Skip to content

Wellcome Trust Research Round-up: 15/09/14

15 Sep, 2014

Our fortnightly round-up of research news from the Wellcome Trust community…

Risk of Ebola emergence mapped

A new map identifies areas where animals are likely to be infected with the Ebola virus. The map is a first step towards understanding where future outbreaks of the disease may occur.

The map, based on a model created by Oxford University scientists, predicts that in animal populations, the Ebola virus is likely to be circulating across a vast swathe of forested Central and West Africa. This area covers seven countries which have already reported Ebola transmission from animals to humans, as well as 15 more countries which are likely to be at risk.

A report of the research, which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, is published in the open access journal eLife.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 13.58.12

So far there have been only 30 confirmed cases of Ebola transmission from animals to humans – the virus is difficult to catch from animals and most instances of transmission are thought to arise from close contact through hunting or butchering infected animals. However, current international efforts to control outbreaks of Ebola in humans in West Africa, and reports of a separate outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, highlight the importance of being prepared for future outbreaks of the disease so that they can be stopped early.

Whilst rare as a human disease, Ebola virus is thought to be present in many animal populations, especially bats, which can carry the virus without it being lethal to them.

The team generated the model by bringing together available data on where human and animal infections have occurred from 1976 to the present and looking for similarities in environmental factors such as vegetation, elevation, temperature, and estimated distribution of bat populations. The researchers were then able to create a map identifying similar areas where the virus is likely to be carried by animals and there is a risk of transmission to humans triggering future outbreaks.

Binge drinking in pregnancy may affect children’s mental health and school results

Binge drinking during pregnancy may increase the risk of mental health problems in 11 year old children and can have a negative effect on their school examination results, according to research published in the journal European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Increased risk of mental illness, particularly hyperactivity and inattention, was found by researchers even after a number of other lifestyle and social factors were taken into account. The findings build on earlier research on the same children that found a link between mothers binge drinking during pregnancy and the child’s mental health when aged four and seven, suggesting that problems can persist as a child gets older. Other effects, such as on academic performance, may only become apparent later in a child’s life.

C0014971 Glass of beerBinge drinking was defined as drinking four or more units of alcohol in a day on at least one occasion during the pregnancy. The women were asked about their drinking pattern at both 18 and 32 weeks of pregnancy and again when their child was aged five.

At age 11, parents and teachers completed questionnaires about the children’s mental health. Information about academic performance was based on the results of the Key Stage 2 examinations taken in the final year at primary school.

Speaking about the findings, the report’s main author, Professor Kapil Sayal from the University of Nottingham, said: “Women who are pregnant or who are planning to become pregnant should be aware of the possible risks associated with episodes of heavier drinking during pregnancy, even if this only occurs on an occasional basis.

“The consumption of four or more drinks in a day may increase the risk for hyperactivity and inattention problems and lower academic attainment even if daily average levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy are low.”

The research was conducted using data from more than 4,000 participants in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents at Children (ALSPAC), which is funded by the Wellcome Trust and the MRC.

Scientists reset human stem cells to earliest developmental state 

Scientists have successfully ‘reset’ human pluripotent stem cells to the earliest developmental state – equivalent to cells found in an embryo before it implants in the womb (7-9 days old). These ‘pristine’ stem cells may mark the true starting point for human development, but have until now been impossible to replicate in the lab.

B0006251 Human embryonic stem cellsThe discovery, published in Cell, will lead to a better understanding of human development and could in future allow the production of safe and more reproducible starting materials for a wide range of applications including cell therapies.

Human pluripotent stem cells, which have the potential to become any of the cells and tissues in the body, can be made in the lab either from cells extracted from a very early stage embryo or from adult cells that have been induced into a pluripotent state.

However, scientists have struggled to generate human pluripotent stem cells that are truly pristine (or naïve). Instead, researchers have only been able to derive cells which have advanced slightly further down the developmental pathway. These bear some of the early hallmarks of differentiation into distinct cell types – they’re not a truly ‘blank slate’. This may explain why existing human pluripotent stem cell lines often exhibit a bias towards producing certain tissue types in the laboratory.

Now researchers led by the Wellcome Trust-Medical Research Council (MRC) Cambridge Stem Cell Institute at the University of Cambridge, have managed to induce a ground state by rewiring the genetic circuitry in human embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells. Their ‘reset cells’ share many of the characteristics of authentic naïve embryonic stem cells isolated from mice, suggesting that they represent the earliest stage of development.

“Capturing embryonic stem cells is like stopping the developmental clock at the precise moment before they begin to turn into distinct cells and tissues,” explains MRC Professor Austin Smith, co-author of the paper. “Scientists have perfected a reliable way of doing this with mouse cells, but human cells have proved more difficult to arrest and show subtle differences between the individual cells. It’s as if the developmental clock has not stopped at the same time and some cells are a few minutes ahead of others.”

In other news…

Dr Dan O’Connor, Head of Medical Humanities at the Wellcome Trust, is speaking at the WHO in Geneva on Thursday this week on the topic of ‘Social Media and Research: Opportunities and Ethical Challenges’. The event is being broadcast over the internet via a webinar.

Congratulations to Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly, Co-Director of the Wellcome Trust-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science and Director of the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit, University of Cambridge, who was awarded the Zulch prize last week.

Image credits: Ebola map – Oxford University, Glass of beer – Wellcome Library, London, Stem cells – Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: