Astronomy and Human Progress

This morning, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory issued a press release, which in and of itself is hardly extraordinary. Its contents, however, are extraordinarily awesome:

ALMA image of the young star HL Tau and its protoplanetary disk. This best image ever of planet formation reveals multiple rings and gaps that herald the presence of emerging planets as they sweep their orbits clear of dust and gas. Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Astronomers have captured the best image ever of planet formation around an infant star as part of the testing and verification process for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s (ALMA) new high-resolution capabilities.

This revolutionary new image reveals in astonishing detail the planet-forming disk surrounding HL Tau, a Sun-like star located approximately 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

ALMA uncovered never-before-seen features in this system, including multiple concentric rings separated by clearly defined gaps. These structures suggest that planet formation is already well underway around this remarkably young star.

“These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disk. This is surprising since HL Tau is no more than a million years old and such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image,” said ALMA Deputy Director Stuartt Corder.

While this photo is not about to save a life or help a man improve his intimate relations, it occasionally occurs to us to remind that astronomy is not just about fancy photos. The human species needs astronomers.

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A Note on Discovering “New” Body Parts

We must always be careful with the idea of discovering a new part of the human body; it is not as if a Dua’s Layer magically appeared out of nowhere; it’s all of fifteen microns thick. We can expect the fourth of six corneal layers, then, to be difficult to find.

Likewise, we should be cautious in reacting to news that surgeons have discovered a ligament in the human knee.

Because, really, the question seems obvious:

Anterolateral ligament (ALL)Despite successful ACL repair surgery and rehabilitation, some patients with ACL-repaired knees continue to experience so-called ‘pivot shift’, or episodes where the knee ‘gives way’ during activity. For the last four years, orthopaedic surgeons Dr Steven Claes and Professor Dr Johan Bellemans have been conducting research into serious ACL injuries in an effort to find out why. Their starting point: an 1879 article by a French surgeon that postulated the existence of an additional ligament located on the anterior of the human knee.

That postulation turned out to be correct: the Belgian doctors are the first to provide a full anatomical description of the ligament after a broad cadaver study using macroscopic dissection techniques. Their research shows that the ligament, called the anterolateral ligament (ALL), was noted to be present in all but one of the 41 cadaveric knees studied. Subsequent research shows that pivot shift, the giving way of the knee in patients with an ACL tear, is caused by an injury in the ALL ligament.

‪Some of the researchers’ conclusions were recently published in the Journal of Anatomy. The Anatomical Society praised the research as “very refreshing” and commended the researchers for reminding the medical world that, despite the emergence of advanced technology, our knowledge of the basic anatomy of the human body is not yet exhaustive.

Even with all the caveats, it seems a strange proposition that it took 134 years to validate the original postulation.

So many medical students cutting cadavers. So many knee surgeries for athletes professional, amateur, and recreational. And yet here we are, breaking new ground in the twenty-first century.

It’s always been there, right?
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Leuven, K. U. “Surgeons describe new ligament in the human knee.” ScienceDaily. 5 November, 2013. ScienceDaily.com. Retrieved 11 November, 2013.

On Mice and Cocaine

Every once in a while you might hear someone complain about some odd science experiment in which a university spent some money doing something that might seem nearly nonsensical. To wit, did you hear the one about the team at UC Berkley that observed mice on cocaine?

You know, I forget the details of the old story about giving chimpanzees cocaine, but it was something like you would expect, that the group stratified unnaturally and generally began behaving like drug addicts. Even then, though, people are dubious about the value of such scientific inquiry.

Which brings us back to the point: Why would you give cocaine to mice?

And the answer:

Cocaine can speedily rewire high-level brain circuits that support learning, memory and decision-making, according to new research from UC Berkeley and UCSF. The findings shed new light on the frontal brain’s role in drug-seeking behavior and may be key to tackling addiction.

CocamausLooking into the frontal lobes of live mice at a cellular level, researchers found that, after just one dose of cocaine, the rodents showed fast and robust growth of dendritic spines, which are tiny, twig-like structures that connect neurons and form the nodes of the brain’s circuit wiring.

“Our images provide clear evidence that cocaine induces rapid gains in new spines, and the more spines the mice gain, the more they show they learned about the drug,” said Linda Wilbrecht, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper published today (August 25) in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

For mice, “learning about the drug” can mean seeking it out to the exclusion of meeting other needs, which may explain how addiction in humans can override other considerations that are necessary for a balanced life: “The downside is, you might be learning too well about drugs at the expense of other things,” Wilbrecht said.

Using a technology known as 2-photon laser scanning microscopy, researchers made images of nerve cell connections in the frontal cortices of live mice before and after the mice received their first dose of cocaine and, within just two hours, observed the formation of new dendritic spines.

It has been said that cocaine is the Devil. Inasmuch as science might have anything to do with such a characterization, let us reiterate the summary: It appears that from the first dose, cocaine begins physically rewiring the brain to make the seeking of cocaine a priority.

This goes well beyond any lock-and-key addiction propaganda they ever gave us as kids to explain why drugs are bad, m’kay?

Obviously, there remains much research to be done about how this process works in humans, but for now at least we know why anyone would want to give cocaine to mice, or mice to cocaine, or otherwise combine mice and cocaine.
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In all honesty, I wrote that backwards the first time: Why would you give mice to cocaine? Except, by the psychopathology of everyday life, I’m not sure that was the wrong question.

As near as we can tell, by our own B. D.

Ears In the Age of 3-D

Imagine, if you would, please, saying the following to your five year-old twin daughters: “I want to implant your ears on the backs of rats.”

Okay, that’s not nearly so creepy as it sounds. Nancy Shute of NPR explains:

3-D Printed EarTo make the ear, Bonassar and his colleagues scanned the ears of his twin daughters, who were 5 at the time. They used a 3-D printer to build a plastic mold based on the scan. Those printers, similar to a home inkjet, lately have also been adapted to experiment with making chocolate, guns, and even kidneys.

They then injected a soup of collagen, living cartilage cells, and culture medium. The soup congeals “like Jell-O,” Bonassar tells Shots. “All this happens quickly. You inject the mold, and in 15 minutes you have an ear ready to go.”

Well, not exactly. What they have is an ear-shaped chunk of cells that would have to be tucked under the skin on the side of the head by a plastic surgeon before it could become an ear.

To test whether their ear-mold would become living, useful ear cartilage, the researchers implanted samples under the skin on the back of laboratory rats. In three months, cartilage cells took over the collagen, making for a solid-yet-flexible chunk of cartilage that retained its precise shape and size. The results were published online in the journal PLoS One.

The technique could be a breakthrough for microtia and anotia, related birth defects in which the pinna (the part of the ear on the outside of one’s head) is underdeveloped or absent, or even the occasional missing ear resulting from an accident. Microtia occurs in the range of once every eight- to ten-thousand births, and, in truth, I have no idea what the numbers are for accidental or necessary surgical removal of pinnae.

Still, though, as with so many breakthroughs we hear about, application is most likely ten years away at a minimum.

NIH: Shigella Vaccines Start Human Trials

“It seems that Shigella bacteria know our immune system better than we do.”

William Alexander

Shigella sonneiShigellosis is one of those nasty bacterial diseases that follows the cringeworthy fecal-oral routeto infect humans and other primates. Mild cases bring stomachaches; the severe end includes cramping, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, and it generally only gets more disgusting from there. While the disease can occur all over the world—estimates suggest ninety million cases of Shigellosis dysentery each year—the greatest mortality occurs in the third world. Hoping to stem transmission, or, at least, minimize the damage it causes, the World Health Organization has long called for a vaccine to stop Shigella infection.

And, today, scientists are one step closer. The National Institutes of Health announced that two Shigella vaccine have entered early-stage human clinical trials:

Researchers have launched an early-stage human clinical trial of two related candidate vaccines to prevent infection with Shigella, bacteria that are a significant cause of diarrheal illness, particularly among children. The Phase I clinical trial, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, will evaluate the vaccines for safety and their ability to induce immune responses among 90 healthy adults ages 18 to 45 years. The trial is being conducted at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, one of the eight NIAID-funded Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Units in the United States ….

…. Led by principal investigator Robert W. Frenck, Jr., M.D., director of clinical medicine at Cincinnati Children’s, the new clinical trial will evaluate two related candidate vaccines, known as WRSs2 and WRSs3, which have been found to be safe and effective when tested in guinea pigs and nonhuman primates. Both target Shigella sonnei, one of the bacteria’s four subtypes and the cause of most shigellosis outbreaks in developed and newly industrialized countries. Though neither candidate vaccine has been tested in humans, a precursor to both, known as WRSs1, was found to be safe and generated an immune response in small human trials in the United States and Israel. This early work was supported by NIAID, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. All three versions of the vaccine were developed by researchers at the Walter Reed institute.

A study record detail is available via ClinicalTrials.gov.