Wednesday, March 26, 2014

RNS System Gives New Hope to Previously Untreatable Epileptics

Approximately 2.3 million adults in the United States have epilepsy. Most of these people are able to control their epilepsy with drugs, but approximately 1/3 of those afflicted are not helped by epilepsy drugs. Brain surgery to extract the part of the brain responsible for epilepsy can relieve seizures completely, but surgery is only an option if the seizures are coming from one or two specific places in the brain, and if those parts can be removed. If seizures are being caused by the parts of the brain that are essential, such as those related to memory and language, surgery is not an option. Approximately 400,000 have cases which fall into this category.
But, help to some of them is on the way! According to a New York Times article in this week’s Science Times, the Food and Drug Administration has just approved a device, called the RNS System, which is implanted into the brain, and helps reduce the frequency of epilepsy. It consists of a battery-powered stimulator which is implanted in the skull, with connections to the relevant areas of the brain. The RNS System senses and records electrical activity in the brain, and responds by delivering an electric stimulation to the parts of the brain related to epilepsy, so as to interrupt brain activity before the seizures happen.
The RNS is a huge step forward in the treatment of epilepsy. According to the FDA, in the clinical study for the system, patients with the device turned on experienced a 38 percent reduction in the average number of seizures per month. This shows at once its efficacy and its limitations. The RNS will clearly be a huge help to some patients, but not as much for others. Still, it brings hope to the many epileptics who have been struggling for years with their ailment.


New Possible Lung Cancer Vaccine

Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the United States accounting for nearly 1 out of every 4 deaths. Lung cancer accounts for more deaths than any other cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, it is estimated that in 2014 alone about 585,720 Americans are expected to die of cancer, a rate of almost 1,600 people per day. Of these people, lung cancer is estimated to account for about 27% of all cancer expected. The point of these statistics is not to scare you, it is to show the prevalence of cancer in our nation. As a biologist, one has a duty to use their knowledge and contribute to research in order to answer some of the many unsolved questions in science today, such as how to cure cancer. Fortunately, a new study published in the Cancer Immunology Research journal showed that a tecemotide vaccine designed to boost the immune system decreased the amount of lung tumors in mice versus ones who received only the conventional treatment.

The tecemotide vaccine used in the study targets the protein MUC1. This protein typically binds pathogens before they can infect the cell with the help of killer T-lymphocytes. The vaccine helps to lower the defenses of tumor cells and boost the immune system's natural process of stopping tumor formation. When cancer tumors form, cells proliferate at an uncontrolled pace. The cells become mutated causing proteins to be over-expressed and normal tumor defense mechanisms (such as apoptosis) are absent. Cancer cells can then be immune to chemotherapy drugs and the body's natural defense mechanisms. The vaccine aimed to change this.  
The conventional treatment options for lung cancer include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted drugs. Surgery is usually the treatment of choice, but once the lung cancer reaches stage III, surgery on the tumor can no longer be performed. Even those who detect the cancer during the first stage, chances are only 49% will survive. Also, treatments like chemotherapy weaken the immune system. Therefore, normal treatment in conjunction with this promising new tecemotide vaccine can possibly reduce the number of tumors than with traditional treatment alone.

The longterm goal for researching cancer is to find a cure, not just treatments. The closer we get through new and innovative ways of prevention and treatment, the more clues biologists obtain in order to answer the many mysteries of oncological science. Since the dawn of cellular and oncological research, improvements in survival rates have been significant. The 5-year relative survival rate for all cancer diagnosed from 2003-2009 was recorded at 68% - a 19% increase in about 30 years. This improvement is a direct result of gaining knowledge from research in treatment as well as early detection. The more we know, the better off all people are. Therefore, keep asking questions, keep researching, and we can find a cure.  "Because everyone deserves a lifetime."

Original Article:

Posted by: Nicole Boisvert (7)

Shrinking Salamanders

The global warming climate has dramatically changed salamanders body size and has threatened their future. Salamanders in the southern Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia have gotten smaller over the past 50 years due to this climate change. Over the past decade, scientists have observed and documented the decline in salamander body size. Karen Lips, a biologist at University of Maryland wanted to determine the reasoning behind the dropping body size. Lips and her colleagues analyzed more than 9000 salamanders. The salamanders collected after 1980 were 8% smaller than those from decades past. The trend was most prominent in the places that had dramatic temperature increases. According to Lips, salamanders are very sensitive to changes in their surrounding environment because of the way they breathe through the skin. So when there's a temperature increase, their metabolism to increase and causes them to lose more calories and shrink.

Posted by Chelcie C.

African Lions Movement on Home Ranges

The home range of an animal, that area which an animal traverses and in which it exists, may seem simple from afar to discern, yet holds mysteries for many species. One species may be contained in a home range that is dependent or independent upon other species or even its own species in a specific environment.
Panthera leo, or African lions have a home range that overlap, yet the reasoning has not always been certain. Benhamou et al studied the interactions of lions as they moved independently of each other, jointly, or in avoidance of each other as a way to study the home range overlaps.  The goal of these researchers was to uncover the interactions within and layout of home ranges of the lions and see how it might apply to the known behavior of this species.  
 File:Lion waiting in Namibia.jpg
Using GPS tracking of 55 lions, the researchers monitored the lions in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe over 7000 km².  The main focus was to study the lions in a specific space and a specific time, so that not only their home ranges would be detected, but that their interactions could be adequately measured.  It was found that for the most part, except for one scenario of avoidance, most of the lions tended to move independently of each other.  Sometimes, the lions would move their home ranges such that they did not overlap.  However, the researchers reported that the overlapping of lions was somewhat common, which also assists the findings that the lions often move independently of one another in their home ranges.

Benhamou et al suggests that more research be completed that relates to not only the distance traveled and proximity of the creatures, but also the direction being traveled, so that a better understanding of the entire process of home range can be brought to light.  It seems that mating, territory, pride, biological relation, and even previous competitions between the lions, among other factors, contribute to the independent nature of the multitude of these lions’ interactions.

Posted by Michael Dailing (A-week 1)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Ebola in North America?

Ebola is one of the most virulent and deadly viruses known to mankind. The disease is caused by the  Filoviridae virus family, and there are five subtypes of the disease, four of which are known to causes disease in humans. Ebola causes a hemorrhagic fever, which includes mild symptoms including headache, fatigue, chills, diarrhea, fever, sweating, nausea, vomiting, and body aches. The deadly symptoms include severe bleeding from the eyes, ears, mouth, nose, anus, high fever, low blood pressure, and shock. The fatality rate for those infected can be as high as 90%.

An electron microscope image of the Ebola virus
Ebola Virus. Credit

Recently there has been panic over a man who displayed hemorrhagic fever symptoms in Canada. The man had returned from a trip to Africa, where there have been recent outbreaks in countries such as The Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, and Uganda. He is currently in isolation, and has thankfully been deemed clear of the Ebola virus. According to some sources, the man had been in Liberia, where families of recent Guinea victims resided. The close connection between these family members and the diseased victims is only one piece of evidence which made healthcare officials suspicious of Ebola being the cause of the Canada man's symptoms.

It is not uncommon for the virus to spread from the corpses of victims to the living. Without proper protection the virus can easily spread through blood or other body fluids, and since one of the symptoms of the virus is profuse bleeding it is easy to imagine how readily this disease spreads. Unfortunately the virus can strike very rapidly, killing its victims within days. This gives healthcare officials very little time to contain and quarantine affected areas.

Along with trying to contain these deadly outbreaks I think it is important to try to provide sanitation equipment to high risk areas. Africa is often neglected and dismissed by the Western world, and too often crises like this are ignored until they pose a direct threat to us. (It wasn't until there was a probable case in Canada that news stations like Fox News, CNN, and BBC picked up the story.) Instead of ignoring the problem, providing basic safety equipment like gloves could prevent the spread of this disease and save many lives.

(Posted By Tim Daly) (Week 1)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Losing Constellations of Sea Stars

                In most environments that starfish are involved in they happen to be a keystone species, which is a species that the food web there is dependent on, without that species prey would explode and their predators were struggle to find a new means of food source; only a few are needed to make a weighty impression and alteration to the ecosystem. Throughout the west coast of North America this keystone species has been dying at a startling rate. A tragic and brutal seeming disease has killed millions of these creatures from Alaska down to California just since the beginning of June 2013. This disease causes the starfish’s legs to fall off and their internal organs to spill out into the ocean, this is occurring with both wild and captive starfish. The director of the US Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center, Jonathan Sleeman, has tentatively named this disease “Starfish Wasting Syndrome”.

                Starfish emerged at approximately the same time frame that sharks did, 450 million years ago. Since then 1500 different species of echinoderms have been identified, but only two of which have been predominately affected by this lethal disease: the purple sea star (Pisaster ochraceus) and the sunflower sea star (Pycnopodia helianthoides). These species are some of the many that can regenerate their arms if they happen to become detached, but once infected with this disease it is not possible because death occurs so quickly. Immediately after a starfish is infected, its arms will break out in white lesions which will spread and result the arms to deform and lead to them falling off, due to the limbs breaking off, the body of the starfish loses its integrity and releases its internal organs, which this the ultimate end to the organism. Once signs of the infection occur, there is a 95% chance that the echinoderm will die, and that will occur in the following few days.

                A small population was infected on the east coast but never managed to spread along the coastline, miraculously. This disease is baffling and beating biologist across the board, whom are sampling and analyzing the two species to determine the cause, but so far to no avail. The current hypothesis rests on pollutants or an infection; an infection from a microorganism such as a virus or parasite is what they are currently leaning towards, but are yet to have any solid backing.

                                Starfish are similar to coral, in that they are highly sensitive and susceptible to changes in the water temperature and climate fluctuations, but for starfish that only tends to kill small populations. Warming waters has never produced deaths on this scale before; prior die-offs had easily identifiable causes and affected a fraction of the number of starfish that were lost last summer.  Without these keystone species both warm and cold water ecosystems are prone to suffer and potentially collapse, as will our various fishing industries that are dependent on them.

Nicole Peterkin (6)

“Let’s get Physical”: The Physiological Effects of Sex on the Human Heart

Heart Disease is the number one killer of Americans; accounting for more than 600,000 deaths in the U.S annually. It will be responsible for one in four deaths this year.  Therefore the quest for preventative activities to lower the risk of heart disease is of much interest in the medical field. Recently the effects of sexual arousal and intercourse on the cardiovascular system have become topics for further investigation. 
Although most studies up to date have been performed on men, it has been confirmed that men and women’s physiological responses to sexual activity are similar enough for results to be applicable to both sexes.  The results of numerous studies have suggestedthat sex is indeed the answer to a healthier heart! Having sex three or more times a week has been found to result in an average of a seven year increase in a person’s lifespan. Such astonishing evidence relating one’s sex life with their heart health from research conducted has engendered doctors to begin asking patients about their sex lives, sexual interest and activities to get clues about their cardiovascular condition and related risks. Not only does an active sex life indicate a healthy heart, but some researchers also think that erectile dysfunction may warn of a heart attack up to five years in advance!
So what are the physiological effects that sex have on the heart that make it so beneficial? Sex increases blood circulation to the heart! In fact, during sex aperson’s heartbeat rises from 70 to 150 beats per minute on average (varying from person to person based on their physical fitness). During foreplay, systolic and diastolic systemic arterial blood pressure and heart rate increase mildly. This is followed by even greater increases during sexual arousal, with the greatest increase occurring during the 10 to 15 seconds of orgasm. Finally there is a rapid return to baseline systemic blood pressure and heart rate after sex. These physiological effects are deemed comparable of mild to moderate physical activity in the range of 3 to 5 metabolic equivalent; where 1 MET is the equivalent of climbing 2 flights of stairs or walking briskly for a short duration of time). Sex is effective in lowering blood pressure and thusreducing the risk of heart attack. High blood pressure is actually the number one risk factor for congestive heart failure, a serious heart condition when the heart is unable to pump enough blood to supply the body’s needs. In fact according to Susan A. Hall, PhD at the department of epidemiology at the NewEngland Research Institute, “men who reported that they had sex once per month or less were at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease (45% higher risk) than men who had sex twice or more per week, indicating having sex on a regular basis creates a protective factor regarding heart health.”

Even without climaxing, just being aroused can trigger your brain to release hormones such as dehydro-epiandrosterone (DHEA), which improves circulatory function and boosts cardiac performance. A modest daily supply of DHEA has even been found effective to reduce blood glucose levels in a recent study in Japan. In women, an increase in the hormone estrogen during intercourse protects against heart disease also. Of course, it is important to practice safe sex, and it is found that having sex with an intimate partner has superior results. Regardless, the evidence is undeniable; sex promotes heart health! 
Posted by Kristen Whitehead (6)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Peeing in the Pool is Bad?

A new study suggests peeing in pools is actually a bad thing.  I know what you’re probably thinking; scientists had to conduct a study to figure this out?  Well, a study published in Environmental Science and Technology shows that while peeing in the pool is a disgusting and unhygienic habit it also causes less than healthy reactions that can have harmful effects on our bodies.
            The real problem with this action is caused when the uric acid, a byproduct of pee, combines with chlorine in the pool.  When these two products react and combine a harmful gas called cyanogen chloride can be yielded.  This gas, when inhaled, can cause harm to the central nervous system, heart, and lungs.  Along with this byproduct, the harmful gas trichloramine also has the potential to be yielded due to reaction with uric acid.  Both of these gases have been linked to acute and chronic lung problems and other health problems in swimmers.
            This problem may seem redundant, but with 1 in 5 Americans admitting to peeing in pools this problem may hang around.  Jing Li a professor of applied chemistry at China Agricultural University that while increasing the amount of chlorine in the water will help, the most surefire way of riding this problem is to stop peeing in pools altogether.  So, next time you’re thinking about peeing in a public pool or even your own, think twice.  Or just get out like the 80% of Americans that would rather not swim in another persons pee.

Alex Sroczynski (6)

Silicon in Beer

A study done by researchers from the Department of Food Science & Technology at the University of California, Davis suggests that beer is a significant source of dietary silicon, a key ingredient for increasing bone mineral density. They studied commercial beer production to determine the relationship between certain beer production methods and their resulting silicon content.
Silicon is present in beer in the soluble form of orthosilicic acid (OSA) and according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), dietary silicon (Si), as soluble OSA, may be important for the growth and development of bone and connective tissue. More so in men than women, beer appears to be a major contributor to Si intake in the Western society. Based on these findings, some studies suggest moderate beer consumption may help fight osteoporosis.
The researchers examined a variety of raw material samples and found little change in the silicon content of barley during the malting process. The study states that "The malts with the higher silicon contents were pale colored which had less heat stress during the malting process. The darker products, such as the chocolate, roasted barley and black malt, all had substantial roasting and much lower silicon contents than the other malts". They also analyzed hop samples, which showed surprisingly high levels of silicon with as much as four times more silicon than was found in malt. However, hops are used in a much smaller quantity than is grain.
The study also tested 100 commercial beers for silicon content and categorized the data according to beer style and source. The average silicon content of the beers sampled was 6.4 to 56.5 mg/L and the average intake of silicon in the Western population is 20-50 mg Si/day.
It’s great to see benefits from alcohol, especially beer, because of how prevalent it is in our society. People will always consume alcohol and though it has a pretty negative connotation, its nice to see a positive aspect.

Posted by Samuel Ustayev (6)

To Follow the "5 Second Rule" or Not?

I'm sure most of you are aware of the "5 second rule". The rule that states that food dropped on the ground will still be safe to eat if is picked up within five seconds of being dropped. So is this rule safe to follow?

Biology students and their professor Anthony Hilton monitored the transfer of the common bacteria, Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Staphylococcus aureus from different indoor floor surfaces to food items like pasta, biscuits, and sweets. The different indoor floors include tiles, laminated, and carpeted surfaces. They measured the amount of bacteria transferred from the floor to the food from 3 to 30 seconds. The result showed that time was a very important factor on the amount of bacteria transferred. The less time the food was in contact with the floor, the less bacteria it contained. They also found that what type of floor the food dropped on mattered as well. Bacteria was found to be easiest transferred from laminate and tiled surfaces compared to carpeted surfaces. 

The study also found that 87% of people surveyed would eat food dropped on the floor, 55% of those that would were women, and of those woman 81% follow the 5 second rule. The "5 second rule" that we have been following as a child may actually be reliable and safe after all. So go ahead and eat that piece of food you dropped, just make sure it's within 5 seconds of touching the floor. 

Posted by Amber Vien (6) 

Can the Blind "Hear" Colors, Shapes? Yes, Shows Researchers

An article in the Science Daily has opened up a whole new door for those who have a loss of vision. Research conducted by Professor Amir Amendi at the Center for Human Perception and Cognition, has given some hope for the visually impaired by using Sensory Substitution Devices (SSDs) which are sensory aids that provide the blind with visual info by utilizing their other existing senses. The blind wear a mini camera on their head which is connected to a computer or a smart phone and also to headphones. the computer or smart phone then uses the images recorded by the camera and converts them into "soundscapes," based on a basic algorithm, thus allowing the individual to hear the "soundscapes" and interpret the image captured by the camera. The app EyeMusic SSD enables the individual to hear pleasant musical notes that suggest information about colors, shapes or location of objects in the environment. This task involves prior training before being able to identify and interpret the information that is given. In Scientific journals, Neuron and Current Biology, this app was used by the blind to show that it can convey images from the sounds they hear into complicated categories such as identifying faces, or an entire outdoor scenery, locate positions of people, and even recognize facial expressions and read letters. This YouTube video demonstrates these abilities. Although this instrument had not been widely used by the blind population due to various factors such as price, size of equipment, etc. Things have been improved by reducing the cost and making SSD usable even in a smart phone and new trainings that are more efficient in order to get this into the population and to start using it more in day-to-day lives.

Posted by: Jefi Varghese (3)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Preschoolers Smarter Than College Students?

A new study out of the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Edinburgh claims that preschoolers can be smarter than college students at figuring out how unusual toys and gadgets work because “they’re more flexible and less biased than adults in their ideas about cause and effect…”.  Researchers said that technology and innovation could benefit from skills that come naturally to young children, such as exploratory learning and reasoning skills.

The researchers, whose paper was published in the online journal Cognition, used a game called “Blickets” and compared the ways in which 106 preschoolers between the ages of 4 and 5 and 170 college undergrads figured out which clay shapes lit up a box and played music when they were placed on top of the box (either individually or in some combination).

The research showed that the difference between the problem solving skills of the two age groups was the young children’s response to the changing evidence in the blicket demonstrations.  They were more apt at picking up the fact that unusual combinations could be successful, while adults mainly focused on which individual blocks would do the same thing.  “…the best and brightest students acted as if the machine would always follow the common and obvious rule, even when we showed them that it might work differently” (Alison Gopnik, senior author of the Cognition paper).

The fact that the children were more likely to entertain unlikely possibilities to figure out the problem confirmed the researcher’s hypothesis that children this age follow Bayesian Logic, a statistical model that draws inferences by calculating the probability of possible outcomes.  The researchers were in unanimity that children have a lot that they can teach us (researchers and students alike) about learning.

Posted by: Taylor Schille (6)

Centipede Venom Replacing Morphine?

Morphine is a very useful, necessary substance for providing pain relief to thousands of individuals across the world that are either hospitalized, or even suffering severe chronic pain in their homes. However, morphine is an opioid, much like an opiate, coming from the opium plant that heroin is also made from. Drugs like heroin and morphine block receptors key to feeling pain, and so while morphine certainly does the job, it can and generally does become addictive.

A peptide from the venom of a Chinese redheaded centipede (shown left) is meant to paralyze prey, but luckily humans have different voltage-gated sodium channels (or Nav's) than insects, the usual prey of these centipedes. This specific peptide (called Ssm6a) targets the Nav that the researchers are interested in, Nav1.7, which is critical for the electrical signaling pathway of pain. Using this peptide to interrupt the pathway could reduce if not eliminate pain. Since the peptide is not blocking receptors, researcher Glenn King from the University of Queensland says that he doubts addiction or even tolerance would become an issue.

Trials on mice have shown hope for the use of centipede venom for pain suppression in humans. Mice injected with Ssm6a showed equal or better response for pain suppression, and had no negative side effects. This could potentially help almost 20% of the total population, who experiences chronic pain, without the concern for such drastic addictions.

Posted by Steven Yu (6)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Blood Battles

A bacteria is sauntering around an organism, ready to attack and wreak havoc, but what's that? A chemical comes and traps the bacteria in this big sticky-like goo. Now what I described was not something in a sci-fi novel, but actually something that scientists do today and it comes from an unlikely source, the horseshoe crab Limulus polyphemus. This crab which if encountered by a human in a shoreline would be probably ignored, has special blood that makes it a supreme bacteria killer.

In an article from The Atlantic, it talks about the medicinal benefits of extracting the blood from the horseshoe crabs. How it works is that a particular chemical called coagulogen is contained in the amoebocytes of the crabs blood cells. This chemical can detect traces of bacteria and then trap it in something that scientist Fred Bang coined as a “gel”. How scientists use it is effectively in the same vein, they take the coagulogen chemical and put it in a solution containing bacteria. If it did not have bacteria then no gel substance would be formed and one would know the solution contained no bacteria. This test, which is called Limulus amebocyte lysate test, or LAL for short is actually used for detecting contaminated substances. The PBS documentary Nature actually said “Every drug certified by the FDA must be tested using LAL, as do surgical implants such as pacemakers and prosthetic devices.”

Yet, with anything in this world, there are drawbacks. Millions of horseshoe crabs must be used to get tons of their blood. The horseshoe crabs don’t die though, but the blood draining has long term effects. A research done and published in The Biological Bulletin points out that female horseshoe crabs that have been bled are lethargic and slow and less likely return to the shoreline where they were found. This is significant because females mate near the shoreline but now do not possess the vitality to make the trip and this reduces chances to mate.

Biomedical research is accelerating at a blistering pace, as shown by the miracle which is the blood of horseshoe crabs. While benefitting the human race, we must also understand the effects it has on the species we use, making this not just a biomedical issue, but an ecological one as well.

Posted by Jacob Geier (5-B)