Monthly Archives: May 2014

Sea otters helped by artificial clams

iStock_000032380552SmallIn the last five years, 24 sea otters have stranded and died in the Monterey Bay area. Veterinarians noticed a strange yellow coloration to the animals, so they performed necropsies and determined that the cause of death was something pretty unexpected- microcystin.

Microcystin is a cyanotoxin produced by algae, and because it’s generally found in freshwater, deaths in ocean mammals are particularly troubling. Investigation led researchers to a nearby freshwater lake, where they used ‘artificial clams’- small bags of polystyrene beads- to give them some answers. The bags can be left in the water for periods of time, and much like real clams, they passively absorb toxins. Later, they can be analyzed to determine toxin levels over a period of time.

Researchers confirmed that the lake was the source of the problem. They found that a combination of natural phosphorous in the underlying rock combined with chemical runoff from local agriculture created the perfect environment for the algae that produces microcystins. When the lake water fed into the ocean, invertebrates such as clams and mussels in the ocean collected the toxin and concentrated it. When sea otters fed on the toxic clams, they were slowly poisoned.

They’ve found the source, but now it’s a question of how to address it. Researchers are working on potential treatments for microcystin poisoning (with the help of rats!), and hopefully, this will lead to treatments that can help marine animals as well as humans.

Rabbits pilot wireless medical implants

iStock_000003396050SmallMedical advances over the last several decades have resulted in implantable devices that can improve the quality of human and animal lives. The pacemaker and neurostimulator are two of those devices, and with the help of rabbits, researchers are on their way to making some amazing improvements!

When a patient has one of these devices implanted, it’s understood that they will need follow-up surgeries at certain intervals to replace the battery. Pacemaker, neurostimulator, and spinal cord stimulator batteries last, on average, 5-10 years. But recently, researchers have been able to regulate a rabbit’s heart with a pacemaker that operates off wireless energy! This specific implant is only 3mm long. You can imagine the reduced recovery time after a surgery to implant something this size!

While some doctors are skeptical of life-supporting devices relying on external power, researchers are working to adapt this technology for other types of implants as well. Neurostimulator and spinal cord stimulator batteries tend to be about half the size and thickness of a deck of cards, and often, patients experience a good amount of pain at the battery implantation site. Eliminating the need for a battery for these units could make a huge difference for patients- let’s hope that this technology proves successful!

Do YOU have a battery-powered implant? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts- do you think this technology will help you?

A single-shot cure for cancer

healthcareThat’s the goal: “a single-shot cure for cancer.” For Stacy Erholtz, a 49-year-old cancer patient battling multiple myeloma, a heavy dose of the measles virus put her in complete remission!

Mayo Clinic researchers injected patients with an engineered measles virus that is similar to the measles vaccine. But this wasn’t your normal vaccine; the virus was engineered to make it toxic only to cancer cells, and Stacy was given enough to vaccinate 10 million people.

The measles virus makes cancer cells group together and explode. This gets rid of the cancer cells and triggers the immune system to react against them. For Stacy, it worked. One other patient in the trial experienced a reduction in bone marrow cancer and tumor growth, but cancer returned after 9 months.

While success in one patient doesn’t prove that researchers have found this single-shot cure, it’s definitely a proof of concept. The virus killed cancer cells while leaving other body cells unharmed, and while cancer patients have been treated with viruses in the past, this is the first time that a patient with full-body cancer has experienced remission after virotherapy.

Virotherapy has been tested in animal models in the hope of developing treatments for breast cancer, endometrial cancer, gallbladder cancer, and even canine cancer. A single-shot cure for cancer could revolutionize treatments for our loved ones and pets! Read more about this particular study here:

Fertility may be affected by a woman’s perception of her environment

Beautiful pregnant woman relaxing in the parkIs it possible that a woman’s fertility is affected by her perception of the safety of her environment? Researchers are trying to figure out how to answer this question, and you’re not going to believe which tiny animals are helping them. Roundworms!

Roundworms reproduce by themselves by carrying around their own sperm AND eggs. And it turns out that when the worm’s environment is favorable (enough nutrition, not too much competition), they reproduce better. A chemical trail from the worm’s nose to its ovaries ramps up production of prostaglandins, which help guide the sperm to the eggs.

Roundworms are a good model for this type of research, because the worm’s skin is transparent, so sperm motility is easy to observe. Now, researchers are expanding on these studies by looking at prostaglandin levels in human patients to see if they’re correlated with fertility. But the thought that smell and the perception of the environment could alter fertility is interesting, and it could possibly lead to therapies that could help humans and animals with fertility problems!

Research in these worms indicates that the production of prostaglandins might be possible in more ways than previously thought, and in addition to possibly answering some questions about fertility, roundworms might be able to give researchers insight into different targets for pain management and cancer treatments. Read more about it here:

Family dog saved… by rats!

Levi by Lake JacksonAnnabelle, an Australian Shepherd, was spending time with her family at a Montana lake when disaster struck. As they were heading to the shore, Annabelle jumped out of the boat, swam to shore, and in the process of drying off, she licked her wet fur. This is a pretty normal thing for a dog to do, but this time, it almost turned deadly. 

When fertilizers or other organic nutrients enter lakes and streams, it can result in large blooms of blue-green algae called cyanobacteria. Unfortunately, cyanobacteria living in this particular lake had produced a liver toxin called microcystin, and after Annabelle ingested it, she quickly became sick. Her veterinarian rushed to find something that could save her life.

Cholestyramine, a drug that had worked against this type of poisoning in rats, was suggested. It had never been tested in dogs, but Annabelle had no other option- without some type of treatment, she would die.

After her vet administered the drug, Annabelle started improving the very next day! Researchers hope that results in one species will give them an indication of the way other species will react to the same drug or treatment. Fortunately for Annabelle, this was a case where rats and dogs had the same type of reaction to this particular treatment, and without those rats, Annabelle wouldn’t have survived. Read more about it here:

Bone marrow on a chip could revolutionize treatments!

iStock_000015264919SmallBone marrow is a complex tissue that, until now, could only be studied in living animals. Recently, Harvard researchers created “bone marrow on a chip” by reproducing the structure and function of bone marrow. Past efforts involving combining cells on an artificial surface have failed, because bone marrow is extremely complex. So researchers turned to animals for help. By creating a framework of bone powder and implanting it under the skin of an animal, the animal’s body did the work for them and created an impressive bone and marrow structure!

The engineered bone marrow could help researchers assess potential side effects of cancer treatments, observe the effects of drugs to prevent radiation poisoning, and even generate blood cells. It may even be possible to grow human bone marrow in immune-deficient mice!

Researchers work with animals because they often give more accurate information than cell cultures and computer simulations alone. From vaccine development to cancer treatments to joint replacement surgery, animals have been- and continue to be- extremely important in the effort to save lives. And now, animals are helping researchers create better alternatives, which could ultimately reduce the number of animals needed in research without compromising research outcomes. Good news for everyone!

Read more here:

Drug could protect against deadly doses of radiation

iStock_000021920206SmallUnfortunately, the nuclear disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima have shown us just how catastrophic radiation can be. But what if there was a way to intervene in the 24 hours after radiation exposure, limiting damage to the human body? Researchers are optimistic that they’ve discovered a promising treatment.

Normally, radiation exposure affects the integrity of the intestines, which can lead to radiation-induced gastrointestinal syndrome (RIGS). There is no cure for RIGS, but now, there might be a way to prevent it. But by administering a compound (DMOG) that blocks certain proteins, researchers found that in mice, tissues were modified in a way that allowed them to repair and regenerate.

A potential treatment for those exposed to radiation is really good news. The survival rate in mice was greatly increased after this therapy, and there’s a possibility that this could also have an impact on patients receiving radiation during cancer treatments. While it’s too early to tell whether or not cancer patients could benefit from this drug, the good news is that it’s already in clinical trials to treat a blood disorder, so safety assessments are already in the works. Read more about the research here:

Zoonotic diseases: It’s not all bad news

iStock_000007898418SmallZoonotic diseases are diseases that can be spread between animals and humans. And they’re more common than you may think- did you know that about 60% of all human pathogens are zoonotic?

You probably know about many of these. You may know that you can contract Lyme Disease from a tick bite, or West Nile Virus from infected mosquito bites. You might know that you can get salmonella from handling reptiles and amphibians, and you’ve definitely heard of H1N1, the swine flu. And if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve also heard of MERS, hantavirus, and tularemia. (Warning: creepy.)

But it works both ways: humans can also transmit diseases to animals. It’s known that humans can spread the flu to companion animals, and new research shows that MRSA bacteria that infects dogs and cats is genetically similar to the MRSA bacteria that infects humans. Read: this bacteria likely originated in humans, and then spread to animals.

And although it’s scary to think of diseases crossing the species barrier (ebola or rabies, anyone?), there’s a silver lining here that shouldn’t be ignored. By studying routes of transmission and impact of diseases on both humans and animals, researchers can hopefully use these similarities to their advantage. A treatment that works on animals could potentially work on humans, and new therapies in humans could help our pets, too.

**Disclaimer: Photo was chosen because it was cute, not because the author condones kissing frogs. In reading this, you release the author from any responsibility if you decide to kiss a frog and contract salmonella, tapeworm cysts, or mycobacteriosis. Just don’t.

Opossums, melanoma, and HIV research- oh, my!

google free mini opossumLaboratory opossums (Monodelphis domestica) are marsupials that are native to South America. Unlike North American opossums, which are the size of a full-grown cat, they’re only about six inches long. But for such a small size, they’ve made quite an impact in the field of biomedical research.

They are excellent research models for a variety of reasons. Mini opossums are the only mammal (besides humans) to develop malignant melanoma after UV radiation. Because of this trait, researchers can test new treatments for melanoma and research prevention strategies. And amazingly, these animals also have the ability to heal after severe spinal cord injuries sustained during the first week of life. Adults are unable to do this, so researchers are working to identify the genes that switch this capability on and off.

They give birth to extremely underdeveloped young (gestation is only 14-15 days!), which cling to the mother and remain attached to her for a few more weeks until they are fully developed. This unique trait makes them an excellent model for research on early development, as well as transplant and cancer research. The laboratory opossum is also the first marsupial to have its genome sequenced, and in addition to the applications above, it’s also important in heart disease research, HIV research, and comparative genetics. They’re pretty important animals- read more about them here!

Mice are stressed by men: why this discovery is good news for research

Little mouseRecent research has found that the presence of male scents can stress out male mice. And this is pretty significant, as it’s important that research studies are able to be replicated.  This will likely have an impact on behavioral studies going forward- and that’s a good thing!

It’s extremely important to minimize variables in research.  Animals in research settings are often the best tools at a researcher’s disposal, due to this very reason. Unlike human subjects, research animals are able to be monitored extremely carefully in order to understand exactly which variables are significant. By understanding the effects of male scents on male mice, researchers have more information at their disposal as they attempt to minimize variables in their research studies.

By recognizing the fact that the gender of the researcher can have an impact on research outcomes, hopefully fewer animals will be needed to give statistically significant results. It’s also likely that researchers may now be able to understand why certain studies can be difficult to replicate. It’s commendable that researchers at McGill University in Montreal were able to provide this information to the research community. Read more about it here: