Author Archives: nahalhaghbin

Hide and Go Seek: HIV vs Mathematical Model

Math may help overcome ‘sleeper cell’ hurdle in HIV treatment
New research on HIV treatment is important for helping the 33 millionpeople who are affected in North America, Sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world.HIV is a Human immunodeficiency virus.  It is a condition in humans where the infection causes the immune system to fail, leading to life threatening infections and diseases.

The HIV virus can survive in two places in the body; inside cells or free floating in the blood.Inside a cell, the HIV virus has two options it could begin making copies of itself using the cells own DNA xerox machine, once enough copies are made the new viruses can break out of the cell and go on to infect other cells in the body. Other times the virus may simply hide out in the cell in a dormant phase. This dormant phase is what makes antiretroviral medication less than 100% effective. The medication can only target the free viruses and the ones that are making copies. The ones that are hiding could become active later on with out any warning.

See podcast for more on dormant cells.

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The unpredictable activation of dormant cells led to some unique research by mathematicians at the University of British Columbia. They have used a mathematical model to track and predict how virus levels change in a patient when the dormant cells wake up. The research shows that these cells don’t wake up because of a trigger (like failing drug treatment) but are due to random activations.

See Video for more on the mathematical model.

HIV can be detected through the screening of the blood. HIV infection occurs by the transfer of bodily fluids such as breast milk, blood, semen, vaginal fluid and pre-ejaculate. The most common routes of transmission of the infection is through unprotected sex, contaminated needles, breast milk and transmission from an infected mother to her child at birth.

The mechanism behind HIV is that it primarily infects the cells in the human immune system (T cells, white blood cells, macrophages and dendritic cells) which essentially protect the human body from infections. CD4+ T cells are a type of white blood cell that guides other white blood cells to fight infections. HIV infection leads to low levels of these CD4+ T cells, through three main mechanisms:
  1. direct viral killing of infected cells
  2. increased suicide rates in infected cells (most cells in our body are programmed to self destruct when they get old)
  3. killing of infected CD4+ T cells by CD8 cytotoxic lymphocytes that recognize infected cells.  These are like cops that hunt down the infected cells.

When the level of CD4+ T cells declines to a critical level, the protection provided by white blood cells is lost, and the body becomes more susceptible to infections. This is commonly known as AIDS.

New Battery Produces Energy in Plain Old Seawater

I found an article called New Battery Produces Energy Using the Ions in Plain Old Seawater. Like my article on banana peels removing toxic metals from water, it seems as though I am interested in things that use natural things to do things that we need.

This news article explores the science behind rechargeable battery, which uses a a combination of seawater and freshwater to generate usable electricity. This concept, like our HIV paper that we researched, is not feasible in real life – such as if we install a rechargeable battery into every ocean-discharging river in the world, simply does not make sense. If, however, we allowed our imagination to run wild, we would be able to produce 2 terawatts of electricity, which is 13% of worldwide electricity use. Researchers claim that this sort of technology is “ simple to fabricate and could contribute significantly to renewable energy in the future.”

So how does it work exactly?

There is a gadget that generates current by bridging the difference between the salinity in the seawater and freshwater. In the beginning, the fresh water is funneled into the batter, which has positive and negative electrodes. Once it is charged by an external energy sources, there is an exchange between the freshwater and seawater, which adds ions to increase the electrical potential, or voltage, between the two electrodes. According to Stanford News, it makes it possible to extract more electrical energy than the energy it takes to charge the battery itself.

Scientist, Larry Kostiuk from the University of Alberta claims that the first way to generate sustainable electricity was a 160 years, when scientists created electrical currents by pumping water through glass micro channels. This new discovery seems to me to be a vast improvement.

I believe that we need to do more research into green technology, I feel as though humans have evolved to a point where it’s unacceptable to not include the whole picture (as in keeping it green) when inventing something new. I would, however, enjoy reading articles as such and hearing that they actually implemented it rather than simply discovering it and stating that it doesn’t work in reality.

Banana Peel Can Remove Toxic Metals From Water!

Scientists from Brazil have discovered that minced banana peels are very efficient in removing toxic metals from wastewater. This was found to be 20 times more effective than conventional water treatment methods. The same bunch of peels could be used up to 11 times, as they are efficient metal collectors in their natural state.

The research was done in San Paolo Research Foundation, where they found that banana peels could remove copper and lead from water better than conventional methods such as Na-bentonite, AMP- modified silica gel, expanded perlite and modified peanut husk. The research was conducted in part of green chemistry movement, which aims to development more sustainable water treatment equipment like the new age nano-engineered ceramic water filters.

Bananas are affordable and readily available, this makes a very cheap alternative for large purification plants. You would probably need a lot of it in order to run a plant, but when the finance for treatment plans are slow, they could run on much smaller scales. Although, silica is one material that is really efficient in purifying water, before using it, it needs to be treated with costly toxic materials, and thus makes it seem like a loser when compared to banana peels.

I recently attended a seminar about the banana farm industry in Ecuador, and apparently, all of our bananas come from there! It is also guaranteed that anyone in the world has eaten Ecuadorian bananas at least once in their lifetime. The problem we were discussing in the seminar was not how great Ecuadorian banana’s are, but rather how the pesticides in the banana farms have detrimental effects on the health of the farmers. Banana farms have loads of bugs, worms, flies, anything you name it they got it! So, to get rid of them they spray pesticides in the air (to kill flies), on the bananas (to kill bugs eating the bananas) and deep into the ground (to kill the worms). The toxicity of these pesticide’s are extremely high, and they have severely affected the health of the farmers who work in close proximity with the pesticides over long periods of time. The reason these chemicals do not harm us is because bananas are washed thoroughly before they are exported. However, with the sheer volume of pesticides going on top of the banana peels, I wonder how much of it can actually be washed away?

Video on Banana Pesticides

My thoughts on this issue are, if the discovery of banana peels being efficient purifying agents has anything to do with pesticides that are sprayed onto the bananas. The article does not go in-depth about the chemical reactions that occur on the surface of the banana peel with water, which might suggest that there is something else going on. More research should be done to confirm the science behind the claim. My prediction is that banana peels are good purifying agents because of the combination of low-dose-pesticide-contaminated banana peels with wastewater.

I found this article on the illegal trafficking of kidney organs to be very interesting, since in 2010 about 88,000 individuals required a kidney transplant.

The article begins with an elaborate and engaging story about a man from Athens, Greece traveling to Delhi, India in order to save his life by receiving a kidney transplant. The story continues by explaining how the man ended up in what basically was a kidney hospital/hotel, with entertainment for patients for the duration of their stay. He was initially on dialysis until the operation eventually got scheduled. If you have kept up with the show ‘Desperate Housewives’, you would know that one of Susan Delfino’s kidneys had to be removed due to a trampling incident that caused her kidneys to burst, and she too had to go on dialysis.

The kidney is a vital organ that allows us to filter out the excess water and toxins from our blood. When the kidney fails, often from the result of other problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure, western medicine suggests a treatment method called dialysis. Dialysis allows the blood to go through a cleansing process at least three times a week. The treatment includes side effects such as itching, fatigue, and risk of infection.

The article continues by explaining that the head surgeon, Amit Kumar who doesn’t have a formal training degree in western medicine, built the worlds largest kidney trafficking rings. His clients come from Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, Canada and the US. According to CBI investigator Rajiv Dwivedi, Kumar is India’s foremost kidney surgeon. He has made so much money that he has been able to finance Bollywood movies and fend off extortion threats from the Mumbai mafia.

I have very conflicting feelings about this article. I don’t know whether to feel happy that people in need are getting kidneys, or to feel upset about the corruption in India. The article went on about Kumar’s trial in court and how there was not sufficient evidence to detain him longer. It was interesting to learn about the politics of scientific practices, and I feel that the health care system needs to be more efficient in order to provide this service openly rather than through underground organ trafficking.

The Brain: Seeing the Person Behind the Face

People have the capacity to recognize twenty faces better than recognizing twenty pictures of roses. The Brain: Seeing the Person Behind the Face provides a hypothesis to how we are able to recognize faces altogether.

One condition called Prosopagnosia is responsible for the inability to identify faces.  It is a common disorder, but is not clearly understood.  One of my favorite neuroscientists , Oliver Sacks who is 78 this year was only recently diagnosed with Prosopagnosia. In his book, he says “I have had difficulty remembering faces for as long as I can remember.”

The reason why Prosopagnosia is not clearly understood is because doctors have not understood how normal face recognition works. Cognitive Neuroscientist Marlene Behrmann, found that human brains know how to identify faces by carrying out a “mathematical transformation of each face, encoding it as a point in a multidimensional face space” rather than being able to identify faces through photographic images.

The face space model has become much more accepted by neuroscientist today. They suggest the way we store faces in our brains is by decreasing the face to a point, by creating a dense code for representing many numbers of faces. It suggests that our brains only need to store the distance and direction of a point from the center of face space. Average looking faces are located in the center of face space, however, people with more distinctive features deviate from the center of the face space.

It goes on to describe how caricatures of famous people allow us to sometimes recognize them more quickly than a photographic image.

Several experiments were conducted to further understand this hypothesis, but the seven participants in the experiment were not adequate enough to make a statement that claims people who are face-blind can still retain face space.  They did, however admit that further research is needed to interpret how we recognize faces.