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Image of the Week

Image of the week: high-throughput cell culture robot, 2007

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The above photograph, from 2007, shows a high-throughput cell culture robot. According to Wellcome Images: “Cells are cultured in the incubator on the right and the culture plates delivered via a robotic arm into the side of the biohazard hood. Once inside the hood, the computer-controlled robot can perform a variety of functions such as changing medium, collecting samples and picking colonies. Medium and other liquids are pumped into the movable heads from the bags on the left. This robot has been designed to facilitate the large-scale culture of embryonic stem cells needed to determine the function of genes identified during the human genome project.”

This image is No. 8 of 8 in a series showing the evolution of medical instruments over time. The images are presented in collaboration with the London-based Wellcome Trust, whose library features visual collections with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science.

Women's Health

Some good, some bad in the state of women’s health

There’s good and bad news on the state of women’s health research, according to a report released by the Institute of Medicine late last week. The good: Disease burden and deaths among women due to cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and cervical cancer are down. The bad: Less progress has been made on conditions (depression, osteoporosis, addiction and dementia, to name a few) that are not major killers but none-the-less cause significant suffering.

Women’s health is a relative newcomer as a research focus, the study release emphasizes:

Historically, researchers recruited women to clinical studies less often than men in part because of ethical concerns about potential fetal exposure to experimental substances; the flux of hormones in women’s bodies, which could complicate studies; and the assumption that results of studies on men could be extrapolated to women. However, trial results were not necessarily applicable or consistently applied to women, as demonstrated by the unequal use of stents, beta blockers, and cholesterol-lowering drugs to treat heart disease in women. Moreover, the symptoms and courses of diseases in males do not always correspond to what happens in females. Inadequate research focus on women’s health issues was first comprehensively documented in 1985, which led to a transformation in government and public support of women’s health research and in related policies and regulations.

Recognition in the 1980′s that women’s health issues were being inadequately addressed led to a revamping of policies and regulations that enabled many advances. However, “the full benefit of increased participation by women has not been realized because researchers do not routinely analyze and report results separately for women and men,” the release concludes.

Image of the Week

Image of the week: penicillin production, 20th century

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The above image shows equipment (glass flasks and milk churns) used for making early forms of penicillin.

Though Alexander Fleming is credited with having discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin in 1928, the drug wasn’t widely available for another 15 years because of the challenges scientists faced in mass producing it. According to a 1944 Time article, the big obstacle was making the mold that produces penicillin yield more heavily:

This delicate process has more hazards than an obstacle race. The penicillium mold, found in fertile soil, is cultivated in a sugary solution. It develops a network of very fine branches, *called “mycelium,” which secrete penicillin. If the delicate mycelium breaks, production of penicillin stops. Temperature must be kept at 24°C. Worst of all hazards is contamination. The sugary bath in which the mold grows is an ideal medium for bacteria; if any get in, they destroy all penicillin present in three hours. And when all these hazards are survived, the yield is fantastically small. The broth from which powdered penicillin is extracted contains only two to six thousandths of 1% of pure penicillin.

The United States, near the end of World War II, dedicated serious effort to mass production. Researchers developed heavier-yielding strains of mold, found that lactose from skimmed milk and corn liquor speeded growth, and worked out a method for making penicillin in tanks rather than flasks.

According to an Annals of Internal Medicine article, first use of penicillin in the U.S. occurred in 1942, when only a tiny quantity of the antibiotic was available. By 1943, 400 million units had been produced; and by August 1945, 650 billion units were distributed each month.

This image is No. 7 of 8 in a series showing the evolution of medical instruments over time. The images are presented in collaboration with the London-based Wellcome Trust, whose library features visual collections with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science.

Cancer, History, Image of the Week, Imaging

Image of the week: woman-run X-ray department, 1934

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The above photograph shows the X-ray department (control board, dosimeters, and windows for viewing patients and instruments) at the Marie Curie Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases in 1934, the year Curie died.
The hospital – “founded by medical women. . .for the radiological treatment of women suffering from cancer and allied diseases” – opened to patients on Sept. 16, 1929, according to a 1968 British Medical Journal article (.pdf) by Robert Dickson:

By the outbreak of the second world war the hospital was treating some 700 inpatients annually in 39 beds, with facilities for radium and X-ray therapy, hostel accommodations for out-of-twon patients, and up-to-date pathological and research laboratories…

But on Valentine’s Day, 1944, the main buildings were obliterated by a bombing, “fortunately without injury to patients or staff,” and the hospital moved to a temporary location and then, in 1967, to new facilities in the Mount Vernon Hospital in Northwood, London.

In the hospital’s first four decades, its female staff treated 8,150 patients for malignant disease. Dickson wrote:

By comparison with figures published from other hospitals, it was apparent that in the early years of radium therapy in [Britain] the staff of the Marie Curie Hospital were as successful as any other institution, and tributes were heaped on them by many eminent medical men…

This image is No. 6 of 8 in a series showing the evolution of medical instruments over time. The images are presented in collaboration with the London-based Wellcome Trust, whose library features visual collections with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science.

Image of the Week

Image of the week: dental instruments, late 19th century

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The above image shows a set of dental instruments from the late 19th century. It’s No. 5 of 8 in a series showing the evolution of medical instruments over time. The images are presented in collaboration with the London-based Wellcome Trust, whose library features visual collections with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science.

Image of the Week

Image of the week: brass corset, 19th century

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The corset is infamous as an instrument of fashion and oppression. But the metal versions, like the one shown in the image above, are thought to have been used as orthopedic devices. Valerie Steele writes in The Corset: A Cultural History:

Ambroise Paré (c. 1510-90), a French army surgeon who became famous for reforming and modernizing the practice of surgery, described these metal corsets in his work, stating that they were used “to amend the crookednesse of the Bodie.” “In order to correct and to hide such a defect, they will be made to wear iron corsets, which shall be full of holes so that they will not be so heavy, and they will be well fitted and padded so as not to hurt at all, and will be changed often if the patient … [is] still growing.”… Although Paré was a critic of fashionable corsetry, which he thought carried the risk of deformity by incorrect or excessive binding, he was an advocate of orthopedic corsets. Metal corsets were still sometimes recommended in the eighteenth century to correct crooked spines, although canvas stays were more commonly used (for example, by Alexander Pope); and, indeed, orthopedic corsetry continues to be used by doctors today as part of the treatment for scoliosis.

This image is No. 4 of 8 in a series showing the evolution of medical instruments over time. The images are presented in collaboration with the London-based Wellcome Trust, whose library features visual collections with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science.

Image of the Week

Image of the week: adjusting surgical couch, 1854

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The above image shows an 1854 patent specification for an adjusting surgical couch, by Edmund Adolphus Kirby. The specification is part of the Wellcome Library’s catalogue of 158 volumes of patents from 1629 to 1875. According to a 2006 announcement (.pdf):

The medical patents date back to the first half of the 18th century and offer ideas for new apparatus and cures. . . .

The Victorian invalid occurs regularly through literature of the time. We have numerous patents for devices to raise and support bed-ridden people (1872), special beds for invalids (1828), tables for them to eat from (1872), devices to move them about and cups with which to feed them while they were still lying down.

. . .Given the Industrial Revolution was changing British life in a major way during this period, with many people performing dangerous and heavy manual work in factories, it is not surprising that there are a significant number of patents for artificial limbs and various types of truss. Other devices included syringes for administering enemas, stomach pumps, inhaling apparatus (for inhalation therapy – popular in the 1860s), “bandages for females” (sanitary towels – in 1868), hearing aids (as early as 1836), artificial eyes, bandages, plasters and respirators (a mask covering the mouth and nose “for breathing in impure atmospheres” such as mines or certain types of factory perhaps).

This image is No. 2 of 6 in a series showing the evolution of medical instruments over time. The images are presented in collaboration with the London-based Wellcome Trust, whose library features visual collections with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science.

Image of the Week

Image of the week: surgical instruments, 1561

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The above image shows a drawing of surgical tools, from French surgeon Ambroise Paré’s La methode curative des playes, et fractures de la teste humaine (“The Method of Treating Wounds and Fractures of the Human Head”), 1561.

This image is No. 1 of 6 in an occasional series showing the evolution of medical instruments over time. The images are presented in collaboration with the London-based Wellcome Trust, whose library features visual collections with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science.

Mental Health

Out-of-office autoreply: Reaping the benefits of nature

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In a few days, I’ll be heading into the Sierras to backpack with a group of Japanese tourists. (Long story.) That means I’ll be joining the legions who’ve had the pleasure of setting up self-satisfied out-of-office auto replies this month.

But what’s the value of vacation or, more specifically, time spent in nature?

I was interested to see one answer to that question on the web this morning. John Halamka, MD, chief information officer at Harvard Medical School, writes on his blog that in office work:

We all develop a kind of ADHD, losing the ability to maintain focus, explore issues deeply, and savor the experience of the world around us.

Studies have not only shown the deleterious effects of constant connectivity; they’ve shown quick, quantifiable benefits of time spent in green space: One, from 2008, found that children with ADHD were better able to focus after 20-minute walks in the park. Another, from the same year, showed college students who walked through nature experienced greater improvements in mood and working memory than those who moseyed through downtown.

Does this mean we should all flee the city? Writer Jonah Lehrer asked yesterday on Wired:

Of course not. It simply means that it’s a good idea to build a little greenery into our life.

Indeed, after only 10 days in the mountains, Halamka says he returned to work “recharged and rejuvenated, with a new sense of perspective:”

It took a few days, but I regained the ability to sit on a rock, listen to the wind, and soak in the details of every flower, tree, and waterfall.

Photo by moonjazz

Neuroscience, Parenting

Fatherhood: a neuroscience perspective

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How important is a dad in the life of his kid? How important is a kid in the life of his dad? I’ve given some thought to those questions in recent months, following the publication of a study showing that adolescents raised by lesbian parents are as – if not more – well-adjusted than those raised with the help of a father.

Today, an article in Scientific American offers a neuroscience perspective in support of fatherhood. Brian Mossop, PhD, begins by pointing out that men, unlike women, aren’t exactly necessary in the survival of their babies: they don’t gestate or lactate. But he says:

The father-child bond is crucial to a kid’s future success. If a father leaves his offspring to be raised solely by their mother, the children are more likely to suffer emotional troubles, be aggressive, experience addiction issues, or have run-ins with the law.

That influence, he says, goes both ways:

A recent study has shown that neurogenesis took place in male mice in the days following the birth of their pups. But the extra boost of brain cells only occurred if the mouse father stayed in the nest. In other words, if he was removed on the day of their birth, nothing happened. One new set of brain cells formed in the olfactory bulb, and were specifically tuned to the smells of his pups. Another set of neurons grew in the hippocampus, a crucial memory center in the brain, which helped to consolidate the smell of his pups into a long-term memory.

. . .These animal studies show that a father’s brain is significantly and beautifully intertwined with his offspring’s. For whatever reasons, be they biological, evolutional, or societal, the onus of human parenthood has traditionally fallen on the mother. But the evidence is showing that a father has direct influence on his child’s neurodevelopment – and indeed, his brain can benefit as well.

Photo by Karen Sheets
Related: Children of sperm donors finding each other on the web

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