The truth about HTLV-1: unravelling 30 years of misconceptions

HTLV-1

As the human T-cell leukaemia virus is discussed on the world stage, Professor Graham Taylor addresses the misconceptions surrounding HTLV-1.


Based on the number of articles published in mainstream media, and the number of interview requests I have received in the last week, it seems that everyone wants to know about HTLV-1, the human T-cell leukaemia virus, after 30 years of turning a blind eye. Why the sudden interest in a virus that few outside my field of human retrovirology have heard of? (more…)

Working together, protected together: addressing the challenges of vaccine research

Working together, protected together: addressing the challenges of vaccines researchAs the Imperial Network for Vaccine Research launches, Dr Chris Chiu tells us why he’s in pursuit of a collaborative approach for developing new vaccines. 


Vaccines have been very much in the public eye for a while now, with strong feelings expressed particularly on the side of those who are suspicious of them. As health and scientific professionals, we often try to provide a carefully balanced view but, in this case, it is vitally important that we remember and highlight the massive amount of good that vaccines have done for human health. Once devastating diseases such as smallpox and polio are now gone or almost gone. Vaccines have truly been one of the great triumphs of modern medicine. (more…)

Encephalitis: the rare disease with a million implications

 

22 February is World Encephalitis Day. Founded by The Encephalitis Society four years ago, it aims to help raise awareness of the disease on an international scale.


In a nutshell, encephalitis refers to the inflammation of the brain. Up until recently, it was thought that encephalitis was simply either a viral or bacterial infection. However, in 2005, research described a new version of the disease: auto-immune or ‘anti-NMDAR encephalitis’, which is caused by antibodies that attack the brain tissue. In all its forms, encephalitis is incredibly rare: herpes simplex encephalitis (HSE), for instance, affects approximately one in 1,000,000 children. Although there are clear treatment routes available, viral encephalitis is incredibly destructive. The virus can cause irreversible damage in the brain, which will continue to impact upon a patient’s quality of life well after their short-term recovery from the disease itself. (more…)

Leprosy in 2018: an ancient disease that remains a public health problem today

World Leprosy Day. Image courtest of Wellcome Collection.

28 January 2018 is World Leprosy Day

I have always found leprosy a fascinating disease. It is an incredible example of how microbiology, immunology, and social sciences can collide and impact significantly on human health.

Leprosy has been affecting humans for at least 4000 years. It has played a huge part in teaching us about disease caused by bacteria. In 1873 when Hansen discovered Mycobacterium leprae in tissue samples from patients with leprosy, this became the first bacteria to be directly linked to causing disease in humans. Since then we have developed an understanding of the complex range of types of leprosy that occur depending on how an individual’s immune system responds to the challenge of infection with Mycobacterium leprae. We have also observed the consequences of the deformities and disability caused by the body responding to Mycobacterium leprae, which favours human nerves and skin. In turn, we have seen how the appearance of individuals with disability and disfigurement from leprosy has driven stigma, misinformation, and the discrimination of those affected by the disease.

For many people in the UK and around the world, leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is an ancient condition of our ancestors. It is something that we hear about in religious scripture or watching films like Ben-Hur or the Life of Brian.  Associated with exile from communities, deformity, and poverty. Something that no longer affects the modern world that we now live in.

Leprosy is often referred to in Sanskrit from around 1400 BC, with the term “kushtha” used to describe it. This translates to “eating away”. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

In 2000, the World Health Organisation (WHO) made an announcement that leprosy had been eliminated as a public health issue, with the global prevalence finally falling below one case per 10,000 people. This was the culmination of many years of identifying and treating patients with leprosy. This included the development of multi-drug therapy – a real game-changer in the treatment of Hansen’s disease. In total, over 16 million people affected by leprosy were treated, often free of charge. This was a great success.

And so for the elephant in the room. If we have eliminated leprosy as a public health problem, why do we still need to worry about World Leprosy Day?

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Give HIV the Finger – National HIV Testing Week 2017

HIV testing week

It is the time of year again for HIV Testing Week!

Coordinated by HIV Prevention England (HPE) since 2012, National HIV Testing week has focused on three main aims:

  • improving awareness of HIV testing, particularly among communities at high-risk
  • increasing opportunities to take the test in clinics and other community settings
  • reducing the number of people diagnosed with HIV at a late stage

This year’s theme is ‘Give HIV the Finger’ – a cheeky reference to the free finger-prick test that people can receive by post, to provide a blood sample for testing without attending a clinic.

HIV in the United Kingdom

According the latest surveillance from Public Health England (PHE), just over 5,000 people were diagnosed with HIV in 2016; this is an 18% drop compared with 2015.[i] 54% of diagnoses were among gay and bisexual men; 19% and 22% among heterosexual men and women respectively. Late diagnosis is an important predictor of morbidity and premature death in people with HIV. In 2016, 42% diagnoses were made at a late stage of infection when treatment is less effective. (more…)

World Polio Day: edging closer to eradication

Imagine you are running a marathon. You have reached the final mile of a long and arduous journey. You turn the last corner expecting to see the finish line, and instead you see a huge vertical ascent. The finish line is waiting at the top, hundreds of metres above you.

Such is the plight of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. In 1988, the year the initiative was launched, polio paralysed an estimated 350,000 people worldwide – roughly 1,000 each day. Over the last three decades, a globally coordinated vaccination campaign has fought the disease back to a few remaining refuges in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. In 2017, wild poliovirus has caused just 12 cases so far.

As we mark the fifth annual World Polio Day, the finish line of the eradication marathon is firmly in sight, but getting there will be a tough climb.

Why has polio proven so hard to vanquish? First and foremost, the disease’s final strongholds are regions of immense political unrest, and news of deadly attacks against vaccination workers are all too familiar. Every step towards polio’s eradication is one that requires those at the front line to put their lives at risk. (more…)

Vaccines are vital


Originally published on the MRC Insight blog and reproduced under CC BY 4.0, here Peter Openshaw, Professor of Experimental Medicine at Imperial and President of the British Society for Immunology, says we cannot afford to be complacent about vaccines.

As a clinician working in research, I want to improve peoples’ health. The NHS was set up to focus on treating people with disease. But how much better would it be if we could prevent people from getting sick in the first place?

This is where vaccines come in. As vaccinologists, we use our scientific knowledge to design new or improved vaccines to stimulate the immune system. This creates natural protection against infections and prevents disease.

New and improved vaccines

The current vaccines we have are excellent and safe but many could be better. There are also new ways to use vaccines and lots of diseases which do not yet have effective vaccines.

The science of vaccinology advances monthly. There are hundreds of new vaccines at different stages of testing, many of which could lead to improved human health and wellbeing. In response to this fast-changing landscape, the MRC and BBSRC have recently funded five collaborative networks to drive UK vaccinology forward for the benefit of global health. (more…)

World Rabies Day: Why vaccinating man’s best friend is man’s best hope

A vet from the Indian Army gives a rabies vaccination to a family dog during a veterinarian civil-assistance program. By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Bryan M. Ilyankoff [Public domain]
Today is World Rabies Day. The goal of this global day is enhanced awareness spurring further efforts to prevent rabies, a viral disease that kills tens of thousands of people each year mainly in Asia and Africa. Two years ago, international organisations – including the World Health Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health – agreed to an ambitious, but achievable common goal: to end human deaths due to canine rabies by 2030. In fact, ‘Rabies: Zero by 30’ is the theme of the 2017 World Rabies Day.

Why today? 28 September 2017 is the 122nd anniversary of Louis Pasteur’s death. It was he who developed the first vaccines for both rabies and anthrax. All mammals can become infected with the rabies virus, and rabies is present on every continent except Antarctica. This can sound overwhelming. However, up to 99% of human rabies cases result from human dog bites. So what can be done to keep ‘man’s best friend’ from transmitting this fatal virus? Vaccination! (more…)

From bakery to benchside: a medical student’s journey in research

The TB Research Centre’s staff and students

It was extremely challenging for me to stare back at the four rejections that faced me. Four rejections from four separate medical schools. Four independent reviewers telling me I was not to be a doctor. I had to endure seemingly unending encouragements and sympathies from friends and family. Their attempts were well-meaning, but often repetitive. My particular favourite was “I believe Edward Jenner didn’t get into medical school the first time round”. This, of course, was a complete fabrication. I think I always had this naïve cockiness about me, an artless assumption that I had the necessary experiences to stroll into medical school. Perhaps rejection had a subduing effect on my ego, though, I probably would presume most of those who know me would thoroughly disagree.

Nevertheless, it occurred to me that I had a year to convince the doctors of now that I could be a doctor of the future. But then I thought again. I had an entire year to do what I wanted. I found myself avoiding medical work of any sort, and take up a job in a bakery. I normally stop here when I want to impress people, to give the impression that I mastered the art of conjuring delicious, enticing pastries. In fact, it is due to my semi-duplicitous nature that many people still think of me as a great baker. But I’m not. In reality, my primary role was to serve customers, clean and wash up (as well as outline the difference between spelt bread and gluten-free bread: a distinction I still don’t understand to this day). It was an enjoyable job, and it provided me with some money to fuel some travelling later on. Moreover, I had the blessing of taking home two full bags of artisan breads untouched by the day’s customers — a perk which became more and more hedonistic as the year went on. (more…)

World Water Week: Tackling a neglected health crisis

Can you imagine life without access to clean water? Unfortunately for 663 million people this is a reality. That’s nearly one in ten people worldwide living without a safe water supply close to home, spending hours queuing or trekking to distant sources and coping with the health impacts of using contaminated water. SIWI’s (Stockholm International Water Institute) World Water Week, is a pertinent time to reflect on important research carried out by the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), a non-profit initiative based at Imperial College London, which highlights why access to clean water is so important to human health.

Schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia, is a type of parasitic ‘worm’ infection affecting individuals in sub-tropical and tropical regions of the world. It is a major, yet neglected public health problem, where estimates showed that at least 218 million people required preventive treatment in 2015, of which at least 20 million suffer from severe and debilitating forms of the disease (World Health Organisation, 2016). The SCI support treatment programmes against schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminth infections in 16 sub-Saharan African countries and Yemen. Since its foundation in 2002, the SCI has supported the delivery of over 140 million treatments for these infections.

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