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My top 10 TB facts for World TB day Siouxsie Wiles Mar 24

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640px-TB_Culture

TB Culture” by Photo Credit:Content Providers(s): CDC/Dr. George Kubica – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #4428.

The 24th of March is World TB day, held to raise awareness of the epidemic that is tuberculosis (TB). Why the 24th of March? Because this is the date in 1882 when Dr Robert Koch announced that he had discovered Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium responsible for TB. So here are my top 10 TB facts:

1. TB is a lung disease that humans have had for a long long time. Each wave of early humans who left Africa took TB with them, so there are lineages of TB like there are lineages of people (1).

2. TB, or consumption as it was known, was thought to be a hereditary disease, rather than an infectious one. Many famous artists, writers and composers had TB which probably helped its image. It was the forerunner to ‘heroin chic’. Consumption wasn’t feared like the plague or cholera were because it was a slow death giving people time to put their affairs in order.

3. According to the World Health Organization, in 2012 there were an estimated 8.6 million new TB cases and 1.3 million people died from the disease.

4. The TB bacterium is a bugger to kill. Easy to treat TB = 6 months of a cocktail of antibiotics.

5. Hard to treat TB = 18 months to 2 years of treatment with a cocktail of antibiotics.

6. There are now strains of M. tuberculosis circulating around the world that are resistant to all antibiotics in clinical use. Treatment options include surgery to remove the infected parts of the lungs, or isolation.

7. It is estimated that 1 in 3 people worldwide have the TB bacterium in their lungs – they aren’t infectious but are a huge reservoir of people that can go on to get active infectious TB.

8. If you think we don’t have TB in NZ, think again. In 2013 there were 263 new cases. Three of these people died (2).

9. If you think TB just affects the poor, think again. If you are human & breathing you can catch TB. I recently gave a talk to some wealthy retired society ladies and one of them came up to me afterwards to say she had been treated for TB a few years ago. She said she was horrified when her doctor told her as she had thought “people like me don’t get TB”. Wrong!

10. If you were BCG vaccinated as a child so think you are protected, think again. BCG does not protect for life. And unfortunately it’s not just a simple case of getting a booster.

References:

1. Gagneux, S (2012). Host–pathogen coevolution in human tuberculosis. Philosophical Transactions B. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0316

2. Institute of Environmental Science and Research Ltd (ESR) (2015). Tuberculosis in New Zealand: Annual Report 2013.

thinkScience at the Auckland Arts Festival – Biolumination II Siouxsie Wiles Mar 23

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Saturday the 14th March saw the debut of thinkScience as part of the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival. As part of the day’s events, I organised a number of activities/installations involving a harmless marine bacterium that naturally glows in the dark. I got involved for many reasons, including putting science in places people weren’t expecting it, providing a space for the public to interact with scientists and also to show people that while they may be repulsed by the idea of bacteria and ‘germs’, these creatures can also be beautiful.

Biolumination II

In Biolumination II, I acted as curator, challenging artists/illustrators Helen Beech, Julia Marchwicka, Cinzah ‘Seekayem’ Merkens, Hope Sutherland, Rodrigo Vidal, Laura Ward and Katherine Yang, to each come up with a work of art using just a solution of harmless bioluminescent bacteria and a collection of 25 x 25 cm square petri-dishes. To give you an idea of scale, most of the pieces were 1 metre high by 1 metre wide. That’s a lot of agar!

Unfortunately for the artists, the bacterial solution is essentially invisible, and the artists weren’t able to see their creation until the bacteria had grown the next day. The works were displayed in the Vault, part of Q Theatre. The exhibit was open from 10:30am till midnight and was visited by over 1600 people.

biolumination summary

From left to right, top row: Helen Beech, Julia Marchwicka, Cinzah ‘Seekayem’ Merkens; middle row: Hope Sutherland, Rodrigo Vidal, Laura Ward; bottom row: Katherine Yang. Photographs by Benj Brooking.

I’ll post better pictures and more info about each of the artists over the coming week. Overall, I am really pleased with how Biolumination II turned out. It was just amazing to see the beautiful creations each of the artists coaxed out of their bacterial solution. A huge thanks to my lab, most notably Benedict Uy, as well as James Dalton and Hannah Read, for preparing the litres and litres of media needed to make this exhibit a reality. Thanks also to Gareth Baston, chief petri-dish wrangler, for turning the Vault from a bare theatre space into an art gallery for the day.

So what did the public think?

Dr Rhian Salmon, of Victoria University, Wellington, suggested using post-it notes to gather feedback from visitors to the exhibit. The ‘Illumination Board’ was born and 160 messages were left there throughout the day.

illumination board

These are just some of the messages posted:

“As an artist, I love the out-of-box-thinking and integration of science and art – most inventive.”

“Mindblowing glowing art science wonder.”

“I found that intreging (sic) and interesting, scary at the same time. Overall I enjoyed it.”

“Amazing example of art and science combining to create an amazing learning experience.”

“Fascinating and so creative. Well done. Never thought I would see something like this.”

“Science alive – every child (and big child) should see this.”

“This was cool. To think that’s bacteria. It’s amazing. I had a wonderful experience.”

As a scientist, my intention with Biolumination II was to bring people to science through art, but one message showed me the opposite was also true:

“Wonderful. The only time my scientist daughter (11) enjoyed art.”

These activities wouldn’t have happened with the financial and/or logistical help of everyone involved in thinkScience, the Auckland Arts Festival, the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, the University of Auckland, the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Discovery, and Tile Space. And of course the never-ending patience of my lab!

thinkScience day at the Auckland Arts Festival Siouxsie Wiles Mar 05

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thinkScience

Saturday the 14th of March sees the debut of thinkScience*, a mini-festival of science being held as part of the Auckland Arts Festival family weekend and White Night. We may be starting small, but we have something for everyone!

Interested in things that go whiz/bang or got any kids or grandkids that are? Then ‘Nanogirl’ Michelle Dickinson’s early evening show in the Town Hall is for you! Prepare to have your mind blown as Nanogirl explores the wonders of cloud power, wind power, magnet power and fire power. Tickets available here.

Interested in something more cerebral? In the Spiegeltent in Aotea Square will be two panels exploring how science shapes our city. The first panel will look at what makes the city work – the natural, technological, human, and the interactions between them. The second session focuses on ideas and innovation – how can ideas change our world? Tickets available here.

Interested in science as art or things that glow? In Q Theatre, I’ll be challenging a group of artists and illustrators to create a living work of art using glowing bacteria. Meanwhile, in Aotea Square will be a photo booth with a difference, where people can step into the dark and be photographed by the light of glowing bacteria. People can also try their hand at creating glowing art, drawing their very own masterpiece using nothing more than a solution of harmless glowing bacteria and a petri-dish. These events are free, details available here.

*thinkScience is the brainchild of Prof Richard Easther, head of Physics at the University of Auckland, and Victoria Carter, chair of the Auckland Arts Festival. thinkScience is supported by the University of Auckland’s Faculties of Science, Engineering and Medical & Health Sciences, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Te Punaha Matatini, MacDiarmid Institute, Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery, Tile Space, ASB Community Trust, Buddle Findlay and event partner Auckland Arts Festival.

**Photo of Auckland skyline posted anonymously here.

WANTED! Artists/illustrators needed for glowing art/science project. Siouxsie Wiles Feb 09

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hello kitty

Are you an artist/illustrator who wants to try something different? Or do you know anyone who is?

I’m looking for 8-10 people to join me for a very special project as part of this year’s thinkScience day being held during the Auckland Arts Festival and White Night. They will need to be free and in Auckland on Friday 13th and Saturday 14th of March and not be a germaphobe….

The challenge: to create a 1 metre x 1 metre art piece.

The catch? The ink is actually a solution of bacteria and the ‘canvas’ a collection of petri-dishes.

The bacteria the artists will be using is not dangerous, and naturally glows in the dark. This means that wherever the artists draw/paint onto the petri-dishes, the bacteria will grow. And when they do, they will glow a beautiful blueish colour in the dark.

Interested? Get in touch!

Here’s a time-lapse of a ‘drawing’ Rebecca Klee and I made:

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Why scientists need to step up & engage! Siouxsie Wiles Feb 08

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A few days ago, the UK parliament voted in favour of making Britain the first country in the world to permit IVF babies to be created using biological material from three different people. The vote passed by 382 to 128 – a majority of 254 – and is to amend the UK’s 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act to allow mitochondrial donation. With this technique, to prevent serious genetic diseases, involves using a donor egg which has had its nuclear DNA removed, a woman’s nuclear DNA and then a man’s sperm as normal. You can listen to me talking about this momentous vote with Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon programme here.

The reason the vote has got some people alarmed is because the donor egg will still contain some genetic material from the donor, in the form of mitochondrial DNA. But it’s a miniscule amount. Almost all of our DNA is found in the nucleus of our cells, apart from a little stretch found in our mitochondria that codes for 37 genes. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of our cells, producing ATP, the energy currency of our body. The mitochondrial DNA (or maternal DNA) is inherited solely from the egg. In ’3-person IVF’ this DNA will come from the donor egg rather than the mother’s egg.

There are a number of illnesses caused by mutations in mitochondrial DNA, such as Kearns–Sayre syndrome (KSS), which causes a person to lose full function of heart, eye, and muscle movements. The law change will give women who have mitochondrial mutations the opportunity to have healthy, genetically-related children who won’t suffer from the devastating and often fatal consequences of mitochondrial disease.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the technique has been labelled unsafe, unethical and a step towards designer babies by many religious leaders. In an article on the Guardian website, the Wellcome Trust’s Mark Henderson*(@markgfh) says much credit to the successful vote should go to Prof Doug Turnbull who has spent the past decade taking opportunities to discuss his work on mitochondrial donation in the media, at science festivals and with the public, politicians and regulators. And over that decade Prof Turnbull has become a case study in learning to communicate difficult and controversial research successfully. Writes Mark:

“It is my firm belief that not only would MPs not have supported the regulations allowing mitochondrial donation, but that those regulations would never have been laid for a vote at all…..What Turnbull’s evolution over the past decade shows is how important it can be for scientists who are never going to be Brian Cox or Alice Roberts to recognise that taking public engagement seriously is not only the right thing to do, but beneficial to their science. Without it, Newcastle’s mitochondrial research might have been forever confined to the lab, instead of poised to have a direct impact on the lives of families affected by a devastating disease.”

Mark is absolutely right. Here in New Zealand we are fortunate to have the Science Media Centre (SMC) who run a number of workshops to upskill scientists to better communicate with the media. We also have a number of prizes aimed at rewarding those scientists who do step up and communicate, such as the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science Media Communication, and the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Callaghan Medal. Later this month, with the help of the SMC, award-winning writer and broadcaster Alison Ballance and the lovely folk at Mohawk Media, I’m running a workshop to introduce scientists and science communicators to the power of animation to tell science stories. I’m putting my money where my mouth is too – donating $10,000 of my PM’s Prize pot to help some of the ideas on the day turn into animations. Watch this space!

*Writer of the fantastic Geek Manifesto… Check out his great TEDx talk:

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Biolumination: Turning glowing fish poo into art… sort of! Siouxsie Wiles Jan 22

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Last year I collaborated with artist Rebecca Klee for the Art in the Dark festival, held in Auckland, New Zealand, each year. Our piece, called Biolumination, featured several litres of glowing bacteria, some custom-made glass tubes and three aquarium pumps. A big thanks to Benj from Gather and Hunt who shot some footage of our installation and put together this short video in which I explain why the bacteria we used glows in the first place.

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Will new antibiotic Teixobactin save us all? Umm, not quite. Siouxsie Wiles Jan 08

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soil

Researchers in Germany and the USA have just published a paper in the journal Nature describing a new antibiotic they have called Teixobactin (1). This study is good news; the World Health Organization warned last year that cancer chemotherapy and routine surgery will soon become life-threateningly risky because of the worldwide rise in antibiotic-resistant superbugs (2). So will Teixobactin save us all from a post-antibiotic era? Maybe, but not in the way you think it might. Here’s a little FAQ.

1. What is Teixobactin?

Teixobactin is a newly discovered antibiotic produced by a previously uncultured soil bacterium called Eleftheria terrae. Teixobactin acts by stopping some bacteria from making their cell wall (their outer coating, if you like). It was found to be active against a range of nasty bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus (also known as MRSA), Clostridium difficile (which causes nasty diarrhoea which can be deadly in elderly people), Bacillus anthracis (which causes anthrax) and Mycobacterium tuberculosis (the cause of TB). This is good news as we have a desperate need for new antibiotics against these superbugs. The researchers also showed that Teixobactin did not have any effect on mammalian cells and could protect mice infected with S. aureus and Streptococcus pneumoniae. This is also good news but it will still take 2-5 years more testing before Teixobactin makes it to a doctors surgery or hospital near you.

2. So why isn’t Teixobactin going to save us all?

Because bacteria roughly divide into two groups based on their cell walls; they are either classified as Gram-positive or Gram-negative*. Teixobactin only works against Gram-positive bacteria. Unfortunately, it can’t get around the extra outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria. This means the antibiotic doesn’t work against some pretty nasty bacteria that we are running out of antibiotics to kill, like E. coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Klebsiella.

3. Finding new antibiotics – the iChip.

How the researchers discovered Teixobactin is in some ways more important than the antibiotic itself. Many microbes remain undiscovered, partly because it has been impossible to culture them in the laboratory. Given that antibiotics are made by microbes, this means that many antibiotics lie undiscovered all around us.

The researchers made a sort of ‘hotel’ for soil bacteria, that allowed them to cultivate previously uncultivated bacteria. This ‘hotel’ is called the iChip and is basically a board with holes on it. Each whole was seeded with a single bacteria from a sample of soil, and then the whole board, covered in a permeable membrane, was dunked in to a beaker of soil so the bacteria could access all the nutrients they needed to grown. Very clever. The discovery of Teixobactin should be just the tip of the antibiotic iceberg.

4. Is Teixobactin really resistant to resistance?

One of the interesting findings of the study was that the researchers couldn’t produce strains of M. tuberculosis or S. aureus that became resistant to Teixobactin. I think it’s a little premature to suggest that bacteria are unlikely to become resistant to Teixobactin based on the published data; the researchers didn’t try particularly hard to make it happen.

As Dr Prof. Ian Malcolm says: “Life finds a way”….

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*depending on whether or not they can be stained using crystal violet, a method known as Gram-staining.

Reference:
1. Ling et al (2015). A new antibiotic kills pathogens without detectable resistance. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature14098
2. World Health Organisation (2014). Antimicrobial resistance: global report on surveillance 2014. ISBN: 978 92 4 156474 8.

Related posts:

Life as we know it could end in ten years if we don’t start taking drastic action

The antibiotic resistant superbugs threatening New Zealand

A gift for someone special – Part III Siouxsie Wiles Jan 04

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I recently blogged about my experience donating eggs. In this post I want to explain why I chose to write about it.

What I have just been through is what some companies are encouraging their female staff to do so they can be ‘career women’ without leaving it too late to have a family. Apparently companies like Facebook and Apple are offering to pay for staff to have their eggs frozen. It’s likely most women will undergo two to three rounds of stimulation to have enough eggs to freeze down for future use. Personally, I’d like to see companies make it easier for people to have families and successful careers, not lull them in to a false sense of security that all will be fine because they have some eggs in the freezer.

Putting aside that going through the process of producing a bumper crop of eggs and having them collected is hardly a walk in the park, or indeed, risk free, I’m not sure many people realise what the chances of having a successful pregnancy are using in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Cil and colleagues published a paper in 2013 with some graphs that make interesting reading. They did a meta analysis of 10 studies with 1805 patients and looked at how the rates of live births changed with the age of the woman and how the eggs were frozen (1). This is the relevant graph to look at, with the % probability of a live birth after implantation of between 1 and 3 embryos, plotted against the woman’s age. The dotted lines are for eggs that were frozen using a method called vitrification (VF), the solid lines are for eggs that were slowly frozen (SF).

ivf live births

As you can see, the probability of a live birth drops with age. At its highest, the probability is less than 35% for young women when 3 embryos are implanted, dropping to 5% when only one embryo is implanted into a 42 year old woman. To put all this in context, of the 11 eggs that were sucked out of me recently, only 6 were good enough to go forward to be fertilised. Of those, 5 were successfully fertilised but a week later only one had developed into an embryo suitable for implantation. I can’t begin to tell you how gutted I was about that. The little embryo has now been frozen down but will soon be implanted into my friend. Based on the data presented by Cil and colleagues, the chances are slim that it will result in a pregnancy which makes me both really sad and very disappointed but I’m going to have all my fingers and toes crossed that it’s the 5%. One of them has to be!

Reference:
1. Cil, AP, Bang, H, and Oktay, K. Age-specific probability of live birth with oocyte cryopreservation: an individual patient data meta-analysis. Fertil Steril. 2013; 100: 492–499

A gift for someone special – part II Siouxsie Wiles Jan 02

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I recently blogged about my experience donating eggs. In this post I want to explain why I decided to become an egg donor. There are three main reasons:

1. Someone very special to me needed a donor.

2. My family is complete and I’ve no more need of my eggs.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a biologist or an atheist but I’m not particularly freaked out by the idea of my genetic material being used to make a child who won’t be mine. The law in New Zealand is very clear – if a child is made using my eggs, that child is the child of the woman who gave birth to it, not mine. Yes, it may have my green eyes and my dimples, but I won’t be it’s mother. The law is also very clear that if a child is born, that child will have the right to know who I am when they reach a certain age. In my case, the person I have donated my eggs to is a permanent feature in my life. We have been open with our families about everything so if we are lucky enough that there is a child from my donation, my role will not be a big secret.

3. Society functions because ordinary people do generous things.

I’m not special. Yes, I have given someone a special gift but this is the kind of world I want to live in. I want to be able to have a life-saving blood transfusion if I need one – something only made possible because people give blood. I urge you all to think about what generous things you could do in the coming year. Perhaps you could look into joining a bone marrow register, or let your family know you are happy to be an organ donor. Think about how you would feel if you were the one who needed that generous gift.

A gift for someone special Siouxsie Wiles Dec 31

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Regular readers may have noticed I’ve been a little quiet for the last month. I’ve been feeling ‘under the weather’, to use a common euphemism. In reality I’ve been through a really interesting experience that isn’t often spoken about in public. That must make it the perfect material for a blog, right? Right!

Warning: I will mention the word vagina at least once. Giggle if you must.

Over the last month I’ve put my middle-aged body through quite an ordeal in order to be an egg donor. I’m not talking Easter eggs here, but my ova. The gametes that contain half my genetic material and one of the main ingredients required to make a baby. My journey down this path started almost a year ago, and has involved numerous tests to rule out genetic mutations and sexually transmitted diseases, several counselling sessions to assess mine and my husband’s understanding of the law around egg donation, our rights regarding the eggs and any babies they may produce, and to determine whether I was making the donation of my own free will. We also had to apply for permission from an ethics committee as laid out by the New Zealand Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act of 2004.

Needles, needles and more needles

After passing all the tests and with ethics permission granted, on Tuesday the 2nd December I took a dose of antibiotics and started giving myself a hormone injection into my abdomen every evening. I really hate injections but the needle was very fine and didn’t really hurt. That all changed 5 days later when I had to start giving myself a second injection each day, this one in the morning. This injection really stung and left me with a new little bruise each day. Normally every month a woman’s body matures one egg which is released from the ovary in anticipation of being fertilised. The hormones I was taking were to make as many eggs as possible develop at once. I felt sore and very tired.

Three days after starting the morning injections I was back at the fertility clinic for blood tests and a scan to see how many eggs were developing and the size of the follicles they were developing in. Once enough follicles had reached a certain size, I stopped having the two daily injections, took my ‘trigger’ injection which makes the eggs do their final maturation step and then 36 hours later went into the clinic for the egg collection. Under a mild sedation, the eggs were sucked out of me using a fine needle inserted through my vagina. The antibiotics I took at the beginning were to prevent me getting an infection from this procedure. I went home and slept for the rest of the day. For the next couple of days I was sore and uncomfortable so took some pain killers and spent most of the time sleeping.

A slight complication…

At this point I should have started feeling better, but I was one of the unlucky few who go on to develop a rare complication called Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome. Fortunately mine was just a mild case; I had a painful swollen abdomen, shortness of breathe, nausea and aching arms. Severe cases can require hospitalisation to drain fluid from the lungs and abdomen. About a week later the swelling had gone down, the nausea abated and my arms were back to normal. Alas, I’d missed all the work pre-Christmas parties but was back to full strength for the family festivities. Phew!

In a future post, I’ll explain why I became an egg donor and give some of the stats around success rates for in vitro fertilisation. In the meantime, to see what happens during ovarian stimulation watch this neat little animation:

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Edit 04/01/15: On reflection, I’d just like to state for the record that even though it was touch, I would do it all again! Here’s my post on why and my post on why we should talk about it.

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