Friday, December 29, 2006

Everything in Moderation

Hormesis is a biological response to a substance at very low doses that is opposite the response of the same substance at high doses. In other words, substances that have been shown to be dangerous at high levels might actually be good for you at very low doses. Studies have shown that irradiating a mouse with a very low dose of gamma radiation before subjecting it to a high dose, actually protects it from developing cancer.

The link above is the wikipedia entry and goes into why this is not a popular theory at all. It's not like hormesis is hogwash, even you have heard of it. It is why very small concentrations of botulinum toxin (yes the stuff that causes botulism) injected into our faces makes us look years younger, instead of causing horrible pain and death. Scientists have also described the hormesis effect with opiates. Very small doses of opiate antagonists (pain killer blockers) actually enhance high doses of pain killers. And very small doses of opiates have been shown to induce pain.

There are a lot of government agencies that were designed specifically to protect us (no, not the FBI) that have presumed that the dose-response curves of many substances are linear. As a scientist, I can attest to the pain of measuring a dose-response curve at concentrations below the linear ranges. Still doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. A recent survey based on a review of more than 56,000 tests in 13 strains of yeast using 2,200 drugs indicates that hormesis may actually be a valid phenomenon and dangerous to ignore. Anti-cancer drugs that normally inhibit cell growth actually enhance it at very low concentrations.

Acknowledging the validity of hormesis comes with a whole mess of consequences, however. Environmental groups have advocated completely eliminating toxic substances when that may not be necessary.

But even harder for the government agency types to swallow may be granting credence to the entire field of homeopathy. Homeopathy is a medical practice entirely predicated on treating illnesses with very small doses of substances that at large doses mimic the disease being treated. Maybe there is something behind that whole "crack-pot" theory.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

OK, I've worked out this whole Intelligent Design thing...

I've been trying to ferret out this whole ID thing and it turns out, I've been going about it all wrong... it's not about ferrets, it's about squirrels.

Specifically, God designed squirrels intelligent enough to outsmart trees.

Bet you didn't know trees were smart, did you? Well, they are. To ensure the survival of their species against their major predators (which are squirrels, just in case you didn't know), they do not produce the same annual amount of seeds (the part of them that squirrels eat). They employ a "swamp and starve" strategy, which means that some years they hold back seeds - starving out the squirrel populations - and then swamp the land with seeds once they have starved out the hungry rodents. Pretty bloodthirsty if you ask me.

Turns out the red squirrel has foiled this carefully planned coniferous plot. In a manner that is - as yet - undetermined, the squirrels have worked out this seemingly random schedule and birth not one but two litters in these lean years. So they, and only they, amongst all their squirrel brethren decimate the unborn trees.

It's all starting to make sense to me now...

Friday, December 15, 2006

It is a toomah

This last month has been quite the experience. My grandmother died at the end of last month, she had senile dementia and didn't remember her kids before she died. She'd also been married to my grandfather for 69 years. When my father visited them about 8 months ago, my grandfather told him that the warranty on his heart was up. When my dad asked him what he was sticking around for, he said that Mother needed him. Less than three weeks later, my grandfather joined her. It was a really beautiful end to an amazing love story.

And it was a testament to mind over matter. Once grandpa had Thanksgiving dinner with all 7 of his kids (something that hadn't happened in decades) he was ready to go. I think he stayed alive out of sheer will-power. He was strong that way. It is unfortunate the way it came about, but it was great to see my relatives (my dad, his 6 siblings, and a myriad of offspring of the afore mentioned) two times in a month.

Which made this particular study stand out for me. Apparently the more siblings that you have, the greater chance you have of getting a brain tumor. Here's the cool thing, it only depends upon the number of younger siblings you have. Which seems like a very weird association. Unless, as these authors suggest, that many brain tumors might have an infectious disease origin. My dad is one of the oldest of the bunch so it seems kind of relevant, except he's just past 60 so unless it is a very dormant thing, it probably doesn't apply to him.

This observation makes identifying the vectors thay may cause tumors an important and unexpected line of research to follow.