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Before ether was a potent painkiller, it was a hit with revellers

Our OSS Blog - Wed, 06/22/2016 - 06:12

The marble and granite statue in the Boston Common depicts a physician in medieval clothing holding a cloth next to the face of a man who seems to have passed out. An inscription on the base of the statue reads “To commemorate that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain, first proved to the world at the Mass. General Hospital in Boston, October A.D. 1846.” No names are mentioned.

It was on Oct. 16, 1846, that dentist William Morton ushered in the era of surgical anesthesia by putting printer Gilbert Abbot to sleep with fumes of ether from an inhaler he had devised. Surgeon John Collins Warren then proceeded to remove a tumour from the patient’s neck without any of the usual screaming or thrashing about.

Warren looked up at the doctors who had witnessed the event in the surgical theatre that would become known as the “ether dome” and proclaimed, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug.”

That was in reference to a failed attempt by another dentist, Horace Wells, to demonstrate anesthesia with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, at the same hospital. In that case, Wells hadn’t waited long enough for the nitrous oxide to take effect and the patient howled in pain as Wells attempted to extract a tooth. He exited in disgrace to the cries of “humbug.”

Although Morton gets credit for the first organized demonstration of ether anesthesia, he certainly was not the first to experiment with the chemical. The sleep-inducing effect of ether was first recorded 300 years earlier, when famed Swiss alchemist, philosopher and physician Paracelsus noted that its vapours would induce a state of unresponsiveness in chickens. Ether does not occur in nature, so where did Paracelsus get it?

In 1540, German physician and botanist Valerius Cordus discovered that heating alcohol with sulphuric acid, then known as oil of vitriol, yielded a new highly flammable substance with a characteristic smell. Vitriol was the archaic name for compounds that today are termed “sulphates.”

Cordus discovered that heating a solution of green vitriol, or iron (II) sulphate, a naturally occurring mineral, yielded “oil of vitriol.” Then in the 17th century, German-Dutch chemist Johann Glauber found that burning sulphur with saltpetre (potassium nitrate) produced sulphuric acid.

Potassium nitrate decomposes to yield the oxygen needed to convert sulphur to sulphur trioxide, which dissolves in water to produce sulphuric acid. In the 19th century, potassium nitrate was replaced by vanadium pentoxide, which acted as a catalyst allowing for easier production of sulphur trioxide. This was the method used to produce the sulphuric acid needed for the synthesis of ether in the 1800s.

Before ether’s triumphant performance in 1846 at Massachusetts General, it had developed a reputation as a recreational substance. Middle-class partygoers and medical students both in Europe and America frolicked under the influence of ether. More curiously, drinking ether was common in Europe and was particularly popular in Ireland, where the Catholic Church promoted abstinence from alcohol and asked people to pledge not to drink alcohol. Drinking ether was a way to get around the pledge. Ether was sold in pubs and shops until the 1890s, when it was classified as a poison.

Dr. Crawford Long had taken part in ether frolics as a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, and when he took over a rural medical practice in Georgia in 1841, he recalled that ether frolickers sometimes developed bumps and bruises of which they seemed to be oblivious.

Could ether be used to relieve pain, he now wondered? The answer came when he delivered his wife’s second baby with the aid of ether anesthesia. Long went on to perform a painless dental extraction, and in 1842 used an ether-soaked towel to put James Venable to sleep before proceeding to excise two tumours from his neck. But Long was not an academic, was not interested in publishing, nor did he crave fame or fortune.

It was two years after William Morton’s celebrated demonstration that Long documented his efforts in the Southern Medical and Surgical Journal in a paper titled “An account of the first use of Sulphuric Ether by Inhalation as an Anaesthetic in Surgical Operations.”

He described a number of cases, including the amputation of two fingers of a boy who was etherized during one procedure and not the other. Long reported that the patient suffered terribly without ether but was insensible with it. The reason he had waited to publish, he said, was the need to overcome criticism by local colleagues, who had suggested that the ether effect was just an example of mesmerism, which at the time was promoted as a pain-reduction method.

With his publication, Long added his name to the list of people claiming to have been the inventors of ether anesthesia. There was William Morton, of course, and Charles Jackson, a physician who had given up medicine to establish a private laboratory for analytical chemistry, where he also taught students, including Morton, who had come to expand his scientific knowledge.

Jackson claimed that he had introduced Morton to ether anesthesia, and the two got involved in a rancorous battle for years. There was also a Berkshire Medical College student, William E. Clarke, who claimed he had first used ether to put patients to sleep.

It was because of the controversy that the Boston monument does not bear the name of any of the claimants. But it does bear a biblical quote from Isaiah: “This also cometh forth from the Lord of Hosts which is wonderful and excellent in working,” addressing the worry people had that relief of pain was somehow interfering with God’s will.

The quote suggests that medical intervention is itself a gift from God and is backed up by a relief on the statue depicting a woman who represents Science Triumphant sitting atop a throne of test tubes, burners and distillers, with a Madonna and Child looking on with approval. There is also a Civil War scene on the side of the monument with a Union field surgeon standing ready to amputate a wounded soldier’s leg. The soldier sleeps peacefully. Thanks to ether, he would feel no pain.

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Bending Spoons and Bending Minds

Our OSS Blog - Mon, 06/13/2016 - 21:40

Everyone has skeletons in their closet. There’s at least one in mine. A couple of years ago while on a cruise I pinched a spoon from the dining room. It wasn’t because of any lack of spoons at home, it was because no matter how hard I tried I could not bend this one. I tried with two hands, I tried by pushing against the table, I even tried placing the handle under my heel and tugging on the head. No give at all. I had to have that spoon!

I’ve been practicing magic as a hobby ever since I was a teenager. It has turned out to be a perfect fit with my career because of the numerous scientific principles involved in creating the illusion of contravening the laws of nature. And that is what magic is all about. Seeing someone levitate, or vanish inside a cabinet, or appear out of thin air, requires an apparent suspension of the laws of nature. The key word of course is “apparent,” because all such effects are accomplished by clever scientific means. A magician, however, attempts to ensure that the audience will not discover those means. Science can also appear magical, but in this case, we relish in scuttling the magic with down to earth explanations. Just think about it. Isn’t an airplane with hundreds of people aboard flying through the air magical? How about taking pictures with your smart phone and sending them around the world in seconds? Or a seed growing into a plant or a new life being created from the meeting of cells? But magic is converted into science with an appropriate explanation.

I have found performing magic to be an excellent springboard for a discussion of scientific methodology and for fostering the critical thinking needed to prevent being swept away by the tsunami of pseudoscience generated by a rapidly multiplying bevy of charlatans. When you can demonstrate how “psychic surgery,” a procedure by which diseased tissues are apparently removed without an incision, can actually be accomplished by sleight of hand, you have given believers something to think about. Similarly, a demonstration of “mental” effects with a clear declaration that these are done by clever chicanery can help convince at least some that trickery may be involved when psychics perform seemingly scientifically inexplicable feats.

One such feat is “psychokinesis,” or the ability to move objects using only the power of the mind. Psychokinetic effects were first popularized in the middle of the nineteenth century when Angelique Cottin in France claimed that electric emanations from her body allowed her to move objects without touching them. She convinced many observers of her power, but critics offered quite down to earth explanations about how such effects could be performed by natural means. Since that time numerous psychics have claimed psychokinetic powers, with Uri Geller being perhaps the most famous. In the 1970s he beguiled audiences and even some scientists with his apparent ability to bend metal with the power of his mind. He gets credit for introducing the phenomenon of mental spoon bending, an effect upon which he built quite a spectacular career.

Magicians were also astounded. Not by the effect, which can be accomplished by a number of established methods, but by how the public was so ready to swallow a “paranormal” explanation. Conjurers were quick to reproduce the spoon bending trick, pointing out that the only requirement was a modicum of sleight of hand. This brings us back to my pilfered spoon.

When I do the spoon bending trick, I first hand out the spoon to the audience with a challenge to bend it. Once it is established that it can withstand all efforts, I proceed to bend it “with the power of my mind.” But in rare cases, some strong men have managed to bend the spoon and destroy my performance, so I’m always on the lookout for super-strong spoons. I can tell you that Crystal Cruises have such. They absolutely cannot be bent, except in the hands of a magician who is equipped with a “special something.”

But why am I talking about tormenting cutlery? Because last week, thanks to colleague Tim Caulfield, a health law professor at the University of Alberta, I learned that “Integrative Pediatric Medicine Rounds” at his University were set to feature a talk on “Spoon Bending and the Power of the Mind.” The seminar would be given by an “energy healer” who has been described as being “a Reiki Master teacher, a certified Trilotherapy practitioner, a Yuen Method practitioner and a teacher of popular Spoon Bending and Tantric Sex workshops.” So this was not to be a workshop on critical thinking, which could have been appropriate. The prospective speaker actually claimed that 75% of attendees would be able to bend spoons with their mental energy!

The scientific community reacted with vigour to this assault on reason, and the resulting extensive media coverage caused the seminar to be cancelled with some weasel explanations being provided about the workshop “being withdrawn by the presenters.”

The “presenter” was to be Anastasia Kutt, who is not some wacky outsider, but is listed in the University’s Directory as “a research assistant in the “Complementary and Alternative Research and Education (CARE) Program” and is also involved in research activities and organizing events.” What sort of events? Given her interest in topics such as Tantric Sex and spoon bending one wonders.

Criticism of this spoon bending fiasco should not be construed as an attempt by the mainstream scientific community to curb free speech or to police academic research. Rather it is an appeal for reason and for vigilance against quackery sneaking into “integrative medicine” programs which are becoming increasingly popular.

I don’t know how Ms. Kutt bends spoons, but I’d be willing to fly to Edmonton at my expense to find out. If she can bend my Crystal Cruise spoon I’ll eat a University of Alberta Integrative Health Program hat.

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Critter Cuisine

Our OSS Blog - Sat, 06/11/2016 - 02:14

We hear a lot about food these days. Whether it is about healthy choices, food security and feeding the planet, environmental impacts of food production or the science of GMO biotechnologies, hardly a day goes by without food appearing in our headlines.

Curiously, the most readily available source of low-fat animal protein found just about anywhere in the world (outside of Antarctica) is largely ignored by most food cultures. It might be time we start talking about eating insects, or entomophagy.

Putting our icky aversions aside for a moment, there are many good reasons to consider eating insects. Apart from their widespread availability in the wild, they can easily be raised indoors, with a fraction of the footprint (both in terms of land use and carbon emissions) of domestic livestock such as cattle or pork. Also, insect is a lean meat, with up to three times the protein content and with a fraction of the fat, with crickets compared to beef for example. Also, it is a versatile food, which can be eaten raw, cooked or processed, such as being dried and ground into a flour for baking.

Entomophagy is not new or strange to many people around the world, to be sure. One can easily find bulk crickets or woodworms in the markets of Singapore, or termites and grubs in the Ghanaian markets in Accra. Eating insects is also commonplace in cuisines from Brazil, Australia, Japan, China and more. So why is it that entomophagy still carries a taboo in Canadian/American cultures?

The answer may be partly psychological in nature, partly economic and the two are surprisingly linked. Clearly, our western culture carries with it a strongly ingrained entomophobia, or fear of insects, and we don’t tolerate them in our homes, on our lawns, in our crops or even in our thoughts. There is such a widespread phobia of creepy crawlies of any kind that billions of dollars are spent annually on the propaganda of their evil ways and on chemical pesticide solutions to their eradication from every corner of our lives.

This fanatical intolerance of insects was very deliberately fostered and nurtured by post-WWII chemical pesticide companies looking to promote the magical properties of their pesticides (like DDT) and bolstered by an imaginative TV and film media industry that created blockbuster entertainment about killer cockroaches, an attack of the giant ants or tales of mutant wasps that attack human brains via the ear canal. Ouch, scary stuff!

The net effect of this anti-insect campaign has been one in which most of us would rather squish a bug than pop it into our mouths. I am confident, however, that because this is a learned behaviour, it can be unlearned... or better yet, prevented in the first place by reaching out to children and teaching them about the joy and wonders of our critter cousins, before it is stamped out of them by society. Children are naturally curious about all aspects of nature and are particularly intrigued by bugs.

A few weeks ago, I was invited by the teachers at my 3-year old son’s Montessori school to give an insect-related show-and-tell. I managed to borrow several specimen of Stick Insects and Madagascar Cockroaches to bring in for the kids and I was thrilled to see the glee and eagerness from every child who wanted to touch and hold and play with these exotic insects. I kept thinking that the response would have been very different from an adult audience. What a shame it is that this joy of nature is bred out of us as a whole eventually.

Around 15 years ago, back when I was a keen Graduate student in an entomology lab at Laval University in Quebec City, I visited the Insectarium in Montreal for an insect-tasting event. In the foyer of the museum, a dozen chefs were set up behind linen-clothed tables and were preparing gastronomic cuisine of one kind or another, all of which involved insect ingredients. I eagerly ate a multi-course meal consisting in part of ginger-glazed scorpions, garlic-fried crickets, beetle flour cookies and angel-food cake garnished with zesty ants.

At some point during my entomological smorgasbord I noticed that I was being observed by a cautious and curious 8-year old boy, who seemed to take delight in the sight of a grown-up (sort-of) hungrily gobbling down some fried crickets, when I offered him a little taste. The boy reached out his hand to try one when he was noticed by his mother, who was standing just a few feet away.

In the blink of an eye, the poor boy was yanked by the arm, with a shriek from his mother, so brusquely that you could almost hear the socket pop! I mistakenly thought that they were here for an insect-tasting event.... apparently not.

Unfortunately, the boy was so traumatized by his mother’s reaction that it is most likely that his interest in insects was cut short on that very day, one in which a trip to the insectarium could have otherwise promoted a long-term fascination. Too often, our developed entomophobia is inherited directly from our parents, passed down from generation to generation.

We’ve got a long way to go as a society before we are collectively comfortable with all that insects may have to offer us in our lives and maybe even more to consider eating them as regular food.

So whether our conversation about food is related to the challenges of feeding 8 billion+ humans with a smaller ecological footprint or simply to explore the diversity of foodstuffs from the almost 1 million species of insects that exist, we need to start by shifting the flavour of the conversation first, from entomophobia to entomophagy.

Obviously, if we are to have any kind of positive conversation about bugs at all, we need to start with the children and to build pro-actively towards a society that can work with insects and not just against them. Maybe there would be a place for a new “Dickie Dee”-style street vending delivery cart for insect foods.... I can see it now: “Doc Brown’s Bugs ‘n Bites” will be the next food craze coming to a neighbourhood near you. Listen for the chimes as they come around the corner, playing something by The Beatles, of course.

Dr. Adam Oliver Brown

Here is a link to my Facebook page, where you can see some pics and videos of the insect visit with the school children: https://www.facebook.com/DrAdamOliverBrown/

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The Right Chemistry: The thermite reaction can be used in tools or weapons

OSS VIDEOS - Sun, 05/22/2016 - 05:24
 

 The place was Edinburgh, Scotland. The occasion, the Edinburgh Science Festival. There were a number of captivating presentations, but my biggest thrill came from looking out the hotel window. A light rail track was being constructed just outside and the workers were busy welding. My eyes popped when I saw what they were doing. I was looking at a live thermite reaction! I had talked about this reaction in class on numerous occasions and marvelled on it in videos, but had always deemed it too dangerous to perform.

 

A chemical reaction that produces heat is said to be “exothermic.” The most common example would be the combustion of a fuel. Light a candle and you can feel the heat that is produced. The hottest part of a flame, where the colour is a light blue, can reach a temperature of about 1400 degrees Celsius. But that is a low temperature compared to the 2500 degrees produced by the “thermite” reaction between aluminum and iron oxide. Essentially, this reaction involves the transfer of oxygen from the iron oxide to aluminum to yield aluminum oxide and metallic iron. At this high temperature, the iron is in its molten form and sets fire to any combustible material in its path, making the thermite reaction ideal for use not only in welding, but also in incendiary bombs and grenades.

Back in 1893, German chemist Hans Goldschmidt was looking for a way to produce pure metals from their ores. The classic method for extracting iron relies on heating iron oxide ore with carbon. The carbon is converted to carbon dioxide as it strips oxygen from the iron, leaving behind metallic iron. Some unreacted carbon, however, tends to contaminate the iron. Goldschmidt was looking for a way to produce iron without the use of carbon and hit upon the reaction of iron oxide with aluminum. He was impressed by the remarkable amount of heat produced and suggested that the reaction he had discovered could be used for welding. In 1899, the thermite reaction was put to a commercial use for the first time, welding tram tracks in the city of Essen.

It didn’t take long for the military to realize the potential of this extreme exothermic reaction in warfare. In 1915, the Germans terrorized England by using Zeppelins to drop incendiary bombs based on the thermite reaction. By the Second World War, the battle was on not only between Allied and German armed forces, but also between their scientists and engineers who sought to produce more effective incendiary devices. The Germans came up with the “Elektron” bomb, named after Elektron, an alloy composed of 86 per cent magnesium, 13 per cent aluminum and 1 per cent copper that was used for the casing of the bomb.

This alloy burns with a very hot flame, but requires a high temperature for ignition. The thermite reaction was up to the task. When an Elektron bomb hit the ground, a small percussion charge of gunpowder ignited a priming mixture of finely powdered magnesium and barium peroxide. This reaction produced the heat needed to ignite the thermite mix of aluminum and iron oxide, which in turn ignited the highly combustible casing. The Allies developed similar types of bombs resulting in the most destructive air raid in history, which was not Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but the firebomb raid on Tokyo in March 1945. An Allied bombing of Dresden the same year with incendiary bombs virtually destroyed the whole city. During the Second World War, the Allies dropped some 30 million 4-pound thermite bombs on Germany and another 10 million on Japan.

Thermite hand grenades were also used during the war to disable artillery pieces without the need for an explosive charge, very useful when silence was necessary to an operation. This involved inserting a thermite grenade into the breech of a weapon and then quickly closing it. The great heat produced by the thermite reaction welded the breech shut and made loading the weapon impossible. Alternatively, a thermite grenade was discharged inside the barrel of an artillery piece making it useless.

During the Vietnam war, thermite grenades found a different use. From the start of hostilities, putting a crimp into the enemy’s food supply was part of the U.S. military strategy. Since rice was a staple for the Viet Cong, destroying rice paddies was a primary goal. At first, attempts were made to blow up rice stocks and destroy paddies with hand grenades and mortars, but this proved to be maddeningly difficult. The next idea was to burn the rice paddies with thermite grenades. All this did was scatter the rice grains, which could then still be harvested. Another approach was needed.

Enter “Agent Blue,” an arsenic-based herbicide, unrelated chemically to the more infamous Agent Orange. Agent Blue affects plants by causing them to dry out, and as rice is highly dependent on water, spraying Agent Blue on rice paddies can destroy an entire field and leave it unsuitable for further planting. The U.S. used some 20 million gallons of Agent Blue during the Vietnam war, destroying thousands of acres of agricultural fields and defoliating wooded areas that the Viet Cong used to ambush American troops.

Recently, the thermite reaction made the news in a different context. Conspiracy theorists purport that it was thermite explosives planted inside the World Trade Center that brought down the twin towers in a CIA coordinated plot. They also maintain that the moon landing was faked and that the U.S. government is hiding the bodies of aliens. Some also claim that the rise of Donald Trump was engineered by a Democratic conspiracy and that on the verge of being elected he will announce “fooled you.” Wouldn’t that be something? It would trump the thermite reaction for heat generated.

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Categories: OSS VIDEOS

The Right Chemistry: The thermite reaction can be used in tools or weapons

Our OSS Blog - Sun, 05/22/2016 - 05:24
 

 The place was Edinburgh, Scotland. The occasion, the Edinburgh Science Festival. There were a number of captivating presentations, but my biggest thrill came from looking out the hotel window. A light rail track was being constructed just outside and the workers were busy welding. My eyes popped when I saw what they were doing. I was looking at a live thermite reaction! I had talked about this reaction in class on numerous occasions and marvelled on it in videos, but had always deemed it too dangerous to perform.

 

A chemical reaction that produces heat is said to be “exothermic.” The most common example would be the combustion of a fuel. Light a candle and you can feel the heat that is produced. The hottest part of a flame, where the colour is a light blue, can reach a temperature of about 1400 degrees Celsius. But that is a low temperature compared to the 2500 degrees produced by the “thermite” reaction between aluminum and iron oxide. Essentially, this reaction involves the transfer of oxygen from the iron oxide to aluminum to yield aluminum oxide and metallic iron. At this high temperature, the iron is in its molten form and sets fire to any combustible material in its path, making the thermite reaction ideal for use not only in welding, but also in incendiary bombs and grenades.

Back in 1893, German chemist Hans Goldschmidt was looking for a way to produce pure metals from their ores. The classic method for extracting iron relies on heating iron oxide ore with carbon. The carbon is converted to carbon dioxide as it strips oxygen from the iron, leaving behind metallic iron. Some unreacted carbon, however, tends to contaminate the iron. Goldschmidt was looking for a way to produce iron without the use of carbon and hit upon the reaction of iron oxide with aluminum. He was impressed by the remarkable amount of heat produced and suggested that the reaction he had discovered could be used for welding. In 1899, the thermite reaction was put to a commercial use for the first time, welding tram tracks in the city of Essen.

It didn’t take long for the military to realize the potential of this extreme exothermic reaction in warfare. In 1915, the Germans terrorized England by using Zeppelins to drop incendiary bombs based on the thermite reaction. By the Second World War, the battle was on not only between Allied and German armed forces, but also between their scientists and engineers who sought to produce more effective incendiary devices. The Germans came up with the “Elektron” bomb, named after Elektron, an alloy composed of 86 per cent magnesium, 13 per cent aluminum and 1 per cent copper that was used for the casing of the bomb.

This alloy burns with a very hot flame, but requires a high temperature for ignition. The thermite reaction was up to the task. When an Elektron bomb hit the ground, a small percussion charge of gunpowder ignited a priming mixture of finely powdered magnesium and barium peroxide. This reaction produced the heat needed to ignite the thermite mix of aluminum and iron oxide, which in turn ignited the highly combustible casing. The Allies developed similar types of bombs resulting in the most destructive air raid in history, which was not Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but the firebomb raid on Tokyo in March 1945. An Allied bombing of Dresden the same year with incendiary bombs virtually destroyed the whole city. During the Second World War, the Allies dropped some 30 million 4-pound thermite bombs on Germany and another 10 million on Japan.

Thermite hand grenades were also used during the war to disable artillery pieces without the need for an explosive charge, very useful when silence was necessary to an operation. This involved inserting a thermite grenade into the breech of a weapon and then quickly closing it. The great heat produced by the thermite reaction welded the breech shut and made loading the weapon impossible. Alternatively, a thermite grenade was discharged inside the barrel of an artillery piece making it useless.

During the Vietnam war, thermite grenades found a different use. From the start of hostilities, putting a crimp into the enemy’s food supply was part of the U.S. military strategy. Since rice was a staple for the Viet Cong, destroying rice paddies was a primary goal. At first, attempts were made to blow up rice stocks and destroy paddies with hand grenades and mortars, but this proved to be maddeningly difficult. The next idea was to burn the rice paddies with thermite grenades. All this did was scatter the rice grains, which could then still be harvested. Another approach was needed.

Enter “Agent Blue,” an arsenic-based herbicide, unrelated chemically to the more infamous Agent Orange. Agent Blue affects plants by causing them to dry out, and as rice is highly dependent on water, spraying Agent Blue on rice paddies can destroy an entire field and leave it unsuitable for further planting. The U.S. used some 20 million gallons of Agent Blue during the Vietnam war, destroying thousands of acres of agricultural fields and defoliating wooded areas that the Viet Cong used to ambush American troops.

Recently, the thermite reaction made the news in a different context. Conspiracy theorists purport that it was thermite explosives planted inside the World Trade Center that brought down the twin towers in a CIA coordinated plot. They also maintain that the moon landing was faked and that the U.S. government is hiding the bodies of aliens. Some also claim that the rise of Donald Trump was engineered by a Democratic conspiracy and that on the verge of being elected he will announce “fooled you.” Wouldn’t that be something? It would trump the thermite reaction for heat generated.

Read more

Forget Homeopathic Arsenic for Stress Reduction

Our OSS Blog - Wed, 05/18/2016 - 05:26

During a recent talk on the relation between the body and the mind, I mentioned the newest anxiety-relieving craze, colouring books. Aimed at adults, these feature intricate patterns that provide quite a challenge for staying inside the lines. The contention is that focusing on the special patterns distracts the mind from anxiety and stress. Evidence is sketchy, but millions of colouring books are flying off the shelves, topping best-seller lists. That in itself says something about our society.

After my talk I was approached by a lady who claimed she had something better than colouring books to relieve anxiety and slipped a vial full of pills into my hand. She didn’t seem like a clandestine drug pusher so I thought I would look down and find some pills of lorezapam or maybe St. John’s Wort. Such was not the case. The label on the vial read “Arsenicum album 30C.”

No, she was not trying to poison me. These were homeopathic arsenic pills based on the curious notion that a substance that in large doses causes certain symptoms can, in homeopathic potency, repel the same symptoms. Since arsenic poisoning is associated with anxiety and restlessness, a person suffering such symptoms should find relief in a homeopathic dose of arsenic. In the bizarre world of homeopathy, potency increases with greater dilution, and a dose of 30C is said to be extremely potent. Such a pill is made by sequentially diluting a solution of arsenic a hundred fold thirty times and then impregnating a sugar pill with a drop of the final solution. At a dilution of 30C, not only is there no trace of arsenic left, there isn’t even a water molecule that has ever encountered any of the original arsenic.

Homeopathy is a scientifically bankrupt practice that was invented over two hundred years ago by German physician Samuel Hahnemann who was disenchanted with bloodletting and purging, common medical procedures at the time. He was a good man who searched for kinder and gentler treatments and homeopathy fit that rubric. Since knowledge of molecules was almost non-existent at the time, Hahnemann could not have realized that his diluted solutions contained nothing. Actually, the truth is that they did contain something. A hefty dose of placebo!

Now here is the kicker to this story. Hahnemann was quite accomplished in chemistry and actually developed the first chemical test for arsenic. In 1787 he found that arsenic in an unknown sample was converted to an insoluble yellow precipitate of arsenic trisulfide on treatment with hydrogen sulfide gas. When in 1832 John Bodle in England was accused of poisoning his grandfather by putting arsenic in his coffee, John Marsh, a chemist at the Royal Arsenal, was asked to test a sample of the coffee. While he was able to detect arsenic in the coffee using Hahnemann’s test, the experiment could not be reproduced to the satisfaction of the jury and Bodle was acquitted. Knowing that he could not be tried for the same crime again, he later admitted to killing his grandfather.

The confession infuriated Marsh and motivated him to develop a better test for arsenic. By 1836 he had discovered that treating a sample of body fluid or tissue with zinc and an acid converted any arsenic to arsine gas, AsH3, which could then be passed through a flame to yield metallic arsenic and water. The arsenic would then form a silvery-black deposit on a cold ceramic bowl held in the jet of the flame and the amount of arsenic in the original sample could be determined by comparing the intensity of the deposit with that produced with known amounts of arsenic.

The Marsh test received a great deal of publicity in 1840 when Marie LaFarge in France was accused of murdering her husband by putting arsenic into his food. Marie was known to have bought arsenic from a local chemist which she claimed was to kill rats that had infested the house. A maid swore that she has seen her mistress pour a white powder into her husband’s drink and Marie had also sent a cake to her husband who was travelling on business just prior to his becoming ill. The dead husband’s family suspected that Marie had poisoned him and somehow got hold of remnants of food to which she had supposedly added arsenic. The Marsh test revealed the presence of arsenic in the food and in a sample of egg nog, but when the victim’s body was exhumed the investigating chemist was unable to detect arsenic.

To help prove Marie’s innocence by corroborating the results of the investigation of the exhumed body, the defense enlisted Mathieu Orfila, a chemist acknowledged to be an authority on the Marsh test. Much to the defense’s chagrin, Orfila showed that the test had been carried out incorrectly and used the Marsh test to conclusively prove the presence of arsenic in LaFarge’s exhumed body. Marie was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The controversial case captured the imagination of the public and was closely followed through newspaper accounts making Marie LeFarge into a celebrity. It would also go down in the annals of history as the first case in which a conviction was secured based on direct forensic toxicological evidence. Because of Mathieu Orfila’s role in the case, he is often deemed to be the “founder of the science of toxicology.” The Marsh test became the subject of everyday conversations and even became a popular demonstration at fairgrounds and in public lectures. This had an interesting spin off. Poisonings by arsenic decreased significantly since the existence of a proven, reliable test served as a deterrent.

As far as claims about relieving anxiety with homeopathic arsenic go, well, they cause me anxiety. I think I’ll flush those homeopathic tablets down the drain (no worry about arsenic pollution here) and buy a colouring book.

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‘The Biophotonic Scammer’

From Our Contributors - Thu, 05/12/2016 - 04:32

In the summer of 2015, I received a message on Facebook from a faint acquaintance whom I got to know over the course of the previous year, having played in a jazz orchestra with the fellow. We exchanged the occasional pleasantry from across the trumpet section during rehearsals, and surely he knew that I studied medicine, though we lost contact with one another at the end of the school year. He had messaged me about a “new business project” with some “very interesting science type stuffs [sic].” We set up a time where he and his mentor could unload a 30-minute presentation on my easily impressionable mind.

We met in early September at a Starbucks in downtown Toronto. Amidst the low chatter of students preparing to return to classes, I sat, while protégé and mentor explained to me the miracle of ageloc technology, patent pending.

Based on Nobel-prize winning technology, the biophotonic pharmanex scanner can measure carotenoid levels in the skin, which I was told, correlates to antioxidant levels in the body. This medical technology, I was told, was used by some highly-regarded doctors here in Toronto were fervent adherents of the photonic scanner along with a pharmacopoeia of ancillary products to be pushed after paying for a scan. This dubious product, which after a scan would spew out spurious data hardly correlating to a client’s health becomes the perfect inroad to sell supplements to ‘improve’ one’s results. After a course of supplements, a client would scan themselves once again to see if their results had changed.

The scanner was one of the many flagship products offered through a company called Nu Skin (which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, I was told), who’s chief quack Joe Chang has been discredited time after time. Another product, called the Galvanic Spa purports to alter the charges in collagen molecules, while their Ageloc Technology, alluded to before, fleetingly grasps at buzzwords like ‘epigenetics’ to for you to ponder at while your pockets are unsuspectingly emptied.

Having finished with the pseudoscience, we moved on to how I could get involved. I vibrated with excitement anticipating what I could only expect to be a phenomenal pitch. I was asked first whether I considered myself a successful person, and then to suggest reasons for what drove me to this success. It was most certainly my personality, of course! Now what if I could drive my success financially? Who would not be interested in that? Other doctors had taken advantage of offering the Nu Skin line of products, and it had benefitted them beyond their greatest expectations. For the low cost of $200 per month, I could lease my very own photonic scanner, and charge people $55 per scan. I could then grow a roster of clients to scan and enlist a team of my own to recruit other people who would scan even more clients. The mentor pulled out a small cardboard pamphlet and pointed at a six-figure number representing my potential earnings. I slowly sketched a pyramid in my notebook.

The pitch had finally concluded, and I was asked if I would like to have my antioxidant levels measured. I knew the machine to be harmless, but I declined, told them I would not likely be in touch, and walked out. On my way to the subway I began to ponder this curious encounter. Before the meeting I thought about how lucky I was to have an opportunity like this fall right before me – the chance to write an exposé on this most absurdflim flam. Was it really such a rare occasion as I had previously suspected? The reality is that pseudoscience is on the rise. Today, with the great advances we have made in medical sciences, with our armamentarium of treatments for diseases which were once deadly, doctors and scientists are losing the public battle to quacks of the highest order. The concern over this movement cannot be understated. It is clear however, that our greatest asset is a healthy balance of ridicule and education, and we must fight back.

Read more

Serious Nonsense

Our OSS Blog - Mon, 05/09/2016 - 10:45

“We've had more people reverse cancer than any institute in the history of health care, so when McGill fails, or Toronto hospitals fail, they come to us. It can be stage 4 cancer and we reverse it.” You can imagine why that quote caught my eye. Both McGill and University of Toronto have world-class cancer treatment centers, but unfortunately, when it comes to stage 4 cancers, which are the most deadly, the chance of successful treatment is low. So, who is it that claims success where the latest evidence-based treatments fail? “Dr.” Brian Clement, who runs the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida, apparently has the answers that have evaded mainstream researchers. What sort of doctor is this fellow? One who has some sort of accreditation as a “nutritionist” from a diploma mill where they apparently teach some, let us say, “interesting” science. I’m judging by the following rather fascinating outpouring of nonsense-bedecked drivel from the Hippocrates Health Institute.

“Based on modern biophysics and ancient Chinese medicine, color frequencies are applied to acupuncture points using a light pen and crystal rods. This promotes hormonal balance, detoxification, lymph flow and immune support while reducing headaches and sleeplessness. Working on cellular memory where the cause of disease resides, color puncture promotes healing from within.” And all you have to do is shell out $120 for a 50 minute treatment. All this of course is laughable, but when it comes to claims about curing cancer, the humour quickly vanishes with the realization that it is real people with real cancer who are being duped. And going by the following asinine promo, that is just what is happening.

“One of the major treatment goals of The Cancer Wellness Program at Hippocrates Health Institute is to strengthen the basic vitality, flow, and coherency of a person’s BioEnergy Field upstream to affect and change their downstream physical mass. The changes in a person’s vibrational frequency or bioenergy field, once stabilized, changes the electrical/chemical milieu in their body so that it is more difficult for their cancer or tumor mass with its own specific vibrational frequency to be sustained.”.

This is inane claptrap is far from the only type of cancer treatment Hippocrates offers. Intravenous vitamins and wheat grass implants are standard fare. Implanted where? Well, let’s just say in areas where the sun doesn’t shine. Clement maintains that “every disease known to man, plus premature aging, can be successfully dealt with on a diet of organic plant based foods.” Apparently not mental disease, given that Clement surely follows this diet. Patients are also told to give up meat and dairy, and are asked to swallow some rather bizarre ideas. Genetics don’t matter much, Clement says, and what doctors say about the BRCA gene predisposing to breast cancer is false. On his regimen, this mental wizard claims, tens of thousands of people have reversed the final stages of cancer. I would love to see the evidence for that. This charlatan is in Canada right now, giving talks, mostly to entice First Nations people to visit his Institute in Florida for treatment. Just like that given to the unfortunate 11-year-old Ontario girl who suffered from leukemia. That had a very sad outcome. Let’s just say she was not one of the tens of thousands of patients that Clement claims to have successfully treated.

Read more

‘The Biophotonic Scammer’

From Our Contributors - Mon, 05/09/2016 - 10:36

In the summer of 2015, I received a message on Facebook from a faint acquaintance whom I got to know over the course of the previous year, having played in a jazz orchestra with the fellow. We exchanged the occasional pleasantry from across the trumpet section during rehearsals, and surely he knew that I studied medicine, though we lost contact with one another at the end of the school year. He had messaged me about a “new business project” with some “very interesting science type stuffs [sic].” We set up a time where he and his mentor could unload a 30-minute presentation on my easily impressionable mind.

We met in early September at a Starbucks in downtown Toronto. Amidst the low chatter of students preparing to return to classes, I sat, while protégé and mentor explained to me the miracle of ageloc technology, patent pending.

Based on Nobel-prize winning technology, the biophotonic pharmanex scanner can measure carotenoid levels in the skin, which I was told, correlates to antioxidant levels in the body. This medical technology, I was told, was used by some highly-regarded doctors here in Toronto were fervent adherents of the photonic scanner along with a pharmacopoeia of ancillary products to be pushed after paying for a scan. This dubious product, which after a scan would spew out spurious data hardly correlating to a client’s health becomes the perfect inroad to sell supplements to ‘improve’ one’s results. After a course of supplements, a client would scan themselves once again to see if their results had changed.

The scanner was one of the many flagship products offered through a company called Nu Skin (which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, I was told), who’s chief quack Joe Chang has been discredited time after time. Another product, called the Galvanic Spa purports to alter the charges in collagen molecules, while their Ageloc Technology, alluded to before, fleetingly grasps at buzzwords like ‘epigenetics’ to for you to ponder at while your pockets are unsuspectingly emptied.

Having finished with the pseudoscience, we moved on to how I could get involved. I vibrated with excitement anticipating what I could only expect to be a phenomenal pitch. I was asked first whether I considered myself a successful person, and then to suggest reasons for what drove me to this success. It was most certainly my personality, of course! Now what if I could drive my success financially? Who would not be interested in that? Other doctors had taken advantage of offering the Nu Skin line of products, and it had benefitted them beyond their greatest expectations. For the low cost of $200 per month, I could lease my very own photonic scanner, and charge people $55 per scan. I could then grow a roster of clients to scan and enlist a team of my own to recruit other people who would scan even more clients. The mentor pulled out a small cardboard pamphlet and pointed at a six-figure number representing my potential earnings. I slowly sketched a pyramid in my notebook.

The pitch had finally concluded, and I was asked if I would like to have my antioxidant levels measured. I knew the machine to be harmless, but I declined, told them I would not likely be in touch, and walked out. On my way to the subway I began to ponder this curious encounter. Before the meeting I thought about how lucky I was to have an opportunity like this fall right before me – the chance to write an exposé on this most absurdflim flam. Was it really such a rare occasion as I had previously suspected? The reality is that pseudoscience is on the rise. Today, with the great advances we have made in medical sciences, with our armamentarium of treatments for diseases which were once deadly, doctors and scientists are losing the public battle to quacks of the highest order. The concern over this movement cannot be understated. It is clear however, that our greatest asset is a healthy balance of ridicule and education, and we must fight back.

Read more

A Holistic Nutritional Rockstar’s Rocky Science

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 05/06/2016 - 04:39

Sometimes you can evaluate a person’s scientific acumen by a single comment they utter. This is the case with Catherine Sugrue who labels herself a “holistic nutritionist rockstar.” Of course suspicion about her knowledge is immediately raised when we learn that it was gained at the “Institute of Holistic Nutrition,” which isn’t exactly Harvard. But the giveaway of the rockstar’s untrustworthiness is her reiteration of the absurd statement that “margarine is about one molecule away from plastic.” This isn’t about coming to the rescue of margarine. I don’t like it and I don’t eat it. I much prefer butter. But I am piqued by the shoddy pseudo scientific exhortations of self-proclaimed experts. In this case I’m further annoyed that this particular pseudoexpert was interviewed for an article about fats that appeared not in the National Enquirer, but in the National Post. When there are Canadians like Yoni Freedhoff, Chris Labos and Tim Caulfield who actually are experts when it comes to nutritional issues and would never confuse the public with ludicrous analogies between margarine and plastic.

Margarine being “one molecule away from plastic” is just plain nonsense. Plastics are composed polymers while margarine is a blend of fats and water. There is no chemical similarity between the two. In any case, being “one molecule away” is a totally meaningless expression. Substances are made of molecules, which in turn are composed of atoms joined together is a specific pattern. I suppose one might say that hydrogen peroxide, H2O2, is one atom away from water, H2O, but even this is meaningless. That extra oxygen atom changes the properties of the substance dramatically. Sticking a finger into a bottle of pure hydrogen peroxide quickly reveals the effect of that extra oxygen.

So, even if margarine had some chemical similarity to plastic, which it does not, its properties could still be dramatically different. Slight alterations in molecular structure can account for very significant changes in properties.

It is true that saturated fats have been vilified beyond the scientific evidence but the pendulum is swinging too far in the other direction. Kourtney Kardashian attributing her 5 pound weight loss to drinking clarified butter every morning is without scientific merit. Catherine Sugrue correctly warns that “getting your nutritional advice from celebrities is a dangerous game.” But so is getting it from a self-proclaimed “holistic nutritional rockstar” who is a graduate of an institution where you can take continuing education courses in “energy medicine,” “clinical detoxification,” and “applied iridology.”

Read more

Triacetone triperoxide

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 05/06/2016 - 04:33

We have become familiar with the routine at airports. Your carry-on bags are passed through an x-ray machine after which an officer will often wipe your bag with a piece of fabric which is then placed inside a box-like instrument. Within a few seconds you get the all-clear signal and you are on your way to the gate. How many travelers get handcuffs instead of an all-clear isn’t known because those stats are not released. What do these instruments actually do? When luggage is bombarded with x-rays, some of the rays pass through and some do not, depending on what they encounter. The more dense a material is, the less transparent it is to x-rays. Lead, for example, prevents any x-rays from passing through. To put it simply, the intensity of the x-rays that have passed through the luggage is a measure of the density of the substances contained in the luggage. Different substances will have unique densities and the densities of various explosives have been determined. The x-ray machine then compares the densities detected by the passage of x-rays to the predetermined densities of a host of suspect substances.

The instrument that analyzes the swabs is an “ion mobility spectrometer.” When the swab is inserted, a gust of a carrier gas dislodges some of the molecules that have been collected from the luggage. These molecules are then subjected to bombardment by electrons, commonly from a Nickel-63 isotope source. The bombardment creates ions that are swept through a tube where they are subjected to an electric field resulting in a separation by mass, size and shape of the molecules. These ions are detected and compared with those produced by known samples.

The technology is extremely sensitive and can detect trace amounts of explosives. It is not dependent on having nitrogen in the sample, an element found in almost all explosives except in triacetone triperoxide (TATP). This is what was used in the Belgian and London bombings. TATP is often the choice of terrorists because it is easy to manufacture from acetone, hydrogen peroxide and an acid, all of which are readily available. Of course an explosive in luggage can only be detected if the luggage is inspected. But in the case of the Belgian airport bombing, the explosive was set off in the pre-screening area. To try to counter this, hand held detectors have been developed for use by officers who patrol all areas. When gaseous TATP molecules enter this sensor, they encounter an acid catalyst that converts TATP back into its constituent parts, acetone and hydrogen peroxide. The peroxide then reacts with dyes in the instrument causing them to change colour. By detecting these colour changes, the highly sensitive portable scanner can detect fewer than two parts per billion of TATP. But unfortunately no matter how clever the detector chemistry, it can’t foil all terrorists’ attempts.

Read more

You Asked: Can coffee explode in the microwave oven?

You Asked? - Fri, 05/06/2016 - 04:28

A sensational sounding e-mail about “exploding coffee” has been making the rounds. It describes the misadventures of an unfortunate soul who heated up water for coffee in a microwave oven. When he picked up the mug, it “exploded!”

Explode is probably too strong a term, but spurting and frothing is a real possibility. This is due to a phenomenon known as superheating. First, we have to understand what boiling is all about. At the surface of a liquid molecules are always evaporating. If we leave a glass of water out, it will eventually disappear.  If we heat the liquid, its molecules move faster, become more energetic and more molecules go into the vapour phase. As a consequence, the liquid disappears more quickly. At the boiling point, molecules all over the liquid, not only at the surface are energetic enough to go into the vapour phase. They do this most readily by evaporating into airspaces that exist in the container. All containers have imperfections where air gets entrapped when a liquid is introduced. As these air pockets fill with vapour, they expand and begin to rise. That is why we see streams of bubbles which originate at the sides or the bottom of the container.

In a microwave oven, the container is not heated, only the water.  So the container actually cools the liquid in contact with it, meaning that the liquid in the center is always hotter, sometimes by as much as 10 degrees C. But the liquid in the center cannot boil, because there are no air bubbles for it to evaporate into.  By the time the liquid near the edge of the container reaches the boiling point, the liquid in the middle is considerably hotter; it is superheated.

The addition of sugar or a tea bag now can spur vigorous boiling. This is because the surface imperfections introduce trapped air bubbles into which the superheated liquid vaporizes. Sometimes just picking up the container can have an explosive effect as the superheated liquid comes into contact with air bubbles on the periphery. Accidents can be prevented by putting a plastic spoon into the mug or glass while it is heating in the microwave. In this case the scare-mongering note about “exploding coffee” may actually has some basis in fact.

Read more

You Asked: Can coffee explode in the microwave oven?

Our OSS Blog - Fri, 05/06/2016 - 04:28

A sensational sounding e-mail about “exploding coffee” has been making the rounds. It describes the misadventures of an unfortunate soul who heated up water for coffee in a microwave oven. When he picked up the mug, it “exploded!”

Explode is probably too strong a term, but spurting and frothing is a real possibility. This is due to a phenomenon known as superheating. First, we have to understand what boiling is all about. At the surface of a liquid molecules are always evaporating. If we leave a glass of water out, it will eventually disappear.  If we heat the liquid, its molecules move faster, become more energetic and more molecules go into the vapour phase. As a consequence, the liquid disappears more quickly. At the boiling point, molecules all over the liquid, not only at the surface are energetic enough to go into the vapour phase. They do this most readily by evaporating into airspaces that exist in the container. All containers have imperfections where air gets entrapped when a liquid is introduced. As these air pockets fill with vapour, they expand and begin to rise. That is why we see streams of bubbles which originate at the sides or the bottom of the container.

In a microwave oven, the container is not heated, only the water.  So the container actually cools the liquid in contact with it, meaning that the liquid in the center is always hotter, sometimes by as much as 10 degrees C. But the liquid in the center cannot boil, because there are no air bubbles for it to evaporate into.  By the time the liquid near the edge of the container reaches the boiling point, the liquid in the middle is considerably hotter; it is superheated.

The addition of sugar or a tea bag now can spur vigorous boiling. This is because the surface imperfections introduce trapped air bubbles into which the superheated liquid vaporizes. Sometimes just picking up the container can have an explosive effect as the superheated liquid comes into contact with air bubbles on the periphery. Accidents can be prevented by putting a plastic spoon into the mug or glass while it is heating in the microwave. In this case the scare-mongering note about “exploding coffee” may actually has some basis in fact.

Read more

Hepatitis A From Frozen Berries

From Our Contributors - Thu, 04/28/2016 - 08:45
On April 15, 2016, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced a food recall warning regarding the possible contamination with Hepatitis A, a viral liver disease, of the frozen fruit product, “Nature's Touch Organic Berry Cherry Blend”. Canadians have been advised that the food recall is in effect in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador, where the product has been sold. As of April 22, 2016, there are eleven related Hepatitis A cases in three provinces (1): Ontario (8 cases), Quebec (2 cases), and Newfoundland and Labrador (1 case).   While it is frightening to know that Hepatitis A can be contracted by eating frozen berries, a product that is supposed to be healthy, coming into contact with hepatitis A can be quite easy. Hepatitis A is usually linked with the lack of potable water and inadequate sanitation,  and the virus is spread mainly by the faecal-oral route. It can be acquired from any food and drinks prepared by a person who is infected, as an  infected person can carry, due to improper hygiene, traces of their faeces when preparing refreshments. Shellfish derived from waters containing sewage can also carry hepatitis A. The frozen berries sold at Costco in Canada were at some point contaminated with hepatitis A from at least one infected worker (during harvest, manufacturing or processing) who was handling the berries, and who did not take preventative hygienic measures such as frequent hand-washing with soap and water, and the use of gloves. After infection with hepatitis A, symptoms usually reveal themselves two to seven weeks after viral infection. Fever, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, jaundice, dark urine, vomiting, and fatigue are all symptoms. Although cases usually last one to two weeks, a few severe cases can last several months before recovery, and some people can die from liver failure. People with pre-existing liver conditions are at a greater risk of severe illness. Older people tend to get sicker than younger people after infection.The disease is not chronic (there is usually no permanent liver damage), and lifetime immunity is acquired either from recovery after infection, or through immunization with the hepatitis A vaccine.   The hepatitis A virus, a picornavirus, is of an icosahedral shape and does not contain an envelope. It possesses a single-stranded RNA packaged in a protein capsid. There are three different numbered human genotypes of the virus, but type IA is the most commonly occurring. Genetic sequencing of the virus can reveal which molecular subtype of the virus is associated with a particular outbreak (2), thus narrowing down unassociated cases of infection. To determine whether infection has occurred, a blood test to look for IgM anti-hepatitis A antibodies, a particular immune response, can detect the virus as early as two weeks after the initial infection.   Known as a “traveller's disease”, hepatitis A is usually associated with countries that are less developed, but it does and can occur in Canada. In industrialized countries, outbreaks of hepatitis A are often linked to contaminated produce (3). During March 2012, there was a small outbreak of hepatitis A in British Columbia, Canada that was traced to pomegranate seeds in a frozen fruit product (4). April 2013 saw more than 70 cases of hepatitis A infection in four Nordic countries (5,6). In the United States, there were 165 confirmed cases of hepatitis A infection found across 10 states, in 2013 (7). This outbreak was traced to pomegranate arils found in a frozen berry product sold at Costco, and 44% of the infected patients were hospitalized. Frozen fruit can last for up to a year in the store, and hepatitis A can incubate for up to 50 days, so a hepatitis A outbreak is often detected only after many people have been infected (8). Case-control studies, where patients with (case) and without (control) a disease, such as hepatitis A, are compared retrospectively for frequency of exposure to a risk factor (such as the contaminated frozen fruit), and through this study method the source of the outbreak can be unraveled.   Costco is publicly offering free vaccination clinics to affected individuals of this recent 2016 outbreak, as vaccination can prevent the disease symptoms from occurring if given within two weeks of exposure (9). There are two options for post-exposure prophylaxis of hepatitis A. The first is the vaccine injection, which is an inactivated version of the virus. The second is immunoglobulin (IG), which is injected and consists of antibodies which fight the virus to prevent infection. It is a blood product produced from paid donors. An exposed individual who may be allergic to the vaccine may opt for the IG. A study comparing the two options found that immunoglobulin was slightly more effective than the vaccine (10). However, the vaccine offers a lifetime immunity, whereas the response of immunoglobulin against hepatitis A is only for three months after the IG administration-subsequent exposure to hepatitis A can still result in an infection. Individuals can get a pre-exposure prophylaxis vaccination, which renders permanent immunity before any exposure, and travellers to countries where hepatitis A is endemic are required to receive the vaccination before leaving to their destination.   The recent 2016 hepatitis A outbreak in Canada from frozen fruit is only one of several similar outbreaks that have occurred in the past in different industrialized countries. Hepatitis A is spread through the faecal-oral route, and although it is more common in less developed nations where poor sanitation conditions are prevalent, improper hygiene during food handling can cause an outbreak.  Identifying the specific molecular subtype of hepatitis A can help trace which cases are associated with a particular outbreak. It is recommended that anyone handling food take proper precautions in food safety in order to prevent further hepatitis A outbreaks. If worried, one should obtain a pre-exposure vaccination to acquire permanent immunity to the virus. Read more

The Zika Crisis

From Our Contributors - Tue, 04/19/2016 - 22:45

In 2015, the Zika virus outbreak began in the northeast region of Brazil. According to the World Health Organization, there has been 3174 suspected cases of microcephaly in Brazil since January 2, 2016, including 38 deaths (1). The northeastern region of Brazil continues to be the area most affected, with the highest number of suspected cases. On April 13, 2016, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine which concluded that there is a direct causal relationship between prenatal exposure to Zika virus and the outcome of microcephaly and brain abnormalities in the exposed infants (2). While the common symptoms of Zika infection are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis lasting from several days to a week after exposure from an infected mosquito's bite, a recent study recounts two cases of patients who had contracted the Zika virus and later succumbed to acute disseminated encephalitis (ADEM) (3).  This is a condition in which the immune system attacks the body, producing swelling in the brain and spinal cord and damaging the myelin which serves to protectively encase nerve fibers. The same study also describes four patients who had Zika and then developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition where the immune system attacks the body's peripheral myelin.

Zika virus is quickly spread through the bite of the female Aedes aegypti mosquito, a mosquito that is usually associated with warmer climates. This species of mosquito bites during the day. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) sent out a warning of the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil on May 2015, and on February 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). The PAHO lists the following areas where local transmission of Zika virus is active (4): Aruba, Barbados, Belize, Bonaire, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Hondruas, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peurto Rico, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Sint Maarten, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, US Virgin Islands, and Venezuela. Locally transmitted cases of Zika have been reported in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa. There is potential for Zika virus to continue to spread to other countries due to the expanding range of the Aedes aegypti mosquito. A population of this species not carrying Zika was found in Capitol Hill, Washington, DC. Genetic analysis revealed that this particular mosquito population survived five winters in the area (5). Although theAedes aegypti is the species most responsible for spreading the Zika virus, other mosquito species in the Aedes genus can also transmit it to humans. Once the virus enters the bloodstream of a human through the bite of a female mosquito (the male mosquitoes do not bite), another female mosquito can acquire Zika by feeding upon the same host, which can then go on to infect another human. In an area with many Aedes mosquitoes, the process will repeat itself exponentially, leading to widespread viral transmission. A possible solution can be to use genetically modified mosquitoes that are male which reproduce with local female mosquitoes to yield offspring which do not live past the pupae stage. Oxitec (6), a British biotechnology company, developed such a mosquito which has already been released and tested successfully in the Cayman Islands in 2010, leading to a drastic 80 percent reduction in population of Aedes aegypti. Release of the same strain of GMO mosquitoes in the suburb of Juazeiro, Brazil in 2011 resulted in a 81-95 percent reduction of Aedes aegypti in the test region. It is also possible to breed mosquitoes to be genetically resistant to diseases such as dengue, malaria, yellow fever and Zika. Gamma radiation is being used in Brazil to sterilize male mosquitoes. Moscamed, a non-profit organization based in Brazil, took to breeding 12 million male mosquitoes per week, sterilizing them with the cobalt-60 irradiator, and then releasing them into select high-risk areas (7). The released sterile males mosquitoes then meet wild female mosquitoes, but no offspring can be produced. As there is no vaccine available right now, the current method of battling Zika virus is to reduce the population of Aedes mosquitoes.

It has been found that the Zika virus can also be transmitted sexually from an infected human male to his sexual partners via vaginal or anal sex (8), and that the virus can remain for a longer duration in semen than in blood. As of now, it is not known whether a woman can sexually spread Zika virus, or if it can be transmitted through saliva or vaginal fluids. Couples who are pregnant, or men who have travelled to areas affected by Zika are advised by the CDC to abstain from sex or use condoms.

The Zika virus is in the Flavivirus genus of viruses, which also include the West Nile virus, dengue virus, tick-borne encephalitis virus, and yellow fever virus. As a flavivirus, the Zika virus is enveloped, has a capsid of icosahedral symmetry, and contains a single-stranded positive-sense RNA genome. The Zika genome is about 10.8 kilobase pairs long. The positive-sense RNA is significant because once the virus enters the host cell, this RNA viral genome can be directly translated into a viral polypeptide, which is then cleaved into structural proteins and proteins to aid in the replication process. The envelope (E) glycoprotein protruding from the membrane of the virus is used for attachment and entrance into human cells.  For the development of a potential vaccine for Zika virus, a segment of the E glycoprotein unique to the Zika virus can be used in the vaccine to mount an antibody-mediated immune response, possibly conferring immunity from future attacks of the virus.

The expanding range of travel of both humans and mosquitoes have allowed for rapidly widespread transmission of the Zika virus. The head and brain abnormalities caused by prenatal exposure from an infected mother are detrimental, and a direct casual link between the virus and microcephaly/brain defects has been determined by the CDC. For instance, the Zika virus genome was found in the brain of an aborted, infected infant (9) that had microcephaly, and Zika virus antigens were found in the brain of one newborn with microcephaly (10). Autopsies found the presence of Zika virus in the brains of infants with severe microcephaly who died. Pregnant women infected with Zika virus have consistently given birth to infants with microcephaly and other brain abnormalities (11). The CDC further found that women who deliver infants with microcephaly were infected with Zika virus during the first and second trimester of gestation, when the brain starts to form and develop (12). There are two hypotheses directed at explaining how the Zika virus causes birth defects such as microcephaly (13). The first hypothesis posits that the placenta transfers the virus directly from mother to the fetus. The second hypothesis refers to the possible reaction of the placenta in response to Zika, which may contribute to or result in birth defects. Pregnant women are advised not to travel to areas where Zika virus is occurring.

Read more

Cancer Charlatans

Our OSS Blog - Mon, 04/18/2016 - 15:29

What makes people defend the indefensible? A prime example of this conundrum is the case of Antonella Carpenter, a 71 year old “alternative practitioner” who was convicted of conducting a fraudulent scheme to cure cancer in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is likely looking at spending the rest of her life in prison. She is not a physician but has some training in physics and claims that she can cure cancer by injecting a tumour with a saline solution of food colouring and walnut hull extract followed by heating the area with a laser. She calls her treatment “Light Induced Enhanced Selective Hyperthermia,” for which she claims 100% efficacy without any side effects. Any claim of 100% efficacy is a hallmark of quackery since no drug of any kind works in such a foolproof fashion. Even worse, she sometimes told patients they had been cured. As is often the case, quacks unearth some legitimate process and then twist it out of proportion to hatch a money-making scheme.

In this case, the legitimate process is “photodynamic therapy.” The treatment of cancer involves some process by which cancer cells are destroyed while normal cells suffer less damage. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to avoid collateral damage completely and cancer treatment via radiation or drugs is always burdened with side effects. In photodynamic therapy the idea is to introduce a chemical, known as a photosensitizer, that when activated by light interacts with oxygen to convert it into a very reactive form known as “singlet oxygen” that then attacks any organic compound it encounters with the result being cell death. The photosensitizer can be introduced intravenously followed by the tumour being exposed to long wavelength light via optical fiber. Alternately, the photosensitizer can be injected directly into a tumour and then the area exposed to light. In either case singlet oxygen is produced only within the tumour, minimizing damage to normal tissue. The process is applicable to certain types of tumours and is certainly not a cure-all for cancer.

It is this therapy that has been mentally mangled by Antonella Carpenter, who according to investigators cheated cancer patients out of their money and gave them false hope. In spite of any evidence of her treatment having any efficacy, supporters have sprung to her side, claiming that she was wrongly convicted by a kangaroo court. Here are some of the phrases they are pumping out: “The greedy and vindictive genocidal maggots who control the Cancer Industry and have the FDA and courts in their back pocket”…. “the medical mafia is hard at work twisting the truth and vilifying Dr. Antonella Carpenter and any other non-Allopathic practitioners and natural or alternative treatments as quackery”…. “Dr. Carpenter was vindictively targeted by the Medical Mafia and their Gestapo goons at the FDA for successfully curing dozens of cancer patients.” No. The truth is that she was targeted for subjecting cancer patients to a treatment that had no chance of working and was claiming she had cured them. That is evil.

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Antimony!

Our OSS Blog - Mon, 04/18/2016 - 15:27

Picture this. You swallow a little pill, wait until it irritates your intestines enough to expel its contents and then hunt through the expelled excrement to retrieve the pill. Why? So you can use it next time to get rid of the bad humours in your body that are making you sick. How can a pill survive passage through the digestive tract? It can, if it is made of metal, in this case, antimony. Now, don’t go asking the pharmacist for antimony pills. The scenario just described isn’t current, it was plucked out of the Middle Ages when the cure for disease was to expel “bad humours” from the body. Actually, that was not unlike the current craze of expelling unnamed toxins from the body with a variety of “cleanses,” many of which have a laxative effect.

Hopefully nobody today would be silly enough to use antimony or its compounds, because here we are talking about real toxicity. Of course they didn’t realize that in the Middle Ages; all they knew was that antimony was pretty good at evacuating the body. And not only through the rear portals. One method involved drinking wine that had been left standing overnight in a cup made of antimony. This resulted in the antimony reacting with tartaric acid in the wine to form antimony tartrate, a compound that induces vomiting. The idea of purging the body to treat illness persisted into the late stages of the 18th century. When Mozart came down with a mysterious illness, he was treated with “tartar emetic,” as antimony tartrate was commonly called. What ailment he suffered from isn’t clear, but he died within two weeks. His symptoms of intense vomiting, fever, swollen abdomen and swollen limbs are consistent with antimony poisoning. Of course, we cannot prove that antimony was responsible for Mozart’s death, he also suffered from rheumatic fever since childhood, a condition that may have led to his demise at a young age.

Mozart had always been sickly and it is well known that he had been often treated with antimony compounds by his physicians and that he even dosed himself when he didn’t feel well. It is interesting that Mozart actually believed he was being poisoned, but not by himself. He thought his musical rival Antonio Salieri was trying to do him in. Although the famous movie “Amadeus” alludes to this possibility, historical facts do not corroborate the poisoning story. Contrary to the portrayal, Salieri did not confess at the end of his life to having tried to kill Mozart.

Back in the 1990s a volatile compound of antimony known as stibine (SbH3) was accused of being responsible for crib death. The theory was that it was produced from antimony oxide added as a flame retardant to polyvinylchloride sheets. A fungus found in mattresses supposedly made this conversion possible, at least under laboratory conditions. The theory has now been dismissed because neither the fungus, nor levels of antimony in babies’ blood could be correlated with crib death.

More recently Greenpeace created a stir with a booklet entitled “A Little Story About The Monsters In Your Closet.” What sort of “monsters?” The subtitle brings them out of the closet: “Study finds hazardous chemicals in children’s clothing.” Yup, the monsters are chemicals. One that the Greenpeace study detected was antimony trioxide, present in all fabrics that have polyester as a component. No great surprise here since antimony trioxide is used as a catalyst in the production of polyester as well as a flame retardant. And it is true that antimony trioxide can be described as presenting a hazard. But hazard is not the same as risk.

Hazard is the innate potential of a substance to cause harm without taking into account extent or type of exposure. Inhalation of antimony compounds in an occupational setting can be a problem, and it is correct that antimony trioxide has been classified as “suspected of causing cancer via inhalation.” But this is not relevant for the trace amounts found in fabrics. Here the issue would be migration out of the fabric and subsequent absorption. This has been extensively investigated and the amounts that are encountered are well below the established migration limits. The same applies to the trace amounts that leach out of the polyester bottles that are widely used for water and other beverages. Concentrations are less than the 5 parts per billion safety limit.

Antimony does not occur in nature in its metallic form, so where did Middle Age physicians get it? Like most metals, antimony has to be smelted from its ore, in this case antimony sulfide, also known as stibnite, a substance that has been known for thousands of years. Jezebel, the Biblical temptress is said to have used it to darken her eyebrows and stibnite was the main ingredient in “kohl” used by ancient Egyptian women in a type of mascara. Exactly who figured out that heating antimony sulfide converts it to antimony oxide, which yields metallic antimony when fired with carbon, is unknown, but if you visit the Louvre, you can see a 5000 year old vase that is made of almost pure antimony.

Today, neither metallic antimony nor its compounds have a medical use, although up to the 1970s, antimony compounds were used to treat parasitic infections like schistosomiasis. These preparations did kill the parasites, but sometimes they also dispatched the patient. Up to the early twentieth century, tartar emetic was used as a remedy, albeit an ineffective one, for alcohol abuse. The New England Journal of Medicine once reported a case of a man whose wife tried to cure him of his alcoholic habit by secretly putting tartar emetic into his orange juice. The result was a trip to the hospital with chest pains and liver toxicity. Two years later the man reported complete abstinence from alcohol. Seems antimony had taught him a lesson.

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The Secret World Inside Us

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 04/14/2016 - 19:00

Recently, there’s been an influx of media attention on guts. More specifically, the microbes that live in your gut. Extensive research is being done on these little guys as they seem to be having a real impact on our health. These gut microbes may be miniscule but their function is major. And I learnt all about them at “The Secret World Inside You” exhibit now on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Before I begin walking you through the exhibit, first a brief explanation as to what microbes even are. Microbes are microscopic living organisms that can only be seen with the help of a microscope. And they are everywhere – in every fold and lining of our bodies, including our inside. They literally govern the world inside us and are responsible for much of how we function.

Our skin is the first point of contact for microbes, which is most probably why it’s the first section you get to in this exhibit. There is not one individual whose microbiome is like that of another. However, what came as a real shocker was the fact that people living together – families, roommates, and yup, pets too –share certain microbe make-up. So much so, that when one person leaves the nest for a few days, the microbiome of the house shifts until they return home again. Pretty sweet, no? Everyone sharing the same types of microbes…(It could also be slightly gross if you think about it too much, so just don’t). It was also pointed out how certain microbes, as distant as they may seem, are actually closely linked. Let’s take cheese, for example. The holes in Swiss cheese are made from a bacterium that is similar to one located on the skin, which is why (some) feet take on a cheesy-like smell. On feet, the Brevibacterium linens bacteria converts amino acids into smelly sweat, but in the world of dairy, it serves to ripen Limburger cheese. Delicious? Depends.

Now perhaps it’s my age and the fact that my ovaries now twitch on a regular basis thanks to all the babies on my FB feed, but the next section of the exhibit was hands down my favourite. “Before Birth”, the world of the baby and the microbiome of the mama. Now one would think that the two are inextricably linked since the fetus is totally reliant upon the mother; however, to my surprise, the mother’s microbiome does not mix with the fetus at all. In fact, if the microbiome of the mother interacts at all with the fetus, it could be very risky. And it’s thanks to the placenta, the gatekeeper in this whole process, why the two don’t mix. After visiting this exhibit, I really developed a whole newfound respect for the placenta since it serves a pivotal function, allowing nutrients and oxygen to enter the amniotic sac and preventing any other materials from doing so.

Now once a woman’s water breaks all rules are off. The baby is now cooked enough to not only mingle with the microbes of its’ mother but to start developing a microbiome of their own. And the birth canal is where this all happens. When the baby travels through the canal, the mother’s microbes get pressed into the skin, nose and eyes, and even swallowed by the little one before being delivered to the baby’s gut where they can then start their own gut microbiome. This process is crucial in the development of a baby’s healthy immune and digestive system. (How awesome!) But you may be wondering (as was I), about those C-section deliveries since these babies do not go through the birth canal picking up the mother’s microbes along the way. Instead, these babies pick up microbes from the doctor’s hands and the environment. They end up lining the baby’s digestive tract and in turn have an impact on their immune system, causing C-section babies to be at a higher risk of a variety of conditions, such as asthma and allergies. To test this, studies are now being done where the baby, immediately post-C-section delivery is slathered with a gauze pad that soaked up the microbes in their mother’s birth canal right before birth. Time will tell whether this can benefit the baby but most signs point to yes, which is good news since about one mother in three now gives birth by C-section in the United States.

As life goes on, microbes live, grow and multiply based on what we feed them. Meaning, the food we eat and the choices we make influence our gut bacteria. This has spawned a huge new area of research looking at individual variation when it comes to weight gain and loss, which was another section of the exhibit that I found fascinating, since like the majority of people on the planet I have a few pounds that just won’t relent.

Different people react to different foods in different ways. This is not a novel idea. I mean, just look at allergies and adverse food reactions. Some people have them, some people don’t. But what if this can be attributed to the type of microbes living in your gut? Let’s take a “healthy” food like a tomato, for example. Could you imagine if someone’s blood sugar spiked after eating tomatoes the same way it would after eating a donut? And research has shown, that this is the case! And yet in another individual, tomatoes can have zero spike effect. This whole new line of research could be a breakthrough in terms of weight control. Costly, but important. I know I’d be among the first to sign up to find out just what type of bacteria I have going on in my gut. Of course, as the exhibit suggests, one cannot know whether obese people are obese due to their microbiome or if there are external factors that caused their microbiome to be as such in the first place. It’s the chicken or the egg debate and we shall leave it to science to continue the research.

After leaving the exhibit, I realized that the microbiome is truly a hotbed of scientific research. We know so much but at the same time there are so many question marks about how we can use, manipulate, and alter our microbiome to enhance our health. And I am confident that science will, at one point or another, provide us with these answers; but until then, I’m just going to hope that my gut bacteria interact favourably with tomatoes.

You can visit “The Secret World Inside You” exhibit at the American Natural History Museum in New York where it will be on display until August 2016.

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National Bunsen Burner Day

Our OSS Blog - Thu, 04/14/2016 - 08:46

March 31st was National Bunsen Burner Day. Bunsen (1811-1899) should be remembered. After all, the “Bunsen Burner” is a typical symbol of chemistry. But there is more to Bunsen than just a burner.

Laboratory workers had long been plagued by sooty, hard-to-control flames and Bunsen of course knew that oxygen was necessary for combustion and that soot was the product of incomplete combustion. He therefore concluded that the secret to a clean flame lay in mixing the combustible gas with air in just the right proportion.

The prototype Bunsen burner consisted of a metal tube with strategically drilled holes through which air could enter and mix with the combustible gas flowing through the tube. A sliding metal cover allowed the operator to vary the number of open holes and thus control the character of the flame. Bunsen, however, never patented his invention. He did not believe that scientists should profit financially from their work; research was to be done for its own sake. Why was Bunsen so interested in developing a clean flame? Because he had a passion for studying the diverse brilliant colors produced by sprinkling various substances into a fire. He had noted that throwing sodium chloride (ordinary salt) into a flame always resulted in a bright orange-yellow glow. The same color appeared if sodium bromide, or indeed any compound of sodium was cast into the flame. Other elements also produced characteristic colors. In fact Bunsen discovered the existence of the elements rubidium and cesium through the colors they produced.

Over a hundred years earlier, Newton had shown how a prism can be used to separate white light into the colors of the rainbow. Bunsen now applied this principle to separate the colors of a flame into their individual components. The spectroscope, an instrument he developed together with the physicist Kirchoff, allowed unknown substances to be identified purely by the colors they produced when heated in the flame of a Bunsen burner.

So, who cares what colors are produced in a flame? Well, just think of the glorious colors of fireworks. Or the bright red strontium flame of an emergency roadside flare. Or the yellow glow of a sodium vapor highway light. The original studies that led to these applications were painstakingly carried out by Robert Bunsen. After having long toiled with flames and spectroscopes in the laboratory, the great man spent years writing up his work for publication. The day the manuscript was finished, he left it on his desk and went out to celebrate. When he returned, Bunsen was horrified to see a smoldering pile of ashes where his treasured treatise had been.

A flask filled with water had been next to the papers and had acted as a magnifying glass, focussing the sun's rays and igniting the manuscript. A lesser man would have surrendered to fate at this point. But Bunsen, even at an advanced age, doggedly repeated the work and eventually published the results of his spectroscopic research so that all the world finally became aware of his burner.

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The Secret World Inside Us

From Our Contributors - Thu, 04/14/2016 - 08:44

Recently, there’s been an influx of media attention on guts. More specifically, the microbes that live in your gut. Extensive research is being done on these little guys as they seem to be having a real impact on our health. These gut microbes may be miniscule but their function is major. And I learnt all about them at “The Secret World Inside You” exhibit now on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Before I begin walking you through the exhibit, first a brief explanation as to what microbes even are. Microbes are microscopic living organisms that can only be seen with the help of a microscope. And they are everywhere – in every fold and lining of our bodies, including our inside. They literally govern the world inside us and are responsible for much of how we function.

Our skin is the first point of contact for microbes, which is most probably why it’s the first section you get to in this exhibit. There is not one individual whose microbiome is like that of another. However, what came as a real shocker was the fact that people living together – families, roommates, and yup, pets too –share certain microbe make-up. So much so, that when one person leaves the nest for a few days, the microbiome of the house shifts until they return home again. Pretty sweet, no? Everyone sharing the same types of microbes…(It could also be slightly gross if you think about it too much, so just don’t). It was also pointed out how certain microbes, as distant as they may seem, are actually closely linked. Let’s take cheese, for example. The holes in Swiss cheese are made from a bacterium that is similar to one located on the skin, which is why (some) feet take on a cheesy-like smell. On feet, the Brevibacterium linens bacteria converts amino acids into smelly sweat, but in the world of dairy, it serves to ripen Limburger cheese. Delicious? Depends.

Now perhaps it’s my age and the fact that my ovaries now twitch on a regular basis thanks to all the babies on my FB feed, but the next section of the exhibit was hands down my favourite. “Before Birth”, the world of the baby and the microbiome of the mama. Now one would think that the two are inextricably linked since the fetus is totally reliant upon the mother; however, to my surprise, the mother’s microbiome does not mix with the fetus at all. In fact, if the microbiome of the mother interacts at all with the fetus, it could be very risky. And it’s thanks to the placenta, the gatekeeper in this whole process, why the two don’t mix. After visiting this exhibit, I really developed a whole newfound respect for the placenta since it serves a pivotal function, allowing nutrients and oxygen to enter the amniotic sac and preventing any other materials from doing so.

Now once a woman’s water breaks all rules are off. The baby is now cooked enough to not only mingle with the microbes of its’ mother but to start developing a microbiome of their own. And the birth canal is where this all happens. When the baby travels through the canal, the mother’s microbes get pressed into the skin, nose and eyes, and even swallowed by the little one before being delivered to the baby’s gut where they can then start their own gut microbiome. This process is crucial in the development of a baby’s healthy immune and digestive system. (How awesome!) But you may be wondering (as was I), about those C-section deliveries since these babies do not go through the birth canal picking up the mother’s microbes along the way. Instead, these babies pick up microbes from the doctor’s hands and the environment. They end up lining the baby’s digestive tract and in turn have an impact on their immune system, causing C-section babies to be at a higher risk of a variety of conditions, such as asthma and allergies. To test this, studies are now being done where the baby, immediately post-C-section delivery is slathered with a gauze pad that soaked up the microbes in their mother’s birth canal right before birth. Time will tell whether this can benefit the baby but most signs point to yes, which is good news since about one mother in three now gives birth by C-section in the United States.

As life goes on, microbes live, grow and multiply based on what we feed them. Meaning, the food we eat and the choices we make influence our gut bacteria. This has spawned a huge new area of research looking at individual variation when it comes to weight gain and loss, which was another section of the exhibit that I found fascinating, since like the majority of people on the planet I have a few pounds that just won’t relent.

Different people react to different foods in different ways. This is not a novel idea. I mean, just look at allergies and adverse food reactions. Some people have them, some people don’t. But what if this can be attributed to the type of microbes living in your gut? Let’s take a “healthy” food like a tomato, for example. Could you imagine if someone’s blood sugar spiked after eating tomatoes the same way it would after eating a donut? And research has shown, that this is the case! And yet in another individual, tomatoes can have zero spike effect. This whole new line of research could be a breakthrough in terms of weight control. Costly, but important. I know I’d be among the first to sign up to find out just what type of bacteria I have going on in my gut. Of course, as the exhibit suggests, one cannot know whether obese people are obese due to their microbiome or if there are external factors that caused their microbiome to be as such in the first place. It’s the chicken or the egg debate and we shall leave it to science to continue the research.

After leaving the exhibit, I realized that the microbiome is truly a hotbed of scientific research. We know so much but at the same time there are so many question marks about how we can use, manipulate, and alter our microbiome to enhance our health. And I am confident that science will, at one point or another, provide us with these answers; but until then, I’m just going to hope that my gut bacteria interact favourably with tomatoes.

You can visit “The Secret World Inside You” exhibit at the American Natural History Museum in New York where it will be on display until August 2016.

Read more

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