Posts tagged with "Science"

Why your first battle with flu matters most

December 23, 2019

Tis the season to be jolly—unless, of course, you have the flu. And it turns out how much a person suffers from the flu depends not only on the strain of the virus that is in circulation during a given  season; but also on the first influenza strain that he or she encountered during childhood, according to findings of research conducted at The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona and published in the open-access journal PLoS Pathogens.

The results could help inform strategies aimed at curbing the impact from the seasonal flu, the researchers say in a press release posted on EurekaAlert.

“The last two flu seasons have been more severe than expected,” says study co-author Michael Worobey, head of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a member of the BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona. “In the 2017-18 season, 80,000 people died in the U.S., more than in the swine flu pandemic of 2009. Influenza is a major, major killer – not just in this country, but worldwide.”

For decades, scientists and healthcare professionals were confounded by the fact that the same strain of the flu virus hit people with varying degrees of severity. Then, in 2016, a team including Worobey and authors of the current study presented a paper in the journal Science, showing that past exposure to the flu virus determines an individual’s response to subsequent infections, a phenomenon called immunological imprinting.

For the study, the research  team analyzed health records that the Arizona Department of Health Services routinely obtains from hospitals and private physicians to track flu cases to study how different strains of the flu virus affect people at different ages.

Two subtypes of influenza virus, H3N2 and H1N1, have been responsible for seasonal outbreaks of the flu over the last several decades. H3N2 causes the majority of severe, clinically attended cases in high-risk elderly cohorts and the majority of overall deaths. H1N1 causes fewer deaths overall and skews more toward young and middle-aged adults.

The health record data revealed a pattern: People first exposed to H1N1 during childhood were less likely to end up hospitalized if they encountered H1N1 again later in life than people who were first exposed to H3N2. Conversely, those first exposed to H3N2 enjoyed extra protection against H3N2 later in life.

To understand the discrepancy, the researchers dug into the evolutionary relationships between influenza virus strains. H1N1 and H3N2, it turned out, belong to two separate branches, or groups, on the influenza “family tree.” While infection with one does result in the immune system being better prepared to fight a future infection from the other, the protection against future infections is much stronger when exposed to strains from the same group it has battled before.

“In other words, if you were a child and had your first bout of flu in 1955, when the H1N1 but not H3N2 virus was circulating, an infection with H3N2 was much more likely to land you in the hospital than an infection with H1N1 last year, when both strains were circulating,” Worobey says.

But the records also revealed another pattern, one that was much more difficult to explain: People whose first childhood exposure was to H2N2, a close cousin of H1N1, did not have a protective advantage when they later encountered H1N1. This seemed strange, as the two subtypes are in the same group, and the researchers’ earlier work showed that exposure to one can, in some cases, grant considerable protection against the other.

“Our immune system often struggles to recognize and defend against closely related strains of seasonal flu, even though these are essentially the genetic sisters and brothers of strains that circulated just a few years ago,” says lead author Katelyn Gostic, who conducted this research as a doctoral student in the lab of the paper’s senior author, James Lloyd-Smith, at the University of California, Los Angeles. “This is perplexing because our research on bird flu shows that deep in our immune memory, we have some ability to recognize and defend against the distantly related, genetic third cousins of the strains we saw as children.”

“Clearly, something compromises the immunity to strains that you see secondarily, even if they belong to the same group as your first exposure,” Worobey adds. “The second subtype you’re exposed to is not able to create an immune response that is as protective and durable as the first.”

In other words, our ability to fight off the flu virus is determined not only by the subtypes we have encountered over the course of our lives, but also by the sequence in which we have encountered them.

“Whichever subtype our immune system sees first lays down an imprint that protects us especially well against strains of the same subtype,” Worobey says, “but relatively poorly against strains from other subtypes, even though you’ve encountered those subsequently.”

The molecular causes of this effect are currently being studied, according to the researchers.

“Part of your immune system’s response to current infection is directed against the strain you first had as a kid, and that investment of fighting the last war appears to compromise your ability to form a fully effective immune response to the invader you encounter later,” Worobey says.

The researchers hope that their findings may help predict which age groups might be severely affected during future flu seasons based on the subtype circulating, which in turn may help health officials prepare an adequate response, such as doling out limited vaccines by cohort.

Research contact: @UAZBIO5

Natalist offers monthly subscription boxes curated to help couples conceive

August 28, 2019

Getting pregnant is life’s lottery: Some couples hit the jackpot the first time they try; others start to feel as if it’s never going to happen. But for most, it’s an emotional journey, with ups and downs, insecurities and hopes.

That’s the thinking behind a new “get pregnant bundle” delivered each month by a startup company called Natalist to the homes of those who are trying to conceive.

After all, says Dr. Nazaneen Homaifar, the chief medical advisor of Natalist—and a Duke Univesity-trained OBGYN—“Trying to get pregnant can be confusing, frustrating, and not as romantic as we imagined it to be. At Natalist, we understand. And we want to help support you through this journey.”

In addition to “Dr. Naz,” the company’s founders include CEO Halle Tecco and Chief Scientific Officer Elizabeth Kane. Together, they have the business and medical knowledge that a couple trying to would appreciate.

“We’re moms, doctors, and scientists building Natlist to give you what you need—from concept to conception,” they say on their new website.

 Starting this week, according to a report by Fast Company, Natalist will discreetly deliver its first boxes (and individually purchased products) to customers’ doors.

As founder and CEO, Halle Tecco envisions arming consumers with everything they need before starting a family, including plenty of TLC. Consider it the self-care of conceiving.

The monthly “Get Pregnant Bundle” subscription box ($90 for a one-time purchase; $81 monthly) changes as one progresses through the fertility journey and continues on until birth. (Customers can cancel at any time.) The first month, for example, includes an illustrated Conception 101 guidebook complete with the basics of human reproduction and practical tips on getting pregnant.

In addition, buyers can expect a range of items ranging from ovulation tests to prenatal vitamins, the majority of which physicians recommend during a preconception visit. The cost is on par with drugstore prices, if not less, Fast Company notes.

In many ways, the business news outlet says, Natalist resembles other startups streamlining transformative stages of a woman’s life: Fridababy sells postpartum recovery products for new moms; Blume is the first cohesive line of self-care products for girls navigating puberty; while Genneve is a complete telehealth and product line for women going through menopause.

While Natalist isn’t bringing new conception products to the market, it did redesign them with a modern feminine look. The pregnancy test is sleek, compact, eco-friendly, and in a warm color palette. Such improvements stem, in part, from a Natalist survey of 1,200 women with planned pregnancies.

“If you look at the pregnancy and ovulation tests that are on the market today, they don’t feel like they belong on your bed stand or in your bathroom next to beauty products,” says Tecco.

The collection features more personal—and less clinical—language along with elegant illustrated instructions. There’s none of the medical jargon typically found on a traditional pregnancy test box.

The website features materials on conception and pregnancy—from both a medical and lifestyle perspective. On-staff doctors quash junk information from actual science-backed studies, with articles ranging from miscarriage grief to debunking sex-position myths. The team also shares their own personal pregnancy journeys on social media and a private Facebook group. The goal is to be approachable while projecting authority.

Over the long-term, Natalist envisions physicians and clinics suggesting its boxes to patients. Currently, the company is in talks with multiple employers interested in subsidizing subscriptions: They’re looking to help their employees get pregnant naturally, thereby bringing down the cost of fertility treatments.

Research contact: @FastCompany

The social media site that job recruiters are raiding

May 9, 2018

A free website frequented by many college students has become a fertile hunting ground for job recruiters looking to hire computer and engineering professionals, based on a report posted by Bloomberg on May 7.

Silicon Valley-based Piazza Technologies. Is a private company that provides homework help for some 2.5 million students majoring in computers, engineering, math and science.

Largely unknown to the general public,.the site welcomes students to ask and answer one another’s questions — all under the supervision of their professors.

Seven years in, Piazza told Bloomberg that fully 98% of computer science students at the top 50 universities access its site; and students report using it on average for at least three hours a day. (Or, more likely, per night.)

Piazza fans abound in Palo Alto: “I have used Piazza extensively throughout my education,” Vickram Gidwani, a Stanford grad student in electrical engineering, wrote to Bloomberg in an email. “It provides a great forum for any topic in the course.”

Now, reports Bloomberg, the company is doing the obvious thing—monetizing all those eyeballs. Founder and Chief Executive Officer Pooja Nath Sankar says her site has become an ideal space for tech employers and students to meet.

In late 2016 the company launched Piazza Careers. Companies pay for access to students who opt in; they can see if a student was ranked a top participant in a class on the site—and they can narrow searches to, say, “Show me a Bio major who has taken an AI course.”

Their success rate is excellent. Piazza told Bloomberg that 90% of the messages companies send to students get opened. The career feature is particularly appealing to companies that need tech talent but aren’t necessarily on students’ radar. So far, 80 are on-board, including  WhirlpoolAirbnbNvidiaQuicken LoansBarclays, and Roche.

What’s next? Now that it’s ubiquitous among computer science majors at top colleges, Piazza is pitching itself to recruiters at less-sought-after companies as a way to find better candidates.

 Research contact: @petercoy