Monthly Archives: January 2014

Jumping frogs and thinking outside the box

bullfrog pixabayScience can surprise you. And inspiration can come from anywhere. Biomechanics researcher at Brown University, Thomas Roberts, is proof of that! While looking at records in the Guinness Book of World Records with his son, something didn’t seem quite right. Scientific studies had previously shown the maximum distance of a frog’s jump to be around 1 m, but the world record showed jumps of over 2m.

So Roberts did some creative research of his own at a local county fair. Hours of video recording and observation showed that previous research had obviously underestimated frog jumping performance. You may be asking yourself, “Why should I really care about jumping frogs?”- but trust me, there’s a good reason to care. Frogs are often studied for their relevance in muscle performance, and they can be a very accurate model for human physiology studies.

Observing frogs at the fair seems like pretty unconventional animal research, but it proved to be extremely helpful! Based on observations, it seems that leg muscle isn’t the only factor in contributing to jumping distances, and this could help us understand physiological traits of other animals- including humans. Here’s to thinking- and jumping- outside the box!

Can your fever help protect your loved ones?

fever?When you have the flu, what’s one of the first things you do? If you’re like most people, you take something to reduce your fever. But new research suggests that this could be more harmful than you might think.

Your body’s temperature rises for a reason. When your body senses infection, your brain detects telltale chemical signals in your bloodstream and your body temperature rises. The theory is that your body is trying to fight off bacteria and viruses that are sensitive to temperature changes. Often, though, our first instinct is to get our body temperature back to normal, and we turn to ibuprofen or other fever-reducing drugs (antipyretics) for relief.

Research 40 years ago showed that patients taking antipyretics shed more virus particles than those who didn’t. But new influenza research in ferrets looks at the possible impact on the general population, and suggests that use of these drugs could lead to a 1-5% increase in cases of the flu.

While there’s definitely more work to be done, just keep in mind that your decision to medicate could affect the people around you, as well. What do you think? What do YOU do when you have a fever?

Antibiotics from 20,000 leagues under the sea

iStock_000000307266SmallNature has always provided inspiration for human medicine. Aspirin, penicillin, quinine, taxol- the list goes on. But now, with the increase of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, we need inspiration more than ever! So researchers are getting creative.

With advances in technology, we’re able to explore more of our planet than ever before. And that includes the deepest parts of the ocean! The Peru-Chile trench is 8 km deep (OK, so maybe only a league and a half under the sea- still pretty deep!) and it’s home to a multitude of organisms and microbes that flourish in extreme conditions. This could potentially be a huge breakthrough in the development of new medicines and new antibiotics.

The goal is to isolate bacteria, let it grow, and then test it on hundreds of disease samples to see what happens. If there’s a positive reaction, zebrafish might be able to help researchers in the next steps of testing. Let’s hope that research in the Peru-Chile trench yields some lifesaving results! It’s estimated that within a couple of decades, antibiotic resistance could be such a huge problem that simple infections could kill you. While that’s definitely an unsettling thought, it’s reassuring to know that researchers are going to such lengths to make sure that no stone is unturned in the search for new options!

Crappiest dad of the year award goes to…

iStock_000001762942SmallIf you’re a parent, you’ve probably had several experiences where you FREAK OUT at others’ lack of caution with your (or their!) kids. From allowing your 5-year-old to ride a bike without a helmet, showing a PG-13 movie at an 8-year-old’s sleepover, tossing your infant in the air WAY too high for comfort, or letting your 2-year-old experiment with throwing random items into a toilet to see what will happen, moms everywhere have laundry lists of “NO-NO’s” that are usually not followed by dads other caregivers.


But let me introduce you to a dad who will DEFINITELY not win a father of the year award. Meet the male dyeing poison frog- after his baby tadpoles hatch, he carries the newborns to pools of water with older, cannibalistic tadpoles, drops them in, hops away, and hopes for the best.

Moms everywhere just went “WHAAAT?” But hear him out- just like your significant other caregivers you might know, they have what they think is a REALLY GOOD REASON for this. Apparently, they have a pretty good probability of surviving (although definitely not high enough to make moms happy), and since those older, cannibalistic tadpoles are growing and healthy, the pool must be a good spot. 

Learning about the evolution of this strange reasoning could help researchers understand this behavior- both in frogs and in humans. And maybe now you’ll think that letting your little one experiment with toilet science isn’t quite as big of a deal…

Spots and stripes aren’t just random- they’re magnetic!

Zebra eyeHow did the zebra REALLY get those stripes? By studying zebraFISH, we might be able to figure it out! And these distinctive color patterns have a pretty interesting explanation.

In certain zebrafish, the two skin cells involved in striping are called melanophores and xanthophores. And they behave like magnets! When they come in contact with one another, melanophores move away and the xanthophores chase them down. This cell interaction creates a separation between the different pigmented cells- and a beautiful distinctive striped skin pattern!

This phenomenon wasn’t seen in the skin of a type of zebrafish with ‘fuzzier’ stripes, only in zebrafish with distinct stripes. Further research investigating the gene mutations involved in the proteins in pigmented cells’ membranes might explain distinct patterns in other animals, too. Cheetahs, zebras, dalmatians- think of all the animals we could learn about with the help of this little fish! Check out the video in the link to SEE these cells chasing and running away from each other, it’s pretty cool.

No more eye drops for glaucoma patients?

Water EyeGlaucoma medication delivered through a contact lens is closer than you might think! About six weeks ago, I wrote about an article discussing the development of this type of lens through animal studies. Read about it here. And now, it looks like a Phase I clinical trial in humans could begin in as little as a year!

In animal studies, these contacts were able to deliver the proper amount of medication consistently and safely over the course of a month. Staying on a medication regimen can be difficult- I’m sure you’ve had a prescription to follow and you’ve missed a pill or two. Keeping up with eye drops is often a challenge for glaucoma patients, because they don’t relieve symptoms. The drops can prevent vision from worsening, but when you don’t have immediate relief from your medication, there’s not as much motivation to stay consistent. The novel design of this lens is pretty cool, and could make a huge difference for patients. Stay tuned- we’ll see what happens in clinical trials!

Fruit flies- providing important clues to human wound repair

Male fruit fly on a blade of grass macroFruit flies and humans aren’t anything alike… or are they? A fruit fly’s exoskeleton and a human’s skin are both made up of a mesh of molecules that protect against injury and infection. Even though some of the molecules are different, many of the important molecules and proteins are the same. Turns out the the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, is actually a really good model for wound healing.

Because fruit fly genetics are simpler than mammalian genetics, when researchers look at genes that are activated during fruit fly wound healing, it’s easier to pinpoint the functions of those individual genes. And during wound repair, they can also look at the genes that aren’t activated when the body focuses on wound repair and neglects other developmental processes. Studying the balance of gene activation and deactivation- and identifying certain genes that are involved in fruit fly wound repair- can potentially lead to new developments in skin graft and wound healing in humans. It can also give researchers insights into possible treatments for chronic skin diseases, like psoriosis and eczema. Turns out those little flies can give us a lot of information!

Heart attack recovery may be improved, thanks to a lucky accident

iStock_000008974586SmallResearchers can learn a lot through carefully planned, well-designed research studies. But sometimes, they can learn just as much from completely unexpected outcomes.

Take Viagra, for example. (Or if you’re a woman… don’t.) It was originally intended as a treatment for high blood pressure and heart disease, but an unexpected side effect made for quite a few happy men (and women)!

In the latest unexpected outcome, researchers were using charged microparticles to study West Nile virus, but a batch of microparticles were accidentally given a negative charge. When this happened, the microparticles bound to certain proteins on monocytes and sent those monocytes to the spleen for destruction. This is important because monocytes are responsible for a lot of the damage done to the heart muscle in the days following a heart attack. 12 hours after a heart attack, treated mice had lesions half the size of control mice, and their hearts pumped more efficiently! They also found an improvement in mouse models of multiple sclerosis, IBS, and kidney injuries with this treatment! Next step: human clinical trials in an attempt to limit tissue damage after heart attacks. This was a pretty good mistake!

Bone marrow transplant outcomes improved by unlikely sources!

iStock_000008340944SmallHorses and rabbits can help improve outcomes for human patients receiving bone marrow transplants. Wait- horses and rabbits? Yes!

Bone marrow transplants involve harvesting stem cells from the bone marrow of a healthy person and transplanting them into a patient with certain cancers or blood disorders- leukemia, aplastic anemia, and sickle cell disease, to name a few. Harvesting stem cells from a relative usually has the best outcome, but that’s not always possible. A full sibling only has about a 25% chance of being a match, so most patients find an unrelated match through the bone marrow registry. ( Finding a way to improve the outcome for unrelated matches is always a goal in research- and this is where horses and rabbits come in!

Researchers inject human T-cells into a rabbit or a horse. Then, the animal’s immune system kills the T-cells and their bodies create antibodies. These antibodies are then removed and given to human patients- and they then kill the patient’s T-cells, reducing the risk of rejection!

Horse or rabbit anti-thymocyte globulin (ATG) has been used to prevent organ rejection in transplant patients as well as in the treatment of aplastic anemia. Talk about animals helping people!

Sex can make you smarter- but being smarter doesn’t mean more sex!

iStock_000012917511LargeA high IQ doesn’t necessarily mean more sex- but new research shows that regular sexual activity might make you smarter!

By studying rats that were sexually active every day, researchers found that sex increased the number of neurons created in the hippocampus (a part of the brain where long-term memories are made). Cognitive function was compared to levels seen in younger rats! But these effects only lasted while the rats were consistently sexually active.

The development of neurons can be negatively affected by stress. And while it’s common sense that sex can help reduce stress, it’s interesting that researchers are now able to show the effects of sex on the brain in this way.

Could a healthy sex life help older adults by reducing stress and improving memory and brain function? And if brain cell growth is stimulated by regular sexual activity, can sex really make you smarter? Interesting study… check it out!