Stories tagged health

Dec
11
2009

You will never have to buy these again
You will never have to buy these againCourtesy very little dave
One hates to be outdone. I mean, all of a sudden I’m given to understand that not only am I the resident poop expert (and how do you think that feels) but that I’ve been shirking my duties in covering the scatological sciences, and that fecal subject matter is slipping right between my fingers! It’s humiliating on several levels.

Thank goodness for the internet, eh? Because look what just fell in my lap: an eleventh-hour entry for most bizarre poop story of the year. A couple of 20-something designers with years of experience in the arts and a couple crazy weeks of education in synthetic biology were the talk of the town at this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Jambori. Why? Because of their briefcase full of human feces.

It wasn’t real human feces, of course—they’re artists, not miracle workers. But it represented a coming revolution in pooping. The wax poop models, you see, were all the colors of the rainbow (over a predictably colored base). The team of undergraduates they collaborated with have been working on genetically engineering strains of the E. choli bacteria that will change color in the presence of certain compounds. Currently, the new strain (now called, har har, E. chromi) will turn orange, red, brown, purple or yellow in the presence of arsenic, the exact color depending on the amount of arsenic. (“Brown”?)

Aside from brightening up the gloomy bowel movements of people suffering from arsenic poisoning, the team of scientists and artists has proposed that the technology could be used in the future for diagnosing diseases. Just swallow a little capsule, say, and the bacteria inside could tell you if you have cancer. It would be like reading tea leaves, kind of, but in a bigger cup, and without the leaves. (Imagining finding out from your Technicolor poops that you have cancer.)

Sadly, this application is a long way off. Aside from color-coding the bacteria to different diseases, it would have to be engineered so that our immune systems couldn’t destroy it before it changes color. One wonders, too if creating a strain of E. choli that is invisible to our immune systems might have a new set of issues to overcome.

I hope that they realize the recreational potential of any drugs to come out of the project.

Dec
06
2009

Human medicine extracted from rabbit milk

Drugs from rabbit milk
Drugs from rabbit milkCourtesy Hardyplants
Almost three years ago, I wrote about how farm animals were being modified genetically to produce milk and eggs containing pharmaceuticals.

Pharming rabbits

A Dutch biotech firm, appropriately named Pharming, has been milking rabbits experimentally for years. They recently developed a drug called Rhucin, which they extract from rabbit milk. The rabbits have been outfitted with a human gene that produces a protein called C1 inhibitor in their milk. Rhucin can be used to treat people with hereditary angioedema.

"Human C1 inhibitor can be obtained from donor blood, but our … product can be produced in unlimited quantities from a scalable and stable production system, and there are no safety issues in terms of [blood] viruses National Geographic."

If the drug is approved, Pharming will start milking a herd of about a thousand rabbits. The method is similar to milking cows except that the milk sucking attachments are smaller.

Miniature mouse milking machine

Mice are being milked in Russia for lactoferrin which normally is found in the breast milk of humans. Lactoferrin protects babies from viruses and bacteria while the infants' immune systems are still developing. Milking mice is very difficult, and is only a step toward larger animals such as rabbits, goats, or cows being bioengineered.

The ultimate aim of the Russian team, and of similar research projects in other countries, is to extract lactoferrin from the milk and use the protein to create healthier baby formula. National Geographic

Officials in Cardiff confirmed today the world's first cases of human-to-human transmission of Tamiflu-resistant H1N1 influenza. It's not unexpected, but it is worrisome. Even though flu cases are down here in Minnesota and across the US, keep washing your hands!

Here's a nice round up of opinions and press coverage of the controversy revolving around changing the beginning age for mammogram testing in women from 40 to 50. In the past several years having personally known several women under the age of 50 dealing with breast cancer, I have to admit I was dumbfounded by this new recommendation.

Nov
20
2009

Meditation
MeditationCourtesy h.koppdelany
Do you ever just need a break? How many times have you been told to just take a deep breath? Turns out that may not be such a bad idea, especially if you have coronary artery disease. Recent research by Midwest physicians took a look at the effect of regular meditation on the health of patients surviving with narrowed coronary arteries. They studied more than 200 of these high risk patients for over five years. The test half of the group received instruction and practiced daily transcendental meditation for up to 20 minutes. The meditating patients experienced close to a half as many major issues to their health such as heart attacks, strokes, and death. Death is one of those things most of us try to avoid. Scads amount of research has delved into the possible effects of a wide range of meditative practices on such things as creativity, focus, mental well-being, and even job performance. It would seem a natural thing to embrace. I can certainly think of a few Type-A personalities that could stand to hum a few bars of “ooommmmmm” during their morning commute. Take a moment and enjoy your day!

Story at ScienceMag.org

Nov
16
2009

He looks happy, but it's a facade: He's very worried about phthalates, BPAs, and his manliness. (Good thing that's a glass bottle.)
He looks happy, but it's a facade: He's very worried about phthalates, BPAs, and his manliness. (Good thing that's a glass bottle.)Courtesy sirgabe
There’s something I want to get out of the way straight off the bat: the original title for this post was “Monday Nutrition Extravaganza: Chemicals in your food, playing with your manhood!” And while that has a certain whimsical charm, a re-read revealed hidden, disturbing meaning in those words. And I didn’t want to subject you Buzzketeers to that. I just thought you should know.

So, moving on, what’s this stuff playing with our manhood, now?

Chemicalz in our foodz! And stuff.

Earlier today, I came across this study about how there seems to be a correlation between high levels of chemicals call phthalates in pregnant mothers’ urine, and a lowered incidence of “masculine play” in their male children. (“Girls’ play behavior” didn’t seem to be affected.)

Interesting, interesting.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals added to plastics to make them softer and more pliable. We all like soft plastic—no one is arguing that!—but phthalates are all over the place, and increased exposure to them (all sorts of products and packaging use phthalates) is raising concerns about how those chemicals affect us, particularly during childhood development. See, phthalates are antiandrogens, meaning that they mess with the way your body works with hormones like testosterone. Testosterone plays an important role in how we physically develop, and perhaps in how we act. The boys whose mothers had higher levels of a couple kinds of phthalates demonstrated less “male-typical” behavior. The study looked a preferred toy types (trucks versus dolls), activities (“rough-and-tumble play”), and “child characteristics.”

Now, these are slightly sticky things to go judging kids on. Some folks might argue that these characteristics aren’t linked to biology so much as social conditioning. And it feels a little weird quantifying characteristics in children (and, let’s be honest here, characteristics which may not have a solidly identified “norm,” but nonetheless have all sorts of social and sexual baggage that we are uncomfortable with and often deal with in the worst ways). However, there does seem to be some statistical association here, whatever the causal relationship is. One hypothesis is that phthalates alter fetal production of testosterone at an important period of development, affecting “brain sexual differentiation.” It’s not so hard to imagine—a year ago I did a post on how certain common chemicals in pregnant mothers seemed to be causing penis deformities in their male children. The culprit there? Phthalates. The women in that story, however, had had exceptionally high exposure to phthalates (their jobs had them in constant contact with phthalate-containing hairspray), so it’s probably not something to lose sleep over, but it’s worth knowing.

And while phthalates aren’t supposed to be in food packaging, the next article I came across (this is an extravaganza, after all) deals with another plastic additive, BPA, that is found in food packaging, and which may also cause some hormone-related havoc.

BPA has come up on Science Buzz before. It’s in all sorts of packaging and bottles (it’s the reason your over protective mother doesn’t want you to use nalgene bottles) and it may affect tissue development, potentially increasing cancer risks.

We don’t care about that, though, right? Sure, cancer is out there, but in the future, not right now, you know? I know. But BPA’s latest appearance in the news may bring some immediacy to the concern over its use. Concern for some people. For men, I mean.

Chemical BPA in workers related to sex problems, says the Washington Post. “Sex problems”? We don’t want those! Chinese men working in a factory that uses BPA were found to have high rates of sexual problems. (I won’t be defining what “sexual problems” are because whatever you just imagined was probably correct.) Now, these guys have BPA levels about 50 times higher than the average American. But, still, something like 90% of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their urine. Again, probably nothing to lose a lot of sleep over, but something worth knowing about. This professor is of the opinion that BPAs should be banned, even though most of us will probably never be exposed to dangerous levels of it, because a) it’s not a natural part of our diet; b) it’s not actually necessary in plastics processing; c) it accumulates in the body, and we still don’t know what level at which it begins to become harmful (ask those Chinese guys); and d) it’d be relatively easy to get it out of the food and water supply, unlike some other potentially harmful chemicals.

Accepting that scientific studies are necessarily very focused to eliminate variables, both of these stories still left me wondering what affect phthalates and BPAs have on women and girls. On one hand, one tries to avoid the mindset that average human physiology=male physiology, but on the other hand it’s usually just males that have penises, making their medical problems a little more hilarious.

There are so many… things out there, and they’re all doing… stuff! Interesting to know.


This animation shows you how viruses trick healthy cells to join the dark side.
What you see in the video actually happens much, much faster in real life — in a fraction of a fraction of a second. So this is a very slow motion version of cellular activity. NPR.org

Oct
20
2009

The first 2009 H1N1 vaccines are starting to arrive in Minnesota. So I'm wondering, will you be vaccinated? How about your kids? A national study out of the University of Michigan says only 40% of parents plan to get their kids vaccinated. Why? I think Michael Specter sums it up best in a New Yorker article:

In fact, the new H1N1 virus is similar to seasonal flu in its severity. In the United States, influenza regularly ranks among the ten leading causes of death, infecting up to twenty per cent of the population. It kills roughly thirty-five thousand Americans every year and sends hundreds of thousands to the hospital. Even relatively mild pandemics, like those of 1957 and 1968, have been health-care disasters: the first killed two million people and the second a million.

We are more fortunate than our predecessors, though. Scientists produced a vaccine rapidly; it will be available within weeks. And, though this H1N1 virus is novel, the vaccine is not. It was made and tested in exactly the same way that flu vaccines are always made and tested. Had this strain of flu emerged just a few months earlier, there would not have been any need for two vaccines this year; 2009 H1N1 would simply have been included as one of the components in the annual vaccine.

Meanwhile, the virus has now appeared in a hundred and ninety-one countries. It has killed almost four thousand people and infected millions of others. The risks are clear and so are the facts. But, while scientists and public-health officials have dealt effectively with the disease, they increasingly confront a different kind of contagion: the spurious alarms spread by those who would make us fear vaccines more than the illnesses they prevent.

I'm planning on getting the vaccine if I can and I'll make sure my kids get the vaccine. It is all about the risk vs. benefit for me. What are your plans and why?

Oct
15
2009

Marie Carmichael Stopes
Marie Carmichael StopesCourtesy Wikimedia Commons
Today is the birthday of Marie Carmichael Stopes, paleobotanist, poet and novelist, and family planning pioneer. Born in Edinburgh in 1880, as a young girl Stopes planned out her adult life in three stages: twenty years would be spent in science, twenty in social projects, and twenty writing poetry. And that’s exactly what she did. Stopes’s accomplishments are remarkable even though they often put her at odds with the institutions and social mores of her time. At 18, she won a science scholarship and attended University College in London receiving early honors in both botany and geology. After graduate studies in Munich she earned her Ph.D in paleobotany. She lectured on the subject at the University of Manchester for seven years. She also published the book Botany: the modern study of plants, and did research on the history of angiosperms and the composition of coal. This won her a grant from the British Royal Society that led to her collecting and studying fossil plants abroad in Japan for eighteen months. All this was done at a time when a woman’s place was definitely thought to be in the home. As an early proponent of birth control and women’s rights, Stopes established Britain’s first birth control clinic in 1921, and authored several books on the subjects of marriage and parenthood. Her best known work, Married Love : A New Contribution to the Solution of the Sex Difficulties, was written while – and probably because - she was still a virgin (she had been married but her husband proved impotent, and their short-lived marriage was supposedly unconsummated). Her second marriage produced one child, a son named Harry born in 1924. As she raised him, she continued her campaign for family planning, writing extensively on the subject. Stopes also founded the Portland Museum in Dorset in 1930, and wrote and published novels, plays, and poems including Love's Creation (1928) and Love Songs for Young Lovers (1938), although these writings never matched the attention garnered by her science and social writings. Marie Stopes died of cancer in 1958 a few days short of her 78th birthday.

LINKS
Marie Stopes, Scientist and Reformer
More about Marie Stopes on BBC.com
Additional info on Marie Stopes
Marie Stopes International organization

Juggling animation: The classic 3-ball cascade
Juggling animation: The classic 3-ball cascadeCourtesy Wikimedia Commons
A new study appearing in the journal Nature Neuroscience explains how learning a new complex visual-motor skill, such as juggling, can lead to a significant change in the brain’s white matter. A team from Oxford's Department of Clinical Neurology did the research. Half of the study’s 24 subjects were trained to juggle in the classic three-ball cascade (see animation). They were also asked to practice the skill each day for 30 minutes. After six weeks, MRI scans revealed that the brains of those who learned to juggle showed a marked change in the white matter, the area responsible for networking the pathways in the brain’s grey matter. This new knowledge could lead to aiding in the treatment of neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis.