Archive for May, 2009

Update: Diabetes

Posted by on Thursday, 28 May, 2009
A quick update.
I just heard from Dr. Von Herrath (La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology) who’s research I describe in the last post. As you can imagine, there’s a LOT of interest in his timeline and knowing when the human studies start.
Dr. Von Herrath says that they’re “actively pursuing combination therapies in recent – onset diabetes with Genentech and Bayhill Therapuetics”. They’re not ready to announce human trials yet but he hopes it’ll be soon.
Indeed, so do we.

Juvenile (Type 1) Diabetes: The Work Is Advancing

Posted by on Sunday, 24 May, 2009

by me

Juvenile diabetes is bad.
Now known as type 1 diabetes, it often starts early. And, because it shuts down the body’s ability to make insulin, its victims become totally dependent on injections.
But control of insulin is dynamic and complex. The most dedicated patient can’t compete with nature. Injected insulin is, at best, a rough approximation to natural levels. Year by year, the damage builds. Type 1’s have to worry about problems with vision, heart, and nerves as well as other organs. A tough life.
But the work is advancing.
In April, 2006, a team at Lojolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology reversed the disease in a mouse model. Their approach, combining two agents that have been tried separately in humans, seems to “teach” the immune system not to attack the new insulin-producing cells.
I will try to determine when human trials start.
AND another team, at the University of Cambridge, is already in clinical trials for an “artificial pancreas” which includes an insulin pump and a continuous glucose sensor. The current focus of the work is to perfect the control algorithm. They see the technology as a “bridge” for patients to keep them healthy till a biological cure is available.
What distinguishes Type 1 diabetes from type 2? Type 1 is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the particular cells that produce insulin. It usually hits early in life. Type 2, on the other hand, usually starts later and is characterized by the body’s inability to utilize insulin – “insulin resistance”. There’s some debate about whether type 1 or type 2 is the least desirable. One difference: type 1 is a genetic anomaly and there’s little you can do to prevent it.


I love the story of this Miracle Rattlesnake Cure. I’ve heard SO many stories like it. Diagnosed with cancer. X months to live. Nothing to lose. Tries an unorthodox and unlikely cure and..
A nutty story, right? Is it true? Is there an unrecognized breakthrough here? Could this be a spontaneous cancer remission? A scam?
Stories like that are relevant. Scientists are fact finders. But there’s always “competition for the floor”. There are plenty of others who have an interest. Some are sincere, some are cuckoo, and some are venal. Many of them aren’t impressed by Phd’s.
So there’s a final stage to the scientific journey – one AFTER the discovery has been published and validated. There’s still the struggle for public acceptance. Science Ain’t So Bad is doing its best to help.

Many physicists are like artists. They see the beauty in the places that they “go”. But, when they return from their journeys into the secrets of nature, they often aren’t sure how to tell us what they’ve seen. Because of the “language”.
We are just us. We look at people and things and we only see people and things. With their physical intuition and mathematics, physicists see beyond and beneath. They see the underlying. We see the surface. But they never stop trying to share what they know.
Some physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Cern, Switzerland:

How Valid Is Gallup Poll On Pro-life Sentiment?

Posted by on Sunday, 17 May, 2009

Images of
dogs by me

Just as the country seems to be sliding away from conservative political ideas, according to a new Gallup Poll, 51% are now “pro-life”. Could that be? Why now?
These are questions which Science Ain’t So Bad leaves to other, more political, blogs.  But a poll is a particular type of scientific study. And, like scientists everywhere, pollsters do what they can to adjust for confounding variables. They want their work to be right. Nobody’s looking for embarrassment.
One objection often raised to telephone-based surveys: as mobile phones proliferate, the way that phone numbers are compiled concentrates polling into those homes that still have landline phones.  Does this skew the results? Maybe. Maybe not. on this very issue.
As I have said before, science is a PROCESS.  Do the study. Report the results. Let others validate the work or show it to be wrong. A single study – especially a small one (1015 households in the survey) – is only a PART of the process.
Gallup’s conclusions may be right. If so, it’s fascinating. But other pollsters are, no doubt,  looking at the same question right now.
Stay tuned.


Posted by on Friday, 15 May, 2009

by ckurle
From MSNBC/AP : Two kids in New York City were infected by roundworms from raccoon droppings. One of them was blinded and the other suffered brain damage.  The spokesperson for the NYC Department of Health suggested proper measures for avoiding contact with the poop and safely disposing of it.  She said that the problem, which can be fatal, is also very rare. According to her, less than 30 cases have been reported in the medical literature. She seemed to handle things well. Informative, reassuring, responsible.
But Science Ain’t So Bad checked with the CDC which, four years ago, published a fact sheet on the infection (called Baysascari). It is a reminder that scientific matters are subject to human interpretation.
According to the CDC fact sheet, the disease, which can lead to coma and blindness, is FAIRLY COMMON in raccoons. It goes on to say, however, that “it is believed that cases are mistakenly diagnosed as other infections or go undiagnosed.” So it’s a fairly common disease in the raccoon population but it is often missed in humans. That’s not quite as reassuring, is it?
Science Ain’t So Bad respectfully wonders if the NYC Health Department needs to find a better balance between reassuring its citizens and alerting them to the presence of a dangerous and often missed disease. And maybe other communities may want to raise their level or vigilance. Certainly no need to panic. But there may be something here. Let’s have a look at it. OK? Raccoons are amazing creatures and probably deserve to be better understood.
Let’s start with their feces.

The Danger To The Hubble Telescope, Itself

Posted by on Thursday, 14 May, 2009

Based on an image by Somadjinn and taken from

The Hubble Space Telescope is located in a high orbit where there’s lots of “space junk”. This makes me wonder how long it’ll last up there AFTER lives are risked and money is spent.
There are worries enough about the crew of the Atlantis which is servicing the Ol‘ Gal. Each Shuttle flight – each ONE – has a little less than a 1% chance of destruction. It’s a horrible thought in terms of the crew and it’s also a gamble with “The Peoples Money”. 
You’re going to say (aren’t you?) that the odds for Christopher Columbus were no better.  And it didn’t put off Queen Isabella. But maybe she didn’t have to explain herself to the taxpayers.
Anyway, Atlantis is now off fixing up the broken – down Hubble. Supposedly, it’s harder than it looks to do mechanical repair work while weaving around on a wiggily mechanical boom, trying to focus on the job instead of the consequences of vomiting into your helmet. 
Past Hubble repair missions were designed around modular packages which were intended to be handled by humans trapped in expando suits where zero gravity movements are unnatural and awkward. But, for this expedition, the job requires that they swap out “board level” components, keep track of each screw that’s removed, and, at the end of the job, put them back into the same holes. And no scrounging in the parts bin for spares. If it works, this may be one of the crowning achievements of the “manned” (means human) space program.
Space debris (or “space junk”), always a worry, has gotten even worse this year. NASA’s chief scientist said that it isn’t anything to lose sleep over because the chances of a “catastrophic” collision for the Atlantis are “less than 1 in 221” (so about .5%) . The logic? Shuttle flights are already so full of risk, what’s a little more? Would YOU lose sleep if your flight to Cincinnati had a probability of blowing up of 1 in 221? I know I wouldn’t. 
And I know that’s a not-quite-fair low blow. 
Anyway, there IS a point to all this. If the odds against the shuttle failing to survive a few days up there are that bad, what are the risks to the Hubble, itself,  of dodging a debris bullet for five full years? After all,  if the risk is bad enough, this noble mission is pretty silly.
Science Ain’t That Bad is trying (at least) to be a little more of a primary news source. But,  in researching this, I didn’t bother NASA because there’s already public info about the Hubble and its debris dance. An article from 2002 (a little old and there’s more debris now but the principles are the same) claims that the Hubble gets popped often but the odds of destruction are small. Obviously, a hole in the skin WOULD be more consequential if the telescope needed oxygen as much as an astronaut does. But the Hubble, being a telescope, doesn’t mind a hole in its skin  as long as the impact doesn’t damage a critical instrument or part of the optics (or contain enough kinetic energy that the impact blows everything to bits). In time, the odds will catch up to each instrument package. And, this time, as each one fails, death will be permanent.  
The final end of the Hubble may be largely in the hands of space junk.
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T-shirts ‘n mugs ‘n such with the ScienceAin’tSoBad dog (above) on them at zazzle .

Edging Toward A Cure For Hearing Loss And Deafness

Posted by on Thursday, 7 May, 2009


Funny photo about hearing loss

A Scientific Genius Who Don’t Hear So Good

“I hope that in five years, we are at a point that we can say that it is possible to cure deafness, at least in an animal.” Dr. Stefan heller. August 7, 2006

Stick your fingers in your ears. Both of them. Can you hear your cell phone ring? Is the guy on CNBC saying “vrumph, vrumph, vrumph?”
It’s called “hearing loss”. 
I’ve had “fingers stuck in my ears” for years. And there are invisible fingers lusting for your ears too. About 10% of the population has hearing problems. If you stick around long enough, it’ll probably happen to you. More than half of “seniors” are affected by this annoying and, often, disabling thing.
If the gills of our swimming ancestors hadn’t evolved into the ears of homo sapiens, we wouldn’t have developed speech. No point in talking if you can’t hear the words. And, without speech, we humans could still stand up straight and could still throw rocks. But it wouldn’t be quite the same, would it? So imagine how disappointing it is to discover that our wonderful and much taken for granted ears wear out! In fact, they are SO delicate! A good thumping beat at a high volume slowly and inexorably grinds up our gears. It’s like your mother said, “Turn down the damn VOLUME before we BOTH go deaf!”
You may remember from biology class, that the ear has a cochlea that looks like the spirals of a sea shell. Inside this cochlea are hair cells (“stereocillia”) on a membrane. They’re made of actin, the same stuff that makes mucles flex. When sound waves wash over the hair cells, they’re bent back and forth, converting mechanical motion into electrical signals for the nervous system.
This structure, the cochlea, tantalizes researchers. Obviously, this is where the action is. But, because of its location in the body, it’s hard to study. The size of the hair cells, a few hundredths of a millimeter in width, doesn’t help much either. But it is these delicate cells that are complicit in the most common type of deafness: age-related hearing loss (presbycusis). Once damaged, they’re gone forever. It’s this sad fact that explains why most of us adults are slowly, slowly losing our high frequency hearing. Or worse.
Image is from 29th edition, Gray’s Anatomy via Wikipedia Commons and, ultimately, from Wikipedia article on the inner ear.
In the modern era, some hearing problems can be addressed with surgery or by removing impacted ear wax. Leaches, ear candling, aldosteron, B12, folic acid, and hypnosis are all in there somewhere too. But there doesn’t seem to be much you can do about the slow drip-drip-drip of age-related hearing loss except go find yourself a hearing aid (see rant below). 
HOWEVER, in the 1980’s, it was discovered that hair cells in the ears of birds DO regenerate. Sensational news! 
As the scientific world discovered the potential of stem cells which can differentiate into all kinds of things, researchers, such as Stefan Heller of Stanford University, began to look for connections. In 2002, Dr. Heller, then at Harvard, discovered that stem cells are present in the inner ear of human beings, suggesting that there’s a latent potential for regeneration of hair cells. One of his goals is to develop a drug that can be introduced into the ear as an ear drop. 
I don’t mind admitting that he’s one of my heroes. In this video, he describes what he’s up to. 
Headlines can be heartbreakers. I like science. Why ELSE would I write about it? But headlines like Cell Transplants May Cure Deafness and Cultivated Ear Cells May Lead To Cure For Deafness raise hopes only to crush them again under the cruel heel of “maybe” and “someday”. These breakthroughs ARE important steps and MAY lead to a cure. But, not to be cynical, they’re more likely to lead to another round of grants for the lab. I guess that’s a TERRIBLE way to introduce this section because there IS a lot of great science being done:
The role of neurotrophins, chemicals that bathe the auditory nerve, is being worked out by Robin Davis, Professor of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, Rutgers.
Dr. Karen Avraham, Department of Human Molecular Genetics, Sackler School of Medicine, Tel Aviv University, has shown that “microRNAs” can be responsible for hair cell death. Link. If I understand this right, it’s an exciting insight for people who’s hearing starts to go at a younger age. The therapy would involved inserting microRNAs directly. Science now. Medicine later. Maybe.  
Hair cells are kept “tuned up” by certain proteins. Knowing how this happens seems to be another important step in understanding what can go wrong. Very interesting and very basic. 
Helge Rask-Anderson, Professor of Experimental Otology, Uppsala University, is studying growth of stem cells and trying to find ways to coax them into the right places with electromagnetic fields. Cool!
Marcelo Rivolta of the University of Sheffield is working with human ear cells created in the lab with foetal cells. 
Work in Itay with stem cells from human umbilical cored blood. Link
What’s wrong with hearing aids? Don’t get me started!
WHAT a disconnect between the wearer, often elderly or very young, and a device which is easily damaged and high maintenance! Good ones are expensive, rarely covered by medical plans, and are often uncomfortable. And you gotta be SO good to use these things right. Choosing the right one, inserting it right, maintaining it, keeping it free of wax and knowing what to do under which conditions, dealing with telecoils and various “program settings”, manipulating tiny controls in crazy places. This is hard stuff. And I’m a Biomedical Engineer! No wonder so many hearing aid users give up. 
Knowing when they’re on the fritz and need a trip to the audiologist might SEEM like the easy part. But it isn’t. The changes in hearing may be gradual and hearing isn’t as obvious as sight. Maybe your spouse is mumbling.And getting caught in the rain or forgetting to remove them before showering can destroy an investment of thousands of dollars.
Even IF your’re really good at all this stuff, hearing aids just don’t bring you all the way back. Not even the best of them. It ain’t like the old days. The High Fi’s gone.
But they help. And I don’t mean to be ungracious.

Large Hadron Collider Saves Paper

Posted by on Friday, 1 May, 2009

Base image from

 I try to be selective about the things I write. There’s a lot of scientific work being done and, realistically, I can’t report on all of it. But this work by physicist Andre Martin at the Large Hadron Collider (Switzerland) is too important to ignore. 
You know how the tables at outdoor cafes ALWAYS seem to need a napkin tucked under one of the legs so that you don’t spill your wine? Dr. Martin has studied this problem and, with some preliminary experimentation and then with the rigor of mathematics, he has shown us a way to remove the napkin and keep the table steady.
As to my previous post concerning the health of Dr. Stephen Hawkings, happily he  is reported to be recovering.

Almost 9% of Americans (me too!) are hard-of-hearing or deaf. We now know it can be reversed or cured. We’re not there yet, but lots of the pieces are understood already. It sounds like a decade-ish kind of thing. I’ll write about the progress on the regeneration of “hair cells” (I hope) in my next post.

Surely you remember my rant about pirates . Captain Richard Phillips, the merchant marine captain who’s remarkable leadership and pluck saved his ship and crew was OBVIOUSLY pursuaded by my irresistable logic (or something). He is calling for ships to carry guards and for the crews to be trained and armed.