"It is true, and thus the question of whether it is sad or happy has no meaning whatever."
Bernhard Schlink

Science is best when discussed: leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments!!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Sugar, Staph, and Vanity 

San Diego researchers have produced insulin-secreting pancreatic cells from human embryonic stem cells, giving hope that type I diabetes might someday soon be curable. As yet, the lab-produced cells don't seem to have endogenous islet cells' regulatory mechanisms - that is, they don't produce insulin relative to blood sugar levels - but the researchers believe that they can figure out how to make them behave properly in the future.

If this works, it would be a major breakthrough not only for diabetics but for biotechnology in general. Unfortunately, Rush Limbaugh will probably accuse diabetics of 'faking it' and wanting to kill 'babies' (aka the embryos from whence the stem cells come).

Staph infections have plagued hospitals and patients since forever, with more and more resistant strains cropping up all the time. Luckily, staph's reign may be coming to an end: NIH researchers have found an effective vaccine for S. aureus in mice, with promise of a human version soon to come. Eliminating nosocomial staph infections could improve hospital care and reduce its costs substantially.

It seems that elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror, a skill of self-awareness only demonstrated thus far in humans, great apes, and dolphins. So then, if we put big pictures of local elephants on the walls of huts in the villages they tend to rampage, they might recognize the likeness and stop?? Probably not, but worth a go, just for comedy's sake!

Monday, October 30, 2006


So much of biology is about control - making sure things grow enough but not too much, maintaining homeostasis, et cetera - and understanding how controls work and act in systems is key to advancing research. I'll surprise no one by saying that ultimately, it all comes back to genes, but some might be surprised by how much I really mean by "all."

Researchers have known for some time that there is an inherited (genetic) component to schizophrenia. We also know that the disease involves a disruption of normal acetylcholine neurotransmission. Thus, it was no great surprise to find that a gene variant, which seems to predispose people to develop schizophrenia, involves acetylcholine transmission. Researchers found that members of a 200-person cohort who developed schizophrenia were more likely to have a certain variant of the neuregulin gene. This is really cool!

We know now that bacteria play a much bigger role in controlling the Earth's climate than we used to think. How they do it is still mostly a mystery, but news from the NSF shows how a gene in marine plankton decides whether the plankton release sulfur in a for that goes into the atmosphere, affecting climate, or stay in the ocean, as nutrient. This kind of research is getting more and more critical, as global warming speeds up.

Finally, there's controlling populations. For years, birth control (at least in the US) has been primarily a woman's responsibility - they take the Pill. Now, researchers are one step closer to a male contraceptive pill - one that stops sperm production midway, by causing nascent sperm to separate from nurturing Sertoli cells too early to survive. This one is especially novel, as it uses a novel delivery method: binding the drug to inactivated FSH, it can be delivered directly to target cells without toxic side effects in the rest of the body. But I wonder what the side effects will really be? Also, won't American males' rapidly dropping testosterone levels take care of this anyways?

Saturday, October 28, 2006


Learning more about genes and genomes is a critically important task for modern medicine - it offers the possibility of better drugs, targeted treatments, and generally better health care. The recent sequencing of the honey bee genome may seem remote from the goal of treating humans, but it turns out that we share more genes and proteins with the bees than you might think. Particularly, bee genes relating to social behavior and learning could prove most enlightening for behavioral researchers in humans.

After the bee genome was sequenced, researchers working in Burma uncovered a 100 million year-old bee - the oldest yet discovered - preserved in amber. The new specimen fits nicely with the theoretical evolutionary framework of modern bees and wasps (that pollen-eating bees evolved from carnivorous wasps), and adds more data to our growing evolutionary tree. Cool!

A human gene of interest - in this case, interleukin-23 - is one that seems to protect its carriers from various types of inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn's. Discoveries like this can often lead to not only better, targeted treatments for specific diseases, but also to a better understanding of how all of our bits fit together in the first place, and work so well.

Back to behavior, and along with working together, it seems that competition with humans is causing the destruction of elephant culture, leading elephants to seek violent, crafty revenge on humans who come nearly. This is really scary stuff, but in a small way, you gotta kinda cheer for the pachyderms here - it's so rare that endangered animals can fight back at all, let alone so effectively!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Fat, Booze, and Drugs 

Feeling blue? Australian researchers say that visiting an online psychiatric help sites such as BluePages seems to help fight depression. Very interesting; I hope these sites continue to proliferate and refine their techniques, as I really do wish more people would do something other than take 'happy pills,' with their side effects and other issues.

Speaking of pills, expanding clinical trials of Acomplia (aka rimonabant) suggest that the new obesity drug may also be a promising treatment for diabetes. It seemed to help patients not only lose weight, but also helped control blood glucose and appetite, key factors in type II diabetes. Cool!

More good news is that Ohio researchers report that mild alcohol consumption (the equivalent of one or two drinks a day) may improve memory. Rats given moderate amounts of alcohol in their diets did better on object-recognition and learning tasks than did non-alkie controls or heavy boozers. The effect was removed by knockout of the NR1 receptor, a hippocampal NMDA target thought to be involved in memory formation.

Back to pills: the US pharmaceutical industry is very worried about the upcoming election: if Democrats win, they will likely be quick to take away the massive hand-outs (such as the insane, expensive, and blatantly corrupt non-negotiation clause of the Medicare Part D benefit) the current Republican administration has given them. So what are they doing? They are pouring millions of dollars into Republican campaigns - more than $450,000 for Rick Santorum alone! - to convince voters that their health is less important than pharma's profits. "Dude, where's my democracy?"

Making Babies, Baby Blues 

Last week's American Society for Reproductive Medicine Annual Meeting generated a number of interesting findings, including some that I buy and some I'm not sure I buy.

A fairly large California study suggests that women who get fertility treatments are nearly three times as likely to have kids with health problems, including autism. This makes sense to me, reflecting the idea that there was probably some reason the women were having trouble conceiving in the first place - and that removing the symptom does not address the cause, which may have had to do with a predisposition to produce troubled offspring.

Similarly, it seems that older mothers may lead to less fertile daughters. The links in this study sound a bit tenuous, but obviously I need to see the actual paper before coming to a proper conclusion. On the upside though, another study reports that ovarian tissue transplants from a healthy twin to an infertile one seem to be effective. Good news there.

In an entirely different kind of thing, scientists appear to have 'given birth' to a new form of water - a crystalline matrix of H2 and O2. Under astounding pressure and X-ray irradiation, they got water to break up and rearrange in this way. I'm not precisely clear why this still counts as water - it seems like it out to be either just hydrogen and oxygen, or at best crystalline hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). Anyone care to explain?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Lotsa Lotsa 

Good dieting advice: drink water. California researchers found that dieters who replaced all their sugary drinks (soda, fruit juice) with water lost five pounds more than those that didn't, and that those who simply drank more than four cups of water a day lost an extra two pounds. No, "Vitamin Water" doesn't count.

For even more weight loss, try walking: brisk walking 30-60 minutes a day helped middle aged study participants lose more weight than others. Granted this is harder to do some places than others (I walk way less here in Atlanta than I did in DC), but you can probably find a way (I use the gym's bike machines, which is not walking, but close enough).

Need another excuse to exercise? It may help you quit smoking. An Austrian study suggests that quitters who work out are more likely to succeed than quitters who loaf. But if you're gonna quit, be careful of those nicotine patches: it seems that they may complicate your health. Mayo researchers found that giving the patch to smokers in the ICU (as opposed to just letting them go cold turkey) was associated with a higher death risk. This effect is likely indicative of a nicotine effect, regardless of how it's administered.

If you won't quit smoking, however, some researchers claim that taking statins may help reduce your risk of lung problems. Interesting, but I'd need to see the full study (not to mention who funded it!) to be convinced.
Speaking of drugs, it seems that HIV drugs are bringing latent leprosy infections to the fore, with as-yet-undetermined consequences. Weird. Another weird disease situation is that of "Mogellons Disease." Named by a South Carolina woman whose son was experiencing strange, undiagnosable symptoms, based on a 17th century French study describing a similar condition, the US medical and scientific community has no idea if it's a real disease, a psychosomatic one, or a manifestation of some known pathogen. Hopefully this will get the research attention it seems to deserve.

We're used to our DNA causing disease by containing faulty genes, but Japanese researchers are suggesting that DNA itself could be causing arthritis. They found that surplus DNA accumulates in some mice, causing an inflammatory response that looks a bit like arthritis. Funny.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Why I Miss DC 

Would the Real Condi Rice, Please Stand Up?
Originally uploaded by chrisafer.
Because really, where else do drag queens take political figures as their target of choice? Thanks to Chrisafer and all the rest for letting me live vicariously through Flickr!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Science of... 

Sleep: I really liked this one; it was hilarious and sweet, and very pretty. Clever too. And could Gael Garcia Bernal get any sexier?

Shoes: Oh my god, shoes. It seems that people with knee problems might be better off without them - a suggestion to which I can add anecdotal support. When my knees act up, I try to go barefoot more, or wear flat-soled thongs, which seems to help.

Students: Apparently the "freshman fifteen" is less of a myth and more of an exaggeration. No big shocks there...have we cured cancer yet?

Subterranean Bacteria: Princeton researchers have identified a novel group of bacteria living almost 3 kilometers underground, which collect energy from radioactive decay, rather than sunlight to survive. This is really bloody cool.

Starch: An Italian study suggests that eating lots of bread increases the risk of kidney cancer. It found small increases in risk for pasta, rice, milk, and yogurt. They also found that high poultry and meat consumption decreased risk. This all strikes me as rather odd, and I wonder (among other things) if the retrospective nature of the study mightn't have mucked things up a bit. Still, very interesting findings...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Continuous High Speed Centrifugation Juice 

What with all the hoopla these days about avoiding 'processed' foods, I can't imagine that going over so well. Plus, are the health benefits of sea buckthorn really so much grater than those of, say, orange juice, to justify this silliness, or are we just looking to cash in on yet another nutritional fad?

Vitamin C is good for you in lots of ways, including helping to prevent gum disease. For those who get gum disease anyways, researchers may have a strange treatment for you in ten years or so: a salicylic acid-containing 'pill', to be implanted between tooth and diseased gum. The device would release some of its contents to relieve pain and swelling, as well as physically relieving pressure to allow tissue to heal. Clinical trials are a long way off, but I think it's an intriguing concept.

Speaking of intriguing, how about an invisibility cloak? Researchers have managed to cloak a copper tube from microwaves in the lab, using a metamaterial sheath, making it less visible to microwave sensors. One limit of the technique is that the metamaterial must be smaller than the wavelength of the radiation it's cloaking from - relatively easy for low-frequency microwaves, but beyond current means for nimble visible light waves. Plus, "it's more like a shed" than a cloak. Oh well.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Scissor Sisters @ the Tabernacle 

Great show last night. The opening band, Small Sins, was perfectly acceptable emo-pop-somethingorother. A bit whiney, a bit not exciting, but not offensive and plus, multiple hot bandmembers in implausibly tight white pants. Also a very ...er... energetic percussionist, who did what may or may not have been a three minute scratch-pad/synch solo-bizzaro-performance-art thing at one point, that made me laugh.

Then there were the Sisters themselves. Still pretty to look at, and still putting on a fantastic show. They played a satisfying mix of their two albums, and I'm thrilled to say that Ta-Dah really, really came out brilliantly on stage. They played that material with a much harder edge than the album has, which I really liked. "Kiss You Off" and "Lights" came off almost snarling at points. Hot.

Jake Shears is still hot too, as is Del Marquis. Ana was amazing as usual, but sadly Babbydaddy and Paddy Boom were not very visible from where we were standing. Not sexy: the middle-aged blond bitch in the "Ghetto Princess" tube top* who kept getting up on here boyfriend's shoulders, blocking the view. Also, the girl with a serious BO problem, smoking pot and taking up too much space on the floor beside us. And her boyfriend, who also didn't smell good, or dance even a little.

And finally, the tragic: about 6'3", a little muscular, pretty face, tight shirt. Dancing near me, and flirting heavily. I totally would have gotten your number and called you, except that your opening line was: "You want some dip?" That's an absolute deal breaker. EW.

I also wish the Tabernacle wasn't so damn echo-y.

* If you are (a) a middle-aged white woman, (b) at a Scissor Sisters show, or (c) wearing a "Ghetto Princess" tube top, you are not, I repeat NOT, a ghetto anything

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Body Issues 

Genetics determine a whole bunch of things about who we are and how we do what we do, and the more research we see, the more things seem to have a genetic influence. By looking at adults who have been blind since birth, and their parents, an Israeli team has found evidence that facial expressions - that is, what faces we make in response to certain events, like surprise or fear or sadness - seem to be inherited from parents. Not a big shock that this would be true, but kinda cool even so!

Genetics certainly seem to influence whether or not kids grow up to have allergies, but environmental factors are clearly key as well. A Taiwanese group claims that giving kefir to babies will help prevent allergies from developing - that the kefir lowered IgE (an allergic immune protein) in mice three fold. Very interesting, but I will beleive it when I see a real RCT published.

Not the human body, but the body of a paper I'll be writing soon, would be much improved by remembering this research on geographic data use in public health disparities. Very cool stuff, actually, and worth a read for all.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Big Gay Homosexuals 

Oslo's Natural History Museum has, to the outrage of the usual suspects, opened a worlds-first exhibit on homosexuality across the animal kingdom, apparently including some rather graphic photos (i.e., male whales dry, err, humping each other). I wish I had the money to go see it, as I find the topic very interesting, academically as well as in that whole why-am-I-here-where-do-we-come-from kinda way.

Plus, anything that might piss off Jerry Falwell gets an A+ in my book.

Welcome to Monday 

How could last night's hilarity be followed by anything but vague seriousness? It seems that the antidepressant Prozac (very similar to Paxil) seems to increase aggressive behavior in adolescent hamsters. One posited explanation is a change in 5HT-1 versus 5HT-3 densities that occur over development, the former increasing with age and dampening aggression, the latter promoting it. Very interesting, and more evidence of one of my pet issues - that drugs tested only in adults probably shouldn't be prescribed willy-nilly to kids.

Nutrition trends, on the other hand, rarely even get tested in anyone before people all over are taking part, regardless of age or actual need to change. Some new research that may start a food fad, and one I'd fully get behind (since I love walnuts) is a study which suggests that finishing a fatty meal with a few walnuts may help protect the body from damaging effects of the meal. The study is small, but the result is intriguing - how real is this effect, and what happens long term?

Long or short term, eating mercury is bad for you. Especially if you're preggers. A small study suggests that women who give birth prematurely have higher mercury exposures - is mercury a cause here? Interesting if it is, especially if we could know how that happens.

Babies are getting more and more vaccines all the time, and someday soon they may get one for an age-old scourge: herpes. A young Montana virologist suggests that he has a new path to take in searching for a vaccine against HSV, and I really hope he's both on to something and gets funded. Even though the nitwits will protest that not having HSV risks out there will make people more sexually promiscuous. Especially because it might well just.

And finally, the physicists have managed to combine matter and antimatter into a single entity. I don't really know what this means, but it sure sounds cool!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Self-Medication Disco 

I have homework to do - at least two papers need to be written, a database needs to be coded, and an exam studied for. Then there's the mapping project that's due Friday.

Why, then, am I wasting time on the internet? Well, because it produces amazing things like this. Skip to around 1:35 for the good bits.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

12 of 12 

Taking a cue from the slightly-less-but-not-entirely-un-Secret Simon, I decided today to participate in the Chad Darnell Project's 12 of 12 photo game. My set revolves around my day in Atlanta, which itself revolved around my biostatistics midterm. Click on the photo to see the whole set!

Dead Mammals, Occasionally Not 

A new study of extinctions and climate suggests that the Earth's 'wobbles' may cause the periodic mammal extinctions seen in the fossil record. That is, of course, assuming that the fossils weren't just put there by the Flying Spaghetti Monster to test our Faith, in which case we could guess that His Noodly Attention Span is about 2.5 million years.

Humans have a way of helping many species go extinct especially very soon after they colonize a new area. Researchers in Cyprus have found a surprising survivor there: a new species of mouse. Well, actually it's an old species - a survivor from before humans came to Cyprus, and a nice link to the evolutionary history of mice (and maybe men).

It's unlikely to make humans go extinct, but a study suggests that having red hair genes may raise your risk of cancer. This goes for just being a 'red carrier' - that is, with only one copy of the gene so you don't have red hair - as well as being a full redhead. Interesting.

Humans also do pretty well at trying to make themselves extinct, by trying to kill lots of other humans. Thus far in dubya's Iraq war, more than 650,000 Iraqis have been killed - that's about 425,000 in excess of previous death rates! And we still don't have any indications that it's gonna get better anytime soon. All this so Americans can drive Hummers.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What I Didn't Miss About DC 

...Is waiting endlessly for trains that should come more often. The Yellow train did eventually appear, after about 22 minutes. Lucky I wasn't running late (for once)! All in all, it was a very fun weekend.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Stopping the Bad 

Excessive bleeding is a problem for every aspect of health - you die if you bleed too much, and bleeding can interfere with surgeries and treatments. This is part of why news from MIT researchers of a gel that can stop bleeding in seconds is so exciting. The group has developed a self-assembling nanoparticle substance that somehow stops bleeding in seconds, even in major arteries. Very cool.

Viruses can also be tricky to stop (when by "stop" I of course mean "cure" or "get rid of for good"). It seems that part of how the cleverer ones avoid removal by our immune systems is partially by exploiting down-regulation of the inflammatory response, and researchers may have found a way to address this trick. When they gave mice chronically infected with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) a drug that blocks suppression of inflammation by IL-10, they quickly cleared the virus. If it works in humans too, this has potential to be a massive breakthrough in fights against many viral diseases, including CMV, Hepatitis, and even HIV.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Buying Love, et cetera 

A Nottingham University study of lotto winners purports to disprove the old adage that money can't buy happiness. The authors found that winners were more likely to be married after than before, had bigger houses, and, this is the key bit, 97% were at least as happy as before winning.

So really, what this study found, was that winning the lottery did not make the 34 people studied less happy. The most spurious claim is that the money allowed winners to 'buy love' - more people get married later in life, so the passage of time alone could account for differences there, as could, you know, being suddenly able to afford a wedding. DOQRAPS returns!!!

With all that lotto money, you might also be able to pay to put yourself in suspended animation. Well, sortof. Researchers have found that hydrogen sulfide induces a hibernation-like state in mice, but without lowering their blood pressure. That last bit is what's odd, and important: the problem with current sedatives, used in intensive surgeries to reduce organ damage, is that they drop blood pressure, with dangerous effects. A better way of sedating patients' systems could lead to improved surgical outcomes.

Finally, a number of researchers are calling to abolish the term schizophrenia, as it is too messy a concept to be useful in treatment. While I agree that the term carries way too much stigma, and accommodates a huge range of symptoms, it's a well established term. To the extent that different symptomologies can be traced to different etiologies, I would support this move, but since none of that is particularly clear, I'm wary.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Marijuana and Rectal Massage: Untold Stories 

So I'm in DC for my fall break, which falls conveniently right between my two biggest midterms, and before three of my term papers. This means that I will be doing a good bit of partying.

Science seems to be ready for partying this weekend, as today's news is full of oddities:

A sixty-year-old man has apparently been cured of chronic hiccups by sticking a finger in his ass. This is the second report of such a cure, and I think it's bloody hilarious. This suggests a completely awesome thesis topic: do bottoms get less hiccups?

Before fucking usually comes drinking, and frequently, being drunk. Researchers have discovered a gene, dubbed white rabbit, that seems to modulate sensitivity to alcohol, cocaine, and nicotine. Sounds like a cheap date!

And in good news for the heavy partiers, it seems that smoking pot may help prevent Alzheimers Disease, causing the brain to better break down amyloid plaques and maintain ACh levels. This makes no sense, but I like it nonetheless.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Lots of Quick News 

Am very rushed today, finishing up some schoolwork and heading back to DC for the long weekend, so a quick list of things to think about:

Researchers have developed a new hay fever vaccine, which requires fewer jabs and lasts longer awesome! Now I just want one that I only have to get once.

Our old friend curcumin (aka turmeric) seems to help the brain clear away the amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimers Disease. More curry!

German researchers have found a way to measure skin aging, and have found that women age faster than men. Among the many reasons to question this study is how they controlled for all the crap women do to themselves in the name of glamour?

Wisconsin researchers may have gone one up on flu vaccines, characterizing a compound that seems to totally block viral entry into cells. This is completely awesome, and could really be a major event not just for combating flu but other viruses as well.

You know tea is good for you, but the Brits (who else?) have found that drinking a cup of black tea each day helps recovery from stress. I can do that.

And my favorite music video of the year: "We Are Not A Rock Band." Bloody hilarious, and I like the song too!

Monday, October 02, 2006

On the Importance of Standards. 

Sometimes I'm a bit of a rebel; I like going against the grain. I prize individuality (my own and others'), and firmly believe that variety is the spice of life (or at least one of the many). But, there are times when variety is not a good thing, and tonight's drive home provides a good example: I got pulled over (as if I wasn't already cranky enough).

I couldn't begin to fathom why, since I was stopped at a red light at the time, and had in fact just gotten on the road. I figured it was a fishing expedition for drunk drivers (Atlanta is a bit famous for these), but it turned out he cop pulled me over because the registration sticker on my back plate says 2003. You see, DC changed its system so that unlike most other statesjurisdictions, we no longer display year on the plates, but on a sticker up on the front windshield. Thus, I was a suspected car thief.

It took a bit of explaining (and fishing around for my registration card), but eventually the cop let me be. Having a standard for these things would be nice*.

* Ultimately, I think we should have national license plates, instead of state-by-state ones, so that we could cut down on the out-of-state effect, whereby you are much more likely to get pulled over for minor infractions if your plates are non-local, but that is as likely to happen as dubya being a uniter not a divider.

Sex, Babies, and Cancer 

Conventional thought is that it takes much more time to get a woman aroused than a man, but some really cool thermal imaging research suggests otherwise: women get hot just as fast as men! They had participants watch either porn or Canadian tourism guides on video, and monitored body temperature: not shockingly, only one of these stimuli caused arousal.

Testosterone is often credited with males' greater sex drive and arousal rates, but it seems it may do something else as well: make them dumber. Kinda. Yale researchers have found that androgen steroids induce apoptosis in nerve cells, in vitro. They claim that this effect explains 'roid rage,' but I'm not totally convinced. In neuroscience especially, in vitro is often very different from in vivo, if only because of the Blood-Brain Barrier, and likely also because of supportive glial effects.

All this arousal is supposed to be a good thing - we still need it to make babies. But we may not for much longer: researchers claim to have cloned mice from adult granulocytes, challenging conventional wisdom that you need stem cells to make clones. The results are interesting, even if not really too convincing.

After the future cloned babies grow up, they'll probably have to worry about cancer as much as the rest of us, and they'll be glad of new research that suggests two powerful treatments: siomycin A and aldose reductase blockers. The former is an antibiotic which specifically targets FoxM1, a gene needed for cancer cell proliferation; the latter blocks an enzyme, aldose reductase, which seems to be critical for colon cancer growth. Great news!

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