Blood, Sweat, and Years

Biomedical Sciences, Neuroscience, Cardiovascular Health

By Daniel Hass, PhD Candidate in Neuroscience

vampire

Vampires have been a part of popular culture for hundreds of years.

In 2009, the Atlantic published a short article entitled “The Meaning of Our Vampire Obsession”, outlining some of the potential psychological explanations for our societal obsession with these mythical bloodsuckers. Eight years later, this obsession shows no signs of abating, with various movies including ‘Hopekillers’, ‘The Vampyre’, ‘Love Bites’, and ‘Bursting Bubbles of Blood’ announced, or in some stage of production.

While I can’t speak to the psychological basis for the Vampire phenomenon, I’ve recently started to think that there might be a (very small) grain of truth to these stories and the age-old folklore that serves as its inspiration. This grain of truth is rooted in two facts about vampires. (A) They are immortal, and (B) They drink blood.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and Cancer

Biomedical Sciences, cancer, Microbiology

By Ross Keller, PhD Candidate in Biomedical Sciences

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The HPV virus. (Wikimedia)

The Human Papilloma Virus, also known as HPV, is thought to contribute to an estimated 5% of all cancer cases worldwide. This includes approximately 70% of Oropharyngeal (throat) cancers, 95% of anal cancers, and 99% of cervical cancers among some other rare cancers1-4. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that can be prevented. In fact, it is now recommended that adolescents receive an HPV vaccine. But, how does HPV lead to cancer? And why is the vaccine effective?

 

What is Radon? and how does it impact health?

Biomedical Sciences, cancer

By Ross Keller, PhD candidate in Biomedical Sciences

You have probably heard vague notions about the health impacts of radon, but what is it exactly? And how does it impact health?

Currently, radon is believed to be the second leading cause of environmentally caused lung cancer, following smoking. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 15,000-22,000 lung cancer related deaths per year are attributable to radon exposure, with the majority of them occurring in smokers who are also exposed to radon (1).

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Radon is radioactive, making it a risk for lung cancer (Pixabay)

Evidence for an increased risk of cancer from radon exposure comes from epidemiological studies as well as animal studies. It was found that occupational exposure to high levels of radon in miners was strongly linked to an increased risk for lung cancer (2). Lower levels of residential radon exposure was also linked to an increased risk in combined analysis of case-control studies in North America (3) and Europe (4). Furthermore, animal studies conducted in the mid-to-late 20th century clearly demonstrated the ability of radon and its decay elements to cause lung carcinomas (5).

The Three Parent Child: Mitochondrial Transfer to Fight Leigh Syndrome

Biomedical Sciences, Ethics, Genetics

By Emily Schleicher, 1st year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

 

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The mitochondria is colloquially called the powerhouse of the cell (Wikimedia)

What is the Mitochondrial Genome? 

When referring to the genome, most people think of 46 chromosomes, 23 from mom and 23 from dad.  The chromosomes are made of DNA,specifically DNA within the nucleus of our cells, and they encode for nearly 25,000 genes that make us who we are. However, what is often neglected is a second genome that is passed directly from mother to child, the mitochondrial genome. The mitochondrial genome resides outside the nucleus in mitochondria, which are found in all eukaryotes and are essential for generating ATP— the energy the cell needs to survive. The mitochondrial genome consists of just 37 genes that encode 13 proteins1. The proteins are mostly enzymes that facilitate the production of ATP, which means they are essential. Just as mutated genes in the nucleus can lead to illness, diseases can arise from mutations in mitochondrial DNA2. These mutations can lead to problems involving muscles, the endocrine system, nerves, brain, heart, and liver, and many can be fatal in the first few years of life. At this point in time, there is no treatment for mitochondrial diseases, but it has become a growing area of biological research in recent years1.

How is the Mitochondrial Genome Inherited?

When sperm and egg meet, both the sperm and egg carry nuclear chromosomes, which is why people inherit genes from both mother and father, but the sperm does not carry inheritable mitochondria. Mitochondria that powers the sperm is located in a portion of sperm that is lost at fertilization. This means that the egg’s mitochondria are all the child will inherit; the effect is that the mitochondrial genome is passed exclusively from mother to child.

Immunotherapy: awakening the immune system to fight cancer

Biomedical Sciences, cancer, Immunology

By Ross Keller, PhD candidate in Biomedical Science.

What is the immune system?

The human body is continuously under assault from a wide array of things that would do it harm. Many of these come in the form of pathogens—or microbes that infect the body and are not part of the body’s flora. These microbes range from common cold viruses to pneumococcal bacteria to deadly viruses like Ebola.

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Immune cells attack a tumor cell (spiky cell in center). (Wikipedia)

However, the body can also come under attack from itself in a number of ways. One manner this occurs is when normal cells transform and begin dividing uncontrollably. Over time the rogue cells begin invading organs and destroying their normal function—this is known as cancer.

But, the human body has been evolving for millions of years, and over that time it has developed an extensive and complex defense system to ward off outside invaders like pneumonia as well as home-grown usurpers like cancer. It is termed the immune system.

The immune system is a complex network of non-specialized and specialized cells that each have a role in keeping the body safe. It can be divided into two broad categories: innate and adaptive. The innate immune system is the body’s way of attacking pathogens in a generic way, meaning many types of invaders will be treated equally—it acts fast. On the other hand, the adaptive immune system is composed of specialized cells that remember the specific type of invader and mount a specific attack when the invader is encountered a second time—it acts slowly the first time and quickly the second.

Meet a Scientist: Our New Editor-in-Chief, Ross Keller

Biomedical Sciences

A note from our Editor-in-Chief: 

I will be defending my dissertation in just a few weeks, and therefore it’s time to hand over the reins. I would like to introduce Ross Keller, our new Editor-in-Chief! Ross is a 5th-year Biomedical Sciences graduate student, and he’s written and edited many blog posts that have been submitted to Lions Talk Science over the last three years. I have no doubt that the blog is in great hands! It has been amazing to watch this blog thrive since its launch in May 2013, and I can’t wait to see what’s next. Thanks for supporting our graduate student blog!

-Jordan Gaines Lewis

Now let’s get to know Ross!

Let’s get to know you a bit! Where are you from, where did you go to school, and what is your role at Penn State College of Medicine?ross

I grew up in Fargo, ND and attended West Fargo High School. I graduated in 2007 and went on to attend St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. I graduated from there in 2011 and made my way to Penn State College of Medicine. I am now a PhD candidate in Biomedical Sciences focusing on cancer research, specifically novel mechanisms of initiation and modes to relapse using breast cancer models. In addition to research, I have served as the Social Chair, Community Service Chair and President of the Graduate Student Association. I have also been an editor at Lions Talk Science for three years and written several articles about cancer, genetics, and animal research. I’m thrilled to be the new Editor-in-Chief.

Going Viral: How Social Media Mirrors Science

Biomedical Sciences

By: Jillian Carmichael, 4th year student in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

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pixelkult/Pixabay

“Did you see that post? It’s going viral!”

Social media can be a strange beast. Within hours, funny videos about pandas going down slides or kids saying the most ridiculous things are all over the Internet. These viral posts saturate social media and it’s almost impossible to avoid seeing them (or at least hearing about them).

It’s curious how someone can go from complete Internet obscurity to “famous” within hours of posting content on social media. Considering the billions of social media posts made each day, how do certain posts rocket to viral status while most remain unremarkable? It takes the perfect combination of good timing, interesting content, the right audience, and plain old luck for a post to go viral.

Implicit in the terminology “going viral” is the concept of infectivity. In order for a social media post to reach viral status, it must spread quickly and extensively. In fact, a social media post going viral is very similar to how an actual virus can cause an epidemic.

Zika Virus: The New Kid on the Block

Biomedical Sciences

By: Jillian Carmichael, 4th year student in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

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Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species currently responsible for transmission of Zika virus. (Source: Rafaelgilo/Wikimedia Commons)

Move over Ebola. There’s a new virus in town.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news in the past few weeks, you may have heard about the Zika virus outbreak that’s currently sweeping through the Americas. As with any emerging outbreak, fear is a common reaction in many people — remember how many Americans were terrified they were going to catch Ebola, even though they had never been to West Africa?

One of the best antidotes to fear is information — the better we understand a virus, the more equipped we are to deal with the outbreak and react in an appropriate manner.

In order to dispel any panic due to the fear-mongering media, I’ve compiled a list to answer some of the frequently asked questions concerning the Zika virus outbreak.

Frankenfood? The Real Science Behind GMOs

Biomedical Sciences

By: Ross Keller, 5th year student in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

Corncobs

Image source: Sam Fentress (Wikimedia Commons)

A recurring theme in science fiction is the ability to modify an organism’s genetic material. The goal is usually to give the modified person or creature amazing characteristics — super speed, super strength, or mind control, to name a few.

I haven’t met anyone with these features yet, but the future is already here. Scientists can modify the genomes of animals and plants with ease, though for an entirely different reason. You may be familiar with the term already: “GMOs.”

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any living thing that has had its genome (its genetic material) modified. In general, GMOs fall into two major categories—organisms modified for research purposes and those modified for consumption.

You may be familiar with the advocacy work of the Non-GMO Project, Chipotle’s new G-M-Over It campaign, or seen social media postings from friends and family about the dangers of GMO food. But what’s the real science behind the science fiction?

What is 6 Weeks Worth? The Cost of Cancer Drugs and Extending Life

Biomedical Sciences

By: Sadie Steffens, 4th year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

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Source: PDPics (Pixabay)

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t been affected by cancer in some way.

Second only to heart disease as the leading cause of death, many of us have friends or loved ones who have suffered from cancer. News reports with big claims about novel cancer treatments give us hope, and we have a strong desire to eradicate the disease. We want to believe that a cure is imminent, possibly even in our own lifetime.

Although we don’t discuss it much as a society, cancer affects more than our emotions. We are all paying the financial costs of cancer, costs that are escalating so quickly that they will soon be unsustainable. I’m talking about the cost of cancer drugs.