Last fall, it came to light that researchers had infected 700 Guatemalan soldiers, prisoners, and mental patients with syphilis in a US Public Health Service study between 1946 and 1948. The American government apologized for these “abhorrent” practices, and promised to investigate what had happened. A White House bioethics commission released its report on the study this Tuesday—and as horrific as the experiments sounded initially, the full story is even worse.
The bacterium called Neisseria gonorrhoeae is what gives humans the sexually transmitted infection gonorrhea. And it also takes something: human DNA. Northwestern University researchers report in the journal mBio that they’ve found pieces of human DNA in samples of the bacteria.
Gonorrhea is one of very few diseases exclusive to our species, and is one of the oldest recorded diseases in human history. An ancient disease that resembles gonorrhea’s symptoms is even described in the Bible, according to Hank Seifert, senior author of a paper on the gene transfer. [Popular Science]
Seifert and colleague Mark Anderson looked at 14 different samples of N. gonorrhoeae. Three of them possessed the chunk of human DNA. And they only saw it in the gonorrhea bacteria:
The pair looked for the same human DNA fragment in the genetically related bacterium Neisseria menigitidis, known to cause meningitis. “We screened many isolates and it wasn’t present,” says Seifert. That means the transfer to N. gonorrhoeae must have occurred since the two bacterial species diverged around 200,000 years ago. [New Scientist]
A drug called Truvada seems to be able to prevent HIV infection from taking hold in the body when taken regularly. The once-a-day pill combines two anti-retroviral drugs, and was found to reduce new HIV infections in a study of 2,500 gay men. But there are two big issues: compliance and cost.
In the study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, men who took the pill were 44 percent less likely to contract the disease than those on placebo. But when the researchers looked only at the men who took the pill faithfully, the number jumped to 90 percent.
“These results represent a major advance in HIV-prevention research,” says physician Kevin Fenton of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “For the first time, we have evidence that a daily pill used to treat HIV is partially effective for preventing HIV among gay and bisexual men at high risk of infection.” Fenton cautions, however, that the results don’t warrant abandoning other proven prevention techniques. [Science News]
While the results are certainly promising, it remains to be seen if at-risk people would take a pill every day.
[M]any men in the study failed to take all their pills, and some clearly lied about it. For example, some who claimed to take them 90 percent of the time had little or no drug in their bloodstreams. Although the pills caused no major side effects in the study, some men disliked the relatively minor ones, like nausea and headaches. [New York Times]
During an unusual bureaucratic meeting yesterday, members of California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration sat down with representatives of California’s porn industry to talk about safe sex.
Last year, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation filed a petition asking Cal/OSHA to tighten health regulations on the porn industry. And the issue was brought to the fore this month when an adult-film performer tested positive for HIV, which brought several porn production studios to a halt while the industry scrambled to determine the source of the infection and to test the performer’s partners.
At yesterday’s meeting, Cal/OSHA officials went over the existing rules, which were originally written to protect health care workers and were only later applied to porn performers. The rules require employers to protect their employees against blood-borne pathogens via “barrier protection,” which in the hospital world probably means rubber gloves, face masks, and the like. In the porn industry, the obvious protective measure would be requiring male performers to wear condoms, but in straight films that hasn’t come to pass (in gay films, condoms are standard).
The United States government officially apologized to Guatemala today for unethical medical experiments conducted by American researchers in the country over 60 years ago, in which unwitting subjects were deliberately infected with syphilis.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said they were, in their words, “outraged that such reprehensible research could could have occurred under the guise of public health.” [AP]
The study’s 696 participants were drawn from local prisons, army bases, and mental health facilities; many were paired with infected prostitutes from whom they unknowingly contracted the disease, while others had syphilis bacteria poured on to their penises, forearms, or faces. While the subjects were subsequently treated with penicillin, it’s not clear if the treatment was always adequate. The study was conducted by John Cutler, who was also involved in the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments and has since passed away.
Clinton and Sebelius’s statement didn’t mince words.
“We deeply regret that it happened and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices,” they said, announcing the launch of a thorough investigation into the specifics of the study. “The sexually transmitted disease inoculation study conducted from 1946-1948 in Guatemala was clearly unethical.” [AFP]
Over the past four years, a controversy has erupted over whether to routinely give girls the new vaccine against the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus that can cause genital warts and cervical cancer. Now we can have the debate all over again–but this time, with boys. An advisory panel of the Food and Drug Administration has recommended that the vaccine be made available for boys as well. While boys are obviously not at risk for cervical cancer, HPV can give them genital warts and, in very rare cases, can lead to anal or penile cancer.
The pharmaceutical giant Merck makes the first HPV vaccine available in the United States, Gardasil, which is considered most effective when given to young people who aren’t yet sexually active and therefore haven’t yet encountered the virus. But analyst Tim Anderson says that the regime of three shots over six months may deter some customers. “You are asking a healthy teen to come to the doctor three times in six months,” Mr. Anderson said…. “Pretty much no healthy teen would ever do that, let alone to come back and get a shot” [The New York Times]. It may be a particularly hard sell because most cases of genital warts clear up naturally, and because anal and penile cancers are so rare–each year they’re diagnosed in about 2,100 and 1,300 American men respectively.
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80beats: Male Circumcision Cuts Risk of HIV, Herpes, and HPV Transmission
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Image: flickr / lu_lu
It’s possible that the most severe forms of prostate cancer are caused by a virus that might be sexually transmitted, according to a new study that will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. Researchers checked for the virus in more than 200 prostate cancer patients and found the virus in 27 percent of the men; those with the most aggressive tumors were most likely to have the virus. While the researchers haven’t proved causation, they note that viruses are known to cause a variety of human cancers. Hepatitis viruses, for example, cause liver cancer, while human papilloma virus causes cervical cancer in women and anal and penile cancer in men [Los Angeles Times].
The virus, known as XMRV, belongs to a family of viruses that has previously been shown to cause leukemia in lab animals. Like the HIV virus, XMRV is a retrovirus, a virus that gets incorporated into the genome of the cells it infects. It may trigger cancer by locating in the cell’s genome next to DNA that controls cell growth, and disrupting those genes in a way that allows cells to replicate uncontrollably [Bloomberg].
Researchers now have solid evidence that male circumcision protects against three viral sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and say their findings should encourage parents around the world to circumcise their infant boys. A large study in Uganda involving 5,534 men found that those who underwent circumcision as adults were 25 percent less likely to become infected with herpes and more than 30 percent less likely to catch human papillomavirus (HPV) than their uncircumcised peers…. Previous research has shown that circumcision reduces a man’s risk of acquiring HIV by as much as 60 percent [Scientific American].
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, says that the area beneath the foreskin of an uncircumcised male provides the “perfect breeding ground for viruses and bacteria.” It can tear and develop sores easily, and if it becomes inflamed, he said, “it gives you much more fertile ground for HIV to be transmitted” [Scientific American], as well as the herpes and HPV viruses. However, the study did not show protection against syphilis, a bacterial STD.
For many people diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, notifying past sexual partners of their health risk is a task that’s just too humiliating to face. That’s why the inSPOT service was created four years ago, a new report explains. With just a few clicks, people can send an anonymous (or signed) e-card to past partners, letting them know that a trip to the doctor is in order. The email includes links to health clinics and STD information, and no information about the sender or the recipient is collected.
The project began when Dr. Jeffrey Klausner of the San Francisco Department of Public Health got together with the tech-savvy nonprofit Internet Sexuality Information Services (ISIS), and brainstormed ideas for a response to an STD outbreak in the gay community. “In 1999, I discovered an outbreak of syphilis related to an AOL chatroom,” Klausner said. Just a year before, San Francisco had eight cases of syphilis a year. By the end of 2004, Klausner said, the city had 550 reported cases. After tracing the outbreaks to the chatroom, Klausner and colleagues at I.S.I.S. Inc decided to use the same type of communication that facilitated the hook-ups to help resolve the situation [ABC News].