Neurodiversity Celebration Week: Darya Chernikhova

Neurodiversity Celebration Week: Darya Chernikhova

Posted on March 23, 2023   by Microbiology Society

Neurodiversity Celebration Week takes place 13–19 March 2023; it aims to transform how neurodivergent individuals are perceived and supported by organisations, while creating a more inclusive and equitable culture.

We spoke with Society Champion, Darya Chernikhova, about their experiences of working in microbiology as a neurodivergent person.

You will contribute to the world. It might take longer, or it might not, but it’ll be awesome.”  Darya Chernikhova

Darya Chernikhova
© Darya Chernikhova

Could you tell us about yourself?

I’m a masters student and I am working towards cryopreserving biodiversity-related microbiomes. Just like humans have gut microbiomes, everything from wild animals to butterflies to plants and soils has microbiomes. Each microbial situation can have tens of thousands of individual species of bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, etc. We can’t protect or restore biodiversity without paying attention to the microbiomes that go with it. Right now, most microbiome work is limited to sequencing or to isolating select bacterial species.

I’d like to create frozen living archives of whole microbiome samples. Currently, I’m on an internship in Hawaii, learning cryopreservation techniques.



It’s Neurodiversity Celebration Week 13–19 March 2023; will you be doing anything to raise awareness?

I feel like my very person creates awareness the moment I walk into a room!

I’m an oddball and an acquired taste. I’ve started telling people I’m neurodivergent as early as reasonably possible in a professional relationship. It doesn’t help me succeed, but it does help me feel better about the process, and I do feel that announcing myself helps to normalise difference and makes the world a better place. I tend not to do special things for specific occasions, but I do appreciate those occasions refreshing awareness and strength in my person. 

As a neurodivergent person studying science, are there any challenges you have faced?

I was an undergraduate in the 1990s. Back then, you had to choose a path and walk it.  Maybe you became a cancer researcher, or maybe a field biologist, and you needed mentors to get you started. People grew and switched jobs, but it was difficult and not celebrated in society. I couldn’t find a mentor or a path. So I became a software developer, and now I’ve gone back to school.

In some ways it’s easier. Career changes are normalised and, after two decades of trying, I finally got the right diagnosis and medication. In other ways it’s still hard and sometimes harder. How do you ask for mentorship, when people don’t see you as a mentee? You’ve spent a lifetime studying people and relationships, and having diverse hobbies and interests so you know how to help the people around you and how to contribute to multiple projects. However, you’re still prone to burnout, and your colleagues aren’t always excited about you trying to do too much. 

There are pressures to ‘get it done’ within a shortened career span, whatever you decide ‘it’ is. You have the life experience to know where the right balances are and that helps, but you’re still human enough to not be able to reach them.   

There are also special challenges: I can be on time and I can work in the morning, but it takes a toll. Over the long term, going against natural circadian rhythms has been shown to carry health and longevity consequences. I have good days when I’m a productivity superhero and bad days when executive dysfunction reigns. I’m very sensitive to others’ feelings, but I can’t always react appropriately in real-time, and I definitely can’t represent myself in ways that generally get people accepted and promoted. Every professional field has its own social relationships and politics and I don’t fit. You kind of just have to be strong and find your personal path, even when you know you’re not likely to hit expected milestones.

The hardest part is knowing when to quit. I’ve internalised that walking away is shameful. However, when you clutch at something, giving it your all, you’re wasting your potential. Don’t be exhausted and dejected, life’s short, and you are enough. Find a place that makes you 5% happier and the next, and the next. You will contribute to the world. It might take longer, or it might not, but it’ll be awesome. 

Do you think more needs to be done to support neurodivergent people working in (or hoping to work in) science?

Gosh yes! There is so much intersectionality too; I try to build up understanding that accommodations aren’t handouts to ‘special’ people. Rather, they are things that you can do to make your own environment function better.

Take the example of ageism: neurodivergent people; women; people of colour and those from working class backgrounds are all groups more likely to enter academia later in life. Many grants  and scholarships for early career microbiologists carry a maximum age requirement. Trust me, I’m just as broke and enthusiastic. When your group/department/university/company sees an announcement of funding that carries an age limit, please respond back to the granter and gently and kindly let them know that you understand they’re a programme manager and don’t set the rules, but could they pass it up the chain to eliminate age requirements. There are groups that define early career as ‘X number of years of work in this field or after graduation, excluding the years taken off for family or personal obligations’.  With enough supporting voices, things will change.

Let’s talk advice. Try not to give unsolicited common sense advice. We’ve tried it. But it’s wonderful to offer mentorship. Give all accommodation requests that you’re able to give, and don’t compare individuals’ accommodations or disabilities. Ask community-run support groups for advice. They have the context to suggest productive solutions. Implement diversity consultants’ suggestions. When you step back and reassess how a person might work better in your environment, what you’re actually doing is figuring out how your environment could work better. Be flexible and innovative, and you’ll be getting the best from all of your colleagues.

Communication: in a homogenous culture, people sometimes struggle to communicate with ‘outsiders’. This can lead to neurodivergent people, or those from other cultures or classes, being pushed away and the creation of ‘in’ groups. Neurodivergent people are used to code-switching; we adapt and translate. Trust us to show you how to share.

Be uncomfortable. Every day. Get a calendar and put checkmarks on the days when you’ve made yourself uncomfortable on behalf of a minority. Don’t wait until you’re secure enough in your position to really make a difference, you’ll never get there. By the time you get to Principal Investigator level, you’ll have leapfrogged all of the people you didn’t speak up for. We don’t have that choice of distancing, or stopping to rest, available to us. We are fighting hard for our place in the world every single day. To be an ally, be active in deed, as well as words.

Darya C pic.png
© Darya Chernikhova

Do you have any role models, if so, who?

I don’t have heroes, but I do admire aspects of certain people. If I see someone being inventive or kind, I’ll want to be like them in that regard. I met Glenn Seaborg once (a physicist who discovered many new elements and isotopes, and has element 106 named after him). He gave a talk to our student group, and he was so kind. It postponed my undergraduate burnout by a year. I also met Eartha Kitt after a concert (a brilliant performer and US Civil Rights activist). She was powerful and magnetic. Dr David Vaughan got me into corals and is a force of nature and can-do action. My friend Carrie Hawks makes animated short films that talk so well about difficult topics. My friend Sky develops software for good causes. People in citizen science; people who do wonderful things without institutional support – I’d like to be like them.


Could you tell us why you decided to join the Society and become a Champion?

I was looking for mentors, and I wanted to contribute to diversity initiatives. The Society accepts people from all over the world, and everyone is so kind in emails and chat; I’ve been made to feel welcome. I’m glad it exists, and I’m glad to be hanging out with the Champions.

If you would like to get involved with Society activities, or become a Champion, you can find out more via our Get Involved webpage.






Scientists Warn of Spike in “Flesh-Eating” Infections in Parts of the U.S. Due to Climate Change

Continued warming of the climate would see a rise in the number and spread of potentially fatal infections caused by bacteria found along parts of the coast of the United States.

Vibrio vulnificus bacteria grow in warm shallow coastal waters and can infect a cut or insect bite during contact with seawater. A new study led by the UK’s University of East Anglia (UEA) shows that the number of V. vulnificus infections along the East Coast of the US, a global hotspot for such infections, has gone up from 10 to 80 per year over a 30-year period.

In addition, every year cases occur further north. In the late 1980s, cases were found in the Gulf of Mexico and along the southern Atlantic coast but were rare north of Georgia. Today they can be found as far north as Philadelphia.

The researchers predict that by 2041–2060 infections may spread to encompass major population centers around New York. Combined with a growing and increasingly elderly population, who are more susceptible to infection, annual case numbers could double.

By 2081–2100, infections may be present in every Eastern US state under medium-to-high future emissions and warming scenarios.

The findings, published today (March 23, 2023) in the journal Scientific Reports, are important because although the number of cases in the US is not large, someone infected with V. vulnificus has a one-in-five chance of dying. It is also the most expensive marine pathogen in the US to treat.

The illness peaks in the summer and sees the bacteria spread rapidly and severely damage the person’s flesh. As a result, it is commonly called a ‘flesh-eating’ illness and many people who survive have had limbs amputated.

Lead author of the study Elizabeth Archer, a postgraduate researcher in UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: “The projected expansion of infections highlights the need for increased individual and public health awareness in the areas affected. This is crucial as prompt action when symptoms occur is necessary to prevent major health consequences.

“Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are changing our climate and the impacts may be especially acute on the world’s coastlines, which provide a major boundary between natural ecosystems and human populations and are an important source of human disease.

“We show that by the end of the 21st Century, V. vulnificus infections will extend further northwards but how far North will depend upon the degree of further warming and therefore on our future greenhouse gas emissions.

“If emissions are kept low, then cases may extend northwards only as far as Connecticut. If emissions are high, infections are predicted to occur in every US state on the East Coast. By the end of the 21st Century we predict that around 140-200 V. vulnificus infections may be reported each year.”

The research team suggests that individuals and health authorities could be warned in real time about particularly risky environmental conditions through marine or Vibrio specific early warning systems.

Active control measures could include greater awareness programmes for at risk groups, for example the elderly and individuals with underlying health conditions, and coastal signage during high-risk periods.

Co-author Prof Iain Lake from UEA said: “The observation that cases of V. vulnificus have expanded northwards along the East Coast of the US is an indication of the effect that climate change is already having on human health and the coastline. Knowing where cases are likely to occur in future should help health services plan for the future.”

The study is the first to map how the locations of V. vulnificus cases have changed along the eastern coastline of the US. It also the first to explore how climate change may influence the spread of cases in the future.

Information on where people caught V. vulnificus infection was obtained from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This allowed the team to map how cases of Vibrio vulnificus have extended northwards over 30 years from 1988-2018.

Temperature information based on observations and computer-based climate models were then used to predict where in the US cases might occur by the end of the 21st Century.

Co-author Prof James Oliver from the University of North Carolina Charlotte, in the US, said: “This is a landmark paper which not only ties global climate change to disease but provides strong evidence for the environmental spread of this extremely deadly bacterial pathogen.”

Reference: “Climate warming and increasing Vibrio vulnificus infections in North America” by Elizabeth Archer et al., 23 March 2023, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-28247-2

Fomepizole helps overcome antibiotic-resistant pneumonia in mice, study finds

Pneumococcal disease leads to over three million hospitalizations and hundreds of thousands of deaths annually. A study publishing March 16 in the open access journal PLOS Biology by Carlos J. Orihuela at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Alabama, United States, and colleagues suggests that the FDA-approved drug Fomepizole may reduce disease severity in the lungs of mice with some forms of bacterial pneumonia and enhance the efficacy of the antibiotic erythromycin as well.

Streptococcus pneumoniae is the leading cause of community-acquired pneumonia. While vaccines to protect against the bacteria are available, these vaccines are not effective against all strains, with some versions being especially problematic as they are multidrug-resistant. Currently, there are very limited treatment options for combating multidrug-resistant S. pneumoniae infections.

In order to test the effects of novel treatments for antibiotic-resistant S. pneumoniae, the researchers conducted a series of experiments with mice. Fomepizole is an FDA-approved drug normally used as an antidote for the ingestion of toxic alcohols (such as methanol or ethylene glycol), and works by inhibiting the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase. Researchers inoculated mice with a multidrug-resistant S. pneumoniae and tested the effect of fomepizole in a combinatorial treatment with antibiotics. They quantified the bacterial burden in the organs of infected mice, comparing the experimental group with the control group.

The researchers found that using Fomepizole blocked normal energy production by S. pneumoniae and enhanced the bacteria’s susceptibility to antibiotics and reduced bacterial burden in the lungs of mice with pneumonia. The combination treatment was effective in preventing the development of invasive disease. Future research is needed however, as this novel drug treatment has not been replicated in clinical studies on humans, who may present with complicating factors such as comorbidities, advanced age, or environmental variables that may play a role in disease outcomes.

Orihuela adds, “Pharmacological targeting of fermentation pathways is a new way to enhance the susceptibility of some bacteriato antimicrobials. Combination treatment of erythromycin and fomepizole, an alcohol dehydrogenase inhibitor, prevented the in vivo dissemination of antibiotic-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae.”

  • Hansol Im, Madison L. Pearson, Eriel Martinez, Kyle H. Cichos, Xiuhong Song, Katherine L. Kruckow, Rachel M. Andrews, Elie S. Ghanem, Carlos J. Orihuela. Targeting NAD+ regeneration enhances antibiotic susceptibility of Streptococcus pneumoniae during invasive disease. PLOS Biology, 2023; 21 (3): e3002020 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3002020
  • PLOS

    Low-cost, universal oral COVID-19 vaccine prevents severe respiratory illness in hamsters

    A UCLA-led team has developed an inexpensive, universal oral COVID-19 vaccine that prevented severe respiratory illness and weight loss when tested in hamsters, which are naturally susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. It proved as effective as vaccines administered by injection or intranasally in the research.

    If ultimately approved for human use, it could be a weapon against all COVID-19 variants and boost uptake, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, and among those with an aversion to needles.

    The study is published in the peer-reviewed journal Microbiology Spectrum.

    The oral vaccine is based primarily on the nucleocapsid protein, which is the most abundantly expressed of the virus’s four major structural proteins and evolves at a much slower rate than the frequently mutating spike protein. The vaccine utilizes a highly weakened bacterium to produce the nucleocapsid protein in infected cells as well as the membrane protein, which is another highly abundant viral structural protein.

    Being a universal vaccine based primarily upon the nucleocapsid protein, the vaccine is resistant to the incessant mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein upon which virtually all current vaccines are based. As a result, current vaccines rapidly become obsolete, requiring that they repeatedly be re-engineered. Hence, our vaccine should protect against new and emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2.”

    Dr. Marcus Horwitz, senior author, distinguished professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases and of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA

    Oral delivery also makes it easier to distribute the vaccine in resource poor areas of the world by eliminating the need for needles, syringes, and trained personnel to deliver injectable vaccines, he added. “An oral vaccine may also be attractive to many people with vaccine hesitancy on account of fear of needles.”

    The researchers noted that while it worked exceptionally well in preventing severe respiratory illness, it did not provide full protection against high viral loads in the hamsters. Also, they did not test it against the Omicron strain, which contains a nearly identical nucleocapsid protein, because of this strain’s low virulence in the golden Syrian hamsters they used.

    But the vaccine, they write, “is efficacious when administered via the oral route against COVID-19-like disease in a highly demanding animal model. This conveniently administered, easily manufactured, inexpensive, and readily stored and transported vaccine could play a major role in ending the COVID-19 pandemic by protecting immunized individuals from serious disease from current and future strains of SARS-CoV-2.”

    The next step in the process will be to manufacture the vaccine for oral administration via an acid-resistant enteric capsule that will allow the vaccine to be safely released in the small intestine, Horwitz said. It will then be tested for safety, immunogenicity, and efficacy in humans.

    “We also plan to expand the vaccine to protect against infections caused by other types of potentially pandemic coronaviruses such as the virus that causes Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS),” he added.

    Additional authors are Qingmei Jia and Saša Masleša-Galić of UCLA; Helle Bielefeldt-Ohmann of the University of Queensland, Australia; and Rachel Maison, Airn Hartwig, and Richard Bowen of Colorado State University.

    This study was supported by a Corona Virus Seed grant from the UCLA AIDS Institute and Charity Treks and by the National Institutes of Health (AI141390).

    Journal reference:

    Jia, Q., et al. (2023). Oral Administration of Universal Bacterium-Vectored Nucleocapsid-Expressing COVID-19 Vaccine is Efficacious in Hamsters. Microbiology Spectrum.

    Co-infection with MRSA ‘superbug’ could make COVID-19 outcomes even more deadly

    Global data shows nearly 10 per cent of severe COVID-19 cases involve a secondary bacterial co-infection – with Staphylococcus aureus, also known as Staph A., being the most common organism responsible for co-existing infections with SARS-CoV-2. Researchers at Western have found if you add a ‘superbug’ – methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – into the mix, the COVID-19 outcome could be even more deadly.

    The mystery of how and why these two pathogens, when combined, contribute to the severity of the disease remains unsolved. However, a team of Western researchers has made significant progress toward solving this “whodunit”.

    New research by Mariya Goncheva, Richard M. Gibson, Ainslie C. Shouldice, Jimmy D. Dikeakos and David E. Heinrichs, has revealed that IsdA, a protein found in all strains of Staph A., enhanced SARS-CoV-2 replication by 10- to 15-fold. The findings of this study are significant and could help inform the development of new therapeutic approaches for COVID-19 patients with bacterial co-infections.

    Interestingly, the study, which was recently published in iScience, also showed that SARS-CoV-2 did not affect the bacteria’s growth. This was contrary to what the researchers had initially expected.

    We started with an assumption that SARS-CoV-2 and hospitalization due to COVID-19 possibly caused patients to be more susceptible to bacterial infections which eventually resulted in worse outcomes.”

    Mariya Goncheva

    Goncheva is a former postdoctoral associate, previously with the department of microbiology and immunology at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

    Goncheva said bacterial infections are most commonly acquired in hospital settings and hospitalization increases the risk of co-infection. “Bacterial infections are one of the most significant complications of respiratory viral infections such as COVID-19 and Influenza A. Despite the use of antibiotics, 25 per cent of patients co-infected with SARS-CoV-2 and bacteria, die as a result. This is especially true for patients who are hospitalized, and even more so for those in intensive care units. We were interested in finding why this happens,” said Goncheva, lead investigator of the study.

    Goncheva, currently Canada Research Chair in virology and professor of biochemistry and microbiology at the University of Victoria, studied the pathogenesis of multi-drug resistant bacteria (such as MRSA) supervised by Heinrichs, professor of microbiology and immunology at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

    When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she pivoted to study interactions between MRSA and SARS-CoV-2.

    For this study, conducted at Western’s level 3 biocontainment lab, Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation (ImPaKT), Goncheva’s work created an out-of-organism laboratory model to study the interactions between SARS-CoV-2 and MRSA, a difficult-to-treat multi-drug resistant bacteria.

    “At the beginning of the pandemic, the then newly opened ImPaKT facility made it possible for us to study the interactions between live SARS-CoV-2 virus and MRSA. We were able to get these insights into molecular-level interactions due to the technology at ImPaKT,” said Heinrichs, whose lab focuses on MRSA and finding drugs to treat MRSA infections. “The next step would be to replicate this study in relevant animal models.”

    Journal reference:

    Goncheva, M. I., et al. (2023). The Staphylococcus aureus protein IsdA increases SARS CoV-2 replication by modulating JAK-STAT signaling. IScience.

    Vaginal sex can shape the composition of urethral microbiome in healthy men

    Contrary to common beliefs, your urine is not germ free. In fact, a new study shows that the urethra of healthy men is teeming with microbial life and that a specific activity-;vaginal sex-;can shape its composition. The research, published March 24 in the journal Cell Reports Medicine, provides a healthy baseline for clinicians and scientists to contrast between healthy and diseased states of the urethra, an entrance to the urinary and reproductive systems.

    We know where bugs in the gut come from; they primarily come from our surroundings through fecal-oral transfer. But where does genital microbiology come from?”

    David Nelson, co-senior author, microbiologist at Indiana University

    To flush out the answer, the team of microbiologists, statisticians, and physicians sequenced the penile urethra swabs of 110 healthy adult men. These participants had no urethral symptoms or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and no inflammation of the urethra. DNA sequencing results revealed that two types of bacterial communities call the penile urethra home-;one native to the organ, the other from a foreign source.

    “It is important to set this baseline,” says co-senior author Qunfeng Dong, a bioinformatician at Loyola University Chicago. “Only by understanding what health is can we define what diseases are.”

    The researchers found that most of the healthy men had a simple, sparse community of oxygen-loving bacteria in the urethra. In addition, these bacteria probably live close to the urethral opening at the tip of the penis, where there is ample oxygen. The consistent findings of these bacteria suggest that they are the core community that supports penile urethra health.

    But some of the men also had a more complex secondary group of bacteria that are often found in the vagina and can disturb the healthy bacterial ecosystem of the vagina. The team speculates that these bacteria reside deeper in the penile urethra because they thrive in oxygen-scarce settings. Only men who reported having vaginal sex carry these bacteria, hinting at the microbes’ origins.

    Delving into the participant’s sexual history, the team found a close link between this second bacterial community and vaginal sex but not other sexual behaviors, such as oral sex and anal sex. They also found evidence that vaginal sex has lasting effects. Vagina-associated bacteria remained detectable in the participants for at least two months after vaginal sex, indicating that sexual exposure to the vagina can reshape the male urinary-tract microbiome.

    “In our study, one behavior explains 10% of the overall bacterial variation,” says Nelson, when discussing the influence of vaginal sex. “The fact that a specific behavior is such a strong determinant is just profound.”

    Although current findings from the study show that vaginal bacteria can spread to the penile urethra, the team’s next plan is to test whether the reverse is true. Using the newly established baseline, the researchers also hope to offer new insights into bacteria’s role in urinary- and reproductive-tract diseases, including unexplained urethral inflammation and STIs.

    “STIs really impact people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged; they disproportionately impact women and minorities,” says Nelson. “It’s a part of health care that’s overlooked because of stigma. I think our study has a potential to dramatically change how we handle STI diagnosis and management in a positive way.”

    This work was supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

    Journal reference:

    Toh, E., et al. (2023). Sexual behavior shapes male genitourinary microbiome composition. Cell Reports Medicine.

    “Glow-in-the-Dark” Proteins: The Future of Viral Disease Detection?

    Although there have been significant advancements in diagnostic tests for viral diseases, many highly sensitive tests still rely on complex sample preparation and result interpretation methods, rendering them unsuitable for point-of-care settings or resource-limited areas. However, researchers have now revealed in ACS Central Science a novel, sensitive technique that can analyze viral nucleic acids in just 20 minutes using a one-step process with “glow-in-the-dark” proteins.

    Bioluminescence, the scientific phenomenon behind the firefly’s glow, the anglerfish’s radiant lure, and the ghostly blue of phytoplankton-laden shores, is powered by a chemical reaction involving the luciferase protein. This luminescent protein has been integrated into sensors that emit visible light when detecting their target, making them ideal for straightforward point-of-care testing. However, until now, these sensors have not achieved the exceptional sensitivity necessary for clinical diagnostic tests.

    The gene-editing technique known as CRISPR could provide this ability, but it requires many steps and additional specialized equipment to detect what can be a low signal in a complex, noisy sample. So, Maarten Merkx and colleagues wanted to use CRISPR-related proteins, but combine them with a bioluminescence technique whose signal could be detected with just a digital camera.

    To make sure there was enough sample RNA or DNA to analyze, the researchers performed recombinase polymerase amplification (RPA), a simple method that works at a constant temperature of about 100 F. With the new technique, called LUNAS (luminescent nucleic acid sensor), two CRISPR/Cas9 proteins specific for different neighboring parts of a viral genome each have a distinct fragment of luciferase attached to them.

    If a specific viral genome that the researchers were testing for was present, the two CRISPR/Cas9 proteins would bind to the targeted nucleic acid sequences and come close to each other, allowing the complete luciferase protein to form and shine blue light in the presence of a chemical substrate. To account for this substrate being used up, the researchers used a control reaction that shined green. A tube that changed from green to blue indicated a positive result.

    When tested on clinical samples collected from nasal swabs, RPA-LUNAS successfully detected SARS-CoV-2 RNA within 20 minutes, even at concentrations as low as 200 copies per microliter. The researchers say that the LUNAS assay has great potential for detecting many other viruses effectively and easily.

    Reference: “Glow-in-the-Dark Infectious Disease Diagnostics Using CRISPR-Cas9-Based Split Luciferase Complementation” by Harmen J. van der Veer, Eva A. van Aalen, Claire M. S. Michielsen, Eva T. L. Hanckmann, Jeroen Deckers, Marcel M. G. J. van Borren, Jacky Flipse, Anne J. M. Loonen, Joost P. H. Schoeber and Maarten Merkx, 15 March 2023, ACS Central Science.
    DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.2c01467

    The study was funded by the Dutch Research Council | Nationaal Regieorgaan Praktijkgericht Onderzoek SIA (NRPO-SIA) and the Eindhoven University Fund.

    New, Better Models Show How Infectious Diseases Like COVID-19 Spread

    The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the significance of modeling in comprehending the spread of diseases and in providing crucial insights into disease prevention and control. A new model has utilized COVID-19 data and combined two classic methodologies to enhance predictions about disease spread.

    A widely used modeling technique involves dividing the population into compartments, such as susceptible (S), infected (I), and recovered (R), in what is known as the SIR model. This approach models the rates of change that describe the movement of individuals from one compartment to another.

    KAUST researchers, led by Paula Moraga, integrated SIR compartment modeling in time and a point process modeling approach in space–time, while also taking into account age-specific contact patterns. To do this, they used a two-step framework that allowed them to model data on infectious locations over time for different age groups.

    “The model gives more accurate predictions than previous approaches when making short/mid-range predictions in space and time,” says lead researcher André Amaral.

    “It also accounts for different age classes so we can treat these groups separately, resulting in finer control over the number of infectious cases.”

    Their approach paid off. In a simulation study to assess the model’s performance, and in a case study of COVID-19 cases in Cali, Colombia, the model performed better when making predictions and provided similar results for past time points, compared with models commonly used in predictive modeling.

    “The model’s features can help decision-makers to identify high-risk locations and vulnerable populations to develop better strategies for disease control,” says Amaral.

    It also can be used with any infectious disease that fits the compartment model assumptions, such as influenza. Furthermore, the model can account for different age groups and their associated contact patterns, meaning it allows more detailed conclusions about where, when, and to which population group decision-makers should focus their resources if they want to control disease spread.

    “In future work, we might extend such an approach and use different temporal models to replace the SIR model. This would allow us to account for different epidemic dynamics and expand the number of scenarios that the model can be used for,” says Amaral.

    “Finally, to improve the model’s predictive capabilities, we might work on developing ensemble approaches that combine a number of predictions from a number of different models and also account for potential time delays in collecting data,” he adds.

    Moraga says the model’s performance demonstrates the importance of quality and detailed data by location, time, and population group to understand infectious disease dynamics while highlighting the need to strengthen national surveillance systems to improve public health decision-making.

    Reference: “Spatio-temporal modeling of infectious diseases by integrating compartment and point process models” by André Victor Ribeiro Amaral, Jonatan A. González and Paula Moraga, 13 December 2022, Stochastic Environmental Research and Risk Assessment.
    DOI: 10.1007/s00477-022-02354-4

    Unexplained Digestive Problems? Lone Star Tick Bites May Be To Blame

    The American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) has released new clinical guidance to help physicians and patients identify if unexplained digestive symptoms are due to alpha-gal syndrome, a food allergy that is caused by lone star tick bites. The AGA Clinical Practice Update was published today (March 21, 2023) in the medical journal Gastroenterology.

    Alpha-gal syndrome is an allergy that causes your body to react to eating meat from mammals and products made from mammals. Symptoms usually start 2-6 hours after eating the mammalian meat or food.

    Clinicians should consider alpha-gal syndrome in patients with unexplained gastrointestinal symptoms of abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, particularly those who live or have lived in an alpha-gal–prevalent area (this includes the Southeast, mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and East Central U.S. regions). For patients with suspected alpha-gal, there is a blood test that looks for immunoglobulin E antibodies (IgE) to alpha-gal. Patients with these antibodies may have alpha-gal allergy. The main treatment for alpha-gal allergy is to not eat foods that contain alpha-gal. This includes mammalian meat, fat, and products made from them.

    About Alpha-gal syndrome

    Alpha-gal syndrome is an allergy that causes your body to respond badly to ingesting mammalian products; meat from mammals or products made from mammals such as cheese, butter, milk, cream, gelatin, etc. Mammals are animals that have hair, such as cows, pigs, and deer.  Symptoms usually start 2-6 hours after eating the mammalian meat or food. The alpha-gal allergy can cause symptoms of the gastrointestinal tract (digestive system) like stomach pain, diarrhea (loose stool), nausea or upset belly, and vomiting (throwing up). It can also cause hives (an itchy rash), flushing of the skin, swelling of the face, or fainting.

    About lone star ticks

    Lone star ticks (Amblyomma americanum) are a species of tick found predominantly in the southeastern and eastern United States. They are named for the distinctive white spot on the back of adult females, which resembles the shape of the state of Texas. Lone star ticks are known for their aggressive behavior, feeding on a variety of hosts, including humans, dogs, and deer. They are also known to carry diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, and alpha-gal syndrome, a food allergy that causes the body to react to mammalian meat.

    As the official journal of the AGA Institute, Gastroenterology is the leading publication in the field of gastrointestinal disease. It provides reliable and current coverage of both clinical and basic gastroenterology, with regular contributions from renowned experts and the latest information on disease treatments. Original research is categorized by clinical and basic-translational content, as well as by content related to the alimentary tract, liver, pancreas, and biliary system.

    Microbiome: From Research and Innovation to Market