Are infections causing disease? Science Weekly podcast

How do you know if you’re ill? Pandemic has access to an “anonymous panel of around 7 million people, across 150 countries”, showing how our bodies feel under stress. If you panic and lie,…

Are infections causing disease? Science Weekly podcast

How do you know if you’re ill? Pandemic has access to an “anonymous panel of around 7 million people, across 150 countries”, showing how our bodies feel under stress. If you panic and lie, you get more information, which you can add to a biological “health profile” (there’s a fancier version of that as well). The main point is that when we do, it affects how our brains and bodies operate – that’s why doctors think it is not only to do with stress, but that it affects our genes as well. They’re talking about a biogeochemical imbalance, perhaps relating to stress, toxins or norepinephrine; or they might be more broadly about how genes relate to our cells.

“Scientific evidence suggests that many imbalances in the blood, such as elevated blood pressure, which can contribute to cardiovascular disease, might be due to widespread alterations in gene expression due to this type of biological condition,” says Tesr Xisabeti, at the University of Freiburg.

But the concept of “pathogens” is now being injected into this issue, suggesting that infection is at the heart of the problem.

“The sequence of infections can have a lasting effect on genes, which may hinder disease progress,” says Jerry Holt, at the University of Calgary. “If these bugs are circulating, they will make their way into the blood and could disrupt the immune system.”

With viruses and bacteria, the impact is usually more delayed than natural disasters, maybe because you could start coughing for some time before you needed antibiotics, but of course flu may hit not so much later.

David Hanson at the Universiteit Leuven in Belgium believes “it might become easier for researchers to develop vaccines against pandemics” – a sci-fi idea for today, but which may help us prepare for what could be in the offing. It suggests we might be able to start developing them now.

Hanson has his eye on influenza, perhaps because it could be such a fraught disease: “In 1918, the flu epidemic contributed to about 25 million deaths worldwide,” he says. “In Europe, Europe – nearly all of Europe – succumbed.”

Jafar Erzar at University College London reckons that interventions in a human immune system against a virulent strain of influenza could be possible in just five years. “It would take centuries for an effective therapy against any other type of infectious agent, so you really want a vaccine and a treatment at the same time.”

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