Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Another nasty winter storm hits my area!

The same nasty winter storm that has crawled across the southeast for days finally made it to my area of North Carolina on Monday.  The same winter storm that drove major cities like Atlanta into a frenzy this past Sunday, complete with snow and sleet and freezing rain, arrived here like a lamb on Monday afternoon.  But as soon as night fell, that gentle lamb turned into a ferocious lion and brought my area to a virtual standstill.  Hour by hour, the storm grew heavier with snow that was topped by sleet.  All of this while the temperature hovered around 27, 28 degrees.

Here's one of the pictures I made of the snow while it was pouring down later in the evening.  I just had to share it since it looked so cool.  Check out the streaks from the snow during the photo exposure.  Impressive I think.

Winter drags on.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Could bee venom one day be used for contraceptives and HIV protection?

Unconventional idea for antiviral contraceptive gel wins
Gates Foundation grant

From the American Bee Journal which reprinted from it Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

A vaginal gel that affords both contraception and HIV protection using nanoparticles that carry bee venom is one of the bold, unconventional ideas that won a 2010 Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Grand Challenges Explorations is a Gates Foundation initiative to foster innovative projects in areas where unorthodox thinking is most urgently needed. Recipients receive grants to explore creative solutions to global health issues.

Sam Wickline, MD, professor of medicine, of cell biology and physiology, of physics and of biomedical engineering at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is one of 65 scientists selected in November to participate in the grant program.

Wickline proposes to develop a contraceptive, antiviral gel containing trillions of nanoparticles that will target both HIV and sperm and deliver a bee venom toxin that will incapacitate them.

“Sperm and HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus that can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS) are remarkably similar in their natural mechanism of genetic transmission,” Wickline says. “Both need to fuse with their target cell in order to deliver their genetic payloads – DNA in the case of sperm, and RNA in the case of HIV.”

Wickline’s plan is to use the very means by which sperm and HIV operate to destroy them. “The idea is to trick each to fuse with a synthetic Trojan Horse – a nanoparticle that will overwhelm sperm and HIV in numbers and in destructive power.”

It is an unconventional and creative plan for sure, but it is grounded in proven technologies and research-based knowledge. If the idea shows promise, the initial seed money grant can lead to additional funding.

The Trojan Horse or decoy that will be used to attract the sperm and HIV is a lipid nanoparticle created by Wickline and colleague Gregory Lanza, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, that has already been proven safe for clinical use. Given the size of nanoparticles – spheres of around six millionths of an inch in diameter – “Trojan Pony” may be a better metaphor.

A toxin derived from the substance bees insert into their victims when they sting is the agent that will destroy the sperm and HIV. The toxin, called melittin, comprises more than half of the dry weight of the venom of the honeybee Apis Mellifera.

The nanoparticles will carry a synthetic version of the toxin melittin to the targets.

“Cells readily take in melittin,” Wickline says. “But once it gets in, it pokes holes in cell membranes to destroy the cells."

A local biotech startup company, Kereos Inc., is testing melittin as an anti-cancer agent.

Since melittin can annihilate almost any cell, the trick is to target the melittin to the specific cells intended for destruction (cancer, sperm, HIV) without causing collateral damage to other cells in the body.

Wickline and colleague Paul Schlesinger, MD, PhD, associate professor of cell biology and physiology, attacked that problem two years ago when they developed “nanobees,” the name coined for nanoparticles that sequester melittin so that it neither harms healthy tissue nor is degraded before it reaches the intended target.

Wickline and his colleagues have also developed the ability to add agents to the nanobees to cause them to home in on specific target cells. Although nanoparticles are a few thousand times smaller than the dot above an “i,” each can carry hundreds of thousands of molecules on its surface.

“We have the ability to attach and swap in various specific targeting molecules to nanoparticles that will bind with receptors on the surface of selected cells,” Wickline says. “This gives the particles the ability to home in on specific target cells.”

To get the nanobees to hook up with sperm and offload their lethal cargo, Wickline intends to target a well-known “docking site” on the sperm cap. Sperm cells, which are roughly 160 times bigger than the 250-nanometer particles, will be swarmed with nanobees.

HIV virions (individual HIV particles), which are less than half the size of the nanoparticle, will be captured and destroyed with special molecules attached to the nanobees that bind to complementary molecules on the virion that play a role in initiating HIV fusion to cells.

Although these nanoparticles have been proven safe in the body, they are too large to move outside the vaginal vault, and will remain on site in surveillance for sperm and HIV until washed out by the body’s natural fluids.

“We believe this can succeed because both sperm and HIV are built to target, fuse and discharge their cargo,” Wickline says. “Our nanoparticles are similarly built to target, fuse and deliver their cargo. These attributes will enable a process of mutual assured destruction in a sequestered biological environment.”

If successful, Wickline’s idea could have enormous benefits for women, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that accounted for 68 percent of new HIV infections among adults in 2008. Women and girls in this area continue to be affected disproportionately — in some countries up to four times higher than males.

Sub-Saharan Africa also has the world’s highest fertility rate — 5.6 children per woman and twice the world average. The region’s population is expected to increase to 1.6 billion people by 2050 unless women are empowered to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

A contributing factor to the vulnerability of women to both HIV and unintended pregnancy in sub-Saharan Africa is fear of violence from male partners if condom use is suggested. This technology could enable women to protect themselves without the need to seek approval from male partners.

While bringing the technology forward for clinical use by women would require many months of testing, the concept is supported by a recent trial of vaginal gel-based anti-HIV drugs in South African women. That study found that gel based delivery systems can substantially decrease the spread of AIDS with no harmful side effects.

Wickline has assembled a multidisciplinary team of collaborators to carry out the proof of concept activities that the grant funds. Kelle Moley, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, will contribute expertise in reproductive biology; Lee Ratner, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, of molecular microbiology and of pathology and immunology, will serve as the authority on HIV and human retrovirus infections; Schlesinger will provide expertise in membrane biophysics; and Josh Hood, MD, PhD, instructor in medicine, providing expertise in immunological targeting.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Warmer weather brings the girls out! And the bee candy is a success too!

Like most of the country, we've been in the dreary pits of winter lately.  The weather here has been frigid.  We've already had two significant episodes of wintry precipitation with another on the way next week.  This is the time when I look out the kitchen window and wish that I could suit up, fire up the smoker, and head for the hives.  Soon enough I suppose.  Spring will be here before you know it.      

But out of the cold weather we've had lately, a warm day finally emerged last week.  As the sun was shining bright, the temperature reached into the 50s, and the bees emerged from their hives.  Here you can see the girls from the yellow hive as they decided to venture out and enjoy the warmth.  This is the biggest colony I have, and even in winter their numbers are high.  Click on any of the pictures to see the larger version.  

Not to be outdone, the girls in the lime green hive came out to bask in the sun.  I've worried more about this hive than the others, and I've had my doubts about their survival.  But out of all three colonies, this one had more bees hanging around outside the entrance.  Even though this is a Carniolan breed which is generally darker in color, you can see some lighter, yellow bees in the foreground.  Those are younger bees which indicates to me that the queen has been laying.  In all probability, this is probably the first time they have ever been outside the hive. 

I wanted to check and see if the bees were taking the bee candy I made over the holidays.  And as you can see, they are.  While the lime green hive had adequate stores, the orange and yellow hives seemed to be rather low.  So I made bee candy to help get all three colonies through the winter.  After all, its not the temperature that kills bees in winter...many times they starve to death.  In my opinion, the bee candy patties I made are much better than using the "mountain camp" method of feeding.  That's because it doesn't leave a big, gummy mess like the mountain camp method does.  Plus the candy patties are fairly easy to make.  I made enough to feed the bees through this winter, so once they finish these patties, I have more in storage.

The bees have eaten a hole in the side of this bee candy patty.  Another thing that makes this method unique is that the natural heat from the cluster inside the hive had risen and softened the patty.  That made it easier for the bees to take it apart and consume it.  This is just one of several patties that the bees had made holes in.  The other patties are the ones I had broken in half and they had a jagged edge for the bees to start working on.

A part of the warm weather ritual for the bees includes housekeeping.  That also includes removing dead bees from the hive.  Bees are extremely hygienic and will not tolerate trash and dead bees to clutter their house.  Here you can see some dead bees lying on the stand in front of the entrance.  I watched the bees as they would drag some of the dead ones outside, then dump them over the front.

A housekeeping bee rests on a leaf after she dumped her dead sister on the ground.  While many bees will just dump the dead ones outside the hive entrance, some will actually pick the dead bee up, fly away from the hive, then dump them.  After that manuever, she'll fly back to the hive to begin the task all over again.  The living bee is on the leaf, and just behind her (in the white circle) is her dead sister.  

Overall I was very pleased and excited to see that my three colonies were so active on a warm day.  While there is very little I can do with my bees at this point, I know that this is the time to start getting prepared for the spring.  Before you know it, it will be swarm season, time for splits, starting new colonies, experimenting to see what works and what doesn't, and just enjoy what beekeeping is all about. 

Here's hoping that 2011 will be a very successful year for your beekeeping endeavors, and in your personal lives too!  I have a feeling that 2011 is going to be a great year for all of us!

Bee happy, fellow beekeepers!