Author: Gina Alvino

PLOS Pathogens heads back to Brazil this month for Keystone Symposium on the Innate Immune Response in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease!

We are pleased to announce that PLOS Pathogens will be attending the Keystone Symposium on the Innate Immune Response in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease at Universidade Ferederal de Ouro Preto (UFOP) in lovely, historical Ouro Preto, MG, Brazil from May 10 -15.

Image credit: Cid Costa Neto

Igreja São Francisco de Paula, Ouro Preto. Image Credit: Cid Costa Neto, Wikimedia Commons

Ricardo Gazzineli, one of PLOS Pathogen’s Associate Editors in the parasitology section, is one of the co-organizers of this meeting.  The meeting will focus on, “the interface of the innate immune system and the microbial pathogens and the role that it plays in protective versus deleterious immune responses and, thereby, of disease outcome.” Scientists from a number of fields will be represented at this symposium, including but not limited to: cell biology, tropical medicine, biochemistry, parasitology, and biotechnology. To learn even more about the symposium, view a video here.

We are happy to be returning to Brazil for this symposium and are very much looking forward to connecting with members of our Editorial Board who will be presenting at the conference as well as meeting numerous attendees and sharing information about the journal. If you are attending this meeting and would like to meet PLOS Pathogens staff, contact us at plospathogens@plos.org or via twitter @PLOSPathogens.

During the symposium, Cory Mann and I (Gina Alvino) will be easy to spot in our PLOS t-shirts and/or buttons, so please do not hesitate to come over and speak with us about the journal! We will be well-supplied with a plethora of informational materials about PLOS Pathogens (in both English and Portuguese) and general PLOS information, as well. As with all other conferences PLOS attends, we will have with us an array of PLOS memorabilia including magnets, buttons and of course, pens!

Throughout the symposium we will be sharing highlights on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook so that our friends and followers can stay updated. The twitter hashtag for this symposium is #KSimmunity.

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Hope for New Treatments Against a New Viral Disease of European Farm Animals

The Schmallenberg Virus (SBV) has been a recent hot topic for virologists, veterinarians and farmers alike, because it is a new virus that has spread rapidly across Europe and hurt the health and survival of cud-chewing farm animals, also known as ruminants.  In the fall of 2011 scientists analyzed blood samples collected from dairy cattle on a farm near Schmallenberg, Germany who had been showing symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, reduced milk production and decreased appetite. Using a method called deep sequencing, the researchers were able to successfully identify the new virus gene sequence and subsequently named it after the town where the dairy farm and infected cattle were located. Since that time the SBV has been found on sheep, cattle and goat farms in more than 10 European countries ranging from those in the north such as Finland all the way to the west in Spain.

SBV belongs to a family of viruses called RNA viruses. The genetic material in these viruses is made from RNA instead of DNA.  Like other related viruses, SBV is transmitted to an animal from the bite of an insect. Insects that transmit disease agents are known as vectors. Common insect vectors include mosquitos, ticks and midges. A recent study  has suggested that European biting midges, which are tiny flies, are the likely vectors of SBV. Even though animals are infected with the virus from the bites of insects, there is no danger of humans becoming infected with the SBV when exposed to an infected animal.

In addition to the disease symptoms exhibited by adult animals, SBV can take a serious toll on unborn and newborn animals, when pregnant females are infected. The virus has been shown to cause significant birth defects in cattle, sheep and goats. These birth defects affect many parts of the animals’ bodies, including the limbs, spine and even the brain. In these cases, the animals are often too weak or sickly to survive. In addition, the virus causes stillbirths and abortions. These deaths have been observed most frequently in lambs, thus affecting European sheep farmers who rely on the animals for meat and wool production. Numerous recent news stories from the United Kingdom have reported on the significant losses of lambs, which have had a detrimental effect on farmers’ incomes.  In one such news story a representative from a UK sheep farming industry group said that 20-50% of lambs were lost from 60 flocks. Losses to this extent cost farmers thousands of pounds. For instance, one farmer estimated that a loss of 324 sheep (300 of which were lambs) had cost him approximately £22,000 (or almost $35,000).

Jom

Image credit: Jom

Although a vaccine is not yet available to protect the animals against SBV, many virologists in Europe are ramping up their research efforts to better understand the virus to develop a vaccine a vaccine against it. PLOS Pathogens recently published a study a research group at the University of Glasgow in Scotland who successfully grew the virus in the laboratory.  This provides important experimental tools to understand how SBV causes disease. Specifically, they manipulated molecules to create the virus from scratch in a form that can be easily introduced and replicated in cultured cells in the laboratory. In addition, the scientists were able to demonstrate how fast the virus grows in the brain and spinal cord of aborted lambs and calves. They showed that SBV prefers to infect nerve cells, also known as neurons, which explains why the virus damages the brain of infected animals. This also results in muscular defects such as abnormally flexed legs often seen in stillborn animals when virus is transmitted from an SBV-infected mother to the calves or lambs during pregnancy. This innovative research now makes it possible to manipulate the virus in order to develop and test novel vaccines against this newly emerged disease.

Varela M, Schnettler E, Caporale M, Murgia C, Barry G, et al. (2013) Schmallenberg Virus Pathogenesis, Tropism and Interaction with the Innate Immune System of the Host. PLoS Pathog 9(1): e1003133. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1003133

Varela M, Schnettler E, Caporale M, Murgia C, Barry G, et al. (2013) Schmallenberg Virus Pathogenesis, Tropism and Interaction with the Innate Immune System of the Host. PLoS Pathog 9(1): e1003133. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1003133

The Schmallenberg virus has created serious problems for farmers across Europe, whose lamb populations are significantly declining as a result.  The need for an effective new vaccine against SBV is urgent, but now that the virus can be isolated, grown and studied in the laboratory, there is genuine hope that future research will lead to greater scientific understanding about the virus. This will, in turn, allow for the possibility to develop treatments to curb the spread of this new disease.

Gina Alvino, Ph.D. is a Senior Publications Assistant at PLOS Pathogens. She acknowledges PLOS Pathogens Editor in Chief, Kasturi Haldar and Deputy Editor, Grant McFadden for their editorial input on this post.

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Extensive Media Coverage of PLOS Pathogens’ recent HIV paper

Gina Alvino, PhD,  Senior Publications Assistant at PLOS Pathogens, reflects on recent media interest in HIV ‘functional cure’ studies.

     The March 14th PLOS Pathogens paper entitled, “Post-Treatment HIV-1 Controllers with a Long-Term Virological Remission after the Interruption of Early Initiated Antiretroviral Therapy ANRS VISCONTI Study” received an extensive amount of global media coverage in the hours and days following its publication. The article, co-authored by Asier Sáez-Cirión and colleagues at France’s Pasteur Institute, reports on 14 HIV-infected adults from the 70-participant Viro-Immunological Sustained CONtrol after Treatment Interruption (VISCONTI) study, who have been characterized as post-treatment controllers (PTCs). These PTCs exhibited viral remission for several years following the discontinuation of combination antiretroviral therapy (cART), which is used to treat HIV infection. For these 14 individuals the virus was not completely eradicated, but still present at levels below detection in standard assays, which is considered to be a functional cure by scientists. These 14 individuals began cART within weeks of being diagnosed with primary HIV (“primary HIV”). The authors state that, “[T]hese findings argue in favor of early cART initiation and open up new therapeutic perspectives for HIV-1-infected patients.”

Immediately following the publication of this paper news stories from all over the world began to report on the findings. The coverage included articles in the New York Times, the Economist, BBC, CBC, The Guardian (Nigeria), Al Jazeera.  Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook were also abuzz with activity in response to the findings (as an example – here is one tweet: “At first a baby was “cured” of HIV, now 14 adults follow. Seems really early ART helps some individuals..”). It is important to emphasize that the PLOS Pathogens report does not represent a cure for AIDS, but it indicates that early initiation of cART treatment following HIV infection can sometimes be much more effective than waiting for disease symptoms to manifest.

The media frenzy was partially due to the fact that the paper was (coincidentally) published just days after an announcement was made at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections about a 2-year-old in Mississippi who was allegedly functionally cured of HIV.  Many of the news articles, blog posts and tweets linked the Sáez-Cirión et al. paper with this announcement, which intensified the hype around the issue.

Clearly, the media frenzy had the benefit of increasing public interest – within a few days of publication, the research article had received over 19,000 views, significantly more than any other PLOS Pathogens publication has received in that span of time. It brought attention to potentially important advances in HIV research, and some articles accurately reflected the study in an easily digestible way for the non-expert reader. At the same time, while media-generated hype is nothing new, it can create problems when the public becomes confused and misled – especially in regards to serious infectious diseases such as HIV.  In response to the hype that resulted from these two separate studies, a number of blog posts and analyses were written (though some focused solely on the announcement about the two-year-old in Mississippi), which serve as cautionary information for readers. While the issue of media hype is not likely to die down anytime soon, we encourage interested readers to access the original research.

Gina Alvino acknowledges Grant McFadden, Deputy Editor and Tom Hope, Section Editor of PLOS Pathogens for their editorial comments. The author and editors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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