UAB Magazine Online Features
Tracing Malaria’s Epic War with Humanity
By Matt Windsor
Lori Cormier knew she had to hurry. The young anthropologist had already seen several life-threatening malaria infections during her time among the Guaja hunter-gatherers of the Brazilian Amazon. Seizures were not a good sign.
Malaria is caused by a cunning parasite with a complex lifecycle; in fact, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the villains in the Alien movies. Here’s how it works: A female Anopheles mosquito, carrying the parasite Plasmodia in its salivary ducts, bites a human. The parasites move into the person’s bloodstream, where they migrate to liver cells and reproduce. A few days later they emerge in the thousands from each cell and invade nearby red blood cells, where they grow and later burst out again to infect new red blood cells. The process causes high fever, convulsive chills, anemia (not enough red blood cells), and flu-like symptoms, usually 10 days to four weeks after the infection begins. (See “A Vicious Cycle,” below.)
When a five-year-old child was rushed to her hut one morning with seizures, Cormier sprang into action. “I had aspirin, but that doesn’t work fast enough,” she says. “So I ran to the river and soaked a blanket in cold water to try to cool her.” Eventually, the child recovered, but for the rest of her life the fever would threaten to return.
By Matt Windsor | Illustrations by Tim Rocks
There's big money to be made in the computer industry these days. In fact, someone with the right skills and the wrong motives can expect to pull in millions every week by engaging in cybercrime.
Can you stop the bad bugs? Fight back in this video game inspired by the work of UAB researchers
Mega-salaries don’t come without risks, of course—including the increasing likelihood that your efforts will attract the attention of UAB researcher Gary Warner and his dedicated team of caffeine-fueled student analysts. In a lab overlooking the UAB football practice field, Warner’s undergraduate and graduate students are playing a high-stakes game of their own, matching wits with criminal masterminds a world away. The students’ efforts have been recognized with official thank-yous from Facebook and the FBI, and job offers from Microsoft, PayPal, and a who’s who of the current hot tickets in Silicon Valley.
Read on to learn about some of the group’s most notable exploits—and how you can become a digital detective with UAB’s new master’s degree program in computer security.
Kaleidoscope Alumni Win Pulitzer for Tornado Reporting
By Grant Martin
In the newspaper business, every deadline is a crisis.
But as the hours ticked by at the Tuscaloosa News on April 27, 2011, the paper’s staff found itself at the center of one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history. Working with limited electricity in the wake of a massive tornado that devastated the city and surrounding communities, the News staff provided real-time updates online through Twitter as well as in-depth coverage in the next day’s newspaper. One year later, the paper was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.
Shweta Vora Gamble and Anthony Bratina, veterans of UAB’s Kaleidoscope student newspaper who both graduated in 2000, were part of the team of journalists who staffed the newsroom that day and shared in the honor.
“Winning the Pulitzer was bittersweet,” says Gamble, a former editor-in-chief of the Kaleidoscope and a design editor at the News. “The prize announcement came so close to the one-year anniversary of the storm, so it was fresh on all our minds. There was some celebration, but we also were very aware that 52 people lost their lives. When we think back on our roles, most of us just feel that we were doing what we were supposed to be doing—covering the news of the day and getting the information out to people however we could.”
Standing by one graveside, then another, and still more and more, Alan Woellhart buried a generation of friends in the first few years of the HIV epidemic in the United States. His friends kept dying; eventually, he quit going. “Back in the early days, I stopped going to funerals when I lost my 50th friend,” Woellhart says.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is very good at “working its evil,” as one UAB clinician puts it. The virus succeeds by hijacking helper T cells, which coordinate the body’s immune response against viral infections. Then it converts those cells into factories whose sole purpose is to pump out more HIV. Because the T cells die in the process, HIV has devised a way to maintain a steady supply of fresh victims. The virus induces captured cells to send out a call for backup before they die. When the reinforcements arrive, they become infected as well.
Eventually, over the course of 10 to 15 years, there aren’t enough helper T cells left to mount an effective immune response against the various bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens that always lurk on our skin, waiting for a chance to invade. It is these “opportunistic infections” that usually kill a person with end-stage AIDS. Once scientists understood this, an effort that took years, they could begin to find a way to fight back against HIV.
After Woellhart was diagnosed with AIDS on June 7, 1989, he came close to going under himself. He was saved by the arrival of AZT, the first drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of HIV. AZT targets an enzyme called reverse transcriptase, which HIV uses to make the copies of itself that it inserts into T cells. Finally, physicians had something to offer patients dying of AIDS.
“My first dose was delivered from a company in California, and when the UPS truck came, I ran out with a smile on my face, saying, ‘Now I’m going to be on something that will take care of me,’” Woellhart recalls.
AZT kept Woellhart alive, but the side effects were so devastating that he fled from it as soon as he could. “I joined a lot of research studies at UAB where I was one of the first people to ever take the medication,” he says. “I would be in the hospital for weeks at a time so they could monitor me. But I did it because if I was going to perish from the disease, I wanted them to learn something from me first.”