The December issue of Smithsonian introduces the American Ingenuity Awards. dream hampton profiles Grammy Award winner Esperanza Spalding. Abigail Tucker on the high school sophomore who invented a new way to test for a deadly form of cancer and how one legal crusader is giving young people in America’s prisons a second chance.
Congratulations to 2011 Science Fellow Pardis Sabeti, recipient of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for natural sciences. See Sabeti explain how her study of genomes has revealed a new approach to treating infectious diseases.
Biologist-turned-painter Ann Adams’ Unraveling Bolero is a beautifully dizzying array of repeated patterns and colors, just like the orchestral Maurice Ravel piece for which it’s cleverly named. Little did either know that their respective works of art were early symptoms of a deadly disease.
By analyzing the data, we discovered there was herd immunity. If you were a family that did not filter but you were surrounded by families who did, you were protected. This was because the transmission, person-to-person, was significantly reduced in that situation. We could say with great confidence that filtration played a major role in the reduction of cholera. The paper showing the herd effect and the sustainability of this initiative was published in the online Journal of the American Academy of Microbiology.
Saris are meant to be worn. But did you know that the garment can also be used to radically reduce the spread of cholera?
In 2003, environment microbiologist, scientific educator, and distinguished professor at the University of Maryland Rita Colwell conducted a study in which 7,000 women in Bangladesh were trained to filter the water they gathered every day through a cotton sari folded four times, which reduced the spread of cholera by almost 48%.
People who live in the poorest and remotest parts of the developing world often have their lives cut short by disease — preventable or curable disease. The first essential step to fighting these diseases is correctly identifying them. But in the developing world, disease detection is often prohibitively expensive. In a brilliant cross-pollination of engineering, physics and biology, scientists have developed an affordable credit-card sized device that can accurately diagnose HIV and syphilis in just minutes.
This device, known as the microfluidic chip, or mChip, requires just one microlitre of whole blood to detect specific diseases with comparable efficiency to bench-top assays but at a significantly lower cost. Further, mChip detection takes less than 20 minutes, whereas bench-top assays require several hours or more to complete. Developed by an international team of scientists headed by Samuel Sia, associate professor of Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University in New York City, mChip was successfully field tested in the African nation of Rwanda.
Social media — Facebook, Google, Twitter, location-based services like Foursquare and more — are changing the way epidemiologists discover and track the spread of disease. At one time these guardians of public health swooped onto the scene of an outbreak armed with diagnostic kits and a code of silence. Officials spent weeks interviewing victims privately, gathering test results and data, rarely even acknowledging in public that an investigation was under way. The results might not be announced for weeks or months.
Now technology is democratizing the disease-hunting process, upsetting the old equilibrium by connecting people through channels effectively outside government control. While the online chatter can be unproductive or even dangerous — spreading fear along with misinformation about causes and cures — a growing cadre of epidemiologists sees social media as a boon. Future hunts for pathogens may rely as heavily on Twitter streams and odd clusters of search queries as on blood tests and personal histories.
One reason that viruses can be so hard to find is that they’re so small — typically a few millionths of an inch across. Even the most powerful microscopes may not be able to reveal viruses if they’re lurking in a hiding place in the body. Sometimes scientists can detect viruses by rearing vast numbers of them in laboratories. It’s also possible to detect them by looking for antibodies in infected people. But these methods can be slow and unreliable. Dr. Lipkin thought it might be better to find viruses in a different way. He would go fishing for their genes.
Also, watch as Dr. Lipkin explains how an increased understanding of “zoonotic diseases,” coupled with advancements in diagnostic technology, is helping us to predict and prevent the next SARS or HIV/AIDS.
Explore the human disease network on Diseasome.
A network of disorders and disease genes linked by known disorder–gene associations, indicating the common genetic origin of many diseases. Genes associated with similar disorders show both higher likelihood of physical interactions between their products and higher expression profiling similarity for their transcripts, supporting the existence of distinct disease-specific functional modules.