Anatomy lesson at PLOS

You can’t learn anatomy from a book.

For a while I’ve been wanting to write about anatomy lessons and the use of human cadavers. Throughout that same period, I’ve been struggling with this story. How to approach it?

Meanwhile, my sister and I visited the Mutter Museum and its medical oddities. The early drawings of human anatomy from the 18th and 19th century strike me more as art than science.

Like this:

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An absurd rendition of a human skeleton next to a rhino, because why not. Via Drawing Seeing.

So I wrote the story about cadavers, and and based it on personal experience. I had extra encouragement by mentor George Johnson, and finally published it on Sci-Ed PLOS blog:

It was a typical muggy day on a tropical summer afternoon. I walk down the stairs, straight to the basement. The building’s architecture follows the Portuguese Colonial style. There is no air conditioning, despite the 90 degree heat. The strong smell of formaldehyde is the first thing to notice. It is everywhere, even in the hallway and stairs. I’m used to it by now and it doesn’t bother me, not nearly as much as the humid heat. The smell changes with the weather though, and becomes much more aggressive in that AC-deprived Brazilian basement. I walk the hallway until I get to the last door on the right. Waiting inside are a few classmates, and our subject of study, which lies atop aluminum tables covered with white sheets.

Continue reading after the jump…

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What do you say when you meet a NASA astronaut?

I was a rare kid who never wished to become an astronaut. Instead, I dreamed about becoming the people who respond when astronauts say “Houston we have a problem”.

I had to tell that to astronaut Mike Fossum.

It was in the bar after a day full of NASAsocial activities that I summoned the courage. At moment I morphed in the embarrassing fan, a techie equivalent of crazed Justin Bieber teenagers. It was then that I poured my heart in adoration. I had to tell him. “I live vicariously through you”, I said.

***

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With Mike Fossum and NASAsocial fans in front of a space station replica.Photo by NASAsocial.

I received an invitation from NASAsocial headquarters to visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston. My heart almost stopped with the chance to see mission control with my own eyes. Owen Software made it possible by sponsoring the trip, so I spent a day marveling at the Soyuz capsule, Saturn V rocket, and space station replicas. I even drove a Mars rover simulator. But I was not prepared to have such a heartfelt conversation with one of the icons of the space program: an astronaut.

****

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Mike gave us a private tour of the space station. Photo by the author.

When I said “I live vicariously through you”, I meant “you” as in an astronaut collective. I wanted to tell Mike, as a proxy for the body of astronauts and cosmonauts, that I’ve followed their journeys from the ground.

Mike Fossum has three space flights and seven spacewalks under his belt. It was after a few engineering degrees, air force experience, and seven tryouts that he was accepted into the astronaut program in 1998.

I was honest. “I don’t have what it takes to be an astronaut,” I paused in embarrassment, “I don’t have that personality.” At this point Mike looks at me more attentively (perhaps trying to appease the crazed fan expression?) I explained I always wished to be the observer and the supporter. “I wished to be the one who answers when you call Houston with a problem, which is why I became a scientist”.

I said my piece. I was relieved; it was out of my chest. I could go home now. Step out of the bar and into a plane back to DC. My job was done, and my 5-year old self rejoiced. But Mike kept the conversation going, he told me something I’ll never forget.

****

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On our private tour, Mike listens to a question about his sleeping quarters at the station (a padded wall directly behind him). Photo by the author.

At a neuroscience lab that day in Houston, one of the researchers explained that astronauts have to re-adapt to gravity when they return to Earth. They even have balance and coordination issues, and therefore are not allowed to drive for a while. “They have to be chauffeured around for three weeks, which astronauts hate because they are very driven people”, the neuroscientist told us. My first instinct was incredulity: who wouldn’t love to be chauffeured around? I would, which is probably why I’m not an astronaut. Later that same day, astronaut Mike Fossum proudly told me he started sneaking out to drive only four days after he was back on Earth.

*****

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Mike Fossum. Photo by the author.

Mike asked me what kind of scientist I am. “Biophysicist”, I said, “I work with DNA, proteins, molecules.”

That’s when he tells me “Well, I could never do what you do – I don’t have that personality”. An astronaut told me HE COULD NOT DO WHAT I DO. The man floats in space in a glorified diving suit tethered to a rope between him and oblivion so he can build us a flying research lab. He proceeded to shake my hand, enveloping it with both his hands, and paused. His casual tone was briefly replaced by an ominous one. “You are an explorer too – of microscopic worlds – you are a scientist.”

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Astronaut Mike Fossum and author at the end of a NASAsocial day. Photo by NASAsocial.

Can a museum object be more like a dog? New post at PLOS Sci-Ed

Dog owners out there may sympathize whit this: say you are outside walking your dog and are approached by friendly strangers who ask to pet him. Your dog just mediated a conversation with a stranger that would have not happen otherwise.

Like a dog, a museum object offers an excuse for strangers to have a conversation.

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Giant drill at the Perot Museum of Science and Nature. Photo by Lara Solt at Dallas News.

This giant drill illustrates hydro frakking at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science’s energy hall.  If this seems controversial it’s because it is: is the museum celebrating such technique, or opening up for debate among visitors?

For more examples and ideas, read the entire post at PLOS Sci-Ed.

“I got into the clinical trial… I was lucky”. A story about luck, drugs, and cancer treatments.

I had tears in my eyes searching through my emails from three years ago. One of my close friends (and brother of my cartoonist bff) had emailed my sister asking for medical advice. What my friend Junior was after, was a second opinion for his father. He said “our family is in panic since we heard the diagnosis… At home, we are all terribly anguished”, to which my sister replied, “call anytime and we’ll try to help – after all, you are part of the family.”

Junior’s father had been diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, the most common form of non-Hodgkin lymphomas, and they were after a treatment. This was Brazil, where not all drugs are readily available. That’s where my sister comes in: she is a doctor and searched around for hematologist colleagues and experimental treatments. My friend however, is the one who did all the legwork. After several doctors and opinions, he got his father Beco the treatment he needed.

Fast-forward to three years later, where Beco and I reminisce and he tells me more about the ordeal. He describes the initial warning signs of  the disease: “fever, night sweats, and rashes… I discovered my diagnostics by chance, during a tomography exam to find kidney stones.”

The recommended chemotherapy treatment for non-Hogdkin lymphoma (a form of cancer where B-cells are overactive) is a drug cocktail called CHOP. Each letter in the acronym represents a different drug, which are combined with the goal to attack cancer from multiple fronts (e.g., one drugs blocks DNA while another prevents B-cells from multiplying).

Rituximab is a new drug (an antibody that binds B-cell membrane proteins), which can be coupled with the CHOP regimen. Beco tells me on an email that “the difference of coupling rituximab with CHOP is that it gives the patient three extra years in remission.”

The drug targets CD20 proteins on the membrane of B-cells. We don’t know for sure what function those CD20 protein is performing, but it is believed that it acts as a gate for the passage of calcium ions into B-cells. Researchers have looked into that binding mechanism, in which rituximab binds to its target specifically on amino acids 170-173 and 182-185. To get a snapshot of the drug in action, Du et al. obtained an X-ray image of the crystallized rituximab bound with a piece of CD20. The researchers grabbed a small chunk of the CD20 protein corresponding to amino acids 163 to 187 (represented as the tiny string on the image below).

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A panel: Rituximab is represented in yellow and green ribbons. The blue string represents the peptide extracted from CD20. /15073.long B panel shows electron representations, and C panel, a close-up. Image credit: Du et al,

Beco got access to rituximab combined with CHOP, or R-CHOP. He was even able to get a newer generation of drugs, bendamustine. But that’s because my Junior and his family found and signed him in to a clinical trial managed by an American laboratory. “I got into the clinical trial to use rituximab combined with bendamustine, which is a more efficient chemotherapy drug with lighter side effects. The latter is not even available in Brazil – I was lucky!”

Because of his treatment, Beco tells “Since my son found the clinical trial I participated in, the lymphoma is under control. I’m still being treated with rituximab every two months for another year.” And a similar outcome is what we would like to see for other Brazilian patients.

Rituximab is available in Brazil, but not listed under the universal healthcare system. That means that lymphoma patients are treated with CHOP, but not R-CHOP, which increases their lifespan. “It is not a matter of cost, because those patients and the system will spend more money in extra chemotherapy drugs, and will die earlier.”

A Brazilian non-profit organization, Abrale, used a petition to collect signatures of rituximab supporters. The Brazilian ministry of health asked for at least 50.000 signatures to consider adding the drug to the universal health care system. As of the past few weeks, the petition gathered 61.000 signatures.

Beco is now in remission for the past three years. “We hope it stays quiet for a little longer”. And now, it may as well stay quiet for many more Brazilian patients.

Book Review – One Well and Tree of Life

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The water you drank today may have rained down the Amazon rain forest five years ago… A hundred thousand years ago, it may have been frozen solid in a glacier. And a hundred million years ago, it may have quenched the thirst of a dinosaur.”

The inevitable cycle of water in our planet was described above by Rochelle Strauss, in her book One Well: the Story of Water on Earth.

Rochelle is a museum designer and science aficionado. One of her main interests is bringing a message of conservation to children. She recently sent me her two books, One Well and Tree of Life: the Incredible Biodiversity of Life on Earth. The books are beautifully illustrated (by Rosemary Woods and Margot Thompson, respectively), and their clear and concise language reflect their target audience. Rochelle writes for kids of 8-14 years old, but her books can resonate with any of us.

Both books have an underlying theme: how everything is interconnected. In Tree of Life, the author emphasizes how all organisms (plants, lichens, plankton, mammals, and insects) are part of the same web. In One Well, she explains how water cycles through our planet, and highlights our fresh water consumption.

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Tree of life offers a great notion of diversity of life. The pages show increasing number of species, leading toward complexity. At the same time, the author never loses track  of the species relationship in the tree (almost like the “you are here” type maps). I can see Rochelle capturing a child’s attention by telling us of biggest or smallest species inside a tree “branch”. She tells us that “the largest butterfly to flutter by is the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly. Found in New Guinea, …it is bigger than a dinner plate.”

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In my work I write a lot of content for young audiences, specifically to high schoolers. It can be tricky to communicate science to such a young crowd. One of our solutions is to use concrete, vivid examples that describe science research. Rochelle Strauss does just that over her pages. She uses examples that reach young minds and impress older ones too. Rochelle tells us that a birch tree “drinks” 300 liters, or two bathtubs, of water. Or that there’s more water in earth’s soil and atmosphere than in all rivers combined. In an email, she wrote me that “as for the water usage facts – I know they are quite incredible aren’t they? I actually had so much fun researching and then finding equivalencies to help kids grasp the magnitude of some of the numbers.” I had a lot of fun reading them too.

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The books also carry a powerful message of conservation. That dinner plate butterfly above is endangered due to habitat destruction. We use a lot of potable water for mundane activities (e.g., “it took 130 liters of water to make your bike”) in comparison to other countries without as much water for their disposal. One of the most alarming facts depicted in the story is that North Americans use 55 buckets of water per day, while Indian use seven, and Ethiopians, one.

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Rochelle offers solutions (there is a “notes to parents, guardians, and teachers” section on how to help), but above all, she offers a stimulating account of our natural world.

In my favorite excerpt, we learn that “the average white cloud weigh about twice as much as a blue whale”. A blue whale is a good indicator of scale. That kind of analogy not only makes the topic more approachable, but memorable. “The water you brushed your teeth today may have been the spray of a beluga whale 10 years ago.” I believe these vivid images, more than facts, are what sparks a child’s interest in science.

Find Rochelle Strauss on twitter (@rochellestrauss), on her website, or on Amazon.

New post on PLOS Sci-Ed: Space Education

I have a new post for PLOS’ Science Education blog:

“Life Support Team! We only have 3 minutes of oxygen remaining on the Space Station!”, shouts Commander Libby. Wearing a blue flight suit with middle schoolers clinging to her arm, Libby Norcross is a space enthusiast and teacher at the Challenger Center. She takes groups through the space simulators at the center, while (why not) coming up with some emergencies like the one above.

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Libby Norcross, educator at the Challenger Center. Photo by nasafans tumblr.

Learning from immersive scenarios

The Challenger Center is a learning institution geared towards STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and offers immersive experiences to children. According to the center, they are an “…educational space simulator and STEM resource center that positively impacts students, businesses, and our community by fostering real-world skills—teamwork, communication, problem solving—in a totally immersive learning environment.”

Continue reading after the jump…

De-extinction: the wooly mammoth is the biophysicist’s cancer

On my first day teaching bioinformatics, I brought Michael Crichton’s book Jurassic Park to class. I showed the students a DNA sequence from the book  – a long string of A, T, C, and G that was supposed to form part of one dinosaur gene. As a class exercise, I asked students to convert that string into a protein sequence (it seems more bioinformatics teachers had the same idea).

The students were instantly intrigued. I attribute that class’ success to Jurassic Park. Both book and movie are embedded in our collective imagination. Who isn’t enthralled by the possibility of engineering dinosaur DNA and bringing the lumbering giants back to life?

Can we bring back the Tasmanian tiger? Photo by the author.

Can we bring back the Tasmanian tiger? Mike Archer at TEDx. Photo by the author.

I was able to attend the TEDx DeExtinction event in DC, thanks to an awesome boss and crew, who came along. There, molecular biologists and conservationists discussed the possibility of resurrecting extinct animals, while fans vouched for their favorite species (hello, dire wolf). The lecturers presented the technology, while ethicists and ecologists watched in horror.

The passenger pigeon is another candidate for de-extinction. Photo by the author.

The passenger pigeon is another candidate for de-extinction. Ben Novak at TEDx. Photo by the author.

There was talk of bringing back the wooly mammoth, passenger pigeon, bucardo, Tasmanian tiger and others. But like speaker and “molecular paleontologist” Beth Shapiro points out, we are still very far from step one. No surprise here. I went to this event not expecting to see a herd of mammoths any time soon. I went there to marvel at technology  and its applications. Or, like my colleague described it, “the moon race for biologists”.

Beth Shapiro is cautiously optimistic. Photo by the author.

Beth Shapiro is cautiously optimistic. Photo by the author.

Conservation efforts can benefit from de-extinction technologies. Lack of genetic diversity among captive breed populations is a serious problem. Breeding programs and SSPs (species survival plan) keep a studbook: a record of the genetic make up of all individuals of that species. Pairings are carefully calculated in order to increase genetic diversity. TEDx host Stewart Brand (check out his Reddit AMA) believes de-extinction can help with that: “de-extinction technology… can be applied immediately to help diagnose and treat genetic issues with endangered populations of living species. Viable cryopreserved DNA … can be used to reintroduce genetic variability in ‘genetic bottleneck’ situations for animals now rare and facing inbreeding problems.” And that’s not all. Cloning or iPCS (induced pluripotent stem cells) are technologies with immense potential, with applications that range from tissue engineering to livestock breeding, and perhaps even to support reproduction.

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Stewart Brand at TEDx. Photo by the author.

Funding dictates what research projects will go on and which ones will die.  And that is why I’m ok if a woolly mammoth or Jurassic Park-based creature functions as research ambassadors. Scientists depend heavily on policymakers and public support to guarantee funds for their work. It is increasingly difficult to obtain funds for basic research or anything that doesn’t have the word “cancer” or “heart disease” attached to it. Throughout my PhD I happened to work with both most of the time (design of protein inhibitors for breast cancer, and angiogenesis molecules for cardiovascular disease). I mean most of the time: when an application is not so direct or obvious (e.g., of studying the folding of a protein) we always highlight its future, potential, exciting, indirect and perhaps one day possible outcome (e.g., better understand Alzheimer’s). The woolly mammoth is the biophysicist’s cancer, and the passenger pigeon is his heart disease. I believe de-extinctioners were trying this PR approach.

Biotechnology for de-extinction. Photo by the author.

George Church explains the biotechnology behind de-extinction. Photo by the author.

But did it backfire? I saw many ecologists and ethicists disapproving of the entire thing. Are they spreading the fear? Is fear of science creeping out and reaching our scientific and (scientific-supporting) community? As Brand pointed out in his AMA, “fear has been institutionalized, not only by government but by (…) environmental groups broadcasting irrational fear of GMOs and radiation (to the detriment of genuine green goals like more wild lands and damping of climate change)”.

Very much alive (i.e. non extinct) blue hyacinth Margaret was present at the event. Photo by the author.

Very much alive (i.e. non extinct) blue hyacinth macaw Margaret was present at the event. Photo by the author.

George Mallory was a mountain climber and one of the English pioneers to Mount Everest expeditions on the 20’s. Why take on such endeavor? It was risky, challenging, and with no direct application. So, “why climb the Everest?”, he was asked.

“Because it is there.”

Sometimes it is all the motivation we need.