By Jess Sevetson
Definitive diagnosis for many neurodegenerative diseases – such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – frequently comes far too late. With dementia patients, doctors assess memory and behavior using specialized cognitive tests, though the results of these tests can be ambiguous. The “true gold standard” for diagnosis of both Alzheimer’s and CTE is through direct postmortem examination of brain tissue. Now, both researchers and athletes are working to change that.
Tragedies of Science: The Story of Thalidomide and How the FDA Gained More Power than Any Other Government Agency
By Olivia Woodford-Berry, '19
Though unfamiliar to some, many still remember thalidomide as one of the worst scientific mishaps of the twentieth century. This drug, originally produced in Germany, was brought to market with problematic lack of testing, and was later proven to cause an array of birth defects from phocomelia, or shortened or abnormal appendages resulting from problems with limb development in the womb, to autism like symptoms. (1) According to the Thalidomide Society, as many as 120,000 babies have miscarried, still born, or born with birth defects as a result of thalidomide. (1) This failure to regulate drugs has impacted thousands of victims, and the influence of this catastrophe continues to impact drug development in unseen ways. Specifically, the historical memories of thalidomide have given wake to the modern, virtually insurmountable power of the Food and Drug Administration.
By Cindy Won, '20
We see everywhere in medical headlines that diseases such as cancer and diabetes are some of the leading causes of death. But what really drives the high prevalence of these conditions? In reality, smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Ever since the Surgeon General Report of 1964 revealed the deleterious effects of smoking on various organs in the body, tobacco prevention strategies have been implemented in public health education. Despite these strategies, over 42 million continue to smoke , and smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths in the United States, both directly and indirectly.
So what is it about tobacco that makes one want to continue smoking, despite its claimed toxicity? Simple: nicotine. An organic chemical compound that mirrors the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, nicotine is absorbed very quickly into the bloodstream and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system by pretending to be acetylcholine. It then activates receptors in the brain that increases the levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the body that controls the reward and pleasure centers of the brain . With continuous stimulation and activation of receptors, the body becomes increasingly tolerized to the amounts of nicotine and requires increasing quantities. Subsequent exposures with greater quantities of nicotine leads to what is commonly understood as addiction. Cigarettes, unfortunately, are an incredibly efficient nicotine delivery vehicle.
Due to the addictive nature of nicotine and its effective delivery via cigarettes, a variety of nicotine dependence interventions have focused on changing its delivery route. One particular semi-successful approach is nicotine replacement therapy. From nicotine patches to nicotine gum, these products aim to deliver nicotine in smaller dosages and help mediate the effects of withdrawal. While these have been proven to increase the chances of quitting smoking, the possibility of continued addiction to smoking is not completely guaranteed.
A new immunological approach is to generate an antibody response to the nicotine in order to prevent the nicotine from activating the receptors associated with the parasympathetic nervous system. One of the specific characteristics of nicotine is that it can serve as a hapten. A hapten is an organic chemical molecule that, when in the body, does not generate any immune response. In this context, when an immune response is generated, the body generates antibodies that neutralize this foreign compound.
Figure 1. A general summary of the effects of haptens and its carrier molecules in generating antibody responses (Taken from slideshare.net)
Recently, researchers have been exploring the possibility of developing an anti-nicotine vaccine which would link the nicotine to another larger carrier molecule. This carrier molecule will induce the creation of antibodies specific to the nicotine. A recent study conducted by the Scripps Department of Chemistry and Immunology investigated the usage of nicotine-like haptens in anti-nicotine vaccines . The premise of the study was to generate antibodies to the nicotine-carrier molecule so that they can neutralize the nicotine before it reaches the receptors. Overall, this study demonstrated delays in the effects of nicotine on mice and the potential to be used as a therapy for nicotine relapse.
Though the vaccine offers promising results and a variety of possibilities for the future, there are a variety of risks and variables that need to be accounted for. For instance, there is the concern of whether the antibodies specific to the nicotine would be generated from memory faster than the rate at which the nicotine binds to its specific receptors in the brain. If the nicotine reached these receptors faster than the antibodies could neutralize them, then the antibody response would not be effective. There is also the strong possibility that even though an antibody response is generated, the antibodies present are not protective.
Complications are not just limited to the molecular mechanism; the vaccine itself, the route of administration, and which types of carrier proteins will be linked to the nicotine in order to generate the response. According to the study “Nicotine hapten structure, antibody specificity, etc”, the types of molecules that were used to link the nicotine and the carrier protein together would change the number of antibodies that were generated . The most optimal combination would have to be tested on a variety of the population and thus slow down the production of the anti-nicotine vaccines. Furthermore, an individual may react to the vaccine in an adverse reaction, leading to exclusion of subsets of the population.
How do we move forward, even though more than 8.5% of deaths are caused by secondhand smoke by itself? How do we move forward in an increasingly neoliberal society, in which these types of therapies and vaccinations are becoming “supplements” instead of necessities? How do we continue to move forward in a world in which e-cigarettes are now being used in lieu of actual cigarettes and nicotine is still being ingested left and right in unhealthy amounts? This definitely is a feat that will take time and consideration for the shifts in the culture of the society we live in. However, the current development of the anti-nicotine vaccine and the research behind the immunological responses show promise for those who are struggling within this epidemic.
(1) American Academy of Family Physicians. Tobacco: Preventing and Treating Nicotine Dependence and Tobacco Use. AAFP https://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/nicotine-tobacco-prevention.html#Introduction
(2) BeTobaccoFree.gov. Nicotine Addiction and Your Health. Department of Health and Human Services. https://betobaccofree.hhs.gov/health-effects/nicotine-health/index.html
(3) Jacob, Nicholas T., Lockner, Jonathan W.; Schlosburg, Joel E.; Ellis, Beverly A; Eubanks, Lisa M.; Janda, Kim D. Investigations of Enantiopure Nicotine Haptens Using an Adjuvanting Carrier in Anti-Nicotine Vaccine Development. Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, 2016, 59 (6), 523-2529. https://dx.doi.org/10.1021/acs.jmedchem.5b01676
(4) de Villiers, SH; Lindblom, N.; Kalayanov, G; Gordon, S. Nicotine hapten structure, antibody selectivity and effect relationships: results from a nicotine vaccine screening procedure. Vaccine, 2010, 59 (10), 2161-8. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.vaccine.2009.12.051
by Maddie Critz '20
“Blindsight”. A word that may seem like only an oxymoron to you, but to a room full of neurologists, the word “blindsight” may incite groans of frustration or, perhaps, an argument.
by Rahul Jayaram '21
If given the task of memorizing a speech word for word, most people would approach the task by continuously repeating the series of words in the speech until they can recite the piece in its entirety. Your brain does a similar task when visual memory comes into play. However, instead of days, such processing takes place in milliseconds, allowing for quick recall. Researchers at the Baycrest Center for Geriatric care have confirmed this key role of eye movements in visual memory in their study involving an image memory task. They determined that when people try to remember an image in their head, their eyes move in a manner similar to when they first viewed the object.
by Sumaiya Sayeed '20
We are encased in an atmosphere protected by the magnetic field that shields us from high energy particles in our solar system. As magnetic fields change, they approach their eventual geomagnetic reversal, which for us means high vulnerability and uncertainty.
by Claire Bekker '21
One could argue that humans are the most successful invasive species on the planet. Since the first groups of Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa 70,000 years ago, we’ve colonized almost the entire globe, wrecking ecological havoc along the way. Over the last few centuries, humans have become increasingly dominant, modifying 50-70% of Earth’s land surface for our own use (1). According to Mark Williams, at the University of Leicester, “It’s not hubris to say this. Never before have animal and plants (and other organisms for that matter) been translocated on a global scale around the planet. Never before has one species dominated primary production in the manner that we do. Never before has one species remodeled the terrestrial biosphere so dramatically to serve its own ends” (2). And yet, our ecological impacts are only becoming more pronounced, in both obvious and subtle ways. Not only do human activities destroy habitats and decrease biodiversity but they also affect animals’ range, migration patterns, and overall vagility — their ability to move — through these fragmented habitats.
by Rahul Jayaraman '19
It’s hard to believe that only about twenty years ago, we knew of less than fifty planets outside our solar system (exoplanets), none of which were known to contain water or compounds suitable for life. Now, we know of more than three thousand exoplanets, and researchers are able to analyze these planets in much finer detail to determine their atmospheric content, using a whole host of new (and old) tools to do so.
by Adrienne Parsons, PhD '21
Scientific progress is charging forward with staggering intensity. But with increases to the number of Americans pursuing scientific research as a career and the growing need for the development of complex technologies, the government is becoming less and less able to foot the bill required to maintain this momentum. To compensate, some scientists are seeking alternatives—by appealing to the public.
by Dylan Sam '21
With the current technological craze, it is hard to go a day without hearing the words “artificial intelligence” or “machine learning.” However, unless you are studying computer science, these buzzwords probably do not mean much to you. You may imagine amazing chess machines or violent robot uprisings. However, artificial intelligence also has social impacts; Professor Makridakis from the University of Nicosia writes about the applications and consequences of the “AI revolution” on society and companies.