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The Body Scientific

The flu is with us again, but maybe not forever

The Body Scientific

Two impressive articles in Science magazine caught my eye a few weeks ago. They suggest that it is possible to make a vaccine that will work against all flu viruses and will not have to be changed every year.

What do science and sausage have in common?

The Body Scientific
rhk2@columbia.edu

With the Dow in turmoil and Congress in disarray, it may seem odd to plan for the future, but American optimism is like a spring, and mine is getting pretty tightly coiled, so let’s think of constructive things to do.  

I leave economics, the dismal science, as Thomas Carlyle called it, to others. Good luck to them. There are optimistic (non-dismal?) forms of science.

Science and sausage

The Body Scientific
rhk2@columbia.edu

With the Dow in turmoil and Congress in disarray, it may seem odd to plan for the future, but American optimism is like a spring, and mine is getting pretty tightly coiled, so let’s think of constructive things to do.  

I leave economics, the dismal science, as Thomas Carlyle called it, to others. Good luck to them. There are optimistic (non-dismal?) forms of science.

E. coli outbreak, Germany, 2011

The Body Scientific

In 1897, an epidemic of dysentery occurred in Japan. Ninety thousandpeople were affected and a staggering 30 percent of them died.

Dr. Kiyoshi Shiga discovered the bacterium, now named Shigella dysenteriae, that caused the disease. The discovery allowed Dr. Shiga to trace the infection to its source, which was contaminated water, and stop the epidemic.

Dr. Shiga showed that the bacteria secrete a toxin, now called shigatoxin in tribute to his important work. We have since learned a lot about shigatoxin, including what the molecule looks like.

Could chestnut forests return?

The Body Scientific

We are assailed by microbial invaders. Whether it is a flu virus or the fungus of Dutch elm disease, all noxious invaders have a common property: They come from far away to infect a native population of people or plants that have not evolved ways to resist.

William Welch, and what a Norfolk cemetery tells us

The Body Scientific

I like cemeteries. It may seem morbid, but I do. Norfolk’s cemetery is a fine and private place. But to a student of infectious disease, it is a stone-marked history of wrenching loss and medical helplessness.

I found the graves of young women of the 19th century. One was dead at 23. Childbirth probably took her or puerperal fever in its aftermath. Tuberculosis, too, could carry off a young adult.

Epidemic remembered

The Body Scientific

In 1735, a diphtheria epidemic swept through Connecticut and the rest of New England. It started in Princeton, N.J., and raged up the coast for several years, killing children throughout New England, including Connecticut. In one family it killed all eight children, swelling their throats until they suffocated.

Except for a monograph written in 1939 that was based on the memoir of a Puritan minister, the epidemic would probably not be remembered. For an additional 200 years, parents lived in fear of diphtheria and other epidemics.

The worried person’s guide to the effects of radiation

The Body Scientific

I once knew a student who swallowed radioactive iodine. We (I was a student at the time, too) used radioactive iodine as a tracer for various experiments — it came in a little vial inside a lead container and the student decided to remove some by sucking it into an open pipette. Why she swallowed it is beyond me.

The thyroid gland contains a marvelous molecular pump that pulls iodine from the bloodstream into the thyroid, where it is used to make thyroid hormone.

A cure for cancer: past failure, future hope

The Body Scientific

Childhood leukemia has yielded to treatment, but the treatment of many tumors of adults — of the lung, the pancreas, the liver or the brain — has not been as successful despite the resources that have been marshaled. A short column cannot explain the failures of the past, what we learned while failing or what the future might hold, but a recent book, “The Emperor of All Maladies — a Biography of Cancer,” by Dr. Siddartha Mukerjee (also of Columbia University), comes close. (Note: Dr. Mukerjee won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction this week for this book.)

Why has cancer been so difficult to cure?

The Body Scientific

In 1954, there was a horrendous polio epidemic. By 1958, almost no one got polio. The 1960s saw the end of measles, mumps and rubella. After 1945, antibiotics tamed previously frightening infections. The public got used to these victories and waited for cancer to be next.

But cancer remained “The Emperor of All Maladies” — the title of a recent book by oncologist Siddartha Mukerjee. Despite a War on Cancer announced by President Nixon and the investment of vast resources, cancer remains. How is this possible?