Bacteria Vs. (Zika) Virus, New Earth-Like Planets, and What Went Wrong With Theranos?

11:48 minutes

Mosquito, from Shutterstock
Mosquito, from Shutterstock

A study published Wednesday found that a type of bacteria called Wolbachia, common in mosquitoes, seems to block them from transmitting the Zika virus to humans. The research raises the possibility that we could release Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes into the wild to reduce the prevalence of Zika. Arielle Duhaime-Ross of The Verge describes the importance of this finding, and also shares other select science news. Plus, a biotech startup promising easier, cheaper blood tests is now under federal investigation. Eric Topol of the Scripps Translational Science Institute explains the rise and fall—and the good and bad—of Theranos.

Segment Guests

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Arielle Duhaime-Ross is freelance science journalist, artist, podcast, and TV host based in Portland, OR.

Eric Topol

Eric Topol is the author of several books, including Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again (Basic Books, 2019) The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine is in Your Hands (Basic Books, 2015), practicing cardiologist at the Scripps Clinic, and a genomics professor at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we take a trip into a bunker under the Colorado plains. The master control center for world wide GPS. But first, with the spread of the Zika virus, there is no shortage of suggestions about how to contain the mosquitoes that carry it. And now comes news that a certain bacterium might serve as a potent weapon.

Here to explain what’s going on and share other short topics in science is Arielle Duhaime-Ross, a science reporter for The Verge. She joins us in our studios in New York. Welcome back.


IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s talk about what is this bacterium?

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: So the bacterium is called Wolbachia. It’s a bacterium that is found in the blood of mosquitoes but actually doesn’t naturally infect mosquitoes. It tends to infect flies. But researchers found in 2009, that if they injected these bacterium Wolbachia in mosquitoes, it actually drastically lowered the amount of infection that for a dengue virus, actually. So the mosquitoes– it kind of was protective.

So being infected with Wobachia was protective for the mosquitoes against dengue virus. And that means that if you introduce these mosquitoes in an area with dengue, over time, because Wolbachia is transmitted to offspring, they are able to reduce the amount of dengue virus that is in the environment. So recently, scientists figured that maybe they could try this with Zika virus.

IRA FLATOW: Sort of a similar kind of virus.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. Perhaps the Wolbachia would also be protective and also protect the mosquitoes from Zika. And they did this in a very, very short trial. This was published in cell and covered by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times. But they did find that over a period of two weeks, being infected with Wolbachia did seem to protect the mosquitoes. They didn’t look at a longer period. And they also found that it really, really does seem to work. But they didn’t look at whether it actually prevents infection in humans. They didn’t actually check to see if it can be transmitted to offspring and if that also works. There’s a lot of stuff that we don’t know right now.

But if this works, perhaps it could also work for yellow fever, or malaria, or those kinds of viruses.

IRA FLATOW: Mosquito borne stuff.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right, and maybe Wolbachia is this kind of secret weapon that we could use against Zika virus and other types of viruses.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about another topic that I know you’ve written about extensively. And it’s one of our favorite sort of subjects on Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: Fecal transplants. You actually witnessed a homemade, do-it-yourself fecal transplant.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Yes. This is something that nobody should ever do. But I wrote about a bio-hacker who has a Ph.D. In biophysics– but a bio-hacker named Josiah Zayner, who tried to perform his own, at home fecal matter transplant. He also tried to change the bacteria on his skin by killing off the bacteria on his own skin using antibiotics, which doesn’t really work that well, and then trying to replace it with that of his friend’s. So he made poop pills.

IRA FLATOW: He had to find someone who wants to be a donor for this, right?

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. He had to find a donor. He used a friend from college that he hadn’t seen in 10 years. And that was after multiple donors turned him down. Because this is actually quite dangerous. What he did was dangerous for two reasons. First, is because he took a bunch of antibiotics prior, trying to kill off his own gut microbiome and his own skin bacteria.

And that, if he had pathogens in his body, by disrupting the balance in your gut, you can actually make yourself sick. So if he had C diff, which is a terrible bacteria that can really kind of make you extremely sick, that could have flared up. He could have gotten very sick that way. And then also, ingesting poop that hasn’t been tested in any way, shape, or form as was the case with him, can also transmit so many different types of viruses and pathogens and bacteria. He could have gotten very sick. He didn’t.

IRA FLATOW: He swallowed someone else’s raw poop.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Yes. He made pills with little gelatin capsules, he ate pills, 10 pills actually, over the space of three weeks. Which is a third of what you’re supposed to take when you actually have a fecal matter transplant done for C diff, which is the only approved way that you’re supposed to do it. And he did this to try and fix his gastrointestinal issues. There’s no reason to believe that this actually would have worked, but he says that he feels better.

But again, there’s any number of other reasons why he could feel better. And it’s extremely unclear if this is actually the reason why, but I did spend four days with a man who is ingesting poop and I wrote about it.

IRA FLATOW: And the take home message is don’t try this–

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Don’t try this at home. It’s very, very dangerous.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s move on to something. Let’s move on to these new earth-like planets that scientists have found.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Yeah. Scientists have found three earth-like planets that are 40 light years away from Earth.

IRA FLATOW: It’s like a stone’s throw, isn’t it?

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Exactly, yes. They’re so close. But they are relatively close, which is interesting. They circle around a dwarf star so that’s their sun. And they’re very close to it. And because they’re very close to it, it’s a very, very small star, they seem to have about the same temperatures that were found on Earth. And that’s why researchers think that maybe this is our best possible chance at finding life elsewhere.

It’s unclear if we could actually do that. Scientists are going to use various technologies to try and measure elements in their atmosphere and actually see if this is possible, see if you could find pools of water, for instance. And two of the planets do seem to be actually a little bit too close to their sun to form the kinds of pools of water that could support life, bacteria for instance.

But the third one does seem to be a pretty good option and I think astronomers are very, very excited right now at what they might eventually find out.

IRA FLATOW: Because 40 light years away means anything we sent, radio, TV signals, anything that we sent out 40 years ago would be there by now.


IRA FLATOW: And they would know we’re know we’re if there’s any form of intelligent life on either planet.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Well, that’s the thing is that with the fact that it’s 40 light years away, even if we do find the conditions that could support life, what do we do with that information, then? Because getting there will take an extremely long time. So even if we do it, what are the next steps after that? I think that’s a big question that scientists are going to have to answer.

IRA FLATOW: And in the meantime, they’ll be looking to see if any signs of anything hopeful on those planets. Perfect. Arielle, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.


IRA FLATOW: Arielle Duhaime-Ross is a science reporter for The Verge right here in New York City. And now it’s time to play Good thing, Bad thing, because every story has a flip side. And our story begins just about a year ago where the Palo Alto start up Theranos, was promising patients we might soon be able to run diagnostic blood tests for cholesterol levels or kidney problems, using a single drop or two of blood harvested by a nearly painless pin prick to your finger.

And even better, Theranos promised you could have this no hassle blood drawn done at your nearest Walgreens or your Safeway at a fraction of the cost of traditional blood tests. At its high point, the company’s value had rocketed to $9 billion. And Silicon Valley uses a term for that, it’s called the unicorn. Well today, Theranos is under federal investigation and its California lab may be shut down.

So what could be so bad about a Silicon Valley startup promising to change the face of patient care? Here to weigh the pros and cons is Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California. Welcome back to the show, Eric.

DR. ERIC TOPOL: Hi Ira. Great to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: You were an early proponent of the work Theranos was doing. What was exciting about their project?

DR. ERIC TOPOL: Well, you mentioned it in the intro, that is the good part, which is the idea of having very inexpensive, very tiny quantities of blood. The idea of getting this done direct to consumers to get the results back to them. So it really was democratizing laboratory medicine. And this is a field that hadn’t changed in many decades. So it was a fresh perspective, very creative, something that we actually need. That was all the good parts.

IRA FLATOW: And the fact, then, that it was coming out of Silicon Valley. Not your normal bio-center.

DR. ERIC TOPOL: Yes, that’s true. And actually back in 2013, I had the test. I actually had over 50 lab tests we’ve done in minutes, and I was impressed. The results were consistent with what I would have expected having had a recent lab panel. So I had tested it, but I started to see some of the downsides, which was the remarkable secrecy. The lack of any transparency with respect to the technology.

And here it is three years later, there still hasn’t been a peer reviewed publication of any of the Theranos data from Theranos comparing it to the reference laboratory central facility.

IRA FLATOW: So because there’s been no test, we don’t know how it compares to more standardized testing.

DR. ERIC TOPOL: Exactly. There have been some publications recently suggesting from Mount Sinai as well as the CMS data that of course, the accuracy was of significant concern. But there hasn’t been a large head-to-head study that’s been done independently or by Theranos to finally settle the score.

IRA FLATOW: And why do you think that is? What is the fear, here, if there is any?

DR. ERIC TOPOL: Yeah, that’s a really good question. It’s long overdue. In the conversations I had with Elizabeth, she was taking the route of going through the FDA rather than peer review. And I think that was a big mistake. I think the medical community needs to be assured that the results obtained with the so-called nanotainer, this tiny amount of blood, are going to be very accurate. And it’s great that they cost less and great that the results can go right back to the person, but they have to be accurate because a lot of key medical decisions are made on the basis of these results.

IRA FLATOW: That was Elizabeth Holmes you were talking about.


IRA FLATOW: Is there a way out of this morass for them? And a lesson for other startups?

DR. ERIC TOPOL: Yeah, that’s another important issue is can they survive. They have brought on a real scientific advisory board with leaders in laboratory medicine who say there’s something there. Although we still don’t know what it is. And if they start to publish, and they start to get the accuracy issues on track, I guess they will make it. But obviously, they’ve been under siege and very significant issues that have cropped up regarding the CMS review and all these other things that are questionable, whether they’ll be able to pull through it.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Well, we’ll keep watching and get back to you, Eric. Thanks for taking time to join us again.

DR. ERIC TOPOL: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Eric Topol is a cardiologist and director of the Scripps Translational Institute in La Jolla, California.

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