Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cosmos (2014), Episode 1

NASA Image Library
I wanted to write a quick note after seeing the first episode of the new FOX TV documentary TV series Cosmos, which just aired.  It is not so much a review but rather some comments coupled with a strong suggestion to anyone interested in science, especially kids, to watch the show.  

I appreciate and greatly respect what Neil deGrasse Tyson does for scientific education, policy, and public opinion, and I was excited to hear that he was hosting a re-make of Carl Sagan's classic TV series Cosmos. What seems, at first glance, to be puzzling is that the whole project was spurred on by Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame. That may seem surprising to some, but despite Family Guy's rampant fart jokes and sometimes-in-bad-taste insults, there is a lot of intelligent humor in there, so it doesn't really surprise me that MacFarlane wanted to produce a science documentary. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Scientific Exploits of Ben Franklin Part 4: Lead Poisoning


Franklin, ca. 1783
I want to continue my long-standing series on the scientific and medical contributions of Benjamin Franklin, not only because I find him to be a fascinating man, but also because as much as we revere him for his more popular scientific discoveries and inventions (electricity, bifocals, etc.), he made many other important contributions that few people are aware of.  Most people probably have no idea that Ben played an important role in the recognition of lead poisoning by medical doctors in colonial America and Europe, a fact that improved and saved many lives.

Humans started mining and using the metal lead over 6 thousand years ago.  Lead was tremendously useful in large part because it is resistant to corrosion and is highly malleable and easy to work with.  Lead was often heated and melted so that the molten lead could be poured into forms to create braces to hold other wooden or stone structures together.  The Romans first made water pipes out of lead, and for the next several thousand years, people were mining and using lead and lead-based products, all the while frequently poisoning themselves.  Pretty crazy to think about, isn't it?  Let's talk for a moment about lead poisoning in human history and the role of Benjamin Franklin in recognizing the self-destructive human over-use of lead.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Less-Than-Great News for the NIH Budget Next Year

From a breaking news article from the journal Nature, it looks like the National Institutes of Health (NIH, the main goverment organization that funds most of the biomedical research at universities and academic hospitals in the US) is facing a pretty minimal, if any, budget increase for the next fiscal year:

"NIH faces a harsh fiscal reality. According to its Biomedical Research Price Index, which calculates the agency’s purchasing power, the cost of doing research is expected to increase by 2.9% in fiscal year 2015, far outpacing its 0.7% budget hike."

There's a lot of economic growth that comes from innovation in science and technology; a large large large amont of the biomedical science and technology research in the US is supported by NIH funding.  Moreover, in addition to the economic gains, the public health gains from NIH-supported research are enormous.  There's a lot of benefit to increasing the NIH budget, but even more terrible than no budgetary increase would be if the NIH budget doesn't even keep up with inflation.  

If you are concerned with the future of medical and scientific research in the US, contact your congressman/congresswoman and your senator and tell them we need to adequately support the NIH and other US government science organizations.   

Monday, March 3, 2014

Harold Ramis (1944-2014)

As a young kid growing up in the 1980s, I loved the movie Ghostbusters.  I would argue that it is easily one of the best films of the 80s.  Yes, the movie is a bit silly with (from today's perspective) bad special effects and campy dialogue, but it mixed two things that are rarely combined in popular entertainment: the supernatural (i.e., the ghosts) and science (i.e., the guys running around catching the ghosts with high-tech toys).  I think that's a theme of the movie that isn't discussed enough.  In the movie, ghosts exist, but science kicks their asses.  As a young kid, that made a huge impression on me.

On Feb 24th, 2014, the world lost Harold Ramis, an actor, director, and writer of some of the greatest comedies of the 20th century.  He acted in and co-wrote Ghostbusters, and in it showed that a geeky, awkward guy with glasses could take on a bunch of threatening ghosts, a Sumerian god of destruction (Gozer the Gozerian), and an enormous marshmallow man and come out on the winning side, not because he was big or strong or attractive, but because he was smart.  RIP Harold Ramis, and thanks for showing a generation of young kids that scientists can be heroes.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bitter and Sweet Taste Receptors and Immunity

I've written a few times in the past about taste.  However, the molecular mechanisms that your body uses to detect taste are for more than just eating and drinking.  The proteins that your body uses to recognize certain tastes (called taste receptors) are actually important players in innate immunity in your nose.

Chronic nasal and sinus infections (called chronic sinusitis) is a major public health problem.  This disease can be caused by fungal, bacterial, or viral infections.  One out of every five antibiotic prescriptions given to adults in the US is for sinusitis, and thus this disease is a major driver for the generation of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which are becoming a major public health threat.  Not only do sinus infections dramatically reduce quality of life and make people miserable, but they also can "seed" lower airway infections.  For example, chronic bacterial inceptions in the nose can create a reservoir of bacteria which can then infect the lung.  In patients with immunocompromised airways or airways that have impaired defensive capabilities, like cystic fibrosis patients, upper respiratory infections can lead to the onset of lower respiratory infections that can eventually be fatal.

Your nose is important because it traps most of the bacteria, viruses, fungi, and particulates that you inhale on a breath-by-breath basis.  It protects your lower airway.  Most of the time, cells in your nose gets rid of all of those pathogens without you even noticing it.  However, when the nasal defenses fail, infections results.  A major question in the field of airway biology has been why some people get upper respiratory infections but others don't.  People have long suspected that there is a genetic component.  Recent studies on taste receptors suggest that taste receptors in your nose may contribute to the long-suspected genetic basis of upper airway diseases.  Read more after the jump....