Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Get that Pfizer out of my CIHR

I was surprised to have been so much out of the loop when I learned on the CBC radio show "The Current" that one of the Pfizer VPs had been appointed to the governing council of CIHR (our main health funding agency). Now I love to hate on Pfizer as much as the next guy, especially since one of my good friends works there, and I'm not a huge fan of off-label uses of drugs. But this really made me raise an eyebrow. The thinking behind the decision to appoint Dr Prigent was to bring "much needed" commercialization expertise to CIHR and to help "align the interests of CIHR with those of the pharmaceutical industry". This is not my interpretation of the facts but a direct quote from Dr. Prigent. Now I was under the impression that the mandate of CIHR was to improve the health of Canadians by promoting scientific discovery, not to commercialize products or post better quarterly results. I fully understand that discoveries need to be turned into products in order to reach patients, but I'm not sure that this is the imperative of CIHR. Now most people sitting on the governing council have a conflict of interest, because they stand to gain from getting more funding to their home institution, but I'm afraid this is the beginning of a shift towards more corporate regency over funding focus. Even our neighbours to the south don't allow that. I'd love to hear arguments for increased focus on commercialization in the comments, but If like me you think there is too much potential for conflicts of interest you can sign this petition...


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mosquito laser death

Quick bayblab link to an article about geniuses who utilized the awesome power of lasers to combat the most annoying insect. (I don't know how I missed this, it's old news.).
Could you imagine if these things become consumer grade!?! I hope it comes with a smoke machine to enhance the lasertastic spectacle of burning mosquitoes.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Death from the Skies!

We're all going to die. Not in 2012. Not any time soon for most of us. But eventually something catastrophic will happen and life, indeed the Earth, as we know it cease to exist. Luckily, since nobody reading this will likely be around to witness it, we have bad astronomer Phil Plait to explain how it will all go down.

Plait walks us through several doomsday scenarios from extinction-causing impacts to being cooked by cosmic rays to encounters with alien life. In each case, the reader is given the basics to understand the disaster being explored, a detailed explanation of how it might happen, how the human race might prepare for or prevent the particular destruction (if at all) and odds of it happening.

This is first and foremost a science book, and Plait delves into the physics and astronomy with vigor. What exactly is happening at the centre of a star? How is a black hole formed, and what would happen if we fell into one? While some of it might be daunting, it's all written in an easy-to-read and engaging style, that at times feels more like reading good science fiction than science fact. Each scenario is prefaced with a vignette of how it might look if you were caught in the middle of it, and even the cover evokes warm memories of old sci-fi B-movies.

Death from the Skies! may be one of the best science books I've read. Educational and entertaining, it's a must read if you have any interest in astronomy and astrophysics - and possibly even if you don't.

The universe is a harsh and violent place, and sooner or later it will get us. Phil Plait teaches how it will happen, and somehow makes you wish you'll still be around to witness it.

Death from the Skies! by Philip Plait


Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

... but only if you look very, very closely.

Scientists in the UK have made a tiny snowman, one-fifth the width of a human hair.

The micro man is more Tin Man than Frosty though, built with two tiny tin beads, a platinum nose and ion beam etched features.

See here for the story.

[h/t: a loyal FoB]


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Geeks' Guide to World Domination

While not actually giving tips for world domination, The Geeks' Guide... by Garth Sundem is an interesting book for the trivially minded. Within its pages, it contains 314(.1516?) short entries about pop-culture, science, brain teasers and other geekery ranging from useful Klingon phrases to how to balance a chemical equation. It's essentially a bathroom book - something you can grab and open up to find an interest fact or list.

The downside (there's always a downside) is that over the course of reading it I caught at least 3 factual errors. Granted, one I wouldn't have noticed if it hadn't come up in a recent round of pub trivia, but another was an obviously imbalanced chemical equation and the third was something any self-respecting geek should know.
And mistakes are pretty much a fatal flaw for what is essentially a trivia book.

Now saying one wrong thing (or three) doesn't make everything in the book wrong. However trivia, whether in a book or contest form, attracts people (myself included) who get caught up in the details and pride themselves on getting them right. I've been to more than a few trivia contests that have featured heated debates, either amongst teammates or with the quizmaster, over minutia. (The irony being that that trivia is, well, trivial and not worth heated argument) The attitude is summed up in a quote notably missing from The Geeks' Guide's quotable Futurama: "[Y]ou are technically correct – the best kind of correct!"

So if you're one of those people who will be bothered finding one or two errors in a bathroom reader (or not finding them, but knowing they're there) it's probably best to skip this one. But if you can overlook some minor mistakes to find out how to load a pair of dice, learn tongue twisters in foreign languages or discover a quick trick for dividing by 7 then it might be worth checking out - at least for those moments when you're on the can.

The Geeks' Guide to World Domination by Garth Sundem

Some of the entries, and some not in the book, can be read at the author's blog.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Help Contribute to a Scent-free Workplace

I was lamenting the nightmare that is Christmas shopping when I was sent a link to a great potential gift: Flat-D or flatulence deodorizer. It's as though it was designed specifically for my family! The Flat-D is piece of cloth worn inside your undergarment containing activated charcoal. From the website:
Activated charcoal cloth was originally developed by the British Chemical Defense Establishment as a highly efficient filter medium for protection against nerve gas and other highly toxic vapors that might be used in chemical warfare.
Protection against toxic vapors? Sounds like the perfect solution to flatus odor. But does it work? The gasses responsible for malodorous farts are mainly - but not exclusively - sulfur compounds, which should readily adsorb to the activated charcoal, but it's been shown that ingesting charcoal is ineffective (and probably doesn't taste great either). Charcoal textiles, on the other hand, can reduce the escape of sulfur compounds significantly - full briefs capturing virtually all of it, and pads like the Flat-D up to 77% effective (charcoal seat cushions don't help at all). The best part is the Flat-D, like other charcoal textiles, is washable and reusable.

If roasted chestnuts, egg nog and other holiday cheer threaten to turn your holiday festivities into the eleven pipers piping, this may be for you.

"Remember you can hide the sound of a fart by making a louder noise, but you cannot hide the odor of flatulence."


In an Octopus's Garden, In the Shade

Octopuses (apparently not octopi) are smart and have been shown to be able to complete problem solving tasks. Recently they have even been shown to potentially use tools - with one species carrying coconut shells to use as a makeshift shelter should the need arise. Check out this cool video of the behaviour:

Read more about it here.


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Speaking of food...

Check out these awesome science-themed cookies, including some recipes and instructions.

These cookies look great, and now you can finally eat that delicious looking agar.

[h/t: Pharyngula]


In Defense of Food

I've enjoyed the writing of Michael Pollan in the past, mainly his column in the New York Times Magazine. He writes eloquently and interestingly about food. In Defense of Food is my first experience with his book-length writing.

The book itself is summarized succinctly on the cover: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." It sounds like reasonable advice, and inside he makes the case for the pithy slogan. He argues that much of what we eat is not food and attacks the Western Diet and the nutritionism movement that focuses on individual compounds and not on whole foods. He describes what he calls "The American paradox": despite a preoccupation with health and nutrition, the US increasingly unhealthy, and proposes some dietary changes to address that fact, elaborating on the cover's mantra. (There's no reason to think this doesn't apply to Canadians as well)

Unfortunately, this book got under my skin right from the start. From the beginning, there is an anti-science tone, even putting the word in scare quotes, "advising you to reject the advice of science and industry" and arguing that current limitations of scientific understanding mean it's not enough to go by when deciding what to eat. Well, if not science then what? "Tradition and common sense" is the answer. That sounds good, and may even be a reasonable starting point but outside scientific rationalism, tradition and common sense can lead down the path to pseudoscience. And we see this fairly often with unproven traditional medicines that "have been used for thousands of years!"

In fairness, he's mostly speaking about science in a narrower sense and uses some science to back his arguments, but the opening tone feels otherwise. The real science he's attacking is reductionist nutritionism, the kind of thinking that gives us 'trans-fats are bad', 'eat more omega-3s', etc., distilling food down into more basic elements. It's not hard to be frustrated by reports of what's good or bad for you changing seemingly daily, and he makes a reasonable case for rethinking that approach. Unfortunately, this poses another problem for Pollan. He attempts to debunk nutritional science but at the same time depends on it to support his own arguments about what kind of food we should be eating. The inconsistency is obvious, and Pollan himself is aware of it. He does attempt to address this problem, but never really succeeds at doing it satisfactorily (at least for me).

This isn't the only logical flaw in his thesis. He appeals to tradition, but what gets traditions started? How did our ancestors know what works and what doesn't? How do we figure it out to start new traditions? Trial and error is one way, and historically possibly the main way, these things have been worked out. For example, one complaint is that our bodies aren't used to the new Western diet and its manufactured foods, we get sicker because of it (eg. increased rates of obesity and diabetes) and we should move back to eating "real" food. This may well be true, but as he also notes, the same thing happened when cow (and other animal) milk was introduced to the human diet. Now, milk seems as natural and wholesome a food as any other, but would Pollan have argued against milk as a food if he were around back then? "We've adapted!" seems like a probable defense, but how do you adapt or learn or improve without trying new things?

While this all seems quite negative, the book was interesting and easy-to-read, even if some of the support for the thesis had holes. Despite some flawed argumentation, In Defense of Food does offer some food for thought regarding our philosophy towards food - what it is and how to think about it - even if you walk away not agreeing.

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan


Saturday, December 05, 2009

Really bad trips

There some pretty obvious consequences of recreational drug use, including physically debilitating consequences. Typical consequences are usually thought to be the result of chronic use, addiction and/or overdose. (Check out "Faces of Meth.") There are, however, less typical examples of the consequences of drug use.

The first example that I found quite interesting is hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), which sounds like it could be extremely inconvenient. After as little as a single dose of LSD, psilocybin or related hallucinogenic drugs, symptoms of visual aberrations persist. Hallucinating for the rest of your life takes the fun out hallucinations. Sufferers of HPPD also can distinguish what is a hallucination and what is real ie. they have pseudohallucinations, which sounds even less fun.

The second example involves a illicit synthetic opiate drug called (1-methyl-4-phenylpiperidin-4-yl) propanoate (MPPP).
From an article in TIME magazine:
When George Carillo arrived at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose one steamy July day in 1982, he seemed more a mannequin than a man. The 42-year-old heroin addict was bent over and twisted, drooling and unable to speak; almost every muscle was immobilized. No one knew what to make of his condition, so a call went out for Dr. J. William Langston, the hospital's chief neurologist. Langston took one look and was amazed. Carillo's symptoms suggested that he had been suffering for at least a decade from Parkinson's disease, a nervous system disorder that causes tremors and a gradual loss of mobility. But that hardly seemed plausible: Parkinson's rarely strikes anyone under the age of 50.

Using stiffened fingers to scrawl answers to doctors' questions, Carillo managed to provide a few clues. The symptoms had come on suddenly after he and his girlfriend, Juanita Lopez, 3l, had tried a new synthetic heroin. Though the drug had caused an odd burning sensation when injected and hallucinations, they continued to use it for three days; two days later both had frozen into living statues.

During the manufacture of MPPP the related MPTP can be accidentally produced. MPTP in the body is converted to a neurotoxin which is selectively causes neuronal death in dopaminergic cells. This selective toxicity causes the hallmark Parkinson's symptoms. This drug has been now used extensively to study Parkinson's and create animals models of this terrible disease. It also hints that an environmental toxin may contribute strongly to early onset Parkinson's. The possible causes of Parkinson's is extremely interesting and warrants a separate post.

There is a book available, "Case of the Frozen Addicts" and a NOVA documentary of the same name about MPTP victims. There are at least 3o0 people in California who have used this drug. I can't find a download or streaming of the NOVA episode unfortunately.
Of course, medically prescribed drugs can have some extremely bad permanent effects, but hopefully in that case there is a professional who knows the drugs and what to look out for. Also recreational drugs are done on a self dosing schedule and, especially in the case of addition and/or dependence, one might loose perspective on symptoms of damage and subsequently an appropriate dose.


Friday, December 04, 2009

Cancer Carnival #28

Welcome to the Cancer Research Blog Carnival #28, and the final edition of 2009. We have a full slate of editions open for hosting in the new year, so send us an email at bayblab@gmail or leave a note in the comments.

First up LabRat has some nice research blogging on the motility of cancer cells.
In order to break away from the neoplasm and spread the disease cancer cells must gain motility. Studying how cancer cells move can be difficult in vivo because the conventional method of immuno-histology (which involves taking slices out of a tumour during development then fixing and staining them) prevent movement all together. Newer work has been done using Intravital imaging [...], where a fluorescently-labelled tumour is generated in an animal and then observed while the animal is anaesthetised.
Lab Rat discusses some of the findings, and the difference between single cell and group motility.

Next our friend Alexey at Hematopoiesis has a review of a couple of papers that discuss the stem-like qualities of T-cells. How does this relate to cancer? He explains:
Because adult stem cells, cancer stem cells and self-renewing T-cells share common features (chemoresistance, quiescence…) chasing for efficient killing of the cancer we can also kill memory T-cells and shut down long-lasting immunity after therapy. Bad news.
Bad news indeed. But it is followed up by good news, so head there to read it.

Cancer screening - always an interesting topic as detection techniques get more sensitive - was discussed over at Scienceblogs recently, spurred on by new recommendations for breast cancer screening. Orac at Respectful Insolence kicked things off:
No, I wasn't surprised that recommendations to scale back mammographic screening were released. I saw it coming, based on a series of studies, some of which I've discussed right here on this very blog. What surprised me is how much of a departure from current mammography guidelines the USPSTF recommendations were and, even more so, that they were released this year.
It is a lengthy post, and worth the read for the details of the changes and the reaction of an oncologist. The recommendations call for a reduction in mammography (and self-examination) based in part on potential harms such as overdiagnosis and unnecessary biopsy. Greg Laden has a different point of view
It seems to me that the solution being recommended is this: Let's have less information at hand so that we don't fuck up our use of that information. If we don't have information that we can misuse, then we can't misuse it.
Finally, Mike the Mad Biologist discusses what happens when woo-ism meets cancer prevention wherein he discusses clinical trials of drugs which halve the risk of breast cancer. Yet they aren't embraced with enthusiasm.
I could understand if you tried the medication, and you felt lousy. Somehow, I don't think "a spiritual element" is going to halve the probability of breast cancer. (Before anyone thinks I'm picking on women, men seem just as idiotic regarding prostate cancer prevention--which has a much lower survival rate). But people who are frightened will engage in activities that lend the illusion of control (there is little conclusive evidence that diet can significantly lower breast cancer rates in older women*). The terror of knowing that there's is a one-in-five chance of getting cancer, combined with the knowledge that, even with medication, there is still a one-in-ten chance of getting cancer has to be terrifying.
That's it for this month's Cancer Research Blog Carnival. For older editions, visit the Carnival Homepage. Don't forget, the CRBC has subscription options; you can follow by email or RSS feed. An aggregated feed of credible, rotating health and medicine blog carnivals is also available.


Thursday, December 03, 2009

Brain, Thinly Sliced

This is a long day in the lab:
We are slicing the brain of the amnesic patient H.M. into giant histological sections. The whole brain specimen has been successfully frozen to -40C and will be sectioned during one continuous session that we expect will last approximately 30 hours (+ some breaks and some sleep in between). The procedure was designed for the safe collection of all tissue slices of the brain and for the acquisition of blockface images throughout the entire block.
Live video of the brain sectioning can be seen here. The brain in question is that of Henry Molaison who had parts of his brain removed to control epileptic seizures, and ended up not being able to form new memories.


Last Call for Cancer Posts

The Cancer Research Blog Carnival will be here tomorrow, so this is your last chance to send in any of your cancer writing from the past month. You can use the form here.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Scientific peer review


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Good Head

Go to the pub, and you'll undoubtedly find people gingerly pouring from a pitcher trying to minimize foam and acheive a headless beer. This despite the fact that many beer glasses, particularly special glasses for premium beers, have a volume marking that allows for half an inch or more of frothy goodness. Which way is better - thick head or no - is a matter of taste, quite literally.

Beer is a delicious glass of chemistry and biology, and the bubbles can be natural or artificial. For the most part, the bubble forming gas is carbon dioxide, which causes bigger bubbles and a 'fizzier' beer. CO2 can be artificially introduced by dissolving it under pressure, or it can be naturally formed as a byproduct of fermentation by the yeast.
Some beers, like the Guinness family of brews, use nitrogen or a CO2-nitrogen mix either as a widget in the pacakged product or to draw the liquid from a keg. These bubbles are smaller and result in a denser head, less effervescent beer and the distinctive 'creamy' texture. Even without foam, the gas involved influences a beer's flavour. Dissolved carbon dioxide forms the weak carbonic acid, affecting the acidity of beer and therefore its taste.

Obviously the bubbles at the top of the beer aren't just gas - there's something holding them together. Lasting bubble formation requires a surfactant, a molecule with both hydrophilic and hydrophobic parts, like the lipids in soap. Ironically, even trace amounts of soap residue in your beer glass can kill the head. As the gas bubbles in your beer rise, they pick up a number of molecules. One of the more important molecules is lipid transfer protein-1 (LTP1) (pictured). This protein is present in barley, but is not surface active until denatured by the boiling of the unfermented liquid (or wort). This protein is so important for foam stability - and foam stability is so important for the beer drinking experience - that German scientists (and who knows beer better than the Germans? The Czechs and the Irish, that's who) have engineered yeast expressing LTP1 to improve the foaminess of your draught. Potential brewmasters should also know that the temperature and duration of boiling your wort affects the extent and degree of LTP1 denaturation, and therefore the quality of your head. But LTP1 isn't the only molecule involved in a frothy mug, and not the only one subject to engineering. Japanese researchers have discovered that another barley protein, lipoxygenase-1 (LOX), has the opposite effect, reducing foam and flavour stability. LOX-less barley has been developed and tested for brewing by Sapporo.

So why go to all the trouble to increase the amount and stability of beer head - something many drinkers go out of their way to avoid? For one thing, a foamy pour reduces carbonation. This has two effects: First - and this is important to any drinker and the bartenders they're tipping - it means you can drink more. On average, a pint of beer contains 2.5 pints of carbon dioxide. A still pour keeps the CO2 dissolved in the beverage, where it ends up in your stomach, contributing to a bloated feeling. Secondly, less dissolved CO2 means a less acidic flavour. A bubbly pour releases the gas, affecting the taste. Acidity is also associated with a less thirst-quenching beer. Yes, research has been done into what factors determine how refreshing that beer is on a hot summer day. Strangely, while acidity - which can be caused by carbonation - along with foam and flavourfulness, negatively affect thirst-quenching properties, bubble density and carbonation have a positive correlation. Which is why your refreshing summer beer tends to be a fizzy, flavourless drink.

As the bubbles rise in your glass, they pick up more than just LTP1. Alpha-acids from the hops are also accumulated, and create a longer lasting foam. More importantly, these are also flavour compounds. Like wine - or just about anything - flavour is as much a play in the nose as on the palate. And while you won't find many beer drinkers discussing 'bouquet', it's there and it's important. The white cap in your glass concentrates these scents and flavours, enhancing the drinking experience.

Next time one of your friends gives you a foamless beer, ask them to pour it right. Not only is it visually appealing (and a clue that the beer you're drinking isn't flat) but it results in a more drinkable pint that engages your tactile, olfactory and gustatory senses. There's a lot of science in there too.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Who Watches the Watchers?

Much was made, and rightfully so, about the warrantless wiretap program undertaken as part of President Bush's war on terror. (A program that has been defended by the current Obama administration)

That's pretty bad stuff.

Here's something worse: - a group that publishes leaked government and other documents - is currently releasing archives of text messages from 9/11, which can be found here. Many of these private texts predate the actual attacks by several hours, so whoever was collecting them can't even fall back on a 'war on terror' or 'response to the attacks' excuse. Mike Dunford has more:
As the WikiLeaks intercepts page notes, this material is undoubtedly going to be a fantastic resource for anyone who wants a better understanding of how people reacted as events unfolded. However, the mere existence of this archive raises enormous concerns. Where did it come from? Who compiled it, who stored it, and under what authority? Given the scope and magnitude of the archive, it is virtually impossible to believe that any non-governmental group could be responsible.
Big brother, anyone? Of course this kind of warrantless surveillance could never happen in Canada. Never.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Beer is the cure

If you ever find yourself or someone else poisoned by methanol or ethylene glycol and without access to proper medical attention, beer is there for you. This is not as implausible as perhaps you might think as these poisonings cause dozens of fatalities in the US every year. How would these poisonings come about? Ethylene glycol is sweet tasting and is consumed as a substitute for ethanol and is found in antifreeze, and methanol can often contaminate homebrew alcohol aka moonshine. In either of these situations I bet that proper medical attention is not often close at hand.

After ingestion these molecules cause intoxication but are also converted by alcohol dehydrogenase into formic acid, in the case of methanol, and eventually oxalate, in the case of ethylene glycol. These are the actively toxic compounds. Formic acid poisoning can result in damage to the optic nerve and blindness while oxalate causes more general neurological damage followed by general cardiopulmonary depression and renal damage.

If proper medical attention is available fomepizole can be administered. This drug is a competitive inhibitor of alcohol dehydrogenase.

Another competitive substrate for alcohol dehydrogenase, ethanol, fortuitously can be found in therapeutically relevant concentrations in beer.

According to my calculations, the largest assumption in which I think is that you would absorb 100% of the ethanol in your tasty beverage, for methanol poisoning drink 3 beers in the first hour followed by 1 beer every two hours for as long as three days while for ethylene glycol poisoning drink 5 beers right away and maintain that blood alcohol level. These doses are based on 341mL 5% alcohol beers for an average weight guy. Also note that these doses are purely therapeutic and do not include any additional recreational alcohol consumption.

Treatment of methanol poisoning with ethanol.

Treatment of ethylene glycol poisoning with ethanol.


Friday, November 20, 2009

The Safety Song

How our lab safety training should have be done:

Maybe singing and puppets would reduce the open-toed footwear in the lab.

From: The Sounds of Science


Thursday, November 19, 2009

One Benefit of Global Warming

Canadian Tourism Federation Welcome Video from Canadian Tourism Federation on Vimeo.


Say it Ain't So, David Suzuki!

Last week, David Suzuki spoke at a convention for the Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors (OAND). Below is a poster for the event.

As mentioned before, naturopathy is an umbrella term that includes several non-science based approaches to medicine, including homeopathy. While I imagine (or hope) that his address at the convention had his usual environmental thrust (I haven't been able to track down a copy online), having a famous and respected scientist and environmentalist speak lends credibility to naturopathy and its pseudoscience. It's a great marketing move by OAND. Not such a great move by Dr. Suzuki. This is not unlike earlier this year when UofT and the SickKids Foundation appeared on a brochure for a conference put on by an anti-vaccine group.

I understand the importance of getting his message out to a wider audience though strangely the poster doesn't include the title of his talk, "The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Bottom Line." Instead Dr. Suzuki is attached to the message, "naturopathic doctors are getting to the root of it," and this will be the take home message for many people. For better or for worse.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ontario Bill 179: New Powers for Magician-Clinicians

Currently moving through Ontario legislature is Bill 179, "An Act to amend various Acts related to regulated health professions and certain other Acts." This bill received it's second reading back in May, with third reading and ultimately royal assent expected in the coming months. Part of the bill is an amendment to the 2007 Naturopathy Act as follows:
The Naturopathy Act, 2007 is amended to provide for the prescribing, dispensing, compounding and selling of drugs and to deal with transitional disciplinary issues during the transition from regulation under the Drugless Practitioners Act to regulation under the Regulated Health Professions Act, 1991 and the Naturopathy Act, 2007.
Yes, similar to a bill that passed in BC, the amended Bill 179 would grant prescribing power to naturopathic practitioners. What is naturopathic medicine? The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), one of two schools in Canada that offer a doctor of naturopathic medicine program has the following definition:
Naturopathic medicine is a distinct system of primary health care that addresses the root causes of illness, and promotes health and healing using natural therapies. It supports your body's own healing ability using an integrated approach to disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention that includes: acupuncture/Asian medicine, botanical medicine, physical medicine (massage, hydrotherapy, etc.), clinical nutrition, homeopathic medicine [and] lifestyle counseling.
So naturopathic doctors (NDs) who could be granted prescribing powers include acupuncturists and homeopaths among other non-evidence based practitioners. Call me skeptical, but allowing, for example, a homeopath - somebody whose idea of sound medicine is prescribing a dilution that likely doesn't contain a single molecule of the "therapeutic" compound (i.e. just water) - to prescribe drugs seems like a bad idea. (Hmm. Will they follow homeopathic protocols for prescribed drugs? "Take this antibiotic, but dilute 1060 times first") I'm not alone in being concerned.

Furthermore, granting prescription powers to naturopaths will blur the line between naturopathic doctors and their evidence-based counterparts. Prescribing drugs will give NDs an air of legitimacy, making them look like traditional MDs despite not having the same training. What do you prescribe for blocked chi flow? And with different standards for evidence, approach to disease, and diagnosis and treatment philosophy, how do you properly prescribe a drug that has been discovered, tested and approved in the 'traditional' regime. Nevermind the tension this places on pharmacists, whose jobs include evaluating the safety and appropriateness of a prescription (again, from a standard medicine point of view).

If there's a silver lining to this legislation, it's a faint one. Is the ability to prescribe drugs, a privilege several naturopath organizations lobbied to have included in the revised Bill 179, an admission of defeat by NDs? After all, if their methods and treatments are supposed to be effective or even better than 'harmful' standard care why the need to prescribe their 'toxic' drugs? Surely they can't be more effective than botanicals, acupuncture needles and tap water!

And maybe this will put an end to the Pharma Shill Gambit. The Pharma Shill Gambit, in short, is the dismissal of arguments supporting mainstream medicine because the people making them are no doubt on the payroll of the big, bad pharmaceutical industry (for some fine examples, check out a few of the comments here). Since naturopaths will be prescribing drugs, we won't have to deal with that anymore. After all, they'll be in the pockets of Big Pharma too, right? ... Right?

If you have something to say about these changes to the Naturopathy Act, let your MPP know before it passes.

[h/t: Skeptic North via Greg Laden]


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dick in a dish

The team lead by Dr. Anthony Atala at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine as been highlighted on the bayblab before for growing a functioning bladder in a dish. Well they outdid themselves this time by growing a functioning rabbit penis in a dish, and grafting it back on males which conceived with it. Think of the possibilities! The paper is not yet available on pubmed but there is an article here about the discovery:

"Dr Atala's team first created a scaffold using the penis of a rabbit, and removed all the living cells from it, leaving only cartilage. They then took a small piece of tissue from the penis of another rabbit and grew the cells in a lab dish. Dr Atala says the work has taken his team 18 years to complete. "We had to find the right growth factors, the right soup to grow the cells in," he said."

Of note to our female readers, he has also been successful in growing clitoral tissues in the past.


Can you Spot a Fake?

Do you think you can tell when somebody is happy versus just faking it? Can you tell a genuine smile from a forced one? Take this test from the BBC to see how well you do. There are 20 videos of people smiling - some real, some fake - each viewable only once. The differences are subtle, and explained at the end.

How did you do?


Monday, November 09, 2009

Cell Size and Scale

Do you need some perspective on small biological units? How big is a cell compared to a coffee bean? How big is a virus compared to a cell? Now you know qualitatively with this great zoomable window.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Homeopathy in the Hospital


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Cancer Carnival #27

The 27th edition of the Cancer Research Blog Carnival is now up at MolBio Research Highlights. Go check it out!


Friday, November 06, 2009

Forest ignorance

I have heard horror stories about the devastation in the forests of British Columbia, Canada caused by the Mountain Pine Beetle. I just moved to the West Kootenay region and I was astounded by the amount of dead trees I could see from my window. Picture below.

Not the best picture but in a sea of evergreens there are lots of bright orange coloured trees, to me these looked a lot like dead pine trees and assumed that this was mountain pine beetle damage. Much like that in the picture below.

Of course, I'm wrong, the trees in the previous picture are Tamarack Larch, a deciduous coniferous tree while the bottom picture is of mountain pine beetle infestation. I actually thought that the terms deciduous and coniferous were mutually exclusive taxonomic catagories. My ignorance knows no bounds.


Feces ID

Found this scat in my backyard. This is one of three piles near an apple tree. Any experts out there? I'm thinking it's a large cuddly vegetarian rabbit.


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Fruit Bat Blowjobs

This has been making the rounds, but hasn't made an appearance yet on the Bayblab yet.

A recent paper in PLoS ONE has found that fellatio amongst fruit bats increased copulation time. The image, from the paper, shows an artist's rendition of the act. Supplementary info also includes a video of the act - complete with weird soundtrack - if you're into bat porn.

Genital licking roughly doubled copulation time. The researchers aren't sure why the bats engage in fellatio, but offer a few speculations:
"First, genital licking may lubricate the penis or increase penile stimulation, prolonging the duration of copulation. Prolonged copulation might assist sperm transport from the vagina to the oviduct, or stimulate secretions of the pituitary gland in the female and hence increase the likelihood of fertilization. Second, prolonged copulation might be a method of mate-guarding, because the mates would normally segregate after copulation to form unisexual groups which persist throughout the non-breeding season. Third, fellatio may confer bactericidal benefits and assist in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) both to females, and to males that lick their own penis briefly after copulation. Saliva has a protective repertoire that goes beyond antibacterial activity to include antifungal, antichlamydial, and antiviral properties as well. Finally, genital licking may facilitate the detection and identification of MHC-dependent chemical cues associated with mate choice."


Addiction Treatment and Research

There's an interesting conversation going on at Scienceblogs about the politics and funding of addiction treatment and research. Interesting to me, at least, because they in some ways mirror conversations I've had with friends in the past.

It starts with a thoughtful post by Jessica Palmer at BioEphemera who discusses the double standards when it comes to smoking (and here I would probably add alcohol) versus treatment for other substance addiction.
That's why it upsets me that while research to help smokers quit is generally portrayed as necessary and important, increasingly, I'm seeing politicians complain that research to help other drug addicts quit is a waste of money.

Maybe it's because these other addicts are meth addicts, or potheads, or heroin addicts - probably not people you relate to or approve of. That makes it pretty easy for the media to take cheap shots at crack, etc. addicts, and question whether we should waste money trying to help them. [...] We should be leveraging scientific research every way we can to help these people - not throwing them away or taking shots at them because they're "bad," or because we can't relate to them. They're real people. They have families.
Part of the problem, as raised in the comments there, is that drug addiction is often viewed as a moral or personal failing. Worse, watch the video at the end of Jessica's post and notice how the Fox reporter describes a few "crazy" studies. There's some serious othering of the subjects going on. The fight against drug treatment and research is a fight based on race, socio-economic status, sexual preference and gender. It's as though we aren't supposed to care about 'latino pot smokers', 'low income women' or 'homosexual fathers.' (Yes, not all of those studies are drug related, but it demonstrates some of the targets of anti-funding campaigns)

On the subject of the moral failing argument, Janet Stemwedel at Adventures in Ethics and Science makes the case for funding research that people don't approve of.
The implication of the view that taking drugs is a moral failing is that if you make this wrong choice, you fully deserve everything that follows from this choice -- and you ought not receive any assistance in undoing the mess that your wrong choice got you into. [...] Science can ask all the questions it wants about drugs, then, but not on our dime. We already know everything we need to know about drugs. Using them is bad ... which must mean only bad people use them. Bad people deserve punishment, so the nasty effects of drug use are entirely appropriate.
She argues that there's already a public cost for the outcomes of drug addiction, so why not move that cost to helping people stop? Further, she makes the argument that the best way to develop good strategies and effective interventions is, duh, scientific research.

Both posts are worth reading, and both are important calls for understanding, compassion and funding dollars.


Monday, November 02, 2009

Call for Posts: Cancer Research Blog Carnival

Don't forget, the Cancer Research Blog Carnival will be appearing this Friday at MolBio Research Highlights. Submit your recent posts for inclusion here. If you don't have a post to submit, it's not too late to start writing!

The Cancer Research Blog Carnival is a monthly round-up of writing on cancer and cancer-related issues from around the blogosphere. Previous editions can be found here.


Various Events for November

November is upon us, and with it there are a few goings-on that our readers may be interested.

First of all, the beginning of November also means the start of Movember and we invite our male readers to throw away their razors and shaving cream and start working on their moustaches. This annual whiskerino aims to raise awareness and money for men's health issues, notably prostate cancer. So start working on those majestic moustaches. Send us your pics at the end of the month and we'll feature them on the blog.

Several months ago, I was in NYC and covered the opening of a new exhibit on Extreme Mammals. That exhibit will be continuing until the beginning of January, if you're in the area, and will be eventually coming to Ottawa in Summer 2011 if you're waiting. This month - November 14 - a new exhibit is opening: Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World. They invite visitors to travel with them on 'the internet of the ancient world'. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make this opening, but it promises to be a cool, interactive experience with many hands-on actvitities and live perfomances.
Visitors will watch live silkworms spinning cocoons in the section devoted to Xi’an; wander through a replica of the desert markets of Turfan, complete with the sights, sounds, and smells of exotic spices, luxury goods, and precious raw materials; meet a life-sized camel model in Samarkand and explore the ancient skills of papermaking and metalwork. In Baghdad, visitors will track the “stars” using a working model of an Arab astrolabe and discover the achievements of Islamic sciences and engineering.
More locally, this week, November 4-7th, marks Fashion CURES a la mode. This is an Ottawa fashion event rasigin money for Ovarian Cancer Canada. Tickets for the runway shows, photo exhibits and after parties can be purchased here.


Brain Teasers

Found these in an article about how IQ is overrated: First one to get all 3 right gets a pat on the back.

"When researchers put the following three problems to 3400 students in the US, only 17 per cent got all three right. Can you do any better?

1) A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

2) If it takes five machines 5 minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

3) In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of it?


"Jack is looking at Anne, and Anne is looking at George; Jack is married, George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?"
yes/no/insufficient information


scary pumpkin


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fashion Accessories From the Lab

Before some nut job sends me death threats again, I'm joking, and I think this is gross, but in a very entertaining kind of way... More pictures if you follow the link and have a strong stomach...


Monday, October 19, 2009

How Physicists Always Get it Wrong

A few months ago, Nature Physics published an article about an eventual overthrow of evolutionary theory. It's seen often enough - and in different fields. Sometimes there is legitimate grounds for strong skepticism, sometimes it's contrarianism masquerading as skepticism and often, as in the aforementioned publication, it's a case of experts speaking outside their expertise (something we do at the Bayblab quite often). In a humourous paper entitled "A Simple Model of the Evolution of Simple Models of Evolution" [free pdf] the authors explain how it can happen, using an explosion of evolutionary models made by physicists as an example:

The question presents itself: why are we being deluged with such models? In the spirit of the field, we present a simple evolutionary model of this process.

  1. A physicist runs across or concocts from whole cloth a mathematical model which is simple, neat, and contains a great many variables of the same sort.

  2. The physicists has heard of Darwin (1859), and may even have read Dawkins (1985) or some essays by Gould, but wouldn’t know Fisher (1958), Haldane (1932) and Wright (1986) from the Three Magi, and doesn’t dream that such a subject as mathematical evolutionary biology exists.

  3. The physicist is aware that lots of other physicists are interested in annexing biology as a province of statistical physics.

  4. The physicist interprets his multitude of variables as species or (if slightly more sophisticated) as genotypes, and proclaims that he has found “Darwin’s Equations” (cf. Bak et al. (1994)), or, more modestly, has made an important step towards eventually finding those equations.

  5. His paper is submitted for review to other physicists, who are just as ignorant of biology as he, but see that it’s about equivalent to the other papers on evolution by physicists. They publish it.

  6. The paper is read by other physicists, because at least it’s not another derivation of specific heats on some convoluted lattice under a Hamiltonian named for some Central European worthy now otherwise totally forgotten. Said physicists think this is cutting-edge evolutionary theory.

  7. Some of those physicists will know or discover simple, neat models with lots of variables of the same type.

They continue:
[O]ur model predicts that simple statistical-physical models of evolution will continue to proliferate until either (a) all the available models are exhausted, or (b) they become as common and as boring as any other subject in the statistical physics literature, or (c) physicists learn some actual biology. We are not entirely confident that the third limiting factor will become operational before the others.
So there you have it: this will continue to be a problem until everybody learns more biology.

Of course, as much as we would like to think so, this isn't limited to physicists, even if they aren't as humble as us bio-types. And it's really just an extension of what we often lament in science writing (and other journalism) - poor understanding of the subject and headline grabbing, like the title of this post.


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

What's The Most Boring Molecule in the Cell?

The knee-jerk for many of us raised on the Western blot loading control is actin, but biologically speaking, it's far from it...

But surely not everything in the cell is such a barrel of monkeys?????

What's your pick for the cell's most boring molecule?

(Video is from Michael Way's lab. Even boring molecules do cool things when viruses are in the house!)


How Fast is Your Internet?

A couple of weeks ago, Larry at Sandwalk posted the results of an internet speed test on his blog. If he was living in South Korea, Japan or Sweden his results would probably be quite different - these countries are the top three in terms of average internet speed. (The USA ranks 28th, no word on Canada) Likewise, if he lived in South Africa, we may still be waiting for that post to appear.

Earlier this month, a carrier pigeon was used to transfer data faster than South Africa's leading internet provider, Telkom. The bird successfully flew a data card 80km to it's destination in 1 hour, 8 minutes. Transferring the 'conventional' way, including download, took 2 hours, 6 minutes and 57 seconds - a time which apparently only accounted for 4% of the data.

Strangely, CPIP (carrier pigeon internet protocol) data transfer isn't a new idea. It started as an April Fool's joke almost 20 years ago, and the first actual implementation happened in 2001.

No word on how to adapt avian carriers for bittorrent distribution. If only those massive flocks of passenger pigeons hadn't gone extinct.


Another Nobel for Non-Coding RNA

By now you have heard that Blackburn, Greider and Szostak have won the Nobel for their work leading to the discovery of telomeres and telomerase - the eukaryotic solution to the end-replication problem. Other than gawking over "THE SECRET OF AGEING" and all the other shit journalists are copying and pasting into each other's newspapers, now would be a good time to take a moment and remember what a badass enzyme telomerase is. A cellular encoded reverse transcriptase, with structural homology to viral RTs, viral RNA polymerases and phage DNA polymerases. That is also composed of an ncRNA component which functions as a sort of a primer.

The molecular secret of ageing could have been something boring like actin. Is it just a coincidence that it's also cool?


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Avalanche Testing

Here's a quick video on how to test the snowpack for the presence of avalanche conditions. And here's another quick video on some of the basic science behind avalanches hosted by Bob McDonald of the CBC (warning: this footage is OLD.)
Another video with some avalanche information including your chance of survival should you get caught in an avalanche.
Here is an AMAZING video from a skier wearing a helmet camera getting caught in an avalanche. He is buried alive. If you watch this whole video without fast forwarding it will disturb you, but it is definitely worth it.
This video makes me think that this snowboard season I should take up skootching (aka cross-country snowboarding) to avoid the mountains and the associated avalanche dangers.


2009 IgNobel Awards

This is usually AC's department but since he's MIA - working on some improbable research of his own, no doubt - I'll cover for him.

On October 1, the 2009 IgNobel awards were handed out at Harvard University. The winners:
VETERINARY MEDICINE PRIZE: Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK, for showing that cows who have names give more milk than cows that are nameless.

PEACE PRIZE: Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubuehl of the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining — by experiment — whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.

ECONOMICS PRIZE: The directors, executives, and auditors of four Icelandic banks — Kaupthing Bank, Landsbanki, Glitnir Bank, and Central Bank of Iceland — for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa — and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy.

CHEMISTRY PRIZE: Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castaño of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for creating diamonds from liquid — specifically from tequila.

MEDICINE PRIZE: Donald L. Unger, of Thousand Oaks, California, USA, for investigating a possible cause of arthritis of the fingers, by diligently cracking the knuckles of his left hand — but never cracking the knuckles of his right hand — every day for more than sixty (60) years.

PHYSICS PRIZE: Katherine K. Whitcome of the University of Cincinnati, USA, Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University, USA, and Liza J. Shapiro of the University of Texas, USA, for analytically determining why pregnant women don't tip over.

LITERATURE PRIZE: Ireland's police service (An Garda Siochana), for writing and presenting more than fifty traffic tickets to the most frequent driving offender in the country — Prawo Jazdy — whose name in Polish means "Driving License".

PUBLIC HEALTH PRIZE: Elena N. Bodnar, Raphael C. Lee, and Sandra Marijan of Chicago, Illinois, USA, for inventing a brassiere that, in an emergency, can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks, one for the brassiere wearer and one to be given to some needy bystander.

MATHEMATICS PRIZE: Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, for giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers — from very small to very big — by having his bank print bank notes with denominations ranging from one cent ($.01) to one hundred trillion dollars ($100,000,000,000,000).

BIOLOGY PRIZE: Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu, and Zhang Guanglei of Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Sagamihara, Japan, for demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90% in mass by using bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas.
An interesting and entertaining crop as always. Links to papers and other information can be found here.


Monday, October 05, 2009

Epidemiology of Gun Violence in the City of Brotherly Love

A recent paper from the American Journal of Public Health takes a look at gun possession and gun assault in Philadelphia. From the abstract:
Objectives. We investigated the possible relationship between being shot in an assault and possession of a gun at the time.

Methods. We enrolled 677 case participants that had been shot in an assault and 684 population-based control participants within Philadelphia, PA, from 2003 to 2006. We adjusted odds ratios for confounding variables.

Results. After adjustment, individuals in possession of a gun were 4.46 (P<.05) times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession. Among gun assaults where the victim had at least some chance to resist, this adjusted odds ratio increased to 5.45 (P<.05).
The paper also had some stats on gun violence that were surprising, though I admit I don't know much about gun statistics. During the study period (2003-2006) there were 3485 shootings in Philly (Population 1.4M, metro 5.8M) or an average of 4.77 shootings per day and an average of 9 shooting free days per year. I wonder how that compares to a city like Toronto (Population 2.5M, metro 5.5M).

The study was done by taking a case-control approach. Case participants were enrolled via the police department and excluded accidental, unintentional, self-inflicted and police-related shootings - the study interest was assault with a firearm. Control participants were matched according to age, race (black or white only), gender, and time of shooting. In other words, the researchers took people who were shot, matched with people who were not then looked at whether each was in possession of a gun or not. After their analysis they conclude:
On average, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. Although successful defensive gun uses occur each year, the probability of success may be low for civilian gun users in urban areas. Such users should reconsider their possession of guns or, at least, understand that regular possession necessitates careful safety countermeasures.
However, there were some flaws in the study. For example, the authors "assumed that the resident population of Philadelphia risked being shot in an assault at any location and at any time of day or night", nor do they look at the legality of the guns in question. As such, matching wasn't based on location and thus excludes, for example, the possibility of 'bad neighbourhoods', it also excludes the possibility that people with illegal firearms may be involved in other illegal activities that increase the risk of a shooting. This despite their finding that people being shot were more likely to be in areas with lower income and more illicit drug trafficking.

This, of course, doesn't invalidate any results, but it does make it harder to suggest causation as strongly as the authors do in their discussion. From these results it's difficult to say that carrying a firearm increases your risk of assault vs. being in a high-risk group (eg. living in a certain area) increasing the chances of carrying a gun.

Still, the fact remains that gun possession is an indicator of assault risk (even if not necessarily the cause) and offers no guarantee of protection from being shot in an assault.


Saturday, October 03, 2009

Don't mess with the kakapo

We have previously posted about the strange nocturnal ground-burrowing kakapo parrot of New Zealand. Just because it sounds like an evolutionary disaster doesn't mean the kakapo won't rape your head if you try to get too close.


Friday, October 02, 2009

Cancer Carnival #26

Here we are again with the Cancer Research Blog Carnival #26 - your monthly roundup of posts from the cancer blogosphere.

The first post comes from the blog Asbestos Lung Cancer which, as you might guess, focuses on asbestos-related disease. This post discusses asbestosis symptoms and detections.
A history of asbestos exposure may provide the first clue to the diagnosis of asbestos diseases such as asbestosis and asbestos pleural disease. It often takes decades involving the patient’s asbestos exposure and the appearance of early symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest pain.
Francisco Barriga, who blogs at MolBio Research Highlights (who will be hosting the next edition, so start writing those posts!) follows up on a previous post on cancer stem cells (featured in Cancer Carnival #23) with some research blogging: Targeting cancer stem cells: chemical style.
In a previous post I tried to summarize the major points underlying the Cancer Stem Cell Hypothesis, which states that tumors are hierarchically structured and that a particular subpopulation of cells, cancer stem cells (CSCs), are capable of initiating and sustaining the growth of the tumor. This has obvious clinical implications since eliminating these cells would lead to the definitive disappearance of the tumor.
He takes a look at a recent Cell paper that takes a high-throughput approach to targetting cancer stem cells and finding that conventional chemotherapeutics aren't effective against this population.

Here at Bayblab, and staying on the cancer stem cell theme, AC takes a look at a new paper from Cancer Research that finds that a widely prescribed diabetes drug might be effective against breast cancer stem cells.
A friend of the bayblab sent me a link to a paper that just came out in Cancer Research showing promising results of Metformin against breast cancer. Not only does the drug seem to selectively kill CD44 positive breast cancer stem cells, but it seems to inhibit mammosphere formation.
Like the Cell paper above, one conclusion seems to be that future effective drug treatments will require targetting both tumour 'bulk' cells and cancer stem cells.

At HighlightHEALTH, the results are in and Allison Bland reports on lifestyle changes that prevent breast cancer. A recent update to the 2007 report by the American Institute for Cancer Research/World Cancer Research Fund (AICR/WCRF) that describes certain measures that can be taken to reduce breast cancer deaths
The study is an update to the breast cancer chapter of Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective. Earlier conclusions were based on data from 873 studies evaluating the relationship between diet, physical activity, obesity and cancer. The 2009 update includes evidence from an additional 81 studies.

The report estimates that over 70,000 breast cancer cases in the U.S. — 40% of cases every year– could be avoided every year by simple lifestyle changes.
The post provides more details on the report, and outlines some of the preventative measurest that can be taken.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Orac lays the smack down on Bill Maher for some wacky views on medicine and cancer
Maher responds that he "doesn't know whether Laetrile works," but that he knows that "the shit we've tried for the last 50 years doesn't. I know they've made no progress as far as cancer in this country. So, yes, there are people who actually go out of this country when they get cancer. Some of them come back alive after a death sentence. But in this country you can't talk about that. I might get arrested right now."
Follow the link to find out the many ways Maher has it wrong.

Finally, September marked the passing of Patrick Swayze who succumbed to pancreatic cancer. More here and here. One alt-med 'treatment' for pancreatic cancer is called the Gonzalez protocol. The Journal of Clinical Oncology recently published a study showing that this regimen is substantially worse than standard care. You can read more at Science-based Medicine and Neurologica.

That's it for this month's Cancer Research Blog Carnival. For older editions, visit the Carnival Homepage. Don't forget, the CRBC has subscription options; you can follow by email or RSS feed. An aggregated feed of credible, rotating health and medicine blog carnivals is also available.

November's issue will be posted at MolBio Research Highlights. If you'd like to host a future edition, email


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Diabetes drug kills cancer stem cells?

A friend of the bayblab sent me a link to a paper that just came out in Cancer Research showing promising results of Metformin against breast cancer. Not only does the drug seem to selectively kill CD44 positive breast cancer stem cells, but it seems to inhibit mammosphere formation. The puzzling part is that it seems to improve survival in nudes, but only when in combination with doxorubicin. Does this mean that killing the cancer stem cell is not sufficient to stop cancer growth? If this treatment works in humans, it might actually have a shot in combination with chemotherapy. In fact it's not the first time a link between metformin and cancer epidemiology in diabetic patients has been noticed. Hopefully the drug doesn't kill other "good" adult stem cells in the body since it is the most prescribed drug in the US (40M!). The paper also doesn't address the mechanism, but it may have something to do with MAPK, AMPK or PKC (then again what doesn't)...

Here is the abstract:
The cancer stem cell hypothesis suggests that, unlike most cancer cells within a tumor, cancer stem cells resist chemotherapeutic drugs and can regenerate the various cell types in the tumor, thereby causing relapse of the disease. Thus, drugs that selectively target cancer stem cells offer great promise for cancer treatment, particularly in combination with chemotherapy. Here, we show that low doses of metformin, a standard drug for diabetes, inhibits cellular transformation and selectively kills cancer stem cells in four genetically different types of breast cancer. The combination of metformin and a well-defined chemotherapeutic agent, doxorubicin, kills both cancer stem cells and non–stem cancer cells in culture. Furthermore, this combinatorial therapy reduces tumor mass and prevents relapse much more effectively than either drug alone in a xenograft mouse model. Mice seem to remain tumor-free for at least 2 months after combinatorial therapy with metformin and doxorubicin is ended. These results provide further evidence supporting the cancer stem cell hypothesis, and they provide a rationale and experimental basis for using the combination of metformin and chemotherapeutic drugs to improve treatment of patients with breast (and possibly other) cancers. [Cancer Res 2009;69(19):7507–11]


The Anatomy of...

Have you ever wondered what's inside a Lego man?

A balloon animal?

What about Godzilla?

Lego man, balloon animal (and more!) can be found at Moist Production

Godzilla (and other Japanese monster classics) via Pink Tentacle


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Prince Rupert's Drop

Since we're into posting cool videos, check these out:


Monday, September 28, 2009

Video Archives of the Canadian Society for Arachnology

We all know what happens when Cornwall engineers push the envelope. And when Canadian biologists go looking for bears. But no one can mess shit up like our fellow Ottawans, the Arachnologists over at the Canadian Wildlife Service. MUCH RESPECT.

H/T: An old friend of the Bay.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Won't Somebody Think of the Insurance Companies?

Will Ferrell and others point out the REAL victims of health care reform.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

You can sign up to get your PhD online here. Choose your program wisely however. You don't want to waste all that time surfing the web for nothing:

"While those with Ph.D.'s often go into careers as university professors, many also work outside academia in scientific research, publishing, or other arenas. A Ph.D., otherwise known as a doctorate, can be an excellent choice for those who are passionate about contributing to a specific field; those with this degree typically earn several hundred thousand dollars more over their career than those with a master's degree. That said, competition for jobs as professors can be cutthroat. Students contemplating a Ph.D. program should research their options and career prospects carefully."


Friday, September 18, 2009

Would You Stick Your Head Down A Bear Den for Science?

This is why I study biology in a lab. Crazy bastards.


Stevie Wonder Could Probably Make Music On A Gilson

Stevie Wonder on the drums. HOLY SHIT! As the caption says "Can't nobody fuck with the dude Stevie Wonder." I agree.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I can't believe I have never come across this amazing blog before. Searching for scientific humour gold on Pubmed is one of the Bayblab's pastimes. NCBI ROFL makes it a full time job. Guaranteed amusement.


Monday, September 14, 2009


I have been sort of interested in the condition synaesthesia because I perhaps have a mild version of it. I associate particular colours with numbers and letters, days of the week ect, the hallmark symptom of this 'condition'. I always attributed this to the fact that early in school when these things were taught to me they were shown to me on coloured construction paper. These materials were probably repeatedly used and posted around the classroom. Interestingly, since I didn't go to school on Saturday or Sunday these days have particularly unique 'colours'. In fact Saturday has two pointy ears like bugs bunny because I watched Saturday morning cartoons.
However, I have read that a true synaethete can quickly see a number 2 in a sea of 5's for example because the colour stands out. I don't 'see' the associated colour quit so literally and could definitely not do this. See if you can do it.
An article at the BBC describes some variations of synaesthesia that are interesting. I was very interested to see the diagram posted here. I definitely see the year as a circle much like that in the diagram. However the one in my mind that I use is fixed and encircles the yard in the house where I grew up (June is near the maple tree ect.)
The BBC article carries on to state:
They have already established that most people associate texture and shape with shades of colour. And most people have an intrinsic sense of the shade of different pitches of sound
That combined with the performance advantage that some synaethetes have in certain memory tasks makes me wonder if these associations are simply mental cheats that are very commonly used and just become part of the working of your mind.
The most bizarre sounding one to me is the rare lexical / gustatory synesthesia where individual words and the phonemes of spoken language evoke taste sensations in the mouth. I would never admit to this condition for fear of being taken advantage of if I was hungry.
Does anyone else have these mental connections? I suspect lots of people have these mental tricks and, as the BBC article states, if it is a condition probably has a very large spectrum. Does the time of day smell or the letters of the alphabet taste?