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Bioengineering, Humor, Immunology, In the News, Infectious Disease, Microbiology, Research

Gutnik? NASA to launch colon-inhabiting bacteria into space

You’ve heard of Sputnik, that little tiny antenna-clad chunk of metal heaved into low orbit on October 4, 1957, effectively kicking off the Space Age?

Well, make way for Gutnik. A news release issued by NASA’s Ames Research Center foretells the launch into space of a satellite inhabited by a bunch of nano-mariners who, left to their own devices, would no doubt rather curl up inside a bowel.

Sometime in the next one to three years, according to the release, a so-called “nanosatellite” weighing about 30 pounds and peopled by the intestinal bug E. coli will streak into the sky, with the mission of amassing data on whether the zero-gravity environment that cloaks our planet might increase microbes’ resistance to antibiotics. That’s important, because, as the release states:

Bacterial antibiotic resistance may pose a danger to astronauts in microgravity, where the immune response is weakened. Scientist believe that the results of this experiment could help design effective countermeasures to protect astronauts’ health during long-duration human space missions.

E. coli is probably the most-studied micro-organism in all of science. While most strains are harmless and actually quite friendly (producing vitamin K for us, just to name one of the nice things they do), some of them can cause food poisoning, urinary-tract infections and more.

Gutnik (whose real name is EcAMSat) is the brainchild of Stanford microbiologist A.C. Matin, PhD, the principal investigator for the joint NASA/Stanford University School of Medicine project. Matin’s previous inventions include microbes capable of gobbling up environmental toxins like uranium and chromium, as well as magnetic-field-seeking bacteria that can increase the contrast of magnetic-resonance imaging. So this new satellite caper is just one more in a series of wild but potentially very useful feats of imagination.

The thing that really knocks me out, though, is how all these scientists and engineers will manage to get those billions of little tiny bugs to sit still while the chin straps on their little tiny space helmets are being fastened.

Previously: Space: A new frontier for doctors and patients and Outer-space ultrasound technologies land on Earth
Photo by Per Olof Forsberg

Humor, Public Health, Videos

Mixing humor and pop culture to boost flu shot rates

Mixing humor and pop culture to boost flu shot rates

My colleague wrote today about how researchers at Johns Hopkins have devised a new method to track flu trends using Twitter. Over on Healthland, Bonnie Rochman writes about the use of social media outlets like Twitter and YouTube to communicate important public health messages that are fun, engaging and easy to understand for patients.

In the above video, Zubin Damania, MD, better known as ZDoggMD, parodies pop boy band One Direction to spread the importance of getting the flu vaccine. The video was produced and first screened at Zappos’ all-employee meeting in August, and the online company says there’s been a 35 percent increase in flu shot adoption over the previous flu season.

Previously: Bay Area hospitalist raps about ulcers

Humor, Research, Science

What really happens in the lab, via Twitter

What really happens in the lab, via Twitter

Back when I was in graduate school, I was – how to put it? – not exactly a natural at lab work. For instance, I once spent nine months, or maybe it was 11, troubleshooting a procedure that had worked just fine for a colleague in a collaborating lab. And by “troubleshooting” I mean “doing it wrong, over and over and over again.” (This is one of the reasons I now write about science for a living instead of running experiments myself.)

So I am getting a lot of enjoyment today from the #overlyhonestmethods hashtag on Twitter. And by “a lot of enjoyment” I mean “laughing so hard I can’t breathe.” Scientists are using the hashtag to share the little details of lab life that get elided from the clean-and-shiny Methods sections of scientific papers.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Andrew Welleford @Baltir

Plasma samples were inverted three times, then rotated 90° and vibrated, in a manner similar to knocking the tray over. #overlyhonestmethods

Ben Seymour@benosaka

Blood samples were spun at 1500rpm because the centrifuge made a scary noise at higher speeds. #overlyhonestmethods


We used predator-stress because someone said “bring in a cat” as a joke, and I thought they were serious #overlyhonestmethods

dr leigh@dr_leigh

incubation lasted three days because this is how long the undergrad forgot the experiment in the fridge #overlyhonestmethods

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Addiction, Humor, Medicine and Society, Neuroscience

The Trial: My Kafkaesque courtroom dance with dopamine

In an article I wrote on addiction several months ago for our in-house magazine, Stanford Medicine, I reported that the mammalian brain’s reward center - the complex of neural circuitry that guides our behavior by doling out or denying  pleasure in response to the result of our behavior - does its work by squirting out (or withholding) various secreted chemicals, especially one called dopamine. Interestingly, the amount of dopamine secreted corresponds not so much to how “good” or “bad” the outcome of our action was, but rather to whether and by how much the result exceeded or fell short of our expectations.

I can personally attest to this. A few weeks ago I got one of those Ur-official-looking letters from a county government whose location I will not specify. In my experience, these letters almost never augur an auspicious outcome. But this one wasn’t too terrifying: It was a summons to report for jury duty.

So the other day I strode through a metal detector into the Luminous Lair of the Law. I’ll abridge my account of the ensuing bureaucratic shuffle and simply note that I was one of perhaps 100 prospective jurors who eventually filed into a large room peopled by at least five lawyers and several other court appointees. We were being considered for a case that, were I to be selected, promised to be hugely interesting. But it also promised to pin me down for an entire month, which would totally torpedo my long-planned, pricey, non-refundable and unrescheduleable 12-day vacation trip to Montreal, where my daughter temporarily works and where my wife comes from.

Once we were informed that pre-paid vacation plans might pass for a “hardship,” I began breathing easier. I filled out the one-page sheet stating my name, occupation, employer and excuse and submitted it (as did about 70 others) to the Court Clerk, who hustled the stack of forms to the judge’s chambers for his sign-off. Then, in two gigantic batches separated by about 10 or 15 minutes, she read off the names of those who’d been officially excused and could go home.

Every name got called but mine. Finally, the Court Clerk said, “Mr. Goldman, the judge will see you in his chambers in a few minutes.” I stared back at her like a trapped animal, privately panicking: Were they really going to blow my vacation and my life apart? Why mine, and nobody else’s? What had I done? What had I not done? What was I presumed to be thinking of doing? Wherefore art thou, Dopamine?

After a seemingly interminable wait, I got led into the judge’s quarters. He’d recognized me from my form and wanted to take this opportunity to say hello. It turned out we’d  exchanged a few e-mails regarding my addiction article, which the judge had read and about which he’d had some questions concerning a personal acquaintance’s apparent addiction to food. I doubt I’d been very helpful, but he treated me with immense respect for the twenty-five minutes or so we spent talking.

This was a two-fer. Not only was I getting out of jail – er, jury duty – free. A very busy, very accomplished person had read something I’d written and liked it enough to stall a half-dozen high-salary suits for almost a half hour to tell me so. EXPECTATIONS EXCEEDED!!

At the end of our conversation, he proferred the crucial form, the judge’s signature properly affixed. My reward center squirting geysers of dopamine, I strutted out of his chambers, past the civilly suited pokerfaces, into the elevator, and out to the street convinced, if for but the moment, that I was above the law and distributing good medicine.

Previously: Better than the real thing: How drugs hot wire our brains’ reward circuitry and Revealed: the brain’s molecular mechanism behind why we get the blues
Photo by s_falkow

Humor, Science, Videos

Dance Your Dissertation: Vote for your favorite finalist

Dance Your Dissertation: Vote for your favorite finalist

This week of Nobel Prize excitement is also the season of some other less-heralded scientific contests, including my personal favorite, the “Dance your PhD” contest sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Graduate students submit videos of their efforts to use dance to explain their research to non-scientist audiences, and anyone can help to elect the winner. I adore this contest because it combines scientific discovery, science communication for lay audiences, and last but certainly not least, the madcap side of graduate school.

This year’s entries are really creative – I’m especially fond of the dance by Diana Davis, “Cutting Sequences on the Double Pentagon,” for its beautiful visual explanation of a complex mathematical concept, and of Peter Liddicot’s “A Super-Alloy is Born: The Romantic Revolution of Lightness & Strength,” for its lighthearted depiction (featuring a unicycle, a toy microscope, and even some gold lamé) of the formation of a new kind of lightweight aluminum.

But my favorite, shown above, is Carrie Seltzer’s “Seed Dispersal and Regeneration in a Tanzanian Rain Forest.” I admit I’m a bit biased here. My own dissertation research was focused on obese, diabetic rats. I’ve always thought that if I were to dance my dissertation I would need some people dressed in rat costumes, a là the “Rodents of Unusual Size” in the movie The Princess Bride. Carrie’s dance does a great job of explaining her research, and she herself gets to don a giant-rat costume to do so.

There are still a few days left to vote for the dance you like best; the winner will be announced on Monday, Oct. 15.

Previously: PhD research explained through interpretive dance

Humor, Stanford News

Pumpkin Jobs: Stanford med student’s carving tricks – a real treat!

It’s obvious why Amy Ladd, MD, professor of orthopaedic surgery, sees the potential in Raymond Tsai. The third-year medical student from Northridge, Calif., is a whiz with sharp objects. And, Halloween pumpkins. He carved his first one in 2006—a portrait of Steve Irwin, the croc hunter. Two years ago at the annual first-year student pumpkin-carving extravaganza, he blew away classmates with a carved rendition of Michael Jackson. Tsai’s latest Jack-o’-lantern masterpiece pays homage to the late Apple co-founder and creative genius Steve Jobs, pictured above in both the glowing and unlit versions.

Tsai starts his process by finding a photo of the carvee that has well-defined value contrasts. From the photo he makes a template, then heads off to scour the pumpkin patch. “I’m picky about my pumpkins,” he explains. “It has to be big enough to fit my template, and its shape needs to be oblong to fit the face. The tricky part is finding one without the deep grooves.”

For the Jobs job, Tsai spent almost two hours surveying the pumpkin’s terrain. The actual carving took about three and a half hours. “I focus on the most defining characteristics,” he says. “The beard and the straight-on gaze were the don’t-screw-up bits.” He did cut off one nostril by accident, but said it didn’t make a notable difference. As soon as the last detail is carved, the entire pumpkin gets bathed in bleach to keep it fresh. Occasional spritzes are applied PRN. “Steve Irwin got moldy really quickly, so I went online and read that bleach helps slows down decomposition.”

Now that he’s finished with his seasonal gourd carving, he’s looking forward to his upcoming rotation in internal medicine and to his duties as Speaker of the AMA Medical Student Section. He also seems like a likely candidate to join forces with the folks featured on Science Friday’s recent video pick.

Photo courtesy of Raymond Tsai

CDC, Humor, Public Health

CDC wants you to prepare for a zombie pandemic

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) posted a blog entry outlining how you can prepare for a zombie apocalypse. The post proved to be tremendously popular and spurred the CDC to launch a contest for members of the public to submit 60-second videos showing how they’re preparing for a range of emergencies situations.

Now the government agency has introduced a graphic novel titled “Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic” to demonstrate  in an entertaining way the importance of being prepared. According to a recent USA Today story:

The comic begins with a couple, Todd and Julie, watching a news story about a strange virus that causes slow movement, slurred speech and violent tendencies. The newscaster says the CDC recommends the public avoid those with symptoms, gather emergency supplies and make an evacuation plan.

Todd checks the CDC’s website where he finds information about the new zombie virus and a list of items he’ll need for an emergency-preparedness kit. Just then, an infected zombie neighbor shows up at the door and tries to attack him.

The scene shifts to the CDC, where scientists are working around the clock to create a vaccine. In a cameo appearance, [Ali Kahn, director of the CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response] barks, “No, tell CNN I’ll call them back later…” into a phone as a Dr. Greene calls the Strategic National Stockpile to prepare to release its supplies of medicine.

Todd and Julie make it to a shelter, where trucks of vaccine arrive just as a horde of the undead crash through the doors.

To find out if Todd and Julie survive the zombie pandemic, download the full graphic novel here.

Previously: The CDC wants to help you prepare for the zombie apocalypse and CDC launches video contest for the zombie apocalypse
Photo by heather buckley

Humor, In the News

Kitchen anatomy: Brain carved from a watermelon

For your morning amusement, we present this brain wrought from a watermelon. It was carved by Reddit user TheHerferd. And, if this is the kind of thing you’d like to do for yourself, Boing Boing has a few pointers to share.

Photo by TheHerferd
Via Boing Boing

Emergency Medicine, Evolution, Humor, Stanford News

He’s not a caveman doctor, but he plays one on TV

He’s not a caveman doctor, but he plays one on TV

Grant Lipman, MD, recently provided medical aid to 10 people living like cavemen in near-Paleolithic conditions – an area of the Rockies three hours by car and all-terrain vehicle from Steamboat Springs, Colo.

Lipman was serving as medical director for the production of “I, Caveman,” a kind of reality TV show that is airing at 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2, as part of the Discovery Channel’s Curiosity series.

“We wanted to ask, ‘Were people better off as cavemen?’ How would our lives work without all the material stuff we depend on today?” Alan Eyres, an executive producer at the Discovery Channel, told me in a phone interview about the show.

I describe Lipman’s role in the production in my press release:

As an expert in wilderness medicine, he was particularly well suited for the job of treating members of a 10-person clan – six men and four women – who hunted with stone weapons and wore animal skins last summer in a remote patch of wilderness in the Southern Rocky Mountains.

And Lipman got plenty of opportunities to use his particular skills:

In one case, the most skilled hunter in the group badly cut his hand – his throwing hand, for that matter – while fashioning an obsidian spear tip. The cut got infected, and Lipman had to intervene with some antibiotics. Others suffered from mild hypothermia, altitude sickness and, in one case, acute bronchitis, which he closely monitored. “It could have led to high altitude pulmonary edema” – a life threatening condition in which fluid builds up in the lungs, he said. In another case, a cavewoman partially dislocated a rib, which he had to realign.

“Even though my patients were cavemen, they got the highest standard of modern medical care,” he said.

Lipman also treated production crew members, some of whom suffered from mild hypothermia, altitude sickness, twisted ankles and leech wounds.

Photo by Lord Jim

History, Humor, Image of the Week, Nutrition, Obesity

Image of the Week: World War II-era food wheel

With obesity rates over 20 percent in all but one US state, nutrition is, understandably, an often-discussed topic. The USDA even recently revamped its traditional “food pyramid” in an attempt to provide more modern nutritional standards for 21st-century Americans.

This WWII-era chart above, one of the many gems that appear in the National Archives’ ongoing exhibition on government involvement in the American diet, indicates that this isn’t the first time the USDA has changed its mind about what Americans should be eating. Why meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, and peanut butter comprise one food group and butter gets its own category seems difficult to comprehend today.

Previously: The Mediterranean diet has gone the way of the American one, with similar results, Stanford nutritionist offers guidelines for eating healthy on the go, and More chain restaurants offering nutritional information, healthier offerings
Photo by the USDA and is a U.S. Government Work

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