genetics


First, let me just say that I have every ounce of sympathy for people who have lost limbs, whether in combat or otherwise. And I’m all for using the latest technology to alleviate the suffering of amputees and help them regain their full range of movement. But there are some avenues of research that just shouldn’t be travelled down, no matter what the noble intent, and one of them is studying salamanders to learn how to regrow human limbs.

Scientists working the the US Department of Defense are working on the first steps in this research. They’ve begun by injecting fluorescent dye into the specimens of the highly endangered axolotl salamander. The axolotl, which lives only in the canals surrounding Mexico City, is neotenic, meaning that it spends it’s entire life in a larval state, which allows it to regrow limbs, organs and even parts of it’s brain and spine following injury.

The idea is that, by learning more about how the process works in the axolotl, scientists will eventually be able to apply the process to humans, teaching the body to regrow lost limbs. And as I said before, that’s a noble idea. It is also terribly misguided, and can only end in disaster and heartbreak.

Anyone with a layman’s understanding of comic book and cinematic science can tell you that the mingling of human and animal genetics, especially for the purposes of regrowing limbs, is a horror show waiting to happen. One need look only to the fable of Dr. Curt Connors to see how high the price for a regrown human arm can be. The sad tale of Dirk Benedict in Sssssss only drives home the terrible fate that awaits those who attempt to mix the genetic stuff of man and beast.

As promising as the axolotl research may eventually become, it’s better for all concerned that we continue investing in more immediate benefits borne by advanced prosthetics. We’re at a technological crossroads here, people. Down one path lies cyborgs – down the other, terrible mutants. And frankly, there’s not much room for discussion about which of those is a better scenario.

First up, the chemotherapy drug capecitabine, marketed as Xeloda, is making a name for itself as a security risk at airports. Among the drugs side effects is one known commonly as hand-foot syndrome, which causes blistering and cracking on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. In the most severe cases, this blistering can cause the erasure of a patients fingerprints, resulting in embarrassing hang ups of the sort encountered by a 62 year old traveller from Singapore, who was detained by US customs authorities as a possible security risk after he tried to enter the United States without fingerprints.

Meanwhile, heredity research took a strange step forward this week with the development of transgenic marmosets that glow green when exposed to UV light. While the marmosets are capable of passing the trait on to their offspring, fulfilling researchers goals for the purposes of studying heredity in Parkinson’s disease, attempts to imbue the monkeys with rage induced super strength have so far remained fruitless.

Cerebral palsy patients at the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, New York are seeing positive results from robotics enhanced movement therapy. Initially developed for stroke victims, the MIT-MANUS robot has made strides in cerebral palsy therapy. From walking machines to computer simulations in which patients control a robotic hand that reaches, grips and moves objects on a screen, robotics therapy helps to recreate connections in the brain that send the correct signals for movement. The therapy promises to be especially helpful to children, whose brains are still developing movement connections, which then have only to be repaired, rather than rebuilt from scratch.

Scientists and patients battling cancer got their hands on a new weapon this week. Researchers at Oxford University have put a leash on the common adenovirus and trained it to attack cancer cells while leaving healthy normal cells alone. By disarming certain pieces of mRNA in the virus, it is rendered unable to harm healthy liver cells. But the process doesn’t stop it from replicating in and destroying tumor cells, turning the adenovirus into a seemingly safe self replicating treatment for cancer.

In medical news from the other end of the animal kingdom, a Hungarian stork has been given a new lease on life thanks to the latest in cybernetic animal attachments. While we’re not affixing metallic wings to injured birds quite yet, the prosthetic beak the bird received from an animal clinic should let it get on with a reasonably normal life in the wild, rather than the hand fed existence it would have otherwise had.

Cola drinkers went down as losers this week after a pair of reports that drinking too much cola can lead to weakness and muscle paralysis. Researchers have found that subjects who drink several liters of soda per day are more susceptible to hypokalaemia, a lowering of potassium levels that can result in loss of muscle function. And while I don’t imagine that anyone thought drinking 4 liters of soda per day was necessarily good for them, I’m hard pressed to believe that most people would have suspected paralysis would be a symptom of this over indulgence, rendering it the single worst idea since New Coke.

In happier to report news, fire ants are also among the weeks losers. Pest control authorities in Texas are trying a novel approach in the much deserved extermination of the stinging, invasive critters. The muscle for the latest attempt at controlling the spread of fire ants – nests of South American phorid flies, which not only kill the ants, but do so in a manner that is, at least in principle, astonishingly entertaining. After stinging a foraging ant, the phorid fly injects its eggs into the brain of the ant. As the larvae develop, the afflicted ant is reduced to a dunce, wandering around in a zombie like state until, after two weeks, it’s head falls off entirely, releasing a new phorid fly into the world. Now admittedly, importing non-native species to fend off non-native species is at best an imperfect solution (just visit the National Invasive Species Information Center for a few examples) to a complicated problem, and one rife with it’s own troubles, there is a case to be made that if you’re going to do something stupid, it might as well be kind of cool to watch.

The weeks last losers are Taiwanese goats, who proved less durable than one would hope when a herd of the creatures was apparently killed by insomnia earlier this week. Taiwanese farmer Kuo Jin-Shan attributes the animals sudden bout of fatal sleeplessness on the eight wind turbines recently installed near his herd, from which 400 goats have now died, apparently after losing sleep for months.

This week’s big winner is University of Colorado professor Chris Greene, whose theories that a Rydberg molecule could be formed were finally proven correct this week. The extremely weak molecular bond, in which a Rydberg atom, with just one electron in its outermost orbit, bonds for a matter of microseconds with a normal atom, forming a Rydberg molecule. The trick to forming the bond is getting conditions cold enough for the Rydberg atom to interact with it’s standard partner – University of Stuttgart researchers who successfully formed the molecule only did so at a temperature of negative 273 degrees Celsius.

Greene is joined on the podium by cow farmers everywhere, for whom the decoding of the cow genome earlier this week means that mucking about with the fundamental makeup of the animals they make their living on just got that much easier. An unlocked genome means that farmers can produce new strains and breeds of cow which will be optimized to produce more and better quality milk and meat. Future generations of gene tinkered bovines could even go to the slaughterhouse with smiles on their eager to be murdered faces. And wouldn’t that be nice?

Speaking of people with smiles on their faces, anti-depressant manufacturers are looking pretty giddy lately, and it’s not because they’ve been dipping into their own stash. Rather, the recent news that a ban on teenage anti-depressant use has not affected suicide rates among teens in the United Kingdom calls into question the perceived link between depression medication and teenagers taking their own lives. That’s right – teenagers killing themselves is actually good news for pharmaceutical companies. Try and act surprised.

Medication isn’t the only treatment for depression, though. For some people suffering from depression, a couple of hours in front of the TV can relieve the feelings of loneliness and isolation, imbuing viewers with a sense of belonging that may be missing in their lives.

‘Clean coal’ supporters also won big this week as Energy Secretary Steven Chu threw the backing of the United States behind the industry, which depends on technologies like carbon capture and gasification to provide energy from coal that doesn’t wreak havoc on the environment. The good news – these technologies may even exist and be effective. The bad news – well, they also may not, but we’re going to use them anyhow.

Cause for optimism remains, though. For evidence that things aren’t always as bad as we think, look no further than the Great Barrier Reef, one of the most astonishing natural wonders of the planet. After spending years teetering on the broink of devastation, the reef has either started one of the most amazing comebacks on record or dodged a bullet, depending on who you ask. Either way, chalk one up in the win column.

That’s not to say optimism is always warranted, as thinkers of happy thoughts are also inaugurating our losers section this week. The reason? Well, it turns out that people possessed of the rosiest outlook for the environmental future of the planet are also those who have the least notion of what’s going on. Of course, the study was performed using 15 year old subjects, so take it for what it’s worth, but remember – these are the people who will be making decisions that impact all life on earth in the coming decades, and if this study has proven one thing, it’s that not knowing how things work makes them happy.

On the other hand, unrestrained pessimists don’t look to be faring any better. News that people who think they will lose their memory as they age tend to experience far worse memory loss than individuals who don’t buy into senior moment stereotypes has Grumpy Gusses the world over settling angrily into the losers column this week. Doesn’t that just figure?

In other unsurprising news, ugly kids are among this weeks losers. A University of Miami study released this week linked physical attractiveness and good grooming in high school with not only higher grades, but also long term financial success. While this may be less than newsworthy, it does support the notion that every film strip you ever watched in elementary school was exactly right about everything, and if that doesn’t terrify you, you’re a stronger person than me.

Among this weeks other losers are Vietnam veterans, because they certainly haven’t had to put up with enough crap already. A study due out in the May issue of The British Journal of Urology International found that prostate cancer patients who had been exposed to Agent Orange  had a 50 percent higher risk of the cancer recurring than others, and that their instances of recurrence were significantly more aggressive than those of other patients.

And closing out our losers is NASA. The agency is staring down a deadline to make a decision on whether to rehab or retire the current space shuttle fleet, but doesn’t have a top executive in place to make the call. Every day that the decision gets put off is a bad one for NASA, whose astronauts are already faced with the bleak prospect of hitching rides to space alongside Russian cosmonauts. With Ruso-American relations remaining icy, that’s a bad fix at best. But keeping the current shuttle fleet in operation while the next generation of ships gets ready to go up, up and away may simply be too dangerous for the agency to face.

People suffering from fibromyalgia are big winners this week, thanks to wonder drug naltrexone. Usually used in the treatment of alcoholism or heroin addiction, the drug has recently proven effective in treating kleptomania by numbing the giddy high associated with compulsive theft. Recent studies indicate that naltrexone, which acts on receptors in the brain, may also be effective in treating the chronic pain associated with fibromyalgia and may also strengthen evidence that the disease is one of the brain and nervous system, rather than the musculoskeletal condition it has previously been understood as.

While Hulk Hogan is more famous for dealing out pain than suffering  from it, he’s a winner this week, too. Why? Because he didn’t brutally murder his wife and her lover! And according to an article in Rolling Stone this week, he really goddamned wanted to. But you see, he didn’t! You know why?  

Hogan, proudly sporting the Not Killing My Wife Championship Belt

Hogan, proudly sporting the 'Not Killing My Wife' Championship Belt

Because he is a Real American! Gold Star, Hulkster!

Americans who don’t drive are also among this weeks winners, thanks to a spate of stories, the most notable being the Obama administrations new plans for connecting America with high speed rail lines.Life may be getting more convenient and safer for pedestrians with the introduction of a collision system for cars that acts like an airbag for pedestrians. Even people who want to be pedestrians but can’t could be getting in on the act, thanks to Honda’s Robolegs, which will not only be a mobility assisting boon to the elderly or disabled, but provide a completely unfair advantage to users in dance contests. Unless it’s a dance contest against this guy.

Though Seattle is a winner in getting a piece of the planned high speed rail system, the Emerald City has more than it’s fair share of losers this week, starting with the city’s skyline. While buildings constructed after 1994 will probably not crumble and slide into the Puget Sound in the event of a serious earthquake, those built prior to the more strict building codes will probably not be so lucky when a major quake hits the region. Seattle’s buildings aren’t the only things in town whose stability is being called into question, as the city continues to feel the economic pinch with Seattle based companies Onvia and Targeted Genetics both being threatened with delisting by the NASDAQ Stock Exchange.

I know it’s not nice to pick on people who can’t defend themselves, but hey – fetuses aren’t people. And thanks to the prenatal effects of Hong Kong flu and methamphetamine on the developing brains of fetuses, people getting dumber with each passing generation might go from a myth bandied about by the elderly to science fact.

Despite promising results from an electrical implant that could provide relief from a lifetime of embarassment, the incontinent find themselves once again lumped in with the rest of the losers. Because they’re incontinent.

But hey, things could be worse. They could be small, hairy, flightless birds who are getting eaten en masse by weasels imported to New Zealand in the 19th century to combat the plague of rabbits the island had unwittingly unleashed upon itself. Then they’d be kiwis.

Kiwis who pee themselves.

Brand new and exciting medicine for any and every ailment, from cancer to kleptomania! If you’ve got it, chances are we’ve got medicine for it

First up is Provenge, the prostate cancer vaccine that made good this week, prolonging the lives of patients in a clinical trial and making it that much closer to FDA approval. A potentially less toxic cancer treatment radiation and conventional chemo, Provenge isn’t a traditional vaccine either – instead of preventing cancer, it works to activate the body’s immune system, sending white blood cells to pile on malignant prostate cancer cells and send them packing.

This week also saw big news in anaesthetics, from ones designed to save lives to those merely helpful in saving face. Researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston may have turned saxitoxin, the powerful paralytic at play in shellfish poisoning, into a promising next generation painkiller. By packaging the poison in specially engineered fat cells, scientists can turn it into a slow release anaesthetic effective for days at a time that could benefit patients recovering from surgery as well as individuals suffering from chronic pain. Early tests in rats show that the designed fat cells, known as liposomes, trickle saxitoxin into the bloodstream at a safe rate, numbing tissue without damaging surrounding cells.

But chronic pain sufferers aren’t the only ones with reason to rejoice about recent advancements in anasthesia. Men with hair triggers (and presumably their partners) can get excited about PSD502, a topical anaesthetic spray shown in trials to help men suffering from premature ejaculation last as much as 6 times longer in the sack. Just, y’ know – don’t get too excited.

Now stop getting excited and start getting spooked about the prospect of your memories being edited by pharmaceuticals. Scientists at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn have been working with PKMzeta, a substance that may be among the holy grails of neuroscience –  the molecule responsible for the creation of memories in the brain. After isolating and studying the molecule, researchers injected ZIP, which interferes with PKMzeta, into the brains of rats, who promptly forgot how to avoid shocks as they had been trained for months to do. Substances like ZIP could, theoretically, be used in treating trauma, addiction and Alzheimer’s disease in humans. Of course, they could also be put to about a billion and one thoroughly malevolent purposes.

Speaking of chemical treatments for addiction, an existing one, naltrexone, looks to be branching out. Used for years in the treatment of alcoholism, it appears that naltrexone may also be effective in treating other compulsive behaviors, including kleptomania. In a study at the University of Minnesota, researchers have found that naltrexone, an opioid antagonist, dulls the giddy rush that accompanies petty theft and that is so hard to give up for many kleptomania sufferers, effectively neutering the urge to steal because it feels good.

But with all of these staggering medical advances, the plague of fir tree lung remains treatable only by surgery. So far.

Spring has sprung, and that means that flowers, hay fever and romance are all in full bloom. This spring also means that the headlines of the past few days have been replete with stories about the science of love, starting with the fact that the most romantic of notions, love at first sight, may have a genetic basis. According to a study at Cornell University, female fruit flies are genetically primed to know which potential mates are more genetically compatible, and respond better to courtship from males that are more likely to produce healthy offspring. Not only can the flies seemingly sense which males would make better partners, they produce more offspring from these couplings than when they breed with less preferred males.

Scientists at Cornell aren’t the only ones closely examining the intimate moments of drosophilia this week. Researchers at Oxford University took a look at the darker side of fruit fly romance, discovering that, when faced with rivals for a females attention, male fruit flies can release chemicals that make females less sexually active. While certainly not as awww-inducing as a genetic basis for love at first sight, this ‘If I can’t have her, no one can,’ brand of courtship provides at least as much insight into the evolution of sexual behavior.

The evolutionary basis for the dinner date  may have gotten some clarification this week too, as researchers looked more closely at the exchange of meat for sex among groups of chimpanzees. While it has been long known that male chimps traded meat to sexually receptive females for sexual favors, the seemingly altruistic habit of also giving meat to females who are not receptive has been less well understood. According to researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, charity is, unsurprisingly, not at work here. It turns out the chimps are simply paying it forward, with males who share the spoils of their hunts being favored by females long after the gift of food had been made. Still unclear, however, is just where the entertainment portion of the traditional date is hiding in our genetic structure.

One thing that has been found tucked away in the human genome is CATSPER1, a genetic abnormality that University of Iowa researchers think is responsible for some cases of male infertility. While understanding this abnormality could help scientists treat some forms of male infertility, the more groundbreaking notion is that a little tinkering with CATSPER1 could open the door to the development of the safe and effective male contraceptive that has so far eluded modern medicine in the 4 decades following the introduction of female birth control.

And finally, from the BBC’s science department comes this news: blowjobs are out, but heavy petting is in. Take whatever you want from that.

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