Monday, August 23, 2010

Some progress against Ebola

I can't imagine what the clinical trials will be like. Who would voluntarily be infected by Ebola? Death-row inmates, maybe? Are they going to do safety tests only and then take a dangerous vacation in Africa? Kudos to them if they do, I guess

US scientists say they've cleared a key hurdle in the quest for a drug to treat Ebola, a notorious African virus and feared future weapon of bioterrorism.

A treatment administered to rhesus monkeys within an hour of being infected by the deadliest strain of Ebola was 60 per cent effective, and a companion drug was 100 per cent effective in shielding cynomolgus monkeys against Ebola's cousin, the Marburg virus, they say.

After studying the findings, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the green light for trials on a small group of human volunteers, the scientists said.

Ebola and Marburg are part of a family of so-called filoviruses, which cause hemorrhagic fever - a disease with mortality rates of up to 90 per cent where, in some cases, the patient bleeds to death.

The drugs are in a class of compound called PMO, for phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomers. They are designed to hamper the virus' replication in cells, thus buying time for the immune system to mount a response and crush the invader.

The research, appearing online in the journal, Nature Medicine, was conducted by the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in collaboration with a Washington-based biotech firm, AVI BioPharma.

The Pentagon pumped funding into research for a vaccine and treatment for Ebola-type viruses in the wake of the September 9, 2001 terror attacks on the United States. Filoviruses are on the list of pathogens such as anthrax that are considered tempting sources for biological warfare or terrorism.

An important step in combatting Ebola was announced in May, again using tests on lab monkeys but involving a somewhat different technique to disrupt viral replication.

A team at the US National Emerging Diseases Laboratory Institute at Boston University Medical School designed drugs with small interfering RNAs, or siRNAs, which hamstring reproductive enzymes.

Despite this progress, a long road lies ahead before any treatment is licensed for humans, experts say. Testing a prototype drug is a three-phase process that starts with a tiny group of volunteers, where it is initially assessed for safety, and then broadens out to successively bigger groups, where effectiveness becomes a parallel question.

According to the UN's World Health Organisation (WHO), about 1850 cases of Ebola, with about 1200 deaths, have occurred since 1976.

The virus has a natural reservoir in several species of African fruit bat. Gorillas and other non-human primates are also susceptible to the disease.


Hazy truth about organics

Comment from Australia but almost certainly similar elsewhere

ENTHUSIASM for "clean, green" food is being tempered by confusion about what constitutes organic, with shoppers often not getting what they pay for.

Australians spend about $1 billion a year on organic food and other products, paying up to 50 per cent more than for conventional produce. Yet there is huge confusion about what the label "organic"means. There are now calls for the introduction of better industry standards.

Industry expert Joanna Hendryks from the University of Canberra, said that from a consumer's point of view "it's a dog's breakfast". "Consumers need to be incredibly motivated to tell if something is organic just by looking at the label."

Chairman of the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA), Andre Leu, said shoppers deserve a better deal. "Consumers find it very hard to decide what are genuine organic products," he said.

The fact there are seven separate organisations that certify products as organic, each with a different logo, adds to consumer confusion.

In 2008, OFA commissioned research to find out how well understood the logos were. It found that even the best recognised symbol, which belongs to the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia, was recognised by only 28 per cent of regular organic shoppers. Only 5 per cent of regular organic buyers recognising the other logos.

There is even confusion among the various certifiers about how to define a product as organic. One of the certifying bodies, Demeter, will only put its logo on food that has been grown using "bio-dynamic" principals, including the application of fermented cow manure that has been buried in a cow's horn.

Assistant professor Hendryks said shoppers gave a variety of reasons when asked why they buy organic. "For some consumers it is about taking back control and being able to make a difference to the environment in their own way," she said. "For others it is about the health benefits - or perceived health benefits, as the studies to date are still contradictory on whether there are or aren't benefits. "Then a lot of people swear by taste, particularly when they are talking about things like organic chickens and tomatoes."

Research shows shoppers are often casual when selecting what they assume is organic food - some believe chicken labelled free-range is also organic. "In my research, many people assumed Lilydale chicken was organic," Professor Hendryks said. "If you look at their packaging they don't anywhere say they are certified organic - and I'm not wanting to imply they are deceiving consumers - but there is a lot of confusion. "People will also assume that what is being sold in a farmers' market is organic when that's not necessarily the case."

A popular range of skin and haircare products is not certified as organic, despite having the words "Nature's Organics" on the label. A spokeswoman for the Melbourne company admitted many customers probably assumed the products were organic. "It is as natural as we can make it at this point," she said.

Until late last year there was no legal definition of the word "organic". As long as a product was not labelled "certified" organic, a manufacturer or grower could imply that it had been produced organically.

Only goods destined for export had to meet a minimum standard set by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. "On domestic markets there has been no legal requirement at all," Mr Leu said. "It's been at best a gentlemen's agreement that products on the market are certified but [there] has been no law to say that. "We always felt that was a bit of a problem because people could make organic claims when they haven't had anyone to accredit them or certify them as genuinely organic."

A new voluntary domestic Australian organic standard that, among other things, bans the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides and genetically modified material was introduced last October.

It will be up to the ACCC to prosecute producers who fail to comply under trade practices legislation. The OFA is pushing for the seven certifiers to accept one standard logo.

Professor Hendryks said the move would be a great boost to consumers: "I think with a big education campaign it will definitely solve a lot of the confusion.".


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