NASA to send unconscious astronauts to Mars

October 14, 2014 Posted by
Sleeping to Mars

Cold

 

NASA TO “CHILL” ASTRONAUTS

NASA needs a refresher course in being human. Its latest idea is just too “cold”.

One of NASA’s contractors, Spaceworks Engineering, has proposed turning Astronauts into popsicles. The plan would keep Astronauts on a Mars mission “on ice” – hypothermia - to conserve supplies and to shrink the size of the spaceship. The unconscious astronauts would be fed intravenously and maintained by medical equipment.  Like in sci fi movies, they would be in “hibernation”. Doctors have been doing similar stuff for heart attacks and head injuries. Believe it or not, it works well.

If it works for heart attacks, why not for astronauts?

SEND-A-HUMAN-TO-MARS ?

First some background.

Up till now, “manned” space trips have consisted of stiff legging it around the moon or orbiting in space hardware like the space station. The planets were considered out of reach to humans.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad never had a problem with the way things were. We’ve sent all kinds of “probes” to the planets. And we’ve explored the heck out of Mars while humans stayed mostly in earth orbit. There have been some deaths and injuries in our space program but we’ve done a lot of science without many casualties. Now there’s a big push to get humans out to Mars to “fulfill our destiny”.

This isn’t because people are a better deal then robots .

They’re not.

It’s much more expensive and much riskier to send people. Radiation is intense out there -really intense. A space ship big enough to carry people and supplies and provide some radiation shielding for such a long trip would be hard to create. Sending humans on a long journey makes everything more complicated.

For a while, I wasn’t worried. Let them lobby Congress about getting humans to Mars, I thought. Let’s face it, Congress will never bite. What’s bad about the “frozen astronaut” idea is that, with the lower costs, Congress might actually fall for the idea.

 

DELUSIONS ABOUT HUMANS

Look, it is is true that doctors have been succesfully cooling people who might die otherwise. It’s risky but it’s worth it. It takes a while to recover from a heart attack, or a busted head. Slowing things down by cooling the patient gives the body a chance to catch up with the healing process.

Astronauts aren’t dying though. The only thing wrong with their heads is that they take crazy risks. They’re in great shape. Keeping them chilled, asleep, and on intravenous lines for that long is dangerous. All kinds of bad things can happen to their hearts, their lungs, their circulatory systems, etc.  Induced hypothermia is okay in a medical crisis.  But it is not okay in the name of smaller, cheaper space ships.

We’ve been getting good science done on Mars with our rovers. And Robots will only get better - if we don’t use up too much robot money tossing men and women at the problem.

An analysis of the space shuttle indicated that 99 out a hundred flights would succeed.

The one in a hundred that would fail?

Believe me. You don’t want to know!

The shuttle was  just a space taxi. It was a complicated mess but making a shuttle is nothing compared to making a Mars mission. It’s too early to say what the “risk analysis” would be for a Mars mission but there’s nothing about traveling a zillion miles through intense radiation, relying on fragile systems to protect you for months and maybe years, that sounds safe. Nobody has explained how we would safely reduce levels of radiation to anything near acceptable. And do you know a bookie who would like the odds for surviving the trip and landing safely?

If they do get there, they will have absorbed way too many “rads”. They would still look like astronauts but inside that space gear would be people who were actually nasty medical experiments plunging into the abyss.

Irresponsible? You said it!

I’m not picking on NASA.  Well –  maybe I am – but, mainly,  I’m just pointing out that we should resist the irrational urge to “head for the stars”. It would be cool to see people in space suits up there (if they weren’t wretching and dying, of course) but robots are safer, cheaper, and better.

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The drawing is mine.

The “Welcome to Earth” generation calls it quits

August 28, 2014 Posted by
A generation without aliens

The “No Aliens” Problem

THE ALIENS WHO NEVER CAME

Aliens were somewhere. Not  on the moon but probably Mars.

Maybe Jupiter and Saturn too.

Astounding Science Fiction wasn’t the greatest place to get your science but in high school, we relied on it. Astounding told us about the caves that aliens lived in,  the mean things they did,  and the methods of transport they would use to land on Earth.

Myself,  I was very pro alien. I had high confidence that they weren’t going to eat us. And –  more important – that they wouldn’t get all the girls.

By college,  Earth was still alien free. I had Dr. Medicus for physics. Aliens were the least of my worries.

Ten years later,  there was still nothing .This was a surprise. Not a single visit from a single planet. The first American had landed on the moon but no extraterrestrials had returned the favor. We were headed for space but space wasn’t headed for us.

By now, we were launching probes to the planets. The more we saw of the planets, the more obvious it was that there weren’t any cities up there. Venus was hot and shrouded in vaporous clouds of sulphuric acid. Mars was colder than Antarctica and its surface was full of craters. And Saturn was gaseous with rings of rocks and ice.

Scientists were fascinated, of course.

Me?  I couldn’t BELIEVE it! Where were the damn cities? Alien life wasn’t as common as my generation had thought it would be or as Astounding Science Fiction had (more-or-less) promised.

For quite some time – since 1960 – radio astronomers on earth have been looking for signals. By 1977, we thought we might have heard from our first alien. That signal is now called the “WOW” signal because of the exclamation scribbled across the stripchart.

We never heard it again nor have we received any other credible signals since. If we do hope to find some form of intelligence, we are going to have to look harder. And further.

EXOPLANETS

In the late 80s, we learned about “exoplanets.” An exoplanet was a planet that was going around some star other than our own sun; maybe we would find evidence of life by analyzing the atmosphere of an exoplanet. The first of these things was discovered in 1988 circling Gamma Cephei. We have found hundreds of them by now. They’re very common. There are hundreds of billions in our galaxy. Many, many trillions across the universe.

If you’re a fan of aliens, this makes you happy.

GIVING IT UP

I am in my seventies. I have spent almost an entire lifetime waiting. Nothing has turned up and I don’t think anything will.  The horrible fact? We are completely alone in the solar system and aren’t hearing from anybody in the “neighborhood”.

Will we ever find life?

Some day we will find microbes . The hunt for “bugs” is more intense than ever but, as far as locating our “co-equals” out there is concerned?  We really haven’t heard from any other technical civilizations. Not when I was a kid. Not when I was an adolescent. And not during my ridiculously long life.

Not one.

If there are alien civilizations, radio isn’t a handy way to prove it. The nearest “civs” are probably too far away for radio round trips. It takes too long to get an answer back and the signals would probably be hopelessly drowned out by noise.

Want more?

It seems the “broadcasting era” is a short one for a technical civilization. We’ve been switching to buried optical fiber cables. The “other guys” would have done the same things too after a very short time so there are b-i-g problems capturing a signal that’s probably not even “out there”.

No signal, no contact.

Even more?

Even if, by some miracle of cosmology, we did get ourselves a signal, many experts say we would “never in a million years” be able to extract the meaning. This is because of the problems of how the signal would have been modulated, because of digitization schemes, and, of course, figuring out a (very) foreign language from a (very) foreign culture.

Here’s what it comes down to. For my generation, big eyed aliens are off the menu. If they’re out there, they’re way out there.

They might as well not exist all.

There won’t be any warm embraces with un-Earthians. No White House tours. No revelation of the wisdom of the ages.

Maybe bugs though.

Is this fair?

Doesn’t my generation deserve better?

I think so.

On behalf of my generation, this is MISTER ScienceAintSoBad bidding goodbye to the aliens who never showed up.

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The drawing is mine.

 

Self Driving Cars Of The Sea

August 16, 2014 Posted by
Funny cartoon about self driving ship

WHO GETS TO DRIVE??

 

SELF DRIVING SHIPS

Self driving cars are already on the roads. In a few years, you’ll own one.  We’re scrambling to get the laws and insurance rules done.

What about ships?

I’m serious.

Remember the Costa Concordia?

It actually hit a rock?

Ships don’t GO that fast. And rocks? They don’t go at all.

Would a computerized pilot get lost in somebody’s baby blue eyes? Would it cruise dangerously close to shore to show off?

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad doesn’t think so.

Why can’t we at least do what several  car models already do – the ones that  “grab the wheel” to save you from killing yourself? If it works for cars at 65 mph, it should work for ships at 19 mph.

You would think.

Ship owners would like to go further. They really like the idea of self piloted “ghost” ships.

Without a crew, ships would be smaller and simpler and more fuel efficient. And what’s a ship worth to pirates if there’s no crew?  Would you pay a big ransom for a scow full of tires?

Oskar Levander, VP of Innovation, Marine Engineering, and Technology at Rolls Royce, says we’re ready to do this. Rolls Royce has a simulated system to show off to potential customers; the company (or at least Levander) sees this as inevitable.

Here’s the thing.

It’s a great idea. But ships don’t get smashed against rocks by foolish captains very often.

The big risks are bad weather and propulsion systems that explode, catch fire, or fail, leaving the vessel to founder in the waves. A ship without power is in extreme danger in the middle of the ocean. Robots still aren’t as fast and flexible and reliable as a human in an emergency.

Would an automated pilot be able to respond properly to an oncoming rogue wave? Would it know what to do if the windows got blown out on the side of the ship?

MISTER Science AintSoBad likes techno stuff. It should, in principle, be possible to replace the crew with well designed, redundant systems but labor unions and regulators will be hard to convince.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

 

Antioxidants CAUSE cancer??

July 23, 2014 Posted by

Antioxidants ain't great

                                             No oxygen?

 THE ANTIOXIDANT CONUNDRUM

You’ve got some vitamin C  on the kitchen counter next to the bananas.

Why?

Probably because vitamin C is an antioxident. Everybody knows antioxidants are good for you because they keep “free radicals” (which can promote cancer) in check.

Oxygen is an aggressive chemical. It can turn an iron bar into a hunk of rust. Most living things take advantage of oxygen’s “reactivity” by sucking energy out of the air. It’s why we have lungs. How living organisms learned to “handle” air without being eaten alive by it is one of the great back stories of evolution. Our cells have built in antioxidant “fire extinguishers” designed to protect us from toxic chemical reactions with oxygen.

But why don’t studies support the use of antioxidants?. In FACT, why do antioxidants often seem to make things worse?

Dr. David Tuveson ( Director of Research for the Lustgarten Foundation), and Dr. Navdeep S. Chandel (Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University) did a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Here’s what they found.

Small amounts of oxidants are needed in the cells. The cell actually creates them.  If the level of oxidants gets too high though, they become a cancer threat and have to be countered. Evolution came up with its own way to handle this problem. In the mitochondria (energy center) of the cells, where the danger lies, natural antioxidants keep things under control.

The problem with supplements such as Vitamins C, E, and A is that they don’t appear to get the antioxidants to the mitochondria. Instead, they show up all over the place, doing no particular good and maybe even causing undesirable effects.

Tuveson and Chandel think we could figure out better ways to control the levels of “reactive oxygen species” in our cells. With more research, we might come up with a pill that actually does something useful instead of confusing people.

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The drawing is mine.

Leading intellectual says time came first.

June 28, 2014 Posted by
TIME explained (cartoon)

BOR-ing!

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad explains “time”

I am often asked to explain time.

If I can get off the hook with “It’s what the clock says”, we’re done here. Otherwise?.

Here’s the thing. Lots has been written about this. It get pretty deep out there, believe me. We humans figured out how to count time by using something that moves continuously and uniformly such as the moon traveling around the earth as a proxy for time.  Twice as far meant twice as much time had gone by. Distance traveled equaled time. It’s the idea behind  clocks (the old fashioned kind) where the hands rotate around the face of the clock and time is marked off along the edge.

You can see that this doesn’t tell us a thing. What does uniform mean?

It has been suggested that time represents a change in “entropy” (how much is left of the way things were ordered or “wound up” when the universe started). If that’s true, time started when the universe started. But maybe time stretches out beyond the end of the universe and before the beginning. Maybe there was time before “the first second”.

I’m not supposed to say that, am I?

We’re still unraveling that mysterious first fraction of a second of the “Big Bang” when, supposedly, there was infinite density. Few physicists believe that there was any such a thing. Getting smaller than the “Planck length” ( 10 to the minus 35 meters) may not be physically possible. So something else might have happened other than a so-called singularity. Maybe there were events “before”. Before? Doesn’t that mean there was time?

Some say that there is an illusional quality to time. That we perceive something that isn’t there. That the physical world is sliced up into very small “ticks” making the time dimension granular instead of continuous. All that was, and all that will be, is captured in each of these ticks like frames in a movie film.

I could go on and on but I’m afraid I will mislead. This is a lovely and fascinating area for discussion, but I shouldn’t take take up your valuable time for this. The subject goes deeper than my own brain goes.

Here is an article in Wired Magazine  - an interview with Sean Caroll by Erin Biba.

Your ideas are welcome. Maybe you know more than me.

It wouldn’t be hard.

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The drawing is by me.

Quake, then fire? Not with this device!

June 11, 2014 Posted by
cartoon about old guy

SHAKY

IT’S THE FIRE!

Remember the great San Francisco earthquake?

If you were living in southern california in 1906 you do.

It was as bad as it gets. We didn’t know how to build earthquake resistant buildings back then. Plus a lot of structures had been thrown together during the gold rush a few decades before and were cheezy to start with.

The shaking due to the quake was bad but the fire? That was unbelievable!  

Once the fire broke out, fire fighting equipment couldn’t get through the rubble strewn streets. Not that it would have mattered since there wasn’t any water in the mains.  The fires burned for days. When they were out, the smoke remained in the air. They said it would never go away. They said the air had changed - that sunlight would never look the same again. 

Eventually, the air did clear and return to normal but hundreds of thousands of people had to live in shelters and tents until  they found new homes.

The city recovered. It took years.

Much was learned from the San Francisco disaster. Building codes are much better. Engineers now know how to design a building that can “ride out” the typical movements of an earthquake and the building codes ensure that this knowledge will protect against future quakes.

However, if the gas lines go, it won’t matter.

There are a lot of gas lines.

Will there be another “great fire”? There have been plenty of earthquakes in California since 1906. Some were strong. One had a magnitude of 7.5.

There were no firestorms.

Maybe some of this was luck because - you know what? –  although shutoff valves have been installed, a lot of them are manual. PG&E tells us to keep a 12 to 15 inch wrench around in case it is needed in an emergency. That seems a little ridiculous, doesn’t it? Go find the stupid wrench during a quake?

Where the hell did I put my wrench?

 

The San Francisco earthquake

Indescribable

 

There are also automatic shutoff valves. That’s the right way to handle things, isn’t it?  They activate when there is enough seismic activity or when there is a rupture in a gas line causing a large increase in the flow of gas. MISTER ScienceAintSoBad likes that idea and gives P&G’s new automatic valves a ScinceAintSoBadRating of 10. 

These automatic valves are installed when there’s new construction or when there are major alterations.

Great to hear.

In the meantime, those living in older buildings that haven’t been renovated had better not forget where they put that dopey wrench.

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The drawing is mine and the photograph (courtesy of Wikipedia) is in the public domain.

 

High rise buildings of wood???

Cartoon about wooden skyscrapers

HIgher and higher with wood

  A LADDER TO THE SKY

The tallest building in the world is in Dubai. 163 stories plus another 46 in the spire. There’s more underground too. That’s where the parking is.

Was that thing built with two by fours?

What do you think?  Of course not. Nobody builds high rise buildings out of wood. That was concrete and steel. In fact, the engineers had to figure out new ways to get the concrete up that high – special heavy duty concrete pumps, the most powerful ever made.

It’s too bad that tall buldings can’t be made of wood. It’s a renewable resource, right? Wood buildings are cheaper to heat, cheaper to cool, and have a good “carbon footprint”. They also do better in a fire. Heavy wood structural members can burn but they don’t fold up suddenly like steel. They last longer BECAUSE they burn (instead of turning to jelly when heated). Burning – at least for heavy timbers – is slow.  If you’ve got a fireplace, you know what I’m talking about. A great big log can burn all night.You don’t WANT your nice building to catch on fire but – You know what? – If it ever does, you SURE don’t want it to collapse before you make it down the fire stairs. Another advantage of wood: wood buildings go together easier. The beams and columns are easier to lift and easier to fasten. You can even use nails and screws.

Well could that big building in Dubai have been made of wood? Wood has advantages but steel is stronger. Getting WAY up in the sky like that pushes everything to the limit. If you insist on a 200 story vanity tower, wood’s probably not a good choice. But could more modest high rise buildings be built of wood? What are the possibilities?

Tom Vilsak, US Secreatry of Agriculture wants to see more wood construction. His agency has put up a million dollars for the best designs of high rise buildings from wood.

Wood designs that reach for the stars.

Seriously.

Vilsak’s feels that new uses for wood and hybrid structural products of wood and other materials could put the US out front in new industries. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are already employed making wood products. A new market for wood would expand opportunities even more.

A radio tower of wood

387 foot radio tower in Poland

Building high in wood isn’t a new idea. Some very high structures have been around for years.  There’s a 387 foot all wood radio tower in  Gliwice, Poland that was built in 1935. As for new stuff, current plans include a 34 story wooden building for Stockholm, Sweden, and a 30 story tower for Vancouver.

This new USDA initiative should encourage more.

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The cartoon is mine. The photo of the wooden radio tower is courtesy of Wikipedia.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

DEAFNESS: HUMAN STEM CELL TRIALS

Cartoon about hearing research

RESEARCH LIKE THIS ISN’T FREE

HEARING

In 2006, the ever amazing Dr. Stefan Heller  - amazing because of his remarkable pioneering role in research into a cure for deafness –  predicted that we would reverse hearing loss in an animal. He said it would take about five years. Five years later, hearing loss was reversed in a mouse model. Eerily accurate but MISTER ScienceAintSoBad wasn’t surprised. Heller knows his stuff. He’s been at the forefront of this field since it began. (He is at Stanford University’s School of Medicine). 

Where do things stand now? It’s been two and a half years since the first mouse was “cured” of deafness and already we have human trials. In about two months, a human trial will actually begin for adults. Dr. Hinrich Straeker  (University of Kansas Medical Center) will be in charge. His team will insert a gene (the Atoh1 gene) into the ears of the volunteers. The Athoh1 gene is involved in supporting the “microphone of the inner ear” (hair cells). It worked for mice. They had, on average, about a 20 db improvement in hearing. It would be nice if it worked that well for people. Novertis (the pharma company) is partnering on the research. 

There’s also a study  gearing up at Childrens Memorial Hermann Hospital in Texas which is aimed at kids. Dr. Samer Fakhri, is the lead. Stem cells taken from cord blood will be used. This is a  phase 1 (make sure nothing bad happens) study –  an important step.

Just about everything I read about this stuff contains a don’t-get-your-hopes-up warning reminding us that it could take  years – decades probably – before you see anything like a cure for deafness.

You know what? That’s fine. But I love the fact that we have finally reached the point where human studies have begun. If we can somehow increase the meager trickle of funds that supports this research, maybe we can speed things up even more. Spending on hearing loss research is very efficient. You get a lot for your dollar. Graduate student researchers are cheap.

Dr. Heller tells me his “naive dream” is to develop a way to get  funding direct from individuals – grass roots funding, as he calls it –  where “every person suffering from hearing loss would gives $5 – $10.  That would be huge,” he says, “because, right now, almost everything comes from  just two institutions, the Stanford Initiative To Cure Hearing Loss  and The Hearing Restoration Project. And the available funds are very limited. Ten dollars to either of these instutions would make a big difference.”

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad would sincerely appreciate it if you would ask your friends to give. It’s a great cause.

RESEARCH CENTER FOR HEARING LOSS

Even better .  let’s establish – this is Stefan’s idea too – a major research center. The laboratories where much of this work takes place are scattered. Why not relocate them  into a a single hearing research center,  intensifying and focusing the effort of several individual labs? A donation from a private benefactor (or more) could make this happen. With interest rates this low, what are you going to do with all your unproductive investment dollars anyway? Can you think of anything that could change more lives?

A large segment of the population – especially the elderly – live with the world “turned off” because they can’t hear anymore. With your generous help, that can change.

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The drawing is mine (He look better in real life).

 

Malaysia’s MH370. What makes it so valuable?

April 15, 2014 Posted by
Funny cartoon about motorcycles

Misplaced confidence

AN INVALUABLE AIRCRAFT

An airplane disappeared with 239 people on board.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad hates to hear stuff like that. If you have any sort of connection to any of the passengers, you have my deepest sympathy.

What a horrible thing!

Crazy too.

The chances of dying in a fire are about 1200 to 1. From a car accident or from  poison, about 1 in 120. From an airplane accident? About 11 million to 1.

In other words, you are safer – much, much safer – in the seat of a stupid airplane than you are sitting in your own living room where you could get caught in a fire or accidentally eat rat poison thinking it was some new candy treat from the lunatic next door. The disappearance of that airplane – of any commercial airliner-  is unthinkable.

When Manilla’s flight MH370 disappeared from radar on March 8, 2014, it was a twelve year old Boeing 777.  An airplane like that isn’t cheap but you can pick one up for 40 to 50 million dollars.

Now that it’s (probably) in pieces at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, it’s worth a fortune. The airline industry wants it badly. Because airplane accidents are so amazingly rare, this is a remarkable opportunity to learn from an honest to God airplane accident – an extremely rare chance to improve air safety even more. Boeing needs that thing to figure out if there were any issues with design or manufacture. Insurance companies need a look to settle the many interwoven claims against various parties. The airline needs it so it can prove it wasn’t negligent and to improve its own practices. Malaysia and China need to find it for political purposes because so many citizens want to tar and feather certain leaders over the way the accident was (mis)handled. And even the US which wasn’t directly involved (just one US citizen) would like to have a look at those those black boxes and examine key pieces of the wreckage.

It sounds cold to focus on the “worth” of the wreckage. I don’t mean it that way. I really do feel awful about the accident. However, if you’re trying to figure out why so much national treasure and effort is being invested in the search for this wreckage in “the most dangerous place on the planet”, it may help to understand the importance of the secrets hidden within that wreckage.

SOLVING THE MYSTERY

Will the aircraft be found? Will it ever be possible to deduce exactly what happened?

If you haven’t tuned out by now, you probably know that the search area has been narrowed down. As of this writing, the use of robotic submersibles has just begun. In the opinion of MISTER ScienceAintSoBad, they aren’t exagerating about what a rotten location this is. This area is remote, has indescribably bad weather, and very deep and uncharted water. If the airplane had been lost even a few years ago, it might have been hopeless. This is more like a planetary expedition than sending some soldiers to comb through a wreck somewhere but I think the search will go on until something is found. It’s an “in for a dime, in for a dollar” deal. So much has already been invested, and so much is riding on the results, that I don’t think giving up is on the menu.

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The drawing is mine.

STEM CELLS “HALT” ALS

March 29, 2014 Posted by
Cartoon about Stephen Hawkings

HAWKING HAS ALS

LOU GHERIG’S DISEASE

Remember Lou Gherig, the baseball player?

He got very sick.

He couldn’t talk, couldn’t walk, couldn’t stand up. Eventually, he couldn’t even swallow. Gherig never got over it. And he died from the disease which is now called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. In the US it’s also called Lou Gherig’s disease in honor of a great guy who got a tough break.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis attacks the motor neurons in the body. The most common form of it shows up in the extremeties – the arms and legs – first. Most people succumb to the disease in less than five years.

Physicist Stephen Hawking has had ALS for about forty years. In spite of being  paralyzed, he has managed to leave  his able bodied colleagues in the dust, physicswise. His story is an amazing one. However, no one doubts that Hawking would give up a bunch of his honors and awards to be able to scratch his ear.

A FLICKER OF HOPE

Eva Feldman, University of Michigan neurologist (also President of the American Neurological Association) conducted a small human trial using stem cells to treat ALS. The results were fantastic. The stem cells, which were implanted in one of several locations along the spine, slowed the progress of the disease for some of the patients. Slowed, in this case, meant “no significant disease progression” for the entire two year study. That’s like halted, right? One of the participants put away his cane and took part in a two and a half mile walkathon.

Nine other patients with more advanced disease didn’t do so good. No significant benefit. Since the phase 1 human trial kept a strict lid on the allowed doseage, the real surprise is that so many patients did so well. The phase 2 trial (starting soon) allows a much bigger dose.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad is excited about this.  Stephen Hawking could use a little good news. I think , maybe, that will happen soon.

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My drawing.