It’s Time to Replace the Lab Mice

White-mouse-in-lab-009
Picture Credit: Alamy | The Guardian

Let’s do a little experiment. Read the following headlines from these recently published scientific articles and try to find the one thing that all of them have in common: “The Pancreas Provides a Potential Drug Candidate for Brain Disease,” “Chimera Viruses Can Help the Fight Against Lymphomas,” “What Was Once Considered Cell Waste Could Now Treat Pancreatic Cancer,” “Cellular Tango: Immune and Nerve Cells Work Together to Fight Gut Infections,” “Scientists Reveal Fire Ant Venom Could be Used as a Skin Treatment.” The answer? All of the listed studies are based on the results of experiments conducted on mice. And that is a huge problem.

Using lab mice to understand how the human body works is nothing new. This practice officially started in 1902 when French biologist Lucien Cuénot used mice to research the nature of genes. Inspired by the works of Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, Cuénot wanted to see if Mendel’s laws of inheritance applied to more than just sweet peas. Beforehand, Mendelian genetics only applied to tested plants, so the Cuénot discovery that animals follow the laws of inheritance sent shockwaves across the scientific community.

Not long after, more scientists began to use mice to explore the field of genetics, establishing mating programs that created inbred strains of mice and leading efforts to fully map the mouse genome. As decades went by, lab mice skyrocketed in popularity and ended up contributing to numerous award-winning discoveries. Out of the 106 times the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been awarded so far, 42 of them involved research on mice or rats in some major way. These studies include the discovery of penicillin, the yellow fever vaccine, the polio vaccine and the HIV-AIDS virus.

It is easy to see how the lab mice became such an iconic symbol of biomedical research. Xavier Montagutelli, the head of the animal facilities at Institut Pasteur in Paris, explains, “[Mice] are small and inexpensive, they reproduce quickly… and they age quickly too, making them ideal for studying age-related complaints. We know how to freeze their embryos, sperm, and ova. We now know how to manipulate their genes…They are remarkable tools.”

Unfortunately, the acceptance of mice as the ideal test subject has led to the rigid assumption that they are some kind of prototypical “blank slate” mammals rather than a species with its own unique features and body mechanisms. As a result, the field of biomedicine has built an entire infrastructure of knowledge around these rodents and has become dependent on their bodily responses to measure clinical success. But they simply don’t work as models of human disease, much less for human drug treatment.

For instance, scientists have used mice to find treatments for tuberculosis for decades. However, mice respond in a drastically different manner in comparison to humans. For one thing, mice don’t cough and aren’t contagious when they have the disease. In addition, the human body triggers an immune response when the bacteria responsible for the disease is detected. Mice don’t have this immune response—they get the disease and die. So it’s no surprise that scientists have found an antibiotic called Linezolid that works spectacularly well on human patients but not on mice.

The opposite can happen as well. In the late 1950s, German doctors prescribed Thaliomide under the drug name Contergan to pregnant women to alleviate morning sickness. Since the drug was successful in mice, they assumed that the same would happen in humans. Instead, Contergan led to countless birth defects and only 40 percent of the children survived. And this isn’t just a fluke, either. Dr. Jean-Marc Cavaillon, head of the cytokines and inflammation unit at Institut Pasteur, explained how researchers have discovered a monoclonal antibody that treats inflammatory conditions in mice but would send human patients to intensive care. “Mice are great for basic research, for understanding overall patterns and grasping mechanisms. But once you start modeling a human disease to find the right treatment, you run up against major differences between us and mice,” he said.

As a result, drug treatments that were successfully tested in mice have a high chance of failure when tested on humans. According to a 2014 study on animal models, researchers have found that, on average, less than eight percent of experimental cancer treatments have successfully transitioned from animal testing to clinical cancer trials. Similarly, researchers trying to find a cure for ALS have submitted about a dozen experimental treatments for clinical testing over the past decade after finding success in mice. But when tested on humans, all but one of them failed and the one that didn’t only showed marginal benefits.

It also doesn’t help that these clinical trials are ridiculously expensive—we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars and years’ worth of time. In October 2014, the New England Journal of Medicine published a report about how the clinical trials of three tuberculosis treatments ended in complete failure, despite promising results in lab mice. According to the head researcher, the clinical trials alone cost more than $200 million.

But that raises the question: Can we find a suitable replacement for the lab mouse? Unfortunately, no one can say for sure. It’s not like replacing mice with a different animal will solve everything, since animal testing as a whole is still rather dubious. So far, there are only two major possible alternatives, computer models and in vitro cell culture, neither of which offer much of a substitute since they don’t provide a lot of information regarding the complex interactions of living systems.

In addition, the push to stop the use of lab mice has been very controversial within the scientific community, especially for those who would rather turn a blind eye to the issue. Simply put, lab mice are incredibly cheap, convenient and easy to handle. The initiative would also place a large bulk of biomedical research into jeopardy and cast a shadow of doubt across countless pre-existing studies on disease treatment. Scientists today still continue to experiment on mice and spend millions of dollars on clinical trials, only to wonder why their product didn’t work. But what other choice do they have?

A survey of the National Library of Medicine’s database showed that experiments conducted on mice and rats make up almost half of the 20 million academic citations across the field of biomedicine. Despite all the problems they have caused, lab mice remain deeply entrenched in the field of medical research. Clearly, this isn’t a problem that can be solved in a single day.

But what’s even worse is that many news publications are making it seem as if these experimental treatments have worked on human patients and are bound to hit the shelves in the near future. Remember those headlines mentioned in the beginning of this article? All those articles were based on mouse studies and yet none of them mentioned the word “mice” in the headline. It’s sloppy journalism like this that helps fuel people’s doubt and confusion toward the sciences. In the end, one must always remain diligent when reading about the latest discoveries and findings. Science is already a difficult field to grasp, and diving into the literature blindly won’t make things any easier in the long run.

Originally published on September 21, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsExperiments on mice should not be generalized to humans

Advertisements

Is Drinking Coffee Good or Bad For Your Health?

clip_image012
Picture Credit: USA Today

There is no doubt that America loves its coffee. According to a 2017 study by the National Coffee Association, 62 percent of Americans drink this caffeinated beverage on a daily basis, consuming close to 400 million cups per day. That’s more than 140 billion cups of coffee per year.

On top of that, Americans have no intention of straying from this path. Studies have found that 31 percent of coffee drinkers consider brewing coffee to be the most important activity in the morning and 52 percent of drinkers stated they would rather skip the morning shower than their cup of joe. It’s safe to say neither Starbucks nor your local coffee shop will fall out of fashion anytime soon.

But while coffee’s immense popularity is unquestionable, can we say the same in regards to its health benefits? This has been a contentious issue for a long time, as countless studies over the past several years have either branded this beverage as a cure-all that increases lifespan or a deadly toxin that shortens it. Case in point: In 1981, Harvard published a study that connected coffee with a high risk of pancreatic cancer, which sent the entire nation into a frenzy. Later, those same Harvard researchers concluded that smoking may have been the real culprit instead. Like with dark chocolate and red wine, it’s incredibly difficult to pin down any definitive answer regarding coffee’s effects on the body because it’s by nature impossible to prove cause-and-effect in food studies. However, we should still be able to gather a general idea of its effects and whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

So what does science really say about the health effects of coffee? For the most part, it’s good news—or at the very least, coffee won’t kill you. There are numerous studies that suggest that drinking coffee regularly offers a wide range of health benefits, such as lowering the risk of stroke and dementia .

In fact, there doesn’t seem to be an end to the good news. A 2012 study indicates that the caffeine in coffee could decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes. The study featured almost 80,000 women and more than 40,000 men and controlled for all major lifestyle and dietary risk factors. After more than 20 years, they discovered that coffee consumption was associated with an eight percent risk decrease in women and four percent risk decrease in men.

The same could even be said for heart disease. In a 2015 meta-analysis of studies investigating long-term coffee consumption, Harvard researchers found that people who drank about three to five cups of coffee a day had the lowest risk of heart disease among more than 1,270,000 participants. Not only that, but those who consumed five or more cups a day did not suffer any higher risk than those who didn’t drink coffee at all. This information lines up with what a team of cardiologists at the University of California, San Francisco, stated all the way back in 1994: “Contrary to common belief, [there is] little evidence that coffee and/or caffeine in typical dosages increases the risk of [heart attack], sudden death or arrhythmia.”

On the other hand, studies investigating the supposed ill effects of drinking coffee have surprisingly come up short. To begin with, most of the negative connotations that surround coffee are mere myths. For instance, the old wives’ tale about how kids shouldn’t drink coffee because it stunts their growth is just not true. Years of studies have shown that there is no scientifically valid evidence that suggests that coffee affects a person’s height.

Likewise, the idea that drinking coffee will lead to lower bone density and greater risk of osteoporosis is also dubious. Scientists believe that this fear likely stemmed from early studies that linked caffeine with reduced bone mass. However, those early studies were mostly conducted on elderly people whose diets already lacked milk and other sources of calcium. To top it all off, even fears that coffee increases the risk of hypertension turned out to be unfounded thanks to a 2002 study by Johns Hopkins. Exactly what is it in coffee that provides all these benefits? Most studies point to coffee’s high antioxidant content, which protects the body from free radicals that harm the body and factor into cancer development. In fact, according to the American Chemical Society, coffee is the leading source of antioxidants in American diets due to how often we drink it.

Does this mean that coffee is a miracle drink after all? It’s difficult not to come to that conclusion, especially since two new studies published this year concluded that those who drink coffee regularly tend to live longer than those who do not. However, it’s best not to get carried away since, as stated earlier, food studies are notoriously inconsistent. These are all correlations, not causations. The caffeine in coffee is still a drug that has widespread effects that we’re not even close to uncovering. Coffee is still linked to insomnia, heartburn, addiction and digestion problems, as well as weight gain if consumed in excess (even without cream and sweeteners).

Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the International Food Information Council recommend that you don’t exceed 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, which is roughly equivalent to four regular cups of coffee or one Starbucks Venti. As always with food or drink, moderation is key.

Originally published on September 7, 2017, in The Miscellany News: Coffee in moderation beneficial to health

How Religion Physically Changes Your Brain

586ea070170000260092853b
Picture Credit: JupiterImages | The Huffington Post

It seems that more and more young Americans don’t feel quite as deeply connected to deities as their parents or their grandparents. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans under 30 who “never doubt the existence of God” has dropped from 83 percent in 2007 to 67 percent to 2012. In addition, only 18 percent of Millennials reported that they attend religious services at least once a week, compared with 26 percent of Boomers in the late 1970s.

With more people turning away from God and the church, questions surrounding the scientific implications of this generational trend can’t help but arise: How would this historic trend affect the minds and brains of young Americans, who will become the future of this country? In order to find an answer, we can turn toward a relatively obscure discipline in science: Neurotheology.

Neurotheology is the study of spirituality in the context of neuroscience, striving to explain the religious experience in neuroscientific terms.

“[We] evaluate what’s happening in people’s brains when they are in a deep spiritual practice like meditation or prayer. This has really given us a remarkable window into what it means for people to be religious or spiritual or to do these kinds of practices,” said Dr. Andrew Newberg, an established neuroscientist and Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

So, what do studies of the brain tell us about the impact of religion? In 2014, when Dr. Newberg compared the brain scans of Franciscan nuns, Buddhist monks and staunch atheists in prayer, he found something interesting. The brain scans indicated that praying and meditation caused increased activity in the limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion, and decreased activity in the parietal lobe, the brain region responsible orienting oneself in space and time.

“It seems that the brain is built in such a way that allows us as human beings to have transcendent experiences extremely easily, furthering our belief in a greater power,” says Newberg. According to him, this discovery explains why spirituality is one of the defining characteristics of our species.

Surprisingly, the connection between the parietal lobe and spirituality runs deep. All the way back in the 1990s, Canadian cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger tried to artificially replicate the mental effects of religion with his invention, the “God helmet,” a helmet that directed complex magnetic fields to parts of the brain including the parietal lobe. While crowds of Evangelical Christians protested outside his lab, Persinger invited participants to test the helmet. To his delight, more than 80 percent of the participants reported sensing a presence in the room that they took to be their deity. As a result, they became deeply emotional and, once the experiment concluded, were filled with a sense of loss.

Persinger theorized that the electromagnetic disruption created by the helmet caused one hemisphere of the participant’s brain to separate from the other and sense it as an entirely separate presence. Funnily enough, Persinger’s experiment then supports the claims of Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, whose 1976 book proposed that the left and right hemispheres are like two separate beings and that signals from the right brain were interpreted by the left brain as the voice of God. Ultimately, this would mean that supernatural occurrences such as divine visions and out-of-body experiences are merely the result of environmental disturbances.

However, there are still skeptics. Graham Ward, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University states that these claims are still shaky at best and that the temporal lobes “light up for any kind of excitement, not just religious experience.”

A more recent research study has found that humans naturally suppress the analytical parts of their brain and more heavily use the parts linked to empathy when they believe in God. Not only that, but the opposite occurs when humans think about the physical world instead. Anthony Jack, a Professor of Psychology at Case Western Reserve University who led the study, claims that humans use two different networks of neurons, one that enables critical thinking and one that promotes empathy. He explains that not only does this discovery broaden our understanding of spirituality in the history of cultures, but it also suggests that a healthy brain can choose which network to depend on and which to suppress when confronted with a logical problem or an ethical dilemma.

This idea that religion may arise from pathways in the brain rather than physical brain regions has been gaining traction recently. In a different study led by researchers at Auburn University showed that subjects who perceived supernatural agents in their daily lives were more likely to use brain pathways associated with fear when asked to think about their religious beliefs. They also found that devout believers tend to use neural pathways connected to language, while atheists tend to use pathways associated with visual imagery.

Most interestingly, while religion has been shown to heavily influence the brain, the brain can actually change how a person views religion. According to Boston University Professor of Neurology Patrick McNamara, changes in brain chemistry caused by Parkinson’s disease has been shown to erode a patient’s faith and devotion to God. These patients, McNamara discovered, lacked the neurotransmitter dopamine, which made him suspect that religiosity is connected to dopamine activity in the prefrontal lobes. This theory fits surprisingly well in the context of a completely different study, one where researchers used functional MRI scans and found that religious and spiritual experiences activate the same reward systems in the brain that become active when listening to music or doing drugs.

But even if spirituality is just a matter of brain chemistry, several theories point to religion as an evolutionary adaptation. A number of reports have found that churchgoers live about seven years longer than atheists and tend to have greater success with recovery from diseases like breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. They are also more likely to have lower blood pressure and less likely to have depression. So while cultural trends may shift away from god, it won’t be all that surprising if religion continues to persist for years to come.

Originally published on April 19, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsNeuroscience of religion reveals hidden cultural trends

Do Your Talents Depend on Your Genes?

d36464_8f6cb0ef9c2e4e1c84d850bc05d1254a
Picture Credit: tadtoonew.com

What if you were able to discover what your talents were the moment you were born? Would it have helped you at all in school if you knew that you were naturally gifted in sports or solving math problems or playing an instrument? According to certain health institutions in China, you no longer have to spend time wondering, thanks to the power of gene sequencing.

According to a recent article by The Telegraph, China is seeing an incredible surge of these so-called “talent detection” facilities that claim to be able to sequence a person’s DNA and uncover that person’s natural talent for a fee of about $500. Despite the dubious nature of these businesses, this type of direct-to-consumer genetic testing has become so popular among competitive Chinese parents that thousands of children are dragged by their mothers to these institutes to have their genomes sequenced in order to gain an extra advantage in the already cut-throat academic environment. As a result, China is already seeing the rise of the “talent detecting” industry, with companies promising to predict the future potential of children as well as their general level of intelligence, their emotional understanding and even their personality.

Wang Junyi, the president of the highly successful 1Gene health institute in Hangzhou, Zhejiang explains why these facilities are all the rage in China: “Many of my friends are anxious about deciding what their children should learn, as they fear making stupid decisions could result in lost opportunities. They will be wasting money and destroying their children’s confidence if they push them into something they are not good at, and this is where genetic testing can help.”

Of course, no matter how convincing they may sound, none of these claims are backed by actual scientific evidence. Genealogy expert Chang Zisong at the Tianjin International Joint Academy of Biomedicine states that all these predictions are ultimately meaningless and that the main reason why these institutions aren’t illegal is because banning them “would suggest that they have scientific value.”

But this opens up the question–how much impact does our DNA have on our talents? After all, the human genome is supposedly our body’s “blueprint.” While using gene sequencing to determine success in becoming the next Einstein or Mozart may be a farce today, would genetically detecting talent ever become standard practice in the future?

Let’s first examine athletic ability. One of the more controversial arguments regarding this subject is the athletic prowess of Jamaican sprinters. For some reason, the world’s best sprinters seem to come from this island nation in the Caribbean. Both Usain Bolt and Elaine Thompson, two Olympic champions who hold the title of fastest man and woman in the world respectively, are Jamaican. In addition, Jamaican athletes make up 19 of the 26 fastest times ever recorded in 100-meter races.

These numbers are a bit too bizarre to be mere coincidences, seeing how Jamaica has a population of only 2.8 million people. Many people have come up with different theories, from the diet of yams in local regions of the country to the island’s aluminum-rich soil. However, scientists who examined the DNA of Jamaican sprinters have suggested the existence of a “speed gene” and located the ACE gene as the culprit.

According to their explanations, this particular gene variant increases the chance of you developing a larger-than-average heart that can pump highly oxygenated blood to your muscles quicker than the average person’s. The data has shown that Jamaicans have a higher frequency of this gene variant than Europeans or even inhabitants of West Africa.

Funnily enough, 75 percent of Jamaicans, both athletes and non-athletes, also possess the ACTN3 gene, which helps develop muscle strength. In contrast, only 70 percent of U.S. international-standard athletes have this desirable variant.

So is your potential athletic ability primarily determined by these two genes? It’s difficult to tell.

For one thing, the genetics of sports is incredibly complicated, and it’s more likely that an entire pathway of genes is involved rather than a specific anomaly. In addition, Yannis Pitsilandis, a biologist at the University of Glasgow studied the genetics of Jamaican sprinters and could not genetically distinguish a subgroup that made them run faster than everyone else. Instead, Pitsilandis argues that Jamaica has a lot of fast sprinters because the entire country promotes the sport of running, similar to how the United States obsesses over the sport of football.

If the data on athleticism is inconclusive, then let’s look at a different but equally desired talent–the ability to solve math problems easily. Unfortunately, there is even less conclusive data surrounding the genetics of academic success. According to a large twin study by researchers from King’s College in London, it may be possible that the genes for math and language skills are inherited from your parents. However, the scientists were unable to determine the exact genes that may be responsible for these skills.

But then what about musical abilities, like becoming a prodigy in playing the violin or piano? As expected, the situation remains murky. While no direct connections between genes and musical ability have been established, some scientists believe that musical accomplishment may actually stem from the desire to practice, which does have genetic ties.

According to research led by psychologist David Hambrick from Michigan State University, a person’s genetics may influence their musical aptitude, musical enjoyment and motivation.

Similarly, a study of over 10,000 identical Swedish twins led by neuroscientist Miriam Mosing of Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute found that a person’s propensity to practice music may be inherited by their child by up to 70 percent. However, neither study can really be deemed conclusive, and connections to any specific gene variant have yet to be found.

Based on all this research, it seems that we still have a long way to go before we can rely on gene sequencing technology to predict people’s futures. Even our knowledge on the link between genetics and talent appears shaky at best. Yet despite this, direct-to-consumer gene sequencing has become all the rage recently, and not only among uber-competitive parents in China. In the United States, countless genetic testing companies have found success by offering to read the customer’s DNA and revealing that person’s natural “disposition.” But instead of analyzing DNA to unveil a person’s natural talent, these companies promise to uncover the customer’s ideal diet and exercise regime, giving “reliable” genetic information on their genetic fitness.

Even crazier is that these “lifestyle genetic tests” are offering to uncover more and more ridiculous information “buried” within our DNA. One company even wants to use gene sequencing to determine what comic superhero a customer would be, based on their genes. As the originator of the idea, Stephane Budel, explains: “It gives you your breakdown, like you’re 30 percent Superman, 20 percent Ironman and 50 percent the Hulk.”

Clearly, the human genome is being treated less like a blueprint and more like a personality test on Facebook. Nonetheless, I think it would be advisable for everyone to slow down, take a deep breath and follow what your brain tells you instead of relying on a genome report.

Originally published on March 1, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsTalents may be dependent on individual genetic makeup

The Science of Attraction: Why Do We Fall in Love?

Cw5gpQOXEAAzy7F
Picture Credit: Ann Cutting | TIME Magazine

The really cynical people in the world like to say that love is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed and then think to themselves how logical and scientific they are. These people also tend to be in high school or just happen to be very lonely individuals. Either way, science is not that clean-cut about the topic of love. So, in acknowledgment that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, let’s see what science has uncovered so far about humanity’s oldest and most hackneyed phenomenon.

When the word love is usually brought up in a scientific setting, most people refer to the rules and reasoning behind romantic attraction: What physical properties make a person desirable. In regard to physical attractiveness, many researchers have concluded that symmetry plays the biggest role, a claim backed by numerous studies and years of investigations. Scientists have found that this measurement of beauty holds true across various cultures and even in different species of animals .

The general consensus appears to be that having a symmetrical-looking face serves as a good indicator of robust health and ideal genes, which prospective romantic partners subconsciously pick up on. Psychologist Dr. William Brown at the Brunel University in the U.K. remarks, “In animals with two sides that were designed by natural selection to be symmetrical, subtle departures from symmetry may reflect poor development or exposure to environmental or genetic stress. In many species, these departures are related to poor health, lower survival, and fewer offspring.”

Interestingly, there has been some pushback against this consensus in recent times. Artist and photographer challenged this notion of symmetry as attractive by creating portraits of models whose faces have been photoshopped to be mirror images of the left and right sides of their faces. In a study performed by Nicholas Pound, another psychologist from Brunel University, results showed that facial symmetry in adolescents did not correlate with rates of childhood illness, as many researchers presumed. However, the most interesting counter-argument insists that the perfect face doesn’t stem from symmetry but from the Golden Ratio, an ancient Greek mathematical ratio of 1.618:1 that has been observed in the proportions of flowers, spiral galaxies, famous Greek art and attractive faces.

But beyond just physical appearances, science has found other explanations behind why one person would fall in love with someone. For instance, how you smell could determine who you attract, that is to say, the pheromones you emit. Widely used in the Animal Kingdom, pheromones are scent-bearing chemicals that we secrete in sweat and other bodily fluids that influence the behavior of others. Humans also utilize pheromones and researchers believe that these chemical signals play an important role in sexual attraction. In one study, researchers found that women who smelled sweaty undershirts worn by men could accurately judge their attractiveness. In a different study, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin discovered that men could determine when a woman was at her most fertile period in her menstrual cycle based on her pheromones. When these men were asked to smell T-shirts worn by women, they judged the shirts worn by fertile women to be more “pleasant” and “sexy.” In both cases, it’s likely that these types of scent detection happen subconsciously.

However, it is important to note that the research into human pheromones is still incomplete. Researchers have yet to identify specific chemical compounds that spark physical attraction in people, at least not any with a reliable scientific foundation. The closest they got was with androstadienone, a steroid derived from testosterone that has been reported to “make women feel more relaxed.” But the lack of solid evidence hasn’t stopped the perfume industry. You can find all sorts of “pheromone-based” perfumes on the Internet that claim to attract the opposite sex. The more expensive, popular ones have countless positive reviews that praise its effectiveness, but I’m more inclined to believe that this is because of the placebo effect.

There are also theories floating around that romantic attraction is largely guided by genetics and the goal of finding a mate who will help produce healthier offspring. For instance, researchers from the University of Western Australia suspect that a person’s body odor could provide clues about that person’s immune system. According to their study, a woman’s sweat contains chemical information about her histocompatibility, or MHC, genes. This information also subconsciously notifies members of the opposite sex about the type of immune system she has. To the researchers’ surprise, not only did the female participants with the most varied MHC genes appear more attractive to the male participants, but they also had the greatest number of sexual partners. This is most likely because a person with varied MHC genes also has a diverse immune system, a trait associated with disease resistance.

So far, all these research studies seem to push the notion that romantic attraction is mainly outside of our control, which may dishearten several readers. However, all these studies have another common thread: They’re about infatuation, not love.

Everything from facial symmetry to pheromones to histocompatibility genes focuses on the love-at-first-sight aspect of romance, the instantaneous physical attraction that occurs when two people meet for the first time. These factors might answer why you have a premature crush on someone but say nothing about what helps a relationship survive conflict or last for a long time. Just because two people are biologically compatible doesn’t mean that their personalities will mesh well. How regrettable that science is not invulnerable to the “love at first sight” mentality that plague movies and literature.

Of course, I’m exaggerating: There are obviously some studies focused on maintaining a relationship, not just infatuation. However, the little that I could find was surrounded by an ocean of research on the immediate sensation of falling in love. That’s not surprising, since falling in love is easy and fun, while keeping a relationship together is stressful and aggravating. But even though your DNA or your immune system or your pheromones might determine who you choose as your significant other, those biological factors change over time. What will happen when you’re no longer biologically compatible with your partner? Ultimately, one must make an effort to truly understand the other person’s personality and values and build a foundation of trust and friendship beforehand. Science may explain what gives love its sparks but it can’t provide any real shortcuts.

Originally published on February 8, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsResearchers illuminate the science of falling in love

Unlocking Axolotl: The Path Towards Regenerative Medicine

bA8iBYO
Picture Credit: Utaranews.com

Out of all the various superpowers found in comic books and video games, regeneration is among the most astonishing. The idea of being able to regrow an arm or a leg whenever one is lost in an accident exemplifies a sort of uncanny magical ability straight out of science fiction. However, this ability serves as an adaptive trait for several different animals around the world.

While notable examples include sea stars and certain species of lizards, the most prominent kinds of animals known for their regenerative capabilities are salamanders, a species known for its ability to regrow entire limbs and regenerate parts of major organs like their heart, their eyes and their spinal cord. They possess such impressive regeneration abilities that immunologist James Godwin of the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University in Melbourne calls them “a template of what perfect regeneration looks like.”

One specific salamander species that deserves special attention is the axolotl, also known as a Mexican salamander (Ambystoma mexicanum). This amphibian, in particular, has a one-of-a-kind capacity for regeneration and is known for being able to regrow multiple structures like limbs, jaws, skin and even parts of its brain without evidence of scarring throughout their lives.

The sheer amount of damage that an axolotl can recover from is absolutely extraordinary.

“You can cut the spinal cord, crush it, remove a segment, and it will regenerate. You can cut the limbs at any level–the wrist, the elbow, the upper arm–and it will regenerate, and it’s perfect. There is nothing missing, There’s no scarring on the skin at the site of amputation, every tissue is replaced. They can regenerate the same limb 50, 60, 100 times. And every time: perfect,” remarked Professor Stephane Roy at the University of Montreal.

As a result, the axolotl is widely used as a model organism for studying regeneration. But this begs the question: can this amazing regeneration ability be somehow transferred to humans? If human beings had the same regenerative capacity as axolotls, the benefits would far surpass that of regrowing an arm or a leg or a finger. People would be able to repair or regrow their internal organs whenever an organ failure occurs without having to rely on intensive surgery.

For instance, victims of car accidents may end up with major injuries to their backbone, their ribcage and all the soft major organs within, but a regeneration ability equivalent to that of an axolotl may have them walking normally after a mere few months. Not only that, the axolotl is over 1,000 times more resistant to cancer than mammals. Finding the source of this salamander’s regeneration capabilities could lead to unimaginable developments in modern medicine.

However, while the idea sounds fantastic, the execution is much more difficult than it looks. Compared to amphibians, humans have very limited regenerative capabilities, restricted primarily to their skin. So far, research into salamanders has led scientists to pinpoint the blastema, a mass of immature cells typically found in the early stages of an organism’s development, as the key to regeneration. Essentially, when an adult salamander limb is amputated, the outermost layer of skin covers up the wound and sends signals to nearby cells, which prompts the mature cells to form the blastema. From there, the immature cells start to divide and differentiate into specific muscle and nerve cells until a different signal or some form of memory tells the cells to stop regenerating.

For scientists to replicate this effect in humans, they use stem cells, which are also cells that can also differentiate into any type of cell in the body and divide to produce more stem cells. These cells are also known as pluripotent cells since they are capable of developing into several different cell types. However, the blastema that salamanders produce is not completely embryonic. Instead, scientists have found that the cells used for regeneration become slightly less mature versions of the cells they’ve been before. This means researchers don’t have to force adult tissue into becoming pluripotent, making the task a little easier to implement in humans.

The latest development in this field has come from a group of scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), who have designed a new stem cell repair system based on the method used by salamanders to regenerate limbs. According to hematologist John Pimanda, the new technique involves reprogramming bone and fat cells into induced multipotent stem cells (iMS), which can be used to regenerate muscle, bone and cartilage. The team first extract fat cells from the human body, treat them with various growth factors and compounds like 5-Azacytidine (AZA) to turn them into stem cells, and then inject them back into the body to heal tissue.

“This technique is a significant advance on many of the current unproven stem cell therapies, which have shown little or no objective evidence they contribute directly to new tissue formation,” stated Pimanda.

So far, the new technique has been successful in mice, and human trials are expected to begin by late 2017. But several obstacles still stand in the way. One primary challenge is preventing the cells from becoming cancerous as they go through regeneration. Salamanders typically don’t face the risk of malignant tumors whenever they regenerate tissue, and as stated earlier, the axolotl is in fact 1,000 times more resistant to cancer than mammals, despite how often it regenerates body parts. Right now, Pimanda and his team are making sure that the technique leads to controlled tissue repair and that cell regeneration doesn’t spiral out of control.

With progress being steadily made in regenerating bone and muscle, it may be only a matter of time until we reach the regenerative capabilities of salamanders and have self-repairing organs in the future. A revolutionary development like that would certainly save lives and help all types of patients from those suffering from third-degree burns to those who desperately need an organ donor. Until then, researchers will continue to study salamanders and their incredible regeneration abilities to help guide them towards this goal.

Originally published on November 30, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsResearch on regeneration proves beneficial

What the Media Didn’t Mention About the Male Contraceptive Study

injection-shot_fe
Picture Credit: Outside Magazine

Several days ago, you may have seen a handful of news articles floating around on the internet that made a lot of people, especially women, angry and upset.

According to these articles, scientists were making progress in creating a male contracep­tive that was 96 percent effective in preventing pregnancy in female partners. This was won­derful news for many women who have long carried the burden of birth control and its side effects–some extraordinarily harmful.

A male contraceptive would finally shift some of that responsibility onto men. However, the study came to halt after, according to one news article, “Men taking it reported negative side effects including mood swings, an altered libido and acne.”

Naturally, the sheer hypocrisy of the situa­tion outraged many women who had to suffer those symptoms every day. Their outrage, from headlines and social media posts alone, was completely justified. Countless Facebook and Twitter posts denounced the blatant double standard in halting the study for safety concerns when women were expected to endure the same side effects without complaining. As the news spread, the onslaught of criticism grew, and rightfully so. This news serves as another reminder of how women face unfair treatment and societal pressures that men don’t have to think about. However, the media coverage of this study has been disturbingly misleading. Although the people’s outrage against the men in the study is very understandable, the media is still undeniably guilty for leaving out several significant details and grossly oversimplifying the results in exchange for brief sensationalism.

The male contraceptive in question is an in­jected hormonal drug that reversibly suppresses the sperm count in men. In order to test the drug’s effectiveness, the re­searchers enlisted a total of 320 healthy male volunteers and repeatedly administered the drug into the person’s arm for an entire year. Just like those articles on Facebook claim, the male participants did experience mood swings, muscle pain and acne as part of the side effects of the drug throughout the experiment.

However, what popular media coverage failed to report on was the sheer scope of these side effects. Over the course of the trial, the 320 male participants reported a total 1,491 adverse events and researchers determined that 900 of those events were caused by the hormonal drug.

“These side effect rate is pretty high with this new study of men when compared with contra­ception studies for women…For example and perspective, a study comparing the birth con­trol patch with the pill found a serious adverse event rate of 2%. The pill reduces acne for 70% of women and in studies with the Mirena IUD the rate of acne is 6.8%,” explained obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter. In the male contraceptive study, more than 45 percent of the men got acne as a verifiable result of the drug.

In addition, a total of eight men out of the 320 participants were not back to “normal sperm counts” a year after they stopped receiving the drug. One male volunteer was rendered infertile due to the treatment, because his sperm count failed to return to normal even after four years had passed since his last injection.

Now here’s what the majority of the news outlets didn’t mention in their report: The study wasn’t halted because the male participants couldn’t handle the side effects. In reality, an in­dependent, third-party peer-review committee found that it didn’t make sense to continue the study, because “the risks the study participants outweighed the potential benefits to the study participants.” The actual male partic­ipants involved in the study had no power or authority to shut down the entire experiment.

Not only that, only 20 of the 320 men discon­tinued the study, one of whom had to stop due to a dangerous increase in blood pressure.

Despite the various adverse events and the clinically intensive regimen of the study, more than 75 percent of the participants stated that they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the outcome of the experiment.

About 24 percent felt neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, and only 1.3 percent of the men in the study answered that they were unsatisfied. Similarly, the survey showed that over 80 percent of the men answered that they would continue to use a similar male contraceptive and only 1.3 percent of the participants said no. The researchers themselves concluded that “male participants and their partners found this [birth control method] to be highly acceptable at the end of the trial, even after being made aware of the early termination of the study intervention.”

Despite this information, news outlets every­where failed to cover the entire study truthfully and instead chose to run incendiary headlines that made the male volunteers appear spineless and pathetic: “Men Abandon Groundbreak­ing Study on Male Birth Control, Citing ‘Mood Changes’” (Broadly, 10.29.2016), “Male contra­ceptive pill works—but side effects halt trial” (New Scientist, 10.27.2016), “Male Contraceptive Injection Halted For Same Side Effects Women Have Suffered For Years” (Elle, 10.28.2016), “Yes, contraceptives have side effects—and it’s time for men to put up with them too” (Independent, 10.28.2016), “Men Quit Male Birth Control Study Because It Was Giving Them Mood Swings. Welcome to the club, dudes. Also: WOMAN UP” (Cosmopolitan, 10.30.2016).

Personally, I don’t blame the Internet for be­ing misled. The fault lies on the news outlets for either not paying attention to what they were reporting on or purposefully twisting the facts in the study to create a sensationalist headline. It goes to show how important it is for newspa­pers and magazines to write a headline and an article that accurately represents the content of the original source.

On the bright side, a lot of the resulting com­plaints are right. Scientists should put more effort into reducing the side effects of female birth control. As I mentioned earlier, women are unfairly burdened with the pain and suffer­ing that accompanies birth control. In addition, the possible side effects of the female birth con­trol definitely shouldn’t be brushed aside and ignored. Research indicates that birth control pills increase the risk of blood clots by about three or four times. That is terrifying. I am cer­tain that the public wouldn’t care as much if the participants in the male contraceptive research study were women instead of men. While I do not condone the blatant inaccuracy and mis­leading nature of the articles covering the male contraceptive study, I do think that this sort of public outrage might be a good way to finally start the conversation of fixing a broken system.

Originally published on November 9, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsSpurious reports on contraception pervade social media