Saturday, March 26, 2011

NewScientist: Nanoparticle capsule keeps tabs on tumours

It looks as if there is finally a sure way of monitoring the proliferation of mutated cancer in the body. The invention occurred at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT as it is commonly known. A small capsule, nanometers long  has been devised which does not involve any invasive procedures such as ionising radiation or even surgical treatments. This small device can simply be injected into the bloodstream like any normal vaccination. The nanoparticle contains engineered proteins present on its surface that bind with specific molecules such as human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG), a hormone that tumour cells overproduce in testicular and ovarian cancer.

 The only way to detect such a capsule is by using a MRI scanner which has caused some dilemma among the medical community since such devices are expensive to obtain. The prospect of having a handheld scanner would be much more appealing. The nanocapsules have been successfully tested on mice although not on humans. Another problem is how to distinguish between regrowing cells and tumour cells since they produce the exact same hormones. But, as the scientific community has shown over the last few decades it is much easier to solve a problem if it didn't even occur in the first place. The same applies towards cancer. Prevention is the key, my dear world.

Sunday, March 20, 2011 How Japan's Nuclear Crisis Works

The recent crisis in Japan has set in motion a series of uncontrollable events in the nuclear energy community. Both the earthquake and the tsunami that followed hit the Fukushima II Dai Ni power plant causing several problems with the nuclear core. As the media told the world this story, panic spread across country. Evacuation of the area around the plant due to higher than normal radiation levels followed. An unsuccessful attempt by the Japanese authorities which included using helicopters carrying large containers of water to cool down the plant suggested that there was no prevention methods put in place before the disaster.

The workings of a nuclear power plant are in fact quite simple. Nuclear fuel, which in modern commercial nuclear power plants comes in the form of enriched uranium, naturally produces heat as uranium atoms split. The heat is used to boil water and produce steam. The steam drives a steam turbine, which spins a generator to create electricity. It seems that the problem in Fukushima plant was a pair of control rods which absorbed neutrons during the process of fission and also involved water pumps. The control rods were from the 1960s which was the most likely cause for their failure during the earthquake. The design's vulnerability comes into play if the electric pumps lose power. Without a fresh supply of water in the boiler, the water continues boiling off, and the water level starts falling. If enough water boils off, the fuel rods are exposed and they overheat. At some point, even with the control rods fully inserted, there is enough heat to melt the nuclear fuel.

It has not however come to this point as of yet, according to the Japanese authorities. The reactor is stable for now. But how close have we come to nuclear disaster once again? Is another Chernobyl about to occur? The event in Japan is being described as Level 6 INES events (International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale). Chernobyl is level 7. The enormity of the disaster is just being analyzed. Hopefully this crisis will stimulate technologies that will make nuclear energy safer rather than abandoning it completely.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

New Scientist: How to Mend a Broken Heart

Mitosis is the natural healer of body tissues. Whenever we suffer an injury to our skin or even internal lesions, mitosis will occur and replace the damaged cells with new exactly identical ones. The only drawback of this method is that it takes a great amount to occur by itself. This is why we apply oxygenated water to our wounds. To speed up this process. New studies have shown that some fish and amphibians have extraordinary regenerative abilities but only mammal embryos possess such a skill. The heart in particular was analyzed.

The results were not what was expected. One day old mice had a small chunk of the heart removed for this analysis. The rest of the organ was then removed 21 days later and it was observed that the heart tissue that was missing was completely regenerated. However the same phenomenon did not occur for fully grown mice. This suggests that the human baby also possess such regenerative abilities. If these abilities could be transferred to a an adult it would actually mean the end of any and all external lesions and wounds. That is the dream.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

New Scientist: New drug hits root of cystic fibrosis

A drug that can permanently cure cystic fibrosis, the most common hereditary disease known to man. That is the dream of the many sufferers around the globe who have an inability to transfer chloride ions so mucus builds up in their lungs causing breathlessness and possible death due to lack of oxygen transfer to cells. Two drugs have surged to combat this disease however. One of them is called VX-770, or as they like to call it, a placebo. This is quite confusing to me since a placebo is not a drug, it is simply the belief of a patient that he is being treated when in actual fact he is not. But I digress. After receiving VX-770, 20% of patients actually improved their lung function somehow.

Most other treatments for cystic fibrosis actually targeted the symptoms and tried to alleviate those. This new drug goes directly to the source: a faulty protein in the transmembrane regulator. As the drug fixes the problem the channel proteins open up again allowing the transfer of chloride ions through its plasma membrane. This slows down the onset of symptoms and the effect on the digestive system is eased.

The cystic fibrosis allele is recessive

The problem of this new treatment is that it only 5% of the total population of cystic fibrosis sufferers can be cured. That is where the second, as of yet unknown, drug comes in. Scientists hope that a combination of both these drugs could be final cure that is required. An ultimatum for the disease if you will. Hopefully science will be successful once again.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Scientific American: Our Own Olfactory World

I have often believed that my nose could not detect some smells that permeate my environment. It started when my parents introduced me to the wonders, as they called it, of smelling wine. Try as hard as I might I could never smell any of the fruits that they did. And now, there is a scientifical explanation for this type of characteristic. It turns out that people differ in the way they perceive smells and there are even some odours that we will never have the pleasure of detecting. I witnessed this phenomenon many times throughout my life.

It seems that humans, during Darwin's evolutionary process, grew much more reliant upon hearing and seeing rather than smelling. Our genes that encode for the smell sense suffered many mutations, which accumulate to form pseudogenes. Different combinations of these pseudogenes result in a different olfactory experience for every human being.

This study made by geneticist, Drono Lancet of Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science has a far wider set of implications than just a different olfactory sense.  The mechanism of mutations and their combinations in a person could one day prove to be helpful in analyzing polygenic diseases such as coronary heart disease and diabetes. And in the case of wine, let's just hope that I'll still be able to enjoy the pleasure of drinking such a beverage in the future without the smells that are contained in it.