The Science Bit – Part 12: Breakthroughs in HIV research

25 05 2011

Research into finding the elusive cure for HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS, has been ongoing ever since the virus was first identified in humans in the early 1980s. Though treatment with highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) has dramatically improved such that the disease can be relatively effectively managed, HIV remains incurable and persistent.

Approximately 33 million people in the world are HIV positive, the majority of these in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The virus, which is passed on through blood and semen, is able to cleverly evade the body’s immune system – hiding, in fact, within the white blood cells, the very cells that are supposed to seek and destroy viruses and other foreign bodies. Infection with the virus is practically symptomless, but left untreated, as the virus gradually proliferates inside the body, it overpowers the immune system and leaves the body susceptible to opportunistic infections that the patient is unable to shake off. It is this Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) that leads to death, via secondary infectious diseases such as TB, pneumonia or viral cancers.

Antiretrovirals – drugs which attempt to slow the replication of virus particles inside the body – have improved the quality of life and life expectancy for HIV positive people (who have access to these drugs) no end. Though someone with HIV will, likely, ultimately die of an AIDS-related disease, they can be expected to live a long and relatively healthy life, as opposed to a death sentence within a few short years as was previously the case. Recently, a research team from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in the US has demonstrated another important benefit of antiretroviral therapy – that starting HAART as soon as HIV infection is diagnosed, rather than when AIDS begins to become apparent, can actually reduce the ability of HIV to spread from person to person.

From a huge randomised clinical trial that began in 2005 and spanned 13 countries around the world, it was found that cross infection with HIV to a non-HIV positive partner was 96% less likely if the HIV positive partner began taking HAART while their immune system was still healthy, compared to patients who began HAART only when their CD4 T-cell count fell to below 250 cells/mm3. In fact, in the first study group, only 1 new HIV infection occurred, compared to 27 in the latter group.

And NIAID are on a roll, it seems. Another research group investigating the possibility of a vaccine for HIV infection have made a very significant breakthrough using a monkey model of infection. A potential vaccine for SIV – the simian equivalent of HIV – was trialled by giving half of a healthy study population of monkeys an injection containing the vaccine, and half a placebo. The monkeys were then injected with one of two strains of SIV. Unfortunately, the vaccine failed to protect against those given the SIVmac251 strain, but of those given the SIVsmE660 strain, 50% did not develop SIV infection.

Though of course, it is too soon to tell whether this vaccine will work equally well in humans with HIV, the results are very promising. By studying the blood cells of monkeys used in the study, the researchers were able to identify the effect of ”neutralising” antibodies that helped to prevent the SIV virus from replicating, and so affirm that this line of enquiry into an HIV vaccine is valuable. The best previous vaccination results were from a study carried out in Thailand, and that particular vaccine conferred only 31% protection against the virus, so it is clear that while a cure or a fully protective vaccination for HIV is still far away, we are certainly moving in the right direction.

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Now now, NOW Magazine!

10 05 2011

First of all, sorry that I haven’t written anything for a long while, and sorry that my second blog, focussed solely on freelancing, hasn’t yet properly materialised! After learning that I was to be made redundant from the publishing company I work for, I was all set and ready to freelance full time – but then, out of the blue (and annoyingly, just after I’d had a batch of business cards printed up!), I was offered a permanent job with a med comms company that was too good to turn down! I start my new job on Monday, so things have been quite manic trying to wrap up my old job amidst an unusually hectic social calendar! Freelancing has taken a back seat for now, but I will try to get the blog back on track again!

Anyway, back to the subject of this blog post.

If you’re a Facebook user, you’ll notice that the adverts that appear on your pages are quite often cleverly targeted to whatever you have been writing about on your Wall. Over the last few weeks, I’ve attended two hen parties and was a bridesmaid at my friend’s wedding, so of course the ads on my Facebook page have been all related to rings, dresses, cakes and wedding photography. Then, just yesterday, a friend posted, “Health kick has begun! 15K run and only one chocolate bar consumed today!” Ever since I congratulated her on her efforts, I’ve had sports and dieting-relating ads appear on Facebook – and it’s one of those ads that I want to talk about today because it’s got me rather riled!

The offending advert is this one; “Cheryl Cole Loses 19lbs”. Even without clicking the link, the advert has got me mad – Cheryl Cole is TINY and I rather suspect that the advert text is not only misleading but also factually incorrect. Intrigued, I decided to click the link in the advert, and was directed to a NOW Magazine article that discusses how between them, the 5 members of British girl band Girls Aloud allegedly lost 36lbs in weight. Weirdly, the article doesn’t mention “these 2 old diet tips” proffered in the advert, though the page is loaded with miracle diet-related Google ads, and even more oddly, the NOW article was from 2006!

Immediately getting on my soapbox, I wrote to NOW Magazine and pointed out the many inaccuracies and misleading titbits quoted in the article.  For starters, the Facebook ad claims that our Cheryl lost 19lbs in weight; the NOW article says she lost 14lbs. More seriously, I felt that NOW Magazine were glamourising Cheryl and her bandmates’ unnecessary weight loss (and it is at this point that I should point out I don’t know if the figures quoted are even true or not!). According to the article, 5 ft 3 in Cheryl has gone from 9 stone to 8 stone, and suggests that the higher weight was unhealthy. In fact, for Cheryl’s height, both 9 stone and 8 stone are well within the “healthy” Body Mass Index (BMI) bracket.

Even more worrying were the weight loss figures quoted for her bandmates Sarah Harding and Nadine Coyle, both of whom have reportedly lost 7lbs. However, at 5 ft 6 in and 5 ft 5 in respectively, both Sarah and Nadine’s starting weights were at the lower end of the “healthy” BMI bracket, and their alleged weight loss has now put them in the “underweight” category. Despite this, Nadine Coyle is reported as saying that she still feels she has “curves” – which we all know is magazine-speak for “fat”. This is not something that I feel a woman’s magazine should be promoting!

Though it is 5 years old, I am shocked and appalled that this article was even published in the first place. Many people, especially young girls, look up to Cheryl Cole and the other members of Girls Aloud, and it’s easy to see how these impressionable groups could be led to believe that 8 stone or less is “the perfect weight”, especially in the absence of any explanation of the Body Mass Index – a measure of how your weight is relative to your height. The article also fails to mention that many secondary factors can be attributed to weight – genetics, metabolism, muscle to fat ratios and gender, among other things, can all affect your weight and alter what an individual’s ideal weight should be.

The thing that angered me most about the article was not even the article itself, but rather the way in which I was made aware of the it – through a targeted Facebook advert that was presented to me on the grounds that I congratulated my friend Jenny on her running achievement and chocolate-avoiding will power. It appeared to me to be part of some highly unethical pay-per-click marketing campaign in which young Cheryl Cole fans would see the ad and think, “OMG! If Cheryl Cole needed to lose 19lbs then what does that mean for me?! What can I do about it?! Oh look, there seems to be a Google advert, conveniently placed directly underneath this article, that promotes a miracle diet cure! I’d better try it!” And just like that, NOW Magazine earns a few pence from the ad click, and another teenage girl becomes deluded – or anorexic, eating only rocket salad and balsamic vinegar, just like Kimberley Walsh.

But there’s a twist in this tale! I immediately fired off a complaint email to NOW Magazine and was surprised when, not less than a few hours later, I received a reply that said,

From: Now online
Sent: 10 May 2011 16:34
To: Lisa Martin
Subject: Re: Complaint about Facebook ad article link

Dear Lisa Martin
We do not have any Facebook ads and this article, as you say, is 6 years old so we are perplexed by your letter.

What Facebook ads please? Do you have a grab of one?

So I sent a screen grab and replied,

Hi,

Well I’m somewhat comforted to learn that you don’t seem to know anything about this Facebook advert (though I still think the article is terribly written, even if it is 5 or 6 years old!), but please find attached a screen grab of my Facebook homepage (as of 5pm today) with the offending “ad” on the right hand side. The link directs to your article at http://www.nowmagazine.co.uk/celebrity-profiles/diets/230337/girls-aloud-s-diet-secrets/1/.

Would appreciate an update!

Thanks,

Lisa

NOW Magazine sent a brief reply saying, “Will let you know. This is very odd”.

Very odd indeed! What’s going on here?!








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