Category: Science

The case for fetal-cell research

We first acquired the stem cells from the red receptacles of a local hospital’s labor and delivery ward, delivered to our lab at the University of Southern California. I would reach into the large medical waste containers and pull out the tree-like branches of the placenta, discarded after a baby had been born. Squeezing the umbilical cord that had so recently been attached to new life, the blood, laden with stem cells, would come dripping out.

But sometimes a different package would arrive at our lab. Despite my distaste for wringing placentas, I felt more squeamish about what lay inside the unassuming white box. Packed in the ice was a crescent-shaped sliver of dark red tissue: a human liver. Just like the placentas that were discarded after birth, this tissue was originally destined for medical waste following an abortion.

Although their fates were similar, their origins couldn’t be more different. One source was the byproduct of celebration, the other a procedure often marked with stigma and shame. While under the bright focus of the microscope the cells we isolated were indistinguishable, in our minds there was a significant difference.

The reality is – there is no difference. I could swap the labels and neurotic hangups would switch just as easy.

Stem cell science is a big deal in California, thanks to the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a state agency that has allocated almost $2 billion in research grants since 2004 (federal funding is still highly restricted). To meet the demand for cells, researchers turned to a procedure protected by federal law: abortions. The discarded tissue from terminated pregnancies, performed up to 26 weeks in California, is a rich source of stem cells…

The use of fetal tissue in research is not new. Fetal cells extracted from the lungs of two aborted fetuses from Europe in the 1960s are still being propagated in cell culture. They’re so successful that today we still use them to produce vaccines for hepatitis A, rubella, chickenpox and shingles. From two terminated pregnancies, countless lives have been spared.

It isn’t just vaccines. Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, have injected neural stem cells into two patients to treat their spinal cord injuries. And progress is being made in the use of stem-cell therapies against cancer, blindness, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, H.I.V. and diabetes…

Perhaps this is why it was difficult to hear Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, discuss the organs of aborted fetuses so casually in surreptitiously recorded conversations with anti-abortion activists posing as fetal-tissue buyers. It’s understandable that politicians, angered by her callous tone, are investigating how fetal tissue is handled and how research is conducted, despite the strict institutional review that governs the use of anatomical tissue donated for research.

Politicians aren’t “angered by her callous tone” they’re excited by one more opportunity to turn up their patriarchal opposition to women making reproductive choices without their approval. Don’t confuse opportunism with judicious thought.

The choice I made is repeated every day, in labs all over the world. Researchers have no say in whether a fetus is aborted or develops into a human baby; those decisions are made by women and shaped by politicians. Yet their science, performed on discarded tissue, has the ability to save lives. It already has.

Choices surrounded by politicians, priests and superstition. The facts of life and science may be difficult for some folks to deal with; but, at least they’re grounded in reality. Making decisions based upon the greatest good for the greatest number ain’t a bad starting place.

Researchers find no benefit from chemotherapy at end of life

Chemotherapy near death failed to improve quality of life (QOL) for patients with cancer, even those who otherwise were in good health, a review of end-of-life care showed.

Quality of life near death (QOD) deteriorated in patients who had good performance status when they started chemotherapy. Palliative chemotherapy had no impact on QOL among sicker patients, Holly Prigerson, PhD,…and colleagues reported online in JAMA Oncology.

…”Thus, chemotherapy appears to contribute directly to worse QOD, presumably through adverse and toxic effects that impair the QOL of those who are initially feelling well.”

Organizations that have clinical guidelines addressing end-of-life chemotherapy, such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), might need to rethink their recommendations, Prigerson and colleagues added.

Even an accompanying editorial expressing some disagreement…acknowledged that “if an oncologist suspects the death of a patient in the next 6 months, the default should be no active treatment.”…

Three years ago, ASCO’s expert panel for the “Choosing Wisely” campaign identified use of chemotherapy in patients for whom no proven benefit existed as one of the most widespread, wasteful, and unnecessary practices in oncology. ASCO recommends against the use of chemotherapy for patients who have not benefited from prior therapy…

Prigerson and colleagues examined the association among ECOG performance status, chemotherapy, and QOL in the last week of life…They hypothesized that patients with good performance status would have worse QOL if they received additional chemotherapy, and that patients with poor performance status would not have an improvement in quality of life with chemotherapy…

Beyond the data, the study suggests that “equating treatment with hope is inappropriate,” Blanke and Fromme said.

“Even when oncologists communicate clearly about prognosis and are honest about the limitations of treatment, many patients feel immense pressure to continue treatment,” they said. “Patients with end-stage cancer are encouraged by friends and family to keep fighting, but the battle analogy itself can portray the dying patient as a loser and should be discouraged. Costs aside, we fell the last 6 months of life are not best spent in an oncology traetment unit or at home suffering the toxic effects of largely ineffectual therapies for the majority of patients.”

Time to turn away from the greed-centric portion of the medical-industrial complex, folks. Pay attention to the folks who say, as did these researchers, “This is a clarion call…to take the lead in curtailing the use of ineffective therapy and ensuring a focus on palliative care and relief of symptoms throughout the course of illness.

Overdue.

GOP Masters of Sophistry

I make no case for Hillary other than she’s a decent alternative to the cowards, ideologues and bigots staffing and leading today’s Republican Party. That description of that political entity isn’t especially radical. I know too many Recovering Republicans who feel the same.

Who will I vote for in Democrat primaries – after I make my usual every-other-year-registration as someone other than Independent? Bernie, of course. He comes closer to a model of truth and service, sound knowledge and integrity of anyone I’ve had a chance to vote for in decades.

Yes, I still would rather be voting for someone in a 3rd Party independent of ownership by the usual corporate lobbyists. Even that class representation needn’t be restricted to the two old parties. Essentially useless, an impedance to progress.

And, still, Hillary is lightyears ahead of the thugs in the Republican Party. The choice in November 2016 will be easy-peasy.

Vietnam War vets still suffering from PTSD

A small, but significant, portion of Vietnam War veterans still experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) even 40 years after the war ended, according to the results of a survey-based study.

When examining veterans over the course of a 25-year period, 10.8%, or about 271,000, of male “theater veterans” – those who served in the Vietnam theater of operations – reported experiencing current clinical and subthreshold war-zone PTSD symptoms based on CAPS-5 criteria, said Charles Marmar, MD, of New York University’s Langone Medical Center…

More than a third (36.7%) of all veterans with PTSD directly related to the war also experienced comorbid major depression. In addition, 30.9% met the criteria for current major depressive disorder…

Marmar told MedPage Today that he was surprised at the persistence of symptoms for veterans over the course of time.

“We did know that PTSD symptoms could persist in a minority of war fighters, or civilians for that matter, but it was surprising to find that 11% of those who served in the Vietnam theater had either PTSD or significant symptoms of PTSD that interfered with their functioning,” he said. “So the persistence was an important finding…”

Marmar said he did the study not only to honor the Vietnam generation and answer some questions for them, but to see what the road ahead may look like for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“Nobody has known before this study what the true lifetime effects of military service are on psychological health in an epidemiologically drawn, representative sample,” he said. “People have done studies of longer term effects of war, but not in a proper sampling frame where you’re getting a picture of every man and every woman from all branches of the services in all levels of combat…”

While not involved with the study, Gary J. Kennedy, MD…told MedPage Today…that the results demonstrated the majority of veterans did not suffer from PTSD or depression. However, he pointed out that for those who were impacted, there may be inadequate resources to offer assistance.

“The optimistic finding of rather remarkable resilience is contrasted by the complicated needs of those who do not recover,” he said. “Just as in the post Vietnam era, the VA is not adequately funded to meet the mental health needs of returning service personnel…”

He concluded that similar to World War II veterans, Vietnam war veterans also deserve quality care for their physical and mental well-being, both from clinicians and from the nation itself.

Overdue.

My closest friend till his death was a WW2 vet who still had occasional bouts with PTSD – and little substantive help from the VA. Fortunately, one of his main areas of study – courtesy of the GI Bill – was in psychology and he did a pretty good job of managing things on his own. Still, I’ll never forget a couple of times when he was roused unexpectedly from a sound sleep and thought he was back in Bastogne.

Addicted to soda? You don’t need to be obese to acquire diabetes

Regular consumption of sugary drinks was linked to onset of type 2 diabetes independent of obesity, and fruit juices and no-calorie artificially sweetened drinks didn’t appear to be any healthier, in a new review.

Looking at 17 cohorts and more than 38,000 cases, researchers found that higher consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages was associated with an 18% increase in incidence of type 2 diabetes…per one serving a day. And when they adjusted for obesity, there was still a 13% increase…over those who drank no sugary drinks, found the researchers, who were led by Fumiaki Imamura, PhD, at the University of Cambridge in the UK…

There is indeed a wealth of existing evidence that soft drinks can significantly increase risk of diabetes. But Imamura and colleagues wrote that it wasn’t clear if the risk is present independent of obesity status, and in an email to MedPage Today he wrote that this is what spurred him to do the study.

“We identified a lack of clear evidence to tell if soft drinks elevate the risk of diabetes, regardless of obesity status,” he wrote. “This lack of evidence attracted us, and we thought the evidence would help further the ongoing policy debate.”

The relative risk of diabetes for artificially sweetened beverage consumption was 1.25…in ten studies. Independent of obesity, the number dropped to 1.08…

And for fruit juice, the risk ratio was 1.05…in 13 studies after adjustment and 1.07…independent of obesity.

Imamura said that it’s natural for people to look for alternatives to sugar sweetened beverages. “Diet drink and fruit juice are possible options, though there was no strong summary evidence for each,” he wrote. “We wanted to address the question of the association of consuming each with diabetes before and after accounting for obesity status.” There was some evidence for publication bias in the fruit juice studies.

Nestle added that there wasn’t enough information here to draw definitive conclusions about fruit juice, and that she’d want to see more information about the amounts consumed. “It doesn’t make sense that small amounts of fruit juice would do much of anything (other than providing vitamins),” she wrote. “It’s the large amounts you have to worry about.”…

None of the studies were industry sponsored. “We did not deliberately exclude industry-funded research,” wrote Imamura, but all of the studies that met the criteria were not sponsored by industry. “We wished to see the quality of evidence from government-funded studies and from industry-funded studies, but we could not,” he wrote…

Imamura and his team concluded that soft drinks may contribute to nearly 2 million diabetes cases in the U.S. and the U.K. over 10 years. “But this estimate is under assumption that everyone had the same weight,” he wrote in the email. “If we consider that soft drink consumption contributes to weight gain, the estimate should be higher.”

Keep those fasting glucose levels down, folks. Taste buds aside – and how they’re conditioned by your family and peers – we don’t need a whole boatload of sugar for any reason whatsoever.

A surgical glue that shuts down bleeding wounds in 60 seconds

The ability of mussels to stubbornly bind themselves to underwater surfaces has intrigued scientists for years. If this ability could be recreated in the lab, it could lead to new adhesives for all kinds of applications. A team of Korean scientists has now developed a surgical glue inspired by these natural wonders that’s claimed to be cheaper, more reliable and incur less scarring than existing solutions.

In surgery, stitches and staples are very effective at binding body tissue together, but they can cause scarring and aren’t always appropriate when treating more sensitive flesh and organs. These drawbacks have motivated the development of adhesives that are strong enough to hold tissue together in wet environments, and do so without inciting adverse chemical reactions…

Scientists at Pohang University of Science and Technology have a…solution…inspired by intersections of amino acids called tyrosines that can be found in dragonfly wings and insect cuticles. These are created by exposure to visible light, a process that boosts both their strength and stickiness.

The team found that when they took mussel proteins chock-full of tyrosines and exposed them to blue visible light, the photochemical reaction saw them instantly pair up to form these tyrosine intersections. The result was a material with better structural stability and adhesive properties. They have dubbed it light-activated, mussel protein-based adhesive (LAMBA) and claim to have proven its superiority to existing surgical glues. In testing the glue in animals, the scientist say it was able to close bleeding wounds in less than 60 seconds and healed them without inflammation or scarring.

Sounds good to me. Can’t wait till there’s an over-the-counter version. Hopefully, affordable.

NASA satellite provides breathtaking new view of Earth


Click to enlarge

NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) has returned a breathtaking image of planet Earth from a distance of roughly one million miles from the homeworld. The image captures the full disk of our planet showing a stunning sunbathed vista of blue oceans and swirling clouds, with glimpses of the North and Central America land masses.

Thanks to the proliferation of Earth observation platforms coupled with the all-pervading reach of social media, images of our planet from space are easy to come by. However, most Earth imaging observatories are too close to the planet to capture a complete picture of the complex ecosystem that we call home…

DSCOVR…having reached its planned orbit in February, is capable of snapping regular high detail portraits of spaceship Earth from a staggering 1 million miles above its surface. This new image is a near perfect example of DSCOVR’s capabilities, displaying Earth hanging against the infinite blackness of space, granting a notion of the fragility of our planet, with a beauty to rival any image of Earth’s full disk taken to date…

The image was captured from the orbiter’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), which boasts the capacity to observe our planet with the use of 10 narrowband filters between the ultraviolet to near infrared spectrums. In this case, three separate images were combined to create a finished piece with near photographic-quality.

My new favorite Blue Marble photograph.

Fewer than 15% of US adults eat enough fruits and vegetables

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that most adults in the US consume fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended by the federal government…According to the report, less than 15% of US citizens met their recommended fruit intake, and 8.9% met vegetable recommendations in 2013.

Adults who engage in less than 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each day should consume between 1.5 and two cups of fruit and two to three cups of vegetables daily, according to federal recommendations.

Fruit and vegetable intake was lowest in the south. In Tennessee, just 7.5% of citizens met the fruit intake recommendation, and in Mississippi, 5.5% of adults ate the recommended portion of vegetables. The highest percentages were in California, where 17.7% of adults consumed the recommended portion of fruit.

The study’s lead author, Latetia V Moore of the…CDC, said the low numbers were tied to socioeconomic factors, as well as convenience…“It has to do with convenience, affordability, palatability,” Moore said. “It’s making sure fruits and vegetables are conveniently priced and convenient to access.”

How about intellectual laziness?

Moore and the report’s co-authors studied data from the…survey of 373,580 people across all 50 states and Washington DC. The survey asked people about the frequency of their fruit and vegetable intake, and took personal characteristics such as ethnicity, age and income into account.

Researchers compared survey results with recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which measured intake by number of cups rather than frequency…

Fruit and vegetable intake can be tied to heart disease and stroke. The study was focused on American adults, but Moore said she is starting to see a shift toward incorporating healthier foods into children’s diets.

I don’t care what the motivation may be. Changing your diet, upgrading to thoughtful, up-to-date nutritional standards ain’t expensive or difficult. Costs increase if you try to move to a completely organic diet plus availability is more likely to be a problem in some communities. But, do some reading online, folks. There’s a great deal of commercially-produced fruit and veggies that haven’t any notable risk associated with “conventional” foodstuffs.

My experience is that many thoughtful market chains that carry both also take a great deal of care with the quality and safety of that so-called conventional food.

Vampire healthcare helps our species at the expense of another

harvesting crab blood

It fuels the journeys of shorebirds along the Eastern Seaboard and feeds some loggerhead sea turtles and sharks. The horseshoe crab is intricately woven into the web of life. Yet this harmless and primitive sea creature not only plays a key role in nature, it occupies a crucial place in the human world as well.

Over three decades ago, medicine claimed this ancient animal as a new life-saving tool. In 1971 researchers discovered that when they exposed the horseshoe crab to E. coli bacteria, the crab’s blood clotted. The clotting indicated the presence of endotoxins, toxic substances released by E. coli and other gram-negative bacteria that could produce severe symptoms in exposed humans such as fever or hemorrhagic stroke.

The simplicity of its immune system is actually what makes the crab’s blood useful to our biomedical industry. Horseshoe crabs live under the constant threat of infection in a habitat that can easily contain billions of bacteria per milliliter. To fight off infection, the horseshoe crab has a compound in its blood — LAL, or Limulus Amebocyte Lysate — which immediately binds and clots around fungi, viruses, and bacterial endotoxins.
LAL’s endotoxin binding and clotting ability is what makes it so invaluable to our own pharmaceutical industry. Once the LAL test was recognized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an alternative to then current methods of testing for endotoxins, the pharmaceutical industry tapped in. Horseshoe crabs were abundant, their blood easy to harvest and the test took only one hour.

Today, LAL has become the worldwide standard screening test for bacterial contamination. Every drug certified by the FDA must be tested using LAL, as do surgical implants such as pacemakers and prosthetic devices.

Horseshoe crab blood has not only become a key weapon in our medical arsenal, it has also become big business. On the world market, a quart of horseshoe crab blood has a price tag of an estimated $15,000, leading to overall revenues from the LAL industry estimated at U.S. $50 million per year. But that pales in comparison to its value to the pharmaceutical industry.

Of course, to obtain LAL you need horseshoe crabs — and lots of them. According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, that $50 million dollar industry requires the blood of approximately 250,000 horseshoe crabs.

While the blood of a horseshoe crab can be extracted without killing the animal, there is some question of how harmful bleeding is to the animals. The LAL industry says the bleeding causes no long-term injury…

LAL manufacturers have measured mortality rates of less then 3%. Yet two recent studies estimate that between 10% and 15% of crabs do not survive the bleeding procedure, which accounts for the mortality of 20,000 to 37,500 horseshoe crabs per year. Another concern is that it takes the crab a few months to rebuild its blood cell count level back up after a bleeding. Horseshoe crabs could be bled up to three or four times a year, which would take a toll on the health of the animals. But LAL manufacturers claim they only bleed them once a year.

Humane researchers are concentrating on synthesizing LAL. If they can come up with a lower-cost version of the same substance that will resolve the whole question.

Pharmaceutical industrialists continues along their usual path for now. How to make the most profit for the least effort. To the average American, horseshoe crabs ain’t as cute as kittens. Humanity be damned.

Babble is on about “mini ice age” coming — and of course it’s not true


Ignore this crud – talk about sunspots!

“Scientists warn the sun will ‘go to sleep’ in 2030 and could cause temperatures to plummet,” blared one headline from this weekend.

“Earth heading for ‘mini ice age’ within 15 years,” warned another.

By Sunday evening, news that the Earth could be headed for period of bitter cold was trending on Facebook and whizzing across Twitter. The story — which has been reported everywhere from conservative blogs to the British press to the Weather Channel to the Huffington Post — was based on a recent presentation at the Royal Astronomical Society’s national meeting. Researchers studying sunspots found that solar activity is due to decline dramatically in the next few decades, reaching levels not seen since the 17th century, during a period known as the Maunder minimum. Back then, the decline coincided with what’s called the “Little Ice Age,” when Europe’s winters turned brutally cold, crops failed and rivers froze over. Could another one be on its way?

Not really.

Though University of Northumbria mathematics professor Valentina Zharkova, who led the sunspot research, did find that the magnetic waves that produce sunspots…are expected to counteract one another in an unusual way in the coming years, the press release about her research mentions nothing about how that will affect the Earth’s climate. Zharkova never even used the phrase “mini ice age.” Meanwhile, several other recent studies of a possible solar minimum have concluded that whatever climate effects the phenomenon may have will be dwarfed by the warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Besides, that “Little Ice Age” that occurred during the Maunder minimum, it wasn’t so much a global ice age as a cold spell in Europe, and it may have been caused more by clouds of ash from volcanic eruptions than by fluctuations in solar activity.

BTW…Zharkova’s findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, so her conclusions haven’t been vetted and refined.

But those nuances were totally lost as stories about Zharkova’s research made the rounds on social media and in the press. Instead, we got 300-year-old engravings of Londoners cavorting on the frozen River Thames accompanied by predictions of food shortages and brutal cold — plus snarky tweets about not worrying about global warming anymore…

Nope. Climate change-deniers have resorted to clutching at journalistic straws. Paying off professional skeptics doesn’t have the return it used to. Thugs like the Koch Bros. and their peers in the oil side of fossil fuel profiteering have to content themselves with the tiny, exclusive anti-science brigade contained within conservative political parties and fundamentalist religions locked into creationism.

Sad, but, true. Capable only of mustering the gullible, obedient and hopelessly ignorant.