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A Clever Condom August 13, 2009

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Diseases, Human Body, Think About It.
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Most teens today are probably familiar with how condoms work. If you’re sexually active, you already know that condoms can help to protect you from sexually transmitted diseases and also reduce the likelihood of an unwanted pregnancy.

But, researchers at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, United States, are trying to create a new gel that acts like a condom. Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Yet if all goes well, this new gel could be a surprisingly clever weapon against semen and any bacteria or viruses contained within it! This includes viruses such as HIV.

Creating A Trap

Standard condoms protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.  In developing countries, women need cheaper options that give them control over their sexual health.

Standard condoms protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. But in developing countries, women need cheaper options that give them control over their sexual health.

When you picture a condom, you likely picture something more solid, while a gel would be softer, wouldn’t it? Not always so. This particular gel is a liquid when it’s in contact with the vagina – a highly acidic environment. Once alkaline semen makes its way in there though, the gel turns solid. In fact, any particles that are bigger than 50 nanometres are trapped. This includes semen, HIV and even viruses such as the herpes virus.

Getting It Right

This research team isn’t the first to try making a gel to combat HIV. Unfortunately, other teams haven’t been successful at creating an effective gel to protect women against HIV. In fact, one study found that the gel actually increased the rate of HIV infection. You can see that it’s a tough task to get it right.

It’s Not For You

Why isn’t this condom for you? It’s not that you shouldn’t be using one, of course. Researchers are working on this new condom mostly for women in countries where HIV is common. They also want this condom to be a low-cost alternative for women to get protection if their partner won’t wear a condom. In this way, women can take control of their sexual health.

Pick and Choose

With most of my readers being in the United States, Canada and Britain, you can pick and choose from a number of birth control options and condoms. For many of you, these will be provided without cost through your school or sexual health clinics. We’re lucky here to have access to all of these choices. We also live in a society where you can say “no” to sex without a condom and generally, our culture is one where your choice is respected.

So, shouldn’t women all around the world have choices too?

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A Disappearing Fingerprint June 10, 2009

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Diseases, Drugs, Easy As Pie, Human Body.
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Most of us probably don’t give much thought to our fingerprints. Generally, you won’t need to be fingerprinted unless you’ve committed a crime (I hope none of my readers are in that group!) or you’re having it taken for data purposes when you travel into a country such as the United States.

Where Did My Fingerprint Go?

But what happens if you’re all packed up to travel, you get to the border and you simply don’t have a fingerprint. It’s…gone! For people who have certain kinds of cancer, a side effect of a drug they may be taking can mean that they suffer from severe inflammation on their fingers. This leads to peeling, blistering and bleeding. Ouch! The ultimate result is they don’t have fingerprints.

Let Me Enter – I’m Harmless!

If that isn’t troublesome enough, the lack of a fingerprint can make traveling across country borders a tough task when fingerprinting is a requirement. In fact, when one man recently tried to enter the US, he was delayed for four hours because officials were really confused about why he didn’t have any fingerprints. Fortunately, once they figured out that he didn’t pose a threat, he was allowed to pass through.

Prescription Drugs Are Powerful

The drug that triggers this unusual side effect is called capecitabine. It’s a common anti-cancer drug and is used to treat head and neck cancer as well as breast, colorectal and stomach cancers. So, what should these patients do if they need to travel? It’s usually advised that they bring a letter from their doctor, which explains their cancer treatment and the lack of fingerprints.

It just goes to show how powerful side effects can be when it comes to prescription drugs. And, how a medicine can have such an unexpected effect on something like travel. While the case of the missing fingerprint sounds like something out of a forensics novel, we at least know that the culprit here is the drug capecitabine!

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Delaying Death February 8, 2009

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Diseases, Human Body, Science and Politics, Think About It.
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Cartoon credit: Nick Kim.

We all want to live a long, healthy life. But, this cartoon left me wondering if perhaps, we sometimes go too far in our quest to preserve life. Are there situations where a person’s life is simply so poor in quality due to their health condition – that keeping them alive represents an unfair fight with death?

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Genetic Engineering 101 June 9, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Diseases, Human Body, Nutrition and Health, Science in the Media, Technology, Think About It.
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Nick Kim – Genetic Engineering Cartoon

Credit: Nick Kim.

While the cartoon above by one of my favorite cartoonists – Nick Kim – might suggest I’m against the concept of genetic engineering, that isn’t exactly accurate. I’m more a fan of cautious progress, which means that I think we need to be careful about using this technology. The cartoon is a goofy one because it exaggerates some of the real concerns about genetic engineering. You might be wondering what those concerns are? Well, read on!

A Little Primer On Genetic Engineering

I figured it would be cool to give a brief primer on all of this genetic engineering stuff for those who have heard the term but maybe still aren’t too sure exactly what it means! First, think about your genes. Your genes direct lots of neat traits about you such as your eye and hair color. Genetic engineering works to meddle with the genes in an organism, which allows for control over that organism’s traits. You’re maybe thinking about this concept for humans, but the applications for genetic engineering are really diverse.

Some Potentially Good Stuff

With genetic engineering, there are some important benefits but there are also some aspects that concern scientists, researchers and many members of the public. There are even scenarios that are particularly worrisome and the cartoon above is an extreme representation of one of these consequences. But first, let’s check out some of the positive aspects.

Food is one way that genetic engineering can be used to provide benefits for humans. Through genetic engineering, we can create genetically modified organisms (GMOs). One reason scientists create GMOs is to increase the nutritional value of a food. Think about your own diet. Hopefully, you eat lots of different kinds of foods. Even if you don’t, you probably have access to variety – fruits, vegetables, meats and many more.

For a number of countries, the population there is living on a small range of staple foods. This means that they aren’t getting all of the nutrients they need for good health. However, a food such as a carrot can be engineered to have a nutrient it would not normally have or perhaps the nutrient content could be raised. GMOs can also result in fruits and vegetables that are resistant to pests and the poor weather conditions that can reduce the yields for farmers. Not only that, but genetic engineering has applications in medicine and health. Vaccines have been created by this type of technology and synthetic human insulin was developed through genetic engineering.

Uh Oh

Still, the benefits unfortunately don’t come without problems! The creation of GMOs is thought to potentially harm biodiversity, which means that there is less variety of life in the environment. Think about it – if a vegetable is engineered to be tolerant to a herbicide, the herbicide will kill weeds around the vegetable with less impact on the crop. But wait, if nearby animals feed on those weeds, they lose a valuable source of nutrition and are unable to survive. In this way, the biodiversity is harmed.

The Unexpected

Another fear is that GMOs could have unpredictable results. So, this could mean that the food might trigger allergies in a person allergic to nuts even though that person is eating soybeans. How can this happen? If a gene from nuts is inserted into soybeans – perhaps to increase the nutritional value of the soybean, then people who are allergic to nuts would think the soybean is fine to eat. Nope! The gene could prompt changes that trigger an allergic reaction.

Monsters Or Not?

Now, back to that cartoon! Ever seen the scary movie or read the book ‘Frankenstein?’ One of the perceptions of genetic engineering is that it might create a Frankenstein-like organism – a monster that has all sorts of creepy traits. While it’s true that there are issues around genetic engineering and unexpected or uncontrollable results, the comparison to Frankenstein is considered by some people to be a scare tactic that is far from accurately representing the risks of genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering is a complicated and controversial subject and you might have your own opinion about whether you support some or all of its applications. As with many types of technology, it is rapidly changing and we’re constantly learning new bits about genetic engineering. Whatever you think about it, try to get involved by learning more from the news, school, friends or your parents. One of the most powerful ways to improve the safety of genetic engineering is to be informed and challenge the stuff that worries us!

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A Human Nose Like You Have Never Seen It January 25, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Diseases, Easy As Pie, Human Body.
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CT Scan of Human Nose

Credit: Dr Kai-hung Fung of Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Hong Kong.

Who would have imagined that the examination of a 33-year-old Chinese woman for thyroid disease would result in the picture shown above? Dr Kai-hung Fung was a co-winner in the photography category for the 2007 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. The contest is sponsored by the journal Science and the National Science Foundation. The picture is actually a computed tomography (CT) scan image that shows the intricate parts of the human nose. Fung described why he chose to use this particular woman for the scan:

[She had] a very straight nasal septum and wavy maxillary sinuses. The anatomy was exceptionally beautiful.

To actually create the stunning image, Fung layered 182 CT images to create the multi-dimensional image you see above, where you’re actually looking upward at the sinuses from underneath the head. If you’re curious to see other winning pictures and read all about the contest, you can see more here.

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