Monthly Archives: January 2014

Plastic surgery for your pets!

Belgian Malinois - HeadachePets are considered by many to be a part of the family. Because of this, more and more pet parents are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their pets healthy and happy. And because of the demand for higher levels of care, complicated procedures to improve the quality of life are becoming more common.

Reconstructive surgery for a pet? Absolutely. From skin and bone grafts, eyelifts and nose jobs, Michael M. Pavletic in Massachussetts has pioneered dozens of reconstructive techniques for companion animals. And there’s definitely a demand for this- from pets with facial cancer to dogs involved in accidents requiring reconstructive surgery to ‘nose jobs’ for dogs like pugs with breathing problems, plenty of pets are going on to live healthy, happy lives with injuries that used to warrant euthanasia.

And through research into new reconstructive techniques, they’re currently testing an experimental compound- by creating a scaffold out of this material, they have been able to successfully grow new bone! And this is great news for the pets in treatment as well as for the rest of us. An awesome example of research in animals that will benefit us all!

Read some of his success stories here!

University of Wisconsin, cats and protesters- who’s right?

ProtesterIf you haven’t already heard of this controversy, let me give you a very brief overview. Since 2009, PETA has been targeting a research lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for controversial research involving cats. Recently, PETA purchased ads on the sides of Madison buses, showing pictures of a lab cat named Double Trouble and asking for the end of cat experiments at UW-Madison. It caused quite a commotion, because Double Trouble has a surgical alteration that looks pretty strange. And PETA’s reports include references to the implantation of ”small, twisted wire coils on the top of the cats’ heads or around one or both eyeballs.” See where the controversy is coming from?

OK. Remember that- we’ll come back to it. Now let me give you some details about a couple of procedures. Read these descriptions, and think about them for a minute.

Procedure #1: A device is surgically implanted into the shoulder area. Wires are then forced into veins in the chest, and electrical impulses are sent through these wires.

Procedure #2: An incision is made over the spine. A portion of one or more vertebrae are chipped or drilled away. Wires are then pushed into the spine, and they lay against the spinal cord, emitting electrical pulses.

Procedure #3: Medication is given to completely paralyze the body. Artificial life support is required. Then, the body temperature is artificially lowered dramatically, causing unnaturally cold temperatures in the body- and shivering to raise body temperature is impossible due to paralysis.

All of these procedures sound pretty bad, right? When you read these, they probably make you shudder a little bit- right? So what are these horrible procedures?? Well, procedure #1 is surgery to implant a pacemaker into a 14-year-old child with a heart problem. Procedure #2 is surgery to implant a spinal cord stimulator into a 25-year-old patient who deals with chronic pain from permanent nerve damage that was caused when a drunk driver hit him as he was crossing at a crosswalk. And procedure #3 is treatment for a 60-year old grandfather of 8 who suffered from a heart attack. All three of these procedures will either save and/or improve the quality of these patients’ lives.

They don’t sound so bad now, do they? I’ll bet you went back and re-read those descriptions, and they make a little more sense. Why didn’t I just explain them normally, then? To make a point! Remember PETA’s description: “small, twisted wire coils on the top of the cats’ heads or around one or both eyeballs.” That definitely doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Animal rights groups know what buttons to push. They say “metal coil in the eyeball” and they know it will make people cringe. But plenty of people live with metal coils, rods, screws, plates, and pins implanted in their bodies, and those people can tell you that these nasty-sounding metal pieces don’t cause them any pain.

Double Trouble has a head cap that is necessary for the study that researcher Tom Lin is working on. They’re trying to determine how the brain detects sound, and Double Trouble and 17 other cats are giving researchers insight into what makes us able to detect differences in the frequency and volume of sounds. Research like this is important in the understanding and development of devices and procedures that can improve or restore hearing- including cochlear implants.

Researchers don’t work with animals for their studies because they want to cause pain and discomfort just for the fun of it, to see what will happen. If there was a better way to develop new procedures that didn’t involve animals, that’s what they’d do. Why would researchers purposely perform animal studies if there was a way to do it better and get published faster? They wouldn’t.

Researchers also aren’t out to hurt animals. They don’t want to see animals suffer, and if these cats were suffering, there’s no way that they would yield useful data. If you read descriptions of the study, positive reinforcement training is used to elicit the necessary behaviors from the cats. Treating these animals humanely is the only way to actually have them respond appropriately and give useful data, so in addition to not wanting to make a living being suffer, researchers are extra careful to make sure that their animals are happy and healthy so that they are confident in the validity of their study outcomes. Read the USDA and veterinary descriptions- healthy cats, good body condition and ideal body weight, no signs of distress, and proper surgical protocols were followed in all cases.

Let me ask you a question. Re-read those three procedures again, and tell me if you would be willing to sign your 14-year-old daughter, 25-year-old brother, or 60-year-old grandfather up for any of those life-saving procedures if you didn’t know that they were developed and tested to the point that the doctors felt comfortable recommending and performing the procedures on humans. We don’t want to think that we’ll ever need any of these interventions- but the truth is that we very well might. And another truth- all of those procedures, and countless more, would not be options for patients at all if it wasn’t for basic research involving animals.

The next time you hear about animal research in a negative light, take a step back. Look at how the information is presented to you, and remember that people with an agenda will try to twist words around to make it sound as bad as possible. Pay close attention to facts, including results of USDA inspections, descriptions from licensed veterinarians, and behavioral information about the animals. There are regulations for a reason- it’s because researchers value animal life and they want to avoid suffering, but at this point in time we need to validate life-saving treatments in animals before we can try them in humans. So if animals need to be used, you’d better believe that everyone involved is making sure that these animals are as happy and healthy as possible. You may not understand animal research; even if you do, you may not want to be the one to DO animal research; but please respect the people who have committed their lives to making YOURS better through the use of responsible animal research. And I, for one, am thankful for the dedicated, professional researchers like Tom Yin and the animals like Double Trouble that work every day to save and improve our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

What do you think?

Read more about the research and the controversy here:

Snails, slugs and worms can help heal a broken heart!

Happy FamilySnails, slugs and worms secrete a sticky substance that helps to reduce friction and allows them to travel more efficiently. But have you ever seen dried snail trails? That stuff is impossible to remove! For such small, slimy creatures, they sure do leave their marks.

Researchers were intrigued by the properties of these secretions, and they were inspired to create a new surgical glue! This glue is elastic and biodegradeable, sticks to wet tissue, repels blood and water, and can withstand the pressure of a pumping heart and flowing blood. And there’s a chemical in this glue that is activated by ultraviolet light, allowing it to seal wounds while still remaining elastic.

Incisions into delicate tissues can be difficult to close, and this new glue could really give doctors more options. Specifically, researchers are hoping that this glue will revolutionize heart surgery and pediatric surgery. Initial research has been very promising, and this glue will soon be used to seal suture holes that are created during cardiac surgery. If this goes well, future research will involve using this glue in place of sutures, and we’ll have to thank the snails for their inspiration!–Strong-Surgical-Glue-on-Demand/

One fish, two fish, red fish… green fish?

glow jellyfish pixabayTurns out that some fish have a secret code- of colors! We now know that over 180 species of fish exhibit biofluorescence: they absorb blue light, transform it, and emit a different colored light. In fact, fluorescent proteins that were originally derived from jellyfish are now commonly used in biomedical research applications. Researchers can track these fluorescent proteins to determine gene expression, which is pretty cool.

But while scientists have known about biofluorescence in jellyfish and corals for years, it’s only recently that biofluorescence in eels, fish, and sharks has been observed. It hasn’t been detected before, because like a true secret code, not everyone can ‘read’ it. Many fish have yellow filters in their eyes, allowing them to see this secret code- but the colors are undetectable to the human eye. The discovery was made by accident- underwater photography using blue lights revealed an eel that glowed green when the pictures were developed!

So what’s the purpose of this secret code? Well, they’re not quite sure yet. But it will be interesting to see what scientists can learn about these fish, both for a better understanding of the animals as well as a determination of possible research applications. Another reason why science kicks ass- unlocking secret codes is all in a day’s work!

Prairie dogs and the ultimate game of Marco/ Polo!

iStock_000007957741XSmallMost people don’t have the opportunity to observe prairie dogs hanging out in groups in the wild. But if you did, you’d notice that they are playing an EPIC game- a combination of Marco/ Polo and “the wave” that was so popular at ballparks in the 90s.

Out of nowhere, prairie dogs will hop up on their back legs, stick their little hands up in the air, and yell “wee-oo!” And immediately, their buddies will all begin to answer them with a “wee-oo!” response, starting a wave of this behavior across the group. Seriously, you need to watch the videos of this below- it’s pretty cute.

So… why? It’s not just a fun way to pass the time- it’s also a way to check in on their buddies and make sure that everyone’s doing ok. It’s been described as a “test of their emergency broadcast system,” and as long as the one who called “Marco” gets a lot of “Polo” responses, they chill out. But if their friends fail to respond to the roll call, everyone is more alert for possible danger.

This Marco/Polo game shows that prairie dogs are cognizant of the mental states of individuals in their group- and understanding more about their social behavior is pretty cool!

Infertility and adenomyosis answers from a mouse!

iStock_000009922153XSmallAdenomyosis is a gynecological disease that can cause infertility and chronic pelvic pain. While there are some medications that can be used to alleviate symptoms, the only definitive treatment for the disease is a hysterectomy. But now, researchers at Michigan State University have created a mouse model that can help researchers understand processes in the disease’s development. This is significant, because most women with the disease require some type of surgery, and a treatment that allows a woman to avoid a hysterectomy would be ideal.

Until now, there hasn’t been a reliable animal model for this disease, and it will be interesting to see how the development of this new mouse model can help researchers discover a cure for adenomyosis. For women suffering with infertility issues due to the disease, this could be life-changing!

According to the CDC, infertility affects approximately 11% of women. That’s over 1 in 10 women that will experience some degree of infertility! There are many causes, and while some women receive a diagnosis (like adenomyosis), others may not. We still have a lot to learn about infertility, but rest assured, researchers are working hard to figure it out.

Read about it here:

Hemophiliac dogs get some good news!

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAMillions of people around the world suffer from hemophilia, a bleeding disorder that prevents the blood from clotting properly. Often, diseases that are found in humans are also found in animals, and in this study, researchers worked to find a treatment for dogs with naturally occurring hemophilia A.
Patients that suffer from hemophilia lack a coagulation factor (factor VIII) in their blood plasma. One treatment is to replace factor VIII via injection, but many hemophiliacs don’t respond to factor VIII therapy. 
So researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin figured out a way to ‘sneak’ factor VIII into the body. They took cells that would eventually turn into platelets and engineered them to express factor VIII. The cells were put into the dogs and began to make platelets. And when bleeding events started, these platelets did their jobs and dumped their contents at the bleeding site- sending factor VIII right where it was needed!
Before this gene therapy, these Great Pyrenees had approximately five serious bleeding events each year. But after introducing these engineered platelet precursor cells, that number was significantly reduced, and the bleeding events were easily treatable! And 2 1/2 years after the gene therapy, platelets are still expressing factor VIII.
Next step: human clinical trials. Is this an example of humans helping animals… or animals helping humans?

Breast is best- in more ways than you think!

breastfeedingYou’ve heard of blood banks, but what about milk banks? Milk banks for human breast milk are becoming more and more common. Sound strange? You might want to take a look at this study.

Human milk contains extremely diverse sugar molecules, called oligosaccharides. Oligosaccharides are so complex that attempting to synthesize them in a lab would be difficult and extremely expensive. 

So what’s the big deal? Well, oligosaccharides protect infants against disease, and they’re really important in the colonization of healthy bacteria in the gut. And recent research suggests that they could possibly reduce inflammation and fight E. coli, salmonella, cholera, rotavirus, and norovirus! 

Because of these beneficial properties, nutritional scientists at UC San Diego suggest using donor breast milk in cases when a baby is unable to be breastfed, claiming that pasteurized breast milk from donor milk banks is far superior to infant formula.

Unfortunately, in the U.S., there aren’t many milk banks… yet. So researchers are working to identify beneficial oligosaccharides in by-products of cow’s milk- not as beneficial as human oligosaccharides, but better than anything that can currently be synthesized in a lab.

While it’s well-known that “breast is best,” there are plenty of cases where breastfeeding isn’t an option. And until more support grows for donor milk banks, we’ll look to the researchers and the cows for these sugar superheroes!

A child is always in a mother’s heart!

baby feetThe bond between a mother and her child can be incredibly powerful. But research shows that it’s more than just emotional- a mother can carry a part of her child with her throughout her life!

During pregnancy, a mother provides her baby with warmth, safety, and essential nutrients. But it’s not all one-sided- the baby protects its mother, too! Through the blood exchange via the placenta, cells from the baby enter the mother’s bloodstream and can migrate through her body, ultimately settling in the heart, brain and other tissues.

This specific research study showed that these cells were less common in the brains of women who had Alzheimer’s disease. Earlier research has shown that fetal cells that remain in a mother’s tissues can help her fight off breast cancer, and research in mice showed that fetal cells literally helped heal a mother’s heart- when a pregnant mouse had a heart attack, fetal stem cells rushed to the area and began changing into new heart cells! That mother-child bond is stronger than you thought!

So if you’re a mom, regardless of where your child is, it might help you to know that a part of your child will always be in your heart- literally!

Breast cancer treatment… in reverse?

iStock_000009110043XSmallWith increased breast cancer awareness and the growing number of diagnostic tools available- including MRI, mammograms, and genetic testing- more and more women are diagnosed with precancerous breast tissue. And unnecessary surgery and treatments are becoming more common, because doctors can’t accurately tell which of these women will actually go on to develop cancer.

But instead of using a “better safe than sorry” approach, researchers want to be able to determine which genes drive breast cancer- and stop them! Because the genes in cells work together in complex and sometimes unexplained ways, simply looking at genes that are activated as cancer develops doesn’t always work.

Using a combination of science, mathematics and engineering, researchers pinpointed a gene that had the strongest statistical link to breast cancer (HoxA1) by reverse-engineering gene networks. And by using a novel therapy to block this gene, they were able to reverse cancer cells in culture as well as prevent cancer development in mice! Pretty amazing- check it out!