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Scientists are producing deadly zoonoses on this tiny German island

The German island of Riems is home to some of the most dangerous virology research on the planet.

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  • The Friedrich Loeffler Institute in Germany is a biosafety level 4 facility where scientists conduct dangerous research on zoonoses.
  • Zoonoses are diseases that can be spread from animals to humans, or vice versa.
  • These diseases not only pose a major threat to humans, but also to animals.


On a small, unassuming German island called Riems lies one of the oldest virus research institutes in the world. And also one of the most dangerous.

The Friedrich Loeffler Institute is closed to the public. To access the island, approved visitors must first cross a small stretch of the Baltic Sea via a dam, which can be closed immediately in case of an outbreak. To enter the facility, they must take a shower and put on protective clothing. Inside, scientists study some of the world's most deadly viruses, including bird flu, Ebola and mad cow disease.

One of their many focuses is zoonoses, which are diseases that can be spread from animals to humans, or vice versa. But the facility was originally founded in 1910 to study foot-and-mouth disease. Over the following decades, the Friedrich Loeffler Institute was used for various purposes, including the development of chemical weapons during World War II, vaccine research during the Cold War, and the study of animal welfare and husbandry. It eventually earned the nickname the "island of plagues."

In 2010, the Friedrich Loeffler Institute completed construction on a series of new laboratories that are classified as biosafety level 4, one of the most dangerous distinctions. Today, there are only a handful of level-4 facilities worldwide.

Map of level-4 facilities

The institute is also one of only two facilities worldwide with the ability to conduct large-scale animal studies, such as with swine and cattle. Robin Holland, a student in the Veterinary Medical Scholars Program at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, described her experience studying pathology at the Friedrich Loeffler Institute like this:

"I learned how these diseases are managed, controlled, and diagnosed in real-world scenarios, their prevalence globally, and their potential for economic impact if outbreaks were to occur in a naïve population."

University of Greifswald

Holland also described the containment procedures at the institute.

"Alongside engineers and biorisk officers, I saw the massive infrastructure of the FLI, including HEPA filtration of exhaust air, room decontamination by dry fogging, waste water treatment, and carcass rendering to animal byproducts. I learned how the level 2 through 4 facilities are managed, protocols for containment in the event of an emergency, and how facilities are designed and personnel are trained in order to ensure that—especially considering work with highly contagious pathogens such as FMDV—all pathogens are contained within the facility."

Zoonoses: A bigger threat to humans or animals?

Zoonoses pose a major threat to humans. From malaria to rabies, they account for about 60 percent of all infectious diseases contracted by humans, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that "3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people are spread from animals." But as scientists continue to study how to treat, prevent and contain these infectious diseases, it's also worth noting the threats they pose to animals.

"The animal toll has been much greater," neurobiologist and public health physician Professor Charles Watson from Curtin University told Abc.net. "When the Nipah virus broke out in Malaysia in the late 1990s there were relatively few human deaths but five million pigs had to be slaughtered in order to wipe it out."

One reason zoonoses are so deadly for animals is that some mysteriously don't hurt humans, even when we contract them.

"It is really unpredictable, however many viruses are successful because they do not kill their human hosts and therefore get better transmission from person to person."

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Lee Jae-Sung of Korea Republic lies on the pitch holding his knee during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group F match between Korea Republic and Germany at Kazan Arena on June 27, 2018 in Kazan, Russia.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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