Since the discovery of the yellow fever virus in 1901, more than 200 new species have been added to the list of viruses that are able to infect humans, with three to four new species still being found every year. This is apart from the thousands more bacteria, parasites, prions and other pathogenic organisms and substances that are now known to cause human diseases. Factor in the speed by which such pathogens evolve, and what you get is a challenging, complicated landscape of medical conditions.
This is why the scientific community continuously works on discovering pathogens that might cause diseases. Understanding the process by which these agents cause illnesses is also important. With the help of years of scientific study and modern technological tools, laboratory scientists are able to observe and record how these pathogens interact and with the human body and respond to other elements, which can lead to clues on how to cure and prevent infections.
Microscopy as a Weapon
It’s fair to say that most agents and pathogens that cause diseases are invisible to the naked eye. From the damaged insulin-producing pancreatic cells that cause type 1 diabetes, to the highly aggressive Marburg virus that had an 80% mortality rate during the 1998-2000 outbreak in the Congo, the nature of disease can be very difficult to study due primarily to their microscopic origins.
However, microscopy has come a long way since the first tube-and-lens model in the 1500s. Nowadays, there are high-powered microscopes that are equipped with precision z focusing motorized stages and powerful lenses for perfect focusing and high magnification capabilities that don’t sacrifice image quality. Such modern laboratory-grade microscopes allow for precision motion control, including minuscule movements that allow researchers to study specimens at nanometer levels. These sophisticated equipment help health scientists identify new strains of pathogens, as well as understand how these microorganisms behave under different conditions, whether natural or induced.
Laboratory scientists also use these powerful microscopy tools to observe and analyze different specimens drawn from patients, animals, or even cultured samples. In fact, there are even laboratory scientists who specialize in using microscopy tools like electron microscopes, and then team up with experts in other fields like hematology, parasitology, genetics, and others. This collaboration often leads to a more accurate analysis of samples and interpretation of results.
Discovering Disease Hotspots
Health scientists and researchers also aim to identify disease hotspots around the world. These are locations where known or unknown pathogens are more likely to infect a human population or evolve or mutate into a new strain. These are usually crowded, impoverished areas that lack health facilities and have little resources for medical intervention in the event of an outbreak.
Typically, these hotspots are also where human, wildlife, and environmental data converge naturally. As such, these three factors are studied closely together when it comes to discovering and understanding diseases. Targeting hotspots are ideal for medical and health surveillance as these places will most likely yield more concrete, quality data after laboratory testing and analysis, even with a smaller, more focused net.
Known Pathogens, New Versions
In relation to disease hotspots, health and laboratory scientists also investigate known pathogens, especially those that have already shown a high likelihood of re-emerging or evolving. This is immediately evident in the influenza virus, which currently has four known –variants—types A, B, and C which infect people, and type D which affects cattle and is not known to infect people. Furthermore, these variants also have different strains. Influenza A, in particular, has different subtypes based on the hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N) proteins. Influenza B, on the other hand, has two lineages: B/Yamagata and B/Victoria.
Based on this knowledge about the influenza virus, we already know that there will be new strains in the future. What is left is trying to identify when and where they will originate, based on the analysis of previous samples and facts about the other strains.
Suffice it to say that there is no shortage of pathogenic agents that can cause harm to the human body. However, with more and more knowledge and tools becoming more widely available, there is hope that in the future, medical conditions can be cured as quickly as they can be unveiled.