Tag Archives: Microbiology

Curing HIV and Other Science in the News

Alert! The only people who should read this blog are science nerds and moms.

I read an article, a few weeks back, about a Mississippi baby who’d been cured of HIV. I was momentarily stunned by the enormity of the information in the article. Could we finally be close to a cure for HIV; finally be close to eradicating the scourge of AIDs? I googled the baby yesterday and was disappointed by what I read. You gotta love the internet, but sometimes news travels a little too quickly for truth’s sake.

The Mississippi baby did test positive for HIV but no one knows if the baby had been infected or just exposed to the virus. There’s a huge difference. A lot of scientists feel the baby had only been exposed and therefore the drug regiment stopped the baby from actual HIV infection. The blood cells infected could have been from the baby’s mom, a woman known to be HIV infected. At this point, nobody knows for certain but it doesn’t seem the word ‘cure’ is appropriate here, unfortunately.

If you are squeamish about bodily functions, please don’t read any further. The yuck factor will be going up significantly starting with the next sentence. One science article which caught my eye, and seems to be gaining steam, is an article about fecal transplants. Hey! I warned you.

I never thought, in the entire history of Jenn, I would see the words ‘fecal’ and ‘transplant’ side by side. The first time I read about these particular transplants I was amused and delighted to see such an interesting article (to me) in the Seattle Times.  When I saw another article, about a week ago, I got serious and did a little more research on the subject.

Clostridium difficile (C. diff) is a spore producing (one of the 00.01% microbes which survive hand sanitizers), pathogen which can cause bloating and painful, chronic diarrhea in some people. Generally, your naturally occurring gut flora crowd out pathogens such as C. diff, but, if something (such as a round of antibiotics) wipes out said bacteria, C. diff then has free reign to wreak havoc.

Once your good bacteria has been wiped out (like most cures, antibiotics have a hard time being specific) it’s incredibly hard to get them back and working pathogens don’t like to give up their parking spaces. One answer, when everything else has failed to stop C. diff, is to undergo a fecal transplant.

The New England Journal of Medicine published an article about fecal transplants and how they are gaining acceptance in the medical world. According to the article: doctors, while trying to cure a C. diff infection, who used antibiotics say it worked 31% of the time while fecal transplants worked 94%. I wasn’t a math major but those numbers seem significant to me.

I won’t gross you out with the specifics of the procedure, if you’re really interested you can read about it here, but I will say I find this fascinating. Seriously, who knew? Reading things like this doesn’t bother me, though. I think it’s mostly because I’m a mom. Once I had a child, and went through the Volcano Butt incident, the word ‘fecal’ just doesn’t scare me anymore. Been there, done that.

jenn

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Bob, Brittani, and the Lime and Bitters Assault

I love to laugh and there’s a lot out in the world I find downright funny.  The things people say to me, the things which make me laugh out loud, are usually things I’m not expecting them to say.  When I’m shocked or surprised by someone, my first reaction is to laugh.  Sometimes it’s inappropriate, but if you know me well enough you realize I don’t mean anything by my outbursts.

I like to surround myself with original and funny people.  I’ve met quite a few people over the years that had absolutely no sense of humor, at least no humor I could find.  I was afraid Jessie would turn out to be a serious and very literal person but, I’m happy to say, she has turned into a very funny and quirky pre-teen.

Janet is another funny and unique person I have surrounded myself with, although I’m not sharing any of our stories here:  I couldn’t think of an appropriate one I would want my mom to read.

Bob: the Guidance Counselor Guy

When I decided to go back to school, I had a hard time picking a degree.  I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up; I still don’t.  I asked myself: “myself, what classes did you enjoy in high school?”  That was a lot harder to do than one might imagine.  A lot of high school is just a blur and I wonder if some of my memories are actually movies I’ve seen over the years.  Hard to tell.

The only class I can really say I enjoyed in high school was genetics.  For anyone who groaned: I was born this way…I can’t help myself.  So, I settled on Microbiology as a major and went to talk with someone in the admissions office about what classes I needed to take after wrapping up my community college career.

Bob: Hi, my name is Bob and I’ll be your guidance counselor today.

Me: Hi, Bob. My name is Jenn and I would like a degree in Microbiology.  What classes should I take?

Bob: Really?  Are you sure?  You need 2 years of a foreign language, cell biology, pathogenic microbiology, organic chemistry 1 and 2…as a matter of fact you have to take so much chemistry you have no choice but to minor in chemistry.

Me: Oh, that doesn’t sound like fun to me.  I don’t really enjoy chemistry.

Bob:  Hey!  You picked this degree!  (I was not expecting him to say anything remotely like that and I laughed until tears rolled down my face.  So, here was Bob, who already thought I was a little loopy for my degree choice, thinking I’d really gone off the deep end.)

Brittani: The Nurse’s Aide

I now realize, with my diploma in hand, how scary hospitals are for people who have studied science and pathogenic microbes.  I tend to be very nervous in hospitals and doctor’s offices and I try to relax by cracking jokes.

Brittani: Hi, I’m Brittani and I’ll be helping you today.

Me: Hi, Brittani, I’m Jenn and I’ll be your pincushion today.

Brittani: You are so silly, Jenn.  Come over here so I can get your weight.

Me: I’m sorry…what?  Do you really need to see how much I weigh?  Can’t you just eyeball me?

Brittani: No, silly.  We take everybody’s weight and blood pressure.

Me:  Can I weigh myself alone and give you the number?

Brittani: No.  Come on now, Jenn.  Don’t make me get mean.

Me: Can I weigh naked?

Brittani:  Oh my God!  Not out here in the hall!  (I think I found this so funny back then because she seriously thought I wanted to strip in front of all those people.  I find it funny now because I weigh 20 pounds more than I did then.)

Sally: The Lime and Bitters Barkeep

I used to go out and drink a lot.  When I drink, I get the hiccups…a lot.  Just another charming quality of mine.  I went out one night, about 20 years ago and had a bad case of the hiccups. <shudder>.

Sally: Are you alright, honey?

Me: Yeah, I’m just enjoying my Jack and coke with a side of hiccups.

Sally: Would you like me to help you with that?

Me: Yes, please.

Sally: Here, this never fails to cure hiccups.  It’s called lime and bitters.  Let me go and help these people at the end of the bar.  I’ll come back and check on you.

(Without realizing what I was doing, I grabbed the lime, soaked in bitters, and bit into it.  I cannot describe what it tasted like…I’m not sure it had an actual taste…I just knew I had put something evil in my mouth.  Have you ever tasted something sour and the inside corners of your mouth pucker up and salivate?  It was like that except on crack riding a tsunami.

I spit the lime out and tried to stem the flow of saliva from my mouth with a rag from the counter.  My mouth tried to suck my face into it, but I fought it hard.  My eyes were flooded, my nose was bubbling up and I’m pretty sure something was running out of my ears.  I’m glad all my sphincters work properly because everything else stayed right where it should.

I have never had my tongue, before then or since, grow a mind of its own and work independently from the rest of me.  My tongue worked for about 5 minutes at getting every last shred of liquid out of my mouth and spit it on the floor.)

Sally: (after finding the lime in between 2 bottles 20 feet away) Oh, honey, you did that wrong.  You’re supposed to eat it!  (I actually didn’t laugh at that point because I was unable to (Sally sure did laugh)…but, for the next 5 years, every time I had the hiccups all anyone had to say was lime or bitters or anything remotely resembling bitters and my mouth would clamp shut, the salivating would begin, my tongue would flop around uncontrollably in my mouth, and I would no longer have the hiccups.)

Jessie: The Only Child

My ex and I have an agreement: he will teach her how to drive and I will have “the talk” with her.  I decided, last year, to have that talk when she was only 10 because I wanted to influence her thinking before she got old enough to not care what I said.  I want her to be prepared for the birds and the bees and I don’t want anything to happen to her because of ignorance.  That and I wanted to scare her with STDs and teen pregnancy.

You should have seen it:  I had a slide show with graphic pictures and anatomically correct dolls with Velcro private parts and everything.  It was quite impressive, if I do say so myself.  I gave her “the talk” in my very serious, I’m not messing around, you’d better pay attention if you want to live, Must Obey Me voice.  Jessie was very quiet, taking it all in, covering her mouth (in horror, I hoped) occasionally.

Me:  So, Jessie.  That’s the end of our slideshow for today, although we might pick this up later when I find the slides for Chlamydia.  Anyhoo…do you have any questions or comments for me?

Jessie:  No, but thanks, mom.

Me:  Why Jessie, you look happy, did you enjoy my presentation on sex that much?

Jessie:  God no, mom, that was really embarrassing.  Now I understand the joke on the bus this morning.  (THAT’S what she got out of our talk?  So much for Velcro and slideshows.)

jenn

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My Favorite Bacterial Pathogen

So, the title might sound a little strange: what weird and twisted person has a favorite bacterium?  Me, your friendly microbiologist!  The recent news stories regarding the fatal listeriosis outbreak linked to cantaloupe got me to thinking of my favorite class in school: Bacterial Pathogens. Bacteria that cause disease are called pathogenic bacteria, just so you know.  What a fun class.  No, really, it was very interesting and, if
you don’t think about things too much, like I don’t, it’s not too scary.  After reflecting on the dozen or so bugs (that’s what microbiologists call bacteria, which I find amusing) we studied in class, I determined Listeria monocytogenes was not my favorite bug, but it is pretty interesting.

Listeria monocytogenes (Listy) is the bug which causes listeriosis, one of the nastiest pathogens known with roughly 20 – 30% of infections resulting in death. In my opinion, those are not good odds.  Listy, this little discussed bug, causes more deaths than Salmonella and Clostridium, two of the more common food borne pathogens.  Listy is responsible for about 2500 illnesses a year and 500 deaths in the United States alone.  One of Listy’s sneakiest attributes is the fact it can keep replicating in temperatures close to freezing, so the trick of putting things in the fridge to slow down growth doesn’t
work.  Listy just keeps replicating to keep warm.  Once Listy has taken over, you are blessed with: Influenza like symptoms of persistent fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.  Sounds like alcohol poisoning.  Ah, good times.

Not to knock Listy, but after reading about the conditions at the farm behind the cantaloupe outbreak, I thought of three things: 1. Why did it have to be a fruit I liked, huh?  2. Have I ever heard of cantaloupe being a concern for Listy? I knew about hot dogs and unpasteurized milk and cheese, which reminds me, note to all: unpasteurized
anything = bad, trust your friendly microbiologist.  Don’t believe those people, they are trying to sell you a product.  3.  I wonder how my microbiology teacher from Texas
State University is doing.  Then, I thought about my favorite bugs: Listeria monocytogenes is a scary little bug, but Pseudomonas aeruginosa is much more
intriguing and common.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa (Soody) is a bug found in soil, water, on the skin and on most manmade environments.  Basically, Soody is found everywhere you are going to be.  It especially likes to hang out at hospitals, skulking around medical equipment, a favorite being the catheter.  Yikes, my legs just slammed shut!  Soody is an opportunistic pathogen, which means it waits around until you start feeling bad, and then it jumps on you.  Soody usually infects the pulmonary tract, urinary tract, burns, and wounds, basically anywhere there is an opening.  Soody is the number one leading cause of hospital acquired infections, one of the many reasons I won’t visit you in the hospital without full doomsday gear.

I read somewhere Soody infects close to 700 million people a year, but I must have
misread the number because that is a whole bunch of people.  It is very common and seems to be everywhere, I feel stuff crawling on me now, but Soody isn’t my favorite bug.  Listeria monocytogenes is a scary little bug, Pseudomonas aeruginosa is more intriguing and common, but Streptococcus pyogenes is my favorite bug so far.

Streptococcus pyogenes (Gene – no relation to my brother-in-law, although they share some of the same qualities) is a clever little, constantly evolving bug that has wreaked havoc for as long as time.  I first read about Gene in school when we discussed the problems of disease in the Civil War (again, I’m talking about the bug here, not my BIL, I’m pretty sure Gene the man was not involved in the Civil War).  Gene, along with gangrene and Staphylococcus aureus, caused more death than actual warfare.  Gene is also one of the scary ‘flesh-eating’ bacteria.  Who doesn’t like a good zombie story?
Gene, when introduced to a wound, kills tissue by interfering with the normal blood flow, breaking down tissue causing quick dispersal of the bug to connecting tissue.  If not treated immediately, Gene will spread everywhere, leading to death, usually caused by
shock.

The really amazing thing about Gene is it has different strains of itself that release
different toxins which cause different diseases.  So one type of Gene found in the throat can cause Strep throat and another Scarlet Fever.  A skin Gene can cause Impetigo (a highly contagious skin infection) and another, through a wound, the horror book inspired skin eater.  I have had Strep throat many times in my life and I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was my second introduction to Gene.  My first was through my Grandmother.

For the record, I’m probably drawn to Gene more, not because it’s impressive, but
because it allowed my maternal Grandmother (Granny) to scare the bejeezus out of me as a young child.  Granny had Scarlet Fever when she was 30 and lost all her teeth as a result.  I did not realize, at the age of 3 or 4, that some people had fake teeth, having just gotten all of mine.  When my brother and I would annoy Granny, she stuck her teeth out at us, causing me unknown number of night terrors and, to this day, an uncomfortable feeling around people who do not have all of their teeth.  I grew out of reacting to this form of terror from Granny in my teens and she stopped doing it, but I
think the real reason she stopped was because ‘they’ developed better glue and
it was too much work to pry them loose.  She is that mean.  So really, in a
roundabout weird kinda way, Gene is my favorite bug because it has impacted my life
the most, impacted my life through a mean, toothless, wrinkly, blue haired old
lady who lives in Everett, Washington.  I hope she doesn’t read anymore.

I don’t mean to joke at anyone’s expensive…if you’ve had any of the above diseases, or lost someone to a disease, I am truly sorry for your loss.  I just can’t help my admiration for such a worthy opponent.  An unseen, deadly force hiding everywhere, waiting for us to stumble, just a little, and open up the door of opportunity for them to slither through.  On that note, it’s dinner time!  Seriously, don’t think about it too much, clear your mind like I do…oh, look…squirrel!

jenn

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