Stories tagged Life Science


National Sleep Awareness Week® (NSAW), is a public education, information, and awareness campaign that coincides with the return of Daylight Saving Time, the annual "springing forward" of clocks that can cause Americans to lose an hour of sleep.
--NSAW website (

Check out the sleep quizzes, tools and other information on the National Sleep Foundation website.

  • Do you get enough sleep?
  • What are you planning to do to recognize NSAW?
  • Share your sleep strategies with us!

Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century

Want to know what to do with your life. A diverse committee of experts from around the world, at the request of the U.S. National Science Foundation, identified 14 challenges that, if met, would improve how we live.

Here is their list in no particular order. You can learn more about each challenge by clicking on it.

You can vote for which is most important

The committee decided not to rank the challenges. NAE is offering the public an opportunity to vote on which one they think is most important and to provide comments at the Engineering Challenges website


Researchers at Yale School of Medicine developed a blood test with enough sensitivity and specificity to detect early stage ovarian cancer with 99 percent accuracy.

Why is this important?
Ovarian cancer is (from the United States Cancer Statistics):

  • the fifth leading cause of cancer-related death in women in the United States
  • the leading cause of gynecologic cancer deaths
  • one-tenth as common as breast cancer but three times more lethal
  • carries a 1:70 lifetime risk

The high rate of death due to ovarian cancer is a result of the lack of a good screening strategy to detect early stage disease. There is currently no proven screening test for ovarian cancer – no mammogram or Pap smear equivalent. It is this reason that women must become extremely diligent about understanding symptoms and talking with their doctors. Additionally, this makes ovarian cancer difficult to diagnose. The Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance and the Centers for Disease Control have more information about ovarian cancer.

What’s the test?
The researches looked at six different proteins in the blood of 362 healthy controls and 156 newly diagnosed ovarian cancer patients. Four of the proteins are related to the normal physiology of the ovaries and the levels of these proteins are maintained by a delicate balance in the body. They hypothesize that the abnormal or cancer cells alter this delicate balance producing the atypical amounts in the blood. They are not necessarily factors that are produced by the tumor (like the additional two proteins) but represent the body’s response to the cancer. The researchers go on to propose that significant levels of the tumor's products (the additional two proteins studied) could only be detected in the blood at later stages of tumor development. Therefore based on this study the protein panel identified can detect early stages of the disease.

This study was a phase II study – meaning more testing is needed. This test is better then the only currently available test, CA-125. The use of this test will enhance the potential of treating ovarian cancer in its early stages and therefore, increases the successful treatment of the disease (Vistintin et. al. Clin Cancer Res 2008:14(4) February 15, 2008). But it still isn’t good enough to use as screening test for the general population. The researchers for this study have begun a phase III evaluation in a multi-center clinical trial. In collaboration with EDRN/NCI and Laboratories Corporation of America (LabCorp), they are testing close to 2,000 patients (Yale news release).


Do you have a fever and headache? Is your nose running, with a sore throat and dry cough? Are you tired with muscle aches? You might have influenza or “the flu” as we commonly call it. You may have gotten vaccinated and you still got a bad case of the flu. This is one of those influenza seasons where the experts didn’t quite get it right.

So what happened?
Influenza virus is constantly changing and evolving and each year public health experts get together several months in advance (the FDA will make their recommendation for next year’s vaccine on February 21, 2008) of the flu season to choose three strains of influenza to put in the vaccine, H1N1 strain, H3N2 strain and a B virus strain. It is part science and part art. For more information on this process try your hand at predicting the flu using a program developed as part of the Disease Detective exhibition currently at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

According to Dr. Joe Bresee, the Branch Chief, in the branch of Epidemiology and Prevention of the CDC’s Influenza Division, the H1N1 strain in the vaccine this year is a good match to the circulating strain but the H3N2 type strain and the B strain are not ideal matches. So protection is probably lower than expected in a season when vaccine strains and circulating strains are well matched. Usually, the guesswork is pretty good: Bresee has said, the vaccines have been a good match in 16 of the last 19 flu seasons.

Why are people so sick this year?
It just so happens – and we don’t know why – that H3N2 strains of influenza virus are more severe. For this season the number of people infected with H3N2 influenza is on the rise. The past two years the H1N1 strain predominated and so those infected were not as sick.

What are all these H’s and N’s?
Influenza is categorized as influenza A type viruses and influenza B type viruses. The A viruses are further broken down and characterized by the proteins found on the surface of the virus. These proteins are called hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). The proteins change as the influenza virus evolves so numbers are used to designate the different types of H and N proteins.

Remember vaccination is still your best defense against influenza. The experts have been right 16 of the past 19 seasons and as Dr. Bresee reports…

But even in those years where the vaccine matches less well against the circulating strains, we know that getting vaccinated will tend to make the illnesses milder, lessen the chances a person has a very severe outcome.


Roborat 1.0: Future models, I expect, will have teeth. Lots of teeth.
Roborat 1.0: Future models, I expect, will have teeth. Lots of teeth.Courtesy The Weizmann Institute of Science
The way that scientists seem to be able to read my mind, or at least predict the things I’ll want, is frightening to me sometimes. Frightening in the best way, of course, like how a birthday party is frightening.

See, just the other day I was lying on the floor of my room, thinking about rats. I was thinking about how great rats are, and wishing that there was some way to increase the ratty-ness of the world. Because, for all the great things about rats, they still have their drawbacks. Their size, for one—rats can get pretty big, but, in my opinion, not nearly big enough. Also, rats die. Could there possibly be a way, I wondered, there on the floor, to create a rat that can’t die? Maybe a whole race of undying rats? Dreams, I thought, just dreams…

Not so. Scientists have done their thing (science) and created a robotic “whiskered” rat (and remember, robots can’t die, not really). And don’t change your pants just yet, not until you hear this—the robo-rat is also four times the size of a real rat! Where dreams end and reality begins is no longer obvious to me!

The “whiskers” of the robot are intended to allow it to identify objects through touch (an angle largely ignored in robotics). Using this powerful sense, researchers say, “the whiskered robot will be able to quickly locate, identify and capture moving objects.” Wonderful! All that sentence needs is for a “kill” to be inserted, and we’ll have perfection.

Oddly enough, the creation of a giant, blind, robotic rat is not the ultimate goal of this research. By building a robot to that mimics an animal’s senses, scientists hope to learn more about the way the brain processes and interprets data gathered by these senses. The step-by-step construction of this “brain like system” allows scientists to find the most efficient and accurate methods of interpreting sense data, and the result is likely very similar to the brain’s own processes. The results of a project like this one might eventually be applied to the construction of machines, for instance, that could be used “in rescue missions, as well as search missions under conditions of restricted visibility.” Or, ideally, to fill the nights of the future with huge, metal rats.


Since 1998 there has been a serious public health problem in South East Asia of counterfeit antimalarial drugs containing no or minimal amounts of the active antimalarial ingredient, this has led to deaths from untreated malaria, reduced confidence in this vital drug, created large economic losses for the legitimate manufacturers, and led to concerns that this antimalarial drug might cause resistance. As the situation continues to deteriorate, a group of police, criminal analysts, chemists, palynologists (people who study pores, pollen and certain algae), and health workers collaborated to determine the source of these counterfeits.

What did they find?
Red blood cells infected with Plasmodium falciparum: This thin film Giemsa stained micrograph reveals ring-forms, and gametocytes of Plasmodium falciparum.
Red blood cells infected with Plasmodium falciparum: This thin film Giemsa stained micrograph reveals ring-forms, and gametocytes of Plasmodium falciparum.Courtesy cdc
They analyzed a total of 391 samples of genuine and counterfeit artesunate (the anti-malarial drug) collected in Vietnam (75), Cambodia (48), Lao PDR (115), Myanmar (Burma) (137) and the Thai/Myanmar border (16). They found sixteen different fake types of the drug. High-performance liquid chromatography and/or mass spectrometry confirmed that all specimens thought to be counterfeit (195/391, 49.9%) contained no or small quantities of artesunate (up to 12 mg per tablet as opposed to ∼ 50 mg per genuine tablet). Chemical analysis demonstrated a wide diversity of wrong active ingredients, including banned pharmaceuticals, such as metamizole, and safrole, a carcinogen, and raw material for manufacture of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (‘ecstasy'). Evidence from chemical, mineralogical, biological, and packaging analysis suggested that at least some of the counterfeits were manufactured in southeast People's Republic of China. This evidence prompted the Chinese Government to act quickly against the criminal traders with arrests and seizures. Go to PLoS Medicine for the full scientific article and a very well written editor’s summary.

What Do these Findings Mean?
From the PLoS editor’s summary…
The results were crucial in helping the authorities establish the origin of the fake artesunate. For example, the authors identified two regional clusters where the counterfeit tablets appeared to be coming from, thus flagging a potential manufacturing site or distribution network. The presence of wrong active pharmaceutical ingredients (such as the older antimalarial drugs) suggested the counterfeiters had access to a variety of active pharmaceutical ingredients. The presence of safrole, a precursor to the illicit drug ecstasy, suggested the counterfeits may be coming from factories that manufacture ecstasy. And the identification of minerals indigenous to certain regions also helped identify the counterfeits' origin. The researchers concluded that at least some of the counterfeit artesunate was coming from southern China. The Secretary General of INTERPOL presented the findings to the Chinese government, which then carried out a criminal investigation and arrested individuals alleged to have produced and distributed the counterfeit artesunate.
The collaboration between police, public health workers and scientists on combating fake artesunate is unique, and provides a model for others to follow. However, the authors note that substantial capacity in forensic analysis and the infrastructure to support collaborations between these different disciplines are needed.


Last week, I received a forwarded E-mail message from the main museum call center. Ms. Patrice Gitaitis wrote:

"I found your site 'Science Buzz' while searching for information regarding squirrels and their coloring. Your describer is incorrect in the Winter 2005-2006 [phenology] edition when stating that grey squirrels have white ears in winter only in areas where it snows. I am in deep South Georgia and watch the white-eared grey squirrels from my window every day! I will admit this is the first year I have noticed the white ears, but my computer is also in a different space so I can actually see them. This might be an interesting investigation to pursue."

Grey squirrel: Are Buzzers in the south seeing gray squirrels with white ear tufts, or are they seeing fox squirrels? What are you seeing in your neighborhood?
Grey squirrel: Are Buzzers in the south seeing gray squirrels with white ear tufts, or are they seeing fox squirrels? What are you seeing in your neighborhood?Courtesy

So I wrote to Dick Oehlenschlager, our Biology Curator (and the "describer" mentioned above). Oehlenschlager's response?

"This is interesting, but I'm curious if the ears are truly white or pale yellowish buff colored. (Yellowish buff colored ears are found farther south than the fully white ones.) Also, one cannot rule out the transport and release of specimens from outside their normal areas of distribution, with their genetic traits persisting until their death, and with resulting progeny perhaps carrying on the trait."

Hey, buzzers! Are you seeing white-eared squirrels? And where do you live?


Hetero, homo, and 3-way embryo creation

Embryo - 5 weeks
Embryo - 5 weeksCourtesy Ed Uthman
Lesbian couples could one day have children who share both their genes. Karim Nayernia, Professor of Stem Cell Biology at Newcastle University, has applied for ethical approval from the university to use bone marrow stem cells from women to start experiments to derive female sperm.

“I think, in principle, it will be scientifically possible,” Prof Nayernia told New Scientist.

Babies from two men

Other research is setting the stage for a gay man to donate skin cells that could be used to make eggs, which could then be fertilized by his partner’s sperm. A surrogate's uterus would be needed to bring the baby to term.

In Brazil, a team led by Dr Irina Kerkis of the Butantan Institute in Saõ Paulo claims to have made both sperm and eggs from cultures of male mouse embryonic stem cells in the journal Cloning and Stem Cells.

Babies from a man and two women

A whole class of hereditary diseases, including some forms of epilepsy, result from faulty DNA related to mitochondria. Starting with 10 severely abnormal embryos left over from traditional fertility treatment, researchers removed the nucleus, containing DNA from the mother and father, from the embryo, and implanted it into a donor egg whose DNA had been largely removed. The only genetic information remaining from the donor egg was the tiny bit that controls production of mitochondria. The embryos then began to develop normally, but were destroyed within six days.

"We believe that from this work, and work we have done on other animals that in principle we could develop this technique and offer treatment in the forseeable future that will give families some hope of avoiding passing these diseases to their children." said Patrick Chinnery, a member of the Newcastle team.

If you have an opinion on these types of research, feel free to comment.

Read more


There is a disease detective mystery unfolding right here in Minnesota. Two of the project advisors for the Disease Detectives exhibition (Dr. Ruth Lynfield and Dr. Mike Osterholm) are working to discover what causes a strange neurological illness. The medical mystery was recently highlighted in the New York Times and you can find more information on the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) website as well.

The MDH is investigating a cluster of neurological illnesses in workers at a pork slaughtering facility in Austin, Minnesota. To date Minnesota has identified 12 people that share similar symptoms and workplace exposures. The illnesses are characterized by changes in sensation and weakness in the limbs. MDH is working closely with clinicians to identify other possible cases.

It's good to know that Minnesota has one of the strongest health departments and best-equipped laboratories in the country!


Often you read about people afraid or worried about vaccines but a recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that vaccines have decreased hospitalizations and deaths related to the most vaccine-preventable diseases. And occurrences of these diseases are at an all time low. The researchers compared illness and death before and after widespread implementation of national vaccine recommendations for 13 different vaccine-preventable diseases. These include: diphtheria, invasive Haemophilus influenzae type b, hepatitis A, acute hepatitis B, measles, mumps, pertussis, poliomyelitis, rubella, Streptococcus pneumoniae, smallpox, tetanus and varicella. The data showed large reductions in the number of cases after vaccinations were recommended for each of the diseases. For an interesting view of a vaccine life cycle go to this web site

Vaccines changed medicine
(From the Vaccine Education Center)
Official Rubella Fighter: The “rubella umbrella” campaign urged parents to have their children immunized from this viral infection. Rubella, or more commonly referred to as the German measles, is a mild childhood illness that can pose a serious threat to a fetus, if the mother contracts the illness during pregnancy. More than 20,000 babies were born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) during an outbreak of rubella in 1964-65. This epidemic cost the country an estimated $1.5 billion. The rubella vaccine was first licensed in the U.S. in 1969.
Official Rubella Fighter: The “rubella umbrella” campaign urged parents to have their children immunized from this viral infection. Rubella, or more commonly referred to as the German measles, is a mild childhood illness that can pose a serious threat to a fetus, if the mother contracts the illness during pregnancy. More than 20,000 babies were born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) during an outbreak of rubella in 1964-65. This epidemic cost the country an estimated $1.5 billion. The rubella vaccine was first licensed in the U.S. in 1969.Courtesy CDC

Vaccines have literally transformed the landscape of medicine over the course of the 20th century.

Before vaccines, parents in the United States could expect that every year:
• Polio would paralyze 10,000 children.
• Rubella (German measles) would cause birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns.
• Measles would infect about 4 million children, killing 3,000.
• Diphtheria would be one of the most common causes of death in school-aged children.
• A bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) would cause meningitis in 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage.
• Pertussis (whooping cough) would kill thousands of infants.
Vaccines have reduced and, in some cases, eliminated many diseases that killed or severely disabled people just a few generations before. For most Americans today, vaccines are a routine part of healthcare.

However, the disappearance of many childhood diseases has led some parents to question whether vaccines are still necessary. Further, a growing number of parents are concerned that vaccines may actually be the cause of diseases such as autism, hyperactivity, developmental delay, attention deficit disorder, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) among others. These concerns have caused some parents to delay vaccines or withhold them altogether from their children.
For information on vaccine safety go to this page on the CDC website or this page on the Vaccine Education Center website.

How vaccines work
(from the CDC)

Children are born with a full immune system composed of cells, glands, organs, and fluids that are located throughout his or her body to fight invading bacteria and viruses. The immune system recognizes germs that enter the body as "foreign" invaders, or antigens, and produces protein substances called antibodies to fight them. A normal, healthy immune system has the ability to produce millions of these antibodies to defend against thousands of attacks every day, doing it so naturally that people are not even aware they are being attacked and defended so often (Whitney, 1990). Many antibodies disappear once they have destroyed the invading antigens, but the cells involved in antibody production remain and become "memory cells." Memory cells remember the original antigen and then defend against it when the antigen attempts to re-infect a person, even after many decades. This protection is called immunity.
Vaccines contain the same antigens or parts of antigens that cause diseases, but the antigens in vaccines are either killed or greatly weakened. When they are injected into fatty tissue or muscle, vaccine antigens are not strong enough to produce the symptoms and signs of the disease but are strong enough for the immune system to produce antibodies against them (Tortora and Anagnostakos, 1981). The memory cells that remain prevent re-infection when they encounter that disease in the future. Thus, through vaccination, children develop immunity without suffering from the actual diseases that vaccines prevent. But remember…what's in the vaccine is just strong enough to promote the body's response to make antibodies, but much weaker than the viruses or bacteria in their natural, or "wild," states. For another description see this webpage