Curious Bends  –  Delhi’s pollution, faked data, AIDS epidemic and more

1. The puzzle of Delhi’s air pollution

Delhi has the world’s worst ambient air quality. In the decade since a chunk of its public transport moved to using compressed natural gas from petroleum, the problem has devolved into other socioeconomic issues. People whose power needs the city can’t meet use diesel generators. The number of cars on the road have shot up. Even though industries have been moved outside city limits, their smoke hangs like a pall together with that from burning post-harvest rice stalks from neighbouring states. And a comparison with Beijing, where the civilian outcry against worsening pollution was pronounced, shows how much worse Delhi has it. (8 min read)

2. Indian scientist fakes data, but institute’s response is commendable

A scientist at the Institute of Microbial Technology in Chandigarh has been found to have fabricated data for seven papers published in the last year, all of which are now being retracted. The fabrication was brought to the attention of the director of the institute by a past supervisor of the scientist, and, instead of pushing it under the rug, the director followed the right procedures to start an investigation this January. Many Indian researchers both in India and abroad have had their work retracted, but as long as institutional provisions to deal with such misconduct are strong, it should help to curtail ills. (4 min read)

3. Clever experiment with mice reveals ovarian cancer’s secrets
Ovarian cancer starts spreading much earlier than other cancers do, and the first tissue that is its victim tends to be belly fat. It was previously thought this happens because of the physical proximity, but new research shows that the spread occurs through the blood. This matters because the proteins revealed to be involved in the process are targets of drugs meant for other types of cancers, and they could now be used to curtail the spread of ovarian cancer. (3 min read)

+ The author, Anwesha Ghosh, is a PhD student at the University of Rochester.

4. Give back to the locals if you profit from their knowledge

Fifty-one countries from around the world have ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, which from October will give more legal backing to providers and users of genetic resources. These are commonly used to create better performing crop varieties. “Now, if a company or a person is accessing genetic resources or traditional knowledge for commercial purpose, they would be bound to share a part of their earning and profits with the community which has been conserving it.” (2 min read)

5. No one is tracking the lead that tyres leak

Lead is a neurotoxin that causes brain damage, and is most harmful to pregnant women and children. It has also been found that lead poisoning can be the cause of violent crime. Global campaigns to reduce the amount of lead in products such as fuel and paints have been going on for many decades with good success. However, in India, it seems that the campaign hasn’t been effective against lead’s use in tyres, where it is used to balance weights in the wheel. (3 min read)

Chart of the week

This week the annual international AIDS conference begins in Melbourne (despitethe loss of researchers who were onboard MH17 that was shot down in Ukraine). The global fight against AIDS is being won, but some numbers, such as those below, are worrying. Pakistan has a population that is about one-sixth that of India, but the AIDS-related mortality is much lower in the neighbouring country. More form UNAIDS here.

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 10.05.02

Follow Mukunth and Akshat on Twitter for more. Have a good week!

HIV infection cured?

On Sunday American researchers reported that a baby girl has been effectively cured of HIV infection with the use of standard antiretroviral drugs. This is an exciting development giving hope that AIDS, which is caused by HIV, may be cured in young children, but there are many steps to be taken before that can happen.

Researchers ‘cure’ HIV infection in a babyThe Hindu’s science blog, 5 March 2013.

Image from here.

Researchers ‘cure’ HIV infection in a baby

On Sunday, U.S. researchers reported that a baby girl has been effectively cured of HIV infection with the use of standard antiretroviral drugs. This is an exciting development giving hope that AIDS, which is caused by HIV, may be cured in young children, but there are many steps to be taken before that can happen.

In 2010 a girl, whose identity has not been revealed, was infected by HIV at birth because her mother was carrying the infection. Within 30 hours of being born, the baby was treated with potent antiretroviral therapy that consists of three different drugs. The treatment was continued and in under a month the baby’s infection dropped significantly and remained so for further 18 months. Then, for reasons unknown, the mother stopped the baby’s treatment.

Usually stopping the treatment gives the infection a chance to flare up. When doctors saw the baby again after more than five months, they were expecting that HIV test would be positive. Hannah Gay, a pediatric HIV specialist who cared for the baby, told The Guardian, “All the tests came back negative, very much to my surprise.”

It is not clear why this happened. Rolando Barrios, a pharmacologist at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, says: “It is possible that an earlier intervention stopped HIV from lodging into the immune cells.” Barrios told The Hindu that sometimes there is a 48-hour window after catching the infection to stop its irreversible spread.

HIV infection takes hold in the human body by infecting long-lived white blood cells called CD4. If antiretroviral drugs are given early enough, they can block HIV from infecting CD4 cells. But if it is too late for that, these drugs can only curtail the replication of the virus. Which means that, on stopping the drug treatment, the virus becomes free to start replicating again.

In the reported case an early intervention may have stopped the spread and continued treatment reduced whatever infection was left. But very little can be said unless this can be repeated in many babies.

Doctors found out that the girl was rid of HIV, as far as can be detected, only because the drug treatment was stopped for many months. But this should not encourage others to stop their treatment, stressed the researchers. “We must be cautious about this singular result”, says Barrios.

Current treatments, if given at the appropriate time, can already stop up to 98% babies from being infected by their HIV-infected mothers. So of the 330,000 babies born with HIV annually, many can already be saved from the infection if these drugs are made available. Nonetheless, this case is remarkable because it opens a new line of investigation.

First published on thehindu.com.

UPDATE: There are questions being raised whether the baby was infected with HIV or not. The Hindu reports that the child wasn’t carrying any HIV antibodies. These should’ve been present even if the infection had been cured. Researchers suggest that some HIV particles can disappear from the newborn within four months without causing infection.