On January 19, 2020, an initial reported outbreak of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus manifested in the city of Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province of China. Unfortunately, upwards of ten thousand cases of infection have been reported, with the death toll eclipsing 200, as of January 30, 2020.
As fears began to swell regarding the potential global implications of the virus, on the afternoon of January 30, the director of the World Health Organization officially declared a global emergency for the spreading Coronavirus, which had now begun leaking through national borders, worldwide, as travelers returned from the Chinese outbreak epicenter.
Although the first case of Coronavirus infection in the United States occurred on January 21 in the state of Washington, around 12:30pm ET on January 30, the CDC reported the first United States case of human-to-human transmission of the virus in Chicago, Illinois. As of that day, there have been 6 confirmed cases of infection and 92 unconfirmed, as they await the results of their screening.
Although, there is heightened anxiety at this time surrounding the potential implications of the spreading virus, there is no need for panic. Rather, take the precautions that you would normally apply to protecting yourself from the spread of germs, and keep your immune system in optimum shape by eating nutritious foods, while limiting (the best you can) exposure to stressful environmental conditions.
For more details about this first case of transmission and the most recent commentary on the virus, click the CDC link below. Stay tuned for the latest information from Science Lion Media, as we monitor the progression of the global Coronavirus outbreak.
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When our bodies mount an immunological (meaning: related to immunology; ‘-ical’ = ‘related to’) response, that event is called ‘inflammation’. This occurs when our immune system encounters any of the entities listed above, and it also occurs when we experience an injury such as scraping our knee, tearing a ligament or breaking a bone. We also have to consider that how our human bodies respond during inflammation differs from other living organisms.
For instance, there are some strains of virus (influenza comes to mind) that predominately impact birds but not humans, and vice-versa; refer to the figure below. In a minority of cases, a bird-specific virus can undergo a change (aka a mutation) and be able to transmit from bird to human.
In certain contexts, some organisms and animals can display very similar immune system responses as humans (i.e. pigs, fruit flies, mice, non-human primates), and this explains why they may be used in research studies relevant to humans. However, the subtle differences in those responses can sometimes lead to very different outcomes when the results of those studies are applied to human circumstances, in the form of treatments and therapies.
When a disease-causing agent enters the body and encounters that body’s immune system, that is considered a ‘host-pathogen’ interaction. Animal and insect models of all types can be used in research to demonstrate these interactions within humans, including mouse, non-human primate, and fruit fly models.
The most ideal outcome of these treatments and therapies is a ‘cure’, which helps bring the body back to its normal state (we scientists call this state, ‘homeostasis’) and we feel good again, because we have gotten rid of the problem!
So no, science is not always straight forward, and yes, it can get complicated.
Now that we have a better understanding of what immunology is, let’s talk about what our immune system is composed of.
Think of the immune system as a unique, internal military of our bodies, with different divisions and subgroups represented by different types of immune cells. All of which, are conducting different lines of work to protect us and keep us healthy.
There are two over-arching branches of the immune system, which include: 1. The innate immune system 2. The adaptive immune system
Our hair and skin are the greatest protection against the forces outside of our bodies, but when those layers are compromised and something gets in, the innate immune system serves as our first line of defense. This is generally comprised of the following cell types:
The primary role of this innate immunity group is to recognize and neutralize whatever is causing the inflammation, as quickly as possible, while minimizing any possible collateral damage to the immediate environment. Some cells seek-out the actual agent that stimulated the immune response in order to engulf and digest it, while other cells aim to remove or destroy host cells (any cell that originates from our body) that are infected or compromised in any way.
The other branch of the immune system is the adaptive immune system, which behaves as the special armed forces of the immune system. The innate immune system functions to attempt to clear whatever is causing inflammation the best it can, but when clearance can’t be achieved it aims to contain the inflammatory agent until the adaptive immune system kicks in.
How long does this process of sending in the cavalry take? Oh, maybe 4-7 days. That’s why when you get a cold or a flu, you typically feel the scratchy throat and stuffy head symptoms for about a week – sometimes longer.
Hold up. I know what you want to ask. “Why so long, though?” Well, to keep it simple I’ll provide you with the following analogy:
Imagine you walk into a store to find a formal suit or dress for an event. You have suits/dresses that are pre-made and ready to buy off the rack. The fit may not be exact, but it’s close enough to get the job done, and the task can be completed in a day or so. This would be your innate immune system.
However, if you want to fully customize your suit/dress, you have to pick out the material you want and have measurements taken so that it hugs your contours and fits you like a glove. This process takes time and between picking materials, taking measurements, and having the tailor work his/her magic in putting the garment together, this can take months!
But, the end result is a high quality garment, made to precisely fit you in that moment in time. This would be your adaptive immune system.
So, with that story in mind, you may now better understand why there are some pathogens that require a little extra time for our defenses to develop a precision attack plan, specifically for that entity. Unfortunately, there are some complex pathogens that our bodies are unable to clear on their own, and we require the assistance of supplementary treatments to clear them, or to at least stop them from causing further harm.
As you can see, a lot goes on in our bodies when it comes to the function of our immune system, and it is always on watch 24/7. Our bodies are so good at what they do, you never even notice they’re working, most of the time. This only scratches the surface of immunology but as you will see in future parts of this series, there are countless details considered to protect our health. Most of the time you never know it’s happening, except, for example, when an infection takes hold in the form of a bad cold and you experience symptoms.
I hope you walked away with a better understanding of immunology (imm-yuh-nah-lah-gee 😉 ) after reading this, and check back for the next part of our immunology series. There is so much more to learn!
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Science Lion recently had the pleasure of having a PhD candidate, Raven Hardy, drop by to speak with us about her upcoming event for sickle cell advocacy. To preface awareness of this event and the cause behind it, she also shed some light on her journey through graduate school, in addition to how she became interested in sickle cell research.
Raven is a neuroscience PhD candidate at Emory University, working in the lab of Dr. Hyacinth, which is part of the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. In particular, she looks at the profile of inflammation in sickle cell patients, and the impact that it may have on brain structure, and subsequently on cognitive deficiencies (dysfunction of the brain) and cell proliferation (cell division and growth).
Upon making these assessments, she observes how these effects track with age, from childhood to adulthood; these alterations of the brain appear to be culprits of the resulting strokes and neurological disorders that may manifest in sickle cell patients.
All of which are done in a mouse model that is humanized or genetically altered to mimic the expression of relevant human proteins in the brain. The purpose of humanizing in this case is to resemble as closely as possible what happens in a human brain, without having to use one.
But how did Raven get here, in the first place, to do this kind of research? Many times, people draw inspiration and direction in life from tragedy, and this case stands true for Raven, as well. During her senior year of undergraduate studies, Raven’s sister, who herself lived with sickle cell, passed away at the age of 26 from brain death, extending from complications due to a preceding sickle cell crisis. After managing to overcome that great loss and obtaining her degree, she began her unconventional path through graduate school.
Although she had a passion to learn more about sickle cell and its effects from a research standpoint, she initially entered a PhD program at Scripps Research Institute studying brain-related microorganisms called prions. She later transferred to Emory University, switching gears in her research, and focusing on brain imaging as it related to nutrition in predominately African American communities. However, her journey did not stop there.
“Unfortunately, I had to leave that lab”, Raven reflected with a chuckle. “And as it would so have, I was able to join a lab that did sickle cell research, so I actually think that my path took a complete circle to get me right where I wanted to be.”
That lab would be her current research home with Dr. Hyacinth. “But I’m happy to be where I am”, she remarked with a smile on her face. “I feel as though when you’re meant to be somewhere you’ll end up there, and I think this is where I’m meant to be.”
So what is sickle cell disease? Sickle cell is a genetic blood disorder that can manifest itself if two parents carry the sickle cell trait. Within the context of the disease, red blood cells possess a “sickle-like” shape, inducing pain and inflammation – a response of immune cells – which can result in a “crisis event.” Unfortunately, these crisis events can lead to adverse outcomes such as stroke, or even death.
Bridging the conventional knowledge of the disease with what she is researching now in the neuroscience realm, Raven informs us that individuals with sickle cell can have high levels of behavioral and cognitive deficits. “So as far as blood is concerned, morbidities may stem from high levels of inflammation that induce the crisis (event) , and this inflammatory crisis may occur in the brain leading to different forms of brain damage.”
In addition to the amazing and intriguing research that she conducts in the lab, Raven really has a passion to advocate for closing the racial disparity gaps within health care, and of course in raising awareness of sickle cell disease, especially as it disproportionately impacts people of African descent.
“There is a lot of research and support for children with sickle cell, but when you reach adulthood and require a continuum of care, unfortunately it is not to the level where it should be”, Raven contends. “So, definitely there should be more physicians that are able to treat and manage individuals with sickle cell in crisis, and in general health.”
Speaking of her endeavors in public health advocacy, this leads us to her current task of raising awareness of sickle cell in her local community by holding a “sickle cell gala” on her birthday, in honor of her late sister. The Dec. 6 art gala event includes a classy dinner at the Miller-Ward Alumni House in Atlanta, GA, and offers a social opportunity to network in a nurturing environment with other participating individuals. All proceeds toward the event will go to sickle cell causes.
If you would like to follow in Science Lion Media’s footsteps and donate to the cause of furthering sickle cell research and bettering the relevant public health policy, please visit her GoFundMe page. This way, she can allocate the funds to the most reputable organizations for maximum community impact. If you are interested in attending her art gala event, please reach out to Raven at firstname.lastname@example.org for any remaining seats.
Be sure to check back soon for the uploaded, full podcast interview with Raven as the Science Lion Media team chopped it up with this outstanding young lady, who has personified perseverance in the face of an unconventional road to her PhD.
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