which provided a physical matrix to support them while they sought out the cancerous tentacles. The team is now exploring ways to further improve this staying power, along with the potential to load anti-cancer drugs into the stem cells.

“Our work represents the newest evolution of the stem-cell technology that won the Nobel Prize in 2012,” says Shawn Hingtgen, an assistant professor at UNC. “We wanted to find out if these induced neural stem cells would home in on cancer cells and whether they could be used to deliver a therapeutic agent. This is the first time this direct reprogramming technology has been used to treat cancer.”

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Henry Sapiecha

Latest warning of dangers of meningitis can best be understood with dying child in parent’s arms

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

Video Explaining how an older teenager died from this meningitis curse disease

The largest UK parliamentary petition in history urges a meningitis B vaccination program be extended to children of all ages, following a string of child deaths.

Moments after this photo was taken, Mason Timmins died in his parents’ arms. The seven-year-old succumbed to meningitis just over 24 hours after showing the first signs of illness.

Photographs of the formerly fit and healthy boy from Walsall, England, are the latest in a harrowing series of images intended to educate the public of the dangers of meningococcal disease.

“He was always smiling and always had something to say,” his mother, Claire Timmins, 37, told British media after making the photo public.

British boy Mason Timmins, 7, died from meningitis minutes after this photos was taken in December 2013-image

British boy Mason Timmins, 7, died from meningitis minutes after this photos was taken in December 2013. This image was released by his mother Claire Timmins to try to raise awareness of the infection. Photo: Ferrari Press Agency

“One Monday morning, I heard him coughing and then he started to be sick. I thought it was just a sickness bug as to be honest I had seen him a lot worse and it was nothing out of the ordinary,” she recalled of the day in December 2013 that her elder child suddenly grew ill.

“But by 3.30pm he started to get a temperature. I gave him some Calpol but it didn’t go down.”

After calling her husband, Mark Timmins, 49, a welder, the couple took their son to the doctor, where he “got floppy”.
Mason Timmins had been a happy, healthy boy until falling ill in December 2013. He died a day later.

Mason Timmins had been a happy, healthy boy until falling ill in December 2013. He died a day later. Photo: Ferrari Press Agency

“The doctor said straight away he thought it was meningitis and gave him some injections.

“Mason then lost consciousness and he never regained it. He felt ill at 6.30am and by midnight he was brain dead.”

His life support was switched off the next day.

“Hopefully [the photo] will shock people into finding out more about meningitis. We want people to know just how quickly it can happen,” she told the Daily Mirror.

At the time of his death, Claire said that she had survived meningitis as a child and so knew of its warning signs.

But Mason did not have the red rash commonly associated with the meningococcal infection.

“[Mason] had been vaccinated against meningitis but not this particular type, which is a rare type,” she said.

Mason Timmins meningitis death image

Mason Timmins had been a happy, healthy boy until falling ill in December 2013. He died a day later. Photo: Ferrari Press Agency

There have been eight cases and two deaths in NSW this year from meningitis caused by invasive meningococcal disease, according to NSW Health. Last year, there were 44 cases.

One in 10 cases of bacterial meningitis and related septicaemia prove fatal.

Of those who survive in Australia, one in 30 has severe skin scarring or loss of limbs, and one in 30 has severe brain damage.

Australian babies are often vaccinated against meningococcal C at 12 months while a privately available meningococcal B vaccine is yet to be rolled out as part of the national vaccination schedule.

While vaccines are effective, they do not protect against all 13 strains of the disease, Vicky Sheppeard, director of Communicable Diseases, NSW Health, said.

“The infection is spread by secretions from the nose and throat of a person who is carrying it and close and prolonged contact is needed to pass it on. It does not appear to be spread through saliva or by sharing drinks, food or cigarettes,” Dr Sheppeard said.

“The number of cases of this rare disease has been falling over the past 10 years due in part to the success of the meningococcal C vaccination program.

“However, several strains of meningococcal bacteria cause disease in Australia. This means that young people who have had the meningococcal C vaccine should still be on the lookout for symptoms.”

The British photo is the latest in a series of harrowing images released by parents of children either killed or made gravely sick by the infection.

Former England rugby captain Matt Dawson has spoken out about the two weeks “of hell” he and his family endured after his toddler contracted meningitis.

Tweeting “upsetting” photos of his son Sami, the sportsman and commentator urged the public to seek vaccinations against the infection, adding the hashtag #VaccinateNOW.

In particular, an image of Faye Burdett from Kent, her body severely marked by a deep red meningococcal rash, saw thousands flock to sign a petition lodged with the British government to “Give the Meningitis B vaccine to ALL children, not just newborn babies.”

The petition has now been signed more than 660,000 times, making it the most signed online petition in British parliamentary history. With more than 100,000 signatures, politicians will now consider the topic for debate.

Meningitis warning signs, NSW Health:

Meningococcal disease is rare but people infected with it can become extremely unwell within hours of the first symptoms appearing and the disease can be fatal.
A rash does not always appear or it may occur late in the disease. The typical meningococcal rash doesn’t disappear with gentle pressure on the skin.
It is also important to note that not all of the symptoms of meningococcal disease may be present at once.
Symptoms of meningococcal disease are non-specific but may include sudden onset of fever, cold hands and feet, limb/joint pain, nausea and vomiting, headache, neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights and a pin-prick rash changing to large red-purple blotches. Babies and very young children may also be irritable, have difficulty waking, have rapid or laboured breathing, have diarrhoea, have a high-pitched cry or refuse to eat.
Symptoms early in the illness are common to many mild viral illnesses, so it can be difficult for doctors to diagnose the disease in the early stages.
Sometimes the classic symptoms may follow less specific symptoms including leg pain, cold hands and abnormal skin colour.
Meningococcal disease can sometimes follow on from other respiratory infections.
People who have symptoms of meningococcal disease should see a doctor urgently, especially if there is persistent fever, irritability, drowsiness or lethargy, or a child is not feeding normally.
24-hours expert health advice in NSW 1800 022 222
More information on meningococcal disease or phone your local Public Health Unit on 1300 066 055.


Henry Sapiecha

How Can Viruses Like Zika Cause Birth Defects?

Monday, February 8th, 2016
While the link between Zika and microcephaly is uncertain, similar diseases show how the virus might be affecting infants

Thousands of infants born in Brazil have been reported to show signs of microcephaly,-image

Thousands of infants born in Brazil have been reported to show signs of microcephaly, like Alice pictured here being comforted by her father. (Rafael Fabres/dpa/Corbis)

In adults, the symptoms of the Zika virus are relatively mild—rashes, fever, joint pain, malaise. Most who are infected may not even know it. But as this seemingly routine disease spreads across the Americas, so do cases of a much more severe problem: infants born with microcephaly.

This birth defect comes from malformation of the brain, leaving those inflicted with varying degrees of shrunken heads and in many cases a slew of neurologic problems. These include hearing troubles, developmental delays and intellectual impairment.

Brazil usually sees a couple hundred cases of microcephaly per year—a number that some suggest is unusually low due to underreporting. Diseases from parasites like malaria or toxoplasmosis, genetic mutations and even excessive alcohol consumption during early pregnancy can all cause microcephaly. But since October 2015, well over 3,500 infants have been reported with telltale signs of the deformation, coinciding with the explosive spread of the Zika virus in the region.

The spotty information from this outbreak is not enough to definitively say whether Zika causes microcephaly. But the link is plausible, and medical experts are looking to other viruses known to cause developmental defects to try to figure out Zika’s potential pathway to destruction.

“Certain viruses really love the brain,” says Kristina Adams Waldorf, an obstetrics and gynecology doctor who studies how infection induces preterm labor. Cytomegalovirus and rubella have relatively mild impacts on healthy adults but can cause debilitating birth defects. And varicella-zoster virus (which causes chicken pox) can cause a host of complications, including problems in the brain.

Many mosquito-borne viruses, like West Nile, also cause forms of brain injury in adults. “So it’s not a big stretch for us to make the connection between a mosquito-born virus [and] microcephaly,” she says.

Spread mainly by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, Zika was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys. Notable outbreaks struck humans on the tiny island of Yap in 2007 and in French Polynesia in 2013. But few people in the Americas had likely heard of Zika until the recent outbreak exploded in Brazil.

No one knows how the virus got there, but many have suggested that it arrived in 2014, carried in the blood of someone among the hordes of people flocking to the World Cup. Since then Zika has spread to more than 20 countries and territories. The possible link to microcephaly has sparked travel warnings for pregnant women and prompted the World Health Organization to declare Zika a global health emergency.

It’s no medical surprise that a virus like Zika can have relatively mild impacts on adults but potentially catastrophic effects on developing fetuses.

Viruses reproduce by hijacking their host’s cells, using their natural processes to make copies of themselves. These copies then strike out on their own to infect more cells. When a virus interferes, the cells can’t function normally—the virus either kills the cells or prevents them from functioning well enough to report for duty. That makes viral infections especially dangerous for developing babies.

“When the fetus is developing its brains, there are a lot of sensitive cells there that have to get to the right places at the right times,” says virologist Kristen Bernard at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. That’s a serious problem in fetuses, which don’t yet have robust ways to fight off microbial invaders.

“You’re talking about a fetus that has a minimal immune system, whereas an adult has, hopefully, a fully functioning immune system,” explains pediatrician and immunologist Sallie Permar of the Duke University School of Medicine.

This cellular vulnerability is the basis of developmental issues linked to cytomegalovirus, or CMV, says Permar. CMV is in the Herpes family of viruses and is the most common infection passed from mother to child in the United States. Between 50 and 80 percent of people in the U.S. will be infected with the virus by the age of 40, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Similar to Zika, few of these people will ever show symptoms of the infection.


We don’t have a great understanding of how CMV-infected cell impairment results in specific neurologic defects in babies, Permar says, but there are clues. “It seems that where the virus is replicating is where you end up with some neurologic impairments.”

For example, hearing loss is a major problem for infants born with CMV. In such cases, the virus can be found in both the part of the brain that helps with hearing as well as a portion of the inner ear called the cochlea, Permar says.

Similarly, some genetic cases of microcephaly have previously been linked to the dysfunction of a particular structure in cells called a centrosome, says Adams Waldorf. This structure is where the “scaffolding system” of the cell organizes and is involved in cell replication, she explains. When the centrosome is damaged, the brains don’t develop properly.

It’s possible Zika is staging an attack on infant brain cells that mirrors the genetic condition. In December, the Brazil Ministry of Health announced identification of Zika virus in multiple tissues of an infant with microcephaly, including the brain. But it’s still too early to make a direct link.

It’s also unclear how Zika can penetrate the natural barrier between mom’s bloodstream and her placenta—although there’s already evidence that it can happen. In the same report, the Brazil Ministry of Health also confirmed two instances of Zika in the amniotic fluid of developing fetuses with microcephaly.

No matter the virus, if mom gets a severe illness during pregnancy, additional damage can be caused by the so-called “bystander effect,” says placental biologist Ted Golos of the University of Madison-Wisconsin.

When the body detects something foreign, like a virus or parasite, it triggers inflammation in an attempt to get rid of the intruder. Despite these positive intentions, “the cascade of events that happen in response to a pathogen can [poorly impact the fetus] in a collateral damage kind of way,” he says. Inflammation of the placenta, for instance, can cause miscarriages and other complications.

There’s added concern that if the link between Zika and birth defects is confirmed, many of the longer term impacts of this disease won’t be identified for years. “Microcephaly is a tragic outcome,” says Golos. “But it could very well be the tip of the iceberg. Or it might not … we simply don’t know.”

The hope now is that researchers can develop a Zika vaccine, so if the virus is causing birth defects, we can stamp out their cause.

“We have the tools to eliminate one very severe congenital infection, and that’s been rubella virus,” says Permar. “So there is a success story with a maternal vaccine.”



Henry Sapiecha