You Can Help Cure Ebola!


By  Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Since the start of the outbreak last March, Ebola virus has already taken more than 8.000 lives and infected more than 21.200 people, according to the  Center for Disease Control (CDC). The panic raised from this situation rushed the testing of therapies to stop the outbreak and the research on the Ebola virus has seen a rebirth. Some research groups that have been working in this field for a long time can now openly ask for help. One of these groups is the one lead by Dr. Erica Ollman Shaphire at The Scripps Research Institute, California. In 2013 they published in Cell an analysis of the different conformations of Ebola VP40 (Viral Protein 40) aka the shape-shifting “transformer” protein. They reported 3 different conformations of this protein, and how this variety allows it to achieve multiple functions in the viral replication circle. This Ebola virus protein along with the glycoprotein would be used as target for anti viral research. In order to find new anti-virals, their approach is an in-silico scrutiny of thousands of compounds, using viral protein crystal structures in the in silico docking to find leads that may be tested in the lab as inhibitors. IBM is already helping them in this project, generating the World Community Grid to find drugs through the Outsmart Ebola Together project.  Here is where you can start helping, as this project involves a huge amount of data and computing time, they need volunteers that can donate their devices spare computing time (android, computer, kindle fire, etc) to generate a faster virtual supercomputer than can accelerate the discover of new potential drugs. This approach has been shown to be successful for other diseases like HIV and malaria, so you are welcome to join the fight against Ebola virus:

If you do not have any of these devices (I hope you are enjoying the public library free computers), you can still help Dr. Shapire quest to discover new therapies against Ebola. Her group is now “working to support the salary of a computer scientist to help process the data we are generating with the world community grid” as she describes it. To help identify the most promising drug leads for further testing you can donate money on:

Other groups that were mostly working on other viruses, like Flu, also joined the race to discover efficient therapies. For example, last month, the Emerging Microbes and Infections journal of the Nature Publishing Group published the identification of 53 drugs that are potential inhibitors of the Ebola virus. One of the authors of this paper is Dr. Carles Martínez-Romero, from Dr. Adolfo García-Sastre’s lab in the Department of Microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. In the study, Dr. Martínez-Romero and collaborators described how they narrowed the search from 2.816 FDA approved compounds to 53 potential antiviral drugs. This high-throughput screening was possible thanks to the use of the Ebola viral-like particle (VLP) entry assay. This allows studying Ebola viral entry without using the ”real”, full replicative virus. These 53 compounds blocked the entry of Ebola VLPs into the cell. Understanding how these market-ready compounds can inhibit Ebola entry and its infectious cycle will pave the way for a new generation of treatments against Ebola virus-associated disease.

Dr. Martínez-Romero had an early interest in science; “Since I was a child, I showed great interest in biological sciences and a great desire to question and discover. This led me to pursue my studies in Biotechnology in order to become a successful researcher.”Viruses are very interesting to me because, although they are not strictly living organisms, they are as old as life itself. Even though they are the origin of many illnesses in mammals and other organisms alike, we are tightly interconnected with viruses and they will continue shaping our evolution throughout the years to come.

I also asked him about advice to his fellow researchers, and he answered: “There is a famous quote of Dr. Albert Einstein: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called Research”. As postdocs and researchers in general, we are constantly pursuing new hypotheses. It is a very arduous path with its ups and downs but full of rewards and new challenges ahead.” About the future of the antiviral research, he keeps a positive view: “Several antiviral therapies are being developed to combat the current Ebola outbreak, such as antibody cocktails (Zmapp), antiviral drugs, and specific Ebola vaccines. Together with re-purposing screens like the one we published, a combination of therapeutic drugs can be used to obtain better antiviral strategies against the Ebola virus.”

If Only Santa Would be Real…When Are We Going to Have a Universal Flu Vaccine?


By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Wouldn’t it be great if the answer to that question was “next year” (yep, only a 1 month wait). Sadly, besides all the astonishing efforts of various researchers groups we are just entering the clinical studies that might lead towards a safe and effective vaccine.

Probably you already heard about the antigenic mismatch with the current vaccine (for the strain H3N2): this means that the strains used in the vaccine could potentially not completely cover one or more of the seasonal influenza virus varieties. Therefore, if you got the flu shot, you might get sick anyways.

The concept behind the universal vaccine is to bypass the antigenic mismatch problem and other issues related with the way in which the vaccines are formulated nowadays. As Drs. Natali Pica and Peter Palese explained last year (Pica et al. 2013), the vaccines are prepared year by year with the aim to protect against the virus strains that are predicted to circulate in the next period. But, and there is always a “but” in predictions, an unexpected mutation in the virus not contemplated in the vaccine production, could conclude in a pandemic.

The clue came from thinking outside of the box, and breaking with the traditional dogmas in flu vaccine production. When you get infected with the influenza virus, your immune system targets the head domain of the HA (Hemagglutinin) protein, so the current vaccine production approach was to aim for this antigen. The bad news is that this domain changes every year. The flu vaccines are based on inactivated viruses , when you receive this vaccine, you will generate antibodies to fight these specific HA proteins. In Dr. Palese’s lab they are focus on regions of influenza HA protein that are highly conserved across virus subtypes, like the stalk domain of the HA protein. Also, he is engineering different HA chimeras. This strategy has been really successful, showing protection in animal models (mice and ferrets), and the vaccines were approved to go to clinical trial next year. This universal vaccine offered good protection for pandemics H5N1 and H7N9 influenza viruses.

Another strategy, published in Nature Medicine (Sridhar et al.) reports that targeting conserved core proteins using virus-specific CD8+ T cells (lymphocytes or white blood cells with a vital role in the immune system) could provide a draft for a universal influenza vaccine. But… even the scientists implicated in the research were not very positive about how long is going to take to translate this technique to the “outside the lab” world.

The third strategy is coming from an Italian group (Vitelli et al. 2013), and this potential universal influenza vaccine is been tested in animal models by the FDA.  This vaccine uses as a vector the virus PanAd3 (it was isolated from a great ape), which carries 2 genes that express proteins conserved among a variety of influenza viruses. The 2 viral proteins, the matrix protein (M1) and the nucleoprotein (NP), could be expressed for the human cells infected with the recombinant PanAd3 virus and immunize the patient against different influenza viruses.

Other entrepreneurial ideas are blooming around the world in order to solver the “influenza virus infection” problem. The influenza virus kills around 500,000 people annually worldwide (WHO), and affects very negatively the life of other hundreds of thousands. In fact, I do not know anybody who did not got the flu at least ones, I encourage to try to find somebody who was never sick with flu symptoms. This points out how universal this problem is and therefore it should get an universal solution soon.

Squeezed Science – Should We Switch to a Business Mindset?


By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

It is a common conversation topic among researchers, but it was not until the NPR article saw the light, and the dark side, that the public realized the problems that young scientists are facing when pursuing a successful career in Academia. As we raise awareness about these tribulations, my colleagues mentioned how a “postdoc”’s quality life depends on the quality of the lab, the institution, the project, the relationships with colleagues and the Principal investigator or PI (the boss), not forgetting that this is a very self driven career. So, if your hypothesis is very difficult to prove, or you have been hitting your head against the wall with all the negative results that took you years to get, you may eventually come to hating this path and leaving Academia. The same if you have been working in a non “hot field” where the funding sources do not consider interesting enough to support or your PI is not supportive, or you have a very wicked competence inside or outside the lab. All these negative situations can aggravate the perspective of the very little options one may have by pursuing a career in Academia. On the other hand, if you are obtaining excellent results, publishing in top tier journals, made hundreds of good connections and collaborators, have a “great boss” and literally love you job… well, probably you are also doomed…

One solution could be implementing the business approach to the scientific mindset: Why only having one PI per lab? At the end, two minds think more than 1. Perhaps collaborative research centers have a solution were 2 or more PIs can have access to more equipment, grants and professionals, and therefore use the best skills needed for the job, like a company where you have an executive committee and you distribute the stock between the employees, in order to make them be part of the enterprise.

Having a business mindset would mean to have a planed strategy about your career development. Having a backup career plan is one example of this: starting to apply for jobs before needed, or before it is too late. Begin with your preparation to be a leader, and make your PI know, and discuss a good starting point. Look for leadership opportunities in any situations, such as coordinating workshops or conferences.

Sign up to run workshops and career developing series!. Many postdocs can discover a great professional gain if these opportunities would be offer to them. Get training in other expertise to be competitive in, for example, the investing or consulting field. Taking classes about how to give a class is a great example of a course that could be offered to postdocs and graduate students, in order to train them to explain and transfer their empirical knowledge to the next generation.

A month ago, at the Mount Sinai Postdoc symposium, Dr. Bruce Alberts (yes, THE Alberts,  from “The Molecular Biology of the Cell” book) who spoke about “The Future of Biology: Keeping Science Healthy” and illustrated the dramatic changes in the age of the scientist successfully obtaining project grants from NIH. In contrast to 30 years ago, the average age of new investigators with PhD at initial RO1 was 36.8 year old, a large number of grants were awarded to scientist in their early 30s, but this tendency has been decreasing drastically, to the point where now, the mean age for receiving these prestigious grants is 42 years of age. Dr. Alberts, himself, made fun on the fact that he obtained his postdoc position, before been awarded with his PhD. (which actually his thesis was rejected the first time, delaying the whole process) and learned from his failures. He also pointed out that he got his professor position at a very young age, something that is almost impossible nowadays. He advocated for a change in this unfair situation, which cripples the young innovators from getting a start. Also, he encouraged researchers to get out of the lab and talk to the public about science and its importance. First, to attract/engage curious minds to the scientific field, and second to communicate “in simple language” what we do for 9 hours plus per day in the lab.

We must offer to all this new scientific minds the reality about the current situation of science, but we also need to fix it, so it is not going to turn into a snow ball and make disappear all the interest in pursuing a scientific career for the new generations. In a business mind-set we must recognize that the money is not only in the governmental funding, but also in private foundations and other organizations like angels or venture capitals. So go out there and try to pitch your science to investors.

Why Panic Can Accelerate the Therapies Discovery


Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD


In March, the Center of Disease Control (CDC) reported an outbreak of a “more virulent” Ebola virus infection in Guinea and Sierra Leone .Now, the disease has been spread to Liberia and Nigeria, among other West Africa countries. The final count is more than 1600 confirmed cases of Ebola hemorrhagic fever, with almost 900 deaths caused for this syndrome. Some of these cases included health-care workers. Indeed, two medical doctors were taken back to US to be treated with a new cocktail in the Emory University Hospital facilities in Atlanta, GA. Some Americans began to panic, for example Jon Stewart said in his show that “They are importing Ebola”.

Last week, two patients with Ebola like symptoms were all over the news. One of these cases happened in the New York City Mount Sinai Hospital, and the patient was isolated and tested right away. The hospital sent an email to all the employees updating them about the situation, and the press took over it. The bright side of the situation, in addition to the negative test result for Ebola virus, was the fast reply. The dark side was the paranoia and the lack of information and knowledge about this virus from the Manhattan community. It was alarming to read that some neighbors did not want to go to the emergency room in the hospital for fear to get infected. Well, you can’t get infected just for seating next to a sick person, or talk, or shake your hands: it is not an airborne transmitted virus.

The other problem is that the symptoms are pretty similar to other more “common” diseases: Fever, rash, severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and bleeding, both internally and externally. The difference is that the fatality rate is more than 60%. The transmission of the virus mostly occurs by contact with infected blood, secretions or organs of either bats, nonhuman primates or humans. This is why you should not eat bats or monkeys if you visit any of the affected areas, or hang around any cemeteries. Not surprisingly, Ebola was named as the most frightening disease in the world. It was documented for the first time in 1976 in the Republic of Congo; one of the sources came from the Ebola River.


In 2012 an outbreak in Uganda found us in a similar medical emptiness: the research of two of the vaccines that were “apparently” going great had been canceled by the department of defense, due to funding constraints. Therefore, so far we do not have any vaccine or effective treatment available.

In 2009, Dr. Feldmann, by then working in Canada (now in Montana, US), developed a vaccine that was used years after in Germany when a researcher accidentally pricked her finger with a syringe containing Ebola The Feldmann’s vaccine consists in a recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus expressing the Ebola glycoprotein which protects macaques from Ebola virus infections; although this method is not licensed for human use and the government founding has been random. A similar vaccine has been produce by Profectus BioSciences in Tarrytown, New York, but they are also short in the monetary founding that will push the research to the human trials.

The famous ZMapp serum, the treatment that the 2 Americans are receiving, is a cocktail of humanized, three-monoclonal- antibodies. This “cure” was the result of the collaboration of 25 laboratories among seven countries. The project, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has a total budget of $28 millions. The scientific leader is the Dr. Erica Ollmann-Shapire, whom claimed that she would take the cocktail without doubts if she would be infected. Also the company Mapp Biopharmaceutical, based in California, is the principal producer of these antibodies. The initial trials in macaques were very successful, but the approval for the use in human trial is pending until 2015.

A lot of laboratories along the world are working towards the better understanding of the Ebola virus and the possible vaccines and cures. Most of these researches are founded by the US Department of Defense. But, why does the US Department of Defense care about an African virus? The answer is pretty obvious: it can be used as a bio hazard weapon. On the other hand, no leading pharmaceutical is going to invest in a “very expensive and time consuming” vaccine development to be used in countries that can’t afford even a basic level of health care. Some compounds are showing a promising antiviral effect in vitro and/or an inhibition of a variety of viral proteins activities. Sadly, all of them are in an early stage of drug development. On the other hand,the actual need for a therapy and a vaccine to stop this outbreak is speeding the drug development process.


Before freaking out, the best prevention method against this scaring virus is knowledge, so check out the updates in the CDC website.

Predicting Suicide


By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD


The play “suicide is forbidden in spring”. written by Alejandro Casona, describes an organization that helps potential suicide patients to end their lives, but the truth is that the doctors really want to avoid the sad end, and… they actually save the patients. They work with the “leitmotiv” that if you really want to finish your life, you will just do it, but the search for help is an indicator or alert signal of some survival and seek for attention behavior.

As reported by the Health Research found worldwide, 1 million suicides are committed by year. This means 1 death every 40 seconds. According to the CDC, In United States the percentage of suicidal is around 0.012%, where is the 10th leading cause of death. North America has 1 suicide every 13 minutes.The suicidal capital of the world is Greenland with a 108.1 suicide rate, followed by South Korea with 31.7. China is in the seventh place, it accounts for almost one third of all the suicides, and differently than the other countries it is the only one where women have a higher suicidal rate than men. Indeed, 3 years ago the terrible news about how in some factories, like Foxconn, making sought-after Apple iPads and iPhones were forcing staff to sign pledges not to commit suicide. Among 2013 at least 14 workers at Foxconn factories have taken the decision of terminating the horrendous working and housing conditions, ending their lives.


This initiative to attempt against your own life was been related to mental illness (almost in 50% of the cases) and metabolic disorders. The most implemented way of killing themselves is firearms, followed by suffocation/hanging and falls. The alarming fact is that rates of suicide have increased by 60% in the last 30 years, especially in developed countries. Also, you must consider that for every suicide that results in death there are between 10 to 40 attempted suicides. But what does bring a human been to the edge… and push him to jump?

New research has found that the answer would be the lack of the correct expression of one gene. Yes, only the downregulation of SKA2, the guilty gene, could be a biomarker for detecting suicidal behaviors. SKA2 stands for spindle and kinetochore associated complex subunit 2. The protein encoded by this gene is part of a microtubule biding complex that is essential for proper chromosomal segregation.

When they examined the postmortem brain samples from 3 independent cohorts (around 29 from suicide assesd humans and 29 controls per each group) they found that SKA2 had lower expression levels in the suicide cases than in the control, and its expression was negatively associated with DNA methylation. The chemical addition of a methyl group can activate or negatively modulate a gene, as it is considered an epigenetic modification.

I guess you are thinking: these are “Frankenstein” samples, how can this gene be related to really live human beings? Well, apparently the Johns Hopkins researchers also made the same question. In order to answer it they collected blood samples from other 3 independent cohorts with suicidal ideation and controls (with a number of subjects of 22, 51 and 327 each). In these study, the expression of the SKA2 gene was significantly reduced in suicide decedents. Furthermore, they analyzed levels of salivary cortisol. Cortisol is implicated in the glucocorticoid receptor transactivation and stress response. The results suggested that SKA2 epigenetic and genetic variation may modulate cortisol expression. The most important discovery was that the model that they generated based on these data allowed them to predict the suicidal ideation of subjects just using blood samples. They analyzed the methylated status of the SKA2 gene, which correlated with the suicidal attempts.

The great thinker Albert Camus ones recalled the attention in this issue when he said: There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”  For some in risk groups, like the soldiers who are coming back home with traumas after the war, the possibility of attempts against their lives is a ghost that has taken a lot of lives. This simple blood test can point out which individuals could be in risk and therefore they may get a correct follow up and treatment that might end preventing the catastrophe. Some high pressure jobs can also implement this analysis to avoid the lost of lives, giving correct care to people who tested positive. And even closer to all: would you like to know if you have this tendency printed on your DNA? Or your partner? Or your kids?

While you think about this, let me leave you with a relief quote: “If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.” Perhaps, you would be surprise to know that the wise man who said this was the Dr. Mahatma Gandhi, whom almost killed himself in a starving protest trying to obtain the independence of the Indian Republic.


Fasting Can Make You Healthier


By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Believe it or not, breakthrough new research has shown that fasting could be good for you. The article was indeed featured in the Nature journal and the impact of this study relies on the conclusion that fasting promotes haematopoietic stem cell (HSC) function. Stem cells are good for you because they can differentiate into specialized cells and can divide to produce more stem cells.

I personally challenged myself by fasting during Ramadan. .Ramadan is one of the pillars of the Muslim religion. It consists of fasting during a month from sunrise to sunset in order to reflect the essence of piety and to be aware of the plight of the underprivileged. Other cultures include fasting in their practices. In the Jewish religion the fasting day is named Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is described as a Jewish festival without food, but full of praying, introspection and self-judgment.

During my fasting period, my friends noticed an off character onset of passive aggressiveness in me, and indeed I was pretty cranky… and super hungry. One of my favorite comedians, Luis CK, once said that we incorrectly overuse the “I am starving” phrase, while people in Africa are really dying for starvation… so I won’t say I was starving, but certainly I was in a glucose deprived state of mind, which was affecting my behavior.

The most challenging part for me was being dehydrated, as you should also fast liquids during Ramadan. Contrary to the great health guru; the actress Cameron Diaz, who taught in her book that drinking plenty of water is the basis for a healthy body, fasting liquids seemed counterproductive in my experience.

Fasting is often indicated in general medical practice particularly prior to surgery or other procedures that require general anesthetics, because of the risk of pulmonary aspiration of gastric contents after induction of anesthesia (i.e., vomiting and inhaling the vomit, causing life-threatening aspiration pneumonia). One should also fast if undergoing a cholesterol or glucose test, as these measurements require a 12 hour fasting period so that a baseline can be established. These acute/short fasting periods are generally safe.

What more, a study in mice published in 2008 showed that short-term fasting (less than 48 hours) is effective in protecting normal cells but not cancer cells against high dose chemotherapy. The following year another study published in Science proved that caloric restriction delays disease onset and mortality in rhesus monkeys. In a human study, including 10 cancer patients under chemotherapy, Sadfie and collaborators  did not report significant side effects caused by fasting alone other than hunger and lightheadedness. In this study all patients voluntarily fasted for a total of 48 to 140 hours prior to and/or 5 to 56 hours following chemotherapy administered by their treating oncologists. In those patients whose cancer progression could be assessed, fasting did not prevent the chemotherapy-induced reduction of tumor volume or tumor markers. Fasting was well-tolerated and was associated with a self-reported reduction in multiple chemotherapy-induced side effects, suggesting that fasting in combination with chemotherapy is feasible, safe, and has the potential to ameliorate side effects caused by chemotherapies.


In the significant article that I mentioned before, Chen and collaborators showed that prolonged fasting (PF), exceeding 48 hours, activates a metabolic switch to lipid- and ketone-based catabolism and decreases circulating insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which has been shown to reduce chemotoxicity (1) How? They couldn’t find an answer yet. However they clearly demonstrated that the decrease of circulating IGF-1 in the blood was accompanied by a reduction in protein kinase A (PKA) pathway activity in a variety of cell types. PKA has several functions in the cell, I.e. regulation of glycogen, sugar, and lipid metabolism and it regulates other proteins with a valuable role in stem cell stress resistance, self-renewal and pluripotency maintenance.

Interestingly, when Chen and collaborators exposed mice to cycles of prolonged fasting followed by challenges with cyclophosphamide (a drug used in chemotherapy), they noticed the reduction in the mortality and apoptosis (programmed cell death) of long- and short-term HSCs as well as multipotent progenitors in the bone marrow. In addition, multi-lineage differentiation was improved in these animals compared with fed mice, in vitro and in transplantation experiments. These positive effects of prolonged fasting were independent of the chemotherapy treatment, as they were also present in aged animals, which naturally exhibit a reduction in HSC function and multi-lineage potential. The effects of prolonged fasting could be reproduced in mice lacking the growth hormone receptor, which also have low levels of IGF-1. Transplantation experiments showed that low levels of IFG-1 in animals led to a reduction in IGF-1-mediated PKA signaling, both in haematopoietic cells and in associated stromal cells. Strikingly, the researchers could restore haematopoietic function by reducing the levels of either IGF-R1 or the PKA catalytic subunit. Conversely, the benefits were abolished if exogenous IGF-1 was added.

The scientific community is excited about these findings, and we hope understanding the positive effects of fasting can have implications in improving the quality of life of cancer patients… and all the humanity in general. On the other hand, I must cite one of the best Americans: “He that lives upon hope will die fasting”, Benjamin Franklin.

Clone wars – GMOs: Jedis or Siths?


By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

In any molecular biology lab cloning is a daily procedure, but getting those clones outside of the lab is the huge issue. Genetic modified organisms or GMOs were subjected to specific genes alterations, and then cloned to obtain a larger number of identical organisms. Here, I would like to compare the two faces of this technology and its impact in the nature.


GMOs as Jedis, the good use of the force:

Since this technology was introduced to the field the pesticide spraying has been reduced by 499 million kg (-8.7%) and this decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on the crops by 18.6% (as measured by the indicator the Environmental Impact Quotient [EIQ]). Furthermore, it has been reported a significant reduction in the release of greenhouse gas emissions from this cropping area, which, in 2012, was equivalent to removing 11.88 million cars from the streets.

Economically, they bring a high advantage to the farmers, allowing them to grow in a competitive environment, generating more products with a lower expenses.

GMOs are helping to supply resources a never ending growing world population. Therefore, they could be a solution for the doomsday prediction that the economist Maltus made more than 100 years ago: “we are going to run out of resources and we won’t feed an exponential rising world population”. Science published at the beginning of 2000 a breakthrough research: the golden rice. This special GMO counts with the addition of three beta-carotene biosynthesis genes. These compounds added nutrient value to the rice, as they are precursors for the vitamin A biosyntheses. This project was leaded by Drs. Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, whom had the aim to introduce this enriched rice in the african, latin american and asian market where the deficit in this vitamin causes terrible health problems. At the time of publication, golden rice was considered a significant breakthrough in biotechnology, as the researchers had engineered an entire biosynthetic pathway. Five years later, a new version of the golden rice producing up to 23 times more beta-carotene than the original, was announced.

GMOs on the dark side of the force:

As an artificial organism that we are introducing to nature we can only try to predict how are we going to impact the environment. The ecology of this artificial selection was predicted as catastrophic, for example for the soy harvest in Argentina, where the excessive use of this GMO leaves the soil without nutrients, kind of “death” and unable to generate any other product. This exhaustion of the field may bring a negative impact in the future.

According to the center for food safety, GMOs products make up about 90 percent of cash crops like cotton, corn and soybeans nationwide. As Monsanto holds the 80% and the 90% of american corn and soybeans , respectively, and its licenses, the monopoly issue started to rise. Neither the farmers or scientist are allowed to research on the GMOs created by Monsanto, without a legal permission. This avoids the independent safety testing, and some scientists have rise the case to the US Supreme Court.

Furthermore, the farmers are subject to pay the increase price for the seeds that they can only buy for a few companies. Indeed, between 1995 and 2011, the per acre cost of corn and soybean increased 259% and 325%, respectively (US Department of Agriculture). With this strong license policy, an increasing number of small farmers have gone bankrupt as a consequence of having an accidental (like wind dispersal, split seed or cross contamination) presence of GMO on their fields. It is not surprising that with this situation the idea of changing seeds, buying a non-GMO species scares the farmers.


The labeling topic is even more sensible. The Food and Drug Administration favors voluntary labeling and says GMO products must meet the same safety levels as other foods. On the other hand the Center for Food Safety supports mandatory labeling. The GMOs producers prefer to avoid the labeling, as it brings unwanted attention to the product and bad advertising. The pro labeling organizations claim that it is the consumer right to know exactly what they are eating. My favorite comment in this regard was made by Gene Hall, a spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau: “We don’t need to label something that is absolutely safe.”

As a great technology in development, GMOs are like Anakin Skywalker in his early age trying to decide which side of the force he should join, both present advantages and disadvantages, but without a correct guidance, like Yoda would be, this technology could be joining the dark side of the force.

8 Ways to Get the Best out of Networking Events


By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Para la traduccion en espanol mirar  mas abajo.

When you are attending a networking event, it doesn’t matter if you are hiring, searching for a job or just increasing your LinkedIn connections, there are some simple ideas that would make you go home with a smile on your face and a lot of business cards in your pocket.


1. Know what are you looking for, as always in life

You must have your aim or goal in mind, so you can transmit it to the other people. Prepare a short introduction about yourself and your expectations in advance, and when I say short, I mean it. Nothing is more boring than a stranger giving you a dissertation on a topic that you do not care about. Therefore focus your short introductory speech according to your goal for the event. On the other hand, the “hit and run” strategy is a highway to failure. For example if you are job hunting, it is important to sell yourself to the correct people… which brings me to the next topic..


2. Connect smart!

If you start a conversation and it does not look very productive for you, do not be afraid and just say “thanks, bye” and move on, no harm done. Normally the networking events don’t last more than 2 hours and you have to take advantage of every available second.


3. Know the attendants

So try to get a list of the attendants before hand, and “Google” them in order to know if they’re important connections for you and which kind of conversations or common interest you can discuss. This is not stalking, but sometimes it is good to check out photos of people you want to talk to so you can recognize them. Moreover, leave your mark, tell then something that will make then remember you, and if you can: find a reason to keep in touch.


4. Have an ice breaker

Some tips for those shy souls: just go and say, “Hi, how are you?” and honestly wait to get an answer. You can follow it with “I am John Doe, I work in Awesome-land, what are you doing?”. Or you can ask questions such as, “do you work in….?” or “What are you drinking?” “What advice would you give to someone who wants to break into this field?” “Would you recommend with who I should speak? May I use your name as a reference?” I know it is kind of a cheesy icebreaker but it is the best shot. Everybody is there to meet people, and if you just stand around staring at the empty space the probabilities of you meeting another interesting human being are very low.


5. Dress to impress, but not too much

About the look: dress your best according with the type of event you are attending, but always let your own style show through. It’s your personality that makes you special and different, and that can be reflected in your outfit.


6. Be special

Write your name on the tag in big, clear letters (young people forget that old people can’t read small writing) and put it on the right side of your chest. Why? Because when you shake someone’s hand your right shoulder will be pointing directly at them. Also most of the people you will meet are right handed and the easier for them is to put the sticker on their left side, so you might have a possible conversation starter.

[box style=”rounded”]What about a “wing man”? Personally, I love this strategy because I team up really well with my friends, but it can be contra productive as the people can feel it overwhelming to have a crowd “attacking” them.[/box]

Be brave

The most important advice is to just go. Event if you are afraid of putting yourself thorough this wild networking event world, just do it. I was searching for a job when a friend convinced me to attend a biotech event at a bar. The event was not looking very successful when we had first arrived and I was regretting my decision. But, eventually a handsome man walked over to me and mentioned in a very friendly way that he was working for a company that was looking for a chemist, which I am not. I literally moonwalked far away from him as I didn’t want to waste my time. But before leaving he came back again and handed me his card, which I added to the pile. Two weeks later I updated my LinkedIn connections adding all the professionals that I met in these events and to my surprise a message came back from this handsome man inviting me for a coffee. Long story short: I met my boyfriend in a networking event. So you never know what can came out of these gatherings. One thing is sure, only positive things are born from networking. Sharing you experience, knowledge, needs and future goals with other professionals is always rewarding.


8. Let’s listen to professional advice by recruiter Nick Corcodilos

[quote style=”boxed”]True networking is when you spend time with people who do the work you want to do, talking shop. Good networking involves working with other active professionals, even if it’s on a volunteer project, or to learn something new. Good networking is rubbing elbows and enjoying talk and activities related to the work you want to do. Here’s the thing that confuses people and frustrates them: They think we network to get our next job. That’s absolutely wrong. We network to get smarter, to make new friends, to build our value and our credibility in our professional community, to help others, and to enjoy our work outside of the job. Job opportunities arise out of networking; they are not the reason to do it.[/quote]


Nick Corcodilos, in Ask The Headhunter newsletter, “Too late to network?” March 18, 2008.

Where to start:

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Chasing the "One Drug" to Rule Them All

(All meaning all the hemorrhagic fever viruses)

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Almost all the hemorrhagic fever viruses are listed by the World Health Organization to be only handled in Biohazard level 4 facilities, as they are potential agents of bioterrorism. These are also RNA viruses, which have a mortality ratio between 30 to 90% and there are no vaccines or effective treatment methods available. In fact, the recommended anti viral treatment; Ribavirin has not shown to be very successful in a randomized-controlled trial, as Ribavirin was not superior to no Ribavirin treatment in mortality rates. One would think that these types of viruses could only arise in far and remote regions like Argentina (in the case of Junin virus) or Congo (like the Ebola virus). However with the increase in the intercontinental travels these viruses could be closer than what you would expect.

But not all is bad news: Lu et al. examined the effect of inhibitors based on a host protein (Tsg101), and discovered an inhibitor for at least 2 negative stranded RNA viruses (Junin virus and Ebola virus). Compound 0013 could reduce Junin virus egress dissemination and disease progression in infected individuals by inhibiting the viral nucleoprotein-Tsg101 interaction. Moreover, since this Tsg101 related recruitment system is utilized by other RNA virus pathogens (e.g. Ebola virus and HIV-1), the compound 0013 has the potential to function as a broad-spectrum, host-oriented antiviral drug.

In a more advance stage of drug development, in a recent Nature article, Warren et al. showed that a compound: BCX4430, inhibits infection of Ebola and Marburg virus in human cells. Furthermore, the post exposure of this compound in rodents also protects against further viral infections. BCX4430 is a novel synthetic adenosine analogue that inhibits viral RNA polymerase function. The hallmark is that BCX4430 protects macaques from Marburg virus infection when administered as late as 48 hours after infection. Finally, BCX4430 exhibits broad-spectrum antiviral activity against other viruses, including bunyaviruses, arenaviruses, paramyxoviruses, coronaviruses and flaviviruses.


Lastly, in the Science magazine, Andrews et al. showed the efficiency of the compound GSK744 in protecting macaques against HIV infection. This drug is an integrase strand-transfer inhibitor that has been formulated as a long-acting injectable. GSK744 was administered at two time points 4 weeks apart, beginning 1 week before virus administration, and the macaques were challenged weekly for 8 weeks. GSK744, protected all animals against repeated low-dose challenges. These results suggest that GSK744 could potentially decrease adherence problems associated with daily preexposure prophylaxis and may be administered quarterly in humans. And, of course, this compound has been suggested to be use as an inhibitor for other RNA viruses.


As you can see, not all the researchers involved in drug discovery are only focus in their own virus of interest or are as avid to put the drugs in the market before passing with honors all the FDA approval test, as the movie “Dallas Buyers Club” showed us recently.


The drug discovery process is very extensive, exhausting and expensive; in order pass the reach the pre-clinical and clinical testing to pass the stringent FDA approval. Therefore, finding “the drug” than can be effective against a variety of viruses (and not toxic for humans!) could be a shortcut in medicine development.


Ebola – Closer than You Think


Ebola, the hemorrhagic fever is closer than you think, but there is no reason to panic…yet!

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

In case you did not hear about it, the Center of Disease Control (CDC) reported an outbreak of a “more virulent” Ebola virus infections in Guinea, spreading now to Sierra Leone . Ebola virus is the etiological agent of severe hemorrhagic fever. The symptoms? Fever, rash, severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and bleeding, both internally and externally. The fatality rate? Around 90%. Even worse, these outbreaks are occurring with increasing frequency. Some explanations for this are the increased contact between humans and the natural reservoir of the viruses (fruit bats), and fluctuations in viral load and prevalence in this reservoir. The transmission of the virus mostly occurs by contact with infected blood, secretions or organs of either bats, nonhuman primates or humans. This is why you should not eat bats or monkeys if you visit any of the affected areas, or hang around any cemeteries. Not surprisingly, Ebola was named as the most frightening disease in the world. It was documented for the first time in 1976 in the Republic of Congo; one of the sources came from the Ebola River.


In 2012 an outbreak in Uganda found us in a similar medical emptiness: the research of two of the vaccines that were “apparently” going great had been canceled by the department of defense, due to funding constraints.  Therefore, so far we do not have any vaccine or effective treatment available.


Albeit a DNA based vaccine was described in 2003 to fully protected macaques against the fatal virus, it did not continue to further clinical trials.  It was not until 10 years later that a group in the US National Institutes of Health published research about a vaccine consisting of a recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus expressing the ebola glycoprotein which protects macaques from Ebola virus infections, although this method is not licensed for human use.


But, why does the US department of defense care about an African virus? The answer is pretty obvious: it can be used as a bio hazard weapon. On the other hand, no leading pharmaceutical is going to invest in a “very expensive and time consuming” vaccine development to be used in countries that can not afford even a basic level of health care. Some compounds are showing a promising antiviral effect in vitro and/or an inhibition of a variety of viral proteins activities. Sadly, all of them are in an early stage of drug development.


Before freaking out, the best “cure” and prevention method against this scaring virus is knowledge, so check out the updates in the CDC website.

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