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The risks of tinkering with dangerous pathogens

The risks of tinkering with dangerous pathogens

In an effort to understand new and rare infectious diseases, researchers often use recombinant DNA technology to create novel strains in the lab. In 2012, researchers did just that, creating strains of the H5N1 influenza virus that were transmissible between mammals, setting off a debate about the ethics of creating viruses that were potentially more dangerous than those that occurred naturally.

Earlier this year, in July, a group called the Cambridge Working Group convened to continue discussing these questions. David Relman, MD, a biosecurity expert at Stanford, is a member of the group and spoke to Paul Costello about the risks and benefits of lab-created pathogens. Highlights of their conversation are in a piece in the most recent issue of Inside Stanford Medicine, where Relman notes:

My greatest fear is that someone will create a highly contagious and highly pathogenic infectious agent that does not currently exist in nature, publish its genetic blueprint, allow it to escape the laboratory by accident, or else enable a malevolent person or persons to synthesize the agent with the intention of releasing it in a deliberate manner. Although these may be unlikely scenarios, they could have catastrophic consequences, which is why I and others feel that we need to sensitize everyone to these possibilities and decide how to manage these risks ahead of time. I want to be clear: I am not opposed to laboratory work on dangerous pathogens, especially if they are known to exist in nature. Rather, I am opposed to high-risk experiments and, in particular, those that seek to create novel, dangerous pathogens that cannot be justified by well-founded expectations of near-term, critical benefits for public health — benefits that clearly outweigh the risks, and benefits that cannot be achieved through other means.

But not all researchers advocate the same level of caution. A few weeks after the Cambridge Working Group formed, another group called Scientists for Science to advocate in favor of using recombinant versions of pathogens in order to understand them better. Relman says that the two groups are probably not as far apart as they appear. He says he fully supports studying disease-causing bacteria, but:

The place where we may disagree is on whether we are willing to acknowledge that there may be experiments — probably few and far between — that perhaps ought not to be undertaken because of an unusual degree of risk. Just because a scientist can think up an experiment doesn’t mean it should be performed.

Relman elaborates on these topics in the 1:2:1 podcast with Costello above.

Previously:  How-to manual for making bioweapons found on captured Islamic State computer, Microbial mushroom cloud: How real is the threat of bioterrorism? (Very) and Stanford bioterrorism expert comments on new review of anthrax case

In the News, Mental Health, Public Safety

Will a steel net under the Golden Gate Bridge deter would-be jumpers?

Will a steel net under the Golden Gate Bridge deter would-be jumpers?

Golden Gate BridgeThe Bridge Rail Foundation estimates that there have been almost 1,600 suicide deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge since it opened in 1937, and the San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge Board of Directors recently approved $76 million in funding to install a 20-foot-wide steel net to deter suicide jumpers.

In a piece on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Stanford’s Keith Humphreys, PhD, examined the effectiveness of bridge barriers on suicide prevention, writing that “a half century of experience and evidence supports an optimistic view.” He highlights several small studies before writing:

Because suicide by jumping is a mercifully rare event, most studies of barriers have small samples, making findings unstable and the difference between the Toronto study and other research unsurprising. Statistically, a more reliable result would come from combining the findings across all prior studies.  When Dr. Jane Pirkis of the University of Melbourne led such a “meta-analysis” in 2013, she and her colleagues found that on average barriers reduce suicides by 86% at the barrier site, and that jumping suicides at other nearby sites rise by 44%.  The net benefit is a 28% decrease in suicides by jumping per year.

Dr. Pirkis’ findings bode well for the success of San Francisco’s suicide barrier, which is expected to be installed in about three years.  Even if the net has only the average level of effectiveness, it would have saved a life a month in 2013 alone, as well as sparing the families of the deceased years of mental and emotional anguish.

Jen Baxter is a freelance writer and photographer. After spending eight years working for Kaiser Permanente Health plan she took a self-imposed sabbatical to travel around South East Asia and become a blogger. She enjoys writing about nutrition, meditation, and mental health, and finding personal stories that inspire people to take responsibility for their own well-being. Her website and blog can be found at www.jenbaxter.com.

Previously: Stanford researcher examines link between sleep troubles and suicide in older adults and Stanford’s Keith Humphreys on Golden Gate Bridge suicide prevention: Get the nets

Applied Biotechnology, In the News, Infectious Disease, Microbiology, Public Safety

How-to manual for making bioweapons found on captured Islamic State computer

Black DeathLast week I came across an article, in the usually somewhat staid magazine Foreign Policy, with this subhead:

Buried in a Dell computer captured in Syria are lessons for making bubonic plague bombs and missives on using weapons of mass destruction.

That got my attention. Just months ago, I’d written my own article on bioterrorism for our newspaper, Inside Stanford Medicine. So I was aware that, packaged properly, contagious one-celled pathogens can wipe out as many people as a hydrogen bomb, or more. Not only are bioweapons inexpensive (they’ve been dubbed “the poor man’s nuke”), but the raw materials that go into them – unlike those used for creating nuclear weapons – are all around us. That very ubiquity, were a bioweapon to be deployed, could make fingering the perp tough.

The focal personality in my ISM article, Stanford emergency-medicine doctor and bioterrorism expert Milana Trounce, MD, had already convinced me that producing bioweapons on the cheap – while certainly no slam-dunk – was also not farfetched. “What used to require hundreds of scientists and big labs can now be accomplished in a garage with a few experts and a relatively small amount of funding, using the know-how freely available on the internet,” she’d said.

This passage in the Foreign Policy article rendered that statement scarily apropos:

The information on the laptop makes clear that its owner is a Tunisian national named Muhammed S. who joined ISIS [which now calls itself "Islamic State"] in Syria and who studied chemistry and physics at two universities in Tunisia’s northeast. Even more disturbing is how he planned to use that education: The ISIS laptop contains a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals.

I sent Trounce a link to the Foreign Policy article. “There’s a big difference between simply having an infectious disease agent and weaponizing it,” she responded in an email. “However, it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to get experts to help with the weaponization process. The terrorist has a picked a good infectious agent for creating a bioweapon. Plague is designated as a Category A agent along with anthrax, smallpox, tularemia, botulinum, and viral hemorrhagic fevers. The agents on the Category A list pose the highest risk to national security, because they: 1) can be easily disseminated or transmitted from person to person; 2) result in high mortality rates and have the potential for major public-health impact; 3) might cause public panic and social disruption; and 4) require special action for public-health preparedness.”

Islamic State’s interest in weaponizing bubonic plague should be taken seriously. Here’s one reason why (from my ISM article):

In 1347, the Tatars catapulted the bodies of bubonic-plague victims over the defensive walls of the Crimean Black Sea port city now called Feodosia, then a gateway to the Silk Road trade route. That effort apparently succeeded a bit too well. Some of the city’s residents escaped in sailing ships that, alas, were infested with rats. The rats carried fleas. The fleas carried Yersinia pestis, the bacterial pathogen responsible for bubonic plague. The escapees docked in various Italian ports, from which the disease spread northward over the next three years. Thus ensued the Black Death, a scourge that wiped out nearly a third of western Europe’s population.

Previously: Microbial mushroom cloud: How real is the threat of bioterrorism? (Very) and Stanford bioterrorism expert comments on new review of anthrax case
Photo by Les Haines

Public Health, Public Safety, Research, Technology

Mining Twitter to identify cases of foodborne illness

During this year’s Big Data in Biomedicine conference at Stanford, Taha Kass-Hout, MD, chief health informatics officer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, talked about the potential of social media to monitor food safety saying, “You are what you eat, and in this world, you are what you tweet.” Taking this concept into a real-world setting, officials at the Chicago Department of Public Health developed an algorithm to mine Chicago-based tweets for sentiments of food illnesses and, as a result, were able to investigate incidents of food poisoning that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. According to a recent article in Popular Science:

… in a recent project, the city of Chicago sought food poisoning cases by setting an algorithm to mine Chicago-area tweets for complaints. The Chicago Department of Public Health’s Twitter bot, plus a new online complaint form, helped the department identify 133 restaurants for inspections over a 10-month period. Twenty-one of those restaurants failed inspection and 33 passed with “critical or serious” violations. Not a bad haul.

Chicago is now working with the health departments of Boston and New York to see if its system could work in those cities, according to a report city researchers published with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, Twitter isn’t the only social media platform cities are looking to mine for public health violations. In May, New York City’s department of health reported on using an algorithm to spot Yelp reviews that point to food poisoning cases. New York’s Yelp project led the city to discover three restaurants that had multiple violations. All the Yelp cases the city inspected had otherwise gone unreported, New York officials wrote in their own CDC report.

The Chicago bot was pretty simple, as Twitter-reading computer programs go. It searched for tweets geo-located to Chicago and its surrounding suburbs that mentioned “food poisoning.” Human staff then read the tweets to determine if they were relevant. (Sounds fun.) Staff marked tweets as relevant or not relevant, to give the algorithm data to better learn what tweets to pull in the future. Then staff members responded to relevant tweets themselves.

Previously: Videos of Big Data in Biomedicine keynotes and panel discussions now available online, Discussing access and transparency of big data in government and Improving methods for tracking flu trends using Twitter

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Ebola, Global Health, Infectious Disease, Public Health, Public Safety, Stanford News

Biosecurity experts discuss Ebola and related public health concerns and policy implications

Biosecurity experts discuss Ebola and related public health concerns and policy implications

ebola_081214

More than 1,800 people in the West African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have contracted the Ebola virus since March and the death toll has surpassed 1,000, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization. As the number of cases and death continue to climb many are concerned about what can be done to curtail the outbreak and the likelihood of it spreading to the United States.

In a Q&A recently published by the Center for International Security and Cooperation and The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford biosecurity experts David Relman, MD, and Megan Palmer jointly answer these questions and others related to the public health concerns and policy implications of the outbreak. On the topic of broader lessons about the dynamics and ecology of emerging infectious diseases that can help prevent or respond to outbreaks now and in the future, they respond:

These latest outbreaks remind us that potential pathogens are circulating, replicating and evolving in the environment all the time, and human action can have an immense impact on the emergence and spread of infectious disease.

We are starting to see common factors that may be contributing to the frequency and severity of outbreaks. Increasing human intrusion into zoonotic disease reservoir habitats and natural ecosystems, increasing imbalance and instability at the human-animal-vector interface, and more human population displacement all are likely to increase the chance of outbreaks like Ebola.

The epicenter of this latest outbreak was Guéckédou, a village near the Guinean Forest Region. The forest there has been routinely exploited, logged, and neglected over the years, leading to an abysmal ecological status quo. This, in combination with the influx of refugees from conflicts in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Cote d’Ivoire, has compounded the ecological issues in the area, potentially facilitating the spread of Ebola. There seems to be a strong relationship between ecological health and the spread of disease, and this latest outbreak is no exception.

While forensic analyses are ongoing, unregulated food and animal trade in general is also a key factor in the spread of infectious diseases across large geographic regions. Some studies suggest that trade of primates, including great apes, and other animals such as bats, may be responsible for transit of this Ebola strain from Central to Western Africa.

Overall, Relman and Palmer remind the public, “It’s important that we not lose sight of more chronic, but less headline-grabbing diseases that will be pervasive, insidious long-standing challenges for Africa and elsewhere.”

Previously: Stanford global health chief launches campaign to help contain Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Health workers use crowdsourced maps to respond to Ebola outbreak in Guinea
Photo by European Commission DG ECHO

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Addiction, In the News, Public Health, Public Safety

Can the “24/7 sobriety” model reduce drunken disorderly conduct and violence in London?

beer_london_pubIn an article published yesterday in the Telegraph, Stanford addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, discusses how public officials in London are turning to the United States’ “24/7 sobriety” model in an effort to reduce repeat offenders convicted of alcohol-related crimes. The program, which combines mandatory sobriety and daily breathalyser tests, was created under Humphreys’ guidance. He writes:

Research by the RAND Corporation – a US-based non-profit global policy think tank – found that 24/7 sobriety dropped repeat drink driving arrests by 12 per cent. The same study also yielded a pleasant surprise: domestic violence arrests dropped by 9 per cent, despite not being a focus of the programme. Removing alcohol from the lives of criminals can apparently have radiating benefits beyond those directly related to their most recent offence.

In light of its positive results, judges across the U.S. have been adopting the 24/7 sobriety approach. This week, under the leadership of Mayor Johnson and his team, a pilot of the programme will be launched in South London. Leaping the pond will come with some challenges, particularly around delivering sanctions swiftly within the constraints of British law, but local tailoring of innovations is always an essential part of making them spread.

In any event, with over one million alcohol-related assaults occurring nationally each year and many London boroughs being regularly marred by violence and disorder on weekend evenings, the time for new approaches to binge drinking criminal offenders has clearly arrived. The judges and probation officers who are undertaking this pilot should be applauded for refusing to accept the status quo.

Previously: Text messages after ER visit could reduce young adults’ binge drinking by more than 50 percent, Study shows legal drinking age of 21 saves lives and reduces health risks for young adults, Alcoholism: Not just a man’s problem and Stopping criminal men from drinking reduces domestic violence
Photo by Paul Downey

Cancer, Dermatology, In the News, Public Safety, Research, Stanford News

A closer look at new research showing disproportionate rates of melanoma in Marin County

Last week, Cancer Prevention Institute of California/Stanford Cancer Institute researcher Christine Clarke, PhD, shared results of a new report (.pdf) showing that a county in California has higher numbers of melanoma skin cancer than the rest of the state. On this morning’s Forum Clarke joined two other guests, including Stanford dermatologist Susan Swetter, MD, director of the Pigmented Lesion and Melanoma Program at the Stanford Cancer Institute, to discuss the research and to offer skin safety and screening tips for the summer.

It’s worth a listen – especially if you live in the county just north of San Francisco.

Previously: Melanoma rates exceed rates of lung cancer in some areasWorking to protect athletes from sun dangers, As summer heats up take steps to protect your skin, Stanford study: Young men more likely to succumb to melanoma, New research shows aspirin may cut melanoma risk and Working to prevent melanoma

CDC, Nutrition, Pediatrics, Public Safety, Research, Stanford News

“Happy Meal ban”: Where are we now?

"Happy Meal ban": Where are we now?

MuppetBabiesA newly released Centers for Disease Control report of a study conducted at Stanford has examined the effects of San Francisco’s 2010 “Happy Meal ban.” The ban prohibited the free distribution of toys with unhealthy meals; the fast-food restaurants McDonald’s and Burger King instead sold the toys for 10 cents. Though neither restaurant complied with the ordinance’s specific calls for changes in nutritional content, improvements have been made.

As reported by SFGate.com:

…over the study’s two-year period, McDonald’s in particular made big changes to its Happy Meals, said [Jennifer Otten, MD,] of the University of Washington School of Public Health — first in California, then nationally.

The fast food giant cut the amount of French fries it serves in Happy Meals in half, replacing them with apples; stopped serving caramel sauce with apples; and began offering nonfat chocolate milk to customers. Otten said those substitutions were “pretty dramatic,” — they reduced the calories in a Happy Meal by 110, and cut the sodium and fat content of the meal as well.

Otten and her colleagues, including senior author Abby King, PhD, concluded in the study, “Although the changes…  did not appear to be directly in response to the ordinance, the transition to a more healthful beverage and default side dish was consistent with the intent of the ordinance. Study results… suggest that public policies may contribute to positive restaurant changes.”

Previously: How fast-food restaurants respond to limits on free toys with kids’ meals, Toying with Happy Meals, How food advertising and parents’ influence affect children’s nutritional choices and Living near fast food restaurants influences California teens’ eating habits
Photo by Ursala Urdbeer

Global Health, In the News, Pediatrics, Public Safety, Sexual Health, Women's Health

Stanford research shows rape prevention program helps Kenyan girls “find the power to say no”

Stanford research shows rape prevention program helps Kenyan girls "find the power to say no"

The San Francisco Chronicle has a great story today about a collaborative project that is reducing rape and sexual assault of impoverished girls in Kenya.

The story highlights the combined efforts of activists Jake Sinclair, MD, and his wife, Lee Paiva Sinclair, who founded nonprofit No Means No Worldwide to provide empowerment training to Kenayn girls, and the Stanford team that has been analyzing the results of their efforts. As we’ve described before, this work is a great example of the academic chops of Stanford experts’ being combined with on-the-ground activism to make a difference for an urgent real-world problem.

As the article explains:

The girls and hundreds of others like them have participated in a rape-prevention workshop created by Jake Sinclair and Lee Paiva, a San Francisco doctor and his artist wife who have been working in Kenya for 14 years.

Their program is working, and that’s not just according to the dozen or so testimonials online, the couple said. Two studies out of Stanford – one published in April this year, one the year before – have found that girls who have gone through the couples’ classes experience fewer sexual assaults after the workshops.

More telling, perhaps: More than half of the girls report using some tool they learned from the classes to protect themselves, from kicking a man in the groin to yelling at someone to stop.

“It’s great to see the girls just find their voice, to find the power to say ‘no,’ ” Sinclair said. “It’s so enlightening. You can see it in their eyes, that something’s changed.”

Stanford research scholar Clea Sarnquist, DrPH, who has played an important role in the project, adds:

“A lot of these girls are using voice and verbal skills first,” Sarnquist said. “That’s one of the key things, is teaching the girls that they have the right to protect themselves – that they have domain over their own bodies, and they have the right to speak up for their own self interest.”

The whole story is definitely worth a read.

Previously: Empowerment training prevents rape of Kenyan girls and Self-defense training reduces rapes in Kenya

Global Health, Health Policy, Public Safety, Women's Health

Lobbying Congress on bill to stop violence against women

Lobbying Congress on bill to stop violence against women

capitol - smallWhen I walked into the U.S. Capitol building this week, it was with the weight of history – my own and my country’s. Years ago, I had walked these hallowed halls as a writer for a Congressional publication and had lived in a house just blocks away. But this time I was there for a very different purpose: I was going to try my hand at lobbying, plying Congress for a cause that had become dear to my heart.

I came to Washington, D.C. with nearly 150 volunteers and staff from the American Jewish World Service, an international development organization that promotes human rights and works to end poverty in the developing world. This year, one of the group’s legislative priorities is passage of the International Violence Against Women Act, now pending in Congress. In February, I had traveled to Uganda as a Global Justice Fellow with AJWS, learning first-hand why this bill is so crucial to the lives of women around the world. I met a gay woman whose life had become hell because of her gender identity; she’d been beaten, raped and robbed and was suffering the emotional trauma of being ostracized by family and community. I also met sex workers, many of them single mothers just trying to make a living, who had been subjected to unprovoked beatings and police brutality. And I met a transgender woman whose home had been burned to the ground and who had been terrorized by her community simply because of who she was. In fact, I would learn that one in three women around the world are beaten, abused or raped at some point in their lifetime – an appalling figure.

The bill would help combat this trend by using the full force of U.S. diplomacy, as well as existing U.S. foreign aid funding, to support legal, social, educational, economic and health initiatives to prevent violence, support victims and change attitudes about women and girls in society. When women become victims of violence, everyone suffers; gender-based violence can reduce a nation’s GDP by as much as 3 percent because women are so key to collective productivity.

“If you want to get a barometer on how a country will fare – its stability – just look at the way it treats its women,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) told our group as we prepared to head out to visit Members of Congress. “Women invest in children and family. Men invest in war.”

With the recent kidnapping of more than 250 Nigerian school girls, the need for the legislation has become all the more pressing. “This is the moment to strike,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said during a meeting with 20 members of our group. We met with Boxer in the sumptuous President’s Room in the U.S. Capitol, adorned with gilt, frescoes and historical portraits and the spot where Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King once stood. Boxer had just come from a vote on several new judges and was gracious enough to stop by to spend 20 minutes listening to our pitch and discussing strategy.

A strong women’s rights activist, she has been an ardent supporter of the bill from the start. With 300 nonprofit groups now clamoring for its passage, she said she felt it was time to introduce it into the Senate, which she did a week ago. It’s now critical, she said, to enlist additional Republican co-sponsors of the legislation, particularly among members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to give it greater weight and bipartisan appeal. In the House, the bill already has 63 Democratic and 11 Republican co-sponsors, with more being sought.

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