Fighting a battle against invisible enemies

Dengue transmitting mosquito (C. Frank Starmer)

Carmen Ulloa

This semester Saddleback College’s biology and chemistry departments are hosting their second annual lectures series.

On Feb. 11, Richard Kuhn, head of biological sciences at Purdue University talked about flaviviruses such as dengue, West Nile virus, yellow fever and hepatitis C. He explained how these diseases that have affected mostly tropical countries continue to expand into new regions.

On March 25, Farhad Imam, currently a clinical fellow in newborn medicine in the Harvard Neonatal-Perinatal Fellowship Training program, spoke of how straightforward studies in model organisms can identify and characterize key disease genes and pathways.

According to Kuhn, research into the biology of dengue virus and related flaviviruses has revealed fascinating insights into their the structure, assembly, and replication. These are providing substantial knowledge relating to the nature of disease, susceptibility of human hosts, and the host components that are usurped by the virus for replication and spread. However, no vaccines or antivirals are available to treat them.

Model organisms can either help us find a cure or get us infected. In the meantime, scientists are facing not only alarming death rates but climate variations that might make new regions ideal hosts to transmitters. Against all odds, scientists are still struggling to find new methods of preventing propagation and contamination areas.

Jim Zoval, chemistry instructor at Saddleback’s said that organisms we are surrounded with are carrying and spreading the viruses.

“The bugs are immune to these viruses. They transmit them to humans through biting,” Zoval said.

Pilar Mateo, chemist, invented and patented a method of preventing Chagas disease from spreading in the tropical areas of Bolivia. The Spanish scientist moved from Spain to the far jungles of South America to live among the tribes and under the same conditions they were living in.

She used her knowledge to embed the molecules that killed the ticks in a polymer material. Her method helped control the spreading of the disease and lowered the rate of deaths among the tribes, according to her website, www.pilarmateo.com.

“[Mateo] found a way to directly attack the vector,” Zoval said. “The virus is not killed, but it kills its ‘vehicle’ which is the tick. It could not be given to humans because it works as a pesticide. It is intended to kill the tick.”

To this day there are no anti-viral medications or treatments that can effectively fight most of these viruses, which are constantly changing and growing. While scientists continue to research for ways of controlling spreading of viruses, humans are defenseless at the mercy of almost invisible enemies that seem to be, so far, stronger.

For further information regarding these lectures which are held each semester, visit http://www.saddleback.edu/mse/lectures2011.html.

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