This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

You can download an iPhone app for the 13th edition from the App Store (search for Weeks Population).

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Maintaining Our Vigilance Against Disease

It is easy to assume that our control over death is a permanent feature of human existence and that life expectancy will continue to move closer to the known human lifespan of about 120 years. But that assumes that we don't lose control of our control. As it turns out, bacteria are constantly struggling for survival against our attempts to kill them. BBC News today reports on research findings published recently in the journal Nature Genetics.
Two closely-related strains of Clostridium difficile became antibiotic resistant and were able to rapidly spread to hospitals around the world, a study says.
Researchers were able to show how the bacterium travelled by forensically analysing its genetic code.
The strains of the hospital infection seemed to become more severe after they became resistant.
The US Centers for Disease Control say C. difficile is linked to 14,000 deaths in the US each year.
The same topic was the theme of an Op-Ed piece in today's New York Times by Carl F. Nathan, chairman of the department of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College. He points out that antibiotics are not as profitable for pharmaceutical companies as are drugs that treat degenerative diseases because people need them for only a short period of time, rather than for the rest of their lives. Thus, less research is devoted to them and that research which is undertaken is often done in secret because companies want the work patented so that they can have a monopoly on the product, at least for awhile. The combination of scientific and economic roadblocks has slowed down the race to stay ahead of bacterial adaptation to and thus resistance to our drugs.
But what if we take a page out of the pathogen playbook? Many pathogens exchange DNA, sharing what they learn. Drug makers can operate in the same way: they can do science “open lab”-style, working in teams with academic and government scientists and other drug companies to share what they learn and to bring fresh scientific ideas and technological tools to bear. Relaxing the traditional insistence on secrecy allows collaboration, and with it, innovation.
He highlights several experiments along this line, and suggests a possible way to combine openness, innovation, and profit for the drug industry. The stakes are chillingly high:
If we don’t make new antibiotics, we will lose the ability to practice modern medicine. A new collaborative model for drug discovery can help make sure this doesn’t happen.

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