Tag Archives: sci-fi

Life imitates art: dolphin and dragon get prosthetic tails

The dragon Toothless (from the movie "How to Train your Dragon") was outfitted with half a prosthetic tail.

Are dragons and dolphins trendy? In recent movies, at least. “How to Train your Dragon” and “Dolphin Tale” both show animals – fictitious or otherwise – who lost their tails and received a prosthetic equivalent.

Dolphin Winter and her prosthetic tail. Image from Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics.

Prosthetics help not only humans

Years ago I started my undergraduate degree in Computer Science with the goal of designing prosthetics. I took human anatomy and digital circuit classes, and studied lots of biology and robotics. But you never know what life will throw at you, and in that case, it sent me the love for the microscopic world. I became a biophysicist and let’s just say I was more involved into designing drugs as oposed to designing prosthetics.

But the topic still fascinates me. Alongside with drugs and other medicine technology  (think vaccines, anesthetics, or surgery techniques), a prosthesis is something that can dramatically improve someone’s well being. And now, it can improve animal’s quality of life as well.

Dolphin Winter and her prosthesis in detail. Photo by Wired Magazine

Animal Robotics

In september, Wired magazine showcased an article depicting animal recipients of fantastic prosthetics (check out the gorgeous photo above). The piece was written by Emily Antes, and she describes the inspiration behind it in her blog. Among those animals is the dolphin Winter, who lost her tail (or fluke) in a fishing net, and was outfitted with a rubber-like tail and gel socket by the Hanger Team (specifically by Dr. Kevin Caroll and Dr. Dan Strzempka).

Dr. Kevin Caroll ajusts Winter's prosthesis. Photo by the Hanger group.

The Mechanics of a Tail

Dolphins have been on my mind lately. Coincidently or not, after I read the Diana Reiss book on dolphins mirror recognition test (which I wrote about here), my husband took me to the Baltimore Aquarium for my birthday, which houses Reiss’ lab. We were able to see her dolphins, many who participated as experiment subjects I read in her book. Before the Baltimore Aquarium, I had only seen dolphins swimming around my father-in-law’s boat – a pretty amazing experience, however I only got a glimpse of their dorsal fin. This is why, among all animals equiped with prosthesis, I became so captivated by Winter’s case.

Winter’s complete story can be found in the orthopedic clinic that designed her prosthesis. Creating a prosthetic tail was a huge undertaking: the team developed a fluke equivalent, plus a joint that connects it to the dolphin’s tail and allows moviment in several directions, thus mimmicking the animal’s swimming. Besides, the prosthesis needs to be adhered to the dolphin’s body with a substance that won’t dislodge when in contact with water. The team designed a chemical that keeps the entire prosthetic in place, and then named it Wintergel. In some of those amazing real life histories brought by science, there are already success stories of humans benefiting from Wintergel, such as athletes who suffer from friction caused by sweat.

This is vacation at my dad's house: researching dolphins on the big screen.

Science from Aquariums

There is a live webcam feed where you can see Winter swimming in her tank at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida. In order to watch, you will have to go through one commercial, but it is pretty fun to watch the dolphins swimming.

I have worked in an Aquarium and visited several others throughout the world. So it might not come as a surprise that I had a lot of fun watching the live feed from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The picture above shows how my dad and I  conducted our scientific observations: we kept the live feed on the TV throughout the day (in the Russo family, that is called vacation).

By the time I watched, Winter was swimming around without her prosthesis. We noticed, however, this fact didn’t keep her from swimming around and playing with her red ball (her companion seemed more interested in a blue ring toy). Sometimes it looked as if she curved her tail to the right. I am no expert, but it seems this dolphin is getting along. I asked the other Dr. Russo what would be the advantage of giving the dolphin a new tail  – asides from tremendous advancement in technology and insights into human prosthetics –  to which she hypothesized: so she can jump! What an interesting insight. Would love to see it live though. Maybe on my next trip to Florida.

Even fictional characters get prosthetics; Here's toothless'.

Fus ro dah?

The New York Times had a piece on fictional languages on TV last week. It mentions the one that started it all – Klingon on Star Trek – to the latest ones – Navi on Avatar, and Dothraki on Game of Thrones.

It turns out scholars are getting interested in creating complex, grammatically correct languages for TV (Lord of the Rings fans might already be familiar with this concept).

So, we’ve seen our share of elfic or alien languages, but what about Dragon? I am glad Skyrim is here to address that.

Remains to be seen how correct/accurate the Dragon language is..

(dragon lyrics & img via Matias)

Russia launches probe to Mars moon carrying exotic passengers

Update (Nov 11th): an engine failure is keeping Phobos-Grunt in Earth’s orbit. Roscosmos still has two weeks to attempt to fix it, but it is not looking good

(Photo credit: Russian Federal Space Agency)

Russia is launching its Phobos-Grunt (meaning Phobos-soil) mission today, November 8th, 2011. The probe will board one of Mars moons, Phobos, collect soil samples and return to earth. The journey will take 34 months and it is Russia’s 18th attempt to reach Mars. This time however, it will carry passengers of 10 different species.

(Phobos. Photo credit NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems)


I am accompanying the countdown for the launch on the left side menu of the Russian Federal Space Agency website. The site is in Russian and not much information is available on the English version. I attempted to apply rudimentary Russian skills – I took Russian 101 back in College – but I still have a hard time reading. I can tell you though, that the pink phrase in the top image means Фобос-Грунт, or Phobos-Grunt, and I identify the Roscosmos (Роскосмос), the nickname for the Russian Space Agency. (My husband also took Russian in college, and lets me know: “it says ‘project’ (проект) over there.”) . Translators can help somewhat but they don’t work for all the pretty schematics of the craft here (Update: it seems Roscosmos took down this page as of Nov 8th. It is back on). For comparison purposes, you can see a picture of the real thing here:

(Photo credit: Roscosmos)

Microorganism passengers

Asides from analyzing samples of soil from the martian moon, Phobos-Grunt will also transport passengers. There is still a long way to go before sending men to Mars – a manned mission would have to withstand radiation and other challenges – so initial experiments are being carried by transportin 10 species of microorganisms on the probe. This is called the LIFE experiment, where LIFE stands for Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, and you can see the small device that will house the microorganisms below:

(Photo credit: the Planetary Society)

Passengers include life form representatives from each of Earth’s domains: bacteria, archaea (single-celled organisms that were once categorized as bacteria), and eukarya (nucleated cellular individuals, such as animals, plants, etc.)

Life survives in extreme conditions

One of the life forms on board Phobos-Grunt is Pyrococcus furiosus, an archaeon found living inside an Italian volcano, whose optimal growth occurs at 100oC. It is incredible that life survives (and thrives) in hot, highly saline or high pressure environments. Life has been found in deep sea vents or in high salt concentration bodies of water. Could these organisms survive in space?

(Image by the author)

I devoted a chunk of my Phd into studying Pyrococcus woesei, one archaeon from the same genus as the P. furiosus that is going to space. The funny thing is, DNA and proteins from this creature are pretty much alike our own. The picture above is a comparison between pieces of DNA and protein from human (yellow), yeast (blue) and P.woesei. The overlap is almost perfect. Then how is P.woesei able to withstand high salt and temperatures (while we are not)?

(image by the author)

In one of the studies from my doctorate, my co-workers and I looked into the electric charges surrounding one of the P.woesei proteins. Apparently it has a clever mechanism in which negative charges are present (red squiggly things on image above)  to “capture” the salt ions on their environment. This and other features make it stable at temperatures higher than that of boiling water. Imagine what that can tell us about life in space!  Or, even on Earth, it can teach us better ways to store molecules or drugs without worrying about storage temperature.

Mars and its moons are very cold, so the purpose of shipping P. furiosus to Phobos is also temperature control. Asides from learning if the archaeon will survive radiation, the Planetary Society believes it will be able to survive the trip in case temperature controls on board Phobos-Grunt malfunction. Hopefully it will come back alive.

And about coming back…  

(Art by Adoc)

There was some controversy in regards to sending living organisms near Mars. Like something out of Star Trek (think Prime Directive), “Planetary Protection” guidelines aim to prevent biological contamination of planets. The creatures inside LIFE, though, were cleared. As long as they stay far enough away from Mars, and with the guarantee that they will not be left behind.

More detail on the list of species (bacteria Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus safensis, Deinococus radiodurans; eukarya Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Arabidopsis thaliana, tardigrades; and archaea Haloarcula marismortui, Pirococcus furiosus, Methanotermobacter wolfeii) can be found here, or from this article that came via Diego: Scientific American mentions five microorganisms being launched into space towards one of the martian moons .

Lungs in a box – Part II

This is a follow up to the Lungs in a Box story (click here for Part I) and also a collaborative post with guest Dr. Silvana Russo. Quick recap:

On the new season of House, in an episode named “Transplant”, the doctors place the lungs in this plexiglass box, so they can look at it, treat it, make jokes, say their lines, misdiagnose it a few times, harass the patient’s family, etc., before transplanting it into the patient. Here’s the team gathered around the boxed lungs:

And I also told you how that is laughable: an organ for transplant will be cooled in iced bags full of fluids. Outside of the donor’s body, the organ will die, so I showed you the biochemistry behind keeping it alive, as well as practical aspects (rushing it through traffic to deliver it to the patient, or even flying in commercial airlines!).

But that is when I came across this image, of real lungs in a box:

At first I thought it was very hard to believe and thought it had to be a joke. There is even a video of a set of lungs “breathing” inside a box (be advised before you click on it: not for the squeamish):

After a little more research, I found an LA Times article from earlier this year  describing “XVIVO”: a device with the purpose of keeping lungs alive for longer than hypothermia and preservative solutions can.

When consulted on his opinion of  XVIVO, Dr. Airton Schneider, thoracic surgeon and chief of surgery at the Lutheran Hospital in Porto Alegre, Brazil, stated “the lungs are placed in perfusion and ventilation for a few hours, which decreases injury. The results are exciting. It means we can transplant almost in an elective way. There is less rejection and the chance of reperfusion injury is decreased”.

Coincidently or not, XVIVO is part of the research from Brazilian surgeon Marcelo Cypel, now working in Toronto. He published his research results at the New England Journal of Medicine. In the paper, titled “Normothermic Ex Vivo Lung Perfusion in Clinical Lung Transplantation”, the XVIVO device (actually called “normothermic ex vivo lung perfusion”, or EVLP) is used in 20 lung transplants. This new technique can be applied for lungs that could have been discarded due to tissue damage (which  can be repaired while in the perfusion system), and can store it for at least 12 hours at room temperature. The group observed similar results when compared to transplants with conventionally selected lungs. This way, lungs can be kept alive for longer until crew is gathered; can be repaired, and more donors can be used.

There is no mention of cost in this technique. In Brazil, despite shortage in resources, almost all transplants are covered by the universal healthcare system, who pays the hospital approximately 70.000 reais (equivalent to 35.000 U.S. dollars) for a lung or liver transplant (if you think about it, hospitalization due to pneumonia in the US costs “merely” 20.000). This amount covers the surgery, staff, and immunosuppressant drugs. Factoring the XVIVO would undoubtedly increase this cost, but in the other hand would keep lungs alive for longer, and be able to use more donors. Apparently, the system is already in use in the developed world (with the exception of the US, where XVIVO is still waiting for FDA approval).

For Dr. Schneider, XVIVO is “the future, but right now. Imagine removing an organ in one major city, packaging it and shipping to a different city. Then perfuse, transplant, go.”

It seems Dr. House was not so absurd after all. Shame on me.

Lungs in a box

I’ve been always irritated at the level of nonsense in House episodes. I still enjoy the writing, the characters, and many great story arcs (like the one where House is in a rehab facility), but can’t avoid suffering through ridiculous diagnoses and stupid tests. In the “Transplant” episode of the new season, I thought they reached a whole new level of absurdity. I couldn’t find an image online, so I captured a screen shot: lungs in a box.

Dr. House is brought to diagnose lungs and treat them before they can be transplanted. The lungs rest quietly inside glass boxes and they have 12+ hours before the next patients dies. Or something. This image made me laugh. In real life, donor organs are prepared and placed in ice bags inside old storage boxes and hauled immediately for transplant. Organs do not last long outside the donor’s body, so they are quickly cooled to slow down metabolism and extend their lifetime. But placed in a glass box? B-movie type science fiction.

When an organ is removed from a donor’s body, circulation stops and the tissues become deprived of oxygen and nutrients. This stage is named “ischemia” and it is the main cause of injury to the organ tissues. The longer the organ stays ischemic, the more extensive the injury will be. To slow down this process, the organ is cooled to hypothermia, which can also cause injuries. After transplant, function is restored and the blood flow restarted in an event named reperfusion – actually the most significant cause of injury.

Ischemia, hypothermia and reperfusion can each trigger a cascade of events. Most importantly, cellular membrane permeability is increased, which contributes to cell swelling due to indiscriminate entry of several molecules. This completely throw off the chemical balance inside a cell, where proteins and enzymes malfunction; intracellular pH decreases; ionic composition of the cell changes (potassium moves out of the cell and sodium floods in); calcium pours in. During reperfusion, oxygen free radicals are generated, causing cellular injury. Phew, how’s that for a chain reaction?

According to Mukjerjee et al, cooling the organ from 37°C to 0°C slows metabolism by a factor of 12. Besides cooling, the organ is also flushed with a preservative solution, to help counteract the injuries mentioned above, and placed in sterile bag filled with crushed ice. Many preservative solutions have been devised, but they mostly contain a cocktail of substances: osmotic agents (to prevent cell swelling), electrolytes (to regulate osmotic effect), metabolic inhibitors (to suppress degradation of cellular proteins), antioxidants (to capture free radicals) and many others. Studies have shown that, in presence of the Euro-Collins preservative solution (high concentration of potassium, phosphate and glucose), organs last longer than in hypothermia alone.

Unlike Dr. House’s lungs, the storage time (in hypothermia) for organ varies is about 5 hours for heart, 40-50 hours for kidneys; 5-15 hours for pancreas and 6-12 hours for liver. In the case of the lung, Mukjerjee states that “the maximum safe interval for the lung to remain ischemic, even when cooled, has not been defined, but 6 hours is the selected limit, and the longest cold ischemic time was 9-10 hours”.

So you can see how crucial it is to get the organs to patients immediately. Due to short time of organ storage, transplant is an urgent procedure. It then becames a logistic problem, where hospital, surgeons, staff and equipment have to be available and ready to go. In the US and in most of the developed world, many hospitals have their own helicopters or private jets equipped to fly to the donor and bring the organs back. In other places, they are not so lucky.

Dr. Silvana Russo (does this name sound familiar? She is my sister), worked as an anesthesiologist in liver and kidney transplants for Hospital de Clinicas in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Dr. Russo believes a lung has to be transplanted within 4 hours of removal, but the actual limits are unknown: everybody tries to do it as urgently as they can. When a donor is found, surgeons and crew are immediately put on call. The time spent between removal and transplantation then depends on variables as mundane and unpredictable as traffic. (Brazilian traffic is now so bad that motorcycle messengers are the norm. Even firefighters and first responders use motorcycles to escape horrible Brazilian traffic).

For example, a transplant group in St Louis has their private jet with a dedicated pilot. However, the situation in Brazil is radically different: the surgeon himself would go to the neighboring town to pick up the organ, and bring it back in a cooler. (Surgeons prefer to fetch and harvest the organ themselves, in order to avoid removal mishaps: other doctors might cut arteries short, making it difficult to place the organ into a new patient). Dr Russo has heard of a case where a donor liver was available in the Amazon (yes, she means the rainforest, more than 4000 miles away from the hospital). The liver was placed in a cooler and flown in via commercial airline, with the surgeon waiting for it in the airport arrivals.

By now we have imagined the scene: lungs in coolers, being rushed in airplanes and motorcycles. So, lungs resting in a box.. Science fiction, right? That’s when I came across this picture online from Science Daily:

Image from University Health Network

Hoax? Reality? Does life imitate art, or even, does life imitate House episodes? I’ll elucidate that question in tomorrow’s post, where I will also show a video (not for the faint of heart) of lungs breathing in a box!

Update: Part II is posted here.

A few cheetah-speed* notes

It is now  ~three weeks since I started this blog, and I thought I could give you some quick notes and some insights on what is to come:

  • This week I decided to skip the Terra Nova review. Apparently the dinosaur budget ran out and the last episode was all about littlegirlsaurus. For those still eager, the Bad Astronomer posted his Terra Nova review. In this case the focus is, obviously, on the astronomy depicted by the show (specifically the size of the moon and position of the stars).

  • This came in via James: Terra Nova drinking game. Take a drink when:

Someone leaves compound when they are not supposed to,
Blood and guts in the infirmary,
Teen boy acts put out,
Sixers face off with Novans,
Dinosaurs don’t die when shot with heavy weaponry,
Legless man shows up and says something pithy.

Die of alcohol poisoning.

(I am a health professional so I don’t endorse drinking a shot at each Terra Nova cliche. How about.. eating a vegetable instead?)

Iguana at the National Zoo, photo by the author

  • The Iguana above is not a dinosaur, but after I went to the Smithsonian National Zoo last Sunday, I have a lot to report. Coming up in future posts.

House episode - Transplant

  • This screen shot is a teaser for the review I am preparing of last week’s episode of House, named “Transplant”. I got so caught on the research that I decided to make into a larger post and interview a thoracic surgeon. My sister (the other, actually the first, Dr. Russo in the family) is also collaborating on this post.

  • I am compiling a list of Science, geek and sci-fi Halloween costumes. (Pixar lamp via Marina). It is growing a bit large and I might divide it into two parts. It might help whoever still lacks in ideas..

That’s it for now, coming back tomorrow with more.

*the cheetah is the fastest land animal and can run up to 75 mph!

It’s a bird… It’s a plane… It’s a Terra Nova Pterosaur

Quetzalcoatlus from paleoartist Mark Witton.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to watch Terra Nova. What a change: two weeks ago I was anxiously waiting for it in front of the TV; last night, however, husband and I debated watching House instead.

Even though I was willing to overlook the flaws on the first episode (read about the excitement here), the plot and the storyline keep getting worse. James Poniewozik accurately described it, for Time magazine, as being written by a 5-year old boy:  “I want to make a TV show about the future! It will have lasers and guns and computers and time travel! And but ALSO they are living in a jungle, and the bad people want to take them over! There’s an army guy and a policeman, and they catch the bad guys! AND!!! DINOSAURS!!!

So I will stick to what I like about this show, which is its collection of dinosaurs. Last week’s episode of Terra Nova seemed to be inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds and showed us a flock of pterosaurs terrorizing the colony.

Pterosaur from Terra Nova

It might sound counter intuitive, but pterosaurs are NOT dinosaurs.  Pterosaurs are flying reptiles from the Cretaceous period. (The dinosaur group includes reptiles with erect posture and birds). This image from the Smithsonian blog Dinosaur Tracking can better illustrate this relationship:

(by Brian Switek)

I would also like to quote Brian Switek when he says “A pterosaur is no more a dinosaur than a goldfish is a shark”. That being said, the pterosaur is the first vertebrate to achieve flight. This group also contain the largest flying animals on earth, such as the Quetzalcoatlus on top of this post. His neck alone was 10 feet long, and its wingspan was at least 40 feet (compare to an average human on Mark Witton’s illustration above).

Pteranodon by paleoartist Larry Felder

Perhaps the most well known species of pterosaurs is the Pterodactylus. This fossil skeleton was the first to be found and catalogued. Pteranodons like the illustration above starred in Jurassic Park, however, they had many inaccuracies. Pterosaurs in movies, like Jurassic Park, or the undiscovered species on Terra Nova, are usually portrayed with scaly, leathery wings as opposed to having a very muscular flying membrane covered in fur or feathers.

Other features are also misrepresented, such as presence of teeth (pteranodons lacked teeth). One of the most irritating inaccurate representation of pterosaurs is still the wing attachment. Even though there is some discussion in regards to the shape and attachment of wings, the main consensus is that they were attached to the animal’s ankles, due to grooves found in those bones.

Pterosaur wing shapes and attachment, image from Elgin et al. provided by Dave Hone.

Was anyone able to see how the wings were attached on the Terra Nova pterosaurs? Did they get it right? Given that these creatures are grey, gloomy, lizard-like versions of the fantastic and diverse group of pterosaurs, I’m not willing to bet on that…