Human Trials to Test Ebola Vaccine Begin

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - The National Institute of Health (NIH) has received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin human testing of a new Ebola vaccine. This will be welcome news for the millions of Americans who now face the very real possibility of encountering someone with the disease or contracting it themselves.

Currently, 357 people are being monitored in New York for possible exposure to the deadly virus, and Texas which was the epicenter for the first mortality from Ebola in the U.S. has been declared Ebola free.

According to the Los Angeles Times, "Nine people have been treated in the U.S. for Ebola, including Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian who died last month. One doctor, Craig Spencer, remains hospitalized in stable condition in New York."

The vaccine is undergoing a "human safety trial," which means it will be tested on "healthy human subjects to evaluate the immune response, identify any side effects and determine the appropriate dosage." (Source: NewLink Genetics)

The vaccine was developed by the pharmaceutical company Glaxosmithkline and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and is one of several being developed worldwide.

Earlier in the outbreak, the drug Zmapp was administered to seven aid workers. Five of the workers survived, though it's unclear how large a role the drug played in their survival. Due to the emergency status of the outbreak, treatments are not being monitored and tested as thoroughly as they would be if there was more time. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has granted an $24.9 million 18-month contract with the manufacturer of Zmapp to expedite the development process.

VSV-EBOV is another experimental vaccine for the Ebola filovirus, developed by scientists at the Canadian National Microbiology Laboratory and is currently being tested in clinical trials in the U.S. at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md. This vaccination purportedly does not induce any fever or other symptoms of illness. There is also evidence that this type of vaccine which can be administered orally or intranassaly as nose-drops may have potential as a treatment for those already infected. (Source: Wikipedia)

In Canada, permission has been granted for the vaccine VSV EBOV to be sent to Africa, but problems such as refrigeration during transport and storage have come up. Many of the villages that are most in need are in remote areas with bad roads, infrequent electricity, and and treatment is further hindered by the citizens mistrust of new technologies. It's clear that while developing a vaccine is an enormous step forward in the Ebola fight, there are still many political and practical obstacles to overcome.

Follow Sarah on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Journalist: @SJJakubowski

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NASA Embarks on Asteroid Capture Mission

NASA Orion Space Craft Capturing Device, Photo Courtesy of NASA

NASA Orion Space Craft Capturing Device, Photo Courtesy of NASA

NASA is developing a mission that will "identify, capture, and redirect" a chosen asteroid and set it in orbit around the moon, according to their website.

Two designs are being considered: one is a large inflatable bag-like system, the other is a robotic arm that would snag a sizable chunk off of a larger asteroid.  Later this year, NASA will decide which approach to start with.

Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will visit the captured asteroid in 2020 and will return with samples in order to study the asteroid's composition.  As well as knowledge for knowledge's sake, this will provide NASA with an opportunity to test out equipment that can be used for a possible mars landing and will also prevent any asteroid/earth collisions, such as the one that killed the dinosaurs or the one featured in Michael Bay's movie Armageddon.

Asteroids are chunks of matter left over from the formation of the solar system, and studying them can lead to new insights on the formation of Earth. As well as looking back, asteroid study can also help us move forward. They can be literal stepping stones for space pioneers set to explore deeper into the solar system and also contain resources such as water that can be of use to astronauts traveling through space.

Since 2010, NASA has been keeping an eye on objects close to our planet via their Near Earth Object Human Space Flight Accessible Targets Study, and last year the Asteroid Initiative was launched which narrowed the focus specifically to asteroids. Since then, they've found about 1,217 Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs), ranging from the size of a car to larger ones the size of a small moon. Of those identified, six are seen as good candidates for the relocation project.

Follow Sarah on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Journalist: @SJJakubowski

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Heroin in the Hills

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Michael Ransom, Contributing EditorLast Modified: 07:45 p.m. DST, 11 June 2014

High School Photography, Photo by Nadja RootCINCINNATI, Ohio -- While drug abuse is a long-standing problem in the Appalachia region of the United States, the surge in heroin usage has only been recently documented and is a relatively new phenomena. Most officials attribute the influx of heroin into be rural black-market to be a response to the crackdown on the easy accessibility to prescription pain pills such as OxyContin and Percocet, which rule the drug markets in Appalachia a few years ago.

In any case, heroin usage in the region is increasing at an alarming rate. To address this shift in society, police officers, caretakers and addicts have recently started carrying Naloxone. Could this overdose antidote be the answer?

Naloxone was first introduced in the 1960s, but was often written off as a taboo idea. In the War on Drugs, often addiction is not treated as a disease, and efforts to help people with life-threatening dependencies are not seen as legitimate. Lawmakers often claim that with increased access to clean needles and overdose antidotes, people will be more likely to use the drugs in the first place.

That logic is flawed, as heroin and other serious opiate addictions are fueled by growing issues in society and the personal lives of addicts. I believe that no one in their right mind would start down the path of heroin abuse simply because free needles were offered at a clinic down the road.

Data has shown that Naloxone is very effective in saving lives that are on the brink of overdose. Just last week, two police officers were able to revive a woman who was overdosing on the Staten Island bridge in New York. Examples of the drug's effectiveness are seen nationwide. It is an important tool in the fight against heroin and morphine related deaths.

Al Jazeera is now reporting about an interesting dynamic within the small-town America plight of heroin abuse. Cincinnati, Ohio has long been a hub of powerful painkillers, previously pills and now heroin. Neighboring Kentucky is home to some of the highest opiate overdose rates in America. Both of these Appalachian states are passing laws to help those afflicted with drug dependency. Kentucky has increased pedestrian access to Naloxone and offered amnesty to those who need medical treatment after a heroin overdose. Ohio has gone one step further, allowing those people are not users themselves to carry Naloxone, in the hopes they can administer to loved ones in a time of need. Other people distribute the antidote to churches or other religious networks in order to address the growing problem.

Approximately five people die from opiate overdoses every day in Ohio. The problem in Kentucky is slightly worse, with an estimated three overdoses overdose fatalities each day. The problem spans from cities such as Dayton and Cincinnati, to some of the most rural areas in modern America including many communities in Kentucky.

In the last 20 years, approximately 10,000 people have been brought back to life using the prescription Naloxone. While Ohio's efforts seem to be helping many people living with drug dependency, the difference in laws between Ohio and Kentucky are also encouraging people to cross over the Ohio river in order to score drugs in Ohio. Kentucky will often hold alleged heroin users in jail for months before their trial, while Ohio does not. Therefore, the Ohio initiative has created a dynamic where nearby addicts flock to cities like Cincinnati.

There is hope for the growing problem of heroin trafficking and addiction. Project Lazarus, for instance, is a multi-faceted nonprofit organization that is challenging the growing virus. Using a multifaceted approach that reaches out to those people at high risk of overdose, overdose survivors, various community organizations, doctors, nurses, police, and policymakers, Project Lazarus educates communities and healthcare workers, and helps users practice damage control by giving them the antidotes and tools they need in order to live a healthier life. The issues of heroin dependency throughout the country are indisputable, and I believe that it is both cynical and defeatist to condemn those who are trying to help people in need.

Follow Michael on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Editor: @MAndrewRansom

Food Insecurity Affects Genetics of Newborns

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Michael Ransom, Contributing EditorLast Modified: 00:25 a.m. DST, 18 May 2014

"Providing information for mothers" Photo by: DFID--UK Department of International Development

WEST KIANG, Gambia -- The nature versus nurture debate is a compelling and enduring question. Are humans resigned to their instinct and biology, or can their experiences and influences negotiate basic psychology?

While the best answers to this dilemma are generally rooted in theory, a new study published in Nature Communications journal offers valuable quantitative insight. Headed by Paula Dominguez-Salas, a team of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine scientists working in The Gambia researched 2,040 women to examine the effect of pre-pregnancy diet on the health of their children.

According to the study, mothers can in a sense "nurture" the nature of their child, before their youngster is even conceived. Maternal nutrition at conception modulates DNA methylation of human metastable epialleles concludes that in the years and months leading up to conception, the maternal diet can alter both the health and DNA of the baby.

Operating from a Medical Research Council outpost in West Kiang, Gambia, researchers observed women in 34 villages throughout rural parts of the east African nation. Women participants were pre-menopausal, not expecting, and had committed to live in West Kiang for the trial period of July 2009 to July 2011.

Monthly pregnancy testing enabled scientists to place the women into three categories--a non-pregnant control group, women who became pregnant in the rainy season (July-September 2009), and mothers who conceived in the dry months (February-April 2010). Experts then compared hair and blood samples of the Gambian infants to better understand the relationship between foodstuffs and newborn health. 

Typically, the rainy season offers vegetables such as leafy greens, eggplant and pumpkin. These are extremely rich in vitamins and minerals, but may provide less substantial caloric benefits. In contrast, Gambians eat more hearty meals during their dry season, including yams, peas and maize. Generally fresh fruits and vegetables are limited during this time of year, and nutrition may be lacking as a result. 

As opposed to their original hypothesis, the team found that the rainy season created optimal conditions for a soon-to-be mother. Researchers denote this time of high precipitation as the "hungry" time of the year. Despite annual food insecurity during this period, vegetable offerings are concentrated with essential nutrients. 

Nutrient-rich food is seemingly the most important component of a mother's diet--even more significant than a higher-protein, higher-calorie analog. In scientific terms, the seasonal foods typical of July to September promoted DNA methylation during pregnancy, which impacts the expression of an individual's genetic code. Whether the methylation process thrived or not, the consequences of this molecular activity are lifelong. 

The findings imply another example of the way that inequality so-often turns cyclical, perpetuating through bloodlines. Not only do women in developing economies have more difficulty gaining prenatal care and pediatric support during the early months of pregnancy and the pivotal years of child development, but we now know that the resources available to the mother help to define the child's genetic makeup, long before pregnancy. This makes education and food security all the more necessary.

A child's very "nature" is indeed impacted by the "nurture" he or she receives in the form of macrominerals, and essential vitamins B and D. Scientists are using this study and others like it to identify the ideal diet for expectant mothers. Future studies will determine the most beneficial diet for the maximized health of the baby. Until then, newborns in The Gambia and other food-insecure regions will be fundamentally at-risk for micronutrient deficiency and the genetic repercussions.

Follow Michael on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Editor: @MAndrewRansom

Just a Beer, a Glass of Wine, What's the Harm?

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Michael Ransom, Contributing EditorLast Modified: 05:57 a.m. DST, 15 May 2014

"Bourbon Please" Photo by: Thomas Hawk

GENEVA, Switzerland -- The recently published Global status report on alcohol and health, 2014 is an extensive study conducted by the World Health Organization. The 378 page document is a well-coordinated look at the international consumption of alcohol and the implications for individuals and communities.

Their findings are sobering. Researchers conclude that in 2012, 3.3 million people died from alcohol or alcohol-related incidents, amounting to 5.9% of deaths during that year.

Alcohol remains a ubiquitous global indulgence and a pervasive threat to public health everywhere. WHO meticulously dissects worldwide data according to gender, age, socioeconomic status, and nationality to provide cultural context to the statistics. Among the notable trends--men imbibe more often and more recklessly than women, wealth and alcohol use are positively correlated, and the religion observed in a given area is a strong consumption predictor.

Of the 3.3 million reported dead in 2012, alcohol played a role in 7.6% of male fatalities, and contributed to only 4% of female deaths. Higher rates of temperance among women explain this twofold gap. In Africa, 40.2% of males aged 15 and over are at least occasional drinkers, compared to only 19.6% of females. Similarly, 7.4% of men and 3.3% of women consume alcohol in the WHO designated eastern Mediterranean region. The greatest disparity between the drinking habits of sisters and brothers occurs in southeast Asia region, where men imbibe at more than four times the rate of women.

When controlling all other variables, age factors heavily into international trends of alcohol use. While Canada, France, Germany and the United Kingdom are home to the highest incidence of binge drinking among young people age 15-19, these tendencies wear off as nationals enter adulthood. In fact, the overall populations of France and Germany practice among the "least risky" drinking habits in the world. Data that includes older generations in Canada and the United Kingdom reflect more acceptable alcohol usage as well. Russia is the only country where adolescents are more responsible drinkers than their seniors.

Another valuable lens in the report is the change in global alcohol consumption from 2006-2010. During that time, countries like China, Peru and India have seen significant increases in intoxication rates. At the same time, other nations have weaned off the habit. Among them are Venezuela, South Africa and Ethiopia. The eastern Mediterranean region has remained largely alcohol free as Islamic populations widely avoid the practice.

Responsible alcohol use is key for the wellbeing of individuals and aggregate communities. Serious outcomes such as fetal alcohol syndrome, cirrhosis of the liver and a host of cancers are possible in regular users. But data compiled by WHO also indicate several other concerns. Of all global suicides, 22% are connected to alcohol use. 16% of traffic fatalities involve inebriation. And over one out of every 7 drownings are alcohol-related. According to the WHO report, over half a million deaths in 2012 were due to unintentional injuries incurred while intoxicated.

The investigation is not wholly dismal. Authors praise various nations for their preventative efforts aimed at limiting harm due to alcohol. For instance, South Africa created a national committee to bring Ministers of Health, Correctional Services and Education together to address drunk-driving and rehabilitate individuals struggling with alcohol addiction. An initiative to limit crimes connected to alcohol and address the dangers of alcohol poisoning is underway in Belarus, which has already proven largely effective. And the report puts Mongolia in the limelight for their efforts to bring together the president, alcohol distributors and various organizations to create an "Alcohol Free Mongolia."

In addition to these measures, WHO advocates community mobilization to combat personal and community overindulgence. Moreover, the authors also argue for forceful solutions such as additional taxes, further governmental regulation and a crackdown on the ubiquitous production of unregulated, black market beverages. These ideas are as beneficial for the immune system of society as they are the organs of the individual. But all the while, responsible consumption begins with the well-educated and accountable individual.

Follow Michael on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Editor: @MAndrewRansom

Saudi Arabia Blames Camels for MERS Outbreak in US

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Allyson Cartwright, Contributing JournalistLast Modified: 20:24 p.m. DST, 14 May 2014

Riyadh Camel Market, Photo by Charles Roffey SAUDI ARABIA, Riyadh— A second case of an American infected with the MERS virus has been confirmed in Orlando, Florida. As MERS breaches the US border, death tolls of those infected with the virus in Saudi Arabia continue to rise. MERS originated in Saudi Arabia, where they claim that camels are the source of the pathogen that causes the respiratory virus.

There are near 500 diagnosed cases of MERS—short for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome— in Saudi Arabia alone. The Saudi health ministry reports that half of these MERS victims were diagnosed in April of this year. According to Ahram Online, the death toll of MERS victims in Saudi Arabia stands at 121 deaths, four of those within the last week.

The Saudi Ministry of Agriculture has issued a state public health through the official Saudi Press Agency. They urge people who are handling animals to “exercise caution and follow preventive measures”. This kind of warning has not come from Saudi officials since the MERS virus was discovered in 2012. Health experts conclude that the most dangerous animals to handle are camels, a vital livestock for the nomadic culture of Saudi Arabia.

The Ministry of Agriculture suggests when dealing with camels, "It is advisable to wear protective gloves, especially when dealing with births or sick or dead.” The National Turk says that the ministry has also warned that any camel milk should be boiled and camel meat thoroughly cooked before consumption. Also, gloves and face masks should be worn when handling animals or coming in contact with infected people. Despite the link between the MERS pathogen and camels, ABC News says that scientists do not know how the virus is spreading from the animal to people.

There is international concern as the virus is spreading globally. The hajj, the pilgrimage of Muslims to the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, will be occurring in this fall as well as during the Ramadan holy month of July. The large numbers of people, estimated at two to five million, will be travelling to Saudi Arabia from all over the world and putting themselves at risk of MERS infection. Some countries have even considered imposing travel restrictions to Saudi Arabia.

In Egypt, where their first case of MERS was diagnosed this April, there is deliberation on banning pilgrims from participating in the Hajj. Ahram Online reports that former Egyptian health minister and member of the special task force for the MERS virus, Mohammed Awad Tag El-Din, said if the “epidemic status of the virus and its development” gets worse then travel restrictions will be considered.

The World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a 5-day mission to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to evaluate the outbreak of the virus. WHO determined that they “recommend the application of any travel or trade restrictions, including for upcoming pilgrimage travel to Saudi Arabia.”

NBC News reports that 17 countries, mostly on the Arabian Peninsula, currently have cases of infected individuals. Countries that have reported MERS infections include Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, the United States and several countries in Europe. NBC News also say that with Dubai being the world’s busiest airport and the Middle East’s growing role in international trade, the MERS virus could eventually have economic implications that go beyond its dangers to health.

Follow Allyson on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Journalist: @allysoncwright

NASA's Lunar Orbiter Scheduled for Crash-Landing

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Around Easter, NASA's lunar orbiter is scheduled to complete its eight-month-long mission and crash on the moon. LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) finished both of its objectives -- to gather information on the moon's atmosphere and to shed light on the lunar glow seen in Apollo pictures -- in March. Since then, it's been doing a few victory laps to gather some bonus data.

LADEE spent most of its orbit 12.5 - 31 miles above the moon, but in the final stages has gradually lowered to only one to two miles above the surface. The hope is the craft can be navigated around the moon's craggy terrain until scheduled crash on April 21st. However, even the slightest error at this altitude can result in a premature demise.

LADEE is a combined effort of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, the Ames Research Center, the Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Marshall Space Flight Center. Its aim is to study the moon's environment in order to help understand it and other celestial bodies. The moon's thin atmosphere, known as the surface boundary exosphere, is common throughout the universe.  However, we don't know very much about it because Earth's own atmosphere is much denser.

LADEE is also studying moon dust in order to better understand the glow seen around pictures taken on Apollo missions. It's theorized that solar radiation electrically charges particles, which makes them rise and fall.  This would explain why photos of the moon show a hazy blur around it. A second theory says the glow is caused by ionized sodium gas atoms. The moon naturally releases sodium gas, and solar radiation accelerates the atoms away from the sun, which would form a tail of gas. LADEE will help clear up this mystery.

So far, LADEE has measured variations in Sodium gas and patterns of dust particles and observed Helium and Argon in a lunar context. In the last few weeks of the mission, NASA plans to add much more to this store of data. Next step: Interpreting the findings.

A lunar eclipse on Tuesday will complicate the already tricky final maneuvers of the craft. Earth will block sunlight from reaching the moon, resulting in cooling temperatures and an inability for the craft to rely on solar power. According to NASA, this would expose the craft to "conditions just on the edge of what it was designed to survive." However, experts remain in good spirits. After all, LADEE's gone above and beyond the call of duty by providing data that will shed light on current questions and expanding our pool of knowledge about Earth's closest neighbor. Regardless of what happens next, the mission's been a success.

In fact, NASA is even featuring an online contest requesting participants to guess the date and time of impact. You can participate in the online contest at this link: Guess the LADEE Impact.