Thursday, November 30, 2006
Billy Idol (yes, that Billy Idol) has released a Christmas album. Even if I didn't have a total categorical hatred of Christmas music, the lack of irony here makes me ill. He's also gotten a face full of Botox, from the looks of him. There is no way that he can still be attractive looking like that and shilling such pap.
In my best TV-movie comic-relief fag voice: Billy, you're dead to me!
Even more interesting is that it seems southern French and Sardinian wines have higher procyanidin content than other regions' barrels. The difference appears to be that wine makers in this region use more 'traditional' methods. The French will no doubt soon be crowing about this, their latest achievement in being The Only Ones Who Know How to Make Wine.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
The subjects seem to be having the deja-whatever sensation from aural, olfactory, and tactile stimuli. This is really cool.
Unrelatedly, a Harvard cohort study suggests that eating bacon five days a week might up your bladder cancer risk. Ditto for skinless chicken. There seems to be all kinds of confounding in the study, but maybe it's a good excuse to switch to the (tastier) skin-on variety of chicken.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
What sets humans apart from other animals is mainly our brains. Our myelinated neurons make transmission faster, and help us perform all that hard thinking we think we're so good at. On the downside, it seems that easily disrupted myelin sheaths may be what makes us so vulnerable to neuropsychiatric disorders like Alzheimer's.
We also have spindle cells, long 'express route' neurons linking senses to visceral processing centers to reaction centers in the brain, which help us react quickly to emotional situations and stimuli. Spindle cells were long thought unique to humans and our closest great ape relatives, helping to define what makes us 'special.' Now it seems that larger cetaceans have spindle cells too - and have had them 15 million years longer than primates. A beautiful case of convergent evolution, this finding also calls further in to question the ethics of whale hunting, and could change the way we think about our interaction with whales overall.
Over the years, we've used our myelinated brains and spindle cells to change all sorts of things about our world - including years of selectively breeding crops to suit our needs. It seems, however, that our wheat breeding may have been doing more harm than good: domesticated wheat have had silenced a gene - GPC-B1 - that seems to make wheat grow faster and have better nutritional content. Researchers are working to reverse this by cross-breeding domestic and wild wheats, hoping that the result will be a much more nutritive crop, which could help alleviate hunger.
Finally, researchers looking for a new anti-inflammatory drug to replace the disgraced likes of Vioxx have turned to a rare African plant, Aframomum melegueta, used by traditional African medics, and even gorillas(!) for millennia. The plant also seems to have pretty potent anti-microbial activity, including against MRSA. The downside? It's already extremely rare, and I can't see major commercial interests being especially good for species survival.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
If you wanna get laid more, a bigger headpiece seems to do the trick. As long as you're a chicken. Researchers have found that roosters mate more with chickens who have larger combs, though it's not clear why. Comb size does vary with hormonal state in chickens, but it seems odd that roosters would mate for a trait that makes offspring more visible to predators. Maybe they're just from the South.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Nuclear radiation being just one way of getting genetic mutants, researchers have engineered cottonseeds to be edible, promising to feed many people. Normally, cotton seeds contain high levels of the toxin gossypol, which also sounds like what you might get if you elected a talk show host to congress. The researchers removed gossypol from the seeds, while leaving it in the rest of the plant, so that it remains resistant to pests. Clever!
Speaking of clever, a Brazilian town has started giving out free Viagra to make its residents happier. The catch is, they'll only give it to the wives of older men, because giving it to the men themselves was 'causing adultery.' This is brilliantly hilarious!
Monday, November 20, 2006
While the most recent global conference on climate change ended more or less in shambles, at least one really scary idea got serious airtime. Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen spoke about his proposal, first published last summer, of using smog to combat global warming. The idea is that, as when a volcanic eruption sends tonnes of sulfuric soot into the atmosphere and cools the planet for a while, humans could fly blimps full of sulfates up for release, and they would similarly act as a solar shield.
There are so many reasons why I don't like this idea. First of all, it is at best just a way of delaying actually dealing with global warming. Secondly, what happens when all that soot falls to the Earth? Do we really want to be covered in ash all the time? Thirdly, what will blocking all that UV do to plant life? I'd imagine it'd offset the carbon balance even more, by lowering photosynthesis rates. Not to mention depriving people of vitamin D.
But people often forget these details. Is it because they smoke pot? Rutgers researchers have found that THC screws up the synchronized firing necessary in hippocampal neurons for memory formation. The study did not address long-term changes, but they are, of course, a possibility if these results are real (I am perpetually dubious of any US-based marijuana research, as it is so often tainted by the political agendas of funders and regulators).
Speaking of "stupid days," apparently some short guy called "Tom Cruise" married some scrawny chick called "Katie Holmes" this weekend. Apparently this was bigger and more important news than kidnappings in Iraq or school shootings in Germany or Ruth Brown's death. (That last one should be more important because (a) she was a true revolutionary, and also (b) her death is permanent, whereas I'd not give this marriage more than 11 months) What also bothers me is the Scientologist wedding vows that were apparently to be used. He promised her "a pan, a comb, perhaps a cat," and she essentially promised to not mind his indiscretions. Hardly seems like something any modern woman in her right mind would accept.
Friday, November 17, 2006
Ruth Brown died today, after a stroke and heart attack. If you don't know her, I hereby command you to go have a listen. If "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'" doesn't get you out of your chair to dance, and if "So Long" doesn't give you chills, you might not have a soul.
So long, Miss Rhythm.
Moving one step closer to building our Future Robot Overlords, Cornell researchers have made a really cool step: they've built a robot that adapts to damage/malfunction. Most computer systems these days are either functional, or not. This new system recognizes damage and adjusts - like limping on a sprained ankle - to keep functioning as best it can. Really cool!
Robot brains aren't the only thing getting better. An experimental vaccine procedure seems to have doubled the survival time for a handful of glioma (that most deadly of brain cancer) patients. Researchers extracted heat shock proteins from biopsied tumor cells and injected them back into patients' arms. The resulting immune response to tumor cells seems to be holding the disease in check. N is small, and much more study is needed, but this is bloody awesome.
Paging Ms. Cleo - the scientists are getting up in your game. 50 renowned experts are predicting the future over at New Scientist.
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
is looking for another Medicare Part-D style giveaway. Still though, it's a hopeful step.
A RAND study suggests that illegal immigrants, often cited as a major drain on our national health resources by those opposed to universal coverage, actually account of only a small fraction of our spending, and for proportionally less than do citizens and legal immigrants. I'd like to think that this report might stop people (namely, Republicans) from blaming immigrants for our own problems, but I'd also like a pony that turns in to a boat.
RAND has published another study that could indicate great things, if our politicians were willing to go for it: projections show that moving forward on the '25 by 25' goal of using 25% renewable energy sources by 2025 can be done without any increased cost to consumers. Projections like this are always a bit shaky, depending as they do on so many contingent variables, but this one could provide the boost renewable energy needs. Hopefully the new Democratic congress will be interested in pursuing this option, helping to free us from our oil addiction and also clean up the environment.
And speaking of energy, don't you hate the jumble of wires around your desk, and the constant worry that your laptop/PDA/MP3 player/cellphone/portable massager will run out of juice at a critical moment? Well, physics may have an answer! Using a bunch of resonance effects I totally don't understand, researchers say they think they've found a way to charge electronic devices on the go, without wires. This would be awesome, but I have to wonder about the health effects of that much energy just floating around us all the time.
Also, chocolate is good for you.
The Post article is full of all kinds of fluff, but the message is this: men more vulnerable to almost every disease, and have, on average, much shorter life expectancies than women, and successful campaigns like those used for breast cancer and womens' heart disease and depression are needed to explain and address these differences.
Speaking of people who take things too far: animal rights activists - who often have good things to add to ethical discussions - have grown more and more violent in recent years. Animal research is, unfortunately, critical to medical and scientific advancement (without it I, like many others, would not be alive/healthy); use of computer models is a great idea, but we simply don't know enough about how life works to model it effectively in 99.99% of cases. In those few cases where computer modeling would be effective, IRB and IUCAC regulations ensure that it is.
Animal rights activists have been bombing animal research facilities, killing researchers, and even threatening/harming animal researchers' families, friends, and neighbors. Due to hard work by the National Association for Biomedical Research, both houses of Congress have passed S.3880, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which will (assuming it's signed) explicitly prohibit these activities.
I worry about the constitutionality of singling out such a specific group of actors for already-mostly-illegal activities: while a more explicit law is clearly needed, targeting it at animal rights terrorists specifically, rather than terrorists generally, I wonder if could be problematic from a 5th Amendment standpoint. Still, I think it's fantastic that this law got passed, and my proposal to animal rights extremists remains the same: I will take you seriously when you decline any and all medical services or everyday conveniences developed thanks to animal research. That's right: no antibiotics after penicillin, no nontoxic sutures, no bypass surgery, no liposuction, no botox. No Advil either.
* Who have an unfortunate habit of interpreting anything done for men as being something done against women.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
It seems that women who ate more than 1.5 servings of meat a day were more likely to develop certain nasty types of breast cancer than those who ate less. My main problem with this study is that they found no effect overall, but only for a very specific type of breast cancer, whose growth is fueled by female hormone levels. Sounds like a bangarang opportunity for confounding, but we shall see.
On an unrelated note, researchers have isolated a compound from human saliva, called opiorphin, which acts as a pain killer as much as six times more potent than morphine in rats. It seems to work by blocking destruction of endogenous opiates in the spine. I'm not clear on why the article thinks that the substance will be less addictive than morphine, because that makes no sense whatsoever, but I'm curious to find out what the side effects will be.
Monday, November 13, 2006
Two new candidate cancer vaccines are making headlines today: one for breast cancer, one for kidney cancer. TroVax presents the immune system with 5T4, a surface protein uniquely found on most kidney cancer cells, and seems effective in stimulating an immune response against tumors. Another targets breast cancer's signature HER-2/neu overexpression for immune attack, and also seems to be effective in trials. Both of these vaccines, if successful, would be major progress.
HIV, which is pretty much The Big One when it comes to infectious diseases of public health concern, has proven astoundingly resistant to vaccine developers. Hopefully, a pair of candidate vaccines seems to be making progress where others have failed: a combined DNA vaccine presenting three HIV genes and a recombinant adenovirus serotype 5 (rAd5) vector seems to have illicited very strong immune responses in volunteers, which may indicate some immunity to infection. This would be bloody amazing.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
That's all done, but I have seen no improvement in speed - I still get lags opening files and programs, and dealing with graphics in any way makes it go all slow and unhappy. Did I miss a step in installing the new RAM? Do I need to allocate it somehow? Or do I just need to suck it up until I can afford a newer system?
Friday, November 10, 2006
Perhaps considering something that people seem to love almost as much as oversize vehicles - that is, paving things in and building ugly buildings out of concrete - Italian researchers have developed a catalytic cement. Called TX Active, the material contains a titanium dioxide mix that catalyzes CO, NOx, and other pollutants into less dangerous compounds. In one test, use of the material in street paving apparently produced a 60 percent (!!!!) reduction in local NOx levels. Assuming costs are not prohibitive, this would be a fantastic thing to start seeing all over the place.
The two studies used different techniques to downregulate Tregs, and both lead to significant improvements in stage-four melanoma patients' survival. The side effects of this therapy will need to be very carefully examined, but this is a really great step!
In looking for clues as to the origin of human big-braininess, genomic scientists have found evidence that a key gene - microcephalin (MCPH1) - which affects brain size development, seems to have been passed on to us from the Neanderthals. They mightn't have been so clever, but ironically they may have made us so (and thus maybe the inter-species hanky-panky wasn't such a bad idea after all)!!
On the hanky-panky note, Mexico City seems poised to pass a gay civil-unions law. Awesome, now I can flee North or South!
Thursday, November 09, 2006
From duh-land, we have a study suggesting that massage might make infants less stressed. More interesting to parents is that it may help them sleep too, though I can't help but picture this concept going really, really badly. Or hilariously: yuppie baby massage parlors!!! More fun for evangelicals!
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
A relatively new cancer treatment technique - radioimmunotherapy - where antibodies to specific (cancerous) cells are loaded with radiation to search and destroy, has been applied to mouse models of HIV infection. However, it seems that the technique, as performed in this study, would be ineffective against the disease, as it only kills cells after they've release viral particles into circulation. Assuming that a better antibody can be found and that side-effects can be controlled, this could be a really fantastic step in HIV/AIDS treatment, though likely a prohibitively expensive one for most patients.
And, of course, there's that election thing the Americans had. Democrats did good - better than expected in the House - and may just eek out a majority in the Senate. I was hoping against hope for an Arnie ouster, but alas. Funny thing, as a 202 in exile: I went out last night to celebrate, and no one in Georgia seems to have been aware that there was an election. Bars didn't show the returns. Nobody wore 'I voted' stickers. The cute bartender, who has been known to grumble about politics from time to time, was mum. WTF???
My 'date'* for the evening admitted that he'd not voted, as he had to work. I dutifully punched him in the arm (left a nice bruise too) and reminded him of his new commitment to not complain for two years**. But a very good morning to wake up, nonetheless....let's hope the Dems can actually *do* something now!
* Ex-somethingorother, current drinking comp
** OK, so I didn't actually hit him that hard, but he sure complained like I had!
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
To wit: Mathematicians have devised the "perfect" way to cut a cake, or divide up a contested area. It's an interesting-sounding algorithm, but I'm sure as hell not pulling out my copy of Notices of the American Mathematical Society at my next birthday party, and I'd guess no one else is either.
The ultimate hope is that all the stuff I love that is probably bad for me is good for me, and all that I hate that is probably good for me is bad: boozing should make me rich, meetings should be banned, and caffeine will prevent Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Researchers may have some evidence to support these claims, and much of it may be good, but the likely story is that caffeine has some protective effects which you will never get from drinking coffee. Meh, I'm still gonna keep at the grinder!
A really cool idea that may, in the (annoyingly distant) future make for real hope is gene therapy. A new study has used genetically engineered HIV to fight ... regular HIV. This research is fantastically cool: they infected 5 multiple-drug-resistant HIV patients with crippled, antisense HIV viruses, and that seems to no only have slowed the disease, but maybe even improved health in 4 of them! So. Cool.
And, because we didn't have enough "stem cell debate" to fight about, UK researchers want to create a human-cow hybrid cell line for research. I don't really have any problems with this, as I believe it'll not only advance science amazingly, but also hold no pretensions that humans are "different" from other animals, or "special." That's a bit that gets ethicists' panties in a bundle, and I think it ought to be taken less seriously. This technology could really pave the way for things like lab-grown organs for transplant, among other treatments.
Monday, November 06, 2006
At least in the US and UK, most cases of head lice occur in kids, and treating them is, at best, a royal pain. My sister used to get lice not infrequently (probably from sharing brushes, etc., with other girls at school), and consequently the whole house would need disinfection. A new technology may ease the removal of the buggers from actual people, by replacing messy and increasingly-unreliable creams and shampoos with a mechanical drying process. I'm still not sure how/if this will impact the effects of lice infestations on family/schoolmates, but it's likely a good step.
Parents also worry about their kids' fevers, often loading them up with drugs like aspirin or acetaminophen at the first sign of a temperature. Researchers have found that fevers increase the ability of the immune system to mobilize against new infections, suggesting that disrupting them may hamper disease recovery. Aside from any general objections to our over-medicating our children and ourselves, this is a good point to consider, while being careful about dangerous fever effects like seizures.
Finally, a possible union of natural and man-made technology: it seems that electrostimulating students' brains during sleep may improve memory. These results concern me for a number of reasons. First of all, the stimulation appears to have caused lighter sleep cycles to become deeper ones, which may have side effects in and of itself. Secondly, this may have worked because medical students are famously over-stressed anyways, which leads to poorer sleep quality, and so the effect of this study may well have been just as easily achieved by a proper night's rest. Still, it's a nice idea: zap your brain for better memory. Sign me up!
Friday, November 03, 2006
If you do plan to live another 45 years or so, be warned: after 2050, you may not be able to get any good seafood. Researchers warn that unless we drastically alter pretty much everything about how we interact with the oceans, by that time there will be no more wild fish reserves to catch and eat. This is, uhm, teh sux0rs?
Speaking of continuing declines, today's news brings even more evidence of the failingness(?) of the US healthcare system: a new Commonwealth Fund survey indicates that American patients have a much harder time getting care outside of "normal business hours" than do counterparts in the Netherlands, UK, New Zealand, Germany or Canada. Similarly, US providers are much less likely to use electronic medical records or participate in quality improvement activities.
Not shockingly, this has lead many Americans to begin seeking care abroad*, and employers and insurers are beginning to encourage them to do so. I don't necessarily have a problem with it, but I can't see any way that 'outsourcing' health care can ultimately be a good thing.
Mustaches, as a general rule, are not a good thing either. Opinions may vary, but I really have a hard time taking a guy with a mustache all that seriously. The New York Times discusses the mustache, and a documentary about them. I'd actually see this, if drunk enough.
* Note to Mr. Stan Johnson of United Steelworkers: India is not the third world.
Thursday, November 02, 2006
These risks go for genome science as well, which has the added bonuses of ethical nightmares, political wrangling...and that damn dinosaur movie. All this aside, resurrecting old foes (and possibly friends) from fossilized genes could well help solve modern problems. Looking at how our ancestors worked can often inform us about how we live, and how our ancestors' competitors worked can inform us how to fight their descendants. Sadly, bees in amber don't so readily give up their DNA for sequencing, so we have to use another source: modern genomes, extrapolating back to old ones from where we are today.
The human genome is full of old retroviruses that integrated themselves into our DNA hundreds, thousands, and millions of years ago, but no longer seem to do anything: they're "junk DNA." Understanding how they got to be that way could help us fight modern retroviruses like HIV, and French researchers recently made a major step in this understanding: they resurrected an ancient retrovirus out of the human genome.
No one disputes that this is immensely cool research, but many are saying that it either shouldn't have been done at all, or should have been done under different conditions. My reaction is that yes, it probably should have been done in a Level 4 facility, but there is no question it should have been done. The benefits of studying this virus could be astounding. I also hope that the virus is really as "wimpy" as the researchers claim it to be: we don't need 12-Monkeys scenario popping up.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Speaking of uncontrolled reproduction, we have cancer, where cells divide uncontrollably and kill the body. Swiss researchers have taken a dramatic direction in what could prove an effective next generation of cancer irradiation therapy: using an antiproton beam instead of a proton one, they find that they can kill tumor cells with one quarter the number of particles, theoretically reducing the damage to surrounding healthy tissue.
Antimatter against cancer...I like that.