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A great read for the weekend.
Emerging viral diseases are always high value news items. However, how will viruses change over the next few years? In recent years, the most significant virus of them all, in terms of human cases and death toll, was the re-emergence of Ebola, which is causing the biggest outbreak of the disease in history. But there is also chikungunya fever, which appeared in the United States for the first time in July, and enterovirus D68, a previously rare disease causing an outbreak of respiratory illness among U.S. children.
Humans have come a long way in preventing viral diseases over the last one hundred years. Children receive vaccinations against nine viral diseases, including many that used to cause life-threatening complications, such as polio. But still, there are fewer treatments for viral diseases than for those caused by bacteria, and when infectious disease pandemics emerge, the pathogens that are the most lethal are the viruses.
Treatments for viral diseases have generally stayed far behind treatments for bacterial diseases. One reason for that is simply because scientists have been working on antibacterial treatments for longer. Viruses are also much smaller than bacteria, and they have fewer genes or proteins to target with treatments. Viruses also mutate much more quickly than bacteria, so any therapy that is developed may no longer work after a short time.
In addition, bacteria are living cells that divide on their own, and a lot of drug treatments against bacteria work by knocking out essential functions of those cells, such as the ability to replicate. But viruses are not made of cells, and they are even not exactly “alive” — they just hijack the machinery of their hosts’ cells in order to replicate, so researchers can’t target virus functions or replication in a traditional way.
When the first antibiotics were developed in the 1940s, they were considered something akin to a miracle cure for diseases that had once seemed unstoppable. A few decades later, scientists developed drugs against viruses, known as antivirals. However, although there are “broad-spectrum” antibiotics, which are single drugs that work against dozens of bacteria, the spectrum for antivirals is much narrower. Most antiviral drugs are specific for one type of virus, although some work against two or three.
Some of the most successful antiviral drugs inhibit a certain viral enzyme called reverse transcriptase, which synthesizes parts of the virus. Several drugs against HIV work in this way. However, only RNA viruses (HIV for example) use reverse transcriptase, so drugs against this enzyme will not work for DNA viruses. In addition, the structure of reverse transcriptase can be very different depending on the virus, which is why an antiviral that works against HIV might not work for Ebola.
Discovering antiviral drugs is easier today than it used to be, thanks to new technologies. That should continue to be a strong factor in favor of humanity when it comes to fighting diseases of the future. A few decades ago, researchers had to test potential drugs individually, and it could take three to six months to test three hundred potential drugs, Now, the process is automated with robots, so those same three hundred drugs would require only a few days to test.
In addition, researchers can now view three-dimensional models of viral components on a computer, and quickly design and “test” compounds with computer programs that simulate the binding of drugs to viral components. However, because new antiviral drug treatments may be years or decades away, public health organizations are focused on stopping pandemics before they start. New viral diseases typically emerge because of human activity that brings people into contact with wildlife, such as road building, hunting and agriculture expansion. About 75 percent of emerging diseases in people come from animals. So to reduce the risk of an outbreak, researchers need to figure out ways to reduce the activity that brings us into contact with wildlife, particularly in incredibly hot areas where diseases tend to emerge, such as tropical areas. Pandemics of the future will hang on the thread of researchers being able to fight the onset of the disease with all the technology that is available to them.
In modern times, the use and control of tiny matter (nanotechnology) has become increasingly important. It has many uses from developing sports equipment to medical applications, to uses within the textile industry and even helping with energy. There are, however, some concerns about its use. The tiny matter is referred to as nanoparticles. These particles are measured in nanometers (nm). A nanometer is one billionth of a meter (0.000,000,001m). Nanotechnology is concerned with the use and control of structures that are 1-100 nanometers in size.
Some of these nanoparticles occur naturally, for example in volcanic ash. Some occur by accident, for example during the combustion of fuels. Many occur by design. However, nanotechnology has a number of interesting potential applications in areas.
Things behave differently at the nanoscale. An excellent example is the fact that gold actually reflects red light at the nanoscale. This has resulted in the design of experimental systems that kill cancerous cells with normal visible light, but leave normal cells unharmed. Also, body tissue can be reproduced or repaired using nanotechnology, which could eventually develop into treatments to replace or repair organs.
Nanotechnology could be harnessed to consume extremely low amounts of energy, making it a vital alternative to current methods of supplying power.
Nanotech is already at use in consumer products ranging from stain-resistant and anti-wrinkle textiles in clothing, to cosmetics. If keeping clothes clean isn’t enough, ‘smart clothing’ could monitor your heart rate and other vital signs.
The relationship between the volume and surface area of some particles can change at nanoscales in such a manner that they can end up with more ‘outside’ than ‘inside.’ (If you’re a “Dr. Who” fan, think of it as the opposite of a TARDIS.) The advantage is that the more surface you have, the more reactions you can have on that surface. This can allow new kinds of filtering, such as water for drinking or light for solar energy.
From the North Pole to the South Pole, there is change in the air. The planet is warming up. Science fiction authors tell sometimes of what will happen with a warmer world—but that future isn’t so far away. Many changes are happening right now. This rising heat is melting sea ice and destroying glaciers. It’s changing the way animals live and the way our weather works. Slowly but surely, a warmer world will make its effects known. But what will that world be like?
In the near future, sea levels are expected to rise over 7 inches, and by the end of this century, with continuous melting at the poles, those levels could add between six to eight inches more to seas around the world. Freak weather will become far more common with storms, hurricanes and other catastrophes looking ever more likely. Plants will bloom earlier than the insects that pollinate them. Droughts will become far more common. Fresh water will become rarer, and disease will run rampant with the onset of mosquitoes carrying malaria.
The ecoystems of the world are going to change drastically with animals on the move. Those that can adapt, will—those that cannot adapt will die. Polar bears have already been showing signs of becoming skinnier, and it has already been said that if the sea ice disappears, the polar bear will become extinct.
These are just some of the changes we will face in the future. But we already facing changes on a day-to-day basis. Researchers have tracked the decline of the Adélie penguins on Antarctica, where their numbers have fallen from 32,000 breeding pairs to 11,000 in 30 years. Some butterflies, foxes, and alpine plants have moved farther north or to higher, cooler areas. Spruce bark beetles have boomed in Alaska thanks to 20 years of warm summers. The insects have chewed up 4 million acres of spruce trees.
So it isn’t just science fiction authors who have ideas about a warmer future. It’s today, tomorrow and every day until the end of Earth’s life.