Showing posts with label medical research. Show all posts
Showing posts with label medical research. Show all posts

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Glowing cats

Over the last week or so, countless articles in the media have described the use of fluorescent kittens in a US laboratory—the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota—that carries out research aimed at protecting humans against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

I'm amazed and happily impressed by the apparent absence of critical fuckwit comments of the following kind:

Fluorescence isn't mentioned anywhere in the Bible. What is God going to think of this diabolical research?

What are cats going to think about the nasty idea of being fluorescent? Won't it screw up their ability to sneak up on mice?

What are certain human beings going to think about being expected to glow in the dark if they want to avoid catching AIDS?

Isn't there a danger that this green fluorescence might rub off onto the hands of children who cuddled such cats?

Seriously, many articles fail to explain—not clearly enough, in any case—that the jellyfish gene responsible for the fluorescence has nothing whatsoever to do with the monkey gene (obtained from a Rhesus macaque) that is being tested, using laboratory cats, in the fight against AIDS. The fluorescence thing is a mere marker. The kittens have been genetically modified in such a way that, either both genes—the jellyfish gene and the macaque gene—are present together, simultaneously, or both genes are absent. When lab workers, using a microscope, come upon cells that glow (extracted, in that case, from a kitten that was fluorescent when illuminated by a light source), then they can be sure that those cells also contain the all-important monkey gene. For the moment, the experimental work is carried out only upon fluorescent cells, to determine that they do indeed resist AIDS. Later, the moment of truth will be attained when live glowing kittens are injected with the feline form of HIV, referred to as FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus). If everything worked well, it would be good news for cats. And the next step would consist of seeing whether the monkey gene could be used successfully upon humans… none of whom would be expected, of course, to glow in the dark.

Finally, I'm not sure that my brief attempt at explaining this research is any better than what you find in tabloid stories about fluorescent cats.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Smart kids can win a cancer

Why is it that almost everything in our modern world—the best of all possible worlds, as Voltaire's optimistic Candide once assured us—seems to backfire? A delightful plastic puzzle for kids is composed of numbered squares, which the child is expected to assemble. What could be better in the way of home training for a prospective Einstein?

The only problem is that babies who play around with this particular variety of plastic shit could well pick up a cancer… which would obviously limit considerably their possibility of formulating new interpretations of the much sought-after Theory of Everything. Their cancer-ridden bodies might, of course, be useful for researchers attempting to combat this plague… but that's not exactly what we generally mean when we talk about bringing up intelligently our children to play a role in the modern world of science and technology.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bionic heart will soon start throbbing

The old-fashioned American gesture of holding a hat over one's heart is hilarious, like the opening of some kind of Stetson song-and-dance routine in a musical comedy.

To my mind, it's ridiculous. It doesn't correspond to any reality, not even symbolically. On the other hand, I can imagine a society in which a male, swearing an oath of allegiance in the name of his biological forefathers and offspring, would be expected to place his hat over his genitals. But the ideal symbolic place for a hat, in such a ritual, would be up above his brain, in its normal position, sitting on top of his skull. As far as solemn oaths are concerned, that's where all the action takes place, rather than in your gut or your genitals or even your heart. Many common folk still seem to respect the medieval belief that the heart is the origin of human sentiments, whereas the brain is merely a cold calculating organ. But it's time to abandon antiquated symbolism such as hats held over hearts, which is just as silly as astrology, superstition and religious ritual. I'm not suggesting that laws should be passed to prohibit such behavior. I'm merely saying that antiquated antics of this kind should be interpreted by intelligent observers as external signs of relative stupidity, like fumbling with rosary beads, or making a sign of the cross on your breast.

The heart is in fact a rather simple pumping gadget, of a vastly lower order than the brain. These days, in a surgical environment, the usual work of the heart can be taken over by a machine that looks like this:

Needless to say, neurosurgeons have no equivalent machine to replace the patient's brain during an operation. On the other hand, the problem with a typical heart-lung machine is that a patient can't expect to move along the hospital corridors with the apparatus trailing along behind him. Before leaving the operating theater, a patient has to get back to using his own patched-up heart, or maybe a donor's revived organ. Obviously, what we need is an artificial heart that a patient can "wear" in his chest in much the same way that you might walk around carrying a portable computer in a bag thrown over your shoulder.

The design, production and installation of such an artificial heart has been the constant challenge of the 75-year-old French cardiologist Alain Carpentier, who founded a company with the aim of developing such a prosthesis. [Click the photo to see the Wiki article about this celebrated international medical figure.]

Today, Carpentier's invention has reached the stage of an operational prototype that has been tested successfully in animals:

Often, we hear people say despondently that, if only their leaders were to invest as much money in medical research as they invest in aeronautics, space and defense, then citizens would lead far better lives. Well, Alain Carpentier's artificial heart is based, to a large extent, upon fallout from the domains I've just mentioned. Fifteen years ago, the professor struck up a partnership with Jean-Luc Lagardère, chairman (now deceased) of a vast industrial group that had evolved from the renowned French high-tech corporation named Matra, which manufactured a wide range of electronic products that included missiles and minicomputers. Professor Carpentier is a distinguished medical researcher, who was awarded the Albert Lasker prize in 2007 for his research on heart valves, which resulted in products made out of chemically-treated pig tissues.

When the latest white-skinned model of the artificial heart is placed upside-down on a table, so that its tubes are hidden, it looks a little like a freshly-prepared chicken ready to be roasted. Some chicken!

Clinical testing of the device on human patients will start in 2011, and it should normally be ready for real transplants by 2013.

If we telescope together the last three-quarters of a century in such a way that the US president behind Hiroshima and Nagasaki were able to become a patient of Professor Carpentier, we create the setting for a fascinating philosophical question. Let's suppose that Harry Truman were to be fitted with an artificial heart. Would it still be appropriate for him to place his Stetson over the electronic device whenever he listened solemnly to the Star-Spangled Banner?