What it's like to experience the dreaded COVID-19 "cytokine storm"

If you needed another reason to be scared straight into practicing impeccable sterile technique in an effort to reduce your risk of COVID-19, read on. For those of us who are immunocompromised (raises hand) or over sixty (reluctantly raises hand again) this is sobering stuff. I think I'll go wash my hands again.

Of all the possible compounding effects of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the cytokine storm is one of the most feared. An immune system overreaction in which the body is flooded with the eponymous signaling molecules, those who suffer a cytokine storm are at risk of dying at the hand of their own immune system, as an indirect effect of the virus they are fighting.

My lab work was stunningly bad. A normal white count might be between 4.5 and 10. My white cell count was at 2,000. My lymphocytes — which are the cells that fight in a virus, normally fall somewhere between 1000 and 1,500 — they were under 200. I don't know if you know the term but the early cells that fight infection are called "bands," and you don't have [them] normally — I had 20% bands. My platelet count was around 100,000, which is low, and I knew I was in trouble.

In the current context, we believe we have a biomarker of this condition, a serum level of a non-specific but is an acute phase reactant called serum ferritin. It looks like it may be to be one of the more reliable biomarkers of cytokine dysregulation.

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You can't vaccinate an octopus

In a piece on octopus farming, Katherine Harmon mentions a fascinating fact — octopuses don't have an adaptive immune system, the handy-dandy network of different immune-response cells that allow us vertebrates to more easily fight off infections our bodies have encountered before.

That's a problem if you're trying to raise a bunch of invertebrates in close quarters (as per a farm) because you can't immunize them against pathogens that could easily spread from one octopus to another. As a random biological tidbit, though, it's just damned fascinating. Check out this doctoral thesis for more information on how the octopus immune system does work. You should also read this story that looks at the evolution of the adaptive immune system and asks a key question — does having immune "memory" really make us that much better off than the animals that don't have it?

Image: Octopus, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from alicecai's photostream

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Scientists develop allergies to their research subjects

Sometimes, allergies show up almost immediately. Other times, they form over long periods of close exposure to the allergens. It's this later issue that can be a big problem for scientists and their ability to work with certain laboratory animals. Fifteen to 20 percent of scientists who work with mice and rats may eventually become allergic to those animals, writes Hilary Rosner in The New York Times. So what happens when your immune system affects your ability to do your job? Read the rest