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Medical use of marijuana doesn’t actually work? May 5, 2010

Posted by Jill in Health, Medicine, Policy, Science & Culture.
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Could this soon become a reality?

According to the Washington Post, the Washington D.C. Council has proposed a bill allowing doctors to legally recommend marijuana as a potential medicine for treating cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, or coping with diseases such as cancer or HIV/AIDS. According to this law, doctors are not allowed to prescribe the use of marijuana because the substance is illegal, requiring their patients to acquire their marijuana from illegal sources or though one of the five to eight government-regulated dispensaries. Although doctors cannot prescribe marijuana, the dosage allowed for their patients, according to this law, states that patients can use the marijuana “until they decide they are, well, high enough. The exact dosage and means of delivery — as well as the sometimes perplexing process of obtaining a drug that remains illegal under federal law — will be left largely up to the patient. And that, Chopra said, upends the way doctors are used to dispensing medication, giving the strait-laced medical establishment a whiff of the freewheeling world of weed.”

A new study questions these findings

The use of medicinal marijuana is prescribed for Alzheimer’s patients because previous studies have shown that HU210, which is a synthetic form of the cannabinoids found in marijuana, reduces the toxicity of plaques in the brain as well as promotes the growth of new neurons. A new study conducted by Dr. Weihong Song, Canada Research Chair in Alzheimer’s Disease and a professor of psychiatry in the UBC Faculty of Medicine, was the first to test those findings using mice carrying human genetic mutations that cause Alzheimer’s disease — widely considered to be a more accurate model for the disease in humans, rather than the previous study which exposed the HU210 compound to rats carrying amyloid protein, the toxin that forms plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims. The new study found that the mice treated with the HU210 compound still had formation of amyloid plaques as well as the mice that were not treated with the synthetic compound, which brings up questions as to the validity of the use marijuana having medicinal value.

Questions of policy addressed

Clearly, the medical benefits of using marijuana are still highly debated. So is it right that laws are being passed to use marijuana medicinally even though it is unclear what the effects of using marijuana are? Not to mention, if this law is passed, there will not be a restriction on how much marijuana that can be smoked, eaten, or vaporized for it is left up to the discretion of the patient. This idea goes against all logic and modern practices and policies regarding modern medicine. Doctors do not prescribe Vicodin for patients and let the patients determine how much they should take nor do they supply it at the patients demand. Doctors prescribe recommended amounts and only in small quantities for controlled, addictive substances because they are simply that, addictive, and the ability to obtain these prescriptions is still highly abused. If the use of medical marijuana is legalized in Washington D.C. according to the stipulations of the law currently, what will prevent the abuse of another addictive and misused drug ?

The full article covered by the Washington Post can be found here.

The HU210 studies can be found in the journal Current Alzheimer Research

Avatar offers more than just a great story line and cool special effects May 3, 2010

Posted by Jill in Fun, Science & Culture.

Cameron now working with NASA

Although Avatar provided a great turnout for the Marian University Science Club showing of the Earth Day outdoor movie, it appears that the film might have scientific benefits as well. Because of the 3-D camcorders used in the

blockbuster, James Cameron’s Avatar, NASA is partnering with James Cameron to help build 3-D cameras for the next Mars rover, appropriately named Curiosity. Attempts to build such a type of camera were abandoned in 2007 due to the mere cost of production of such a camera. Cameron petitioned to NASA to help build the 3-D cameras for the new rover even though all four cameras, called Mastcams, for the rover have been built.

The last two cameras built will be replaced by the new 3-D camera if construction and testing can be finished in time for final rover testing happening in the early portion of next year. The 3-D zoom Mastcams that NASA plans on building with Cameron’s state-of-the-art equipment will be used to capture better, more detailed images than previously able to capture with the original Mastcams. Another benefit of these cameras is that the rover will be able to shoot 3-D cinematic video while on Mars.


The rover was originally set to launch in 2009, but due to funding restraints, the launch was postponed until further funding could be gathered. The mission of Curiosity is to determine if life had existed on Mars and also to prep for an eventual manned mission to land on Mars. Critics, like Steven Hawking, warn about the potential dangers associated with contacting or attempting to find life outside of Earth for many reasons including the problems encountered in the film, Avatar, including the fact that invading or even potentially contacting another life form could “be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.” As Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker in Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Hawking, as well as others, admonishes researchers to be weary when contacting or exploring life outside of our planet because it is impossible to know what encounters we will find and how other life forms could potentially react to non-natives.

The full news article can be found at NASA: James Cameron to develop 3-D camera for Mars rover.

Do sick people trigger immune responses in people that are not sick? May 2, 2010

Posted by Jill in Behavior, Biology, Health, Neuroscience.
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Chicken pox

The answer to this question is apparently, yes. A new study suggests that when people see someone that is blowing their nose, coughing, sneezing, or generally looking under the weather, could potentially trigger an immune response. In the study, participants were shown images of people with cold-like symptoms or other infectious diseases, such as pox or skin lesions, while another group of participants were not shown images of people feeling or looking sick. Among the two groups, blood samples were taken from all of the individuals to determine the extent of an immune response. Researchers found that the participants that were shown the images of the sick people mounted a stronger immune response against bacteria that had been added to each blood sample.

Similar photo to what study participants viewed that triggered an immune response

According to Lindsay Lyon, a reporter for U.S. News, reported seven ways to prevent from getting a cold. One of these ways was actually broadening one’s social network—those with larger and more diverse social networks tend to have less colds or are able to fight off colds better than those with smaller social circles. Sheldon Cohen, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, backs this theory with a line of evidence saying that people who are socially connected tend to live much longer than those with weak or a small number of relationships. Most experts would argue that the quality of a relationship beats the quantity of relationships, but Cohen argues that his data indicates the two factors are relatively similar, but either one has a positive impact on longevity.

The full study can be found in the Journal of Psychological Science.


Gattaca… is it now a reality? April 30, 2010

Posted by Jill in Biology, Genetics, Health, Medicine, Policy.
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Lego DNA helix

For anyone who has seen the movie Gattaca, the concept is mind-boggling. Could molecular genetics really go as far as artificially selecting for so traits as specific as having an innate ability to speak or play the piano or be a world-class swimmer, not just choosing for a tall blond-blue eyed baby? In the movie Gattaca, Vincent is one of the last “natural” babies born into this genetically-enhanced world, where life expectancy and disease likelihood are determined at birth. Myopic and scheduled to die at 30, he has no chance of pursuing a career in a society that now discriminates against your genes, rather gender, race or religion. He assumes the identity of Jerome, a world-class swimmer who was crippled in an accident, in order to achieve prominence in the Gattaca Corporation, a spaceflight company, where he is chosen for his lifelong dream of being on a manned mission to Saturn.

Although this movie is fiction and was produced in 1997, how far away from this society are we really? The Stanford University School of Medicine analyzed a healthy person’s DNA in an attempt to predict the long-term diseases or medical conditions he would face in the years to come. The genome was of Stephen Quake, who is the Lee Otterson Professor of Bioengineering. The thought is that along with a family medical history, patients could potentially have a genetic component to their medical history that would help physicians in determining whether or not certain medications will work or have adverse side effects for that patient based on their genetic makeup. Patients that are at a potentially higher risk for a certain condition or disease will be able to have closer monitoring of that condition through testing or observation even if not present in the patient. Another benefit to this form of “pre-screening” of genetic disorders is that it will be more cost effective and be more economically sound because it will reduce the prevalence of unnecessary tests, making medicine more efficient.

In conjunction with bioinformaticians, Atul Butte, MD, PhD, assistant professor in bioinformatics, and his lab members have already done a lot of the necessary leg work for interpreting the genetic code into something meaningful, like what individual codons or even base pairs mean in a particular part of the genome. They spent 18 months cataloguing publications that associated particular genetic changes called SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) with effects on specific diseases. It was the first time anyone had compiled all the information in one database.

Upon receiving the genome of Steve Quake, researchers were able to create an algorithm that analyzed all of the data they had compiled from previous studies against Quake’s genome to determine his risk factors for certain conditions such as obesity, Alzheimer’s, type-2 diabetes, and prostate cancer. They determined Quake’s risk of prostate cancer is about 23 percent, risk for Alzheimer’s diesease is 1.4 percent due to protection, and type-2 diabetes, coronnary artery disease, and obesity all at 50 percent. This information raises questions of patients actually knowing these alarming statistics because they are afraid of living their everyday lives. I’m sure this is similar to the idea of life insurance companies providing you the statistics for the likelihood that you will die if you walk across the street to your daily job. Most people do not want to know these things and if the problem arises, they will deal with it then instead of relying on knowing odds to predict what could potentially happen to them.

This new scientific research raises many ethical questions like should this be implemented to aid patients or should it be optional or is this an exploitation of personal information? As more of these findings are published, there will certainly be more controversial discussion in terms of what is right and wrong in exploring the meaning of our genomic fate.

The whole article can be found here.

Creationism vs. Evolution: How did we get here? April 30, 2010

Posted by Jill in Evolution, Genetics, History of Science, Science & Culture.
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Darwin's finches

I was in the library this week studying for finals and finishing up the rest of the work in my classes when I came across this book called Is God a Creationist, which contained many valid arguments for both scientific theory as well as theological explanations as to how life on this planet began. The age-old question of our existence has long been debated by both scientists and theologians.

Since Charles Darwin published his findings on the Galapagos finches and his theory about evolution, there has been an intense debate between scientists and theologians. Scientific evidence, such as carbon dating, dates the earth at about 4.54 billion years old, long before the existence of mankind. Theologians argue the biblical implications of the origins of the world saying that Earth was created by God and all living things were created by God. Literal interpretations of the Bible are difficult to comprehend for many reasons including the fact that the Bible was written 3,000 years ago so the interpretation and meaning of words could have been different than what they mean today and the fact that the Bible was not written as or intended to be a historical accurate account of the world because it is a book filled with symbolism.

The Bible contains two creation accounts in the book of Genesis. The first creation account can be found in Genesis 1-11. According to Michael D. Coogan, the first account of Genesis describes the “formation of the cosmos, an ordered universe, out of preexisting but chaotic matter—an unformed earth and unruly sea over which a wind from God swoops like a large bird” (Coogan 28)

The majority of evolutionary theorists believe that there was preexisting matter from which our universe has evolved. Besides the concepts of evolution, scientists are also known for having developed the “Big Bang Theory” to explain the origins of matter in a naturalistic framework, from which our universe was theoretically created. The Big Bang Theory is described as a moment 15 billion years ago when the total amount of matter in the universe exploded from a point and moved out to form the expanding universe today. The scientific perspective on the origins of the world can be described by: “the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover…the scientist’s pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation” (Is God a Creationist 35)

Evolution and natural selection cannot be ignored even by theologians because there is significant scientific evidence that states that both do and have existed. At the very least, it is evident that at least artificial selection exists because of the domestication of animals such as horses, dogs, and cats. Humans were able to domesticate or breed certain characteristics of an animal, for example wolves that were friendlier to man than those that tried to attack, and cultivated these characteristics over thousands of years to produce the species we know as our four-legged friends, dogs.

Do chimps think and act like us because they are one of our closest ancestors?

Through molecular genetics, it is possible to find evolutionary pathways through the similarities in homology of DNA between different living species. Also, extracted DNA from fossilization records are the scientific equivalent of “paternity tests” of our earliest ancestors, determining how closely related we are genetically to other species, namely apes. Molecular geneticists as well as evolutionary theorists believe that chimpanzees and humans emerged from a common ancestor 6 million years ago, dating long before the creation of Adam and Eve (according to the Biblical timeline). The genetic evidence for humans being potential “cousins” of chimps is astounding in that approximately 99% of our DNA is identical to that of chimpanzees. The one percent variance between our DNA and that of chimpanzee DNA is what distinguishes us from apes, but in the genetic world one percent could potentially mean that all of the DNA in that one percent is what makes us distinctly different from say starfish. Although theologians refuse to believe that humans evolved from apes, how do we account for species such as the Geico Neanderthals or other upright-walking mammals that shared more behaviors with humans than chimpanzees do. Neanderthals looked more like humans today than modern apes do, so how does religion account for these differences?

An interesting view on the culmination of both the scientific and religious aspects concerning our existence can best be described by John MacArthur: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Bacteriophages have been found to have new uses–making car fuel! April 29, 2010

Posted by Jill in Biology, Chemistry, Environment/Conservation, Fun, Genetics, Science & Culture.
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hydrogen-fueled car

For those molecular geneticists out there, you will appreciate the new discovery of using a genetically modified M13 phage as a source for making hydrogen fuel out of water!

The M13 bacteriophage is often used in molecular genetics work as a cloning vector. The phage contains a single strand circular DNA genome of 6407 nucleotides that is released into a host cell as a result of the phage absorption. When used in a host cell, the, the host cell proteins will form the double-strand replicative form (RF). This new circular RF DNA is required for M13 packaging because the viral proteins are synthesized from mRNA transcribed off the strand of the RF molecule. From here, M13 DNA is packaged at the host cell membrane, and then releases the infectious particles.

Researchers have found a way to harness the M13 virus in such a way to break apart water molecules, producing hydrogen fuel. Researchers have been able to genetically modify the M13 virus, normally infecting bacteria, so that it would instead bind to a catalyst called iridium oxide and a biological pigment, zinc porphyrins. The viruses then will naturally arrange themselves into a wirelike structure while the catalyst and pigments will harvest sunlight to divide the oxygen from the water molecule. The virus works in this mechanism in that the pigment acts as an “antenna” to collect the sunlight and transfer the energy down to the virus, emulating photosynthesis.

Researchers have successfully been able to separate the oxygen from the water molecule, which is the hardest part of the water-splitting process. The hydrogen will then split into its parts (electrons and protons), but researchers are still attempting to harvest the hydrogen parts in order to collect the gas separately and then convert the gas eventually into hydrogen fuel.

The benefits to this are numerous, including finding a green way of obtaining hydrogen fuel without creating carbon emissions as well as making the process self-sustaining. The ability to harness the mechanisms of photosynthesis in order to control the electron transport in a system is one of the biggest problems in creating a system for artificial synthesis, but this approach allows the transfer of electrons to be controlled.

The full article can be found here: GM viruses offer hope of future where energy is unlimited

I have also included an entertaining rap dealing with photosynthesis: Photosynthesis Rap

And before you’re a skeptic and are thinking that no one would make up a rap about photosynthesis, I found another rap about ATP synthesis: ATP Synthesis Rap

Is it a good or bad time for students who dream of going to medical school? April 28, 2010

Posted by Jill in Health, Medicine, Policy.
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With the passing of the 2010 healthcare bill, many more Americans will have access to healthcare.  Prior to the bill many people were unable to afford the astronomical costs of seeing a doctor regularly, not to mention paying for surgery or major medical procedures without insurance.

For many aspiring medical students, this is great!

There will be a need for more physicians to accommodate the number of patients that will be receiving this affordable healthcare. The need for primary care physicians is expected to skyrocket based off of the sheer number of physicians needed to meet the demand of a growing number of potential patients.

Where do we get these primary care physicians?

The problem that arises with the growing need of primary care physicians is that so many medical school students want to specialize in a particular field of medicine such as surgery or  cardiology because they have a particular passion for their interest. Also, physicians that specialize have a significantly higher income than those who are primary care physicians. Today, the United States is already shorthanded when it comes to primary care physicians and it will be difficult to meet the needs of the growing number of patients as they receive greater healthcare benefits.

There are some medical schools in the United States such as the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine that are responding to this call for primary care physicians by encouraging their students to get into primary-care medicine, such as pediatrics, OB-GYN, internal medicine, and family practice. With the annually increasing cost of medical school, it is difficult to steer students away from high-paying specialties. The University of Colorado, along with other medical schools, has started a “pipeline” program which allows promising high school students direct admission to medical school following college and help them with their debt, so as to encourage students to defer the cost of medical school. Also, increasing the size of medical school classes has helped in graduating more physicians per year, which will help in meeting the soon high demands of patient care.

How do we encourage students to be  primary care physicians?

Because the cost of medical school is so high, more programs need to be implemented to help medical students pay for their medical school and not have to rely on specializing in order to repay med school loans. The benefit of going to medical school at this point is that the job market isn’t saturated in the field for primary care physicians, but the question remains, who is willing to take the pay cut and potentially lengthen the amount of time it will take to pay off the debts of medical school?

If our government is willing to provide insurance to those who could not before afford it, should our government also be responsible for helping medical students with their tuition costs in order to provide these new patients with the proper healthcare that our country is known for as well as the manpower to manage the number of new insured patients?

Stop drinking Gatorade and try a bowl of cereal! April 27, 2010

Posted by Jill in Biology, Chemistry, Exercise, Health, Medicine, Nutrition.
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Following a long workout, most athletes prefer to drink massive amounts of water or a sports drink such as Gatorade or Powerade to refuel and quench their thirst. The benefit of sports drinks has long been discussed because they restore electrolytes and carbohydrates and aid in recovery following strenuous burning of calories. Water is an important player in rehydration, but most athletes know that post-workout they need to drink a sports drink to help them get through the next few days to prevent muscle fatigue and to able to continue to compete as early as the next day with as little muscle pain has possible.

Gatorade.. the drink of champions?

The carbohydrate-based sports drinks, like Gatorade and Powerade are usually used to replenish and refuel after competition-based sports or following a long run. The electrolytes in sports drinks aid in preventing lactic acid build-up in the muscles, preventing cramping following strenuous exercise.  An exercise physiologist from the University of Texas at Austin, Lynne Kammer, researched the physiological effects of certain types of foods. In this research, Kammer and her students studied 12 cyclists (8 male, 4 female) in order to determine the effects of whole grain cereal and milk versus sports drinks. Based off of protein synthesis and glycogen replenishment, whole grain cereal and milk performed as well as, and in cases, better than the sports drinks.

Cereal... the real food of champions

Cereal and fat free milk are a cost effective option over pricey sports drinks and potentially provide the same nutritional value. Although relatively inexpensive, as an athlete, cereal and milk do not sound as appetizing as a bottle of Gatorade following a hard workout.

The full contents of this study can be found in Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition