Saturday, November 28, 2009

Omnipotent Future

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Stem cells are amazing. They may be controversial, but there is no denying their potential in modern medicine. Even with the US ban on embryonic stem cell research, the breakthroughs have been steady. This is because the other, socially acceptable sources of stem cells - bone marrow and umbilical cord blood - have given researchers plenty of hope for future therapies.

One example is a new finding out of the University of Alberta, which showed that stem cells can help rescue the lungs of premature infant mice. They used adult bone marrow to derive the stem cells, then injected them into the lungs of the baby mice. The mice that had received injections were healthier, lived longer, and showed less damage in their lung tissue.

This technique could make it to clinical trials in humans in the next few years, and potentially eliminate chronic lung disease in prematurely born children. The researchers may also try cord blood-derived stem cells as they may be a better option for human infants.

In fact, cord blood stem cells are now being used to treat over 40 diseases in children, including sickle-cell anemia, cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, and metabolic disorders like Hunter syndrome. This, along with the potential for cord blood stem cells to treat heart disease, stroke, and arthritis in the individual and their family members, is making the harvesting of cord blood a common sense practice.

The future of stem cells truly is...omnipotent.

~Rheanna Sand

Monday, November 23, 2009

LHC - the quiet giant

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Finally, science can proceed without major fear-mongering and cataclysmic predictions. A year ago, when the Large Hadron Collider started up for the first time, there were dire predictions of the entire planet getting swallowed into a large black hole. There were even groups of individuals trying to sue CERN - the organization that built the LHC.

This past weekend, the LHC started up again. And we are still here.

The Large Hadron Collider (if you have been living under a rock for the past year) is a particle accelerator attempting to collide protons to recreate events that occurred immediately after the Big Bang.

If understanding the origins of the universe, mass and quantum mechanics and dark energy wasn't motivation enough to be interested in the LHC....

It is REALLY big... I'm talking the biggest machine on the planet. It is 12 feet in diameter, 17 kms in circumference and passes through parts of France and Switzerland up to 175m underground.

And the experiment has begun, the protons are circulating as we speak - gearing up for a head-on collision that will give researchers the first glimpse at their long-awaited precious data. You can even pretend to be smart by following the progress online.

Its low key start-up has lacked any kind of controversy, which is great; but it also meant that the biggest scientific experiment in the history of mankind barely got any media coverage. At some point, we will realize that reporting science for science's sake is of fundamental importance to our lives. Not just the controversy over bullshit predictions like 2012 and spontaneous black holes.

-- Torah Kachur

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What up, ozone?

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Back in the day, when I was first being indoctrinated with liberal, tree-hugging propaganda, one of the first things I remember worrying my little head about was the giant hole in the ozone layer. In my mind, it was like a hole in an astronauts' face mask, sucking the life right out of our atmosphere.

Now I tend to think of it as a bald spot (equally frightening as an adult) - the lack of ozone allows harmful UVB rays to make it to the Earth's surface, giving us all more sunburns, skin cancer, and cataracts.

So, why do we not hear about the health of the ozone layer these days? Is no news good news?

In this case, yes. According to a 2006 report by the World Meteorological Society, the amount of ozone-depleting gases in the atmosphere is - for the first time since we started paying attention to this problem - decreasing.

What led to this tiny ecological success was a concerted effort called the Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987, which instructed all participating countries to reduce or eliminate the use of ozone-depleting substances.

As if to reward us for good behaviour, the atmosphere seems to be healing itself, slowly but surely. The amount of ozone hasn't yet begun to climb, and in fact the polar regions are still experiencing large ozone deficits, but we have reached a critical point in the recovery process.

If the Montreal Protocol is implemented globally, we should see an increase in atmospheric ozone by mid-century, and a complete recovery to pre-1980 levels by the end of the century.

Just in time for me to shine up my bald spot.

~Rheanna Sand

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Phi: the Golden Ratio

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One of the most mysterious occurrences in the natural world can be summed up in a single number: 1.6180339887.

Granted, it's not the simplest number out there, and it doesn't spell anything funny when you turn it upside down on your calculator (I tried). Mathematically, it occurs when the ratio of two lengths adhere to the following rule:
And while it might seem like a simple mathematical relationship, this number, also called phi (φ), turns up inexplicably in nature.

It's the ratio of your forearm to your hand. Thorax length to abdomen in bees. Seed spirals in flowers, and length to width for a single groove of a DNA helix. The adjacent spirals in a nautilus shell, and the rings of Saturn, and the physics at work in a black hole.

So how or why does this enigmatic number show up in so many evolutionary and physical forms?

One biological theory is that it's the most perfect representation of beauty. And in fact, this is an idea that artists, architects and plastic surgeons have been using for years. Consider Leondardo's Vetruvian man, often viewed as the perfect representation of the human form. Or the fact that a mask constructed of golden ratio features is believed to make the ideal human face.

For me, the existence of Phi is both creepy, and sort of comforting. It's almost as if we're all connected by this bizarre ratio, from the smallest molecules to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. But in the end, try as we might, it's impossible to find a rational explanation for it.

It is an irrational number, after all.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, November 16, 2009

Manly men don't use plastic

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Before you strap on that PVC outfit on a Saturday night - you should know:

Some plastics reduce penis size.

Yes, plastics containing chemicals called phthalates have been shown to cause genital defects in animals and even undescended testicles in boys. The problem: phthalates that can mimic the female sex hormone, estrogen, meaning that if pregnant women are exposed to these chemicals it could lead to their sons being less endowed.

If small penis sizes isn't enough, exposure to certain plastics during pregnancy may cause boys to be more 'feminized' where they are less likely to engage in rougher play, or play with cars, trains and guns.

The culprit: Phthlates called DEHP and DBP are both relatively commonly used chemicals to plastinate products. In particular, DEHP is used in PVC, hydraulic fluid and dialysis tubing while DBP is used in some nail polish and some glues and dyes.

For the most part, regulating bodies are doing their part to eliminate the use of these chemicals. Both the European Union and United States have completely banned the use of DBP in nail polishes. DEHP is banned in the EU for use in toys and the US has banned it for use in many forms of packaging.

In general, most people aren't exposed to lots of these types of chemicals - so no need to stop using plastic. But, if you are pregnant are planning on becoming pregnant - it wouldn't hurt to look into some of your more commonly used plastic products. Because, although penis size 'doesn't matter'.... it does.

-- Torah Kachur

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Not a Flesh EATR

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Nothing will ever be as creepy as the writhing, Japanese-made robot child, but the rumors about the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot come pretty close.

EATR looks like your typical battlebot - it's small, has tracks to move around, and one long arm with pincers on the end. But these little guys have something extra - a hybrid external combustion engine that can convert biomass into electrical energy.

"Biomass," of course, meaning any matter than comes from an organism, living or dead. Which is why some media went a little crazy when news of this robot first emerged. They dubbed it the "flesh-eating robot" and claimed it could feed on human bodies.

The companies involved, Cyclone Power Technologies and Robotic Technology Inc., quickly issued a statement reassuring the public that EATR is a VEGETARIAN. In this case, biomass means strictly plant material. EATR would use its robotic arm to forage for leaves, twigs, or wood chips. It could also burn traditional fuels, like gasoline or kerosene, if it had to.

Or maybe douse you in them, set you afire, and feast on your roasted remains...if you watch certain entertainment news channels, that is.

Do not fear the EATR. Commercializing this technology leads us one more step away from our reliance on fossil fuels for generating electricity. And besides, vegetarians rarely have the strength to put up a fight.

~Rheanna Sand

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Apocalypse of 2012

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According to a conspiracy theory that's coinciding nicely with the release of the big-budget hollywood movie "2012", an ancient Mayan Calendar indicates that the world will come to an end on either Dec. 21 or 23, 2012.

Normally, this wouldn't quite fall into the realm of what rational people call "science." The theory can't even keep straight exactly how the apocalypse will arrive. Some claim a geomagnetic reversal is underway, in which the north and south magnetic poles will flip. Others believe we're going to collide with a planet called "Nibiru" or Planet X, which was allegedly detected by the Sumerians and has been hiding behind the sun for several years, but will soon swoop out and destroy us.

But this weird and intangible theory is somehow gaining popularity, even outside the usual fringe. So much so, in fact, that even NASA has stepped in to debunk it (To summarize, there's no scientific evidence to back up any of the 2012 claims).

So why is this theory so catching? Well for one thing, both the Discovery Channel and the History Channel have been airing programs for the past three years portraying these ideas as scientifically sound.

Now, I understand the need for good ratings; conventional media is undergoing an apocalypse all its own. But when even our "educational" television programs are selling out for the sake of sensationalism, can we really be surprised at the growing mistrust of science by the general public?

Seriously. If you're going to air programs on the approaching doomsday, at least mention that its biggest supporters heard about it from an alien implant in their brain.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Biology of Parenting

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Good parenting handbooks, Oprah, child psychologists...raising kids isn't easy. Bad parenting and neglect can lead to psychological and emotional consequences for the children of unhealthy households. Now, bad parenting can also affect the genetics of the child.

These genetic changes are not changes in the sequence of DNA; the A's, T's, C's and G's that determine much of who we are. The effects of early stresses in life are changes in the epigenome. The epig
enome is how genes are regulated by the proteins that associate and bind to DNA. Epi - means to sit upon - and this level of inheritance is in addition to the sequence of DNA you inherit from your parents. The epigenome is particularily sensitive to environmental changes - toxin exposure, stress and even diet can affect the epigenetics of an individual leading to long-term biological changes.

Research from the Max Planck Institute in Germany found that newborn mice that were stressed during infancy had changes in their gene expression pattern that lasted throughout life. The sequence of DNA didn't change - the epigenetics did.

Infant mice were separated from their mothers for a few hours of the day early on in their lives. This stress made the pups release a chemical that affected the epigenetics of the hormone vasopressin. Its the release of this hormone that led to learning and memory problems later in life for the little mice.

Our DNA can dictate many things about who and what we are, but we are finding that the epigenome is an integral player in our inheritance pattern. And the epigenome merges the environment we create for our kids with their biology. As if we needed another reason to take care of our children.

--Torah Kachur

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Hi-Tech Health Care

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With a speakers list ranging from Deepak Chopra to Steve Wozniak, to Goldie Hawn and David Blaine, the TEDMED 2009 Conference brought together some of the worlds greatest minds to discuss the future of health care technology.

The most interesting innovations didn't come from Hollywood, of course, but from exciting new companies converting research successes into technological marvels.

On the cancer front, the Pink Army Cooperative seeks to destroy breast cancer cells using synthetic, tumour-killing viruses. The viruses will be initially tested on cells taken from a patients' own tumour before being introduced into the body.

Another company, HopeLab, has designed a video game that helps kids respond better to cancer treatments, called Re-Mission. The user plays the role of a nanobot that destroys malignant cells with drugs and radiation.

Wi-Fi gadgets also had a big presence at the conference. The Corventis PiiX monitor sticks to your chest, looks no bigger than a cell phone, but can measure and transmit about a dozen different vital signs at a time. Another device, Zeo, is an alarm clock that records your brain waves as you sleep.

Finally, and most impressively, tissue engineering is moving ahead leaps and bounds. A company called Organogenesis is using sheets of lab-grown tissue to heal difficult wounds like diabetic ulcers. The grafts, shown above, consist of cells grown on a flexible collagen support matrix.

Whole organs are not far off, especially considering the announcement of a potential X-Prize competition dedicated to this end. Perhaps some custom-made hearts and brains are in order for US legislators?

~Rheanna Sand

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How to Beat the H1N1

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What do you get when you combine a newly evolved virus, a shortage of vaccines, and a frenzy of non-stop media coverage? The perfect storm of panic and misinformation that's converged over this year's pandemic-du-jour, the H1N1 flu virus.

And I've got to say, we've run the gamut of pretty much every possible angle on this one. First it was the deadliest virus on earth. Then it turned out it wasn't actually bad at all. Then there was the whole "some people die from it, but we don't know why" slant. And now it turns out there's a fantastic vaccine for it... but we don't have enough to actually give it to anyone but hockey players.

I'll admit, it's been confusing. But through it all, a cohesive picture is beginning to emerge. So here's what we actually know: H1N1 related symptoms are generally mild. As with any flu, some people will die from it, but the vast majority will not (as in 99.9955%). And aside from the vaccine, the best way to beat it is to wash your hands frequently.

But for the people who like to take a more active approach, here's some hot-off-the-press tips that are showing promise.

Number 1: Antioxidants! In additional to the innumerable other benefits of eating antioxidant rich foods (fruit, red wine), it looks like they might also prevent the flu from damaging your lungs.

Number 2: The old flu vaccines. People who've repeatedly gotten the seasonal flu shot over the years are showing some immunity to this one, probably due to the fact that H1N1 is a conglomeration of many different flu strains, some of which have been around for a while.

And finally: coughing in to the crook of your arm. Because failure to do this is proving hazardous to your health in more ways than one.

- Brit Trogen

Monday, November 2, 2009

Nature's Oscar the Grouch

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Humans are dirty, dirty creatures. We have decided that the Earth is our own personal garbage dump - oil spills, nuclear accidents, landfills, CFC, carbon dioxide....and the list goes on.

But Nature is rebounding - bacteria have evolved mechanisms to detoxify and even live on all of these man-made garbage heaps. Scientists are now realizing the power of the natural metabolisms of bacteria to perform something called bioremediation. This strategy uses naturally occuring bacteria to detoxify chemicals such as PCB's, oil spills and other pollutants.

The types of bacteria you may have heard of: Salmonella, E. coli and others usually eat simple compounds like humans do - sugar, protein etc. Other bacteria can eat and grow on chemicals that are toxic to humans and our environment - which means these little bugs can be used to clean up our messes like the Exxon Valdez spill and the thousands of other oil spills left unreported.

There is not one single bacterium that can provide all of the enzymes to degrade a single molecule of oil. So, for every chemical that needs to be degraded, a specific combination of bacterial species must be used. But, if multiple species contribute an individual step in the breakdown pathway, the pollutant can eventually be degraded into a non-toxic molecule. This process is a natural, safe and effective way to detoxifying our environment.

Bioremediation strategies aren't only limited to oil spills - there are bacteria that can survive on and neutralize radioactive material - providing a potential method to clean up sites like Chernobyl and other nuclear accidents. Another pollutant, toluene, can be digested by a genetically engineered organism called Deinococus radiodurans.

Humans manage to destroy nature pretty much constantly, but Nature has evolved remarkable strategies to recover from all of this harm that humans inflict. We are slowly learning of how to use the power of Nature to right our wrongs.

--Torah Kachur