Snapshots of Life: Virus Hunting with Carbon Nanotubes

H5N2 trapped in carbon nanotubes

Credit: Penn State University

The purple pods that you see in this scanning electron micrograph are the H5N2 avian flu virus, a costly threat to the poultry and egg industry and, in very rare instances, a health risk for humans. However, these particular pods are unlikely to infect anything because they are trapped in a gray mesh of carbon nanotubes. Made by linking carbon atoms into a cylindrical pattern, such nanotubes are about 10,000 times smaller than width of a human hair.

The nanotubes above have been carefully aligned on a special type of silicon chip called a carbon-nanotube size-tunable-enrichment-microdevice (CNT-STEM). As described recently in Science Advances, this ultrasensitive device is designed to capture viruses rapidly based on their size, not their molecular characteristics [1]. This unique feature enables researchers to detect completely unknown viruses, even when they are present in extremely low numbers. In proof-of-principle studies, CNT-STEM made it possible to collect and detect viruses in a sample at concentrations 100 times lower than with other methods, suggesting the device and its new approach will be helpful in the ongoing hunt for new and emerging viruses, including those that infect people.

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Creative Minds: Considering the Social Determinants of Health

Sanjay Basu

Sanjay Basu

When Sanjay Basu was growing up in Arizona in the 1980s, his mother contracted a devastating lung infection known as valley fever. Caused by a fungus (called Coccidioides) common in the southwest United States, the condition often affects construction or agricultural workers who inhale the fungal spores while working the soil. Basu’s mother didn’t work in agriculture or construction, but the family did happen to live near a construction site. She spent about nine years in and out of intensive care units battling her illness. She survived, but still has difficulty breathing.

This wrenching experience gave Basu a first-hand appreciation for the social determinants of health—the conditions in which people live and the myriad internal and external forces that dynamically shape them. Now an assistant professor at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, Basu has dedicated his career to studying the social determinants of health disparities, health differences that adversely affect disadvantaged populations. He recently received an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to examine U.S. social assistance programs and their effects on a range of health outcomes over the last 40-plus years. He’ll consider eight federal and state programs—including income, housing, and food assistance programs—that reach more than 1 in 3 Americans.

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LabTV: Curious About Tuberculosis

LabTV-Bree AldridgeOne reason that I decided to share these LabTV profiles is that they put a human face on the amazingly wide range of NIH-supported research being undertaken every day in labs across the country. So far, we’ve met young scientists pursuing basic, translational, and clinical research related to the immune system, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and the brain’s natural aging process. Today, we head to Boston to visit a researcher who has set her sights on a major infectious disease challenge: tuberculosis, or TB.

Bree Aldridge, PhD, an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, runs a lab that’s combining microbiology and bioengineering in an effort to streamline treatment for TB, which leads to more than 2 million deaths worldwide every year [1]. Right now, people infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis—the microbe that causes TB—must take a combination of drugs for anywhere from six to nine months. When I was exposed to TB as a medical resident, I had to take a drug for a whole year. These lengthy regimens raise the risk that people will stop taking the drugs prematurely or that an opportunistic strain of M. tuberculosis will grow resistant to the therapy. By gaining a better basic understanding of both M. tuberculosis and the cells it infects, Aldridge and her colleagues hope to design therapies that will fight TB with greater speed and efficiency.

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