Malaria and world public health: Jennifer in science and song

Okay people, these students in Miss Stacy Baker’s biology classes and Extreme Biology blog have been rocking my world for quite some time. They’ve now burst onto the national media and were all the buzz of the recent ScienceOnline’09 conference.
For those not familiar with the story, Stacy Baker is a biology teacher at the Calverton School in Huntingtown, Maryland, who began a website for student activities and class notes back in 2006. With the boundless enthusiasm of ninth-graders and more seasoned AP biology students, the site has become interactive: a blog, Extreme Biology, with videos, interviews, content-rich science posts – well, just go read this article by our friend, Elie Dolgin, at The Scientist.
Then, yesterday, I find Jennifer, a brilliant piano-playing biology student with an absolutely beautiful singing voice – an original composition about malaria and the costs of prevention, an essay on malaria in Africa, a link to a UNicef videoinformation site, and citation of original research from Monash University researchers on the PfA-M1 enzyme as a drug target.
I don’t want to just link directly to YouTube so go either to Jennifer’s original post with the video, lyrics and essay or the push-play post with just the video and lyrics.
Somewhere around these parts we’ve been talking about the association of scientific and artistic creativity. acmegirl, an accomplished dancer and graduate student, most recently pointed this out in profiling the work of fellow dancer and songbird behavioral neurobiologist, Dr Erich Jarvis. (I’ll have another post relating to these two scientists later.).
Even your humble Pharmboy has been known to dabble in artistic endeavours outside the lab bench from time-to-time and I think there have been scholarly treatises on the relationship between artistic and scientific creativity.
I want to encourage our dear Jennifer in cultivating both her musical and scientific interests so do folks out there know of specific papers, books, or other information sources that describe how one’s science can benefit from being creative in other “non-scientific” pursuits?

GFP slideshow at WSJ Health Blog

Scott Hensley, editor of the WSJ Health Blog, just reminded me that his colleague and blog lead writer, Jacob Goldstein, put together a neat slideshow on the fluorescent marine proteins for which this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded. I’ve been a bit behind in my reading of other blogs so it was refreshing to see this nicely accessible coverage.
The WSJ blog post, The Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the Beauty of Fluorescent Protein, has the slideshow embedded. You may also go directly to the slideshow here.
(h/t Scott Hensley)

A celebration of life-saving natural products

The statin class of cholesterol-lowering agents is rich with history and lessons in the power of natural products, the potential of the prepared mind, and just how precarious the path of drug development can be.
American Scientist, the official publication of the scientific research society Sigma Xi, hosts this issue an absolutely lovely article entitled, “Statins: From Fungus to Pharma.”
Expertly and engagingly written by University of Pennsylvania biology professor Dr Philip A Rea, the article launches with the story of a then-young Japanese biochemist, Akira Endo. (Evidence of my longstanding admiration for Dr Endo goes back beyond my 10 Jan 2006 post, “All hail, Dr Akira Endo.”).

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Arachnophilia!: ECU biologist gives nod to Stephen Colbert

Arachnologist and diplopodologist Dr Jason E Bond at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, is most recently well-known for naming a spider (Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi) after Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Neil Young.
Kristin Day of The Daily Reflector is now reporting that Professor Bond has agreed to name a spider after Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central’s host of “The Colbert Report.”
When news emerged in May that Bond had named a species of trapdoor spider after Neil Young, the biologist could not escape Colbert’s web:

“Where’s my spider? I have lots of animals named after me: turtles, eagles, Ontario Junior League hockey mascots.
“The world demands an eight-legged tribute to Stephen Colbert and I do not mean another barbershop quartet.”
Bond missed the episode when it first aired, but after hearing about it from a friend, watched it online and contacted the ECU News Bureau.
“I said I would name a spider after him if he would like,” Bond said.
Colbert will have to choose a species and can reveal [when the live show comes back from vacation] its new Bond-given name: Aptastichus stephencolberti.

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NPR’s The People’s Pharmacy on bisphenol A, endocrine disruptors

200px-Bisphenol_A.svg.pngBisphenol A (BPA) is currently one of the major lightning rods for controversy in consumer products and public health research. The compound is used in the manufacture of plastic bottles, polycarbonate (PC) in particular, as well as in the lining of many food and beverage cans. The compound has been recognized since the 1930s as having estrogenic activity but it appears to have developmental, carcinogenic, and neurotoxic effects at concentrations well below those at which it binds to the two forms of estrogen receptor.
US governmental advisory committees can’t even agree on BPA. Public health blogger revere at Effect Measure posted last October about two conflicting reports from the US National Toxicology Program on the developmental risks of BPA – the contentious comment thread following the post is illustrative of the confusion surround BPA even among scientists. This 2005 review in Environmental Health Perspectives makes for a good introduction before delving into the current literature.
So if the scientists are confused, well guess what the public thinks? To shed light on this topic, award-winning medical journalists Joe and Terry Graedon will focus the next two shows of their NPR-syndicated The People’s Pharmacy radio show on BPA and the larger issue of endocrine disruptors. This week’s (1 March) guests are:

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More on medical geophagy in chimps: montmorillonite clay and the origins of life

ResearchBlogging.orgReaders and colleagues often ask why scientists care to blog, especially given increasing time demands and decreasing research funding. For me, the blog is an opportunity to have discussions with colleagues from diverse research areas all around the world. Quite often, I learn something quite new that I would not normally encounter in my chosen field of cancer pharmacology.

A case in point stems from a reader comment by Dr Italo MR Guedes, a Brazilian soil scientist who writes the blog, Geófagos (Google Translate works well enough unless, of course, you are already fluent in Portuguese). Italo commented on our post about a French research group’s studies on the rationale underlying Ugandan chimpanzee behavior of eating clay soils prior to their favorite plant. The researchers found that the combination of soil and the plant, Trichilia rubescens, led to activation of the plant’s antimalarial compounds (nice copyrighted photograph here by the husband of the primary author).

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Terra sigillata in action: why primates eat dirt

Leave it to PharmGirl, MD, to point me in the direction of a story that addresses the core theme of this blog: not only can medicines come from the Earth, but the Earth can itself be medicine. This time we’re not talking about South Carolina “sandlappers” as detailed in my inaugural post here as authored originally at the old blog. (For newcomers, you’ll get this gist if you also read, “Why Terra Sigillata?”).
Instead, we wish to point your attention to a LiveScience article by Clara Moskowitz entitled, Why Chimps Eat Dirt. The practice of eating soil, known as geophagy, is common among primates. As I noted in explaining the history of terra sigillata the medicine, soils often contain minerals or fats like kaolin that soothe mild gastrointestinal disorders.
However, Moskowitz’s article on the work of Noémie Klein, François Fröhlich, and Sabrina Krief at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris points to an even more interesting consequence of geophagy: chimps that eat soil before eating a specific plant create a situation where the activity of anti-malarial components of the plant are enhanced:

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Strong European Showing in Nobels; Is American Science in Danger?

globe.jpg[Aufmerksamkeit! Begrüßen Sie deutsche Freunde und Leser des Focus Wissenschafts-Community. Glückwünsche zu Profs Ertl und Grünberg auf dieser enormen Ehre!]
I’m intentionally being dramatic but an interesting discussion emerged in the comment thread of my post on the work of Germany’s Gerhard Ertl being recognized with this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry. One reader had a perception that the work of an American contributor to surface chemistry was being ignored. Dr Gerald Harbison followed up on this notion at his own blog, The Right Wing Professor.
Indeed, the three scientists that shared this year’s prize in physiology or medicine are all European, although two did most of their work in the US. Similarly, the two scientists sharing this year’s physics prize are French and German. (For sake of talking on what I know about, I have restricted this discussion to the prizes for chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine.).
So, is there an anti-American sentiment in Stockholm? Or is European science being recognized appropriately for its traditional superiority? After all, my namesake, John Jacob Abel, went to Germany to learn his pharmacology before establishing departments at Michigan and Johns Hopkins.

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Newsweek covers evolution; Begley online today

nw_leftnavcov_070319V2.jpgThe new issue of Newsweek (19 Mar 2007) carried a surprise for me: former Wall Street Journal health reporter, Sharon Begley, has moved back to the magazine. In fact, Begley wrote this week’s excellent discussion and cover story on the massive amount of science in support of evolution.

“The debate over human origins has been one of the most significant and controversial conversations in American society over the last 150 years. Whether they believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution as it was proposed in his “Origin of Species”, adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible or inhabit some middle ground, Americans frequently clash over when and how humans first appeared in our current form. But NEWSWEEK’s Sharon Begley reports that emerging science shows how the story of our species may be far more complicated than anyone suspected. By analyzing the DNA of today’s humans as well as chimps and other species, scientists are zeroing in on major turning points in evolution, suggesting there may have been several more lines in the human family tree than the one that moved from monkey to man.”

Begley will also appear online today at noon EDT for a LiveTalk discussion on the topic. Questions can be submitted here.

E. coli engineered to product natural product drugs

Wasn’t able to get off an original post today so I’ll direct Terra Sig readers to an excellent interview written by Carl Zimmer. As Carl writes,

Discover chose Jay Keasling as their scientist of the year and asked me to interview him. Keasling, who directs the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology, is trying to get either E. coli or yeast to crank out a powerful malaria drug normally only made by the sweet wormwood plant. I had already been getting familiar with Keasling’s work, since it is a great example of the sort of work that’s being done on E coli, the subject of my book. So it was a pleasure to talk to Keasling at length about this ambitious project.

Keasling’s group is taking natural products drug discovery and development to the next level by cloning synthetic gene cassettes and putting them into a tractable host system, thereby overcoming the problems of medicinal plant sourcing or cultivation (or the need for hoardes of synthetic chemists, no offense). The fact that Keasling is doing this work for artemisinin, to treat malaria worldwide, has led to support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and, obviously, the admiration of the editors at Discover.
Zimmer does his usual superb job of making a complex subject exceedingly approachable and exciting – read the interview.