Sep 23 2016

Tardigrade Radiation Shield

tardigrade1Tardigrades (also called water bears or moss piglets) are one of the coolest animals on earth. They are microscopic, live pretty much anywhere there is water, and are “extremotolerant.” When they lack water they just dry up, and their dessicated form can survive extremes of temperature, high pressure, and even the vacuum of space. Just add water back, and they plump up and go about their business.

They are also very tolerant to radiation, an enviable property. Recently scientists studied the tardigrade genome – more specifically, R. varieornatus, which is one of the hardiest species. There are about 1000 known species of tardigrades and probably a couple thousand more waiting to be described. They had a couple of questions.

First, they wanted to follow up on prior research showing that tardigrades have an extremely high percentage of genes acquired through horizontal transfer from bacteria. This result was not replicated in the current study, which found a very low amount, only about 1.3%. The higher result had already been called into question by other researcher, and this it pretty much the final nail in the coffin.

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Sep 22 2016

Is Mark Zuckerberg Going to Cure Disease?

zuckerberg-chanMark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, recently announced their initiative to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century.”

That is a fairly ambitious goal, to say the least, but coming from someone with the resources of Zuckerberg it’s worth exploring what he actually intends to do. To start, he plans on investing $3 billion in medical research. That is a serious investment.

To put that in perspective, however, the NIH 2017 budget is $34.1 billion, an increase of $2 billion over 2016. That includes $1.39 billion for Alzheimer’s research alone. The NIH spent over $500 billion dollars since 2000.

So, while the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is generous and is likely to have a positive impact, it is hard to imagine how $3 billion will accomplish what $500 billion has not. It’s not as if there aren’t thousands of medical researchers around the world already trying to prevent, cure, and manage disease.

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Sep 20 2016

Room Temperature Superconductivity – Not Yet

superconducting-trainI first remember really being interested in superconductivity in 1986, the same year many people probably first heard about it. Prior to that superconductivity, a property of matter in which electricity conducts without resistance and therefore without energy loss, was an obscure notion in physics.

In 1986, however, Alex Müller and Georg Bednorz, researchers at the IBM Research Laboratory in Rüschlikon, Switzerland, created a ceramic conducting material that was superconducting at the relatively high temperature of 30 K (-243 C). Prior to that the record was held by a vanadium-silicon alloy at 17.5 K.

Suddenly all the popular science magazines were filled with images of supermagnets, with headlines about the new science of ceramic conductors, of “high temperature” superconductors, and what the eventual goal of room temperature superconductors will mean for modern technology. Here we are 30 years later and I’m still waiting.

I also now have a much more developed sense of how technology advances, and how the popularizing of technology is often over-hyped and distorted. I was made to feel by the reporting that room temperature superconductors were inevitable and just around the corner. History has shown, however, that such predictions are highly problematic. Advances often take longer than we think, and progress tends to be sporadic rather than linear.

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Sep 19 2016

Bacteria Evolving Resistance

Researchers at Harvard did a clever thing. They created a giant plate on which to grow bacteria, and included in the plate increasing concentrations of an antibiotic as you moved toward the center. They then plated bacteria on the outer edges and made a time-lapse video of the bacteria growing.

The end result was a video showing the evolution of progressive antibiotic resistance in the bacteria. You can actually see adaptive radiation, as the bacteria push up against the boundary to the next higher concentration of antibiotics, then multiple locations start to spawn new colonies spreading in the next zone.

The researcher made some more nuanced observations as well. For example, the bacterial grow slowed with new mutations, meaning they sacrificed something with the resistance mutation, but then they sped up again as they further evolved. Further, the most resistant bacteria were often not at the leading edge but were stuck behind less resistant bacteria.

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Sep 16 2016

Bayer Buys Monsanto

bayer-monsantoGerman company Bayer has successfully bid to buy Monsanto for $66 Billion. This merger represents the latest in the consolidation of the biotech industry that has been going on feverishly in the last few years.

I have more questions than opinions about this merger, but there are some points worth discussing.

Consolidation

Every article and opinion I have read about the merger characterizes it as a bad thing, as a symptom of a dropping agricultural market. The story being told is this: as crop production has increased, the price of major crops in the market has decreased. This has squeezed farmers, who in turn buy less biotech products, which squeezes the seed and fertilizer companies.

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Sep 15 2016

Congressman Lamar Smith and the Union of Concerned Scientists

smith-house-science-committee-1200Lawrence Krauss recently wrote an editorial in The New Yorker about how Lamar Smith, a congressman from Texas and chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is harassing scientists who are providing data on global warming.

The story that Krauss tells is very clear – Smith is a Republican who receives more money from the oil industry than any other industry, he is a Christian Scientist, and he is a global warming denier. Last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a paper in Science in which they show data that indicates there never was a global warming pause and that the world is continuing to warm.

The response of Lamar Smith was to accuse the scientists of lying, of altering the data to suit the political agenda of the administration, and to subpoena their internal communication (they had already turned over their data). In the subpoena Smith writes: Continue Reading »

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Sep 13 2016

Organic Sugar Scam

gatorade-organicGatorade, which is basically sugar water with a little salt and potassium added, is extending their strategy of making sugar water sound healthful by marketing a prominently labeled “Organic” version of their product: G Organic.

What makes the product organic is that the sugar is sourced from organic sugar cane. This is an excellent example of how marketing creates then exploits a health halo around products even when it makes absolutely no sense.

Organic Sugar

The sugar industry, and producers of high sugar products, have been engaged in a campaign over decades to market sugary products to the public while somehow convincing them that the products are not bad for them, and in fact may be good for them.

The science is pretty clear. Having a diet high in refined sugar is a major health risk factor. It increases triglycerides, which increases risk of heart disease, it causes tooth decay and obesity, which leads to diabetes and other health issues.

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Sep 12 2016

Clinton Health Conspiracy Update

clinton12I wrote a couple weeks ago about health conspiracies in the current presidential campaign. I concluded that presidential candidates should be transparent about their health, given the job for which they claim to be qualified. At the same time, it seems to be standard procedure now to use health issues as another source of mudslinging.

As with many things, the public will have to sort through the fog of campaigning and biased reporting to try to figure out where reality lies. Perhaps most challenging is to filter out our own ideology and biases.

Both candidates this cycle are on the older side, 68 and 70 for Clinton and Trump respectively, and so health is more of an issue. There hasn’t been any update for Trump, he has still only released a rather dubious letter from his physician, not actual health records. The situation with Clinton has been very active.

Clinton has Pneumonia

The big news is that yesterday, at a 911 ceremony, Clinton did not feel well and had to abruptly leave. The press was kept in the dark for 90 minutes, after which time they were told that Clinton was “overheated” and dehydrated, and is now feeling better. The campaign later released information that two days earlier, on Friday, Clinton was diagnosed with a mild case of pneumonia and that was the cause of her not feeling well on Sunday. The pneumonia was also blamed for her recent persistent cough.

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Sep 09 2016

Anti-Vaccine Doctor, Bob Sears, Faces Disciplinary Action

bob-searsDr. Bob Sears is a Capistrano Beach pediatrician who is famous for opposing mandatory vaccinations and the current CDC vaccine schedule. He has promoted his alternate vaccine schedule, which spreads out the vaccines much greater than the standard schedule. This has made him a darling of the anti-vaccine movement, an expert who supports part of their narrative (specifically, “Too many too soon” and parental choice).

Recently the Medical Board of California filed a complaint against Sears for “gross negligence.” There are three counts, the first for recommending a 2 year old patient not receive any further vaccines because of apparent reactions to previous vaccines. The complaint alleges:

Respondent was grossly negligent and departed from the standard of care in that he did not obtain the basic information necessary for decision making prior to determining to exclude the possibility of future vaccines, leaving both patient J.G, the patient’s mother, and his future contacts at risk for preventable and communicable diseases.

The complaint also alleges that Sears failed to adequately assess the patient after a head injury with complaint of headache, and also that he failed to keep adequate records by not filing the letter excusing the patient from vaccines in the chart.

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Sep 08 2016

The Future of Telemedicine

telemedicine_computerTelemedicine is essentially the practice of having a patient visit electronically rather than in person. I think as a practice this is underutilized for various reasons, but we are likely to see much more of it in the future.

Does it Work?

Before we talk about the barriers to the adoption of telemedicine practice, let’s address the key question – is it effective? Further, is it as effective as an in-office visit? The answer, as you might expect, is, it depends. In some situations, however, it can be just as effective.

A recent study, for example, compared telemedicine from an originating clinic to in-person care for patients with asthma and found no difference in outcome over six months. In this study telemedicine patients visited a local clinic staffed with a nurse or respiratory therapist.

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