Monthly Archives: October 2013

Huntington’s Disease answers from a mouse

iStock_000025371965XSmallThis is a great example of mice providing invaluable information into the understanding of a human disease! By looking at the activity in brain synapses of mice in the early stages of Huntington’s Disease, researchers at Lund University are able start to understand some of the symptoms that affect humans with Huntington’s even before physical symptoms occur.

Using real-time imaging, researchers were able to document the degradation of synapses in mice. Researchers wouldn’t have been able to gain this information from human patients very easily, as the diagnosis of Huntington’s often occurs after significant symptoms have been experienced, and looking at early-stage patients before they know they have the disease isn’t very realistic. By looking at mouse models of the disease and learning how synapses degrade in the very early stages of Huntington’s Disease, researchers can focus on new therapies directed at increasing the lifespan and function of these synapses in an attempt to attack the disease as early as possible.

Research in mice provides hope for parents of preemies

father touching head of a premature baby in incubatorFor parents of premature babies, the most obvious roadblock would seem to be problems with lung function. But a devastating stomach condition called necrotizing enterocolitis, which causes tissue death in the intestine, can affect preemies at about 2 weeks of age and has a mortality rate of about 30%! Necrotizing enterocolitis happens more commonly in formula-fed babies than in breast-fed babies. But recently, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh at UPMC have discovered that adding sodium nitrate (naturally occurring in high levels in breast milk) to formula fed to premature mice lowers the incidence of developing this condition. Sodium nitrate helps to correct blood flow issues that are common in preemies due to higher amounts of specific proteins that cause decreased blood flow and tissue death. This could be a major breakthrough in helping to reduce the risks to premature babies all over the world. Just another example of mice helping to save lives… and precious ones, at that!

Mice give us reasons to avoid added sugar

iStock_000014015871XSmallResearchers at the University of Utah found that when mice were fed a diet where 25% of the calories came from added sugar, the mortality rate of female mice doubled.

Let’s consider the equivalent amount of added sugar in our own diets. “Added sugar” means sugar that comes from processed foods, not sugar that is naturally in non-processed foods like fruit. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take much to add those calories- for a person who normally eats a healthy diet, it is the equivalent of adding three cans of sweetened soda a day. Approximately 13-25% of Americans currently consume a diet with at least 25% added sugar.

The mouse experiments lasted for about 8 months, and 35% of the female mice on sugar-added diets died during that time, in comparison to 17% of the female control mice. (The average mouse lifespan is about two years.) While males on sugar-added diets did not show an increase in mortality rates, they were less dominant and produced 25% fewer offspring than males on the control diet.

As more tests are developed to understand the impact of potential toxins in our food and environment, it wouldn’t be surprising if many of the chemicals and additives we encounter every day are scrutinized further. In the meanwhile, limiting extra sugar might not be a bad idea… just saying.


Sharks may hold the key to breast cancer treatment

Photo from

Photo from

Breast cancer patients could one day be able to credit their survival to SHARKS! It has been known for years that sharks are resistant to cancer, and scientists are very interested in finding ways to understand the mechanisms behind this. Now, researchers are hoping to develop new drugs by using the antibodies found in shark blood!

To sum up the idea, certain molecules (called HER2 and HER3) are found in high levels in breast cancer and sit on the surface of cancer cells and signal them to grow and divide. The antibodies in shark blood have unique properties which could allow them to bind to these molecules and prevent this signaling process from occurring.

This 3-year study in Australia could lead to some interesting results… stay tuned!

Centipede venom as a pain medication?

poison animal centipedeFrom copperhead venom to centipede venom, the applications of poisonous animals in research continues to amaze me. I find it fascinating that we can learn so much from these bizarre and unconventional animals!

It turns out that a component of centipede venom- the same component that centipedes use to paralyze their prey via the blocking of sodium channels- could have real applications as a pain medication that is more efficient than morphine. In mouse studies, it proved to be a more potent pain reliever than morphine, and had no adverse effects on heart rate, blood pressure, or motor function.

While further studies are needed to validate the safety of such a drug for humans, this could have real applications for those who suffer from chronic pain. Maybe these guys aren’t so creepy after all!