All posts by Daniel Davies

Bats’ “super immunity” to lethal diseases might provide a cure for Ebola

Scientists hope that bats’ “super immunity” to lethal diseases might hold the key to preventing humans from contracting deadly viruses like Ebola.

Bats are known to be a natural host for more than 100 viruses, some of which are lethal to people, including Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, Hendra virus and Ebola, however, bats don’t show signs of disease or illness from these viruses.

Research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has suggested that while bats are constantly working to keep diseases at bay, humans and other mammals only respond once the body encounters a foreign organism.

“Unlike people and mice, who activate their immune systems only in response to infection, the bats interferon-alpha is constantly switched on acting as a 24/7 front line defence against diseases,” said bat immunologist at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory, Dr Michelle Baker.

“In other mammalian species, having the immune response constantly switched on is dangerous – for example it’s toxic to tissue and cells – whereas the bat immune system operates in harmony.”

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During their study, researchers compared how interferons – which are integral for innate immune responses in mammals – work in humans and bats to understand what’s special about how bats respond to invading viruses.

They found that the number of interferons present made no difference to a bat’s ability to combat disease, what  counted was bats’ tendency to be constantly battling disease, even when they are not infected with any detectable virus.

“Interestingly we have shown that bats only have three interferons which is only a fraction – about a quarter – of the number of interferons we find in people,” said Baker.

“This is surprising given bats have this unique ability to control viral infections that are lethal in people and yet they can do this with a lower number of interferons.”

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The researchers hope that the study will demonstrate bats’ worth in helping to protect people from infectious disease.

“If we can redirect other species’ immune responses to behave in a similar manner to that of bats, then the high death rate associated with diseases, such as Ebola, could be a thing of the past,” said Baker.

A record number of applicants want to take a giant leap for mankind

A record number of budding astronauts have applied to become part of NASA’s 2017 astronaut class during the latest round of recruitment.

More than 18,300 people wanted to put themselves through the rigorous training needed to become a fully-fledged NASA astronaut, almost three times the number of applications received in 2012 for the most recent astronaut class, and far surpassing the previous record of 8,000 in 1978.

“We have our work cut out for us with this many applications,” said director of Flight Operations at the Johnson Space Center, Brian Kelly.

“But it’s heartening to know so many people recognize what a great opportunity this is to be part of NASA’s exciting mission. I look forward to meeting the men and women talented enough to rise to the top of what is always a pool of incredible applicants.”

NASA-update

Successful applicants will eventually train to be assigned to one of four different spacecraft: the International Space Station, NASA’s Orion spacecraft for deep space exploration, or one of two commercial crew spacecraft currently in development – Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner or Elon Musk’s SpaceX Crew Dragon.

But before that NASA’s Astronaut Selection Board will review the applications, assessing each candidate’s qualifications, and invite the most highly qualified candidates to interview for a position in space.

The final selection will then be made, and the eight to 14 new astronaut candidates will report to Johnson for training.

“It’s not at all surprising to me that so many Americans from diverse backgrounds want to personally contribute to blazing the trail on our journey to Mars,” said former NASA astronaut Charlie Bolden.

“A few exceptionally talented men and women will become the astronauts chosen in this group who will once again launch to space from U.S. soil on American-made spacecraft.”

Images courtesy of NASA

Images courtesy of NASA

Those lucky enough to be chosen after the grueling recruitment process will spend two years training and being evaluated, which will include SCUBA training, learning Russian, exposure to high and low atmospheric pressures, and repeated periods of weightlessness in the ‘vomit comet’.

But having completed a Rocky-esque training montage the candidates will finally be able to call themselves NASA astronauts.