Headliners: bird flu-swine flu hybrids & a $3 million algorithm

This week, scientists reveal killer flu hybrids, that air pollution causes more heart attacks than cocaine, and new reasons why 2 popular anti-tumor drugs won't work. Also, a $3 million prize for an algorithm that prevents unnecessary hospitalizations.
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor

1. Bird flu meets swine flu

If the 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza virus and the H9N2 virus (found in Asian poultry) were to simultaneously infect the same animal, the viruses could potentially swap genes and create a hybrid more dangerous to humans than either virus alone.

After mixing genes from these two viruses, scientists tested the 127 hybrids in mice. They found that 8 of the hybrids proved more virulent than either of their parent strains.

While the World Health Organization says that the H1N1 flu is now ‘post-pandemic,’ this Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study shows that genetic reassortment could make it a new public health threat.

2. Dirty air causes more heart attacks than cocaine (and just as much as drinking or overeating)

Sex, anger, marijuana use, and chest or respiratory infections also trigger heart attacks to various extents, but air pollution, particularly in heavy traffic, is the major culprit, Reuters reports.

The Lancet paper looked at 36 studies, calculating the relative risk posed by a series of heart attack triggers and the proportion of total heart attacks caused by each.

The researchers suggest that population-wide factors like polluted air should be taken more seriously when looking at heart risks.

3. New reasons why some cancer drugs don’t work

Many tumors live on despite the use of anti-tumor drugs that tell cancer cells to self-destruct, such as Taxol and vincristine. Two new Nature papers this week have independently pinpointed one of the causes of this resistance: mutations in FBW7 gene.

In certain cancers, the loss of the tumor suppressor FBW7 stops the breakdown of a protein called MCL1, which is necessary for cell death, Nature News explains. FBW7 was destroying MCL1.

The loss of FBW7 happens in breast and colon cancers, and the studies suggest that analyzing levels of FBW7 and MCL1 could offer a simple diagnostic test to identify which patients are likely to benefit from these potent therapies.

4. Heritage launches $3 million Health Prize

The Heritage Provider Network in California wants to increase patient health while decreasing the costs. And they’ll give $3 million to a team who can do that.

The goal of the Heritage Health Prize is “to develop a breakthrough algorithm that uses available patient data, including health records and claims data, to predict and prevent unnecessary hospitalizations.”

The winning algorithm must identify patients at risk for unplanned hospital admissions with a high rate of accuracy. The first team to reach the accuracy threshold will have their algorithms confirmed by a judging panel. Registration opens April 4.

5. Breastmilk ice cream, Baby Gaga, confiscated

So I’m in England right now, and my epidemiologist friend alerts me to the week’s Londontown craze: ice cream made from the milk of 15 mothers, sold at Icecreamists in Covent Garden. It’s called Baby Gaga, flavored with Madagascan vanilla pods and lemon zest, and goes for 14 pounds (that’s over $20). The first batch was sold out within days. "It's pure, it's natural, it's organic, and it's free range,” says store founder Matt O'Connor.

But despite the store’s blood donor-like screening process, Baby Gaga was confiscated this week. Westminster Council took it all for testing: "Selling foodstuffs made from another person's bodily fluids can lead to viruses being passed on and in this case, potentially hepatitis," says Brian Connell from the council.

Guess I’ll stick with steak and kidney pie.

Image: Smoke stacks by Alfred Palmer, 1942 / Library of Congress

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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