Monthly Archives: April 2014

Leukemia and Down syndrome: a link discovered

iStock_000020666748SmallIt’s been known for decades that the incidence of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is 20 times higher in children with Down syndrome than in the general population. And now- thanks to mice- researchers know why!

People with Down syndrome have an extra copy of part or all of chromosome 21. And by working with mice that carry extra copies of genes that are found on chromosome 21, researchers have identified the link between Down syndrome and ALL. Long story short, this particular type of leukemia is caused by an excess of abnormal white blood cells that are supposed to fight infections but don’t work properly. These mice led researchers to the specific proteins involved in this process, and they found- and confirmed in human cell samples- that the gene responsible for spurring the creation of these abnormal cells was an extra gene on chromosome 21. Link: discovered.

While there currently aren’t any drugs that target this specific gene, researchers now know where to focus. Now that they know where the problem lies, they can work to develop drugs that could potentially reduce the chances of a child with Down syndrome developing leukemia! It’s also possible that ALL patients without Down syndrome could benefit from this research.

It’s not good news yet; there’s still work to be done. But I support the fight against pediatric cancer- and the mice do, too!

Why “Not tonight, I have a headache…” is never the case with men

iStock_000016171517SmallIn yet another example of the similarities between mice and men, researchers have found that males of the mouse species aren’t very likely to turn down sex, even when they’re not feeling that great. On the other hand, feeling under the weather definitely affects a female mouse’s sex drive. When experiencing pain, female mice had much less sexual motivation than usual. But when males were experiencing pain, it didn’t have any effect on the frequency of sexual behaviors displayed.

Sounds pretty similar to a lot of human relationships. The husband of a friend of mine was in the emergency room, waiting for x-rays on his broken ankle, but still suggested that she draw the curtains so they could have a little fun. She thought he was crazy; he thought it was a valid option.

While it’s too early to draw conclusions about complex human behavior from one mouse study, the results do suggest that sexual repression in females may be more biological than emotional in some cases. Could this be evolution at work? Interesting. What are your thoughts?

Patriotic turkeys teaching researchers how to detect explosives

SONY DSCBenjamin Franklin suggested that the turkey should have been the official symbol of the United States of America instead of the bald eagle. While that didn’t quite work out, it might have been fitting! Turkeys are more patriotic than you might think- while the skin on their necks and heads is normally red, when they get excited, it can change to blue or white.

Pretty cool. And researchers thought so, too. In fact, by studying turkey skin, researchers at UC Berkeley found that skin color was determined by the organization of underlying bundles of collagen (structural proteins). When a turkey gets excited, blood vessels in the skin contract, exposing collagen bands and altering the way light reflects off the turkey’s skin. So researchers decided to re-create the collagen structures in order to develop a sensor that changes colors in the presence of different compounds.

They developed a sensor that can detect low levels of the explosive TNT, and created an iPhone app that can analyze the color changes. And it works- this system can detect TNT at concentrations as low as 300 parts per billion! Now, in addition to having a cool color-changing party trick, the turkey can add “bomb detection inspiration” to its resume!

Measles outbreak traced to vaccinated patient

Sick boy child 2A measles outbreak traced back to a person who was fully vaccinated against the disease shows that nothing is foolproof. Birth control pills prevent pregnancy 99% of the time, your GPS system is about 95% accurate, and only 62% of people read an entire article after they’ve clicked on it. Stay with me- this one’s worth reading.

The measles vaccine is over 95% effective, which is pretty good, but still not perfect. The biggest cause for concern with recent measles outbreaks is the lack of vaccinations. That’s why delaying or avoiding vaccines is even more dangerous than you may think. As the percentage of people choosing not to vaccinate due to personal beliefs increases, the number of people who could potentially carry the disease also increases dramatically. This particular outbreak may prompt a different surveillance strategy, which is good for everyone, but the biggest harm still comes from vaccine refusal.

And we are seeing the results- so far this year, the number of reported measles cases in California is twelve times higher than it was at this time last year. This coincides with an increased number of personal vaccine exemptions filed in the state.

Still not convinced? Watch this to hear parents who found out about the dangers of NOT vaccinating the hard way. Research in humans and animals has shown vaccine safety time and time again- so please, make sure that your loved ones don’t become statistics! Now, are you in that 62%? If so, share this article with your friends!

Snake venom that turns blood into jelly: it could save lives!

iStock_000019991896SmallVenomous snakes are often feared, and for good reason. Snake venom can assault the cardiovascular and nervous systems and cause tissue death, and it doesn’t take much to be extremely dangerous or fatal to a human. For proof, check out this video to give you an idea of the effect snake venom can have on human blood.

Pretty creepy, right? And although the results might make you shudder- and hope that you’re never alone in a room with a pissed off venomous snake- let’s look at the bright side.

Obviously, the venom of some snakes can help blood coagulate. And there are times when this could be a real benefit to people. It turns out that snake venom can help expedite blood test results in patients who have received anticoagulants. It usually takes longer to process bloodwork in critically ill patients who have received anti-clotting medications, and it turns out that blood collection tubes infused with snake venom allow testing time to be reduced from 40 minutes to 10 minutes! This could undoubtedly save lives, and it’s amazing to see the benefits of such a scary phenomenon.

Pregnant women and narcotics- not a good combination

Pregnant woman with tabletsPregnant women learn pretty quickly that there are long lists of things they’re not supposed to do. Smoking cigarettes, eating sushi, drinking alcohol, and skydiving are out- but why are so many pregnant women taking narcotics?

From 2007 to 2011, each year, over 12% of pregnant women were prescribed opioid painkillers. And unfortunately, the effects on the developing fetus aren’t understood very well. Studies in animals are critical to the understanding of the effects of certain drugs on fetuses, and hopefully, it’s not too late. It is known that the chances of neural tube defects are increased if opioids are used during early pregnancy, and addiction in newborns is a potential problem when opioids are using during late pregnancy.

Regardless, a large number of doctors are commonly prescribing opioids to their pregnant patients. There are always cases where the benefits of medications outweigh the potential risks, but expecting moms should always make sure they’re looking out for their little ones! Before taking medications during pregnancy- especially medications with unknown risks to unborn children- talk to your doctor and do some research for yourself. Definitely stay away from skydiving, but also know that narcotics could be much more dangerous than you might think!

Hope for preemies- amazing new lung research!

kate evelyn pontiusPremature babies often have lasting lung problems, but hopefully that won’t always be the case. Researchers are working on bigger and better treatments- and there’s some good news!

Currently, mothers of premature babies often receive steroid injections before delivery to help the baby’s lungs develop. After the baby’s birth, surfactant can also be administered to coat the lungs and facilitate oxygen exchange. And while these treatments have saved the lives of many babies and are incredible medical advances, researchers are working on bigger and better ideas.

By using stems cells and regenerative medicine, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario are developing techniques that could safely repair damaged lungs of premature infants! They’re using stem cells that make blood vessels, and in addition to providing hope to parents of preemies, this could also potentially help in the treatment of chronic lung diseases in adults. Research in animals has shown promising results, and clinical trials could start in just a few years. Read more about it here:

Jellyfish diapers? You bet!

iStock_000013353342SmallJellyfish. What do you think of when you hear that word? You probably don’t feel warm and fuzzy! Personally, when I think of jellyfish, I think of that Friends episode where Monica was stung and someone had to pee on her. It’s pretty funny… but that memorable show makes me always associate jellyfish with pee.

Apparently, that association really makes a lot of sense! An Israeli company is working to develop an absorbent material made out of jellyfish, and this hydromash material is supposedly much more absorbent than paper towels. They’re now considering creating paper towels, napkins, and diapers out of jellyfish! If you think about it, it makes sense- jellyfish are 90% water and live their entire lives in the water, so their tissues can obviously absorb a lot without breaking down.

A chemical extracted from jellyfish (mucin) is already used in some drug delivery systems, and now these animals could help our landfills. Diapers can take 250-500 years to decompose, but new products made out of this jellyfish ‘hydromash’ could decompose in 30 days.

What do you think? Would you use jellyfish products?

Zebra evolution might prompt new fashion trends!

zebras pixabayPast research has suggested a mechanism for the formation of distinct stripes (did you know that stripes are magnetic?), but new research helps to explain the evolution of these beautiful patterns.

Researchers at UC Davis looked at the geographical ranges of zebras and some of their closest geographic relatives, and surprisingly, they found that camouflage, temperature, or environment variations weren’t nearly as significant as the presence of flies. It appears that in parts of the world where biting flies are more of a problem, the amount of body striping is increased.

The evolution of the zebra’s stripes may have just gotten more interesting! We know that horseflies avoid striped surfaces, and understanding how and why certain animal characteristics evolved can be really important. Not only can it help us in conservation efforts, but we can potentially use this information to develop new techniques that can help humans and companion animals! I see some zebra-striped fly sheets in my horse’s future…

Training your sperm for the Olympics

Sperm Swimming PerspectiveAnyone facing infertility issues knows that when it comes to sperm, there’s a big difference between Olympic swimmers and those that will never leave the kiddie pool. But what makes those swimmers go the extra mile?

Researchers have found that it’s all about hydrodynamics. Just as professional swimmers wear swim caps and take extra steps to cruise through the water more efficiently (body waxing, anyone?), sperm with sleeker ‘swim caps’ are faster swimmers.

And it’s all in the genes. In looking at promiscuous mice, researchers found that the ratio between two specific genes is important to hydrodynamics. This is important because if these findings are similar in humans, couples facing infertility issues might have an advantage in knowing which of those swimmers (based on gene expression) are most likely to win the gold medal, so to speak. Who knows- it might be possible to alter gene expression to speed up swimmers that would otherwise need a life jacket! Read more here: