biology


So you know that HPV vaccine, the one that protects young women against a commonplace sexually transmitted virus that is causally related to more than 90% of cervical cancer cases? Turns out it may also help prevent certain types of breast cancer, which were found to contain HPV cells in a recent Australian study. Which begs the following very reasonable question: if the HPV vaccine has such potential to prevent suffering later in life, why are so many doctors in the United States loathe to innoculate young women with it?

While saying that the reason is ignorance or prudishness may be over simplifying the matter… it also may not. Gardasil is the latest vaccine to be taken out to the pseudo scientific woodshed with hysterical anecdotes and unpleasant but unsubstantiated tales of woe managing to drown out the reams of scientific data that say Gardasil is safe. While numbers of adverse reactions are statistically tiny, the web is replete with horror stories linking Gardasil to seizures and paralysis. There is, of course, no proven link between the tens millions of doses of Gardasil that have been administered and any symptoms more severe than fainting and blood clotting in tiny numbers of patients. While these potential side effects are serious and physicians should no doubt watch for them, side effects both real and imagined are being used more and more to spook young women and their parents into not getting the vaccine, or at least putting off the decision to vaccinate.

This wouldn’t be a problem, except that the three shot Gardasil regimen is only effective in preventing HPV – not in treating it, which is why all three shots have to be administered prior to sexual activity. This means the longer young women put off getting the vaccine, the less likely it is it will be effective.  And while the Moral Majority complains about the vaccine promoting promiscuity and teen sex and conservative doctors wring their hand and look for reasons not to administer the vaccine on right wing blogs when they can’t find any in medical journals, the FDA has approved Gardasil for use in young men as well to prevent them from carrying or spreading the disease, and from suffering the penile cancer that it is linked to later in life.

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Researchers at the University of Western England are working on making programmable robots out of living tissue, prompting the humble slime mold make the jump into the 21st century by getting all cybernetic up in here.

The mold has already proven capable of carrying small objects along during it’s growth process. Professor Andy Adamatzky and his team hope to take these possibilities to the next level, using chemical and light stimuli to control the way the mold grows, essentially programming it to carry objects to a specific point. Eventually, the hope is that they will be able to manipulate the mold, which already completes intricate computing tasks like finding the shortest distance between two points, to not only carry but assemble items.

Adamatzky isn’t the only one who thinks biological systems can help drive the next developments in computing and robotics. A recent episode of the Robots Podcast featured discussions with Charles Higgins, who is attaching the optic systems of dragonflies to improve robotic sensory capability and Steve Potter, who is growing neural circuits – essentially miniature brains in petri dishes – that, when attached to robotic sensors, can give us a better idea of how the same circuits function in the brain.

Scientists have known for some time that the appendix isn’t just a relic of evolution that’s stuck around too long, mucking up the works of the modern human body. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center showed years ago that the oft maligned organ acts as a place of refuge for the good bacteria that keep the human digestive system ticking away like a fine Swiss clock.

But a recent study by the same researchers shows that ill understood bacterial sac may be more important and interesting than anyone ever knew. The study, recently published in The Journal of Evolutionary Biology, shows that, at 80 million years old, the appendix has been quietly plugging away at it’s inglorious work for longer than most researchers suspected. It also turns out that appendices are more common than once thought – not only do many species have them, but appendices developed independently in marsupials and mammals, suggesting that their purpose may be as important as it is poorly understood.

But all due credit to the John Paxson of the gastrointestinal tract – the thing is still a patently unpleasant bag of bacteria that’s remarkably prone to infection, and people who lose theirs seem to live happily and healthily afterwards. So if it does get infected, you need to remove the appendix. Let me repeat that for the cheap seats – you need to remove the appendix – not just say you’ve removed it and leave it inside a person like a ticking time bomb of bacteria and pus. That’s just fucked up.

Nanoparticles may be the next big thing in science and medicine, but they suffer from one serious hindrance – they’re not terribly utilitarian. Nanoparticles are very mission specific, and every scientists want to create a particle for a new purpose – like doing imaging work, or heating up to destroy a tumor from the inside – they pretty much have to start from scratch.

But researchers at the University of Washington have taken the first steps in developing an all purpose nanoparticle, that can accomplish a number of tasks. They’ve engineered a particle that combines the qualities of a quantum dot, used for fluorescent imaging, and a gold nanoparticle, used in scatter based imaging and also capable of heating up and destroying tumor cells from the inside.

This dynamic duo of materials working in conjunction could represent a significant advance in the use of nanoparticles for health care and, down the line, in solar energy production, and that’s great news. But seriously people, there’s good news for health care, and then there’s too much of a good thing, and frankly, folding DNA particles into weird origami shapes is just goddamn showing off.

For those who aren’t aware, I have been a Washingtonian for long enough that, aside from a few loyalties in the sporting world that are so deeply ingrained and despair inducing that they can safely be considered genetic disorders, I have pretty much gone native. It’s a mostly laid back corner of the country, which suits me just fine, because I tend to be a fairly tense sort of chap, and the green and grey backdrop and relaxed atmosphere cut that just enough that I’m not intolerable to those around me. For the most part.

Which is why it was a touch off putting to hear material concerning my mostly sleepy state all over the news today, starting with the big business story of the day out of Redmond. Microsoft and Yahoo have finally consumated their on again romance, and like so many drawn out courtships, the moment of truth was a touch anti-climatic. Microsoft, unsurprisingly, gets the sweet end of the deal, with Yahoo bowing out of search and to handle advertising sales as Microsoft takes over search and data analysis for both companies, with the recently launched bing powering Yahoo searches from here on out. And while the deal moves Microsoft into the clear number two position in the  search industry, it’s a distant number two, in which the competition, whose name is synonymous with finding information online, has a stranglehold on 70% of the market.

In other words, Microsoft is right now in the best position it’s ever going to be in to challenge Google’s online search and advertising supremacy. But with the Chrome OS launching in just a few months on netbooks, Google is giving as good as it gets. And if this thing turns into a two front war for domination of operating system software and online technology, I’d put my money on the more nimble young ‘un from Santa Clara County.

And while Steve Ballmer and company might not be at the top of their game, they’re still faring better than the killer whales of the Puget Sound. Harassment by whale watching vessels looking to give tourists that perfect close up is hampering efforts to help the regions fragile orca population recover, so federal regulators are proposing doubling the distance that pleasure boats must stay away from the whales to 200 yards. Which is a nice thought, until you realize that the main problem seems to stem from ships that are not obeying the current guideline that aims to keep a 100 yard barrier between whales and whale watchers. With that in mind, it’s hard to see how doubling a barrier that no one is acknowledging helps preserve orca populations.

Shane Aggergaard, who heads the Pacific Whale Watch Association, a group of whale watch tour companies throughout Washington and British Columbia, may have demonstrated the attitude of tourism companies earlier today, when said in an interview with KUOW that “…we love to educate people regarding these animals so they can further protect them. It will be much more difficult to do that at 200 yards…” Again, this sounds good until you think about it – it’s more or less like arguing that we can’t outlaw shooting people in the face, because if we do, then how will people know that being shot in the face is a terrible, terrible thing?

And oh yeah, the anarchists are up in arms in the Evergreen State, as the anti-war organization Olympia Port Militarization Resistance accused a civilian employee of Washington’s Fort Lewis of COINTELPRO style shenanigans. The group, made up of members of groups like Students for a Democratic Society, Wobblies and self styled anarchists claim that a man going by the name John  Towery posed as an anarchist for two years, reporting back to military sources on the groups members and planned activities, such as staging port blockades.

And as these so called anarchists try to peacefully resist and do some good in the world, 38 year old Jeff Monson is keeping it real, doing all the things a good lone wolf anarchist should do. Like cage fighting. And spray painting anarchy symbols on the state capitol building. And then posing with the graffiti for ESPN The Magazine.

But hey, it could be weirder, I guess. I could live in Alabama, where they taser deaf people, don’t they?

And oh, yeah – Dave Reichert is an idiot and a jerk – more on that tomorrow.

Virologists at the University of Wisconsin – Madison have completed a detailed study of the H1N1 swine flu virus, and the news is…well, it’s less than good.

The virus, which has demonstrated a filament shape unusual in flu viruses, has the potential to be much more severe than most researchers have thought so far. That’s because, in addition to being more apt to reproduce itself within lung tissue, the H1N1 virus has demonstrated an ability to infect cells deep within lung tissue far beyond that of a standard seasonal flu virus.

This capacity for infiltrating further into the lungs distinguishes the H1N1 virus, according to researchers, including study leader Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who stated that “There is clear evidence the virus is different than seasonal influenza.” Where most flu viruses only affect the upper respiratory system, the H1N1 bug can go much deeper, bringing about pneumonia, bronchitis and possibly death.

The truly unnerving thing to note about this study, published this month in the journal Nature, is that the ability to penetrate deep into the lungs is something we’ve seen before. The trait was also expressed in the 1918 flu pandemic that killed tens of millions worldwide. The fact that people born before 1918 seem to have antibodies against the H1N1 swine flu further suggests that we’re looking at a flu virus whose closest corollary wiped out significant swaths of humanity almost a century ago, when passing flu from one community to another was significantly more difficult.

In other words – this could be a bad one. And while most people seem to have stopped worrying about it, I’m staying at a Level Orange Alert (at least while we still have one) on the matter of a swine flu pandemic. Not every disease du’ jour is going to be the next big thing in global health crises (see also, SARS, bird flu, West Nile virus) but eventually, something is going to break big, and the current H1N1 strain is a pretty likely candidate for doing some real damage. Add to that the fact that a serious outbreak (deaths, high fear of contagion, etc.) during  flu season in the US this year would deliver a hammer blow to a global economy still struggling to get it’s feet, and set back progress on that front at a time we can ill afford it?

Sound like a worst case scenario? It is. But it’s not at all one that’s outside the realm of possibility right now. And I know I may sound unreasonably doom and gloom, but hey, a paranoid is just someone who has all the facts, right? I’m not saying the sky is falling, but the common consensus seems to be that this thing is no cause for concern, an I just don’t buy that line.

The study does have a silver lining, in that anti-viral drugs seemed to be an effective first line of defense against the virus. But with a working vaccine probably unavailable until the end of the year, they’re also the only line of defense at this point.

You know what’s always nice? Finding out that something you’ve believed strongly all your life is actually true.

That’s how I felt this morning when I woke up and learned that swearing is good for you.

According to a study by Keele University in Britain, a few well placed four letter words can  help to ease physical pain, cutting the duration of the painful sensation by as much as 50 percent. Now, I’ll grant that 64 undergrads jamming their hands into a bucket of ice water isn’t exactly an unimpeachable study. But there’s  got to be a reason that the natural reflex on stubbing your toe is to let loose with a string of expletives, and it’s easy to believe it’s because it feels good.

And considering that many evolutionary psychologists theorize that swearing may be one of the first steps on the road to speech, it seems natural that the same sort of language we used to first express pain or displeasure would remain a coping mechanism for it today.

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