Placebos: Tricking the Brain, Targeting the Body

Author: Shweta Ramdas
Editors: Charles Lu, Whit Froehlich, and Scott Barolo

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Placebo or Nocebo?

Last year, when I pooh-poohed my mother’s alternative medicine regimen, she said, “But these actually work well for me, because I believe in them!” My mother had just outsmarted me with science.

The placebo effect is one of the most remarkable yet least understood phenomena in science. It is a favorable response of our body to a medically neutral treatment (sugar pills, anybody?): in other words, a placebo is a fake treatment that produces a very real response. This is attributed to a physical reaction stemming from a psychological response to the administration of therapy. You could say that a patient sometimes gets better anyway—how many times have we waited out the common cold—and you would be right. This natural return to the baseline which can happen is not considered the placebo effect, which is an improvement in response to a treatment.

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Training T Cell Assassins

Author: John Charpentier

Editors: Zena Lapp, Theresa Mau, and David Mertz

 

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Figure 1. An encounter between a CAR-T cell and a cancer cell

 

The assassins have a description of their targets, who are hiding in plain sight among the non-combatants. The targets are guerillas who’ve infiltrated the neighborhood, overwhelming the local authorities and fomenting chaos. After only minutes on patrol, the assassins go on the attack, quickly identifying and eliminating the enemy without harming a single bystander.

This scenario may sound like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster, but it’s also a good metaphor to describe the activity of engineered immune cells against cancer cells. The assassins are called CAR-T (Chimeric Antigen Receptor-T) cells, and they receive their elite training at the hands of physicians and scientists, who teach them to recognize particular molecules on the surface of tumors.

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Regenerative medicine – Panacea or hype?

Author: Kaitlin Weskamp

Editors: Brittany Dixon, Zuleirys Santana Rodriguez, Scott Barolo

Zebrafish may not look impressive, but they can do something that no human can: regenerate large portions of organs that are damaged or lost. These fish, each about as long as your pinky finger, are able to regrow amputated fins, repair lesioned brains, and mend damaged eyes, spinal cords, and hearts. This remarkable ability to heal has fascinated scientists for some time, and in recent years, large strides have been made towards translating this regenerative ability to humans. Continue reading “Regenerative medicine – Panacea or hype?”

The “FADS2” diet: How vegetarian populations have different genomes

By Bryan Moyers

It turns out that what your ancestors ate can influence your ideal diet. At least, that’s what researchers at Cornell University and the University of Pune, in India, have announced after analyzing several hundred peoples’ genomes and blood samples in the United States and India.

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Science and social media: How “oversharing” is helping human genetics

By Christina Vallianatos

We live in an age where oversharing is overabundant. From your best friend’s artsy food pictures (#boozybrunch), to your coworker live-Tweeting her labor experience (“C-section in 20 minutes!”), it seems like we know the intimate details of everyone’s lives, all the time.

But what if some of those TMI moments weren’t necessarily “too much information”? What if they’re actually helping to solve one of the biggest dilemmas in human genetics: the identification of disease-causing genes?

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Virus vs. Bacteria: Enemy of my enemy

By Ada Hagan

In 1917, almost a century ago, a French-Canadian scientist, Felix d’Herelle, and his colleagues discovered bacteriophage. As I discussed in a previous post, bacteriophage (phage) are the viruses that prey on bacteria, turning them into viral factories. The battle between phage and bacteria has raged for millennia, resulting in a beautiful co-evolution where predator and prey each grapple for a temporary upper hand.

We’ve been exploring the depths of this complex relationship, searching for ways to use this enemy of our enemy as a tool against the bacterial infections that plague us. Along the way, we’ve found a number of different techniques to exploit these micro-allies.

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Defending human health: A thankless job

By Ellyn N. Schinke

Growing up, I was an avid soccer player. But, I never wanted the glory of being a team’s leading scorer. Defense was my home. That is until I scored my first goal. I was elated, but quickly realized that I had never in my time on defense received anywhere near the validation that I had for that goal. I could save goals or shut down the other team’s star player, but that usually went unnoticed. If anything, I was typically criticized for something I didn’t do more often than I was praised for something I did. This experience taught me something important – defense is a thankless job.

The same pattern that I saw in my soccer experience happens all the time with public health.

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