Fast Friday Four (June 3)

H1N1: The Holy Grail for Flu Vaccines

The H1N1 “pandemic” of 2009 – I put pandemic in quotation marks because the whole thing was incredibly overblown in my opinion – brought fever, sore throat, runny noses, aches, chills, vomiting, diarrhea and fatigue to tens, if not hundreds, of people across the United States. Okay, that’s not true. Millions probably got it, but it wasn’t any worse than the regular seasonal flu.

But besides all of these potentially nasty symptoms, H1N1 also brought a present – a potential vaccine against all influenzas.

During the onset of the infection in 2009, researchers from the University of Chicago and Emory University began studying the white blood cells of individuals who had been infected but successfully recovered. Because H1N1 matched typical seasonal influenza strains only in absolutely critical components to its survival—which was part of the reason why it was so dangerous—the immune response to the infection attacked common traits found in most all strains of the flu. Incorporating these defenses–focused on the virus’s most essential molecules–into a vaccine could put an end to the yearly scramble to predict coming flu strains and quickly mass produce a different vaccine each fall.

“The result is something like the Holy Grail for flu-vaccine research,” said study author Patrick Wilson, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.

Studies showed that patients who had previously been injected with flu shots or had been exposed to influenza before created white blood cells that were effective against many different kinds of flu. These antibodies appear to have been produced by white blood cells that had been exposed to influenza in previous years and were reactivated by a new viral infection. As the antibody genes, developed to combat one strain, adapted to a new infection, they continued to mutate, increasing their affinity for certain key targets present on both strains.

It’s possible that harnessing this natural reaction to H1N1 could lead to the end of the seasonal flu.

Getting Past Google and Wikipedia

Google and Wikipedia are both the best things to ever happen to students and the worst. The monster search engine and community-driven encyclopedia offer quick and easy answers at the stroke of just a few keys. But while they may be good for answering who that dude in that movie with the thing was, they’re not always the best sources for scientific research.

Unfortunately, most students these days have no clue how to go about finding real, authentic, trustworthy sources for research papers. I, for one, was never allowed to use Wikipedia as a source in my journalism classes, but sometimes it was good for pointing towards original sources. But most students just take what Google and Wikipedia give them at face value and delve no deeper.

Researchers at the University of Michigan are attempting to combat this issue by utilizing one of the most potent characteristics of students – their competitive natures and love of video games. Led by Karen Markey and Victor Rosenberg, the team created BiblioBouts, a game that teaches university-level research skills.

The game is played in four bouts, with each bout devoted to one aspect of the research process: collecting sources; selecting the best sources; rating and tagging opponents’ sources; and compiling a final bibliography of best sources from a pool of everyone’s source. In playing the game, students score points to advance through various levels from “novice” to “grand master marksman,” with their rankings displayed on the game’s home page.

In the final bout, the class builds a “best bibliography” from the top ten sources in the citation pool. All players finish the game with a high-quality bibliography they can use to produce their paper. They have also gained research skills that can be immediately applied to other college classes. Search results are captured and stored in Zotero, a free Web-based tool developed at George Mason University that allows users to collect, organize and cite their sources.

I kind of wish this existed when I was in school.

A Tale of Two Fishies

A comparison of the head skeletal anatomy of a skate (left), a shark (centre) and an elephant fish (right). The cartilage has been stained blue, and all surrounding tissue has been cleared away.

Finding a couple of eggs in the muck may not feel like winning the lottery to most people, but it does to Andrew Gillis. Of course, when you’re diving in muddy, shark-infested waters off the shore of Australia, any find that lets you quit is a big deal.

The postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge was hunting for elephant fish eggs so that he could compare embryos in various stages of developments to those of dogfish, a type of shark. The two are very closely related, but dogfish have five appendages called branchial rays that grow outward from the skeleton’s central gill arches, while elephant fish have only one.

By looking at the expression of a gene called the sonic hedgehog (Shh) gene, Gillis discovered that both animals use the exact same genetic mechanism for forming their branchial rays. However, the timing at which the gene is turned on during the embryo’s development is different, which causes the difference in the number of appendages.

The data demonstrate how a small change in the timing of gene expression can produce dramatically different anatomical outcomes in closely related species. The specific dynamics in elephant fish – who initially carry the potential for five sets of branchial rays, before reducing the number to one – is parallel to genetic programs in other, vastly different species, such as lizards who have reduced numbers of fingers on their limbs.

It’s just another example of how easy it is for small genetic variations – such as the timing of gene expression – to drastically change the way an animal looks, allowing evolution to take place.

Losing it Over Logos

The changing of Starbucks logos over the years.

What would happen if Apple were to change its logo to include a tiny bookworm chewing out of the apple? (Or something much more clever, cute, cool or other “c” word than anything I could ever come up with.) Would their followers geek out, celebrate and buy all new clothing, patches, stitches and the like? Or would they go on a homicidal killing spree mercilessly denouncing the name of Steve Jobs forever and ever?

According to new research out of Penn State, the latter.

Now true, Apple would never change it’s logo. Or at least, I don’t think it would. It’s one of the few iconic logos that don’t need to even but their name on it for people to recognize it, joining the ranks of the swoosh and golden arches. But lesser brands would be smart to take a lesson from Starbucks.

Not that long ago, Starbucks slightly altered its logo. And people flipped. But who flipped and why?

According to a new study by Karen Winterich, it’s the most loyal crazy consumers that are devastated by a slight change in brand. By showing both slightly altered and majorly changed logos of iconic brands to 632 undergraduates and asking their opinions, the researchers found that those with the most invested into the company disliked the changes, while those who didn’t really give a shit kinda liked it.

“Those with strong brand commitment will see the original brand logo — and the associations — as representing themselves and the integral relationship they have with the brand,” the researchers write. “They are likely to view a change in the logo, which affects these associations, as threatening their self-brand connections and relationships. Consequently, such consumers will be negatively disposed to the logo change and likely to evaluate the logo negatively.”

They go on to suggest that any company wishing to change their logo should contact their most loyal followers for input and/or give them a “sneak peak” of changes, so that they feel more connected to the company before the change occurs.

I expect a call from Great Lakes Brewing Company any day now.



About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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