SINGLE ANIMAL TO HUMAN TRANSMISSION EVENT RESPONSIBLE FOR 2014 EBOLA OUTBREAK

NIH-funded scientist uses latest genomic technology to make discovery

From the FMS Global News Desk of Jeanne Hambleton   Immediate Release: Friday, August 29, 2014

Scientists used advanced genomic sequencing technology to identify a single point of infection from an animal reservoir to a human in the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa. This research has also revealed the dynamics of how the Ebola virus has been transmitted from human to human, and traces how the genetic code of the virus is changing over time to adapt to human hosts. Pardis Sabeti, M.D., Ph.D, a 2009 National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator awardee and her team carried out the research.

“Dr. Sabeti’s research shows the power of using genomic analysis to track emerging viral outbreaks,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

“This ability produces valuable information that can help inform public health decisions and actions.”

The 2014 Ebola outbreak is now the largest outbreak in history, with current estimates of 2,473 infections and 1350 deaths since it began in late December 2013 according to the World Health Organization. This outbreak is also the first in West Africa and the first to affect urban areas. There are no approved drugs for Ebola virus disease, though prompt diagnosis and aggressive supportive care can improve survival. The disease is characterized by high fever, headache, body aches, intense weakness, stomach pain, and lack of appetite. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function and in some cases, internal and external bleeding. 

To better understand why this outbreak is larger than previous outbreaks, Dr. Sabeti, senior associate member of the Broad Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts, led an extensive analysis of the genetic makeup of Ebola samples from patients living in affected regions. Joined by an international team of scientists, Dr. Sabeti used advanced technology to analyze the genetics of the Ebola samples extremely rapidly and with high levels of accuracy. Using this technology, the researchers pinpointed a single late 2013 introduction from an unspecified animal reservoir into humans.

Their study showed that the strain responsible for the West African outbreak separated from a closely related strain found in Central Africa as early as 2004, indicating movement from Central to West Africa over the span of a decade. Studying RNA changes occurring over the span of the outbreak suggests that the first human infection of the outbreak was followed by exclusive human to human transmissions.

While analyzing the genetic makeup of the Ebola samples, Dr. Sabeti and colleagues discovered a number of mutations that arose as the outbreak spread. Some of these mutations, termed nonsynonymous mutations, alter the biological state of the virus and may allow it to continually and rapidly adapt to human immune defenses as the outbreak continues. This feature points to the need for improved methods that will allow for close monitoring of changes in the viral genome and the impact on vaccine targets. Such monitoring, called genomic surveillance, can provide important insights into the biology of how the Ebola virus spreads and evolves. It may also allow scientists to develop improved methods to detect infection, and point the way to new and improved drug and vaccines.

Dr. Sabeti’s New Innovator Award is designed to support exceptionally creative new investigators conducting innovative and high-impact research, as part of the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward program. The original focus of her research was on Lassa fever, a related but distinct hemorrhagic disease. When the Ebola outbreak began, she shifted her research focus to address this pressing challenge.

“Dr. Sabeti’s New Innovator Award provided flexibility to quickly adjust her research when the 2014 Ebola outbreak began,” said James M. Anderson M.D., Ph.D. director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives at NIH.

“This exemplifies how the High-Risk, High- Reward program allows researchers to tackle the most challenging and urgent scientific questions.”

The NIH Common Fund supports a series of exceptionally high impact research programs that are broadly relevant to health and disease. Common Fund programs are designed to overcome major research barriers and pursue emerging opportunities for the benefit of the biomedical research community at large. The research products of the Common Fund programs are expected to catalyze disease-specific research supported by the NIH Institutes and Centers. 

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases.

NIH…Turning Discovery Into Health®

MEN VIEWED MORE FAVORABLY THAN WOMEN WHEN SEEKING WORK-LIFE BALANCE

From FMS Global News Desk of Jeanne Hambleton Embargoed: 18-Aug-2014
Source : American Sociological Association (ASA) Citations American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, Aug-2014   By Sydney McKinley, ASA Public Information Office.

 

Newswise — SAN FRANCISCO — While some suggest that flexible work arrangements have the potential to reduce workplace inequality, a new study finds these arrangements may exacerbate discrimination based on parental status and gender.

Study author Christin Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at Furman University, analyzed the reactions both men and women received when making flexible work requests — meaning that they either asked to work from home or to work non-traditional hours.

Among those who made flexible work requests, men who asked to work from home two days a week in order to care for a child were significantly advantaged compared to women who made the same request. Munsch, who will present her research at the 109th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, also found that both men and women who made flexible work requests for childcare related reasons were advantaged compared to those who made the same requests for other reasons.

For her study, Munsch used a sample of 646 people who ranged in age from 18 to 65 and resided in the United States. Participants were shown a transcript and told it was an actual conversation between a human resources representative and an employee. The employee either requested a flexible work arrangement or did not. Among those who requested a flexible work arrangement, the employee either asked to come in early and leave early three days a week, or asked to work from home two days a week. Munsch also varied the gender of the employee and the reason for the request (involving childcare or not). After reading their transcript, participants were asked how likely they would be to grant the request and also to evaluate the employee on several measures, including how likeable, committed, dependable, and dedicated they found him or her.

Among those who read the scenario in which a man requested to work from home for childcare related reasons, 69.7 percent said they would be “likely” or “very likely” to approve the request, compared to 56.7 percent of those who read the scenario in which a woman made the request. Almost a quarter — 24.3 percent — found the man to be “extremely likeable,” compared to only 3 percent who found the woman to be “extremely likeable.” And, only 2.7 percent found the man “not at all” or “not very” committed, yet 15.5 percent found the woman “not at all” or “not very” committed.

“These results demonstrate how cultural notions of parenting influence perceptions of people who request flexible work,” Munsch said.

“Today, we think of women’s responsibilities as including paid labor and domestic obligations, but we still regard breadwinning as men’s primary responsibility and we feel grateful if men contribute in the realm of childcare or to other household tasks.”

Munsch fears that this will be an issue as marriages become more egalitarian.

“For example, in an arrangement where both partners contribute equally at home and in terms of paid labor — men, but not women, would reap workplace advantages,” she said. “In this situation, a move towards gender equality at home would perpetuate gender inequality in the workplace.”

Regarding the findings on those who made flexible work requests for childcare versus non-childcare related reasons, Munsch said that “both men and women who requested to work from home or to work atypical hours to take care of a child were viewed as more respectable, likable, committed, and worthy of a promotion, and their requests were more supported than those who requested flexible work for reasons unrelated to childcare.”

For example, among those who read a scenario in which an employee asked to work from home two days a week for childcare related reasons, 63.5 percent of the respondents said they would be “likely” or “very likely” to grant the request. However, only 40.7 percent of those who read a scenario in which an employee asked to work from home two days a week to reduce his or her commute time and carbon footprint said they would be “likely” or “very likely” to grant the request.

According to Munsch, these findings surprised her.

“I was surprised because so much of the research talks about how parents — and mothers in particular — are discriminated against compared to their childless counterparts,” she said. “When it comes to flexible work, it seems that engaging in childcare is seen as a more legitimate reason than other, non-childcare related reasons, like training for an endurance event or wanting to reduce your carbon footprint.”

While feminists and work-family scholars have championed flexible work options as a way to promote gender equality and as a remedy for work-family conflict, Munsch said that her research “shows that we should be hesitant in assuming this is effective.”

Still, Munsch does not believe employers should eliminate flexible work arrangements, but rather they should be cognizant of their biases and the ways in which they “differentially assess people who use these policies, so as not to perpetuate inequality.”

About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.

The paper, “Flexible Work, Flexible Penalties: The Effect of Gender, Childcare, and Type of Request on the Flexibility Bias,” was presented on Monday, Aug. 18 in San Francisco at the American Sociological Association’s 109th Annual Meeting.

 

ROBOT FOLDS ITSELF UP AND WALKS AWAY

Demonstrates the potential for sophisticated machines that build themselves

From The FMS Global News Desk of Jeanne Hambleton   Wyss Institute

August 7, 2014 (BOSTON) — A team of engineers used little more than paper and Shrinky dinks™ — the classic children’s toy that shrinks when heated — to build a robot that assembles itself into a complex shape in four minutes flat, and crawls away without any human intervention. The advance, described in Science, demonstrates the potential to quickly and cheaply build sophisticated machines that interact with the environment, and to automate much of the design and assembly process. The method draws inspiration from self-assembly in nature, such as the way linear sequences of amino acids fold into complex proteins with sophisticated functions.

“Getting a robot to assemble itself autonomously and actually perform a function has been a milestone we have been chasing for many years,” said senior author Rob Wood, Ph.D., a Core Faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). The team included engineers and computer scientists from the Wyss Institute, SEAS, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In addition to expanding the scope of ways one can manufacture robots in general, the advance harbors potential for rather exotic applications as well.

“Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there—they could take images, collect data, and more,” said lead author Sam Felton, who is pursuing his Ph.D. at SEAS.

The robots are the culmination of a series of advances made by the team over the last few years, including development of a printed robotic inchworm — which still required human involvement while folding itself — and a self-folding lamp that had to be turned on by a person after it self-assembled.

The new robot is the first that builds itself and performs a function without human intervention.

“Here we created a full electromechanical system that was embedded into one flat sheet,” Felton said. The team used computer design tools to inform the optimal design and fold pattern — and after about 40 prototypes, Felton honed in on the one that could fold itself up and walk away. He fabricated the sheet using a solid ink printer, a laser machine, and his hands.

In this video Wyss Institute Core Faculty member Rob Wood, who is also the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and SEAS Ph.D. student Sam Felton discuss their landmark achievement in robotics — getting a robot to assemble itself and walk away autonomously — as well as their vision for the future of robots that can be manufactured easily and inexpensively.

The refined design only took about two hours to assemble using a method that relies upon the power of origami, the ancient Japanese art whereby a single sheet of paper can be folded into complex structures. The origami-inspired approach enabled the team to avoid the traditional “nuts and bolts” approach to assembling complex machines.

They started with a flat sheet, to which they added two motors, two batteries, and a microcontroller —which acts like the robot’s “brain,” Felton said.

The sheet was a composite of paper and Shrinky dinks™, which is also called polystyrene — and a single flexible circuit board in the middle. It also included hinges that were programmed to fold at specific angles. Each hinge contained embedded circuits that produce heat on command from the microcontroller. The heat triggers the composite to self-fold in a series of steps.

When the hinges cool after about four minutes, the polystyrene hardens — making the robot stiff — and the microncontroller then signals the robot to crawl away at a speed of about one-tenth of a mile per hour. The entire event consumed about the same amount of energy in one AA alkaline battery.

The current robot operates on a timer, waiting about ten seconds after the batteries are installed to begin folding. However, “we could easily modify this such that the folding is triggered by an environmental sensor, such as temperature or pressure,” Felton said.

One of the primary challenges in the process, Felton said, was the propensity for the robots to burn up before they folded up properly; each one runs on about ten times the current that typically runs through a light bulb.

“There is a great deal that we can improve based on this foundational step,” said Felton, who plans to experiment with different kinds of shape memory polymers — materials like the polystyrene — that are stronger and require less heat to activate, for example.

The method is complementary to 3D printing, which also holds great promise for quickly and inexpensively manufacturing robotic components but struggles to integrate the electrical components and in this specific case, would have taken a lot longer to produce the functional prototype.

The long-term dream of this work, Wood said, is to have a facility that everyone could access around the clock in their communities when they might have a need for robotic assistance, from everyday house and porch sweeping to detecting gas leaks in the neighborhood. “You would be able to come in, describe what you need in fairly basic terms, and come back an hour later to get your robotic helper,” Wood said. All told, each robot cost about $100, but only $20 for the body without the motors, batteries, and microcontroller.

“This achievement by Rob and his team changes the way we think about manufacturing in that the machine fabricates itself,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D. “The days of big, rigid, robots that sit in place and carry out the same repetitive task day in and out are fading fast.”

This work was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Research at Harvard University, and the Department of Defense, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship.

About the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University
The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University (http://wyss.harvard.edu) uses Nature’s design principles to develop bioinspired materials and devices that will transform medicine and create a more sustainable world. Working as an alliance among all of Harvard’s Schools, and in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Boston University, Tufts University, and Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and the University of Zurich, the Institute crosses disciplinary and institutional barriers to engage in high-risk research that leads to transformative technological breakthroughs. By emulating Nature’s principles for self-organizing and self-regulating, Wyss researchers are developing innovative new engineering solutions for healthcare, energy, architecture, robotics, and manufacturing. These technologies are translated into commercial products and therapies through collaborations with clinical investigators, corporate alliances, and new start-ups.

About the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
The Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) serves as the connector and integrator of Harvard’s teaching and research efforts in engineering, applied sciences, and technology. Through collaboration with researchers from all parts of Harvard, other universities, and corporate and foundational partners, we bring discovery and innovation directly to bear on improving human life and society.

Wow – what next? Back tomorrow. Jeanne

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About jeanne hambleton

Journalist-wordsmith, former reporter, columnist, film critic, editor, Town Clerk and then fibromite and eventer with 5 conferences done and dusted. Interested in all health and well being issues, passionate about research to find a cure and cause for fibromyalgia. Member LinkedIn. Worked for 4 years with FMA UK as Regional Coordinator for SW and SE,and Chair for FMS SAS the Sussex and Surrey FM umbrella charity and Chair Folly Pogs Fibromyalgia Research UK - finding funding for our "cause for a cure" and President and co ordinator of National FM Conferences. Just finished last national annual Fibromyalgia Conference Weekend. This was another success with speakers from the States . Next year's conference in Chichester Park Hotel, West Sussex, will be April 24/27 2015 and bookings are coming in from those who raved about the event every year. I am very busy but happy to produce articles for publication. News Editor of FMS Global News on line but a bit behind due to conference. A workaholic beyond redemption! The future - who knows? Open to offers with payment. Versatile and looking for a regular paid column - you call the tune and I will play the pipes.
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