News & Current Affairs

September 18, 2008

Worldwide survey seeks MS answers

Worldwide survey seeks MS answers

Woman

Women are twice as likely as men to develop MS

A major new study that hopes to answer key questions about the neurological disease multiple sclerosis (MS) is being unveiled on Thursday.

This first worldwide study is the work of the WHO and the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation (MSIF).

It remains unclear what causes MS but the study says there may be many more sufferers than the estimated 1.3m.

Survey organizers urge governments to invest more in education and services to improve sufferers’ quality of life.

Specialist equipment

MS is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. It typically emerges in young adults and can lead to severe disability.

Symptoms often include aching, loss of balance, muscle spasm and paralysis and general fatigue.

But there are still many mysteries surrounding MS.

It is not clear what causes it or why women are twice as likely as men to develop it. Or why it is so much more common in colder countries than warmer ones.

There must be many people out there who we just don’t know about
Peer Baneke, MSIF

The study has found that although most cases occur in the developed world, every country that took part in the survey, rich or poor, had some instances.

Peer Baneke, the chief executive of the MSIF, says the rough estimate of 1.3m cases worldwide is probably a big underestimation.

“The diagnosis of multiple sclerosis is very difficult,” he said. “You really need neurologists who have the knowledge to distinguish it from other things.”

It also needs specialist equipment which poorer health systems simply cannot access. MRI scanners, for example, are in short supply in the developing world.

“There must be many people out there who we just don’t know about,” said Mr Baneke.

Stigma

The survey also looks at the experiences of people with MS. In many countries, they face stigma and misunderstanding.

Kanya Puspokusumo, a 36-year-old Indonesian, was diagnosed in 2001.

She said that some people thought MS was similar to Aids. Even though she explained it was not transmitted from one person to another, many still excluded her socially.

Dr Hithaishi Weerakoon is a doctor in Sri Lanka who was diagnosed with MS more than a decade ago.

Many families do not acknowledge MS, she says, and keep affected family members hidden away.

Others say, wrongly, that it has developed as a condition because of sins in a past life.

Those associated with the study say this is an important start – but that far more research needs to be done, especially in developing countries where the process of identifying cases systematically and collecting data is still at a very early stage.

August 14, 2008

Arsenic-munching bacteria found

Arsenic-munching bacteria found

Bacteria(USGS)

Microbial biofilms form in rocky pools, fed by hot springs containing arsenic

In the warm, bubbling pools of Mono Lake in California, scientists have isolated a bacterium that fuels itself on arsenic.

Combining light and arsenic, these bacteria make their food and multiply using a chemical that is toxic to most other life forms.

The researchers think using arsenic as an energy source was a process used by ancient bacteria.

Their findings are reported in the journal Science.

Ronald Oremland of the US Geological Survey explained that these bacteria are photosynthetic, using sunlight – like plants – to turn carbon dioxide into food.

What is different about them is that instead of using water in this process, they use arsenic.

The US-based researchers isolated the bacterium from the lake, which lies at the foot of the Sierra Nevada.

Colour film

“These lakes are fed by hydrothermal waters that leach out arsenic-containing minerals from the surrounding rocks,” Dr Oremland told.

The researchers noticed that the bacteria had colonised small, hot pools, forming colorful “biofilms”.

MonoLake(USGS)

Bacteria living in Mono Lake, California can survive the high levels of arsenic

“We suspected that these bacteria were using arsenic to make a living, so we scraped the biofilms off the rock and studied them under laboratory conditions.”

By first withholding light, then arsenic, the team showed that the bacteria required both to grow.

This the first time an organism has been found that can use arsenic to photosynthesise under anaerobic conditions, Dr Oremland believes.

He suspects that this is an ancient ability in bacteria.

“We think that bacteria were photosynthesising before oxygen was present in the atmosphere,” he said.

Primordial niche

Understanding how arsenic is metabolized by bacteria could help scientists comprehend its damaging affects inside human cells.

Worldwide, 144 million people are exposed to toxic levels of arsenic in their drinking water.

It enters the body’s cells by diffusion; and once inside, it disrupts how they function by binding to their machinery, inactivating it, and disrupting the way energy is transported.

Long-term exposure can lead to skin disease and kidney and bladder cancer, and it is thought to stunt the intellectual development of children.

The most arsenic-contaminated regions are in India, Pakistan, and China, where soluble arsenic in ground waters is above the World Health Organization’s (WHO) suggested maximum safe level of 10 parts per billion.

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