Scientific Scribbles

Melbourne University science communication students ponder………

Will you say ‘No’ to nano? The future of biological technology.

A new age in medical technology - via Flickr CC 2.0
We are entering a new age in medical technology. Image via Flickr CC 2.0

Google[x] is a pretty mysterious research facility in California. It’s where they created Google Glass, and where they are working on driverless cars. I imagine it to be kind of like the James Bond lab. Eccentric genius’s cooking up insanely brilliant new inventions. One of their newest ideas has been released from their Life Sciences department as an early cancer detector, and it completely sounds like it’s come straight from science fiction.

H+ : A YouTube Series

A few months ago, I started watching this YouTube sci-fi show called H+ : The Digital Series. Each episode is about 3 minutes long, and they are highly addictive. If you’re into sci-fi stuff, you should definitely check it out, I highly recommend it.

Anyway, the series is set in the future. A company called H+ has created a tiny chip that you get injected into your body. Originally, it is used as an health innovation. Heralding a new age in disease detection, the H+ monitors your vital signs and supposedly gives you the earliest possible detection for anything that may be wrong with your health.

As this is a science fiction show, things of course don’t quite go to plan. These chips eventually, after many upgrades, make it so that everybody is networked together, in a new kind of internet. It’s all very futuristic. Unfortunately for the characters of H+, what was once a beacon of medical triumph, is used in a sort of cyber terrorism when a virus is loaded onto the H+ network.

So what are Google[x] up to?

Fortunately for us, Google[x] don’t (seem to) have any nefarious plans that can lead to some apocalyptic age of technology. Last Tuesday, at the Wall Street Journal Technology Conference, Google released information on some of their new health plans. Andrew Conrad, the Head of Life Sciences at Google[x] introduced us to a type of nanoparticle which they have developed, which could change the entire medical game. This very, *very* tiny particle is said to be the “nexus of biology and engineering”. So small in fact that they are said to have “millions of them fit within a grain of sand”. The plan is to coat a pill with a bucketload of these particles, so that a patient can easily just swallow them. The nanoparticles will spread throughout your body, attaching themselves to different molecules and cells.

Nanoparticles are a billionth of a meter in size, and certainly can't be seen with the naked eye. Image via Flickr CC 2.0
Nanoparticles are a billionth of a meter, and certainly can’t be seen with the naked eye. Image via Flickr CC 2.0

The nanoparticles are magnetised. This means that if a magnet is placed against the person’s skin, the nanoparticles will become trapped in a certain point on your body. Andrew Conrad explains that when they become trapped like this, doctors will be able to read certain information from the particles.

“These little particles go out and mingle with the people, we call them back to one place and we ask them ‘Hey, what did you see? Did you find cancer? Did you see something that looks like a fragile plaque for a heart attack? Did you see too much sodium?”

Rather than waiting too late for more visible signs of disease within patients, with a tool like this we could actively search for health issues. Check out Andrew Conrad’s video on the Wall Street Journal website.

What’s next then?

This technology is still a few years away from being released, but I think it’s pretty darn exciting. Still, there are concerns about who will house the data collected from the particles. It must be a high priority of Google to keep the medical information collected extremely private, so they have said they don’t want to have access to it themselves.

So, in just a few short years, will you be popping the Google pill?

Stem Cells: a new hope for type 1 diabetes

Measuring glucose levels and injecting insulin can be a pain. By Pearlsa [CC by 2.0] via Flickr
Type 1 diabetes affects around 120,000 people in Australia alone. It is a chronic disease that is caused by the person’s own immune system attacking insulin secreting beta cells in the pancreas. Without insulin the body is unable to break down glucose for energy, which causes many complications. 

There is no known cure for the disease and those who live with it are forced to prick their fingers to check their blood glucose levels and must inject insulin several times a day.

A new hope!

Last week an American company ViaCyte announced they would be beginning the first ever clinical trials for stem cells to be used to treat patients with type 1 diabetes. The trials are the result of 12 years of dedicated research by ViaCyte and if successful may see a new era of type 1 diabetes treatment.

The treatment has already been seen to work in mice. Doug Melton from Harvard University claims: “When our cells are transplanted into mice, they ‘cure’ the mice in a few days.”

So how will this work?

The team from San Diego has used human Embryonic Stem Cells (hESCs) to create pancreatic beta cells that are able to secrete insulin.

Insulin producing beta cells are coloured red. By Jakobs [CC by 2.0] via Flickr
The hope is that these stem cells can be inserted into the patients in a capsule that will evade the immune system. The capsule will be semi-permeable so as glucose and insulin can freely pass, but immune cells cannot. These cells will be able to sense glucose levels in the blood and respond like normal pancreatic beta cells. Cool right?

Why use stem cells?

The Edmonton Protocol developed in the late 90’s uses beta cells taken from cadavers and transplanting them into type 1 diabetes sufferers. The problems with this include:

  • Donor numbers: only 1,562 pancreas were recovered from donors in the US in 2011 (source)
  • Many are damaged or do not meet requirements.
  • Financial costs of transplants.
  • Immune rejection

Stem cells (green) could someday be used to treat Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries and many other diseases. By UCI UC Irvine [CC by 2.0] via Flickr
Using hESCs to produce insulin producing cells can overcome these obstacles by being able to create large numbers of cells of uniform type as stem cells are able to self-renew and expand indefinitely.

Another exciting prospect is to use the patients own cells to create induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs). These stem cells are unique in that they have the same genetic makeup of the recipient, therefore the cells may not be rejected by the host’s immune system. iPS cells are also useful in studying the cause of the disease.

So how long until we see a cure?

Unfortunately the early clinical trials being undertaken at ViaCyte are only safety trials in three patients and full clinical trials will not begin until next year at the earliest. The process may be lengthy as stem cells have been known to cause tumor development when implanted into mice (source) therefore all precautions must be taken.

It may take a few more years but it will be worth the wait! Stem cells are also being used in clinical trials for macular degeneration and will begin trials on heart disease soon!

A video for a bit more info:

Probiotics vs. Allergies

We always see on  TV so many adds related to Probiotics, they are good for this and that and so on, it has been proven that they helped in the treatment  of digestive diseases, lowering cholesterol  but how can effective they can be with allergies?  Some of the people who have taken them say yes , they are good , some say… no way!!!!

First of all we need to know the meaning of probiotics….

According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and  World Health Organization (WHO) defined probiotics as “live microorganisms when consumed in adequate amounts, confer a health effect on the host”. In other words, probiotics are microorganisms that are really beneficial to health when they are ingested.

The most popular of them are the strains from Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium from the lactic bacteria and other genera such as Streptococcus, Leuconostoc and Enterococcus .

Microscope image of Lactobacillus acidophilus.                                                               Image Credit: Bob Blaylock [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

So… what’s the deal with allergies?

There are various studies linked to the use of probiotics to relieve the symptoms of allergic reactions: dermatitis , eczema , rhinitis, asthma and others.  Some of them gave positive results, and other were really disappointing.


Probiotics vs. Dermatitis a.k.a. Eczema

Clinical trials related to the treatment of atopic dermatitis (AD) in children with positive outcomes are related with lactobacilli .  The first of these studies was concerned in the decrease of Scoring Atopic Dermatitis (SCORAD) index in children with AD during a treatment with  probiotic fortified formula during a month.

Another study with babies  who  received strains of Lactobacillus GG during a four months reduced their SCORAD levels.

Another clinical trial  was  done with the prenatal and post natal administration of Lactobacillus rhamnousus, it produced a protective barrier against AD in young children.

The consumption of supplemented formula with  Lactobacillus rhamnosus or Bifidobacterium lactis Bb-12 reduced the symptoms of eczema in children.


Probiotics vs. Rhinitis and Asthma

Image Credit: mcfarlandmo [CC BY-G 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Studies have shown that the administration of L.casei reduced allergic rhinitis  in young children. However, another study with the oral administration of Lactobacillus GG strains to people who had allergic episodes during the spring didn’t cause any kind of effect.

Another research related with the combined consumption of fermented milk with Lactobacillus casei showed that it was really good in patients with allergic rhinitis but it didn’t work for asthmatics.

Apparently, there is not enough evidence that probiotics could be effective in the treatment of asthma  , there is still more work to be done with that type of condition and the consumption of these little guys.  Maybe it is the wrong strain, the wrong combination, or just probiotics are not effective for asthma.

In the other hand….

Well, these are not allergic reactions but has been proven that these guys work in the following conditions:

  1. Crohn’s disease
  2. Vaginitis
  3. Ulcerative colitis
  4. antibiotic-related diarrhea
  5. infectious diarrhea (prevention)



Probiotics are good for some conditions as I have said before, and they don’t work for the relieve of another ones.  That’s why before you taking this guys you might ask for more info to your GP or have a little bit of research before you buy them at the chemist.

What was your experience with them?


For further information:

Azevedo, M, Innocentin, S, Dorella, F, Rocha, C, Mariat, D, Pontes, D, Miyoshi, A, Azevedo, V, Langella, P, & Chatel, J 2013, ‘Immunotherapy of allergic diseases using probiotics or recombinant probiotics’, Journal Of Applied Microbiology, 115, 2, pp. 319-333.

Baquerizo, K, Yim, E, & Keri, J 2014, ‘Probiotics and prebiotics in dermatology’, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 4, p. 814.

Bermudez-Brito, M, Plaza-Diaz, J, Munoz-Quezada, S, Gomez-Llorente, C, & Gil, A 2012, ‘Probiotic mechanisms of action’, Annals Of Nutrition And Metabolism, 61, 2, pp. 160-174.

Butel, M 2014, ‘Probiotics, gut microbiota and health’, Médecine Et Maladies Infectieuses, 44, 1, pp. 1-8.

Elazab, N, Mendy, A, Gasana, J, Vieira, E, Quizon, A, & Forno, E 2013, ‘Probiotic administration in early life, atopy, and asthma: a meta-analysis of clinical trials’, Pediatrics, 3, p. 666



Do music lessons can make you a better reader?

According to scientists from Northwestern University the answer could be YES!!

Image Credit: Stillfehler [CC-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

The study was conducted by Nina Kraus and her staff with the help of Harmony Project, an NGO that provided the instruments to the participants, was developed with more than one hundred 10 year old  children from the poorest areas from Chicago and Los Angeles.  They compared the reading skills from children who were attending  music lessons, with another group of children  that wasn’t taking any kind of these activities.

They realized that children who received music lessons for more than 5 hours per week improved their reading skills and they also were more affluent.

They also have done with young teenagers who were having music lessons and also playing in bands or in choirs in their communities

 During this research they recorded the participants’ brainwaves to measure their response to speech sounds. They noticed that after couple of years of training the guys could distinguish any different sound from each other in a faster way than the teenagers who didn’t have these activities.

Scientists concluded that playing any kind of instrument or singing was beneficial to children’s brains and also improve their academic skills.  Another important thing in this research is that all of the children had the same IQ and reading skills at the beginning of the research.

Image Credit:Tanglewd By [CC-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

At the end of the research Kraus told that music alters the nervous system in a positive way for those who frequently are having any kind of these lessons .

How about the Grown-ups?

Well, Dr. Kraus is really passionate about this topic, she also performed a research with adults between ages 55 to 75 and she also found that those who played instruments at a certain point of their lives had less problems with communication and hearing and the longer they played the instrument the better brain response to these features.

That doesn’t mean that music is just for children and grandpas,  you can play any kind of instrument at any stage of your life , as Jennifer Bugos from the Univerity of South Florida , says.

She also compared a group of people who have been taking piano lessons during six months and she discovered that the participants improved in their memory, fluency and in how they process the information from their brains.  Another research performed by scientists of the University of Geneva confirmed that having some music lessons improve the brain development in young adults.

Therefore, there is no excuse to have a little bit of fun with the guitar, ukelele or whatever instrument you like.

In fact, this post will be a message for myself, I always wanted to play the guitar but I couldn’t or I just didn’t want to  find the time to play it.  I will add it in my checklist…

For further information:

How Playing an Instrument Benefits to Brain?

Bugos, JA 2014, ‘Adult Learner Perceptions: Perspectives from Beginning Musicians (Ages 60-86 Years)’, Update: Applications Of Research In Music Education, 32, 2, pp. 26-34

James, Clara E, et al. “Musical Training Intensity Yields Opposite Effects On Grey Matter Density In Cognitive Versus Sensorimotor Networks.” Brain Structure & Function 219.1 (2014): 353-366.

Kraus, Nina, et al. “Music Enrichment Programs Improve the Neural Encoding of Speech in At-Risk Children.” Journal Of Neuroscience 34, no. 36 (September 3, 2014): 11913-11918

White-Schwoch, T, Carr, K, Anderson, S, Strait, D, & Kraus, N 2013, ‘Older adults benefit from music training early in life: Biological evidence for long-term training-driven plasticity’, The Journal Of Neuroscience, 33, 45, pp. 17667-17674

Newton’s Obsessive Hobby

Gold and Silver are considered valuable commodities more so in the middle ages when these precious metals were not as commonly found. This led to the formation of a pseudoscience which was a precursor to chemistry called alchemy. The idea was that any of the elements could be converted to another and hence you could produce gold or silver from relatively less expensive metals.

Alchemy was a popular practice in medieval times across all civilizations (Wikimedia Commons CC-PD-Mark)
Alchemy was a popular practice in medieval times across all civilizations (Wikimedia Commons CC-PD-Mark)

There was no understanding of the theory of atoms at the time. The ancient Greek philosophers believed that all the physical objects were made of fire, water earth and wind. Democritus proposed the atomic theory of the universe however none of this was experimental based therefore there was a lot of room for other theories to come forward. Therefore alchemist believed that elements could be broken down into its constituent materials and then reformed into other elements. This is certainly a throw back to a age where the boundaries of what is science and what it pseudoscience were not clearly drawn.

One of the scientists that broke this trend of philosophical and theological approach to science was Sir Isaac Newton. His work on gravity, calculus and thermodynamics were all backed by meticulous experimentation, logical reasoning and mathematical calculations. His work dawned a new era of science based on evidence. It is mostly for that reason that I find it interesting that Newton was a closet alchemist.

The evidence of Newton the alchemist has only come up within the last few years. Newton always documented all of his work although he only published few of his work. This was mostly due to the fact that his superior’s were very critical of his work early on in his career. He had to be persuaded to publish his novel work on gravity as well. His work on alchemy seems to be his darkest and most well guarded secret but his compulsive note taking has given it away.

An 1874 painting of the fire in Newton's room which destroyed papers that took him 20 years to write, which may have included some of his work on alchemy. (Wikimedia Commons PD-ART)
An 1874 painting of the fire in Newton’s room which destroyed papers that took him 20 years to write, which may have included some of his work on alchemy. (Wikimedia Commons PD-ART)

What made Newton pursue alchemy? Many scientist are very stubborn and have their believes deeply engraved into them. Although this may have contributed to his passion it may not have been the full story. Newton a man of logic and reason may have been persuaded by the evidence available at the time and good old scientific curiosity. Although it seems obvious now that it was a pseudoscience alchemy was considered a serious science at the time.

This was mainly because they didn’t have the technology to have an experimental explanation for many of the chemistry occurring at a molecular level. Many experimental scientists at the time believed in alchemy.

Newton’s extracurricular pursuits may have even led to his discoveries in optics that white light is composed of seven colors and the optical properties of prisms.

Personally however being a big fan of Newton and his works I’m not at all disappointed when I found out of Newton’s dark secret. I was actually happy. He was acting based on the evidence available at the time and he let his curiosity take over and performed his experiments. Not all scientific work leads to positive results, but what keeps science moving forward is that scientist observe, hypothesize and experiment to prove their hypothesis. Newton’s work on alchemy although later proved wrong has reinforced in my mind at least that he was one of the greatest scientist that ever lived and probably the greatest experimenters of his time.

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