Stories tagged Life Science

Feb
28
2007

New findings by the CDC show that one in four US women between the ages of 14 and 59 may be infected with human papillomavirus (HPV)--a higher rate than previously estimated.

"HPV infection was most common among women aged 20-24. Nearly half of the women in that age group (49%) had HPV infection.

A third of women aged 14-24 had HPV infection. That's nearly 7.5 million -- far more than previous estimates that 4.6 million women in that age range had HPV."

The good news, though, is that the rate of women with strains of HPV linked to various cancers and genital warts was lower than previously estimated.

The new report is sure to fuel debate over the new anti-HPV vaccine, Gardasil.

"HPV vaccine"

"Cervical cancer vaccine recommended for preteens"

"Texas requires cancer vaccine for girls"

Feb
27
2007

With all the buzz in the news about new vaccines and other drugs and whether or not they're properly tested for safety and efficacy, I was totally intrigued with an article in the December 18, 2006, issue of The New Yorker: "The Right to a Trial: Should dying patients have access to experimental drugs?" (Jerome Groopman)

The whole topic was fascinating, but the article included a summary of the F.D.A. approval process:

"Guaranteeing drug safety has been part of the [Food and Drug Administration's] mandate since 1938, when Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act after more than a hundred people died from taking a medicine for strep throat which contained diethylene glycol, an active ingredient in antifreeze. Today, the vast majority of patients with life-threatening diseases are treated with drugs that have been approved by the F.D.A. after a stringent evaluation process designed to insure they are safe and effective. It typically takes a pharmaceutical company six and a half years from the time it discovers a promising molecule to gather enough data to apply to the F.D.A. for permission to test a drug on patients. Completing the clinical trials requires, on average, another seven years: an initial set (Phase I), usually involving fewer than a hundred patients, to determine the maximum tolerated dose and likely side effects; a second set (Phase II), involving several hundred patients, to identify the diseases—or stages of a disease—that are affected by the experimental therapy; and a final set (Phase III), in which the drug is given to several thousand patients and compared with another drug that has already been approved by the F.D.A., or with a placebo. After the trials, the F.D.A. reviews the results and, usually in consultation with an advisory panel of experts, decides whether to approve an experimental drug. Drug companies pay most of the costs of clinical trials, and by the time a drug reaches the market the manufacturer will have spent nearly a billion dollars on its development.

Nearly ninety per cent of drugs that enter Phase I trials are eventually abandoned because they are shown to be unsafe or ineffective. (Last week, Pfizer announced that it was canceling its Phase III trial of torcetrapib, an experimental drug for heart disease, after eighty-two patients in the study died. Pfizer had spent almost a billion dollars on torcetrapib, whihc had shown exceptional promise in earlier trials. 'This drug, if it worked, would probably have been the largest-selling pharmaceutical in history,' Steven E. Nissen, the chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, told the Times.) In the past decade, the number of new drugs approved by the F.D.A. has fallen sharply. According to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, between 1994 and 1997 the agency approved an average of nearly thirty-six new drugs a year, but between 2001 and 2004 the approval rate averaged just twenty-three a year."

It's kind of mind-blowing. And it explains why drug companies do so much lobbying and marketing directly to patients.

I also found a cool article in the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's Regional Review, Quarter I, 2003: "Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Bad." (Carrie Conaway). It's about the development of cholesterol-lowering drugs, which are among the top-sellers in the US, but it touches on the same issues:

"The cost and uncertainty of the drug development process mean that pharmaceutical firms need to receive large returns on any successful drug in order to counterbalance the failures along the way. Yet the products they make, once discovered, are extremely easy for other firms to copy. Without some kind of legal right to the economic returns from their research findings, pharmaceutical companies would have no incentive to develop new drugs—and society would miss out on the new and improved treatments for disease and illness that the companies would discover. To solve this problem, the government grants drug manufacturers patents—short-term monopolies that limit competition and thus help ensure that companies receive a return on their research. But this benefit to inventors comes at a social cost. The shield from competition that patents provide gives manufacturers the economic power to set prices higher than competitive markets would allow, on the very goods that society regards as critically important to make available.

There is no doubt that patents foster innovation, especially for pharmaceuticals. But it is harder to know whether their current structure has struck the right balance between their costs and benefits for society."

What do you think IS the right balance between pharmaceutical costs and their benefits to society? Does FDA licensing make you feel okay about the safety and efficacy of a drug? Do you think that drug prices are fair? What could we do differently?

Feb
24
2007

Mouse embryonic stem cells stained with a fluorescent green marker.: Image courtesy: Niels Geijsen, Massachusetts General Hospital/National Science Foundation
Mouse embryonic stem cells stained with a fluorescent green marker.: Image courtesy: Niels Geijsen, Massachusetts General Hospital/National Science Foundation
Meri Firpo, a former featured Scientist on the Spot, has been accused by a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives of breaking the law. According to Representative Dan Severson (R-Sauk Rapids) a 1973 state statue on human research appears to make the embryonic research that Dr. Fripo conducts illegal. The accusations came as state lawmakers debated in committee funding for embryonic stem cell research.

According to a recent Star Tribune article, “At the Stem Cell Institute, much of Firpo's work takes place within a locked, windowless 250-square-foot lab where every pen, every vial -- even the lab's share of ventilation -- must be carefully documented to ensure that it isn't paid for with federal dollars. The university is scrupulous about not using any of its state funding as well. With a budget of $250,000 scrounged from private donations, Firpo and others hunt for the information that will eventually, they believe, lead to cures for diabetes and other illnesses.”

Many other states, like Wisconsin, support stem cell research with state funding. Minnesota does not. Governor Tim Pawlenty campaigned for reelection as a supporter of stem cell research, but since the election has slid on the issue, and now says he would only support public funding if it did not include destroying embryos. The alternatives he supports, such as research that uses stem cells which are found in adults and in umbilical cords is not generally considered controversial.

As for the stem cells that come from embryos, the embryo is always destroyed in the process of harvesting the stem cells – a method of harvesting stem cells without destroying the embryo has not been developed. Dr. Firpo stated in her Scientist on the Spot feature, “The embryos we used to make human embryonic stem cell lines were from donors undergoing fertility treatments in a clinic. There were two types of embryos donated to my research program. The first (and most common) were those embryos that were discarded because they were determined to be too poor quality to make a woman pregnant. The second source was embryos that were frozen for the donor's use that were good quality, but were not needed for the donor's fertility treatment. The donors choose whether to keep the embryos, donate them or discard them. If they are discarded, they can choose to destroy them or to donate them for research.”

The University of Minnesota’s own Center for Bioethics has some great questions about embryonic stem cells and their use in medical research:

• When does a human embryo become a person?
• Should we use research methods that destroy human embryos to search for new therapies that could help people in the future?
• How far are we as a society willing to go to improve our health and lives?
• Where should the embryos for stem cell research come from?
• Will stem cell research lead to future genetic manipulation of cells? Will we cease to be human if that happens?
• What are we willing to spend on medical research and who should decide what is morally appropriate?

As for the accusations that Firpo’s research is illegal, Firpo states that she has been assured by the University that her research is legal, and that the statue Representative Severson referred to does not apply in this case.

Feb
20
2007

Drugs manufactured in eggs and milk.

Drugs from goat milk
Drugs from goat milk
Farm animals are being modified genetically to produce milk and eggs containing pharmaceuticals. Just after ferilization "Pharmers" insert into the embryo human genes for producing proteins needed to treat humans unable to produce their own. They attach that DNA code with a gene that codes for a sugar found in milk. The therapeutic protein will then be produced within the animals milk.

Pharm animal drug approved

GTC Biotherapeutics anti-clotting agent, ATryn, is the first government-approved drug from transgenic animals. It replaces human protein antithrombin, which helps prevent blood clots that could lead to a stroke or heart attack. About one in every 5,000 people has a genetic deficiency of this protein. One goat can produce a kilogram of antithrombin each year. It would take 50,000 people to donate that same amount.

Chickens can lay medicinal eggs

Chickens can also be modified to produce human proteins in the albumen of their eggs. Origen Therapeutic scientists hope to breed a chicken that will produce the entire range of human antibodies in its eggs.

Source article: Wired.com

Feb
19
2007

Bald eagle: Photo US Geologic Survey
Bald eagle: Photo US Geologic Survey

Ed Contoski has a problem. He wants to sell some of his land in central Minnesota. But a pair of bald eagles are nesting there. The eagles are listed as endangered species by the Fish and Wildlife Service, so the land cannot be developed. Which means no one's going to want to buy it.

The thing is, the bald eagle has recovered pretty nicely in the wild. In the last 40 years, the population has grown from under 500 nesting pairs to over 9,000. President Clinton asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to de-list the eagle in 1999, but they never got around to it. Contoski sued, and the judge ordered FWS to de-list the eagle by February 16, 2007. Recently, FWS asked for more time, and the judge extended the deadline to June 29.

Some people think that FWS, under pressure from environmental groups, is using the Endangered Species Act to stop development, and unfairly deprive a citizen of the use of his land. Others say a decision this important should not be rushed. What do you think? Leave a comment.

Feb
16
2007

For the next four days--February 16 through 19--birdwatchers of all abilities and ages are identifying and counting birds throughout North America. The Great Backyard Bird Count is going on right now, and it's free, easy, takes as little as 15 minutes, and helps the birds.

According to the GBBC website:

"Scientists and bird enthusiasts can learn a lot by knowing where the birds are. Bird populations are dynamic; they are constantly in flux. No single scientist or team of scientists could hope to document the complex distribution and movements of so many species in such a short time.

We need your help. Make sure the birds from your community are well represented in the count. It doesn't matter whether you report the 5 species coming to your backyard feeder or the 75 species you see during a day's outing to a wildlife refuge.

Your counts can help us answer many questions:

  • How will this winter's snow and cold temperatures influence bird populations?
  • Where are winter finches and other “irruptive” species that appear in large numbers during some years but not others?
  • How will the timing of birds’ migrations compare with past years?
  • How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions?
  • What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities versus suburban, rural, and natural areas?
  • Are any birds undergoing worrisome declines that point to the need for conservation attention?
  • Scientists use the counts, along with observations from other citizen-science projects, such as the Christmas Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, and eBird, to give us an immense picture of our winter birds. Each year that these data are collected makes them more meaningful and allows scientists to investigate far-reaching questions."

    Don't know anything about birds? That's OK. The folks at Great Backyard Bird Count can teach you all you need to know. (They have lots of fun games and activities, too.)

    Results of the bird count are constantly being updated. See what's going on in your neck of the woods!

    Feb
    09
    2007

    Race: Are We So Different?
    Race: Are We So Different?
    Race impacts a variety of U.S. institutions and policies, often in ways that are hidden or undetected by popular media. "The Search for Our Ancestors," featuring Professor Kim TallBear, is the second of five public forums that will explore an in-depth understanding of race and its impact on our society. (Live coverage by KFAI Radio.)

    February 22, 2007
    Located in the 3D Cinema
    6:30 to 7 p.m.: Performances
    7 to 9 p.m.: Speaker, respondents, Q&A

    Tickets are $12 per person, and space is limited. To reserve tickets, call 651-221-9444.

    Kim TallBear is Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University and a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate.

    Respondents
    Atum Azzihir: Executive Director, Powderhorn Phillips Cultural Wellness Center
    Cris Stainbrook: President, Indian Land Tenure Foundation

    Jan
    25
    2007

    Cute, fluffy...and deadly?: Photo from Snap!
    Cute, fluffy...and deadly?: Photo from Snap!
    Can you tell I'm not a cat person? ;-)

    Researchers report that bird flu mutates in cats faster than previously thought. Many human diseases originate in other animals, eventually mutating into a form that can infect us. AIDS is believed to have evolved from a similar disease in apes, and various strains of human flu reside in birds and farm animals before mutating and passing on to humans.

    So far, very few people have been infected with "Bird flu" -- it seems to be hard for us to catch in its current form. But if it takes up residence in another mammal, it could mutate into a form that's much more deadly to us.

    In the immortal words of Jan Hobson, it's time to throw your cat away.

    (Kidding!)

    Jan
    17
    2007

    A pod of dolphins is trapped on Long Island: Photo NOAA.
    A pod of dolphins is trapped on Long Island: Photo NOAA.

    Some two dozen dolphins are stranded in a Long Island creek. Experts think the unusually warm weather through mid-January confused the creatures, which usually head out to deeper water in winter. This recalls some stories from last year, when bad weather stranded whales on Cape Cod, and a confused dolphin swam up the Thames River in England.

    Jan
    16
    2007

    It's cold this morning. Maybe the coldest morning of the season so far? Luckily, there's also a lot of sunshine, and almost no wind.

    If it were windy, you'd hear the weather forecasters talking a lot not only about the air temperature (-6 degrees when I left the house), but also about the "wind chill." Wind chill is a way to describe how quickly heat is transferred from your body to the atmosphere when it's both cold and windy outside. As wind increases, more heat is drawn from your body, decreasing your skin temperature and eventually your internal body temperature. Wind chill makes it feel much colder than it actually is.

    Last year, I overheard a woman in the Science Museum parking garage elevator talking about how she parks her car in a sheltered area to protect it from wind chill. She was worried that, if she left it in a more exposed area, it wouldn't start. I can't say anything about the state of her car battery, or condensation on her distributor, but I can say that wind chill has very little impact on cars or any other inanimate objects: wind will shorten the time it takes for an object to cool to the temperature of the surrounding air, but it won't get any colder than that no matter how much wind there is.

    For humans and animals, though, wind chill affects how quickly hypothermia and frostbite can occur. Hypothermia is a condition in which core body temperature has fallen to the point where normal muscle and brain functions are interrupted. (Thor did a post about hypothermia a few weeks ago.) Frostnip/frostbite are conditions in which body tissues freeze. Knowing the wind chill helps us make decisions to avoid these and other cold weather dangers.

    She's got the right idea: Bundle up! (Photo by Yann Richie)
    She's got the right idea: Bundle up! (Photo by Yann Richie)

    The best thing to do when there's a significant wind chill is to stay inside. But you can't stay at home on the sofa all winter. So what can you do? Dress right when you go outside. That means wearing several layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing. (Trapped air between the layers will insulate you and keep you warm.) Stay dry. (Remove layers if need be to avoid sweating and later being wet and cold.) Wear a tightly woven, water repellent, hooded top layer. Cover your mouth to protect your lungs from the cold. Mittens, which allow your fingers to share warmth, are better than gloves. And your mom was right: wear a hat! Half your body heat can be lost from your head.