Playing a music instrument brings benefits to your brain .

When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain become engaged and active.
But when you actually play an instrument, that activity becomes more like a full-body brain workout. What’s going on?

Anita Collins explains the fireworks that go off in musicians’ brains when they play, and examines some of the long-term positive effects of this mental workout.

watch the video on youtube. URL:

Only 8.2% of Human DNA Is Functional

  • Oxford University scientists report that only 8.2% of human DNA is likely to be doing something important, i.e., is functional. This number is quite different from one given in 2012, when a number of researchers involved in the ENCODE (Encyclopedia of DNA Elements) project stated that 80% of our genome has some biochemical function.

    Surprise: Only 8.2% of Human DNA Is Functional

    According to the Oxford team, which published its study (“8.2% of the Human Genome Is Constrained: Variation in Rates of Turnover across Functional Element Classes in the Human Lineage”) in PLOS Genetics, the 80% claim has been controversial, with many in the field arguing that the biochemical definition of ‘function’ was too broad—that just because an activity on DNA occurs, it does not necessarily have a consequence. For functionality you need to demonstrate that an activity matters.

    To reach their figure, the Oxford University group took advantage of the ability of evolution to discern which activities matter and which do not. They identified how much of our genome has avoided accumulating changes over 100 million years of mammalian evolution—a clear indication that this DNA matters; it has some important function that needs to be retained.

    “Constrained DNase 1 hypersensitivity sites, promoters, and untranslated regions have been more evolutionarily stable than long noncoding RNA loci, which have turned over especially rapidly,” wrote the investigators. “By contrast, protein coding sequence has been highly stable, with an estimated half-life of over a billion years (d1/2 = 2.1–5.0). From extrapolations we estimate that 8.2% (7.1–9.2%) of the human genome is presently subject to negative selection and thus is likely to be functional, while only 2.2% has maintained constraint in both human and mouse since these species diverged. These results reveal that the evolutionary history of the human genome has been highly dynamic, particularly for its noncoding yet biologically functional fraction.”

    “This is in large part a matter of different definitions of what is ‘functional’ DNA,” says joint senior author Chris Pointing, Ph.D., of the MRC Functional Genomics Unit at Oxford University. “We don’t think our figure is actually too different from what you would get looking at ENCODE’s bank of data using the same definition for functional DNA.”

    “But this isn’t just an academic argument about the nebulous word function. These definitions matter. When sequencing the genomes of patients, if our DNA was largely functional, we’d need to pay attention to every mutation. In contrast, with only 8% being functional, we have to work out the 8% of the mutations detected that might be important. From a medical point of view, this is essential to interpreting the role of human genetic variation in disease.”

    The researchers used a computational approach to compare the complete DNA sequences of various mammals, from mice, guinea pigs, and rabbits to dogs, horses, and humans. Gerton Lunter, Ph.D., from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford University, the other joint senior author, explained: “Throughout the evolution of these species from their common ancestors, mutations arise in the DNA and natural selection counteracts these changes to keep useful DNA sequences intact.”

    The rest of the human genome, the non-8.2%, is leftover evolutionary material, parts of the genome that have undergone losses or gains in the DNA code, often called “junk” DNA.

Acupuncture relieves hot flashes – so do these 6 other natural remedies

Acupuncture reduces the frequency and severity of hot flashes, according to a meta-analysis published in the journal Menopause.

Acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine that has been practiced for at least 2,500 years. It consists of placing thin needles into parts of the body known as “meridians.” which are determined by the specific health condition to be treated. In recent years, research by Western scientists has confirmed acupuncture’s benefits for numerous health conditions, particularly pain, and it is now covered by some private insurance plans.

hot flashes

All forms of acupuncture help

Hot flashes are one of the most common symptoms of menopause, reported by 85 percent of U.S. women. They can begin as early as three years before a woman’s last menstrual period, and continue for up to 15 years after. Although the severity of hot flashes varies from woman to woman, they are often extremely uncomfortable. Some women may suffer up to 20 hot flashes per day, and nighttime hot flashes can even cause chronic insomnia.

For the new study, the researchers compared the results of 12 separate randomized controlled trials on a total of 869 women who underwent natural menopause between the ages of 40 and 60. The participants had used various different forms of acupuncture, including not just the traditional form but also acupressure, ear acupuncture, laser acupuncture, electroacupuncture and sham acupuncture.

The researchers found that all forms of acupuncture tested reduced the frequency of hot flashes. Acupuncture also reduce the severity of hot flashes, and the effects were not dependent upon the number of treatments sessions or the duration of treatment. The effects lasted up to three months.

“More than anything, this review indicates that there is still much to be learned relative to the causes and treatments of menopausal hot flashes,” said Margery Gass, executive director of The North American Menopause Society. “The review suggests that acupuncture may be an effective alternative for reducing hot flashes, especially for those women seeking non-pharmacologic therapies.”

Other natural ways to relieve hot flashes

Acupuncture is just one of many non-pharmacological ways to help relieve menopause-related hot flashes.

One of the most effective things you can do is simply to reduce your levels of stress. Some doctors believe that the imbalances of progesterone and estrogen that occur during menopause may lead to increased stress, and vice versa. Reducing stress levels may help normalize hormonal levels. In addition, stress leads to increases in adrenaline and a corresponding rise in body temperature, even in non-menopausal women.

Another simple lifestyle change that you can make is to wear looser clothing, particularly around the groin and abdomen. This prevents the temperature of the sensitive area from rising excessively. Some manufacturers actually market loose, breezy “menopause clothing.”

Of course, your diet can also have a big impact on hot flashes. Spicy foods, meats and dairy products have all been shown to increase the frequency and severity of hot flashes, while certain foods such as soy (which contains estrogen compounds) have been shown to reduce them.

According to a study conducted by researchers from Tarbiat Modarres University in Tehran, Iran, a vitamin E supplement (and thus, presumably, foods rich in vitamin E such as leafy greens, tropical fruits and nuts) can reduce the severity of hot flashes. Many women have also found vitamin C or vitamin C-rich foods helpful for reducing hot flash frequency.

Finally, Black Cohosh is a popular European remedy for hot flashes and other menopause symptoms. Studies have shown that it works just as well as pharmaceutical estrogen, and may also prevent excessive sweating.

Sources for this article include:

Henoch – Schonlein Purpura From A-Z

What is Henoch-Schönlein purpura (HSP)?

Henoch-Schönlein purpura is a disease that causes small blood vessels in the body to become inflamed and leak. The primary symptom is a rash that looks like many small raised bruises. HSP can also affect the kidneys, digestive tract, and joints. HSP can occur any time in life, but it is most common in children between 2 and 6 years of age Most people recover from HSP completely, though kidney damage is the most likely long-term complication. In adults, HSP can lead to chronic kidney disease (CKD) and kidney failure, described as end-stage renal disease when treated with blood-filtering treatments called dialysis or a kidney transplant.

What are the causes of HSP?

Henoch-Schönlein purpura is caused by an abnormal immune system response in which the body’s immune system attacks the body’s own cells and organs. Usually, the immune system makes antibodies, or proteins, to protect the body from foreign substances such as bacteria or viruses. In HSP, these antibodies attack the blood vessels. The factors that cause this immune system response are not known. However, in 30 to 50 percent of cases, people have an upper respiratory tract infection, such as a cold, before getting HSP. HSP has also been associated with

  • infectious agents such as chickenpox, measles, hepatitis, and HIV viruses
  • medications
  • foods
  • insect bites
  • exposure to cold weather
  • trauma

What are the symptoms of HSP?

The symptoms of HSP include the following:

  • Rash. Leaking blood vessels in the skin cause a rash that looks like bruises or small red dots on the legs, arms, and buttocks. The rash may first look like hives and then change to look like bruises, and it may spread to the chest, back, and face. The rash does not disappear or turn pale when pressed.
  • Digestive tract problems. HSP can cause vomiting and abdominal pain, which can range from mild to severe. Blood may also appear in the stool, though severe bleeding is rare.
  • Arthritis. Pain and swelling can occur in the joints, usually in the knees and ankles and less frequently in the elbows and wrists.
  • Kidney involvement. Hematuria— blood in the urine—is a common sign that HSP has affected the kidneys. Proteinuria—large amounts of protein in the urine—or development of high blood pressure suggests more severe kidney problems.
  • Other symptoms. In some cases, boys with HSP develop swelling of the testicles. Symptoms affecting the central nervous system, such as seizures, and lungs, such as pneumonia, have been seen in rare cases.

What are the complications of HSP?

In children, the risk of kidney damage leading to long-term problems may be as high as 15 percent, but kidney failure affects only about 1 percent of children with HSP. Up to 40 percent of adults with HSP will have CKD or kidney failure within 15 years after diagnosis.

A rare complication of HSP is intussusception of the bowel, which includes the small and large intestines. With this condition, a section of the bowel folds into itself like a telescope, causing the bowel to become blocked.
Women with a history of HSP who become pregnant are at higher risk for high blood pressure and proteinuria during pregnancy.

Points to Remember

  • Henoch-Schönlein purpura (HSP) is a disease that causes small blood vessels in the body to become inflamed and leak.
  • HSP is caused by an abnormal immune system response in which the body’s immune system attacks the body’s own cells and organs. The factors that cause this immune system response are not known.
  • The symptoms of HSP include the following:
    • rash
    • digestive tract problems
    • arthritis
    • kidney involvement
  • In children, the risk of kidney damage leading to long-term problems may be as high as 15 percent, but kidney failure affects only about 1 percent of children with HSP. Up to 40 percent of adults with HSP will have CKD or kidney failure within 15 years after diagnosis.
  • A diagnosis of HSP is suspected when a person has the characteristic rash and one of the following:
    • abdominal pain
    • joint pain
    • antibody deposits on the skin
    • hematuria or proteinuria
  • Antibody deposits on the skin can confirm the diagnosis of HSP.
  • No specific treatment for HSP exists. The main goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms such as joint pain, abdominal pain, and swelling. People with kidney involvement may receive treatment aimed at preventing long-term kidney disease.


From the desk of Zedie.

FDA Approves Flonase Allergy Relief for Sale Over-the-Counter in the United States.

London UK & Parsippany, US – Thursday 24 July 2014, GlaxoSmithKline plc (LSE/NYSE: GSK) today announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Flonase Allergy Relief (fluticasone propionate 50 mcg spray), containing the No. 1 prescribed allergy treatment ingredient1, as an over-the-counter (OTC) treatment for temporary relief of the symptoms of hay fever or upper respiratory allergies.2

Flonase Allergy Relief is the first and only over-the-counter nasal spray indicated for relief of all nasal and eye-related allergy symptoms3,4 including runny nose, sneezing, itchy nose5-7, nasal congestion8-11 and itchy and watery eyes.12-15 Flonase Allergy Relief will be available at full prescription strength and to provide 24-hour non-drowsy allergy relief.

Roughly 50 million people in the United States suffer from nasal allergies16, and allergies take a toll on sufferers:

  • Nasal allergies can lead to fatigue, sleep disturbances, learning and attention problems and impaired function at work and/or school.17
  • In 2010, Americans with allergic rhinitis (AR) spent approximately $17.5 billion on health- related costs, lost more than 6 million work and school days and made more than 16 million visits to the doctor.18
  • 70 percent of sufferers treat their symptoms19; however, 50 percent report they are not completely satisfied with their current method of treatment.20

No other intra-nasal hay fever and allergy treatment has been proven more effective than Flonase Allergy Relief,1,8 a once-a-day nasal spray which helps relieve inflammation to provide 24-hour non-drowsy symptom relief.21,22 Fluticasone propionate, the active ingredient in Flonase® Allergy Relief, has helped more allergy sufferers than any other nasal spray and has a well-established safety profile with 30 million accumulated patient years since it was first approved as a prescription medicine in 1994.23

Colin Mackenzie, President of Consumer Healthcare North America at GSK, said, “With the significant number of allergy sufferers in the United States and a considerable number of those unsatisfied with their current treatments, we believe the wide availability of Flonase® Allergy Relief over-the-counter is great news for these individuals. GSK has a strong heritage—40 years— in discovering and developing respiratory treatments used by patients worldwide. We are proud of our track record of successful Rx-to-OTC switches which over the years have significantly improved access to important medicines for our consumers.”

“This approval will bring Flonase® Allergy Relief to consumers in a convenient way at the same dosage strength as found in prescription Flonase. For those with allergies, being able to find simple, effective relief over the counter may mean the difference between a day lost to allergies and a day enjoying their favorite activities,” said Dr. Vidhu Bansal-Dev, Vice President, Research and Development, GSK.

Flonase® Allergy Relief will be available over-the-counter in early 2015.

About Allergies

Symptoms of nasal allergies (allergic rhinitis) include sneezing, congestion, runny nose; itchy or sore throat, post-nasal drip and cough; and red, itchy watery eyes.24 Allergy symptoms can leave sufferers feeling irritable, breathless, sleepless and fatigued.25,26

About Flonase Allergy Relief

Flonase® Allergy Relief (fluticasone propionate 50 mcg spray) is an approved over-the-counter (OTC) treatment for hay fever symptoms including nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, itchy nose and itchy, watery eyes in the United States.

Fluticasone propionate has been available over the counter in the UK for over 10 years under the brand name Flixonase, and subsequently as Pirinase. The product is also available over the counter in 11 other markets including Australia and in China where it is the number one corticosteroid nasal spray.

GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare – is one of the world’s largest over-the-counter consumer healthcare products companies. Its more than 30 well-known brands include the leading smoking cessation products, Nicorette® and NicoDerm®CQ®, as well as many medicine cabinet staples — Aquafresh®, Sensodyne®, and TUMS® – which are trademarks owned by and/or licensed to GlaxoSmithKline Group of Companies.

GSK – one of the world’s leading research-based pharmaceutical and healthcare companies – is committed to improving the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer. For further information please visit

Cautionary statement regarding forward-looking statements

GSK cautions investors that any forward-looking statements or projections made by GSK, including those made in this announcement, are subject to risks and uncertainties that may cause actual results to differ materially from those projected. Such factors include, but are not limited to, those described under Item 3.D ‘Risk factors’ in the company’s Annual Report on Form 20-F for 2013.


1. Sur D, et al. Treatment of Allergic Rhinitis. American Family Physician. Volume 81, Number 12, June 15, 2010.

2. Statement of fact

3. Greiner AN, Hellings PW, Rotiroti, G, and Scadding, GK. Allergic Rhinitis. The Lancet. 2011; 378(9809): 2112-2122.

4. Wallace DV, Dykewicz MS, Bernstein DI, Blessing-Moore, J. et al. The Diagnosis and Management of Rhinitis: An Updated Practice Parameter. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 2008; 122(2 SUPPL.): S1-S84.

5. Nathan RA, Bronsky EA, Fireman P, Grossman J et al. Once Daily Fluticasone Propionate Aqueous Nasal Spray Is an Effective Treatment for Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis. Annals of Allergy. 1991; 67(3): 332-338.

6. Banov CH, Woehler TR, LaForce C F, Pearlman DS et al. Once Daily Intranasal Fluticasone Propionate Is Effective for Perennial Allergic Rhinitis. Annals of Allergy. 1994; 73(3): 240-246.

7. Dykewicz MS, Kaiser HB, Nathan RA, Goode-Sellers S et al. Fluticasone Propionate Aqueous Nasal Spray Improves Nasal Symptoms of Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis When Used As Needed (Prn). Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. 2003; 91(1): 44-48.

8. Scadding GK, Lund VJ, Jacques LA, and Richards DH. A Placebo-Controlled Study of Fluticasone Propionate Aqueous Nasal Spray and Beclomethasone Dipropionate in Perennial Rhinitis: Efficacy in Allergic and Non-Allergic Perennial Rhinitis. Clinical and Experimental Allergy. 1995; 25(8): 737-743.

9. Van As A, Bronsky EA., Dockhorn RJ, Grossman J et al. Once Daily Fluticasone Propionate Is As Effective for Perennial Allergic Rhinitis As Twice Daily Beclomethasone Diproprionate. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 1993; 91(6): 1146-1154.

10. GSK: Result Summary for Study FNM40184. Http://Www.Gsk-Clinicalstudyregister.Com/. 2005, 12-19.,/p>

11. Ratner PH, Howland III WC, Jacobs RL, Reed KD et al. Relief of Sinus Pain and Pressure With Fluticasone Propionate Aqueous Nasal Spray: A Placebo-Controlled Trial in Patients With Allergic Rhinitis. Allergy and Asthma Proceedings. 2002; 23(4): 259-263.

12. Haye R. and Gomez EG. A Multicentre Study to Assess Long-Term Use of Fluticasone Propionate Aqueous Nasal Spray in Comparison With Beclomethasone Dipropionate Aqueous Nasal Spray in the Treatment of Perennial Rhinitis. Rhinology. 1993; 31(4): 169-174.

13. Bernstein DI, Levy AL, Hampel FC, Baidoo CA et al. Treatment With Intranasal Fluticasone Propionate Significantly Improves Ocular Symptoms in Patients With Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis. Clinical and Experimental Allergy. 2004; 34(6): 952-957.

14. DeWester J, Philpot EE, Westlund RE, Cook CK et al. The Efficacy of Intranasal Fluticasone Propionate in the Relief of Ocular Symptoms Associated With Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis. Allergy and Asthma Proceedings. 2003; 24(5): 331-337.

15. GSK: Result Summary for Study FNM30034. Http://Www.Gsk-Clinicalstudyregister.Com/. 2005; 5-12.

16. American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology: Allergy facts. Available at Accessed July 2014.

17. American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology: Allergic diseases and cognitive impairment. Available at Accessed July 2014.

18. Academy of Allergy and Asthma in Primary Care: National impact of allergies. Available at Accessed July 2014.

19. Scadding G, Punekar Y. EAACI 2006, Abstract 742. (data on file).

20. New Survey Reveals Many Patients Want More from Their Allergy Medication. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Available at: Accessed April 24, 2014.

21. GlaxoSmithKline. Data on file. 2013

22. Oxymetazoline HCl-menthol nasal. WebMD website. Accessed May 20, 2014.

23. GlaxoSmithKline. Data on file. 2013

24. Available at: Accessed April 23, 2014.

25. Baiardini I, Braido F, Tarantini F, et al. ARIA-suggested drugs for allergic rhinitis: what impact on quality of life? A GA2LEN review. Allergy. 2008;63(6):660-9.

26. Reilly MC et al. Clin Drug Invest 1996; 11: 278–288. (data on file).

Source: GSK


Tylenol and Panadol Prove No Better Than Placebo at Helping Back Pain .

Acetaminophen isn’t curing your aches after all

Two-thirds of adults experience back pain sometime during their lives, and most take acetaminophen, found in brands like Tylenol and Panadol, for relief. But new research has found that those medicines are no more helpful than swallowing a sugar pill.

Paracetamol Reportedly Not Effective Drug For Back Pain

A study published this week in a medical journal called The Lancet split 1,643 people with acute low-back pain into three groups, each given two boxes. One group received two boxes of 500-miligram acetaminophen tablets, with instructions to use the second box “as needed’; the second group got a box of acetaminophen and an as-needed box of placebos; and the third group received two boxes of placebos. Researchers told the participants to take six tablets per day from the regular box and up to two from the as-needed box.

Over the course of three months, the researchers found no difference among the three groups. Subjects showed no variation in terms of pain, recovery time, function, disability, symptom change, sleep or quality of life. About 75% of the participants were happy with their results, whether or not they had received the placebos.

Lower Blood Pressure Not Necessarily BetterLower Blood Pressure Not Necessarily BetterClinical Trials Update

Although previous studies have found that heart disease risk progressively increases as blood pressure rises above 115/75 mm Hg, lowering systolic blood pressure below 120 mm Hg in adults with hypertension did not reduce the rate of myocardial infarction, coronary heart disease, heart failure, and ischemic stroke in an observational study (Rodriguez C et al. JAMA Intern Med. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.2482 [published online June 16, 2014]).

A total of 4480 participants were followed up for 21 years for development of a cardiovascular event. At baseline, nearly three-quarters of the cohort were taking antihypertensive medication, almost one-fifth had diabetes, two-thirds smoked or drank alcohol, and more than 25% had high cholesterol. Systolic blood pressure, measured at baseline and at 3-year intervals, was categorized as elevated (≥140 mm Hg), standard (120-139 mm Hg), and low (<120 mm Hg).

From the desk of Zedie.

Steam energy from the sun: New spongelike structure converts solar energy into steam — ScienceDaily

A new material structure developed at MIT generates steam by soaking up the sun. The structure — a layer of graphite flakes and an underlying carbon foam — is a porous, insulating material structure that floats on water. When sunlight hits the structure’s surface, it creates a hotspot in the graphite, drawing water up through the material’s pores, where it evaporates as steam. The brighter the light, the more steam is generated.

The new material is able to convert 85 percent of incoming solar energy into steam — a significant improvement over recent approaches to solar-powered steam generation. What’s more, the setup loses very little heat in the process, and can produce steam at relatively low solar intensity. This would mean that, if scaled up, the setup would likely not require complex, costly systems to highly concentrate sunlight.

Hadi Ghasemi, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, says the spongelike structure can be made from relatively inexpensive materials — a particular advantage for a variety of compact, steam-powered applications.

“Steam is important for desalination, hygiene systems, and sterilization,” says Ghasemi, who led the development of the structure. “Especially in remote areas where the sun is the only source of energy, if you can generate steam with solar energy, it would be very useful.”

Ghasemi and mechanical engineering department head Gang Chen, along with five others at MIT, report on the details of the new steam-generating structure in the journal Nature Communications.

Cutting the optical concentration

Today, solar-powered steam generation involves vast fields of mirrors or lenses that concentrate incoming sunlight, heating large volumes of liquid to high enough temperatures to produce steam. However, these complex systems can experience significant heat loss, leading to inefficient steam generation.

Recently, scientists have explored ways to improve the efficiency of solar-thermal harvesting by developing new solar receivers and by working with nanofluids. The latter approach involves mixing water with nanoparticles that heat up quickly when exposed to sunlight, vaporizing the surrounding water molecules as steam. But initiating this reaction requires very intense solar energy — about 1,000 times that of an average sunny day.

By contrast, the MIT approach generates steam at a solar intensity about 10 times that of a sunny day — the lowest optical concentration reported thus far. The implication, the researchers say, is that steam-generating applications can function with lower sunlight concentration and less-expensive tracking systems.

“This is a huge advantage in cost-reduction,” Ghasemi says. “That’s exciting for us because we’ve come up with a new approach to solar steam generation.”

From sun to steam

The approach itself is relatively simple: Since steam is generated at the surface of a liquid, Ghasemi looked for a material that could both efficiently absorb sunlight and generate steam at a liquid’s surface.

After trials with multiple materials, he settled on a thin, double-layered, disc-shaped structure. Its top layer is made from graphite that the researchers exfoliated by placing the material in a microwave. The effect, Chen says, is “just like popcorn”: The graphite bubbles up, forming a nest of flakes. The result is a highly porous material that can better absorb and retain solar energy.

The structure’s bottom layer is a carbon foam that contains pockets of air to keep the foam afloat and act as an insulator, preventing heat from escaping to the underlying liquid. The foam also contains very small pores that allow water to creep up through the structure via capillary action.

As sunlight hits the structure, it creates a hotspot in the graphite layer, generating a pressure gradient that draws water up through the carbon foam. As water seeps into the graphite layer, the heat concentrated in the graphite turns the water into steam. The structure works much like a sponge that, when placed in water on a hot, sunny day, can continuously absorb and evaporate liquid.

The researchers tested the structure by placing it in a chamber of water and exposing it to a solar simulator — a light source that simulates various intensities of solar radiation. They found they were able to convert 85 percent of solar energy into steam at a solar intensity 10 times that of a typical sunny day.

Ghasemi says the structure may be designed to be even more efficient, depending on the type of materials used.

“There can be different combinations of materials that can be used in these two layers that can lead to higher efficiencies at lower concentrations,” Ghasemi says. “There is still a lot of research that can be done on implementing this in larger systems.”

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The original article was written by Jennifer Chu. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Hadi Ghasemi, George Ni, Amy Marie Marconnet, James Loomis, Selcuk Yerci, Nenad Miljkovic, Gang Chen. Solar steam generation by heat localization. Nature Communications, 2014; 5 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms5449

Ebola outbreak: Time to test vaccines?

Ebola virus disease is sweeping across West Africa in the largest outbreak of the virus to date. Mortality rates are currently at 60% in a disease where up to 90% of infected people can die. But despite this lethality there remain no licensed treatments or vaccines available, nearly 40 years after the disease was first discovered.

The current Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa is thought to have infected 1,093<strong> </strong>people, and killed 660. Doctors Without Borders has described the epidemic as "out of control."

In March, Ebola was reported for the first time in Guinea, West Africa, in districts that border neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. This proximity meant that unlike previous outbreaks in other parts of Africa, the usually remote Ebola virus had the opportunity to cross borders. With residents migrating back and forth, it did just that. Four months later the outbreak has reached unprecedented scales, with 1,093 people infected and 660 deaths attributed to the virus.

“This is clearly an outbreak across international borders and it has not been handled properly,” explains David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), who was on-site at the first human Ebola outbreak in 1976.

Fighting Ebola through education

Inside an Ebola clinic in Guinea

Cultural practices aiding Ebola spread

He says the 24 known outbreaks of Ebola to date have shown that it should be easily controlled. “It’s not rocket science to control these outbreaks but instead basic epidemiology: infection control, hygiene practices, contact-tracing and safe burial practices,” says Heymann of the virus, which is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids. “Ebola is its own worst enemy, it’s too lethal and cannot sustain its own spread.”

But whilst it should be easily contained, this time something has gone wrong. The Guinean and Liberian capital cities were reached exposing many more to the virus and making those infected and their contacts harder to trace and isolate. The outbreak has been described as “out of control” by Doctors without Borders — so why is there no other approach?

The usual response in disease outbreaks is to use drugs to treat those infected and stop them transmitting to others, in combination with vaccines that protect those exposed and slow down, or halt, the spread of a virus through a population by enabling herd immunity. But there are no licensed drugs or vaccines for use against Ebola as its periodic, remote and usually small-scale nature means there has not been a big enough market, nor the ability to conduct large-scale trials in humans exposed to the disease.

The biology of the virus also makes it challenging to develop vaccines that create a strong enough immune response; the occurrence of multiple forms of the virus means an immune response is needed against all of them, and Ebola’s ability to replicate rapidly means it could equally rapidly evolve resistance to the vaccine.

It would be unethical not to acknowledge that potential new treatments could both save lives and reduce transmission in this and future outbreaks
Dr Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome Trust

Despite these challenges, there are vaccines being developed by a range of organizations, including the vaccine research center at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) — and some argue that an outbreak is the perfect time to trial them.

“It would be unethical not to acknowledge that potential new treatments could both save lives and reduce transmission in this and future outbreaks,” says Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of global charitable foundation the Wellcome Trust. Farrar has recently called for new approaches to be used in controlling the outbreak as no other opportunity will enable the further development of new treatments or vaccines.

“Any new intervention must have preclinical safety and efficacy data and Phase I safety data in healthy volunteers,” he says describing the slow progression of phases involved in pharmaceutical development, “But ultimately there can be no Phase II (vaccine efficacy) data in Ebola other than that acquired during an epidemic.”

Ebola scientist: ‘It’s spectacular’

Fighting Ebola in urban Africa

Ebola epidemic ‘out of control’

Peter Piot, director of the LSHTM, who co-discovered Ebola during its first outbreak, agrees with Farrar. “In general I believe that this continuing outbreak is a rare opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of experimental drugs,” he says, but stresses, “as long as all ethical standards are respected, and as long as it does not create more problems for controlling the outbreak, since medical experiments may decrease even more trust in health authorities and add to hostility to healthcare workers.”

Piot is referring to resistance from affected communities towards healthcare workers and health officials who enter their villages dressed in astronaut-like quarantine clothing and ask them to change their cultural practices such as burials, where the traditional cleaning of bodies puts those mourning at risk of transmission. Long-standing mistrust exists towards governments and ministries of health, leading to healthcare staff having rocks thrown at them, being threatened by machetes and facing general aggression, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson.

Tensions between those controlling the outbreak and those affected by it mean trialling vaccines in outbreak communities is not supported by WHO officials on the ground. “Using an experimental vaccine on human beings in the middle of an outbreak in this case would not be ethical, feasible, or wise,” according to the WHO. But there remain other avenues.

“The vaccines are likely safe and effective but aren’t used by public health teams and they won’t use them without adequate trials,” explains Dr Peter Walsh, from the University of Cambridge, who is developing vaccines for use in non-human primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas who are also victims of the virus. Walsh’s vaccines have shown a good immune response when trialled in chimpanzees and he suggests trialling human vaccines incrementally in healthcare workers rather than the mass population.

Healthcare workers are at the greatest risk and are hubs of infection who are likely to spread it to others
Dr Peter Walsh, University of Cambridge

“Healthcare workers are at the greatest risk and are hubs of infection who are likely to spread it to others,” he says. “The risk of dying from the vaccine is tiny compared to dying from Ebola and unlike communities, healthcare workers would understand the risks better and should be able to give informed consent.”

Read: Ebola doctor contracts the virus

This approach is supported by the NIAID, whose Ebola vaccine programs have progressed the furthest. “We are supporting a number of vaccines and they are all in a roughly similar position and getting ready for Phase I trials for safety,” says Dr Mike Kurilla, director of their Office of Biodefense Research Resources and Translational Research.

“If these make it through testing what we’re likely to see in future outbreaks is healthcare workers and outbreak investigators taking the vaccine under informed consent,” Kurilla explains. “Working with those at the highest risk will enable you to see if the vaccine has an impact.”

It is too late in this outbreak for vaccines to have enough of a preventative impact, but Ebola will emerge again in the future. If safety can be proven, the stockpiling of vaccines could improve the outcome of future outbreaks.

“Vaccines enable a preparative framework to be established rather than a reactive one,” explains Heymann. “But firstly it must be shown to be safe in humans.”

The ability to control future epidemics may depend on it.

Prototype display uses eyeglass prescription to allow for viewing devices without glasses.

An experimental display technology being developed by Microsoft, U.C. Berkeley and MIT aims to allow users with vision problems to clearly see device screens without the need for glasses. The technology is based on an algorithm developed by the team that accepts a person’s eyeglass prescription and uses it to alter the image projected by a smartphone, tablet, computer, etc. allowing for viewing without eyeglasses.

The display technology has two parts, the first involves using an algorithm run on the device to convert eyeglass information to a change in the way light is generated by individual pixels on a screen. The second part is an acrylic light filter laid over the display—it has tiny holes in it, each of which sit directly over a pixel. Together the altered pixels and filter produce an image on the display that mimics what a user would see on a normal screen if they were wearing the same prescription glasses.

The team has built a prototype of just such a system using an iPod Touch smartphone and cameras that are able to simulate . They note that while the system they’ve developed thus far works in principle, there is still a lot of work to do before it could be implemented as a commercial product. Currently, the prototype only works when viewed from a set distance, movement by the person viewing the display would result in distortion. The researchers envision an addition to the system that monitors the location of the head and eyes of the person doing the viewing, and adjusts the display in real-time. Another problem is that the only allows one person (the one whose prescription has been used) to view the device’s screen clearly. Thus, it wouldn’t really work for a television screen, at least as its configured now. The team believes they could make their technology work for multiple users when applied to higher pixel density devices.

In addition to allowing people to view their devices without their glasses, the researchers note that it might open up new possibilities for people with other vision problems—those that have trefoil and spherical aberrations, for example.