Friday, September 27, 2013

Phage Therapy: An Old Idea Re-Emerging

Electron micrograph of phages attacking a bacterial cell
Bacteriophages, sometimes just called phages, are naturally-occurring viruses that can target and kill bacteria.  That's right, bacteria can get infected with viruses, too.

Phages were discovered in the early 20th century, and people immediately began to think that maybe they could use phages to treat bacterial infections.  However, this idea was more-or-less abandoned in the US and most of Europe after Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin in 1928 and the use of antibiotics grew more widespread.

At the the time, antibiotics were hailed as miracle drugs, which they were, and the thought of antibiotic resistance was not on any one's radar.  Phage research in the US continued and was critical to the development of many molecular biology techniques used today, but it mainly focused on intense research on a few strains of phage (including a famous one called lambda phage) that infect the bacteria E. coli.    

However, research into the use of bacteriophages to treat infections, often called "phage therapy," continued for many years in some countries, including the former Soviet Union and France.  Research into phage therapy continues in those countries today, and sometimes phages are even used to treat infections in people, but not yet in the US.

Because antibiotic resistance is becoming an increasingly dangerous global health threat (as we discussed previously), the "old" idea of phage therapy is making a comeback in the US.  Some people see phage therapy as an potential alternative to antibiotics that may "save" us in the era of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.  As some scientists and doctors are (quite alarmingly) saying that we are approaching the "post-antibiotic age," you might begin to hear more about bacteriophages or phage therapy.   Let's talk a little bit about the past, present, and future of phage therapy as well as some of its known pros and cons.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Hanging On By a Delicate Thread....

This is a random, short post about how fragile life on earth actually is.  Sounds pretty optimistic, huh?

Sometimes nature reminds us that we're not as tough as we think we are.  We think we're pretty invincible with technology and our guns, armies, and nuclear weapons.  We drill oil wells and mine coal and other minerals to grab up all we can of the earth's resources to make us more powerful.  We create biological and chemical weapons that have devastating potential.  Sometimes, as a result, we think the only thing that can destroy humanity is itself.  For the most part, our technology and what we can do with it is pretty amazing.  The human race, despite all of its flaws, has achieved some remarkable things.  We put people on the moon!  Even today that still sounds kind of crazy.

However, in the grand scale of the universe, we're still just a tiny speck.  Here's a story to remind you that, despite our best efforts, our very existence depends in part on luck.....

Read on after the jump.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Antibiotic Resistance: CDC Threat Report

Pseudomonas bacteria
A big story on the news right now is the recent report by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that calculated the number of deaths each year caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They estimate that at least 23,000 people die each year Americans die each year directly as a consequence of infection with antibiotic resistant bacteria. They warn that the potential rise of more and more antibiotic-resistant "super bugs" could result in a potential public health emergency.

You can read more about the CDC report at the New York Times or Washington Post, or you can access the full CDC report here (but be warned, it's pretty long), but I wanted to write just a little bit about antibiotic resistance and these so-called "super bugs." You may have heard of such bacteria as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), multi-drug resistant Pseudomonas, vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA), or vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE).  These resistant bacteria are becoming more common in human infections, and doctors epidemiologists are worried that as bacteria develop more and more resistance to commonly used antibiotics, we may run out of effective drugs to treat bacterial infections. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Gender Bias in Science, Part II: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

This is the second of a series of posts examining gender bias in science, with a focus on historical examples of women who made important scientific contributions to key discoveries, but who unfortunately found the credit for these discoveries was given to their male peers.  We are focusing on women who were denied science's highest and most famous honor, the Nobel Prize.  In a previous post, we talked about general issues related to women in science and we looked at the example of Lise Meitner, the woman who co-discovered nuclear fission but saw both the credit and a Nobel Prize for the discovery go to her male colleague, Otto Hahn.

Today, we'll discuss some of the flaws associated with the award structure of the Noble Prize and also focus on a more recent important woman scientist, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist who discovered a type of star called a pulsar.  While she didn't get the Nobel Prize she deserved, she nonetheless has had an impressive career and has been an important advocate for women in science.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Gender Bias in Science, Part I: Lise Meitner

Marie Curie (1903)
Some people would like to believe that, in the "enlightened" 21st century that we live in, sexism is all but a thing of the past. Sadly, while things have improved greatly over the years in many countries around the world, sexism and gender bias are still major problems in our society.  You don't have to look very far to see that.

Science and medicine are both fields that have a long history of sexism and gender bias.  Some of the most important scientific discoveries were made by women who fought hard to gain a place in male-dominated fields, only to later see the credit for these discoveries go largely to their male collegues or supervisors. 

Sure, there were certainly many important women scientists who were well-recognized for their accomplishments, including the great Marie Curie, who won two Nobel Prizes (one in physics and one chemistry, the only person to win in two different categories) for her discovery of radium and studies on radioactivity, and Barbara McClintock, who won a 1983 Nobel Prize for her work on genetic inheritance.  Unfortunately, though, there were many brilliant women scientists who were overlooked, ignored, or otherwise taken advantage of.  

Let's disuss a little bit about gender bias in science and few of the women pioneers who helped to change the way we look at the world but who ended up getting far less credit and fame than their really deserved.