Author Archives: marthat

A Breakthrough in Prostate Cancer Detection

UBC researchers have developed a new test that promises to overcome current issues and increase the reliability of screening.

By Amanda Au, Navi Dasanjh, Kushani Jayasundera and Martha Talbot

Dr. Eric Lagally, an assistant professor and researcher at the University of British Columbia, believes he has discovered a new method of detecting prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer in men, yet the two current tests for prostate cancer are inadequate and often give false positives and negatives. Being able to correctly identify prostate cancer cells could reduce the rates of misdiagnosis and over treatment.

Dr. Lagally’s new detection method looks at an enzyme called telomerase, which helps prevent premature cell death. He uses this molecule to help differentiate between cancerous cells and normal cells more precisely using a technology known as microfluidics.

Learn more about telomerase by listening to this UBC Mastermind Productions’ Podcast.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Microfluidics allows researchers to analyze small fluid samples using a chip the size of a postage stamp etched with miniscule channels and chambers. The width of these channels and chambers is similar to the width of a human hair. The small scale allows researchers to precisely test small samples.

Microfluidic chips like the ones that Dr. Lagally uses in his lab.

Currently, microfluidics is being used for many biomedical applications, such as DNA analysis. This new technology boasts many advantages, including the ability to analyze very small fluid samples at a minimal cost and with little power. This may also be quite beneficial to the new prostate cancer screening method Dr. Lagally hopes to implement. As he points out, the use of microfluidic chips will enable doctors, nurses, and other health practitioners to analyze test results at the bedside, eliminating the need to transfer samples to a testing facility.
As of today, Dr. Lagally’s microfluidic test is a long way from human applications. Alterations need to be made to the chip, which will then face gaining the approval of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a process that could take up to ten years.

As Dr. Lagally works on the process of transferring this technology from the lab to the clinic, he is also educating the public about microfluidics. He speaks about microfluidics and has developed a method of teaching students microfluidics by fabricating their own large-scale chip out of Jello. Try it yourself!

By educating the public, as well as other researchers, the hope is that this technology will be able to make a smooth transfer so that microfluidics can begin to positively affect people who are in desperate need of this technology.

Laboratory Dye May Become the Next Treatment for Aging

Aging - Bob AuBuchon via Flickr

The laboratory dye “Basic Yellow-1” doesn’t sound all that exciting, but it could be the next “cure” for aging.

Almost all of our cellular functions, from cell division to metabolism, rely on proteins. In order to function properly these proteins must be correctly folded into 3D structures. Sometimes, proteins do not form the proper shapes and they must either be refolded or recycled. As we age the number of mis-folded proteins in our cells increases and they begin to form clumps that clog up our cellular systems. Scientists believe that this build up of junk protein is one of the underlying causes of aging.

Clumps of protein in the brain are thought to be on of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. Basic Yellow-1 binds to protein clumps allowing researchers studying Alzheimer’s to visualize these clumps or plaques. However, Nature News reports that they also found that feeding worms an optimal dose of this dye extended their lifespan by 78% on average. They believe that the dye is able to alert the cell of the presence of these harmful groups of proteins.

Our body and cells recognize Basic Yellow-1 as a foreign molecule or intruder, so when the dye binds to the proteins it is essentially marking them as dangerous. It seems that our body’s repair mechanisms aren’t always very successful in noticing these protein aggregates and adding the dye molecule might just jumpstart the removal of these proteins, leading to a longer life.

This research is still in the very early stages. However, drugs related to this dye may someday be available to help extend life. While I think that it is very cool that this lab dye may also function as a clinical drug, what I want to know is – would you take it?

Dealing with Nuclear Waste – How can we hide something forever?

Radiation Symbol - Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear waste is toxic to all organisms and remains active for 100 000 years. To put that in perspective, it’s about the same amount of time that the human species has existed and we’ve changed a lot in that time frame.

To find out how nuclear radiation affects people you can read this article on ABC News, or watch: Radiation and the Human Body – ABC News.

Nuclear power plants have produced between 250 000 and 300 000 tons of nuclear waste worldwide. Interim storage of this waste currently consists of above ground water pools. This is not a viable long-term solution because conditions are unpredictable and long-term, in this case, is 100 000 years. We have no idea what the world will be like in that amount of time.

Finland has begun creating a permanent storage facility for their nuclear waste. They’ve named it Onkalo – “hiding place” in Finish. Onkalo consists of a series of tunnels descending 5 kilometers into the bedrock. Construction began in 1970 and will be finished in 2100, meaning that nobody working on the project today will be alive when it is finished. When Onkalo is complete the tunnel will be filled with rock and clay, and the entire site will disappear back into the surrounding area.

The documentary “Into Eternity” gives a disquieting look at the construction of Onkalo and science behind it. Narrated as though it is being watched by a future generation, the film begins by saying “stay away from this place and then you will be safe.” You can watch the film on youtube.

There is no way to guarantee that future species won’t dig into Onkalo. We are still unable to decipher many of the languages spoken by our ancestors. Will languages spoken today mean anything in the future? How can we communicate danger to the unknown?

Whether or not to mark Onkalo’s presence is still being debated. Many worry that marking the site will peak the curiosity of future “humans”, leading them to dig it up, before understanding that it was built to protect them. Humans have a history of ignoring signs to leave things undisturbed. When the Egyptian’s built the pyramids, they never intended for them to be excavated. However, the wishes of the distant past were not enough to stop us. On the other hand, what if we don’t mark it and it is discovered by accident and there are no warnings in place?

This leads me to think that curiosity might have killed the cat, but radiation may wipe out the future and makes me wonder if nuclear energy is really a good alternative energy source? Is it really responsible to leave around tons toxic waste that could destroy future organisms? And isn’t it rather unsettling that even after 130 years of construction the only thing we’re going to be able to do is hope that Onkalo and the secret it contains are never discovered?

Cloning the Mammoth: It’s Big!

Will mammoths once again walk the earth? Photo - Flickr: Tracy O

Personally, when anyone talks about mammoths, which isn’t actually very often, I immediately think of Manny, the grumpy, but loveable, mammoth from Ice Age. However, Manny may soon be the second most well known mammoth around. Last month the headline: “Mammoth ‘could be reborn in four years’” was published in the British newspaper The Telegraph. Akira Iritani, a professor at Kyoto University, believes that we now have the technology to resurrect the giant mammal, and he wants to make it happen.

Until recently, cloning from frozen specimens was thought to be impossible. Ice crystals formed in the cell during freezing cause extensive damage, rendering cells unviable. However, in 2008, Dr. Teruhiko Wakayama and his team successfully cloned a mouse using mice that had been frozen for sixteen years. The trick was that they didn’t use whole cells, instead they searched for intact nuclei that hadn’t been damaged during freezing. The intact nuclei were inserted into mouse cells, from which the DNA had been removed, and implanted into a surrogate mother.

Cloning the mammoth could require as little as a few grams of soft-tissue from a frozen mammoth. Iritani plans to look for a specimen in the permafrost of Siberia this summer. After finding the tissue and isolating the viable nuclei, researchers will insert the nuclei into the egg of an African elephant and she will act as the surrogate mother for a gestation period of close to 600 days.

Cloning the mammoth would be an amazing scientific breakthrough, but this kind of science raises many concerns and I can’t help but wonder: Why we’re doing it?

In 2008, in the Guardian, Bill Holt, head of reproductive biology at the Zoological Society of London, raised the following concern: “You have to think about why you would do it and where you would put it”. Planet earth has changed drastically since the mammoth disappeared at the end of the last ice age. So I have to ask: Where will the new mammoth live? Will we clone more than one? Will they reproduce? If so, they will have a very small gene pool.

Given the limited number of viable nuclei, it seems unlikely to me that we will be able to bring the mammoth back for good. Even if we did, they would never be able to live free in the wild. So, as incredible as it would be to see a live wooly mammoth face to face, it seems counterproductive to bring back the mammoth when many other species on earth are also facing extinction. Why not spend our energy saving species that are still here, rather than trying to bring them back once their gone?

Popular Press Leaps to Conclusions

As reported in the Daily Mail, a cup of Bovril may be an important ingredient in a new diet that can reduce the risk of breast cancer. Photo - Flickr: Dave Knapik

Last October the Daily Mail printed an article with the headline: “Strict diet two days a week  cuts risk of breast cancer by 40 per cent’”. The article cites a study published in the International Journal of Obesity, called: “The effects of intermittent or continuous energy restriction on weight loss and metabolic disease risk markers: a randomized trial in young overweight women.” Reading these two titles, it’s hard to tell exactly how they’re related. Surely, if the researchers had discovered that the two day a week diet reduced the risk of breast cancer they would have mentioned it in their article’s title.

In fact, the study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, was about WEIGHT LOSS, not breast cancer. It was a six-month study, that put 100 overweight young women on one of two diets and looked at how those two diets affected weight loss. The only mention of breast cancer in the study was that over the course of the six months the levels of two breast cancer related hormones were measured. The Daily Mail was quick to pick up on this measurement and used it to write their article.

The Daily Mail took a big leap when they claimed that the two day a week diet could reduce the risk of breast cancer, given the study never looked at breast cancer risk. However, to be fair, they did admit this in the 19th paragraph where they wrote:

Dr Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: ‘This study is not about breast cancer, it’s a study showing how different diet patterns affect weight loss and it’s misleading to draw any conclusions about breast cancer from this research.’

After 18 paragraphs explaining how this diet could reduce risk of breast cancer, this small disclaimer is too little, too late.

The Daily Mail didn’t get away with their misleading publication. The Cancer Research UK blog responded with the post: ““Breast cancer diet” story based on research that wasn’t about breast cancer.” Here they explain why this study does not support the claims made in the Daily Mail.

A week later, Ben Goldacre, of the series “Bad Science” in the Guardian UK, responded with his piece: “The Daily Mail cancer story that torpedoes itself in paragraph 19.” Goldacre focuses his on the fact that 19th paragraph disclaimers aren’t enough to make up for a misleading headline and article. Citing studies on how people read, Goldacre says that most people don’t read entire articles. Most of the Daily Mail’s readers probably never made it to the 19th paragraph.

This shows the importance of looking into news stories. Fortunately, the responses to the Daily Mail article quickly put the truth out there, and anyone who Googled the claim would quickly come across the reality of the research.