an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘molecular biology’ Category

Covid19: world progress, cytokine storms, our plans

leave a comment »

to be explored further

Canto: So while we need to be worried about – and to know something about – the cytokine storm that the Covid19 infection can lead to (and we’ll learn about that soon), there’s also a storm of activity on the SARS-CoV-2-fighting front.

Jacinta: Yes, intravenous zinc was talked about in the Medcram series as an effective tool in fighting viral pneumonia, and a world-first trial is being conducted by Austin Health and Melbourne University to test its effectiveness for Covid-19 sufferers with respiratory problems. We’re still catching up on the Medcram series, and update 52 talks of the drug ivermectin, already on the WHO list of essential medicines. The WHO website, incidentally, is promoting a ‘solidarity’ clinical trial for Covid-19 treatments, involving, singly or in combination, remdesivir, hydroxychloraquine, lopinavir, ritonavir and interferon beta-1a. So that gives some idea of the work that’s going on to fight symptoms and reduce the death rate.

Canto: And, you know, I’ve been feeling guilty about singling out the USA as the worst-case scenario all round. It’s not actually so. It’s not fair to look at total figures and point out that the USA tops the list for Covid19 fatalities, and draw calamitous conclusions. You have to take into account its much larger population compared, for example, to number two on the list, Spain. The US has suffered about 2.5 times the fatalities of Spain, but it has about 7 times the population. In fact, if you look at fatalities as a proportion of population, there are many countries worse off than the USA – namely Spain, Italy, France, the UK, Belgium (the worst hit), the Netherlands, Switzerland, Ireland and Sweden. All European countries, notably.

Jacinta: Yes and I’m sure they’ll all have their particular stories to tell about why this is happening to them, and will be wanting to learn lessons from Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and even our big faraway island, but I really want to look at solutions, in terms of eradicating the virus, or blocking it, or building up our immunity. Having said that, flattening the curve, and reducing fatalities, is a primary focus, which means continuing the physical distancing and looking for ways to keep economies running while this goes on. In spite of patches of civil libertarian activity here and there, the vast majority of our global population is on the same page with this, I think.

Canto: Well I’m looking at an Axios article from the Johns Hopkins website. It compares global performance under Covid19 to a mock pandemic exercise, Event 201, conducted some six months ago. They’ve found some positives and some negatives in their analysis. Positives – a greater degree of compliance with physical distancing measures than expected, ‘the degree of surge capacity augmentation in the health care system which has been possible’, and the rapid growth of international collaboration among scientists, leading to a quickened progress of trials for possible treatments. Negative – disparate and often contradictory messages from authorities – mostly political authorities – leading to confusion and distrust of governments and other institutions. This is partially explained by the complexity of the virus itself, which has made it difficult to characterise to the general public, and to be fully understood by non-medical authorities, such as political leaders.

Jacinta: It’s a weird situation, as there’s no end in sight, everyone’s worried about ending restrictions too soon, yet everyone’s worried about the economy, and those countries, like Australia, that are heading towards winter, are bracing for heightened problems, while northern hemisphere countries are hoping for summer’s relief but worried about the autumn when it might be hard to cope with a second outbreak, should it come. And medicos are warning that expectations of a vaccine in eighteen months might be overly optimistic. But I want to be optimistic – I want to look at anything that’ll reduce symptoms and save lives. One treatment, among many others it should be noted, is hydroxychloraquine, which is being given so much of a bad press, because of its being over-hyped by a Trump administration intent on getting political points for a silver-bullet cure. There have already been a number of small, less-than-gold-standard studies, some in which the drug is combined with the antibiotic azithromycin, and the results appear to be all over the place. We’re still awaiting the results of randomised, placebo-controlled, double-blinded studies, which are under way.

Canto: I note that a couple of reports on chloraquine and hydroxychloraquine on the JAMA website have been taken down, I suspect because of all the politicising. That’s a shame. Anyway I mentioned the cytokine storm at the beginning of this post, so I’ll try to comprehend it. A clue to the meaning comes in this mid-March article on the Lancet website. In an early sentence it mentions ‘cytokine storm syndrome’, and in the following sentence refers to the treatment of ‘hyperinflammation’. It seems the two terms are interchangeable. Another term, in the very next sentence, is ‘a fulminant and fatal hypercytokinaemia’….

Jacinta: Sounds like they’re just showing off.

Canto: Please don’t say that about our frontline covidtroops. Okay, a better site for understanding cytokines and their storms is this from New Scientist. As we’ve guessed, it’s an over-reaction of the immune system, sometimes fatal. Cytokines are small proteins, produced throughout the body, which trigger inflammation as an immune response. Sometimes the intensity of the cytokine response results in hyperinflammation. So you might say the cytokine storm is the cause and hyperinflammation the effect.

Jacinta: So this raises questions. For example, why do some have what seems an over-production of these cytokines and others don’t, in response to SARS-CoV-2 in particular? And what do these cytokines actually do to cause inflammation?

Canto: You’re asking me? Well, it’s conjectured that younger people don’t have the developed immune system that produces all these cytokines, and that’s why you don’t see symptoms. But that raises the question – do others have over-developed immune systems, but maybe only for this particular virus? Is there a general goldilocks level?

Jacinta: And is there a way of distinguishing between those who succumb to the hyperinflammation, which in turn can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and those who succumb to the virus itself? Or is it always the immune response that does people in?

Canto: I don’t think so. If the immune response doesn’t work at all, I suspect the virus will spread like a cancer to the rest of the body?

Jacinta: That can’t be right. That’d mean those kids who don’t suffer the cytokine storm, or any immune reaction, would remain infected until it spread through their bodies and they dropped dead. That definitely isn’t happening.

Canto: No, you’re right – they’re developing antibodies, presumably, (and that’s a whole other story), without going through much in the way of suffering. In fact, children’s apparent immunity to the virus is something of a mystery that demands further research. If everyone could develop that kind of immunity…

Jacinta: So many questions we can’t answer. I mean, not just the myriad questions we, as dilettantes and autodidacts, can’t answer, but the fewer but many questions epidemiologists, virologists and ICU workers can’t answer. But I propose that we continue to try and educate ourselves and explore, in our feeble but earnest way. I propose that we dedicate this blog, for the foreseeable, to exploring terms and conditions, so to speak, and treatments, such as ‘cytokine’, ‘ACE-2’, ‘hypoxia’ and ‘quercetin’ and how they relate to or are affected by the Covid-19 infection. Like putting pieces together in a jigsaw puzzle, sort of. It might help us being overwhelmed by the whole picture.

Canto: Okay, let’s try it.

References

Coronavirus pandemic update 52, Medcram youtube video

https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/news

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30628-0/fulltext

https://www.newscientist.com/term/cytokine-storm/

https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/event201/

https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-global-pandemic-preparation-fdce4bff-f1d3-433d-bceb-cc20ac869102.html

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/pages/coronavirus-alert

Written by stewart henderson

April 29, 2020 at 11:55 am

epigenetics and imprinting 3: at the beginning

leave a comment »

stuff that can be done with iPS cells

A zygote is the union of two gametes (haploid cells), the sperm and the egg. It’s the first diploid cell, from which all the other diploid cells – scores of trillions of them – are formed via mitosis.

What’s interesting about this from an epigenetic perspective is that gametes are specialised cells, but zygotes are essentially totipotent – the least specialised cells imaginable – and all this has to do with epigenetics.

I’m not entirely clear about what happens to turn specialist gametes into totipotent zygotes, and that’s what I’m trying to find out. I’m not sure yet whether zygotes immediately start differentiating as they divide and multiply or whether the first divisions – in what is called the zygote phase, which eventually forms the blastocyst – form an identical set of zygotes. 

The two-week period of these first divisions is called the germinal phase. During this phase zygotes divide mitotically while at the same time moving, I’m not sure how, from the fallopian tube to the uterus. Apparently, after the first few divisions, differentiation starts to occur. The cells also divide into two layers, the inner embryo and the outer placenta. The growing group of cells is called a blastocyst. The outer layer burrows into the lining of the uterus and continues to create a web of membranes and blood vessels, a fully developed placenta.

But, as Nessa Carey would say, this is a description not an explanation. How does this initial cell differentiation – into the outer layer (trophectoderm), which becomes the placenta and other extra-embryonic tissues, and the inner cell mass (ICM) – come about? Understanding these mechanisms, and the difference between totipotent cells (zygotes) and pluripotent cells (embryonic stem cells) is clearly essential for comprehending, and so creating, particular forms of life. This PMC article, which examines how the trophectoderm is formed in mice, demonstrates the complexity of all this, and raises questions about when the ‘information’ that gives rise to differentiation becomes established in these initial cells. Note for example this passage from the article, which dates to 2003:

It is now generally accepted that trophectoderm is formed from the outer cell layer of the morula, while the inner cells give rise to the ICM, which subsequently forms the epiblast and primitive endoderm lineages. What remains controversial, however, is whether there is pre-existing information accounting for these cell fate decisions earlier than the 8-cell stage of development, perhaps even as early as the oocyte itself. 

The morula is the early-stage embryo, consisting of 16 totipotent cells. The epiblast is a slightly later differentiation within the ICM. An oocyte is a cytoplasm-rich, immature egg cell.

Molecular biologists have been trying to understand cell differentiation by working backwards, trying to turn specialised cells into pluripotent stem cells, mostly through manipulating their nuclei. You can imagine the benefits, considering the furore created a while back about the use of embryonic stem (ES) cells in medical treatments. To be able to somehow transform a liver or skin cell into this pluripotential multi-dimensional tool would surely be a tremendous breakthrough. Most in the field, however, considered such a transformation to be little more than a pipe-dream.

Carey describes how this breakthrough occurred. Based on previous research, Shinya Yamanaka and his junior associate Kazutoshi Takahashi started with a list of 24 genes already found to be ‘pluripotency genes’, essential to ES cells. If these genes are switched off experimentally, ES cells begin to differentiate. The 24 genes were tested in mouse embryonic fibroblasts, and, to massively over-simplify, they eventually found that only 4 genes, acting together, could transform the fibroblasts into ES-type cells. Further research confirmed this finding, and the method was later found to work with non-embryonic cells. The new cells thus created were given the name ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’, or iPS cells, and the breakthrough has inspired a lot of research since then.

So what exactly does this have to do with epigenetics? The story continues.

Written by stewart henderson

January 6, 2020 at 5:28 pm