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Showing posts from May, 2019

Enemies of Our Enemies: Our Viral Friends

Can you successfully use the concept ‘enemy of our enemy is our friend’ in medical treatment? Specifically, could you use viruses to treat an incurable infection? Born with genetic disease cystic fibrosis , Isabelle Holdaway had to deal with lung infections and breathing problems all her life. Because of persistent infections, by her fifteenth birthday, her lungs had lost more than two-thirds of their functions. As a last resort, her doctors decided to transplant her lungs even though they feared infection might spread through her entire body after the surgery. And unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. As the infection spread beyond her surgical wound, the doctors told her mother, Jo Holdaway, that her daughter's infection couldn’t be treated and that Isabelle’s chance of survival was less than one percent.  Desperate for a miracle, Jo decided to look into alternative treatment options for her daughter. She knew her daughter's infection was caused by bacteria, micros

All That Glitters and Cures

The story of King Midas in Greek mythology perfectly illustrates our fascination with gold. In that story, Midas wished that everything would turn into gold upon his touch. His wish was granted, and he died because of it—because his food would also turn into gold, poor Midas died of starvation. As the story shows, our desire to possess gold has been with us since ancient times, and even though gold’s value has somewhat diminished in our time, gold still represents wealth and security in many countries. Even research biologists are not immune to the allure of gold. Though for them, the appeal of gold lies elsewhere: gold nanoparticle s  are not toxic to the cells and drugs can be added to these nanoparticles to ensure effective delivery. In their  paper published in 2016, Alex Savchenko and his colleagues described one such use of gold nanoparticles. They creatively used gold nanoparticles to solve a complex delivery problem. An analogy of what they attempted to achieve would be to be

No, no zombies were created!

I don't get zombies. I mean I understand that they are undead and that they have a weird obsession with human flesh, but I don’t get the science behind their existence. Even to walk like a sleepwalker—that is the zombie walk—for example, you’d need a lot of coordination from your brain. And then there is their sense of sight and perhaps even smell that enables them to detect humans. That would also mean that a significant part of their brain is actually alive. How can they be dead then? And how come they crave human flesh? Do they feel satisfied once they have consumed enough human flesh? How could they tell whether or not someone is faking to be a zombie? Given all these problems I have with zombies, imagine my surprise when I saw a  headline  that claimed scientists have created zombie pigs because of a recent  paper  that was published in Nature magazine. The reality is far from the headline, and here, I want to go over that paper to explain why. Courtesy: Gerd Altmann (Pixa

Our Very Vexed Vaccination Debate

The recent outbreak of measles in New York has intensified the debate between the supporters and opponents of the vaccination program. The people who are against vaccination here are skeptics, at least in the philosophical sense, and scientists and doctors, on the other hand, don’t understand why we are having this debate in the 21st century. To the former group, the danger outweighs the benefit and to the latter, the benefit vastly outweighs the danger. We, thus, have sort of an impasse now to the point where no further discussion seems possible. One could make come up with several explanations behind why this impasse exists, but looking over the arguments from both sides, I can’t help but feel there are some deep-rooted mistrusts as well as misunderstanding between the two groups. While I can’t do much about the former, I hope, in this essay, I can alleviate some of the misunderstandings. A Heated Debate: Louis Charles Moeller Let me begin with some of the common arguments I’ve

The Mystery of Dolly and 3-parent Children

Fortunately—or rather, unfortunately—I didn’t know why the first cloned animal from an adult cell was called Dolly. When her existence made the headlines in Bangladeshi newspapers, I was still in high school and didn’t even know the internet’s existence. Had I known how to use the internet to gather information back then, I probably would have figured it out. Unfortunately, Bengali newspapers and magazine articles weren’t that informative. Even after sifting through all articles I could find on Dolly, I still didn’t know how exactly scientists achieved that amazing feat. I, however, did know what I wanted to do with my life at that point: I wanted to be a geneticist. While I didn’t end up being one, I don’t think I would have chosen biology in college if Dolly hadn’t come along. Recently, I came across another news article that caught my eye: a woman had successfully given birth to a baby with three parents. Reading the article, I couldn’t help but being nostalgic about Dolly because

When Pain Won’t Go Away

Things were so much simpler, or at least as far as the role of  RNA  is concerned, when I first took a biology class about a hundred years or so ago. We knew DNA carried our genetic information which through an intermediary, RNA, could be made into peptides, the building blocks of proteins. Compared to DNA or the proteins that carried out various cellular tasks, the role of RNA seemed dull because we thought RNA was essentially a copy of original genetic information from DNA (for more information as well as differences between DNA and RNA, go  here ) .  About 20 years or so ago, however, we first learned that there was more to RNAs than met the eye. One group of small RNA molecules, justifiably called microRNAs or miRNA, for example, could act as enzymes, the biological catalysts that speed up biochemical reactions. Before, we thought only proteins could act as catalysts, so it came as a shock to biologists when we learned these small RNAs could also act as catalysts. A recent paper

Excitement Over Tiny Things: Microbots

Let’s start with a thought experiment. Suppose we have a patient with a damaged liver, and we want to repair the damage. How do we achieve that? Probably the simplest answer to the problem would be this: replace the damaged liver cells with healthy liver cells. As with life, things are more complicated than they look, and this happens to be the case here as well. While the basic idea is simple, we need to overcome a few obstacles to achieve our objective. How can we, for example, generate healthy liver cells? We can’t just take cells from the skin and dump them on the liver, so where do we get the healthy liver cells from? With the recent advances in stem cell research, the answer to this question is rather simple: we can make liver cells from stem cells—these stem cells that can be biochemically “programmed” to become liver cells. We can take cells from the patient’s other tissues, skin, for example, and convert the skin cells to stems cells and then convert these stem cells to liver

Why So Thirsty?

Suppose you are marooned in the great Sahara Desert with no water and are very thirsty. Being inspired by Newton’s apple story, instead of worrying about water, you wonder  why  you are thirsty—you wonder what kind of neurons in your brain are responsible for thirst. But how do you figure out exactly what neurons in your brain deal with thirst when a human brain contains billions of neurons? While I cannot say whether Allen and colleagues ( S cience, September 2017 ) came up with this question after suffering from severe water deprivation, their recent research does address this question. Their research also highlights how cutting-edge tools, available in molecular biology, genetics, and electrophysiology, can help scientists to address questions like this. The researchers did not have to start from scratch—from previous research, they knew the approximate area of the brain that dealt with thirst. This area, called the median preoptic nucleus ( MnPO ), an area in the hypothalamus, h

Stem Cell Therapy for Cancer Patients

In one Doctor Who episode , the Doctor, an alien creature and the main protagonist of the series, get inside a Dalek, an arch enemy of the Doctor, to figure out the cause of its aberrant behavior. Thanks to some advanced nanotechnology, the doctor and his companions were able to get small enough to go inside the Dalek. While we might have to wait for a while before our doctors could be miniaturized and injected inside our body to get rid of, say, cancer cells or an arterial block, with the current advances in biotechnology, we may be able to treat some difficult-to-treat diseases in a similar fashion without going through the miniaturization process. Brain cancer, for example, is one of the hardest tumors to treat, and every year, about 10,000 patients are diagnosed with glioblastoma (GBM), the most common primary brain cancer. In a recent paper ,  Juli Bagó and her team showed that, in the near future, it might be possible to inject engineered cells in the tumor region and have those

Progress in Artificial Kidney Development

Ever since I learned the solution to the old chicken and egg paradox, I have stopped using that phrase to describe a scenario where it is difficult to determine the order of two events. According to evolutionary geneticists, the egg always comes first—a chicken-like creature laid an egg that had a genetic mutation, so when the egg hatched, a chicken-little came out. So because of those geneticists, I can no longer use that expression. But that is not the only expression that faces extinction: in the near future, I fear we can no longer say, “I can afford X only if I sell my kidney.” Thanks to some recent advances in stem cell research, our kidneys may not be as valuable as we think them to be in the future. How could we compete if human kidneys could be mass produced in a laboratory? Yes, we have some time before that happens, but a functional, artificial kidney may come out much earlier than we think. A recent paper by Atsuhiro Taguchi and Ryuichi Nishinakamura ( Cell Stem Cell, Dece