Monthly Archives: December 2013

Polar bear pregnancy test- from a beagle!

iStock_000002835475XSmallDogs giving pregnancy test results that rival over-the-counter accuracy? Yes! Keepers at the Cincinnati Zoo are working with a beagle named Elvis to determine polar bear pregnancy. Veterinarians found that ultrasound and progesterone monitoring are unreliable in determining pregnancy in these animals, so they turned to another option- and Elvis is pretty accurate!

Trained dogs are becoming more and more popular for medical applications. In addition to detecting the onset of seizures and variations in blood sugar levels, dogs have also been used to detect cancer- see an earlier post about dogs detecting ovarian cancer here:

Elvis is showing about 97% accuracy in determining pregnancy after sniffing fecal samples (pretty close to over-the-counter pregnancy tests for humans)! Earlier this year, his trainers were using samples from previously pregnant polar bears, so it will be interesting to see if Elvis’s predictions regarding this year’s potential moms are correct.

This is the first time that sniffer dogs are being used in biomedical research in wildlife species, and the applications are interesting- could sniffer dogs help researchers determine the reproductive health of other animals, both in captivity and in the wild? Read about it here:

Sea turtles and climate change: a new understanding

iStock_000007256605XSmallClimate changes definitely have an effect on loggerhead sea turtle populations- but for different reasons than researchers earlier suspected.

Earlier studies suggested that climate changes impacted hatchling survival. But new research shows that climate changes affect sea turtles in a different way. When climate changes affect turtles’ foraging areas in the year or two before their nesting years, breeding females aren’t able to reproduce successfully… thus, fewer nests.

Sea turtles can have extremely long lifespans. Unfortunately, less than .2% of hatchlings survive to breeding age. But those that do survive to breeding age (approximately 31 years) can have a successful breeding lifetime of over 25 years!

This study suggests that protecting juveniles and adults should be a higher priority than hatchlings. Not to say that protecting nests and hatchlings isn’t important, but since so few hatchlings survive, efforts should be focused on protecting the ones who do make it closer to breeding age in order to help the species more effectively.

These research studies are important because they give scientists clues as to how to channel conservation efforts. Check out this link for more information:

Dogs REDUCE the risk of allergies??

iStock_000013017692XSmallIt sounds strange… but it’s possible that buying your baby a puppy might be a GOOD idea. Let me explain.

The dust in your house consists of dead skin cells, decomposing insects, fibers from clothes and other fabrics, dirt and plant debris from outdoors, bacteria, pet dander, and a lot of other stuff that you probably don’t want to know about. Another fun fact: the microbes found in household dust usually correspond to the microbes found in the homeowners’ guts. Gross, right?

Well, microbes in your gut can influence your immune system. And research has shown that owning pets increases the diversity of the bacteria found in your household dust. (Not surprising.) But when researchers at UC San Francisco fed this bacteria-rich dust to mice, they found that the mice that ingested the “dog dust” were less likely to have allergic reactions than mice that ingested bacteria found in a non-pet home.

So far, it seems that the protective effects have their greatest impact on young offspring- especially newborns. If these new findings are confirmed in humans, this could help researchers in the development of probiotics for infants that could potentially reduce the risk of allergies later in life. But as this isn’t the first study showing a correlation between animal exposure early in life and reduced sensitivity to allergens, that puppy doesn’t sound like such a bad idea! Read more:–Dust-Microbes–and-Allergies/

‘Twas the night before Christmas…

christmas candle google freeWhile we rush around, doing our last-minute shopping, it’s easy to get lost in the rush. This time of year is about family and friends and being thankful for everything you’ve been blessed with. Regardless of what holiday you’re celebrating this season, take some time to think about what matters most to you. 

As you finish your wrapping and cooking and cleaning, please also think about the people who aren’t as fortunate as you are today. There are families- right this very second- who are standing by a loved one and hoping that they won’t die tonight. A little girl in Pennsylvania is fighting a battle with leukemia- and losing. An infant girl in Washington is going to be taken off ECMO to see if her body can fight for itself. And some parents will be leaving the hospital to come home… without their child.

It’s hard to think about having to deal with any of these things. It would be really nice if everyone could be with their families and open presents and watch their kids light up with excitement- but that won’t happen for everyone.

Be thankful for your family, your health, and your friends- because you never know what tomorrow could bring. And when you hear about the families who feel like they have nothing to celebrate this holiday season, don’t stop listening to their stories- instead, DO something. Sign up to donate blood. Volunteer at a local shelter. Donate toys and crayons and coloring books to your local children’s hospital. Participate in a fundraising activity to raise awareness of that disease. Make a donation to research in that child’s honor. DO something!

While research has certainly given us countless medical advances over the last several decades, we still have a long way to go. Until everyone can be home for the holidays with their healthy, happy loved ones, we still have a long way to go.

Happy holidays- and I hope that you are able to find happiness, hope, and peace this holiday season.

Leukemia treatment WORKS on “incurable” patients!

Leukemia medical posterA novel treatment proves successful in patients with INCURABLE cases of leukemia! 59 patients who had exhausted all other treatment options were treated with a new therapy at UPenn. Out of 32 adult patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), 15 responded to the treatment and 7 experienced complete remissions. All of the 5 first adult patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) experienced complete remissions!

But the most amazing results were seen in pediatric cancer patients! Out of 22 patients with ALL, 80% experienced complete remissions! And keep in mind- these were all patients whose cancer was completely resistant to all other types of chemotherapy and who would have died.

Here’s how it works: T-cells are collected from the patient and are then genetically modified so that they target tumor cells. These modified T-cells are then infused back into the patient, where they begin to do their jobs. Because the T-cells are made to target only the proteins expressed on cancer cells, normal cells are left alone. And these T-cells remain in the body, protecting patients from relapse! (Check out link below for details.)

Please take a minute and watch the videos in the below links- definitely worth your time! Amazing what research can do!–leukemia-treatment-518050547–leukemia-treatment-518050547

Alzheimer’s clues from a sleeping baby

close-up portrait of a beautiful sleeping baby on whiteAlzheimer’s clues from a sleeping baby? Sounds a little strange… but read on. Researchers at Brown University imaged the brains of 162 healthy, sleeping babies. Out of these infants, DNA testing showed that 60 had a specific gene variant (APOE ε4) that has been linked to an increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease. And imaging results showed that the brains of babies with this gene variant developed differently than those without it!

Before you worry about these babies, don’t- doctors aren’t assuming that babies with this variant will develop Alzheimer’s. About 25% of the U.S. population carries the APOE ε4 variant, and not everyone who has it will develop the disease- it plays other roles in blood and brain development as well, but is not fully understood. But about 60% of people who develop Alzheimer’s have at least one copy of the gene, so looking at early brain changes in healthy babies with the variant could really help researchers understand how this gene is associated with increased risk for the disease.

Rodents are often used in Alzheimer’s studies, because their generation times are so short that an animal can be followed from birth through adulthood in a matter of months. Hopefully, with the combination of human and animal studies, researchers can use this information to learn more about the gene’s role in predisposition to Alzheimer’s.

Antibiotics… and the people who forget to take them

iStock_000009533761XSmallAntibiotic resistance occurs when antibiotics stop working against certain bacteria. If you’re prescribed antibiotics, and you take your medication until you feel better but just toss those last few pills, it’s likely that you haven’t gotten rid of all of the bacteria that caused your illness in the first place. Those that are left are now more resistant to your particular antibiotic. And when these resistant bacteria start spreading to other people, it can cause serious problems.

Antibiotic resistance is partly due to overuse and misuse of antibiotics. And it’s not just the bacteria to blame! We all know that most humans are pretty crappy at following directions, so it’s not surprising that antibiotic misuse is so common.

Researchers are working on the problem. By combining antibiotics with different compounds that could increase their effectiveness, it’s likely that these new combinations will be able to knock out disease-causing bacteria more effectively. And by using genetic sequencing techniques (that were developed through animal research) to understand the bacteria in question, scientists can develop drugs more efficiently and possibly learn how to neutralize bacteria in different ways. Read more here:

Zombie starfish and the researchers trying to save them

iStock starfishZombie starfish? Not what you’d expect to see on the California coast- but descriptions of this massive, unknown outbreak refer to a “zombie wasteland” and starfish with ”detached arms crawling away from their bodies.” An unknown wasting disease is turning starfish into goo, literally within hours, and is now affecting multiple species of sea stars, sea urchins, and lobsters. And this isn’t the first time this has happened- outbreaks in 1983 and 1997 were similar to this one, but nowhere near as extensive.

The big question: Why? What’s causing this, and what can researchers do to stop it?

By working to map this disease along the Pacific coast, researchers are hoping to find some clues as to the disease’s origins. As this is a pretty extensive project, reports from local citizens are also important in data collection- talk about collaborative research!

The most likely culprits at this point are low oxygen levels in the water and warmer temperatures, but further research will hopefully give researchers some clues as to the exact cause of the disease and how it spreads.


Pregnancy diets… for prospective fathers?!

If you have kids, you know that as soon as a woman becomes pregnant (or begins to try to conceive), there are lists and lists of recommendations- from avoiding medications to diet changes to exercise suggestions. And the father is left with the trying task of finishing up the sugary, fried and processed foods left in the kitchen… thanks, guys, way to take one for the team. But now, recent research is looking a little more closely at diets of prospective fathers- and it might be a good idea for wanna-be dads to cut out junk food and add veggies high in folate (such as spinach, sprouts and broccoli), just like Mom.

A recent study published in Nature Communications found that folate levels are linked to changes in sperm DNA. Chemical changes in DNA that are known to be associated with the development of cancer were also seen. Studies in mice showed that mouse pups whose fathers lacked folate in their diets had nearly ten times more abnormalities compared to pups whose fathers ate their veggies.

So if you’re ready to start a family, changing your diet towards healthier eating habits certainly wouldn’t hurt- and moms, make sure that Dad joins you!

Eye medications dispensed through your contact lenses?

contact lens istock pictureI’m sure that everyone reading this has, at one time or another, been prescribed a medication that needs to be taken at certain intervals- daily, twice daily, etc. And I’m sure that every single one of you has forgotten a dose at some point!

So a contact lens that continuously administers eye medication could be extremely helpful for patients currently on eye drop medication regimens. In cell culture and animal studies, these contacts were capable of delivering glaucoma medication for a month! There are many different eye medications that currently require drops- imagine the ease of drug delivery via contact lenses! Cool research- check it out.