Scientists Finally Know Why People Get More Colds and Flu In Winter

A chill is in the air, and you all know what that means — it’s time for cold and flu season, when it seems everyone you know is suddenly sneezing, sniffling or worse. It’s almost as if those pesky cold and flu germs whirl in with the first blast of winter weather.

As respiratory viruses strain US health care systems, Biden administration tells states how it’s ready to help. Yet germs are present year-round — just think back to your last summer cold. So why do people get more colds, flu and now Covid-19 when it’s chilly outside?

In what researchers are calling a scientific breakthrough, scientists behind a new study may have found the biological reason we get more respiratory illnesses in winter. It turns out the cold air itself damages the immune response occurring in the nose.

“This is the first time that we have a biologic, molecular explanation regarding one factor of our innate immune response that appears to be limited by colder temperatures,” said rhinologist Dr. Zara Patel, a professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine in California. She was not involved in the new study.

In fact, reducing the temperature inside the nose by as little as 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) kills nearly 50% of the billions of virus and bacteria-fighting cells in the nostrils, according to the study published Tuesday in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

“Cold air is associated with increased viral infection because you’ve essentially lost half of your immunity just by that small drop in temperature,” said rhinologist Dr. Benjamin Bleier, director of otolaryngology translational research at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

“it’s important to remember that these are in vitro studies, meaning that although it is using human tissue in the lab to study this immune response, it is not a study being carried out inside someone’s actual nose,” Patel said in an email. “Often the findings of in vitro studies are confirmed in vivo, but not always.”

A hornet’s nest

To understand why this occurs, Bleier and his team and coauthor Mansoor Amiji, who chairs the department of pharmaceutical sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, went on a scientific detective hunt.

Here’s how to know when your child is too sick for school. A respiratory virus or bacteria invades the nose, the main point of entry into the body. Immediately, the front of the nose detects the germ, well before the back of the nose is aware of the intruder, the team discovered.

At that point, cells lining the nose immediately begin creating billions of simple copies of themselves called extracellular vesicles, or EV’s.“EV’s can’t divide like cells can, but they are like little mini versions of cells specifically designed to go and kill these viruses,” Bleier said. “EV’s act as decoys, so now when you inhale a virus, the virus sticks to these decoys instead of sticking to the cells.”

Those “Mini Me’s” are then expelled by the cells into nasal mucus (yes, snot), where they stop invading germs before they can get to their destinations and multiply. “This is one of, if not the only part of the immune system that leaves your body to go fight the bacteria and viruses before they actually get into your body,” Bleier said.

Once created and dispersed out into nasal secretions, the billions of EV’s then start to swarm the marauding germs, Bleier said.

“It’s like if you kick a hornet’s nest, what happens? You might see a few hornets flying around, but when you kick it, all of them all fly out of the nest to attack before that animal can get into the nest itself,” he said. “That’s the way the body mops up these inhaled viruses so they can never get into the cell in the first place.”

A big increase in immune power

When under attack, the nose increases production of extracellular vesicles by 160%, the study found. There were additional differences: EV’s had many more receptors on their surface than original cells, thus boosting the virus-stopping ability of the billions of extracellular vesicles in the nose.

“Just imagine receptors as little arms that are sticking out, trying to grab on to the viral particles as you breathe them in,” Bleier said. “And we found each vesicle has up to 20 times more receptors on the surface, making them super sticky.”

Cells in the body also contain a viral killer called micro RNA, which attack invading germs. Yet EVs in the nose contained 13 times micro RNA sequences than normal cells, the study found. So the nose comes to battle armed with some extra superpowers. But what happens to those advantages when cold weather hits?

To find out, Bleier and his team exposed four study participants to 15 minutes of 40-degree-Fahrenheit (4.4-degree-Celsius) temperatures, and then measured conditions inside their nasal cavities.

“What we found is that when you’re exposed to cold air, the temperature in your nose can drop by as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit. And that’s enough to essentially knock out all three of those immune advantages that the nose has,” Bleier said.

It seems like everyone’s getting sick this winter. Parents and health care workers, how are you coping? In fact, that little bit of coldness in the tip of the nose was enough to take nearly 42% of the extracellular vesicles out of the fight, Bleier said.

“Similarly, you have almost half the amount of those killer micro RNA’s inside each vesicle, and you can have up to a 70% drop in the number of receptors on each vesicle, making them much less sticky,” he said.

What does that do to your ability to fight off colds, flu and Covid-19? It cuts your immune system’s ability to fight off respiratory infections by half, Bleier said.

You don’t have to wear a nose sock

As it turns out, the pandemic gave us exactly what we need to help fight off chilly air and keep our immunity high, Bleier said. Wearing a mask can protect you from cold air that can reduce your immunity, an expert says.

“Not only do masks prrhinologist Dr. Benjamin Bleierotect you from the direct inhalation of viruses, but it’s also like wearing a sweater on your nose,” he said. Patel agreed: “The warmer you can keep the intranasal environment, the better this innate immune defense mechanism will be able to work. Maybe yet another reason to wear masks!”

In the future, Bleier expects to see the development of topical nasal medications that build upon this scientific revelation. These new pharmaceuticals will “essentially fool the nose into thinking it has just seen a virus,” he said. “By having that exposure, you’ll have all these extra hornets flying around in your mucous protecting you,” he added.

By: , CNN

Source: Why colds and flu viruses are more common in winter | CNN

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Scientists Increasingly Can’t Explain How AI Works

Image: Getty Images

AI researchers are warning developers to focus more on how and why a system produces certain results than the fact that the system can accurately and rapidly produce them.

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor? You might say vanilla or chocolate, and if I asked why, you’d probably say it’s because it tastes good. But why does it taste good, and why do you still want to try other flavors sometimes? Rarely do we ever question the basic decisions we make in our everyday lives, but if we did, we might realize that we can’t pinpoint the exact reasons for our preferences, emotions, and desires at any given moment. 

There’s a similar problem in artificial intelligence: The people who develop AI are increasingly having problems explaining how it works and determining why it has the outputs it has. Deep neural networks (DNN)—made up of layers and layers of processing systems trained on human-created data to mimic the neural networks of our brains—often seem to mirror not just human intelligence but also human inexplicability.

Most AI systems are black box models, which are systems that are viewed only in terms of their inputs and outputs. Scientists do not attempt to decipher the “black box,” or the opaque processes that the system undertakes, as long as they receive the outputs they are looking for. For example, if I gave a black box AI model data about every single ice cream flavor, and demographic data about economic, social, and lifestyle factors for millions of people, it could probably guess what your favorite ice cream flavor is or where your favorite ice cream store is, even if it wasn’t programmed with that intention.

These types of AI systems notoriously have issues because the data they are trained on are often inherently biased, mimicking the racial and gender biases that exist within our society. The haphazard deployment of them leads to situations where, to use just one example, Black people are disproportionately misidentified by facial recognition technology. It becomes difficult to fix these systems in part because their developers often cannot fully explain how they work, which makes accountability difficult.

As AI systems become more complex and humans become less able to understand them, AI experts and researchers are warning developers to take a step back and focus more on how and why a system produces certain results than the fact that the system can accurately and rapidly produce them. 

“If all we have is a ‘black box’, it is impossible to understand causes of failure and improve system safety,” Roman V. Yampolskiy, a professor of computer science at the University of Louisville, wrote in his paper titled “Unexplainability and Incomprehensibility of Artificial Intelligence.” “Additionally, if we grow accustomed to accepting AI’s answers without an explanation, essentially treating it as an Oracle system, we would not be able to tell if it begins providing wrong or manipulative answers.”

Black box models can be extremely powerful, which is how many scientists and companies justify sacrificing explainability for accuracy. AI systems have been used for autonomous cars, customer service chatbots, and diagnosing disease, and have the power to perform some tasks better than humans can.

For example, a machine that is capable of remembering one trillion items, such as digits, letters, and words, versus humans, who on average remember seven in their short-term memory would be able to process and compute information at a much faster and improved rate than humans.

Among the different deep learning models include generative adversarial networks (GANs), which are most often used to train generative AI models, such as text-to-image generator MidJourney AI. GANs essentially pit AI models against each other to do a specific task; the “winner” of each interaction is then pitted against another model, allowing the model to iterate itself until it becomes very good at doing that task. The issue is that this creates models that their developers simply can’t explain.  

“I think in a lot of cases, people look to these black box models as a response to lack of resources. It would be very convenient to have an automated system that can produce the kinds of outputs they’re looking for from the kind of inputs they have,” Emily M. Bender, a professor of linguistics at the University of Washington, told Motherboard.

“If you have a dataset consisting of such inputs and outputs, it’s always possible to train a black box system that can produce outputs of the right type—but often much, much harder to evaluate whether they are correct. Furthermore, there are lots of cases where it’s impossible to make a system where the outputs would be reliably correct because the inputs just don’t contain enough information.

When we put our trust in a system simply because it gives us answers that fit what we are looking for, we fail to ask key questions: Are these responses reliable, or do they just tell us what we want to hear? Whom do the results ultimately benefit? And who is responsible if it causes harm?……

Read more…..

Source: Scientists Increasingly Can’t Explain How AI Works

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Related contents:

Call Center Artificial Intelligence (AI) Market Destine to Reach USD 7553.36 Million Globally by 2029, Size, Share,… GlobeNewswire (Press Release)

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Scientists are Studying Blood Tests For Dementia

As pharmaceutical companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, other researchers are focusing on a more elemental question. How can you tell whether a family member or loved one has Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia?

These researchers say a new generation of blood tests could offer an easier and accurate way to detect signs of Alzheimer’s, a disease that afflicts an estimated 6.5 million Americans. New research found one blood test can detect hallmarks of the disease in older adults with memory problems. It is among more than a half dozen blood tests being developed and tested to detect early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Experts say the tests are important because they would be easier, cheaper and available to more people than brain scans or spinal taps now used to detect biological hallmarks of the disease.

Developers of blood tests say the immediate payoff would be testing older adults with signs of memory loss as well as quickly screening large numbers of people necessary to test new drugs that aim to slow or halt Alzheimer’s disease. Eventually, the tests might be useful in detecting the earliest signs of disease, informing individuals of their risk years before memory and thinking problems take root.

Blood tests represent “a very early start to a new era of diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Stephen Salloway, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Brown University who directs a memory and aging program at Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. “I see them as being transformative for Alzheimer’s, because once we validate them a little bit further, and hopefully get coverage for them, we can use them both to screen for clinical trials and to screen for treatment.”

Diagnosing the disease is time-consuming and inaccessible to those who live far away from memory clinics or other specialists. Doctors might quiz a patient or family members about habits, changes in behavior or personality. Specialists conduct memory and cognitive tests and rule out other potential causes such as depression. Brain scans and spinal taps confirm biological signs of the disease.

One blood test, called the PrecivityAD test, which uses a technology called mass spectrometry, measures amyloid proteins and genetic risk for the disease. In two studies published April 21 in Journal of the American Medical Association Open, the test accurately detected the protein amyloid in 81% of samples when compared with a brain scan.

Amyloid accumulates and forms clumps in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients. Researchers and drug companies have spent hundreds of million of dollars over the past two decades on the theory that drugs clearing amyloid from the brain could slow memory decline, but those drugs have not proven to halt Alzheimer’s disease.

Other drug studies are now underway to administer amyloid-targeting drugs even earlier, before memory and thinking problems emerge. C2N Diagnostics CEO Joel Braunstein said the peer-reviewed study is an important step for doctors who want to see more evidence before recommending his company’s test to patients with memory and cognitive problems.

“Clinicians like to see evidence that a test works,” Braunstein said. “This was an important step forward because of the transparency of the scientific findings.”

The test, which has been available since 2020, is now mostly used to accelerate research for new drugs being studied to slow cognitive decline and memory loss in people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Braunstein believes more doctors will be willing to recommend the test as they grow comfortable from findings in the studies.

Blood tests promise quicker, cheaper diagnosis

Scans and spinal taps now used can be invasive and don’t work for all patients. For example, people who are on blood-thinning medication might not be able to get a spinal tap, Salloway said. In such cases, a validated blood test would be suitable replacement.

Blood tests also might be more affordable than positron emission tomography, or PET scans, which cost consumers $3,000 out of pocket, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Hospitals charge for administering a PET scan, which includes special chemical tracers to reveal the amyloid. Consumers also can expect a bill from an imaging specialist who interprets the results to verify whether a patient has amyloid.

The PrecivityAD test, which is not yet covered by Medicare or private insurers, costs $1,250. The company offers financial assistance for eligible consumers, Braunstein said, while it is “making progress” in efforts to get Medicare and private insurers to pay for the test.

The company is allowed to market the test under Food and Drug Administration rules because it’s performed at the company’s lab, which is certified under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments, the federal laboratory law known as CLIA. Doctors or testing sites ship samples to the lab and the company completes the test within 10 days, Braunstein said.

Braunstein said the company’s lab has the capacity to handle tests performed within the United States and Canada. As the company seeks to offer the test overseas, it probably will partner with other labs that can perform the intricate measurements the test requires.

Another blood test developed by Eli Lilly detected signs of Alzheimer’s disease 20 years before cognitive problems were expected in a group of people who carry a rare genetic mutation, according to a study published in 2020 in JAMA. The p-tau217 test measured the tau protein on more than 1,400 people already enrolled in dementia studies in Sweden, Arizona and Colombia.

Eli Lilly used the test during a 257-patient Phase 2 study of its Alzheimer’s drug called donanemab. The drugmaker also will use the test to screen people for a prevention trial to test donanemab in at-risk patients who have not yet exhibited memory and thinking problems. Lilly plans to send mobile units to communities and use the test to screen people, which would expand the company’s efforts to recruit patients from diverse populations, a Lilly spokeswoman said.

Quest Diagnostics, a national lab company, launched a new blood test in March that measures two amyloid variants, a Quest spokeswoman said.

Advocacy organizations would like to see tests that are simple, inexpensive and accessible to doctors and their patients, said Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.

“We ultimately want to be at a place where we can identify an individual at the earliest possible point who may be at the greatest risk and may have initial changes associated with the disease,” Snyder said.

She said it’s important for the field to have “a toolbox of potential interventions” such as medications or lifestyle changes “that would allow us to stop or slow the progression of the underlying biology at that time.”

In 2021, the Food and Drug Administration approved Biogen’s Aduhelm, a $28,000-a-year drug that yielded mixed results in clinical trials, even though the agency’s own experts suggested the agency reject the application. The agency that oversees Medicare decided to pay for the drug only in clinical trials.

Aduhelm is part of class of Alzheimer’s drugs known as monoclonal antibodies, several of which could soon land before FDA decision-makers. Lilly expects to submit donanemab, a monoclonal antibody, for approval later this year. Roche’s Genentech has studied two Alzheimer’s drugs, gantenerumab and crenezumab, in late-stage clinical trials.

By:

Source: Scientists are studying blood tests for dementia: ‘A new era of diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease’

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Many of New Zealand’s Glaciers Could Disappear In a Decade Scientists Warn

New Zealand’s glaciers are becoming “smaller and more skeletal” due to the effects of climate change and scientists predict many could disappear within a decade.

An annual end-of-summer survey that records the snowline of more than 50 South Island glaciers has revealed continued loss of snow and ice.

Every year, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa), the Victoria University of Wellington and the conservation department gather thousands of aerial photographs of the glaciers to measure the altitude of the snowline and see how much of the previous winter’s snow has remained covering each glacier.

That snowline, also known as the equilibrium line altitude (ELA), allows scientists to evaluate the glacier’s health. If the glacier size has decreased, then the line will be higher, because less winter snow remains.

“We were expecting the snowlines to be high because of the warm weather we’ve had and sadly, our instincts were confirmed,” said Dr Andrew Lorrey, a principal scientist at Niwa.

New Zealand’s glaciers had lost mass most years over the past decade, said Dr Lauren Vargo from Victoria University. “But what was more striking to me is how much smaller and more skeletal so many of the glaciers are becoming.”

The country is experiencing more frequent temperature extremes, four to five times more extreme than would be expected in a climate with no long-term warming, Niwa reported in January, while 2021 was New Zealand’s hottest year on record.

Last week, Antarctica recorded temperatures more than 40C warmer than seasonal norms. Gregor Macara, a Niwa climate scientist, said this year’s survey showed a noticeable difference from the previous years.

“The snowline elevations this year were high, meaning much of the winter snows had melted, leaving a lot of glacial ice exposed. It appears to be yet another poor year for our ice, continuing the trend from recent years, and it is disheartening to see the ongoing decline.”

The long-term aerial survey began in 1977, giving a visual timeline of how much glaciers have retreated. Since the survey began, the global climate has warmed by about 1.1C and Niwa estimates that more than a third of the ice volume has been lost from the Southern Alps.

“What we’re seeing is a clear retreat, which is no doubt thanks to climate change. In a decade, we predict that many of our beloved and important glaciers will be gone,” Lorrey said.

The ramifications are significant. Glaciers are an important store of fresh water, their seasonal melt into rivers supporting irrigation of farmland and hydropower schemes, and acting as a buffer against drought. The disappearing ice also contributes to rising sea levels.

“This will have far reaching impacts, such as altering our beautiful landscape, affecting the livelihoods of people who rely on these natural wonders for tourism, and flow on effects from decreased meltwater during periods of drought,” Lorrey said.

“It also emphasises the urgency of slowing climate change because the impacts are going to become increasingly costly and hard to avoid.”

By: in Wellington

Source: Many of New Zealand’s glaciers could disappear in a decade, scientists warn | Glaciers | The Guardian

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The Race To Develop Plastic-Eating Bacteria

In March 2016, scientists in Japan published an extraordinary finding. After scooping up some sludge from outside a bottle recycling facility in Osaka, they discovered bacteria which had developed the ability to decompose, or “eat,” plastic.

The bacteria, Ideonella sakaiensis, was only able to eat a particular kind of plastic called PET, from which bottles are commonly made, and it could not do so nearly fast enough to mitigate the tens of millions of tons of plastic waste that enter the environment every year.

Still, this and a series of other breakthroughs in recent years mean it could one day be possible to build industrial-scale facilities where enzymes chomp on piles of landfill-bound plastic, or even to spray them on the mountains of plastic that accumulate in the ocean or in rivers.

These advances are timely. By vastly increasing our use of single-use plastics such as masks and takeaway boxes, the Covid-19 pandemic has focused attention on the world’s plastic waste crisis. Earth is on track to have as much plastic in the ocean as fish by weight by 2050, according to one estimate.

However, experts caution that large-scale commercial use of plastic-eating microorganisms is still years away, while their potential release in the environment, even if practical, could create more issues than it solves.

Overcoming an evolutionary barrier

The scientists working to find and develop plastic-eating organisms must contend with a basic reality: evolution. Microbes have had millions of years to learn how to biodegrade organic matter such as fruits and tree bark. They have had barely any time at all to learn to decompose plastics, which did not exist on Earth at any scale before roughly 1950.

“Seaweed has been around for hundreds of millions of years, so there is a variety of microbes and organisms that can break it down,” said Pierre-Yves Paslier, the co-founder of a British company, Notpla, that is using seaweed and other plants to make films and coatings that could replace some types of plastic packaging. By contrast plastic is very new, he said.

Still, recent discoveries of plastic-eating microorganisms show that evolution is already getting to work. A year after the 2016 discovery of Ideonella sakaiensis in Osaka, scientists reported a fungus able to degrade plastic at a waste disposal site in Islamabad, Pakistan. In 2017 a biology student at Reed College in Oregon analyzed samples from an oil site near her home in Houston, Texas, and found they contained plastic-eating bacteria. In March 2020, German scientists discovered strains of bacteria capable of degrading polyurethane plastic after collecting soil from a brittle plastic waste site in Leipzig.

In order to make any of these naturally-occurring bacteria useful, they must be bioengineered to degrade plastic hundreds or thousands of times faster. Scientists have enjoyed some breakthroughs here, too. In 2018 scientists in the U.K. and U.S. modified bacteria so that they could begin breaking down plastic in a matter of days. In October 2020 the process was improved further by combining the two different plastic-eating enzymes that the bacteria produced into one “super enzyme.”

The first large-scale commercial applications are still years away, but within sight. Carbios, a French firm, could break ground in coming months on a demonstration plant that will be able to enzymatically biodegrade PET plastic.

This could help companies such as PepsiCo and Nestle, with whom Carbios is partnering, achieve longstanding goals of incorporating large amounts of recycled material back into their products. They’ve so far failed to succeed because there has never been a way to sufficiently break down plastic back into more fundamental materials. (Because of this, most plastic that is recycled is only ever used to make lower-quality items, such as carpets, and likely won’t ever be recycled again.)

“Without new technologies, it’s impossible for them to meet their goals. It’s just impossible,” said Martin Stephan, deputy CEO of Carbios.

Besides plastic-eating bacteria, some scientists have speculated that it may be possible to use nanomaterials to decompose plastic into water and carbon dioxide. One 2019 study in the journal Matter demonstrated the use of “magnetic spring-like carbon nanotubes” to biodegrade microplastics into carbon dioxide and water.

The challenges ahead

Even if these new technologies are one day deployed at scale, they would still face major limitations and could even be dangerous, experts caution.

Of the seven major commercial types of plastic, the plastic-eating enzyme at the heart of several of the recent breakthroughs has only been shown to digest one, PET. Other plastics, such as HDPE, used to make harder materials such as shampoo bottles or pipes, could prove more difficult to biodegrade using bacteria.

Even if one day it becomes possible to mass produce bacteria that can be sprayed onto piles of plastic waste, such an approach could be dangerous. Biodegrading the polymers that comprise plastic risks releasing chemical additives that are normally stored up safely inside the un-degraded plastic.

Others point out that there are potential unknown side-effects of releasing genetically engineered microorganisms into nature. “Since most likely genetically engineered microorganisms would be needed, they cannot be released uncontrolled into the environment,” said Wolfgang Zimmerman, a scientist at the University of Leipzig who studies biocatalysis.

Similar issues constrain the potential use of nanomaterials. Nicole Grobert, a nanomaterials scientist at Oxford University, said that the tiny scales involved in nanotechnology mean that widespread use of new materials would “add to the problem in ways that could result in yet greater challenges.”

The best way to beat the plastic waste crisis, experts say, is by switching to reusable alternatives, such as Notpla’s seaweed-derived materials, ensuring that non-recyclable plastic waste ends up in a landfill rather than in the environment, and using biodegradable materials where possible.

Judith Enck, a former regional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator in the Obama administration and the president of Beyond Plastics, a non-profit based in Vermont, pointed to the gradual spread of bans on single-use plastics around the world, from India to China to the EU, U.K. and a number of U.S. states from New York to California.

These are signs of progress, she said, although more and tougher policies are needed. “We can’t wait for a big breakthrough.”

Update: This story has been updated to clarify the timing of a discovery of plastic-eating bacteria by a Reed College student.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

I cover the energy industry, focusing on climate and green tech. Formerly I covered oil markets for commodities publication Argus Media. My writing has appeared in The Economist, among other publications.

Source: The Race To Develop Plastic-Eating Bacteria

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Related Contents:

Arthur, Courtney; Baker, Joel; Bamford, Holly (2009). “Proceedings of the International Research Workshop on the Occurrence, Effects and Fate of Microplastic Marine Debris” (PDF). NOAA Technical Memorandum.

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