An AIDS vaccine??

HIV has long been seen as unavoidable after exposure to it. Millions of people worldwide have this disease and, until now, there hasn’t been a whole lot that can be done about curing and internally it. Treatments have been developed over the past few decades to suppress the effects of HIV/AIDS, but so far all they have been able to do it prolong the lives of patients while attempting to raise their quality of life. Now, doctors are hopeful that they may have a new drug on their hands that could even serve as a vaccine against HIV, thereby preventing AIDS as well. Vaccines work by helping your body develop a sort of immunity to a given pathogen. They do this by introducing either dead, inactivated, and even live strains of infectious particles and getting the body to respond by making antibodies against them.

During HIV infection, antibodies capable of neutralizing the pathogen are actually made. They are actually the things that recognize the part of a virus that allows it to get into a host cell and then block its entry. They also help block cell-to-cell infection. However, these antibodies are quickly wiped out as the infection takes over. Scientists have been able to isolate and clone the important genes found in these antibodies. The one being used in particular is known as 3BNC117, and is capable of neutralizing more than eighty percent of the virus samples they tested, but is also just one of 500 antibodies scientists had to screen.

To test its effectiveness scientists infused 3BNC117 at different doses to look for positive or negative reactions within the body. The highest dose of infusion, equal to half a teaspoon of antibody, was well-tolerated in the body and actually was found to be neutralizing HIV. The amount of virus circulating in the patients’ blood was found to be in a range between 8 and 300 times less than it was before introducing the antibody. Of course some patients had varying viruses that escaped the neutralizing power of the antibody. This is because 3BNC117 isn’t an all-encompassing treatment, but was still found to be effective.

Because the highest testable dose of 3BNC117 was needed to obtain positive results, they know that a lot of this antibody is going to be needed for this to become a mainstream treatment. However, isolating and replicating such a specific molecule is a very expensive and time consuming task. Despite the twenty percent of virus samples that were unaffected by infusion, this is still really good news. Scientists are still unaware of what results would look like if patients were undergoing continuous treatment as well. They think that using this antibody in combination with existing drug therapy for HIV/AIDS could be the way to go one day.

This study was done in people who already have HIV, but it left scientists thinking about the bigger picture. If a vaccine could be made that contained 3BNC117, it could potentially protect people from HIV infection. We can’t quite call this a cure just yet, but it seems like we are definitely one step closer to finally beating HIV.

Geographic Tongue

When you wake up in the morning, or late at night, you might find a weird coating on your tongue that tends to give you bad breath. Now imagine Geographic Tongue (GT), which is a medical condition where the surface of the tongue is damaged in patterns that resemble an evolving map. This is because tiny papillae on the very surface are damaged by expanding inflammation. Any further causes are currently unknown. However, people who do have it say that it tends to get worse when they are under increased amounts of psychological stress. While it looks weird, this is actually harmless and is thought to affect two percent of the population. Many people panic, but it is important to realize that this is not indicative of any worse disease like oral cancer (they used to think GT was associated with things like diabetes and dermatitis). Because it is so rare, it is usually lumped in and associated with diseases like psoriasis.

It happens the way a forest fire occurs, once it has started, it moves along to fresh areas until it has taken as much as it can. This is known as an excitable media dynamic, however GT is a chronic condition that will keeping happening over time.

Taking a dynamical systems approach to GT enabled us to classify the severity of the condition, based on the patterns observed on the tongue of a GT patient. Typically GT-affected tongues fall into two main categories. The first corresponds to oblate patterns that expands and merges with other growing oblate regions. In this case, like with forest fires, the tongue is gradually affected but then subsequently heals. Another more “exotic” form of the condition involves patterns consisting of open-ended tips, most notably spirals, which can evolve into the recovering regions of the tongue.

As the spiral pattern evolves, its arm rotates and continuously affects recovering regions. This self-sustaining characteristic might hinder the tongue from healing and so cause a more acute condition, which will linger for longer periods of time before the tongue is completely healed.

There is no given cure for GT as of now, because it’s not really a huge problem. People who have it may have a burning sensation on the tongue, and there are a few treatments for that, but they haven’t been very effective so far.

Frozen II (it’s not a musical, but it still has a happy ending)

In recent news, an almost-two-year-old little boy was revived nearly two hours after falling into icy thirty four degree waters and being swept a quarter mile downstream. Once he was found after maybe half an hour in the water, he wasn’t breathing and also didn’t have a pulse. As soon as emergency responders arrived they started CPR, a pretty standard procedure especially for people without breathing/pulse in drowning situations. CPR continued on the way to the hospital, but the boy still didn’t have a pulse when they got there and his body temperature was a startling 77 degrees (normal is 98.6, and humans aren’t very tolerant of big body temperature changes). Resuscitation attempts continued as doctors also gave him fluids in an attempt to raise his body temperature. Doctors decided to put him on a heart bypass machine as well. Twenty minutes later, they could finally detect a pulse. After an hour and forty one minutes and many many helpers, the child’s heart was finally beating on its own. Eventually his body temperature also normalized so doctors were able to give him blood pressure medication and also put him on a ventilator to maintain breathing. The boy actually woke up early the next morning and miraculously made it out with no neurological damage. Five days later he was able to leave the hospital and is now completely back to normal, as the healthy and happy little two year old he should be.

So how did such a small child survive such an ordeal? How did his little body (and brain especially) escape unscathed? Well scientists are saying it’s actually because of his young age as well as the extreme temperature of the water. Drowning/staying submerged in water can be extremely damaging to your brain and heart due to the lack of oxygen. But, really cold water triggers the “diving effect” that helps the body conserve oxygen by slowing down your heart and shifts blood flow to other important parts of the body. Funnily enough, this effect is actually a lot stronger in kids than it is in adults. Being in and also swallowing cold water are known to trigger things like hypothermia. But at body temperatures below 86 degrees, the brain’s tissues become less susceptible to hypoxia because oxygen and energy consumption becomes reduced by almost half. The body’s regulatory mechanisms aren’t fully developed in young children such as this boy. This is one way his age could have also been detrimental. And not only do children have less developed body systems, but also a much higher surface area to body mass ratio as well as less fat than adults. These factors put together mean that they will cool much faster than an adult in addition to their less efficient thermoregulation. The human body is full of amazing regulatory mechanisms that keep us functioning second to second and day to day. We really take most of them for granted because they seem so simple and trivial, yet there are still so many that most people don’t even know about and all of which we would be totally doomed without.


Who run the world? (Girls)

Today’s passion blog is gonna be a little bit different than usual. Instead of a medical advance, we’re going to take a look back into the history of modern science. So, in honor of International Women’s Day last week and in the same realm as my usual blog topic, here are nine kickass women scientists and some of their accomplishments:

Marie Curie – Duh, everyone knows about Madame Curie. She was a Polish physicist who worked alongside her husband (not as his assistant or secretary, but as equals) to discover the radioactive elements polonium and radium. She won the Nobel Prize for physics and then eight years later won it again for chemistry. She was the first scientist, on top of the fact that she’s a woman, to win a Nobel Prize more than once.

Rachel Carson – Less known than Madame Curie, Carson was a marine biologist and conservationist. She had the foresight to write about the dangers of pesticides all the way back in the early 1900’s and her worked helped to ignite the global environmental movement from then on.

Rosalind Franklin – Watson and Crick did not discover the double helix shape of DNA. It was actually biophysicist Franklin who took the x-ray crystallography pictures of DNA. Watson and Crick later used her work to make their model of DNA, yet somehow they get all the credit while her work seems to fall to the wayside.

Maxine Singer – She was a molecular biologist and science administrator. Her work helped unlock secrets and led to discoveries about the genetic codes. She also spurred debate and discussions concerning the ethics of DNA research, testing, and things like genetic engineering.

Lise Meitner – We’ve all heard of Oppenheimer, the mastermind behind the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb, but none of those discoveries would have been possible without Meitner, the Austrian physicist and co-discoverer of nuclear fission. Her partner, a man named Otto Hahn, won the Nobel Prize for their work — she did not. As a historical consolation prize for being ignored is Element 109, Meitnerium, which is named after her.

Rita Levi-Montalcini – She was an Italian neurologist who discovered nerve growth factor with her partner Stanley Cohen. Together, they won the Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine.

Jane Goodall – The world famous primatologist, ethnologist, and anthropologist is also a UN Messenger of Peace. Her extensive work with the behavior and sociology of chimpanzees set the benchmark for the way primate life is viewed and studied.

Maria Mitchell – An astronomer, she was the first woman to ever become a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She used a telescope in the 1800’s to discover what became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”.

Shirley Ann Jackson – She is a theoretical physicist as well as being the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her work with Bell Labs is responsible for things like caller-ID and call waiting. In addition to this, she is also the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from MIT.

I hope you got something out of this, cause I definitely did!

New-Age (Real Life) Frankenstein

Frankenstein’s monster is the closest thing we know to a mismatched humanoid creation. As far as we’re concerned, no one has successfully created such a beast. Vladimir Demikhov tried back in the 50’s with dogs, but it was obviously highly unethical and also pretty unsuccessful. Then in the 70’s Dr. Robert White completed the first ever successful head transplant with a monkey. It was a crude job because he didn’t fuse the spinal cord segments together, so the monkey was paralyzed and needed mechanical assistance to breathe, but he proved that it could be done.

Since the days of these crude experiments science and medicine have obviously come a long way. All of the things we can do now were completely unfeasible all those years ago and we’ve advanced so much that Dr. Sergio Canavero thinks human head transplants will be possible by 2017. His surgical plan involves cooling the donor head and preserving the blood vessels as the neck is cut. The trickiest part that he foresees is joining the ends of the spinal cord. Any injury involving the spinal cord is pretty serious, and when it gets severed paralysis is usually the result. So intentionally severing and then attempting to reconnect it is a daunting task. Dr. Canavero thinks that using polyethylene glycol to help the fatty cell membrane bind would help this process though. Then the last step would be to reconnect all of the muscles and blood vessels before closing. The patient would have to be in an induced coma for about a month afterwards.

As with any transplanted organ, there’s always concern for rejection, but the patient would be kept on strong immunosuppressive drugs to try to prevent this from happening. However, organ rejection is not the biggest issue involved with something like this. Transplanting a human head is something straight out of science fiction, and not the kind that most people would want to see coming to real life. Many different groups will be unhappy if a procedure like this tried to become mainstream and people would be really worried about what this means in general. Right now, other surgeons are calling this proposal “too outlandish” while many others refuse to even acknowledge it. There’s a line somewhere out there and this crosses it for a lot of people, medical professionals included. Many others simply believe it just wouldn’t work. Further still, even if it did work and become acceptable, what’s stopping people from cosmetically requesting it to literally get a better body/face? On the flip side, something like this could actually be beneficial. It has the potential to help people with extreme problems from things like deformities, accidents, and cancer. As we get closer and closer to attaining the ability to do things like this, it’s really a matter of figuring out all of the pros and cons and then, if it’s allowed, probably strictly regulating the procedure.

Coming Soon: A Motherless Child

In most long-term adult relationships, the idea of one day having kids is a pretty big deal. There are many ways people have been able to go about this of course: naturally, adoption, IVF, etc. However, for some people, their sexual orientation limits their options when it comes to having kids. Still today, if two men want to raise a child, they can either adopt or use a surrogate mother and an egg donor. In both of these cases, only one (or none) of the two men has a chance to pass on his DNA and be the child’s biological father. This was a long accepted truth before a recent publication from CellPress determined that it might actually be possible for two men to biologically father a child.

The article talks about different manipulating genetic regulators that influence the early cell differentiation that determines whether you’re going to be a girl or a boy. What they found is that someday it might be possible to use this manipulation to create an egg using male stem cells.

The second a zygote starts developing, it is set on a path to be a female. This is until the SRY (sex determining region Y) part of the genome kicks in from the Y chromosome and allows the developing human to have male features. Another gene in this family is SOX17, which is just another regulator of primordial germ cells. However, manipulating this gene is what scientists think to be the key. In upcoming research, scientists will mess around with the SOX17 gene to see just how possible it is to make egg cells (oocytes) from male stem cells.

Females have two X chromosomes (XX) and males have one X and one Y chromosome (XY). Because males have both chromosomes, they have a full copy of maternal information stored in their X chromosomes. This leads scientists to believe that a “male-made” egg could be fully functional. Granted this process works, one man would provide stem cells to create the egg, and the other would provide the sperm cells in order to fertilize the egg. A female surrogate would still be needed, however, to carry the baby until it is ready to be born.

At this point in time, this still seems like science fiction. But we have the knowledge and the background scientific information to make it happen, now it’s just a matter of funding, know-how, and trial and error until this becomes a full reality. But there are a lot of problems something like this could run into. For example, if scientists are actually able to create a human egg cell, this means that we’re reaching the capacity to create “designer babies” which is an infamously notorious controversy. Cultures and societies that are prejudiced against homosexuals would probably also have a problem with this happening, the same way that IVF was a big deal when that started gaining popularity as well.

Overall, we’ve come a long way but there’s still so much to learn and figure out before this can actually happen, but I think things are looking pretty good.

3D Vaccine Fights Cancer and Infectious Disease

In about fourteen hours I will be starting my first shift of THON 2015 setting up the BJC with the rest of the OPPerations committees. This is such an exciting time and I think it’s super appropriate for this week’s passion blog entry to be about a new vaccine from a senior author at Harvard that “self-assembles” into a 3D structure to manipulate immune cells so that they can attack cancer and other infectious diseases.

With this vaccine, tiny nanoscale silica rods are injected into the body and group together into a scaffold-like structure. They then draw immune cells toward them and somehow “teach” the cells how to take on bodily threats. This is a revolutionary advance because it is the first time we are directly aiding the immune system rather than introducing a weakened version of the disease and forcing the immune system to figure it out and fight back.

The research that has been done so far has been in mice with lymphoma. After a thirty day testing window, sixty percent of the mice who received traditional medicines and antibiotics were still alive while ninety percent of the mice with the scaffold vaccine lived! By targeting dendrite cells, which are responsible for locating antigens on the surface of cancer cells, the vaccine was able to successfully slow tumor progression.

This is an elegant new example of cell re-programming that takes advantage of the dendritic cell’s natural behavior and has an extremely positive response so far. Researchers are extremely excited at the prospect of avoiding dangerous (and expensive) surgeries and treatments in favor of this completely non-invasive new method. The possibilities with a vaccination of this sort can also be tailored to treat a wide array of diseases and not just cancer.

The author of the study, David Mooney says that “This is going to be the first of a number of examples where we utilize ideas of self-organization in the body instead of having to create structures outside of the body and then placing them in”. Things like 3D printing and artificial organs are absolutely amazing, but what if the answer could be right inside of us from the beginning? This sort of technology will one day be able to expand its horizons from just reprogramming immune cells to whole tissues as well! Something like this would radicalize the face of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine entirely.

Of course, this study was only done on mice, and is yet to reach human trials, but with things looking up I think it looks extremely promising.

Freaky Fetus

A silly question doctors are sometimes asked is if an unborn baby can get pregnant (FYI they can’t). But that doesn’t mean conditions like fetus in fetu don’t exist. Now, the baby isn’t actually pregnant, but this is where a baby is born with a “malformed parasitic twin inside its own body,” it’s when a baby literally absorbs its undeveloped twin. This is a freak occurrence and is super rare; there are less than two hundred documented cases of it in all of medical history. So now imagine just how freaky it is that a baby in China was born with not one, but two fetuses inside her abdomen.

Doctors first knew something was wrong when they saw a mass inside the baby’s stomach during an ultrasound. They thought it was something more common like a tumor or a hemorrhage of sorts. But a few days later, a new ultrasound revealed that the “tumor” was actually two solid masses that each contained two long bones and a spine. There were no reported complications with the birth of the baby, but when she was just two weeks old doctors decided to remove the masses.

The “masses” turned out to be two fetuses. In addition to the long bones and spines the doctors already knew about, they also found umbilical cords that were even joined to a structure resembling a placenta. They were less than four centimeters long and determined to be about ten weeks into development with all four limbs, segmented spines, developed rib cages, intestines and even primitive brain tissue. The regional obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) specialist said that they were too small to properly detect in any prenatal check-up.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), fetus in fetu is might actually just be a highly developed teratoma. Now…if you thought this was a weird story so far, this is where s*** really gets cray. Teratomas are a type of tumors that show multiple germ layers and their tissue tends to be different than those surrounding them. So basically, teratomas can actually grow teeth, hair, bone, and sometimes even crude and non-functional eyes and limbs. If you wanna see a picture, here’s the link. Be warned, it’s absolutely disgusting and I love it. It’s the thing nightmares are made out and it’s just so cool. Anyways, the WHO also classifies fetus in fetu as a twin that starts developing normally but then gets enveloped by the other twin.

PS – I hope you all look at the picture. (Also sorry for completely nerding out in this post, I got unreasonably excited about this)

Inside the Brain of a Psychopath

The word psychopath is very controversial and has many stigmas and negative connotations associated with it. But psychologists can agree that a psychopath is generally a person who lacks empathy and remorse. These are the people who make up twenty percent of violent criminal offenders. However, their mannerisms are very different from regular violent criminals. It is common knowledge that criminals in general are quick tempered, aggressive and respond hyperactively towards threats. Psychopaths on the other hand are very logical and collected, their aggression is premeditated and their mannerisms are cold and impersonal. These differences can be attributed to everything from upbringing to body chemistry, but now new research has shown that the brains of people labeled as “psychopaths” actually respond abnormally to forms of punishment. However, before we go on, the study found it important to note that not all psychopaths are violent or criminals. The conclusions tentatively reached by this project are not sweeping generalizations of everyone who suffers from psychopathy and further research is still needed to test the broader relevance of these new findings.

The study took place at King’s College London and compared fMRI scans of violent offenders, to psychopathic violent offenders with convictions for things such as murder and rape, as well as people with no history of criminal violence. The subjects had to play a matching game while inside the MRI machine, but the game was tricky because the rules changed without warning. The scans showed how the offenders failed to learn from the “punishments” implemented by the game when the wrong choice was made. Through this study the researchers found actual structural differences between both the gray and white matter fibers tracts of the psychopaths.

When “punished” by the game by receiving a deduction of points for something that used to result in a gain, the brains of the non-psychopathic criminals’ scans were very similar to those of the “normal” people. In the brains of the psychopaths, the regions of the brain associated with both empathy and learning responded differently. This suggests that psychopathic criminals have structurally different mental pathways of learning from a punishment/reward system. This can tie into an inability to learn from or anticipate different consequences when planning or committing a crime.

A good insight to take away from this study is that maybe if children who are found to have pre-psychopathic tendencies such as aggression and anti-socialness, that there can be an intervention of their learning patterns that could potentially change specific brain mechanisms behind psychopathy. If a program such as this were to come about it could have the potential to significantly reduce the amount of psychopathically violent criminals.

Sorry I Couldn’t Pick Just One: the return of the passion blog

Okey doke guys here we go again. It’s been a while since my last passion blog post so I’m gonna throw a few things in this time instead of focusing on just one:

Why You Do (or don’t) Get Bitten

Studies have shown tons of different factors that can attract mosquitos. Everything from having type O blood to being pregnant or drinking beer have all come up as potential causes of attraction. But now they’ve found that a component of sweat may actually be another attractant. This component is lactic acid, commonly found in dairy, but also found in sweat (who knew?). According to the article, this is also why mosquitos can be attracted to cheese and even smelly feet. Ew. Anyways, while this is a relatively new discovery, there are still probably tons of other things that somehow make us look appealing to your average little bloodsucking mosquito, we just don’t know what they all are yet!

Your Immune System vs. Binge Drinking

Somewhat in honor of (yet completely unrelated to…) the last week that we had to post blogs…… apparently just one night of binge drinking can knock down your immune system, and in just twenty minutes. After volunteers because intoxicated (in a controlled lab setting of course) blood samples were taken twenty minutes, two hours, and five hours later. The cells were already in an inflamed state just twenty minutes in. At the later marks, the test results showed a much more sluggish and suppressed immune system. So make good choices kiddos, I hear the flu’s going around again.

Australian Artificial Pancreases

The pancreas is a critical organ that is responsible for synthesizing vital hormones and proteins, such as insulin. People with type 1 diabetes have an autoimmune disorder that greatly diminishes the amount of insulin that the pancreas can make and use. This is the “bad type” of diabetes that is usually thought of as more severe and thought to be incurable. But now there is hope for a cure through the revolutionary treatment that doctors in Australia have come up with. A four-year-old boy with type 1 diabetes has recently been given an artificial pancreas to automatically regulate his insulin levels. Unlike preexisting pumps, this new device doesn’t constantly pump insulin into his system, but rather it has a special algorithm that can calculate when insulin is needed and can then deliver it. This is a revolutionary advance because users of the traditional pumps run the risk of hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) attacks usually happen when patients are asleep, making it all the more difficult to identify and treat them. But this new artificial pancreas can predict hypoglycemic attacks before they even start and stop insulin delivery just in time. Not only does this offer health benefits but it also increases the patients’ quality of life: they can eat normal foods without worrying about consequences and the device is also waterproof for convenience.

Well that’s all for now folks, seeya!