Friday, February 27, 2009

Absence Makes the Beard Grow Thicker

I saw this posted by Scicurious at Neurotopia. If you're not reading that blog regularly, you're missing out. This particular piece of blogging on peer reviewed research has it all: desert islands, self-experimentation, beards, sex and measuring things. And it was published anonymously in Nature.

In this study (n=1), a man who spent great deal of time alone on an island discovered that when he returned to the mainland and was able to visit his girlfriend his facial hair was thicker. So he tested it. By collecting daily shavings and weighing them, the anonymous author determined that sex (or anticipation thereof) caused an increase in beard growth. But the effects were only after being away from her for some time, and diminshed quickly after the first day together. He followed this up with self-administered hormone studies on the island, and determined that many different hormones resulted in similar growth, with androsterone having the best effect.

The full paper is available here (subscription required) and more details can be read at Neurotopia.

One of the commenters there has suggested that the paper itself was a hoax. I haven't been able to find any retractions (and it wasn't April Fool's Day), but almost all of the letters in response to the paper suggested alternative reasons for the difference in shaving weight - most having to do with time of day and/or relative skin thickness. The author tried to control for this with a regular shaving schedule. One correspondant suggested some further experiments:
Your anonymous correspondent (Nature, May 30, p. 869) ought, in the interests of science, to try abstaining from sexual activity during some of his returns to civilization. Or, better still, the lady concerned might be persuaded to cooperate in the experiment by unexpectedly withholding her favours during certain of his visits, chosen at random.
Hmm. Doesn't sound like a very fun follow-up. And if the results are real and generalizable, it doesn't quite explain my own thick facial hair.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More on STDs

At the same party AC mentioned, conversation naturally turned from herpes to other STDs - namely gonorrhea. (Don't you wish you could have been there?) Most people are probably familiar with Kramer's portrayal of the disease on Seinfeld:

In addition to the burning he describes, infection may also be accompanied by a urethral discharge (sometimes known as gleet). And no, you can't get it from a tractor (but possibly from a blow-up doll). You can, however, get it in non-genital sites such as the throat or eye. Throat infections may be asymptomatic, but common symptoms include redness and soreness. Gonococcal eye infections result in conjunctivitis, as well as a possible discharge.

While gonorrhea is primarily sexually transmitted - so much so that it's presence in children is almost always taken as a sign of sexual abuse - non-sexual transmission (such as from shared towels, rectal thermometers, or even caregiver hands, but not riding a tractor in your bathing suit) does occur. Still, it kind of makes you wonder about that lab pink eye outbreak.


Monday, February 23, 2009

STDs, drinking games and sexomnia

During a party over the weekend some younger colleagues took part in a drinking game called "flippy cup". Now the game was innocent enough but we wondered about the potential for transmission of herpes viruses (HSV, EBV) via drinking games. Interestingly we were not the first to notice a possible link, as you can read here in a college newspaper about herpes being passed around as a result of a "beer pong" tournament. The article even quotes a CDC report indicating a 230% increase in infection as a result of cup sharing. There goes to show that two girls shouldn't share one cup. In a related train of thought, the subject of alcohol-induced sexsomnia came up, perhaps as another vector for STD transmission. Apparently some people suffer from sleeping masturbation. As usual, pubmed comes to the rescue with a nice case report:


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

CMAJ voices concern over budget

Much like what was echoed here, the CMAJ isn't too impressed with cuts to science in favor of shovel-ready cheap fixes to the economy. They warn of massive brain drain and irreparable setbacks to Canadian science:

"In economics, as in clinical practice, treating acute deteriorations does not obviate the need for a long-term care plan. The crisis in Canada’s resource sectors in particular, while urgent, is a reminder that government investment must aim to substitute science and technology industries for the volatile “found” wealth of oil, mining and forestry.
These cuts to science and technology arrive despite the federal government agreeing that deficit spending is fair game when stimulating the economy. In saying yes to deficits and
stimulus, yet being lukewarm to science, the unmistakable message from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is that science is unimportant in Canada’s economy.
Meanwhile, the stimulus package in the United States could hardly be more different. Both the House and Senate agree on adding US$3.9 billion of new money to the National
Institutes of Health budget — a 13% increase."

The answer, according to the editorial, is stronger lobbying in Ottawa. They argue that most of the population understands that resources such as oil will not suffice to keep the country prosperous, and that this message must be relayed to the Harper governement:

" Clearly, health researchers and other stakeholders must ensure that politicians hear about the importance of research from their constituents. It is a small wonder that funding is decreasing or that opposition parties in Parliament have not demanded more spending for knowledge-based sectors. Next, health researchers and professionals as well as institutions and lobbyists must ensure that the public and politicians recognize that Canadian scientists and doctors are capable of home runs."

You can read the rest of the article here.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Celebrate Darwin Day with a Phylum Feast

Today, February 12 2009, marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, and this year is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his 'On the Origin of Species'. As such, there are events around the world celebrating Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution.

Darwin, during his travels on the Beagle, collected specimens for gastronomic - as well as scientific - purposes. While at Cambridge University he was a member of the "Gourmet Club", a group whose goal was to sample animals not normally found on menus. In South America, he supped on armadillo, as he describes in the 3rd volume of 'Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle'
We found the Beagle had not arrived, and consequently set out on our return, but the horses soon tiring, we were obliged to bivouac on the plain. In the morning we had caught an armadillo, which, although a most excellent dish when roasted in its shell, did not make a very substantial breakfast and dinner for two hungry men.
Elsewhere in his Beagle Diaries, Darwin describes feasting on puma comparing it to veal:
At supper I was suddenly struck with horror that I was eating one of the very favourite dishes of the country, viz a half formed calf long before its time of birth. — It turned out to be the Lion or Puma; the flesh is very white & remarkably like Veal in its taste. — Dr Shaw was laughed at for stating that "the flesh of the Lion (of Africa) is in great esteem, having no small affinity with veal, both in colour, taste & flavour". — Yet the Puma & Lion are not, I believe, closer allied than any other two of the Cat genus. — The Gouchos differ much whether the Jaguar is good eating; but all agree that the Cat is excellent.
Ever the scientist, Darwin was even able to salvage important specimens even after having consumed the animal. While searching Patagonia for the rare lesser rhea (Rhea darwinii), an ostrich was shot and eaten. It was in fact not an ostrich, but the mistake wasn't realized until afterwards:
When at the Rio Negro, in Northern Patagonia, I repeatedly heard the Gauchos talking of a very rare bird which they called Avestruz Petise. They described it as being less than the common ostrich (which is there abundant), but with a very close general resemblance. They said its colour was dark and mottled, and that its legs were shorter, and feathered lower down than those of the common ostrich. [...] When at Port Desire, in Patagonia (lat. 48°), Mr. Martens shot an ostrich; and I looked at it, forgetting at the moment, in the most unaccountable manner, the whole subject of the Petises, and thought it was a two-third grown one of the common sort. The bird was cooked and eaten before my memory returned. Fortunately the head, neck, legs, wings, many of the larger feathers, and a large part of the skin, had been preserved. From these a very nearly perfect specimen has been put together, and is now exhibited in the museum of the Zoological Society.
Darwin and his shipmates also reportedly developed a taste for tortoise meat, bringing several specimens on board only to eat them and discard the shells overboard.

Darwin's gastronomic adventures have given birth to the Phylum Feast - a Darwin Day tradition conisisting of a meal with food from as many different species as possible. The tradition may even have Canadian roots. While I doubt armadillo or puma are on the menu, it's no surprise that some of today's Darwin Day events include Phylum Feast meals.


Cheap WoW Gold!

I've noticed in recent weeks that the Bayblab has been flooded with spam comments from WoW (or more recently Runescape) gold farmers. It's kind of annoying, and pretty much renders our 'recent comments' feature on the sidebar useless.

As a result, I've turned on Blogspot's word verification for comments. Hopefully this will eliminate the comment spam we've been getting. If our commentor(s) find this too annoying and obtrusive leave a comment here and we'll see if we can come up with a better solution.

Now back to your regular scheduled programming.


SETI progress

I was wondering if the recent finding of hints of life on Mars has instigated a resurgence of interest in the Search for ExTraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). I used to run SETI@home, and I really should be doing something with my extra available computational power, and am considering running the Linux version on my home computer. SETI@home, if you don't know, just uses your idle computer power to search through radio telescope signals for any sign of signals with an intelligent origin.
I didn't see any evidence that things at SETI have picked up, however, while poking around, here are some of the more interesting things that I did not know about SETI:
-An answer, much more complicated that you might think, about how much of the sky SETI has covered.
-The radio telescope data is collected using the Arecibo Observatory. As featured in the movie (and N64 game) GoldenEye. It looks awesome but may soon be essentially shut down. (we have mentioned SETI's financial woes before.)
-Apparently if they find aliens they will make the news public. I wonder if that would actually happen in practice. ?
I would have liked to see a calculation on what they have searched and work this into a probability of intelligent life in our galaxy. Anything has got to be better than the Drake equation. Unfortunately, it would anticlimactic to have this number continually decrease as the search continues.
Perhaps I should devote my CPU time to something that has a garentee of being produtive. Folding@home, where disrubuted computing is used to simulate folding of proteins, has an amazing track record.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Nature Videos

I love Sir David Attenborough and his enormous collection of nature videos. Someone really needs to make some highlight reels of his work. If you haven't seen the Polar Bear vs Walrus scene from Planet Earth you don't know nature videos.
In any case I ran into David Attenborough's commentary on Darwin on Youtube. It's part of Nature Videos, which I had not heard of before. Check out the NatureVideos Youtube channel for some more David Attenborough goodness, as well as some other stuff that I haven't checked out yet.


Friday, February 06, 2009

Olive oil cures all

My mother is Spanish, and growing up, she always touted olive oil as being the cure to every ailment. If I had an ear infection, she would shove a cotton ball with olive oil in my ear, for dry skin or scalp just massage-in some olive oil, for a burn, yep you guessed it, olive oil. Incidentally the same goes for food, and there isn't any ingredient that can't be combined with olive oil to make it better, even marmalade for toasts. I figured it has something to do with my ancestors growing olive trees. I constantly have to defend my work by explaining that all cancers are not a result of poor diet, and that no, it wouldn't be better to treat with olive oil. Well I may have to eat my words (coated in delicious oil) according to a recent study by a team of spaniards. According to them, polyphenols present in extra virgin olive oil (such as hydroxitirosol, tirosol, elenolic acid, lignans, pinoresinol and acetopinoresinol, and secoiridoids, diacetox oleuropein aglycone, ligustrosid aglycone and oleuropein aglycone) have specific anti-HER2 effects in breast cancer cells in the micromolar range. HER2 is not only inhibited by the polyphenols, but also promoted for proteosomal degradation.

The authors conclude: "Our current findings not only molecularly support recent epidemiological evidence revealing that EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil)-related anti-breast cancer effects primarily affect the occurrence of breast tumors over-expressing the type I receptor tyrosine kinase HER2 but further suggest that the stereochemistry of EVOO-derived lignans and secoiridoids might provide an excellent and safe platform for the design of new HER2 targeted anti-breast cancer drugs."

Papers can be found in int j onc, and BMC cancer


Cancer Carnival #18

Charles at 'Science and Reason' has done a great job hosting hosting Cancer Research Blog Carnival #18. Head over there and check out this month's collection of cancer blogging goodness. Then drop us a line to host it yourselves. The next edition is due to arrive Friday, March 6.


Thursday, February 05, 2009

Anti-cancer supplement interferes with cancer drug

Herbal supplements are increasingly popular as both prevenative and potentially curative alternative medicine. Often, they're taking alongside standard medication with the underlying assumption that there's no real downside: At best, they'll help; at worst they do nothing. We now know this isn't necessarily the case. For example, St. John's Wort, echinacea and even grapefruit are known to change the bioavailability of certain drugs by acting on cytochrome P450s.

One of the most popular supplements is green tea - consumed either as tea or in more concentrated supplement forms - whose most active polyphenol, EGCG, has been shown to have anti-cancer effects. That being the case, it's no surprise that many cancer patients complement their treatment by consuming green tea.

This may not be a good idea, depending on the chemo drugs being used.

A recent paper in the journal Blood (subscription required, press release here) demonstrates that green tea supplements can interfere with at least one particular chemotherapeutic.

The drug in question is bortezomib (aka Velcade), a proteasome inhibitor that induces ER stress leading to cell death and approved for treatment of multiple myeloma and mantle cell lymphoma. One of the pro-survival regulators in the ER stress response is GRP78. EGCG is known to inhibit GRP78 activity which may be the reason it can senstitize cells to other chemo agents. To the surprise of the researchers involved, the opposite was seen with bortezomib, and the drug's anti-tumor activity was almost completely negated. This was shown both in vitro and in vivo with different cancer models - multiple myeloma and glioblastoma. More importantly, the inactivation of the drug was found to occur with physiologically relevant concentrations of EGCG:
The study findings may have several important implications in the clinical setting. The EGCG blocked bortezomib’s antitumor effects at levels that are commonly achieved with the use of available concentrated green tea supplements (as low as 2.5 μM – which can be attained with two to three 250 mg capsules of green tea extract) suggesting the impact is very real for patients supplementing their therapy. The team also believes that as the EGCG inactivates bortezomib’s function in the tumor cell, it may also prevent some of the side effects that usually accompany the therapy. As a result, patients taking green tea products to supplement their therapy may experience improved well being and feel encouraged to increase their intake while unknowingly blunting or completely negating the efficacy of their bortezomib treatment.
EGCG was found to block bortezomib's proteasome inhibitory activity by directly interacting with the boronic acid group of the drug, forming a new adduct. Vitamin C has a similar, but much less potent, effect.

Of course, this is one very specific interaction and the authors note that it shouldn't minimize any previous beneficial effects reported for green tea. At the same time, it's an example of how complementary medicine doesn't get a free pass for being 'natural'.


Monday, February 02, 2009

Extinct Ibex Goes Extinct

In an age of cloned livestock and pets, is it any surprise we're inching towards Michael Crichton territory? A team of researchers in Spain has succeeded in bringing back a once extinct species.

Using DNA from skin samples taken from the last known Pyrenean ibex, or bucardo - which was officially declared extinct almost 10 years ago - scientists were able to resurrect the species by somatic cell nuclear transfer to domestic goat surrogates.

Over 430 cloned embryos were created with only 57 transferred to mothers and 7 resulting pregnancies. Of these, only one pregnancy resulted in a live birth. [source] The success was short lived, however, with the newborn - and only known living example - bucardo dying shortly after birth due to lung defects putting back on the 'extinct' list.

The news has provoked mixed reactions. Many are excited by the brief success, seeing it as a small step to protecting the genetic diversity of the planet and a move to a future where wooly mammoths and flightless dodos make a comeback (the terrors of Jurassic Park notwithstanding). Others have a more sober take:
Samples of the bucardo's ear were taken in 1999 under experimental conditions and were frozen in liquid nitrogen. If it is not possible to produce healthy clones from this tissue, it is unlikely it will be possible to clone from the long-dead and degraded tissue of a mammoth frozen in Siberia for thousands of years, or a dead thylacine kept for decades in a museum.
This wasn't the first attempt to clone the Pyrenean ibex, and other groups are pursuing similar goals with endangered species such as the pygmy hippo or giant panda. But even with future success, this shouldn't be a license to have a laissez-faire attitude with the environment or its other inhabitants.