ET phone home: Have we found extra-terrestrial life?

Back in February, we heard the news of the discovery of “7 earth-like planets” with claims that these planets can support life. So what makes these planets different from the other countless planets and star-systems forming our universe? As a biologist, I was determined to come out of my comfort zone and find out!

The Discovery

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The TRAPPIST-1 System with its seven planets.

At its core, the discovery is that we have found seven planets in a single solar system that we believe have the ability to support life; either our own or extra-terrestrial. This system of planets, known as exoplanets as they are outside our solar system, has been named TRAPPIST-1 with each of the seven planets being named TRAPPIST-1b to TRAPPIST-1h with its star, TRAPPIST-1a, being found in the centre. TRAPPIST-1 is 40-light-years away from earth, equivalent of 235 trillion miles, and is found in the constellation of Aquarius, ‘The Water-Bearer’

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The constellation of ‘Aquarius’, known as ‘The Water-Bearer’

 

Ultra-Cool Stars!!

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These stars are ULTRA-COOL!!!

While these planets have been described as ‘earth-like’, the TRAPPIST-1 system as a whole is different to our own solar system in a variety of different aspects. Starting with the central star, TRAPPIST-1a is different type star compared to our sun and is classed as an ‘Ultra-Cool Star’. This means that it is smaller and cooler than our sun. In fact, TRAPPIST-1a is only 8% of the mass of our sun and is only slightly larger than the size of Jupiter. By comparison you would need around 1000 Jupiters to recreate the size and mass of our sun! Ultra-Cool stars are also around half the temperature of our sun. Now while TRAPPIST-1a’s 2300°C temperature may not exactly seem cold, it is nothing compared to our sun’s 5500°C temperature.  Because of its small size and lower temperature, it does not give out as much energy and is therefore much harder to find than other stars. However, it is because of these features that scientists believe that Ultra-Cool Stars are the best place to look for life outside of our solar system.

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Our Sun and the planets in our solar-system. TRAPPIST-1a is only the size of Jupiter for comparison!

The search for life

Is there life on other planets? Are we alone in the universe? These kind of questions have plagued scientists for generations as we searched the stars. The way scientists predict whether a planet can sustain life is whether liquid water can be found there. Liquid water is essential for life, as we currently understand it, to exist.  It is believed that all seven of the planets may have water, and therefore be able to support life, but three have been singled out as more likely than the others. This is because they are found in the star’s ‘habitable zone’ which is the area around the star that’s at the correct temperature to have water in its liquid state. This area is also lovingly called ‘The Goldelocks Zone’ as the temperature is ‘not too hot, not too cold but just right’!

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Comparison of the TRAPPIST-1 habitable zone and our solar system’s habitable zone. All of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are closer to their sun than Mercury is to out sun!

‘7 names for 7 planets’

NASA asked Twitter to name the series of planets and the internet had a field day (I guess some people will never learn from Boaty McBoatface!). I’ve included some of my favourites but if you want to look further into some of the suggestions, search for the hashtag ‘#7NamesFor7NewPlanets’. Click the images below to enlarge them.

If you want some more information about the TRAPPIST-1 system then visit www.trappist.one, a website set-up and run by a group of the researchers.  As I said earlier, talking about life in space was a little out of my comfort zone, and I shall be going back to human biology for the next post! However, personally I found this topic really interesting to research so hopefully I’ll come back to space later in the future!

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To jab or not to jab; that is the question!

Flu, short for Influenza, is one of those diseases that everyone knows. Whether you have suffered from it yourself, or whether a friend or family member has, it is one of those conditions that we are aware of from very young age, similarly to the common cold or chicken-pox. However, unlike the common cold, flu has a devastating effect on people’s lives year on year. While for most of us flu will clear up on its own after a week or so, flu can cause serious complications such as pneumonia and meningitis. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that flu causes 3-5 million serious infections and 500,000 deaths across the globe every year! To help combat this, WHO recommend that a free flu jab should be offered to ‘at-risk’ groups to reduce chances of flu, however there are many myths surrounding whether this annual jab actually works.

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Flu is coming to get you!!!!

What actually is Influenza?

Influenza is caused by the influenza virus that can be found in one of three types; A, B or C. Each of these types of virus have different structures and properties. Influenza A viruses are the most common strain of virus to cause flu and are the only strain able to infect both animals (such as swine and bird flu) and humans. Influenza B viruses are the second most common form of flu and can only be found in humans. This form is thought to have originated from Asian countries but now has spread globally. Influenza C viruses are rare and usually only cause mild flu symptoms in children.

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Ham from Toy Story makes sure he’s vaccinated against swine flu!
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Don’t be a chicken! Get your jab!

Both A and B viruses can be further divided into subtypes by their structure.  A viruses are sub-classified depending on which proteins are found on the virus’ surface, specifically which form of the proteins haemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N).  Each of these two proteins exists in a number of forms, specifically 18 forms of haemagglutinin and 9 forms of neuraminidase. The two most common forms of A viruses are the ‘H1N1’ (i.e. the virus contains type 1 of the haemagglutinin protein and type 1 of the neuraminidase protein) and ‘H3N2’ virus subtypes. B viruses fall into one of two groups, or ‘lineages’, called Yamagata and Victoria. While the viruses fall into these broad subtypes or lineages, they are not all identical. Each group has a variety of viruses where each is said to be a different ‘strain’.

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3D animation of the complex flu virus

Dissecting the Flu Jab

Vaccines are one of the most beneficial discoveries in modern medicine.  By using weaker versions of the disease, vaccines can trigger our body’s immune system to fight off the infection, our body can remember which viruses it has fought against, allowing a faster response in the future. A vaccine for flu, the flu jab, has been approved for human use since 1945 and usage has been on the rise ever since. There are two forms of the jab, a Trivalent Vaccine, which can protect a person against 3 strains of the influenza and a newer Quadrivalent Vaccine which can protect against 4 strains which was approved in 2012.  Both forms of the vaccine protect against two A-Strains and one B-Strain with the Quadrivalent including protection against an addition B-Strain. The exact strains that are chosen for the vaccine are decided by WHO on an annual basis and patients and public alike must have the jab re-administered every year.

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Don’t forget the annual flu season from October to February this year!

How effective is it?

A popular news story surrounding the flu jab is that it “doesn’t work”, however the situation is a little more complex than that. The influenza virus is known to ‘shift’ and ‘drift’ meaning that the virus can mutate at any time, or even fuse to other influenza viruses, to form a new strain. Because of this, new strains of influenza are present every year, meaning we need a new vaccine every year to combat these new strains. In order to do this, we predict which strains of the virus shall be the most prominent year on year. This is done by an influenza specific subdivision of WHO, the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) Network.  The network collects surveillance data, both from hospitals and laboratories, computer simulations, genetic profiling, vaccine effectiveness and other forms of data on the influenza virus every year. WHO then evaluate this evidence twice a year and select which strands are to be included in that year’s vaccine, once for the northern hemisphere in February and once for the southern hemisphere in September. Each year WHO recommends an A/H1N1 strain, an A/H3N2 strain, a B/Victoria strain and a B/Yamagata strain of the influenza virus to be included in the vaccines. These predictions need to be done around 9 months before the next flu season for the recommendations to be approved and the vaccines to be mass produced. However, if these recommendations are wrong and are not the most prominent strains of the influenza virus, the jab does not protect patients.

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Don’t let a little prick stop you from getting your jab!

Protecting those in need

As with most vaccines, the flu jab is available to the general public who wish to receive the jab, however certain demographics are advised to receive the jab over others. WHO recommends that 75% of the elderly, children, pregnant women and patients with chronic conditions should all receive free flu jabs from their respective countries. WHO also recommend health care workers to receive flu jabs and here in the UK, the NHS launched a flu jab awareness campaign to increase the numbers of protected healthcare workers to help protect not only themselves, but also their patients.

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NHS England wants to make sure that you stay well this winter.

However, annual uptake of the flu jab still remains remarkably low in these groups across Europe. More action still needs to be done by governments and hospitals alike to help protect those in need from the dangers of influenza.

Three Person IVF: Disease Management or Designer Babies?

The use of technology to help those wanting to conceive a child is not a new concept.  IVF, in vitro fertilisation, is a phrase that most of us will recognise from the media or perhaps even know someone who has undergone the procedure. Simply put, the procedure involves sperm and ovum (egg) being donated by willing participants,  the sperm penetrates the ovum (fertilisation) in a laboratory environment and the new embryo is planted back into the woman or a surrogate who bares the embryo through a normal pregnancy.

IVF as a theory begun in the 1950s with it only being perfected to be compatible with humans in the 1970s. The first human ‘created’ via IVF was Louise Brown who was born in July 1978 after her parents had volunteered to trial the procedure. Over the decades that followed, IVF has become more common place with over 5 million babies being born worldwide through using the procedure.

 

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Image of the first human fertilised using the IVF technique, Louise Joy Brown, born 25th July 1978 in England. 

Those who use IVF have primarily use it as a way to overcome infertility. Fertility problems from both male and female partners can be overcome using this procedure such as blocked or damaged Fallopian tubes in the uterus as well as low sperm count or damaged sperm motility.

IVF has recently resurfaced in the media here in the UK became the first country in the world to approve the use of Three-Person-IVF. Three-Person-IVF builds upon the IVF procedure described above but is used but is used to overcome genetic mitochondrial diseases instead of simply infertility.

So what on earth are genetic mitochondrial diseases? Let’s start with what are mitochondria? Some readers may be getting flashbacks from school of ‘Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell’. This phrase, in the simplest sense, is correct as mitochondria use glucose to create a molecule called ATP, which the body uses for energy transportation. Mitochondria also differ from other parts of the cell in how they are created. Every other component of human cells are created using a fusion of DNA from the mother and father, however, mitochondria have their own loop of DNA and they are produced using this DNA set.

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Image of a mitochondria producing ATP as an portable energy store.

Mitochondrial diseases occur when this DNA goes wrong one of which is Muscular Dystrophy. Here the DNA is mutated in such a way that the mitochondria don’t work as efficiently and less ‘energy’ is produced. One of the first signs of the disorder are weakened muscle, hence it is known as a Mitochondrial Myopathy (‘Myo’ meaning Muscle and ‘Pathy’ meaning Disease).

Three-Person-IVF is used when offspring are of high risk of developing one of these mitochondrial myopathies. There are a number of different ways this IVF can be done but they all follow the same basis. Following normal IVF, as described above, the genetic material of the offspring (i.e. only the DNA) is is taken out of the cell. Here it is moved to a ‘donor cell’ which has healthy mitochondria. The donor cell has it’s own DNA replaced with the new offspring and it grows inside that new cell. This procedure is more commonly known as ‘Mitochondrial Donation’ in the scientific community than Three-Person-IVF.

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Image of the first human fertilised by IVF, Louise Joy Brown, born 25th July 1978 in England.

Many fear over different aspects of the procedure with a common fear of the beginning of a slippery slope to designer babies. If the technology allows, people fear of paid scientists ultimately choosing genes to be expressed from a cosmetic point-of-view instead of a health one. However, as things stand now, Three-Person-IVF is not made for this.

 

New HIV Drug funded by the NHS?

HIV has caught the headlines in the UK again in recent weeks when the National Health Service, NHS England, was brought to the High Court over funding of the new drug type PrEP. The High Court has ruled that NHS England can fund the new drug type Pre-Expose Prophylaxis (PrEP) to help combat HIV.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus, more commonly known as HIV, is still seen at large within the UK with approximately 104,000 people living with HIV in 2014. HIV is commonly seen as ‘the gay disease’ however, this is not the only demographic affected. While the largest proportion of those with HIV is MSM (men who have sex with men), the second largest proportion is in fact heterosexual Black African men and women. With modern medicine, such as the early form of PrEP drugs, AZT which was distributed in the late 1990s, being diagnosed with HIV is no longer a death sentence.

The HIV virus is spread through bodily fluids, most commonly being semen and blood during unprotected sexual intercourse. Once it infects the body, it hijacks cells and uses their resources to create new HIV viruses.  When the new HIV viruses are released, they infect even more of the body and the cycle continues. During the initial infection, many appear to have ‘flu-like symptoms’. This is as HIV often attacks cells of the immune system to replicate, specifically T-Helper White Blood Cells, known as CD4 Cells. This replication process kills the CD4 cells, leaving the body more vulnerable to infection. When the number of CD4 cells decreases below a certain point, the patient is diagnosed with  Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)

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A 3D rendered image of the HIV virus. Photo by iStockphoto

 

PrEP currently costs £400 a month per person to administer and has been shown to cut HIV infection rates by up to 90%.It is an antiretroviral (anti-retro-viral) drug, which means it stops the HIV virus from replicating inside the host cell, therefore stopping the spread of HIV should a person become infected. Specifically, the drugs block the making of new RNA specific to the HIV Virus,  a molecule used to create new structures in cells. The drug would be given to those who are HIV negative but have a high risk of coming into contact with the virus.

However not everyone is happy with this new court ruling; NHS England has claimed that the preventative drug was not their responsibility, but instead should be funded by HIV preventative bodies and local councils. It has also claimed that funding for PrEP may reduce funding for other medication. The National Aids Trust, the body that brought NHS England to the High Court after claims that NHS England did not have the power to fund PrEP, have announced they are thrilled with the news. NHS England have said they shall launch an appeal into the ruling given here before they begin funding PrEP.

 

Science Scandals: Anti-Vaccination

The science community, just like any other community, has had its fair share of scandals over the years with one of the most well known being the ‘Anti-Vaccination’ movement.

Vaccinations are used by medical professionals to protect or immunise patients from diseases. They use weaker versions of a disease, or group of diseases, that are injected into the body. Our body’s immune system of white blood cells are activated and easy destroy these weak strains of diseases. One member of the immune system, B-Cells, remembers the disease so that if it comes into contact with it again, the disease can be easily and quickly destroyed.

Those in the movement have been found to be against vaccinations for a number of reasons, ranging from religious reasons to fears about safety. Many believe that the vaccination procedure causes more harm than good, with a specific belief that vaccinations cause Autism. This began when a paper published by Dr Andrew Wakefield in 1998 claimed that children who had the MMR vaccination (that uses the virus for Measles, Mumps and Rubella) had an increased chance of developing autism. The paper was published in The Lancet, a very well regarded academic medical journal, and was quickly grasped by the media posting headlines such as ‘MMR Killed My Daughter’ and ‘New evidence shows MMR link to autism’ over the years. The study’s affects has been one of the major factors in a decrease of children receiving the MMR vaccine as well as outbreaks of measles in recent years.

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An image of the Rubella virus under a microscope. Image taken from The Telegraph. Photo credit: The Science Picture Company

The original paper looked at 12 children who were brought to Dr Wakefield and his colleagues with gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhoea and abdominal pains (stomach cramps). These children had also recently started developing behavioural disorders, most commonly being autism which was noted to be after the MMR vaccine. However, his study was retracted in 2010 for accusations of ethical and scientific misconduct. Specifically, Dr Wakefield had not disclosed that he was partially funded by families suing the vaccine companies, had not received permission for invasive procedures on children and accusations of fraud, i.e. making up or selectively ignoring data.All these accusations led to an enquiry by the General Medical Council who stripped Dr Wakefield of his licence.

Numerous studies have now been conducted over the last decade into the link between MMR and Autism and these have collectively found that there is no link between the MMR Vaccine and development of Autism, however this confirmation of the vaccine’s safety cannot reverse the damage caused by this MMR-Autism scare.