Viruses can cause fast spreading diseases like Ebola and influenza, but recent research suggests that some viruses may actually be keeping us healthy.
Ken Cadwell, an immunologist at New York University, accidentally discovered the first clues about viruses’ healing qualities, while studying the microbiome — the host of 100 trillion microbes living in our bodies.
“Viruses have gotten a bad rap,” Cadwell said. “They don’t always cause disease.”
One of the main functions of the microbiome is ensuring that the intestines develop normally. A healthy gastrointestinal tract (gut) is lined with a dense mat of finger-like projections called villi.
Scientists study mice to better understand the microbiome. When scientists raised germ-free mice in sterile cages, their intestinal villi turned out sparse and thin.
The mice’s gut lining also failed to develop a normal supply of immune cells, which fight off pathogens — diseases-producing agents. As a result, the mice became vulnerable to injuries and infections.
In order for the gut to develop healthily, a complex chemical conversation must take place between the microbiome and host cells. Genetic mutations can disrupt the harmony between the microbiome and host cells, which causes immune cells in the gut to attack needed bacteria as if they were pathogens. Several experiments suggest that illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease may be the cause of disunity between microbes and their hosts.
Cadwell set up experiments to understand exactly how the discord happens. He and his colleagues examined mice’s cells and guts, after purposefully mutating their genetics to increase the chance of developing inflammatory bowel disease.
In the middle of Cadwell’s research he moved the mice to a new lab and something strange happened — the mice were cured.
Cadwell figured out that the first lab contained a virus called murine norovirus, but the new one was virus-free. Murine norovirus is similar to the human strain that causes vomiting and diarrhea. The virus is actually harmless in healthy mice, but Cadwell said it induced inflammatory bowel disease in the genetically-mutated mice.
Cadwell was surprised by how the virus mirrored the microbiome and wondered if the virus had a beneficial purpose. So, he set up a new lab where he infected germ-free mice with murine norovirus and the mice developed fairly healthy intestines and an immune system.
“It’s just one virus, but it’s doing many of the things that an entire community of bacteria is doing,” Cadwell said.
The experiments were recently published in Nature.
Cadwell does not predict pills full of viruses will be prescribed to treat illnesses, but he wants to figure out the molecular tricks that the viruses are using to improve the health of their hosts.
Scientists who were not involved in the study think Cadwell and his colleagues are on to something.
“They did a very good job of starting to crack that nut,” Julie K. Pfeiffer, a virologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said about viruses’ potential benefits.
David T. Pride, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Diego, said the new study will lead other researchers to try to find similar results in humans.
“The hunt for natural viruses that are beneficial to our immune systems has officially begun,” he said.
It’s difficult to say which is spreading faster – the deadly Ebola virus or the rising global terror.
Persistent through the chaotic scrambling of health organizations is the aid flowing from long term nonprofits already established in the most afflicted regions.
“Hopelessness and fear need to be overcome,” Mike Mantel, the CEO of Living Water International, told Relevant concerning the organization’s response to the crisis. “We need divine spiritual intervention.”
A Christian aid organization, Living Water works to provide clean water to Liberia and Sierra Leone. With the onset of Ebola, the organization launched a new platform to provide updates about the crisis. Most importantly, the site shares how people can help.
“Where Ebola is not yet affecting communities, we’re trying to get out ahead and educate church leaders as well as community leaders — even police and prison populations — about what Ebola is and how to take steps to fight Ebola. But the Church is very much, along with our staff, the hands and feet in our water sanitation and hygiene programs,” Mantel said.
Other organizations are also working to combat the disease in various locations with complementary approaches.
Doctors Without Borders
Active in three West African countries, Doctors Without Borders currently employs 270 international and approximately 3,000 local staff in regions affected by Ebola. The organization treated 4,900 patients, shipped over 877 tons of supplies, and maintained six Ebola case management centers, since the beginning of the outbreak.
The organization’s critical priorities remain to “stop the spread of the disease, treat the infected, ensure essential services, preserve stability, and prevent the spread of the disease to countries currently unaffected.”
To learn more about supporting Doctors Without Borders, click here.
Besides providing personal protective equipment and medical supplies to health care workers in Sierra Leone and Senegal, World Vision is working with government officials and health agencies to plan cooperative efforts against the virus. The organization participates in the World Health Organization’s Ebola Task Force.
World Vision is a key player in active education on preventative measures, through both radio programs and house-to-house information sharing.
“When so many communities face such terrible suffering, the church must be there to combat fear, stigma, isolation, and hopelessness with both love and tangible support,” said Bruno Col, World Vision communications director in West Africa.
To donate to the organization or to sta
rt your own fundraiser, click here.
Samaritan’s Purse is establishing and managing Community Care Centers across Liberia. Trained locals run these health facilities, which assist those infected in the most remote rural areas. The organization also spearheaded public health initiatives in Liberia, including caregiver training, kit distribution, and massive public education campaigns. Since March, the organization provided potentially life-saving information to more than 1 million people.
“Our efforts are moving in the correct direction,” said Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs and government relations for Samaritan’s Purse. “We are training people to take care of their loved ones, while protecting themselves and their families from infections.”
To donate to the organization’s West-African Ebola Response, click here.
UNICEF has reached 5.5 million West African people with disease preventative information and supplied over 600,000 bottles of chlorine bleach in Guinea and Liberia. By caring for affected families, offering education, training medical personnel, and providing medical equipment, UNICEF is adamant to stop Ebola.
Thanks to the generosity of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, every donation to UNICEF will be matched $1 – $1. To learn more about donating, click here.
Numerous other aid organizations are working to halt the spread and impact of the Ebola virus. Mantel encourages those concerned to play a role in the fight by spreading vital information and giving to aid organizations
“You know, even in the United States where we have so much access to information, we still don’t totally understand what’s happening in West Africa,” Mantel said.
“I think the readership should respond with prayers and should respond with helping us, come alongside and partner with organizations and provide water and sanitation training and keep the Church engaged and at the center of this.”