The Ascendant Science

Medicine, it seems, is always the last science to the dance. While one guy was establishing the principles of electricity, one of his friends was being bled to death in the name of medicine. When radioactivity was discovered, health practitioners killed countless patients with it.

For most of the history of humanity, doctors were quacks. All of them. The discovery of tiny creatures that live inside us revolutionized the medical biz, but compared to the physics industry and its spinoffs, medicine was still mostly chanting and waving rattles.

Early in the last century, physical science went through a boom so loud our ears are still ringing today. The second half of the 20th century saw technology go nuts as those fundamental discoveries reached market.

That wave gave us the machines we needed to finally dig deep into how we work as organisms. Allow me to tell a rather long story to illustrate.

I have been working to lose weight. If you use the Internet, you’ve seen ads that read, “New scientific breakthrough can help you shed pounds!” and shit like that. I have long made a point of ignoring those ads, but I became curious about the scientific breakthrough. One night I clicked one of the ads.

I was presented with a video. Generally, when I want the answer to a specific question, I HATE video. But in this case, I understood that the video existed for the very reason I dislike them: the producer wants me to go through a lot of shit before providing me the nugget I want. From their point of view, video is perfect.

With the sound off, I watched as cartoon people were drawn and erased, showing a variety of body forms. Finally, a word came on the screen: Leptin. I stopped the video and fired up Wikipedia, where I was offered an explanation with lots of words I didn’t know. I knew enough of them, however, to understand that leptin was created by fat cells, and when leptin levels go up enough to be noticed by the brain, you feel full, and your metabolism cranks up. Injecting leptin into obese mice helps them lose weight; it doesn’t work so well in humans. Also, leptin was found in the 1990’s.

Then there’s Ghrelin, identified about ten years ago. Ghrelin makes you feel hungry, and slows your metabolism. The Wikipedia article about ghrelin identifies exactly which gene builds it, how it’s matched with a (perhaps unused) counterpart, and where it binds to receptors in the brain. There are drawings of the damn thing.

I trust the drawings, but it all seems vaguely magic.

I think this is just the beginning. The human organism is the most complex thing in the known universe, but we’re starting to figure out how it works. Next comes how to fix it when it’s broken; how to address the exact problem without mucking with other systems. We will move from drugs to viruses — those that attack specific bacteria and those that give the host the ability to produce a particular protein. It’s pretty cool.

That technology explosion? We’re starting to feel the biology echo, and it’s going to change everything.

Marketing Diseases

It’s October, and that means football players everywhere are wearing pink. Some in token gestures, others with shocking neon forearm and shin wraps. It’s part of an effort to end breast cancer.

Now, I’m all for that. Breasts should not get cancer. People with breasts should not get cancer. For the record, I’m against cancer. But, like General Motors, cancer sells under many names. Breast cancer is a killer, but lung cancer kills more women yet. Lung cancer also kills non-women. Lung cancer bites hard.

Maybe lung cancer doesn’t get the same attention because it’s perceived as a consequence of the afflicted’s choices. Hey, you chose to smoke, don’t ask me to feel bad for you. That’s tough to hear if you’re a non-smoker with lung cancer, but statistics are a bitch.

Because of the smoking connection, lung cancer is a tough sell. As a bunch we don’t pony up so well for diseases like that. Breast cancer is much more marketable, what with innocent women being brought down merely for having boobs. Most folks, myself included, are in favor of boobs, and are against women dying for having them.

But truly kicking one cancer’s ass will likely yield the keys to kicking the rest of them. Mad Cell Disease must have some common roots between manifestations. There are eleventy-bajillion different sorts of cancer, and it’s up to our generation to kick twelvety-bajillion tiny cancer nuts, and send them home to cry to their mommas. And then kick their mommas’ tiny cancer nuts.

We can fix this cancer thing, with the proper resolve. So forget about politics and don that pink ribbon with pride and vigor! Better yet, pony up a buck or two. It’s like voting, but your opinion actually matters. That lymph gland you save may be your own.

Penicillin – and What Comes Next

We’ve heard about the super-killer bacteria, the ones resistant to penicillin and all the derivatives. Nasty, nasty, little guys. But consider: those super-baceria are as dangerous as every damn infection anyone ever got one hundred years ago.

I mentioned once to friends that if I were to travel back in time to live in an earlier age, the thing I would miss most is dentistry. One of those assembled brought up antibiotics. To our generation the very idea of an infection is far less malign than what our great-grandparents knew. We worry about cancer today because we don’t die of starvation or infection first.

But now antibiotics are becoming ever-less effective. We just overdid it, and the nasty little guys still standing just give penicillin the finger. Are we foolishly squandering one of the greatest tools we’ve ever developed to improve the human condition? Absolutely. Antibiotics have to number among the seminal achievements of technology.

But check this out: There are viruses that attack specific bacteria. For instance, there’s a virus that attacks tuberculosis. Seriously! Now, that virus may not be gnarly enough to completely wipe out TB in a human, but that seems like a pretty promising start to a new way to fight infection. It also strikes me as poetic to fight germs by getting them sick.

Yeah, the fact that we can now imagine a world with home build-your-own-virus kits can be a little worrying. Let’s just make sure we’re afraid for the right reasons. Often when you hear about genetic engineering, hand-wringers focus on the possibility that a created life-form that was supposed to be benign mutates into something evil that destroys the world. I’m not saying it can’t happen, mind, but it’s far more likely that a virus that’s already dangerous to humans — flu or chicken pox or even the common cold — will make that leap than some organism who just hasn’t been practicing at hurting people very long. The viruses already inside us would require a much, much, muchmuchmuch smaller mutation to get to wipe-out-humanity status, and they have a way to make a living even if they don’t get the whole mutation in one jump.

No, the reasons to be afraid are twofold: One, bad people will have the technology to make a lot of people sick. They will start with flu and do it right. Two (and this is my own personal hand-wringing unsupported by any actual research), the therapy might work too well. Every once in a while humanity wipes out a pest only to discover it filled an important niche in the local ecosystem. Kill all the mosquitoes and suddenly beetles are eating your crops. (I have a very vague recollection of a chain of events somewhat like that, but don’t go quoting me here.) We could wipe out some bacterium only to discover that it had an important role in the world that we never guessed at.

But you know what? I’m pretty stoked about this. It will be a long time before the our buddies the bacteriophages are cheap enough to change the world health outlook, but a long time isn’t as long as it used to be.

Here’s an article that talks about other applications of custom viruses, and revives my hope of getting out of brushing my teeth.


Darth Vader returns!

My roommate Travis had a serious underbite, and he just had surgery to correct it. The procedure was called Upper Mandible something-or-other. I’d ask him what it was called but he wouldn’t be able to tell me anyway.

See, the thing about the upper mandible is that it’s attached to your head. Not just sort of attached, but really fused on there. Otherwise your upper teeth would move around, and we can’t have that. What happens if you wish to scoot your mandible forward a bit? You go to a doctor who starts by breaking your face.

Once you get your face good and broken, the doctor can scoot the ‘ol mandible around to his heart’s content. The next step in the chain of misery, however, is that once your choppers are correctly aligned, you want to nail down the mandible again so it goes back to its stodgy immobile old ways. This takes several weeks, during which time your mouth is wired completely shut.

Travis had his face broken Monday, and had to stay overnight in the hospital because he was bleeding too much and some of that was getting in his lungs. His pie hole is wired so tight he can barely even spit. When he got home yesterday his face was the size of a bowling ball and he had two tubes wedged into the sides of his mouth to help him breathe. He sounds like Darth Vader and looks kinda like him as well. You know, in the scene where he’s dying.

I believe the estimate for how long Travis will be eating through a little tube the he sticks back in the corner of his mouth is 6 weeks. Then, not only will his teeth line up like little pearly cheerleaders but I imagine he will be a new, trim version of Travis.

I’m not sure – I’m embarrassed to ask – but I think he got the surgery done on purpose.