Archive | Health RSS for this section

Pretty sneaky Ebola!

I know I know, Ebola is just soooo last year. In fact, once it became clear that (shocker) the most of Americans had about zero risk of catching Ebola all public interest pretty much seemed to drop off, despite the fact that hundreds of people in Africa continued to be infected and killed by the virus.

But every once in a while it seems that an article pops up to remind us how weird and scary the Ebola virus is. In the past week we’ve found out that not only can the virus be transmitted through sexual intercourse with a male survivor, but it can also keep living in your eyes long after it was cleared from the rest of the body.

To me, this is interesting because it’s introducing me to things about our immune system I never knew before. Like apparently the testicles have a less active immune system compared the rest of the body (fun fact, there is an entire field of study dedicated to the immune system within the testes called testicular immunology). Turns out, we have several areas in our bodies where antigens (basically things that don’t belong in your body) can be tolerated without causing an immune response. These areas are said to have immune privilege. These lucky little body parts can basically do whatever they want without fear of incurring the wrath of the antibodies, usually for good reason. In the testes this suppressed immune system is due to the fact that a male’s antibodies don’t recognize sperm and will attack and destroy them. And can you imagine if your body staged a full-scale attack every time you got a piece of dust in your eye? But, as is usually the case this privilege comes at a cost. If you turn off your security system it makes it a whole lot easier for the bad guys to get in, like Mr. Ebola.

But not all viruses need to find a weak spot to get past the body’s security guards. HIV for example is the master of disguise. This virus is so sure of itself it hides in the immune system itself. So sorry Ebola, you keep trying to be the most bad ass virus on the planet, but it looks like you still have a little work to do before I’m willing to dub you destroyer of all man kind.


What House of Cards can teach us about climate change

*Spoiler Alert*

I’m in the process of watching the third season of House of Cards. Now, I’m not done yet, so even as I write my spoilers, I must ask that no one reveal any spoilers to me.

I just finished the episode where Underwood uses FEMA to fund his jobs bill. By declaring a State of Emergency in D.C. based on the unemployment rate, he uses the government’s emergency funds to create jobs. Or at least that’s his idea, like I said I don’t know yet if it actually works. But it did get me thinking.

In the show, all the other government officials and some members of the press believe Underwood is twisting the law and pretending to care about people to meet his own selfish ends. And in the show, they are right. But I don’t think that means his actions are completely wrong either. As a species, we rank immediate threats much higher than long-term threats, no matter how likely they are. Which makes sense evolutionarily, heart disease isn’t really an issue if you starve to death before you’re thirty.

But our society has become so advanced that those immediate issues aren’t as big of a threat to us as the long-term ones. There are countless statistics and comparisons on deaths on terrorism: you’re more likely to be killed by your furniture or a toddler, and yet we spend over $16 billions dollars annually fighting it. Heart disease on the other hand, the number one killer of Americans, got about $1.6 billion from the government in 2014. Now, even without the money that comes from donations and other funds for funding heart disease research, it doesn’t take a

Time to start calling this cardiac terrorism, led by the saturated fat extremists

Time to start calling this cardiac terrorism, led by the saturated fat extremists

math genius to see the huge gap. And like I said, people have been shouting this from the roof tops about this for ages. But it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

That’s because, in the short-term, the idea of terrorism is more scary. But more than that, it is easier to fight. The same is true for natural disasters. Hurricane hits? Set up tents, give people food, help them wash their clothes. See, money well spent.

And I’m not saying this is a bad thing, BUT the number of people we save from natural disasters is tiny compared to the people we lose from heart disease, and the people we have already started losing from climate change. We don’t see these things as emergencies because they aren’t big, dramatic events effecting lots of people all at once, which is basically how we define an emergency. But our definition of emergency needs to change. You can be damn sure people would be funding the research then. Just look at Ebola, it barely even effected a few Americans and yet everyone was clamoring for a vaccine because it is immediate and scary.

But those people with heart disease are probably going to die whether it’s tomorrow or this December, because we aren’t doing everything we could to stop it because it has become mundane. I think Frank Underwood has the right idea.We don’t see these things as emergencies because they aren’t big, dramatic events effecting lots of people all at once, which is basically how we define an emergency. But our definition of emergency needs to change.

Let’s all be a little kinder to the anti-vaxxers

The anti-vaccine movement has been getting more attention than ever after the recent measles outbreak starting in Disneyland. Most of this attention (at least what I’ve read) has been negative. Actually, negative is putting it lightly. Anti-vaxxers are being burned at the stake for ignoring science and putting other children at risk due to their belief in unproven conspiracies.

And I admit, this was my first reaction too. When I first found out there were people in the world who chose not to vaccinate their children (which I didn’t even know was legal) I too found it idiotic. But now I feel that I, and the rest of the world, have treated these people unfairly.

First let me say that I in no way agree with or condone the anti-vaccination movement. Vaccinations have saved the lives of countless people and no one has ever proven any side-effects that are worse than the diseases they prevent. But I was raised in a home where vaccines were a given, and more importantly I was raised to trust science.

This should be no surprise to anyone, since I grew up to become a scientist. I have been trained to believe the results of experiments, and to trust the honestly of my fellow scientists. But, in the words of the great Dr. Gregory House (yes, I even trust fictional doctors), everybody lies.

Wakefield lied when he said vaccines cause autism. Then again, the FDA apparently covers up fraud in many drug trials. If you’re a concerned parent with no scientific background, what do you do?

You take the option with the smallest chance of risk. In science we call this risk aversion. Now, as a parent in today’s society, what seems like a bigger risk; a disease that was practically wiped out decades ago, or a developmental disorder that seems to be getting diagnosed more everyday? And it’s true that as long as a large enough percent of the population gets vaccinated, the odds of a few unvaccinated people getting sick are very low. We call this herd immunity. But as anti-vaccine beliefs grow in popularity, our herd immunity shrinks and the diseases crop back up again. And since they’ve been gone so long, many people have little or no experience with them and may think them to be more harmless than they are.

Now here I could throw a bunch of websites at you saying that immunity from vaccines is better for you immune system than getting the disease, or tell you how awful the measles are (or any other disease with a vaccine), or how there are no long-term side effects to getting vaccinated. But anyone pro-vaccine will already agree, and anyone anti-vaccine will point me to another website that says the opposite with a grand “well what about this?”

That “what about this” is where I have my biggest sympathy with the anti-vaxxers. Because those “what about this” websites are clever. They take bits of truth and weave them in with their lies. They play into the fears you already had and tell you what you want to hear to make those fears go away. And to the untrained eye they look so credible.

So no, I don’t think all anti-vaxxers are evil, and I don’t think they are all idiots. I think that, for one reason or another, they have lost their faith in big science. I can’t say I completely blame them. But I do want to change that. So if you ever talk to someone who is anti-vaccine (or anti-climate change, or anti-insertyoursciencehere), don’t call them an idiot. When was the last time you found someone calling you an idiot to be a persuasive argument? Don’t spit back the same generic proving it with science argument. Instead, ask them why they don’t believe in it. Find out what it is about science they distrust, and work forward from there. Because until we can inoculate them against whatever is driving their anti-science beliefs, we’ll always just be treating the symptoms.

(see what I did there?)

Mutation in gene reduces heart attack risk

You probably used to seeing headlines to the effect of “Scientists discover the gene for aggression!” or “Scientists have found the gene responsible for liking the color blue!” and usually these headlines are extremely misleading. Unlike what you were lead to believe in high school biology, everything about you isn’t controlled by just one gene. For example, there is no “tall” gene. If there were, there would only be three heights: tall, medium, and short. Obviously this isn’t the case. Now, there are some traits that are controlled by a single gene. For example, dimples are controlled by a single gene. Either you have the trait for adorable little dimples, or you are out of luck. This is called Mendelian genetics, named after the monk Mendel who figured out the inheritance of traits in pea plants. The creatively named alternative, non-Mendelian genetics, describes traits which are the result of interactions of multiple genes. Most human traits are the result of non-Mendelian genetics.

Which is why articles that claim they’ve found the whatever gene are usually not entirely true. These studies typically describe a gene they found that plays a role in determining that particular trait, but they are by no means entirely responsible. But I guess the headline “Scientists have recently found a gene that greatly contributes to such and such” is not as snappy and might not garner as many views. However, I am willing to take this risk. Now on to the actual point of this post.

Scientists have recently found a gene that greatly influences triglyceride levels, which are a major cause of many heart attacks. People with a mutation that destroyed the APOC3 gene were able to eat very sugary food and have no spike in triglyceride levels. To be perfectly honest, I tried to do research on what this gene does and why destroying it might lower triglyceride levels, but I did not understand a word of the explanation they gave in the paper. Regardless, the point is that other scientists who know a lot more about this than I do can use this information to possibly develop a drug that could recreate the effects of the mutation. If they were able to do this, then people with high triglyceride levels could take this drug and as a result be less likely to have a heart attack. And you don’t have to be a fancy scientist to know that heart attacks are bad.

The squid and the bacteria have teamed up to doom us all

Chances are you’ve heard about antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Due to our rampant overuse of antibiotics, many bacteria (like those that cause staff infections) can no longer be killed by those antibiotics. You see, when a population of bacteria is exposed to antibiotics, it will of course kill most of them. MOST being the operative word here. Some of the bacteria will be immune to the antibiotic. Since these guys are the only one left to reproduce, pretty soon the whole population is made up of bacteria that can’t be killed with that antibiotic.

Up until now, these bacteria are most commonly contracted when people are exposed to places where antibiotics are used on a regular

Look at how smug they are. Like delicious little sleeper cells just biding their time.

Look at how smug they are. Like delicious little sleeper cells just biding their time. (Vaigimeasun)

basis. Namely, hospitals. But for the first time researchers have found antibiotic resistant bacteria in food. Most shockingly, it was found in the place I would least expect it. My wonderful little friends, the squid.

I can’t help but think that this was actually a botched attack on me. That this squid had totally intended to end up in my hands as revenge for having killed his great-great-grandfather in the course of my research, but tragically he ended up in a Chinese grocery store in Canada instead. Regardless, this is surprising to me because I would have expected the first antibiotic bacteria to be found in some sort of livestock, like beef or chicken, since factory farms treat antibiotics like they’re vitamins.

And yet the mild mannered squid has taken this trophy. The good news is that the bacteria the researchers found is unlikely to make humans sick. The bad news? Bacteria have this neat little trick where they can share their genes with each other. Unlike you, who are stuck with whatever genes you happen to get from your mother and father (love you guys!), bacteria can trade around their DNA like Pokemon cards. Now, this happens more or less randomly. A bacteria with evil world domination inclinations can’t see that another bacteria has the antibiotic resistant gene and steal it away. But it could certainly happen through random chance, and the more antibiotic resistant bacteria out there (even if they are harmless to us), the more likely it is those genes will be transferred to a more harmful bacterium.

So what do we do now that the squid and the bacteria have formed an evil alliance against us? We have to reach a temporary truce with the viruses to take these SOBs down. It may be our only hope.

The five-second rule lives!

The five-second rule is a staple of many childhoods, mine included. I’m not sure where this idea came from, and the truth is I never really believed in it. But I was raised in a house where eating dirt was believed to be good for you, so I just used it as an excuse to eat things I dropped on the floor and not seem super gross. I suspect it’s what we all do.

But then science had to go and ruin everything, like science always does. Several studies (yes, that is a link to a Wikipedia article about the five-second rule) determined that no matter how long the food was on the floor, there was still bacteria on it. The Mythbusters even did an episode in which they tested and disproved the rule. The killjoys took the day.

But just like the classic underdog who everyone said couldn’t do it, the five-second rule has made a comeback! Researchers at Aston University in England have shown that there is actually less bacteria on food that hasn’t been on the floor very long. Also,

Go ahead, throw it on the floor. It will be fine.

Go ahead, throw it on the floor. It will be fine.

they found that the floor type matters. Carpet, it turns out, is the least likely to give your food bacteria. So if you don’t like bacteria but don’t mind carpet fuzzies on your food, I suggest carpeting the kitchen. They also found that 55% of the people surveyed who said they would eat food off the ground were women. Insert your own role reversal joke here.

All and all, with how clean obsessed we are these days, I somehow suspect there is very little on our sparkling floor that would get

us sick even if we licked ice cream off them every day. Though I’m not sure it would do anything for the ice cream taste wise either.

With three biological parents, exactly whose baby is it?

For those who live in constant fear that we are rapidly heading towards a GATTACA-like society (if you haven’t seen this movie yet, go watch it. I’ll wait) look out! Science is taking a major leap that not even Andrew Niccol could have seen coming. Sometime in the not so distant future, your kid could have three parents. Well, more specifically two moms and one dad. This new procedure, called oocyte modification (or the more user-friendly three-parent IVF) is designed to lower the potential for genetically inherited genes being passed on to the baby.

I can't wait for the modern version of the children's book "Are You My Mother?" Photo by Bonnie U. Gruenberg

I can’t wait for the modern version of the children’s book “Are You My Mother?”
Photo by Bonnie U. Gruenberg

Here’s the watered down version of how it works. Basically, your cells have two different sets of DNA. One of these sets is what you usually think of when you think of DNA, with half coming from your dad and half coming from your mom. But the second, called mitochondrial DNA, you get all from your mother. That’s pretty cool because it lets you trace you heritage all the way back the female line because the mitochondrial DNA stays pretty much the same throughout generations. Or it did… until now. If you are unfortunate enough to have a mutation in your mitochondrial DNA that could cause your child to have a disease, then by using this technique your doctor can just scoop out (Scientific American’s words, not mine) your mitochondrial DNA and stick in some happy DNA from a healthy donor mom. It would be like if you were making deviled eggs and dropped the yolk on the floor and so you had to use the yolk from a different egg. Actually, it’s nothing like that at all, but I’m at a loss for a better analogy, so you get the idea! The rest is just like normal in vitro fertilization. They’ve actually had success in doing this in monkey and human embryos and are ready to move on to clinical trials.

So moving passed the immediate “What the hell!?” response, I want to dive into what exactly this will mean. The first questions that popped into my mind (and I’m guessing a lot of other people’s minds) is, how much of this baby will still be yours? Well, it depends on what part of your baby you care about. Mitochondrial DNA is stored in, you guessed it, the mitochondria! These are the part of the cell that make energy. But to get any further, we need a little cellular history lesson. Biology+history=fun!

Because mitochondria have their own DNA, there is a theory that waaaayyyyy back when the only life was a bunch of single cells floating around, one big cell (in typical big cell fashion) ate a little cell. But instead of the big cell breaking down and digesting the little cell, the two started working together. And so, the little cell became the mitochondria and made it possible for the big cell to go on to even bigger and better things.

Awww look, he has your mitochondria! Image by Louisa Howard

Awww, he has your mitochondria!
Image by Louisa Howard

As a result, it shouldn’t be very surprising that pretty much all the mitochondrial DNA goes toward the structure and function of the mitochondria itself. So, if you really want your child’s cells to make energy just like yours do, then three-parent IVF may not be for you. But the rest of baby will probably still be a chip off the original two blocks.

But this leads to my second question. Why do we need/want this procedure? To be clear, I am definitely against babies being born with genetic diseases, and I think our ability to screen for these diseases before conception is huge. But do we really need to raise children of our own genetic material so badly that we are willing to spend all this money and resources to get one? Don’t get me wrong, I want kids. And I want them to be of my own genetic material. But if I can’t have kids for some reason, I consider adoption to be a fantastic option. In fact, I might adopt just to adopt even after having a kid of my own. There are so many children in the system in desperate need of loving families, why do we need to go to such great lengths to make new ones just so that they’ll be related to us or so we can carry them in our own bodies?

Maybe my evolutionary drive just isn’t as strong as some people’s. After all, in terms of evolution the only ones who are considered successful are the ones who pass on as much of their DNA as possible, so in a way this drive makes sense. But at what point (if any) can we all agree it has gone too far?