Advocacy Project: The Untreatable Epidemic

When people talk about factory farming and modern agricultural practices, we tend to think about pollution, animal cruelty, and fattened, hormone-filled meat. These are definitely important concerns; but there is an even more insidious problem that can become a major threat to public health– antibiotic-resistant infections.

Right now, 80% of the antibiotics made in the U.S. are fed to factory-farmed animals to promote growth and to counter unsanitary living conditions. Most of this ends up in manure, which is used to fertilize our vegetables. The rest of this 80% remains in the meat that we will eat. Throughout this process, bacteria have countless opportunities to be exposed to antibiotics in small amounts. The low concentrations of these drugs don’t wipe out all the germs in the animal/region/food, but they kill enough non-resistant bugs that the ones who happen to be resistant would have less competition for resources. With more space and nutrients available to them, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are free to grow out of control and completely take over whichever animal/region/food the antibiotics happen to be in. In addition, resistant bacteria have the ability to copy their DNA and transfer it to their non-resistant peers.

Here’s the CDC’s illustration of the chain of resistance and infection:

(Courtesy of the CDC)

                                                            (Courtesy of the CDC)

If there are high enough numbers of these bacteria, they will become pathogenic and cause diseases. And the most concerning part is that these are the same medicines that are used to treat human diseases. So if someone shows up to the hospital with resistant infections, the drugs would no longer work.

This is exactly what’s been happening with the recent outbreak of Salmonella in the United States. So far, about 500 people have been infected in 25 states. There are seven strains of bacteria involved, all of which are resistant to antibiotics. This has been traced back to a poultry producer in California that – you guessed it – use antibiotics in their animal feed.

The CDC estimates that at least 2 million Americans end up in the hospital with antibiotic-resistant infections each year, and this number is increasing.



There is no doubt that antibiotic resistant is a major problem. But New York representative Louise Slaughter proposed a bill last year called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) that, if passed, would require the FDA to re-review its approval for seven major classes of antibiotics used in agriculture that are also important for human infections. This could mean huge changes in the way factory farms work. Unfortunately, there has been so much lobbying against this bill that it has been referred to committee and pretty much forgotten. My advocacy project is trying to drum up support for PAMTA through a petition and a letter to our representative, Glenn Thompson. But even if this bill is never passed, hopefully people will become more aware of this issue and more things will be done to address it.


Partial List of Sources:

[#ThirdWorldProblems Issue 2]: World Malaria Day!


(Picture courtesy of

(Picture courtesy of

Friday, April 25th was World Malaria Day! This is a date designed to raise awareness and funding for malaria- one of the Big Three” diseases that together account for one out of every ten deaths in the world. (The other two are tuberculosis and AIDS). This year, the theme was: “Invest in the future. Defeat malaria.”

And malaria definitely deserves more attention and research. Every year, more than 200 million people are infected and more than 600,000 people (mostly children under 5 years old) are killed by this disease. That’s about 20 times the number of students in Penn State!

The parasite that causes malaria is also harder to study than many others because it has such a complex life cycle. It does completely different things depending on whether it is inside a mosquito, in someone’s liver, or in their bloodstream. So researchers have to decide the exact part of the life cycle they will focus on, and consider many other ecological and social factors when talking about the disease (since mosquitoes are the main carriers). As if that’s not complicated enough, it also infects monkeys and other animals that can come into contact with people, so only treating the disease in humans wouldn’t eradicate it.

(Diagram courtesy of

(Diagram courtesy of

The main symptoms of malaria include nausea, fatigue, fever, chills, muscle pain, and an enlarged spleen. However, some people may develop a more serious set of complications when the parasite invades the brain– they can get hallucinations, slip into a coma, and die. As of now there is actually no way to determine which patients are at risk for these dangerous types of malaria. And so many children who have a high chance of dying are just sent home with mild malaria medication.

However, a study was published just last Wednesday about a pretty amazing discovery— researchers in Sweden have found 13 proteins that are present in the blood samples of patients with the lethal form of malaria, but are much less common in patients with mild malaria.

“Our results indicate that there is muscle tissue that is broken down, particularly in patients who have cerebral malaria (the lethal type) — something that does not occur in patients who have lighter malaria variants,” explains Dr. Nilsson, a professor at the university that published the paper. Apparently the byproducts of muscle breakdown can be identified from blood tests.

This discovery has pretty awesome implications– physicians would be able to easily identify children with deadly malaria, and then care for them accordingly. And the local governments of malaria-stricken countries (and US agencies like the FDA) don’t require approval for testing blood samples, so this can happen very quickly. If this really works, the mortality rate of malaria could be reduced drastically. World Malaria Day has definitely gone well this year.




[#ThirdWorldProblems Issue]: Sleeping Sickness

Sleeping sickness is one of those diseases that we don’t hear much about in the US but are a huge concern in many tropical regions. It is common in 49 countries in Africa and infects over 10,000 people a year– in some places it is actually the most common cause of death.10,000 people might not seem like much, but sleeping sickness is a chronic infection and can stay in a patient for months or years without causing any symptoms. And by the time symptoms show up, the person is probably in an advanced stage and his nervous system has already been invaded. The infected person would experience “changes in behavior, confusion, sensory disturbances, poor coordination, and disturbance of the sleep cycle,” according to the World Health Organization. Just like rabies, it eventually causes victims to go mad, fall into a coma, and die.

You can read more here.

A pregnant tsetse fly. Look how repulsive that is

A pregnant tsetse fly– female flies tend to “breast-feed” their young.

Sleeping sickness is almost always transmitted through a bite from the tsetse fly (which also carries many other diseases that kill livestock), so getting rid of this insect would pretty much stop the epidemic. Just this month, researchers at Yale announced that they had finished sequencing the genome of the tsetse fly after ten years of work.

This is a really big deal because the tsetse fly has proved to be very difficult to study so far. Most insects lay hundreds of identical eggs at a time, but this fly gives birth to one larvae at a time and has no more than 10 children during her lifetime. The entire genome project was done with only 15 flies.

One major issue with research on sleeping sickness is lack of funding– because this disease is really only an issue in third-world countries, it gets very little money from governments in Europe, North America, or other well-off regions. Dr. Aksoy, who ran the genome sequencing project at Yale, expalined “Sleeping sickness is a neglected disease, an African disease,” she said, “so we didn’t get [the huge amounts of money that went into research on mosquitoes, which are a threat to Americans].” The sequencing project was almost completely funded by the World Health Organization and various nonprofit groups. Many of the scientists were volunteers.

The researchers have already discovered several genes that can be exploited to either kill the fly (with specially made pesticides) or to make it resistant to the parasite that causes sleeping sickness. Hopefully this new discovery will lead to some treatments for sleeping sickness or weapons against the insect. But more importantly, this might also bring more attention to many other neglected diseases that are wreaking havoc in third-world regions but are not receiving enough support for progress to be made.




The Ripple Effect of Oil

We probably all remember the disastrous BP oil spill of 2010, when over 4.1 billion barrels of crude oil spewed into the ocean over the course of three months. This has become old news– I personally haven’t heard about this oil spill for a long time and the media rarely talks about it anymore. But even though the leak has been stopped and the panic has died down, some of the more serious effects of this event are only just starting to be felt.

This past fishing season has unearthed an extremely high number of deformed animals, including eyeless, clawless, or shell-less crabs, fish with lesions and tumors and no livers, and clams with soft shells.

The Simpsons called it years ago (Picture courtesy of

The Simpsons called it years ago        (Picture courtesy of

In fact, according to Louisiana commercial fisher Tracy Kuhns, more than half of the shrimp caught in a popular shrimping area by the Gulf of Mexico had no eyes. One fisherman caught 400 pounds of shrimp at the height of the shrimp season, none of which had eyes (or even eye sockets).

In the meantime, researchers from the US and Australia discovered that embryos of large commercial fish (including herring, salmon, tuna, etc.) also tended to develop deformities and have shorter lifespans after being exposed to crude oil.This study was done in a lab, and although people haven’t noticed major dents in commercial fish populations due to these deformities, it’s a little alarming that oil can have long-lasting effects that go beyond just coating someone’s feathers or gills, and that can appear a long time after the disaster.

But why are these effects only showing up now? It turns out that crude oil is a mutagen that damages the DNA of many different animals. After several generations, these changes actually become part of the species’ genome and can lead to birth defects or cancer.

Shrimp with tumors and no eyes
(Photo courtesy of

This raises even more concerns— how can this affect beachgoers in Florida and other places in the South? What did the fishermen do with all the deformed animals they caught? What about dolphins, whales, and sharks that depend on these creatures for food? Are there any other less visible effects that could be even more dangerous? One thing we can be sure about is that the consequences of the spill are turning out to be much messier than we had thought.

So what does the government plan to do to address this issue? Go back to offshore drilling as soon as possible, of course. In fact, oil companies have pretty much gone back to doing whatever they were doing before the spill, and Senator David Ritter of Louisiana is currently advocating for more drilling permits for the Gulf of Mexico. “Mother Nature has proved amazingly resilient with recovering from the spill,” he cheerfully observed.



Trapped No More

The last thing you remember is crashing your car. You end up in the hospital with major brain damage and slip into a coma for an extremely long time. When you wake up, you can finally see and hear what’s going on around you– your family and friends and doctors talking to you and asking questions. You understand exactly what they are saying, but your body just won’t move the way it should and you can’t even turn your eyes to glance at them. You can’t wiggle your toes to prove to your doctor that you’re “in there,” and after nine or ten years, the people around you start giving up hope.

Sound like a pretty bad situation? Unfortunately, this might be a true story for many survivors of serious accidents or illnesses who are classified as “vegetative” (they haven’t shown signs of awareness for six months). “Vegetative” people have basic reflexes and can breathe, make noises, and move their eyes, but are unable to track movements with their eyes, or perform voluntary movements when they are told to.

Until recently, there hasn’t been much evidence that vegetative people were truly aware of their surroundings. But this changed in 2006, when Dr. Adrian Owen found a way to communicate with people who couldn’t move; using an fMRI machine (functional magnetic resonance imaging), he identified two different brain areas that were activated when the patient imagined herself playing tennis, and when she thought about walking through her house. Playing tennis caused parts of the motor cortex to light up, while exploring the house activated another area in the center of the brain. Dr. Owen then asked several vegetative people obvious questions, like “Is the sky blue?” or “Do you have three siblings?” and they would think about tennis for yes, and house for no. The patients shocked doctors and scientists everywhere by answering almost all of the questions correctly.

Terri Schiavo– could fMRI have allowed her to communicate with her family?
(Photo courtesy of

As soon as the public realized that fMRI can be used to communicate with vegetative people, everyone wanted this technology to become more accessible so they could use it. Right now, Dr. Owen is working on making fMRI machines more portable and user-friendly so family members of these accident victims could take advantage of it.

fMRI machines are bulky and expensive to run.
(Photo courtesy of Bing Images)

This discovery also brings up many more questions. What brain areas can be activated by other simpler thoughts (since walking through your house or playing tennis would take at least 30 seconds to imagine)? Will fMRI technology become advanced enough that you can guess exactly what the person’s thoughts are, without having to ask yes-no questions? And on a more serious note, can we rely on these machines to ask patients if they want to end their life support? There are lots of possibilities, and I’m excited to see where this will go in the future!



The Doping Games

What kind of blog would this be if it didn’t at least mention the biggest sporting event in the world this month? The Olympics in Sochi started on February 6th with figure skating, and the closing ceremony will take place this Sunday, February 23rd. Most of these athletes have been training for their whole lives for their events and are unquestionably awesome at them. But some people might want to get an extra boost by trying performance-enhancing drugs before they compete.

So far, at least three athletes have failed doping tests in Sochi. One of them is a Russian biathlete who stepped down shortly before the games began; another is a German competitor who was found out this Friday; the third is an Italian bobsledder who was sent home on the 18th.

Russian athlete Irina Starykh failed a steroid test and was disqualified at the beginning of the games.

Elite Russian biathlete Irina Starykh failed a steroid test and was disqualified at the beginning of the games.  Picture courtesy of RiaNovosti (

The purpose of drug testing isn’t just to even the playing field; steroids can have harmful effects on athletes’ health. One of the most common drugs is Oral-Turinabol, which does a great job boosting physical abilities. However, it also causes long-term heart and liver problems, along with more minor side effects like body hair and voice deepening.

Early in the games, chairman of the medical commission Arne Ljungqvist, expressed his confidence in Russia’s drug testing system: “Who knows who is the smartest, the athletes and their entourage or our scientists… I [personally believe that] our scientists are probably smarter than those around the athletes.”

And indeed, Russia has promised to implement the toughest drug testing system in Olympic history. They are using a new procedure called the “long-term metabolites method,” which can detect anabolic steroids more than six months after athletes take them. This method is apparently so effective that the IOC (the Russian committee responsible for drug testing) are starting to use it on frozen urine samples from the 2006 Olympics. But there is always the question, how many athletes have used performance-enhancing drugs, but for some reason were never discovered?

Right now, it seems that science is being used to both develop better performance-enhancing drugs and better ways to test for them. Do you think that maybe this is a no-win cycle and we should just allow steroid use in sports competitions? Or should there be stricter punishments for drugs so athletes and coaches would be less willing to try them?



For the [Permanent] Cure

So THON is happening this weekend, and there is no doubt that it’s for an important cause– in the United States in 2007, 10,400 children under age 15 were diagnosed with cancer and about 15% of them will die from it. Cancer is actually the most deadly disease for children in this age group. In 2009, the five-year survival rate for leukemia (the most common childhood cancer) was only 59%. The problem is that the current treatments for cancer often don’t keep the patient from relapsing years later.

The five-year survival rates for leukemia and similar cancers have been increasing over the past few years, but they are still rather low.

The five-year survival rates for leukemia and similar cancers have been increasing over the past few years, but they are still rather low.

Obviously, research needs to be done to not only treat cancer, but to cure it and keep it from reappearing during the person’s lifetime.

One recent development seems promising. An article published in Science Translational Magazine reported the results of a massive clinical trial that tested a new therapy– researchers extracted some of the patients’ T cells (one type of white blood cell), genetically modified them to attack cancer cells, and injected them back into the patient’s body. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia causes B cells (a different type of white blood cell) to divide out of control, but because they look like regular cells, the body’s immune system doesn’t recognize it as harmful. Current treatments don’t work well for this type of leukemia; 70% of patients do not respond to chemotherapy and even those who do respond, or who have received bone marrow transplants, tend to relapse quickly.

The idea behind this new therapy is pretty simple; if the body’s own cells can be trained to fight cancer, the person would have a lifelong anti-leukemia “drug” that works constantly and is not toxic. In the end, it’s true the patient would not have any B cells (even healthy ones) but the health effects of this are much less severe than they would be for leukemia.

So far, 88% of leukemia patients who participated in the clinical trial have recovered completely after receiving this therapy.

One author of this study is very optimistic, saying, “These extraordinary results demonstrate that cell therapy is a powerful treatment for patients who have exhausted all conventional therapies… we are already looking at new clinical studies to advance this novel therapeutic approach in fighting cancer.”

This seems like a rather brilliant therapy and everyone is very optimistic about it. But what do you think? Could it be risky to modify the body’s cells and inject them back inside? What kinds of ethical concerns might come up later? Or is leukemia such a serious disease that these concerns aren’t the main priority?



Special Penn State Issue: Chocolate and Change

This past Saturday I decided to go to a Frontiers of Science seminar, just to see what it was like and because it involved chocolate. Frontiers of Science is a four part “mini-course” given by Penn State professors for the community. Anyone can attend (in fact there are a lot of awesome old people there), and the topics seem really interesting; next week the talk will be about killer asteroids!

The chocolate talk was given by Dr. Maximova and Dr. Guiltinan, two professors in the department of plant sciences who are trying to genetically modify cacao plants to survive better in warmer environments. This research is important, they explained, because cacao trees represent the livelihoods of many farmers living in Africa and South America. Chocolate is also a major cash crop and supports many local economies (including Hershey). However, global warming has made many regions much warmer than they should be, encouraging the growth of viruses and fungi– including ones that affect cacao trees. As a result, certain regions are becoming unsuitable for cacao growth. This is predicted to be much worse by 2050:

Photo courtesy of

So research is being done to make cacao trees and other cash crops more resistant to warmer temperatures, and the “drought, floods, diseases, and pests” that come with it. Dr. Guiltinan gave an example: Black Pod Rot is a disease that causes cacao pods to turn black and rot, and has become more common as a result of climate change. The Penn State lab identified a gene that helps make trees more resistant to it, and is trying to breed together plants that overexpress this gene.

All in all, this research sounds fascinating, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about the “drought, floods, diseases, and pests” that were mentioned. Are genetically modification and selective breeding of cash crops really our biggest priority right now if we are faced with droughts and floods and diseases and pests? Would farmers in Africa be more affected by crop losses or by malaria? (Floods would help mosquitoes breed and spread malaria.) If global warming could harm cacao in such a significant way, how much would it affect the millions of other organisms that we are not genetically modifying?

Some would even argue that genetic modification of crops is unnecessary. Euloge Agbossou, a professor in Benin, Africa, said: “People are not waiting for engineers, scientists and researchers in order to adapt to climate change. They are aware of the phenomenon, they feel it around them and they have adapted to it.”

Personally, I feel it might help to focus on slowing down climate change. That may prevent a lot of problems. But what do you think? What would be the best way to fix world hunger and save the economy, while preserving biodiversity and the climate? It’s definitely a difficult question.

Basically, I really learned a lot from the talk on Saturday and it was super eye-opening. If anyone is interested in going to the Frontiers of Science series, here is some information about the lectures:



The Business of Medicine

Can scientific developments and economic growth cause as much harm as they do good? Recent New York Times articles bring up this question by addressing an interesting topic: the increasing popularity of testosterone creams.

These creams are often prescribed to aging men to reverse the effects of aging; according to one study, people taking testosterone cream became stronger and had better endurance than those who were not. However, their chances of getting heart disease (particularly heart attacks and strokes) increased by about five times. Other studies have shown that this risk is especially high for men over 65– the age group that testosterone marketing is aimed toward.

Testosterone is supposed to be prescribed for men with a condition called hypogonadism, which causes extremely low testosterone levels. However, some physicians have been prescribing supplements to more and more people who have only slightly low levels of testosterone even though many others say there really isn’t a standard level of the hormone that everyone should have, and the risks of using testosterone cream would outweigh the benefits.

Dr. Lisa Schwartz, a professor at Dartmouth University, summed it up with: “We’re giving people hormones that we don’t know they need, for a disease that we don’t know they have, and we don’t know if it’ll help them or harm them.”

So with all the scientific evidence against it, why is testosterone treatment still so popular, and why hasn’t the government tried harder to regulate it? There have been no official, government-funded clinical trials to determine the benefits and risks of taking testosterone. As of now, we don’t know if the bone loss and decreased strength of older people is really due to low levels of this hormone, or if taking supplements would reverse these problems.

However, some people say that clinical trials (which would keep testosterone on the market for at least the duration of the trial) aren’t the best course of action; a Hunter College professor argued, “It’s in the interest of the pharmaceutical companies to have a trial going on for ten years. In that time, they can continue to sell testosterone.” She definitely has a point. Sales of testosterone gels alone (not counting supplements or pills or even nasal sprays) generated about $2 billion in the United States in 2013, and the profit is expected to double by 2017.

So at some point in history, testosterone was isolated and synthesized in large amounts, and then sold to people for a huge profit. But did this development happen for a good cause? Is it doing as much harm as it is doing good? We will definitely need to do more research to find out.



First Blog about Space!

Ever since the the first rover landed on Mars decades ago, people have been wondering: what’s next? What else are we going to send to this planet? Could humans go on vacation on Mars, or maybe even live there for years at a time?

These questions have come up again in recent years, when three astronauts landed in Kazakhstan after spending six months aboard the International Space Station. These astronauts, and many others who have gone on previous missions, had experienced similar health issues: their eyeballs were squashed, resulting in farsightedness; they tended to eat and sleep less while in space; and the vestibular fluid in their inner ears, which gives people their sense of direction, made the astronauts extremely disoriented once they returned to gravity. Scientists think these are results of the lack of gravity in space. Fluid would build up in the top of the body, increasing the pressure in the brain, eyes, and chest.

The tricky thing is, it’s very difficult to predict these kinds of effects without sending people into space first. Even now, many decades after the first space mission, scientists have trouble explaining some of the “side effects” that astronauts have developed. And these are definitely major concerns if we want to spend more time in the ISS, or travel to Mars.

An astronaut is strapped to a treadmill aboard the ISS. In an environment with no gravity, exercising is necessary to keep bones from weakening and being broken down by the body.

An astronaut is strapped to a treadmill aboard the ISS. In an environment with no gravity, exercising is required to keep bones from weakening and being broken down by the body.    (Photo courtesy of

Even though farsightedness wouldn’t have a huge effect on someone’s life, and vertigo would probably go away after a few days, NASA is worried about other less obvious, more dangerous, effects that astronauts might suffer. The massive amount of radiation that is normally absorbed by earth’s atmosphere could make astronauts more likely to die of cancer. And what are the long-term effects of having a lot of fluid in your head for a long time?

As Dr. Barratt (a physician who stayed at the International Space Station for six months) put it, “What are the long-term implications? That’s the $64 million question.”

Right now, studies are being done (with mice, and with astronauts who have spent time in space) to find out just what these implications are. Researchers are making solid progress and developing new technologies, like the treadmill-harness, to protect against the effects of space travel. It might be decades before we have learned enough to attempt a mission to Mars, but a program that would send healthy astronauts to Mars, and bring them back in the same condition, is definitely an awesome thing to work toward.