Friday, September 30, 2005 

Study reinforces link between Chlamydia and schizophrenia

Could mental illness be infectious?

Now comes the surprising finding by a German research team that chlamydia may be linked with schizophrenia. Dr Rudolf Wank, an immunologist at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, has reported recently that schizophrenic patients are much more likely to be infected with one or more variants of chlamydia. More importantly, he found that targeting the bug with specially treated immune cells improved the patients’ symptoms dramatically.

About 40 per cent of the 75 patients he studied were infected with chlamydia, compared with 6 per cent in the control group (ie, people who did not have schizophrenia). As Dr Wank explains: “Chlamydia comes in three varieties, two of which can cause a flu-like respiratory infection or pneumonia, while the third causes the sexually transmitted disease. The patients were much more likely to have one or more of these.” The team also found that the risk of developing schizophrenia rose dramatically for patients with a certain group of immune system genes.

I don't think many of us who've been paying attention to the infectious/"chronic" disease link for many years would say these findings are "surprising," but they do indeed confirm what other preliminary studies have shown: that infectious agents can play a role in a variety of non-acute diseases, including mental disease (schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, PANDAS), cancer, heart disease, obesity, and autoimmune diseases, among others. (See also this blog entry.) One thing that hasn't often been seen, as mentioned, is reduction in the illness due to antibiotic treatment. In many cases, by the time symptoms of the "chronic" disease emerge, it's too late for antibiotic use--too much damage has been done, and in many cases, the host's immune system has already cleared the organism. It will be interesting to see if this study can be repeated in a larger population.


Guillermo Gonzalez at UNI

What a disappointing lecture. Not that I was expecting rocket science, but it left me shaking my head even more than I expected. Blogged the whole thing over on Panda's thumb: here.

He's heading to Truman State in a few weeks. ISU will follow up with a lecture on teaching evolution on October 27th.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005 

Genetic risk for multiple sclerosis tracked to MHC genes

There's long been a debate regarding the effect of genetics versus environment in the development of multiple sclerosis, a debilitating autoimmune disease which strikes young adults (and women, disproportionately). Many of the genetic studies have focused on a group of genes which make up the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). The proteins these genes encode were first discovered as a result of using skin grafts on burned soldiers during World War II. The patients rejected the grafts, and using a mouse model, it was determined that this rejection was due to an immune response. This response was tracked to one region of the genome, later termed the major histocompatibility complex. The main role of these molecules is in antigen recognition by T cells (see figure below).

A current report suggests that indeed, the MHC genes are the only ones which play an essential role in multiple sclerosis.

"Our results confirm the strong role of the major histocompatibility complex genes in MS, and provides a definitive statement that no other region of the genome harbors a gene with a similar overall influence on MS genetics," said Jonathan Haines, Ph.D, of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who presented on behalf of the International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium.

So, though this information isn't exactly new, it's encouraging to have a definitive area to focus on. Many people have suggested a link between autoimmune disease and certain types of infection, though no definitive agents have been identified to date. Research into other autoimmune diseases may also benefit from these types of linkage analyses.


Janeway C, et al. Immunobiology. The Immune System in Health and Disease. 2001. Garland Publishing: New York, New York. (Image taken from this text).


Hurricane victims face new microbial threat: mold

As if it wasn't bad enough already...

Mold now forms an interior version of kudzu in the soggy South, posing health dangers that will make many homes tear-downs and will force schools and hospitals to do expensive repairs.

It’s a problem that any homeowner who has ever had a flooded basement or a leaky roof has faced. But the magnitude of this problem leaves many storm victims prey to unscrupulous or incompetent remediators. Home test kits for mold, for example, are worthless, experts say.

Don’t expect help from insurance companies, either. Most policies were revised in the last decade to exclude mold damage because of “sick building” lawsuits alleging illnesses. Although mold’s danger to those with asthma or allergies is real, there’s little or no science behind other claims, and a lot of hype.

Even for those whose homes were spared the worst of the devastation, the mold problem might be too great for them to be habitable again. As anyone who's dealt with mold clean-up knows, it's a huge pain in the ass, and if you miss just a little bit it can come back with a vengeance. At this point, it's looking like it would be more cost-effective to just nuke the city and get on with it. :(

Tuesday, September 27, 2005 

Tragic story puts a face on HIV denial

This is Eliza Jane Scovill. She was the child of wealthy parents, living a good life in California. Eliza died this past spring at the age of 3 from AIDS-related pneumonia.

You may wonder how in the world this can happen in America. Don't we have tests for HIV? Don't our doctors recommend treatment to keep pregnant mothers from passing the virus onto their children? Don't they discourage breast-feeding in order to further lower the risk of transmission?

Indeed, they do. But Eliza's mother is Christine Maggiore, author of What if everything you thought you knew about AIDS was wrong? She is an HIV denier, following the lead of Peter Duesberg and Phillip Johnson. She put her child in grave danger based on her "so-called AIDS," as she calls it, and now that child is dead. And worse, she's influencing other mothers to do the exact same thing she did.

I wish more than anything that plugging one's ears and ignoring an illness would make it go away. I wish that I could believe that many of these chronic illnesses are due to drugs, and diet, having a bad attitude, or the myriad other things that "alternative" healers would have you believe are at the root of many diseases. But the evidence points elsewhere, and as a scientist, I follow where the evidence leads. So do thousands of others like me, and they've come to the same conclusion: AIDS is due to infection with the human immunodeficiency virus.

Now, some people (like the previously mentioned Phillip Johnson) try to beat strawmen when asking where this "evidence" is. Why doesn't AIDS develop in many people who are exposed? How can one virus cause so many different illnesses? I discussed some of these issues that are present with all infectious diseases in this post over at Panda's thumb. In short, it's not something that's unique to HIV, and it's not at all surprising to the scientific community that there's not a 100% correlation to infection with HIV and development of AIDS. Yet, because of the other issues that have gone along with AIDS since its discovery (sex, drugs, and disease), it seems that more people have glommed onto the idea of AIDS as a "lifestyle" disease than they have for other diseases. (Remember, 150 years ago tuberculosis was also a "lifestyle" disease). It's tragic enough when this science denial causes their own death, but it's even more horrible when it causes the death of a second innocent victim. Even more frightening, Maggiore and her husband still have not learned their lesson:

Since Eliza Jane's death, Maggiore and her husband have kept a relatively low profile, her friends said. But word is slowly reaching HIV dissidents around the country.

Though shaken, most of them say they continue to support Maggiore and her contention that HIV is not the cause of AIDS.

For her part, Maggiore said that her daughter's death has taken a toll on her health; she's had trouble eating, sleeping and, this past summer, simply breathing. She's treated her symptoms with Chinese herbs, walked five miles a day and practiced yoga, and is now feeling better, she said.

She went to a sympathetic doctor, she said. "If I had gone to a regular AIDS doctor and told them I was HIV-positive, I have no doubt they would have blamed it on that."

And the worst part...

She struggled most with the whys.

"Why our child — so appreciated, so held, so carefully nurtured — and not one ignored, abused or abandoned?" she wrote. "How come what we offered was not enough to keep her here when children with far less — impatient distracted parents, a small apartment on a busy street, extended day care, Oscar Mayer Lunchables — will happily stay?"

Yes, my kids go to day care. Yes, I'm often distracted, and sometimes impatient. I don't do Lunchables, but we dine on PB&J more nights than is probably recommended. But what I make sure my kids do have is healthcare that's backed by sound science, rather than pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. It's a true shame that Maggiore hasn't learned that lesson--especially since poor Charlie's health hangs in the balance.


Emergence of canine influenza

Canine flu strikes in Westchester county, NY.

A NEW strain of influenza that began infecting dogs in Florida early last year has recently struck hard in the Westchester area, forcing the temporary closure of two kennels after more than 100 dogs being boarded there became ill, veterinary officials say.

Gracelane Kennels in Ossining underwent decontamination after a viral illness infected dogs. Eddie Loga hoses down a run at the kennel. Although prepared for the less-virulent kennel cough, boarding sites have been blindsided by the new virus.

At least one of the dogs has since died. The two sites, Gracelane Kennels in Ossining and a branch of Best Friends Pet Care in Chestnut Ridge in Rockland County, have undergone decontamination procedures.

The symptoms mimic those of bordetella, a less virulent illness commonly known as kennel cough, for which all dogs must be vaccinated before they are boarded. Health officials fear that this similarity has contributed to underreporting of the spread of the new illness, both locally and nationally.

There is not yet any vaccine for the new virus, which is believed to have jumped from horses to dogs last year.

This once again shows how badly we need good surveillance for zoonotic diseases. Here we have an influenza strain that's already jumped species, is likely causing more illness than is being attributed to it, and has been shown to be potentially lethal in the new population. I've no doubt that similar events are happening all the time, and we're missing them--and therefore, missing chances to intervene before they become established in the new population. But I guess, why pay for public health funding, when there's wars to be fought?

Edited to add: Previous article.

The virus, which scientists say mutated from an influenza strain that affects horses, has killed racing greyhounds in seven states and has been found in shelters and pet shops in many places, including the New York suburbs, though the extent of its spread is unknown.

How many dogs die from the virus is unclear, but scientists said the fatality rate is more than 1 percent and could be as high as 10 percent among puppies and older dogs.

They say it's killed greyhounds in Iowa as well...first I've heard of it. Which again underscores that folks in veterinary public health need to be in better touch with those of us in human public health as well.


Iowa update

The Des Moines Register has an editorial by Avalos and an article on the UNI talk in today's issue. The Iowa State Daily also has a piece.

Monday, September 26, 2005 

Record-breaking lecture planned

Pitt professor plans record-breaking lecture via Web cast

University of Pittsburgh epidemiology professor Ronald LaPorte plans to transform a traditional lecture this Thursday at the Graduate School of Public Health into what could be the largest in history.

And he's using the Internet to do it.

He and other organizers are producing a live Web cast of a 4 p.m. Thursday lecture in Parran Hall by Dr. Eric Noji, chief of the Epidemiology, Surveillance and Emergency Response Branch at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"[This will] break away the walls of the auditorium so not only 300 people can see him, but potentially thousands, even a million," he said.

Noji is presenting this year's John C. Cutler Global Health Lecture. Titled "Public Health Consequences of Disasters: Challenges for Public Health Action," it will be accessible to educators, students, researchers and others interested in disasters to about 150 countries.

The Web cast will be available free through networks operated by such groups as the United Nations and 150 colleges and universities.

You can see it live at

Very cool. Given the interest in this topic due to Hurricane Katrina and Rita, I have no doubt it should shatter records. Hopefully some of those watching will be the folks who screwed up in the aftermath of these recent hurricanes, as well as other policy-makers who are completely unfamiliar with the research behind disaster relief.


AAUP weighs in on Intelligent Design

Story in today's Iowa State Daily. Of course, Gonzalez is less than thrilled.

An ISU professor and supporter of Intelligent Design has expressed his disappointment with a national organization after it said the theory is not scientific.

"I'm certainly very disappointed with the AAUP," said Guillermo Gonzalez, assistant professor of physics and astronomy and co-author of the book "The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery."

"Especially when this is supposed to be an organization that encourages scientific exploration and thought."

Though the AAUP's statement dates back to June, this just recently became an issue over at ISU due to the fact that AAUP secretary sent a letter to the Daily:

In a letter sent to the Daily by the American Association of University Professors, Roger Bowen, general secretary for the organization, applauded ISU faculty members who signed a letter in August rejecting Intelligent Design as a credible scientific theory and also expressed concern that the debate over Intelligent Design may pose a threat to academic freedom in the near future. In the AAUP's letter, dated Sept. 15, Bowen congratulated ISU faculty for their "willingness to take a public stand on an issue of vital importance to the scientific community, to the academy and to society as a whole."

Have a similar post up on Panda's thumb as well.

And people think Iowa is boring...

Sunday, September 25, 2005 

Crunch time in Dover

The trial in Dover starts Monday.

A federal judge in Pennsylvania will hear arguments Monday in a lawsuit that both sides say could set the fundamental ground rules for how American students are taught the origins of life for years to come.

At issue is an alternative to the standard theory of evolution called “intelligent design.” Proponents argue that the structure of life on Earth is too complex to have evolved through natural selection, challenging a core principle of the biological theory launched by Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” in 1859. Instead, contend adherents of intelligent design, life is probably the result of intervention by an intelligent agent.

Panda's Thumb has a plethora of information including links to more information on the background and timeline of events, and will be actively following and reporting on the trial as it takes place.

Saturday, September 24, 2005 

More evolution news from Iowa

The faculty from University of Northern Iowa are now getting into the game.

A bit of background: Iowa State University is the employer of one Guillermo Gonzalez, a fellow of The Discovery Institute, an intelligent design think tank. He's also the author of "The Privileged Planet," a book essentially claiming that God designed the earth for human life (see a review of it by ISU's Hector Avalos here). Worried that people might get the impression that ISU is an "intelligent design" university, Avalos and others drafted a petition denouncing ID, and circulated it among ISU faculty (see Panda's thumb threads for more information, here and here.)

Now, the University of Northern Iowa branch of Sigma Xi has invited Gonzalez to speak in order to "stimulate debate." This prompted the faculty at UNI to "join our colleagues from Iowa State University in rejecting all attempts to represent Intelligent Design as a scientific endeavor." (The original ISU petition and signatories can be viewed here.) Note that they gathered over 100 signatures from UNI faculty in just 24 hours' time. I plan to attend Gonzalez's UNI talk, so I'll write more after Wednesday. Those involved at UNI also expect some press on the situation this coming week. Additionally, the Iowa Academy of Science has put together a statement on teaching evolution, which I'm told will also be published (I assume, shortly) in the Des Moines Register.

Here at the University of Iowa, the U of Iowa freethinkers are planning a panel discussion on ID (I believe some time next month), and I expect we'll join the other Iowa universities and circulate a similar petition here. Stay tuned...lots going on here!

Friday, September 23, 2005 

National Academy of Science 2005 Communication Awards announced

2005 NAS awards announced. Top book prize: John Barry's The Great Influenza, about the 1918 pandemic. (A great book, I agree, but I still prefer Crosby's America's Forgotten Pandemic.) Carl Zimmer also received finalist honors for several of his essays, including blog entries. Three cheers for great science writing!

Thursday, September 22, 2005 

New reports of community-acquired MRSA

Today's New England Journal of Medicine reports 3 cases of community-acquired Staphylococcus aureus in children; two of the three cases were due to methicillin-resistant staph aureus, or MRSA (NEJM 353:1245-1251, 2005). The children were 15 months, 9 months, and 17 months of age; sadly, all cases were fatal.

Interestingly, the NEJM paper showed that all 3 isolates obtained from the patients were clonal by pulse-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE, in which restriction enzymes are used to cut the DNA, which is then run out on an agarose gel for analysis of band pattern) and multilocus sequence typing (MLST, which compares the sequences of several conserved housekeeping genes). The only difference by PFGE was the presence of the mec gene into the MRSA isolates. Therefore, this may be a commonly found population which has recently acquired methicillin resistance, and may be spreading through the population in Chicago.

Unfortunately, community-acquired MRSA (CA-MRSA) is looking like it's something that won't go away anytime soon. MRSA infections are still most commonly acquired nosocomially (that is, in a hospital setting), but several reports have shown they are occurring in the community at an increasing pace. Al-Shawwa et al. reported 6 cases of otitis media (ear infections) due to CA-MRSA. It's also become a player (pardon the pun) among athletes, with reports of infections in groups ranging from a high school wrestling team in Vermont to members of the St. Louis Rams football team. Don't expect to see this diminsh anytime soon; and be sure to wipe off that gym equipment before and after using it!



Welcome to Aetiology. I'm Tara; I'm already a blogger on The Panda's Thumb, but since that blog has a fairly narrow scope (science, and mainly issues pertaining to evolution), I thought I'd get a space of my own to do a bit more rambling about other topics. My main interest is infectious disease, so I anticipate using this site to discuss issues in microbiology that aren't quite interesting enough for Panda's thumb readers (or to keep from inundating them with infectious disease posts! I recognize that I find that kind of thing a bit more interesting than most, erm, normal people. ) Hope you find something interesting here; thanks for dropping by!

About me

  • I'm Tara C. Smith
  • From Iowa, United States
  • I'm a mom and a scientist, your basic stressed-out, wanna-have-it-all-and-do-it-all Gen Xer. Recently transplanted from Ohio to Iowa, I've spent most of my life in the midwest (with 4 years of college spent out east in "soda" territory). My main interest, and the subject of my research, is infectious disease: how does the microbe cause illness? What makes one strain nasty, and another "avirulent?" Are the latter really not causing any disease, or could some of those be possible for the development of chronic disease years down the road? Additionally, I've spent a lot of time discussing the value of teaching evolution, and educating others about "intelligent design" and other forms of creationism. My interest in history of science and medicine is also useful as a way to tie all of the above interests together. [Disclaimer: the views here are solely my own, and do not represent my employer, my spouse, that guy who's always sitting by the fountain when I come into work, or anyone else with whom I may be remotely affiliated.]
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