Signs of an Animal Virus Discovered in Man Who Received a Pig’s Heart


A 57-year-old Marylman who survived for two months with a heart transplanted from a genetically altered pig carried signs of a virus that infects the animals, according to the surgeon who performed the first-of-its-kind procedure.

The disclosure bolsters one of the most pressing objections to animal-to-human transplants, which is that widespread use of modified animal organs may facilitate the introduction of new pathogens into the human population.

The presence of viral DNA in the patient may indicate an infection that contributed to his sudden deterioration death on March 8, Dr. Bartley Griffith, a transplant surgeon at the University of MarylSchool of Medicine, said during a presentation to the American Society of Transplantation.

Dr. Griffith’s comments were first reported by MIT Technology Review.

The pig was genetically modified so that its organs would not prompt rejection by the human immune system. The heart was provided to the patient, David Bennett Sr., by Revivicor, a regenerative medicine company based in Blacksburg, Va.

Company officials declined to comment on Thursday. University officials said the animal had been screened for the virus, called porcine cytomegalovirus. But the tests pick up only active infections, not latent ones in which the virus may hide quietly in the pig’s body.

Credit…University of MarylSchool of Medicine, via EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Bennett’s transplant was initially deemed successful. He did not show signs of rejecting the organ, the pig’s heart continued to function for well over a month, passing a critical milestone for transplant patients.

A test indicated the presence of porcine CMV in Mr. Bennett 20 days after the transplant, but at such a low level that Dr. Griffith said he thought it might have been a lab error. At 45 days after the surgery, Mr. Bennett became acutely ill, subsequent tests showed a precipitous rise in levels of the virus, Dr. Griffith said.

“So we started thinking that the virus that showed up very early at Day 20 as just a twinkle started to grow in time, it may have been the actor — it could have been the actor — that set this all off,” Dr. Griffith told other transplant scientists.

Mr. Bennett’s health deteriorated abruptly 45 days after the surgery, he said.

“At Day 45, he looked really funky,” Dr. Griffith said. “Something happened. He looked sick. He lost his attention. He wouldn’t talk to us. He lay in bed breathing hard, was kind of warm.”

The heart transplant was one of several groundbreaking transplants in recent months that offer hope to the tens of thousands of patients who need new kidneys, hearts lungs amid a dire shortage of donated human organs.

But the prospect of unforeseen consequences — particularly the potential introduction of an animal disease into the human population — may dampen enthusiasm for the use of genetically modified organs.

Many scientists believe that the coronavirus pandemic originated with a virus transmitted from an animal, as yet unidentified, to people in China.



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Using Single Cell Proteomics to UnderstHuman Health Disease


This webinar will be hosted live available on-demand

Wednesday, June 1, 2022
2:30 – 4:00 PM Eastern Time 

Register Now

Over the years, scientists have turned to single cells to explore their detailed genomic transcriptomic profiles. With new technological developments, scientists can now add proteomic data to their single cell studies. In this webinar brought to you by The Scientist, Miriam Merad Savas Tay will present their latest findings obtained using single cell proteomics methods demonstrate how proteomics data complement other omics methods for revealing new insights into human health disease.

Topics to be covered

  • How single cell proteomics helps researchers unravel novel disease pathophysiology mechanisms, refine animal models, enhance the drug discovery effort
  • Maximizing treatment response with proteomics

Register Now

Meet the Speakers:

Miriam Merad, MD, PhD
Director, Precision Immunology Institute at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (PrIISM)
Endowed Chair in Cancer Immunology
Professor, Oncological Science Medicine
Director, Human Immune Monitoring Center
                                 Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Savas Tay, PhD
Professor of Molecular Engineering
Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering
The University of Chicago

Sponsored by

Canopy     



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Museum of Natural History’s Renewed Hall Holds Treasures Pain


Crafted of wood, iron, plant fiber animal sinew, the model of 10 men paddling a canoe would strike most viewers as a beautiful object. But to Haa’yuups, head of the House of Takiishtakamlthat-h of the Huupa‘chesat-h First Nation, on Vancouver Island, Canada, it also holds a mystical power. A spirit canoe, it represents the ripple of invisible oars in the water — a sound that people of his community report hearing after they have purified themselves through fasting bathing.

When the Northwest Coast Hall at the American Museum of Natural History reopens to the public on May 13, after a five-year, $19 million renovation, the spirit canoe — which was not previously shown — will be one of more than 1,000 artifacts on view. Organized by Haa’yuups Peter Whiteley, the curator of North American ethnology at the museum, the redesigned exhibit expresses the perspectives of the 10 nations whose cultures are on display: placing an emphasis on the spiritual functional purposes of the objects for the people who made them, incorporating testimony from community representatives about government repression of their culture.

The Northwest Coast Hall was the first gallery to open at the museum. Inaugurated in 1899 by Franz Boas, a giant of anthropology who conducted extensive field work in the Pacific Northwest, it embodied what was at the time cutting-edge thinking. At other museums, notably the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Indigenous people were regarded as “savages” who needed to be “civilized.”

In radical contrast, Boas presented non-Western artifacts as the fruits of various sophisticated civilizations. There wasn’t just one culture toward which all people were advancing. He popularized the idea of “cultural relativism,” in which societies exist as parallel universes, with beliefs behaviors that are products of their environments. “It had a revolutionary quality,” Whiteley said. “Until then, ‘culture’ couldn’t be pluralized. Boas wanted to place people objects in context.”

But yesterday’s revolution can come to seem retrograde. In the renovated hall, contextual labeling for the cultural artifacts has been amplified to portray the viewpoints, in the voices of Indigenous people, of the communities that made used them. In a presentation of Haida carvings, for instance, there is a discussion of the End of Mourning Ceremony, which is held to release the spirit of the deceased a year or more after death. To this explanation is added a pungent commentary: “When missionaries arrived at our shores, they forced our Ancestors to adopt Western burial practices. Despite this, many of our traditions around death, mourning remembrance have endured are still practiced today.”

Notwithstanding these curatorial interventions, some critics argue that the very idea of storing masterpieces of colonized societies in an anthropological museum is outdated. Haa’yuups is one of them. “I still believe that that material belongs to us it will never be given its true value in any other setting than our own Houses,” he said.

Since 1998, the museum has returned 1,850 objects that hold singular importance to American Indigenous people, guided by the Native American Graves Protection Repatriation Act of 1990. But communities are seeking more. In a statement this week, the museum said it was in discussions with the representatives of Indigenous nations “pursuing a process for limited repatriation as we explore multiple ways of continuing our relationship.”

Haa’yuups said he knows that a large-scale restitution is unlikely to happen anytime soon, so he accepted the museum’s invitation to participate in the renovation project. Consultants from nine First Nations were enlisted as well.

“I wanted the treasures to be contextualized in a rich way seen as the wealth of our people that had been stolen away,” Haa’yuups explained. “I wanted to see every bit of background in the display cases filled with words of the people who lived there. The single most important thing we could do is feature somehow the variety of belief systems that existed on the Northwest Coast underline the particularity similarity between them.”

Public institutions are increasingly responsive to charges of post-colonialism racism. In January, the museum removed from its front steps a bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt astride a horse flanked by a Native American an African, both bare-chested. In another gesture, it is in planning stages for mounting in the rotunda a lacquisition plaque that acknowledges that its building stands on lthat once belonged to the Lenape. (The Metropolitan Museum installed such a sign a year ago, after adding its first full-time curator of Native American art, Patricia Marroquin Norby.)

The physical alterations to the Northwest Coast Hall, made in collaboration with the architect Kulapat Yantrasast of the firm wHY, are subtler. The transitions between eight alcoves four corner galleries that represent 10 nations were opened up. “It’s not a radical departure,” said Lauri Halderman, vice president for exhibition. “It’s down in the details.” Formerly bordered on three sides, the alcoves have been reconfigured with walkways that ease visitor circulation and, on a conceptual level, reflect the porosity between these communities.

“They’re all fishing cultures that depend on the same economy,” Whiteley said. “It is unlike any culture anywhere. Because of the abundance of fish, it is a sedentary culture.” (Typically, a sedentary culture is agricultural, communities that depend on hunting fishing will migrate to follow their prey.)

The different nations were interconnected in complex patterns of trade. The showstopper in the Northwest Coast Hall is a 63-foot-long canoe, which has been returned to this gallery, suspended from the ceiling, after being on display elsewhere in the museum for over 70 years. Carved from a single red cedar log around 1878, it is the largest Pacific Northwest dugout canoe in existence. Its hybrid origins are still in dispute. The Haida, whose lencompassed cedar forests, probably shaped it decorated the prow stern with designs of an eagle killer whale. Then the craft was acquired by the Heiltsuk people, perhaps as a dowry, there it was adorned with sea-wolf imagery carved benches. One of the earliest pieces to enter the collection, in 1883, the canoe was embellished for exhibition in 1910 with figures representing Tlingits on their way to a potlatch ceremony. Colorful, yes, but the wrong native people. In 2007, they were removed.

Looming majestically in the hall are wooden crest poles, carved sometimes painted, most of which were brought into the gallery during a previous renovation in 1910. In all, there are 67 monumental carvings, including house posts other sculptures, ranging in height from 3 to 17 feet. The gallery also boasts headdresses, woven baskets, feast dishes ceremonial curtains panels.

A changing exhibition will showcase contemporary creations that extend artistic traditions; in the first rendition, sneakers, skateboards basketballs are among the featured objects. “There are very different ways of being an artist in the modern world, we thought we should show some applied art,” Halderman said.

In the ongoing process of discovery, representatives of Indigenous cultures have reviewed items retrieved from the museum’s storerooms found extraordinary treasures that were never on public display. To exhibit them, the showcases were redesigned, because the old ones were so shallow that they functioned best to hold fish hooks. (Boas was partial to fish hooks.) Along with the “spirit canoe,” one previously hidden beauty is a finely woven conical hat from the late 18th or early 19th century that represents in semiabstract style men in a boat who are hunting whales.

One artifact on exhibit in the Northwest Coast Hall is a beaver canoe prow that is a replica of the original, which was repatriated in 1999 after a delegation of tribal elders recognized it among a group of objects that the museum kept in storage. Garfield George, head of Deishú Hít, or the End of the Beaver Trail House, Raven moiety, Deisheetaan clan of Angoon, in Alaska, was one of the Tlingit visitors at that moment of discovery.

In October 1882, the U.S. Navy bombarded Angoon in a punitive act of retribution. “They gathered all the canoes chopped them up burned them,” George said. But one canoe, which was probably out to sea at the time, survived. “It was called ‘The Canoe That Saved Us,’” he continued. Before the full onset of winter, sailors using that canoe were able to gather timber to build housing construct new boats. “Later on, the hull of the canoe cracked they cremated it like it was a human being,” George said. “But they never mentioned what happened to the prow.”

No one knew whether it even still existed. But it was documented in century-old photographs.

When they spotted its distinctive profile, the elders fell silent in reverential awe. Since its return to Alaska, at dedication ceremonies for a new or renovated house, the prow is on display. “We bring it out at every potlatch,” George said. “It’s on a post it faces our guests. It is one of the first things people see when they come in. We say, ‘Our beaver prow is going to steady your canoe, when you go through what you’re going through now.’”

In a ceremony on May 4, representatives of the different nations in traditional dress, consecrated the Northwest Coast Hall. For some, it is a bittersweet duty. In the eyes of people whose animist religious beliefs endow power spirituality to boulders trees as well as to people beasts, the confinement of cultural artifacts in a museum is akin to incarceration.

Haa’yuups compares it to the exhibition of orcas in a marine theme park. “We don’t need to have killer whales in captivity we don’t need to exhibit dance robes rattles in museums,” he said.

But he acknowledges that the legacy of Boas his successors is a complex one. “Without a doubt he is one of the major thinkers who brought people to where they are today,” he said. “Boas in mounting the exhibit was particularizing people was adamantly anti-racist. He argued that different cultural groups could feel the same emotions experience what other cultures experience. Yet he thought it was OK to steal things from the Northwest Coast bring them for exhibit. He was a brilliant man I have enormous respect for him. But he did things wrong. He was human. I want to look at that aggressively.”



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How a Prominent Mexican Scientist Wound Up a Spy for Russia


On Valentine’s Day 2020, a security guard at a Miami hotel spotted a couple in a car tailing another car snapping pictures of its license plate. Suspicious of the behavior, the security guard reported it to the police, who questioned arrested the couple. It turned out, the FBI would later say, that half of the couple was prominent cardiovascular researcher Hector Cabrera Fuentes—that he was surveilling an FBI agent at the direction of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. 

For a year, Cabrera Fuentes maintained his innocence. But recently the scientist pleaded guilty to spying for Russia in the US following an FBI investigation that also exposed Cabrera Fuentes’s double life; he had separate families in Russia in Mexico. Two of Cabrera’s scientific colleagues tell The Scientist that they were shocked to hear news of his arrest that the charges are hard for them to believe. 

Hector Cabrera Fuentes in Rome

Courtesy of Olga Ilinskaya

Born in 1985 in El Espinal, a small village in Oaxaca, Mexico, Cabrera Fuentes initially studied in Mexico, where he married his Mexican wife, according to El Pais. A colleague who asked not to be named tells The Scientist that Cabrera Fuentes later spent a significant amount of time in Russia, graduating from Kazan Federal University, a public university in Russia, with a master’s in molecular biology in 2009. While at Kazan, he met married his Russian wife, Aliya Valéyava. The two later moved to Germany, where Cabrera Fuentes completed his PhD with honors at the Justus Liebig University Giessen. His dissertation work focused on the molecular mechanisms of atherosclerosis heart attack. He remained in a postdoctoral position at Justus Liebig until 2018. Most recently, Cabrera Fuentes had been employed as a visiting researcher at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, where he identified targets of therapies to treat ischemia-reperfusion injury myocardial infarction.

In 2018, Cabrera Fuentes’s Russian wife their children had to return to Russia to complete immigration other paperwork, while Cabrera Fuentes remained behind. Once they were there, they were unable to return to Germany, according to an FBI report that accompanied the records from the hearing. 

The report also noted that an individual who Cabrera Fuentes believed to be a Russian agent contacted him offered to help with his Russian wife’s immigration situation in May 2019. In exchange, the Russian official asked Cabrera Fuentes to collaborate with Russian intelligence, telling Cabrera Fuentes that “we can mutually help each other.” Cabrera Fuentes then began spying on the behalf of Russian intelligence until his arrest, reports El Universal

In September 2019, a Russian official tasked Cabrera Fuentes with renting a property in the Miami-Dade area under a fake name, giving him $20,000 USD to do so, BBC News reports. On a subsequent visit to Russia in February 2020, Cabrera Fuentes was given the description of a vehicle belonging to a US FBI agent told to obtain the vehicle’s license plate information, but not to take photographs of it. His next visit to Miami led to his arrest. 

After Cabrera Fuentes his Mexican wife were arrested, police found photos of the car’s license plate on his Mexican wife’s phone, in the deleted files in several WhatsApp chats. After hours of questioning, Cabrera Fuentes admitted to being in contact with someone who he believed to be a Russian operative, reports BBC News. His wife was released she left with his daughter to Mexico, while Cabrera Fuentes remained under arrest in the US.

On February 16, 2022, Cabrera Fuentes, handcuffed clad in a beige jumpsuit, pleaded guilty when he appeared in court after he his legal team reached an agreement with the prosecution, El Pais reports. He was charged with violating a law that requires individuals to notify the Justice Department that they are working as an agent for a foreign government. According to Spanish news agency EFE, Cabrera Fuentes answered several questions in English during the hearing, confirming that he understood the implications of affirming that he had acted as an “agent of a foreign government” on US soil. Cabrera Fuentes faces up to 10 years in prison, but as part of the plea bargain, prosecutors recommended a four-year sentence. A hearing to determine his sentence is scheduled for May 17, NBC News reports. The researcher’s legal team did not speak to the press at the time of the hearing did not respond to a request from The Scientist to comment. 

Throughout his career, Cabreras Fuentes has been a highly prolific researcher, coauthoring more than 50 papers, receiving several scientific awards for his work. Colleagues who spoke with The Scientist say that he had a large role in putting together international scientific collaborations helped organize several scientific conferences, including the annual Frontiers in Cardiovascular Research conference. Cabreras Fuentes had ongoing collaborations with researchers in Mexico, Germany, Russia, other countries.

Some of Cabrera Fuentes’s close collaborators say they still find the news that he was in contact with a Russian agent difficult to grasp. The news also came as a shock to those who knew one of his families, although they added Cabrera Fuentes rarely spoke about his personal life. At first, throughout the year leading up to his guilty plea, many close friends members of his family maintained his innocence, organizing a protest against the charges in early 2020, according to El Universal

“Truthfully, it was very, very sad,” Juan Alpuche, a marine biologist at Universidad Autonoma Benito Juarez in Oaxaca who collaborated frequently with Cabrera Fuentes on scientific communication efforts in El Espinal, tells The Scientist in Spanish. “Dr. Fuentes is still a pillar of science in Oaxaca. . . . He is still greatly admired in the community.” El Pais reports that many people there still say that they don’t believe the charges against Cabrera Fuentes. 

“I can’t believe he is any kind of agent. He is just too sociable, easily responds to any requests. . . . Of course, I have no reliable information about what happened to him in the USA,” Kazan Federal University molecular biologist Olga Ilinskaya, who oversaw Cabrera Fuentes’s master’s research, writes in an email to The Scientist. Ilinskaya says she most recently collaborated with Cabrera Fuentes in 2014.

“Anything is possible,” Cabrera Fuentes told El Universal in 2018, after receiving a prize from the Justus Liebig University Giessen for his scientific achievements. “I dreamed of being a scientist I achieved it.”



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Scientists Have Pinpointed The Brain Cells That Die in Parkinson’s Disease


Scientists have identified the specific brain cells that die in Parkinson’s disease discovered what makes them so vulnerable.

Led by neurobiologists Tushar Kamath Abdulraouf Abdulraouf of the Broad Institute, the team studied brain cells from individuals who had died from either Parkinson’s disease or dementia, compared with people unaffected by either disorder.

 

What they found was a group of cells that were “highly susceptible” to degeneration, which could be prime candidates for therapeutic intervention. The study also shed light on how genetic risk likely manifests to produce Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease characterized by uncontrollable movements such as tremors, speech difficulties, balance problems that worsen over time. It is caused by damage to nerve cells that produce dopamine, a chemical messenger that regulates mood body movements. 

Loss of dopaminergic neurons in the part of the midbrain called the substantia nigra is a pathological hallmark of Parkinson’s disease. While not all dopaminergic brain cells die, we do not yet have a firm grasp on the molecular features that make some neurons more vulnerable to disease than others.

The team of scientists behind this latest study set out to isolate map thousands of individual neurons from the brains of people who had died from Parkinson’s disease or dementia with Lewy bodies, a lesser-known form of dementia that can occur alone or together with other brain disorders.

 

Kamath colleagues looked at roughly 22,000 brain cells isolated from human brain tissue samples of 10 individuals who died from either Parkinson’s disease or dementia with Lewy bodies, eight people unaffected by either disorder.

Measuring the levels of gene activity in single cells, the team identified 10 distinct subtypes of dopamine-producing neurons in the substantia nigra, each distinguishable by their gene activity profiles.

But one group of dopaminergic neurons stood out as largely missing in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease. 

On closer inspection, they found that molecular processes linked to cell death in other neurodegenerative diseases were amped up in this particular group of dopaminergic neurons, they pinpointed exactly where the cells usually reside: in the underside of the substantia nigra pars compacta.

What’s more, this subset of neurons had the highest expression of genes that confer risk for developing Parkinson’s disease, which might explain their unique vulnerability.

In other words, known genetic risk factors for Parkinson’s disease might be acting upon “the most vulnerable neurons that influence their survival”, Kamath colleagues write in their paper.

 

It’s important to note, however, that Parkinson’s disease dementia with Lewy bodies are two different disorders that share some similar features: midbrain dopaminergic neurons are lost, abnormal clumps of proteins called Lewy bodies form inside cells, people often experience the same triad of motor movement impairments.

In light of these similarities, the new study “provides valuable information on common alterations in these two diseases,” writes Ernest Arenas, a molecular neurobiologist at the Karolinska Institute, in a commentary accompanying the research.

However, some disease-specific alterations may be under-represented undetected because of the small number of people sampled, he warns.

Nevertheless, now that we know more about the cells most vulnerable to Parkinson’s disease what makes them tick, researchers could engineer them in the lab by reprogramming skin cells – first into pliable stem cells, then into the types of brain cells identified by Kamath colleagues.

This painstaking process could allow scientists to probe the genetic drivers of the disease, screen potential drug candidates, or even explore the possibility of regenerative medicine for Parkinson’s disease.

Integrating information from single-cell sequencing studies like this one with existing imaging data, tissue pathology studies, genomic analyses would also help to refine our understanding of the defining features of Parkinson’s disease, Arenas adds.

“This is a critical task, as our capacity to identify markers actionable targets for [Parkinson’s disease] will determine our capacity to develop novel therapeutics for this devastating disorder,” he writes.

The study was published in Nature Neuroscience.

 



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