“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” Book Review

As a journalist interested in science, I had been meaning to read this novel for a while. I hadn’t gotten around to picking it up when my mom brought it home saying one of her professors she works with wanted me to read it for it’s journalistic value (Thanks Donald!!).

Skloot book cover

Front cover of the book by Rebecca Skloot

I picked up this book and couldn’t stop reading. The author, Rebecca Skloot was able to capture my attention by switching between the distant past of Henrietta’s life, and the near past anecdotes of her attempting to obtain information from friends and family of Miss Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer living in Maryland in the 1950s whose cells were taken from a tumor when she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to treat cervical cancer. It is unclear if these cells were obtained with consent, but these cells, known as HeLa, were able to continue to replicate themselves. This allowed for scientists all over the world to research how human cells work, how disease effects cells, and eventually led to the production of vaccines for many ailments.

This book touches on the issues of racial inequality, economic inequality, patient disclosure, and the balance of rights to tissue and scientific research.

While Lacks’ cells were important to scientific research, her family remained in the dark about how important her death really was. This is where Skloot comes in.

Skloot spent years trying to gain the trust of the family, particularly Lack’s daughter Deborah, so she could write the real story of the woman behind the HeLa cells. Skloot was able to get the story of Henrietta’s life through many interviews and was able to tell her family just how important she was.

The book was wonderfully researched, well written, and gave me a great example of someone who was willing to put blood, sweat and tears into the sake of writing a story about a woman who was left under appreciated for the sake of science advancements.

Check out Rebecca Skloot’s website here.


Artificial blood may soon be a tool in the future of medicine

Red Blood Cells Photo Courtesy of Shaskin

Artificial blood, a substitute for real blood needed for transfusions, has recently become the latest innovation that adds promise to the future of medicine.

This replacement is manufactured by taking fibroblasts that have been reprogrammed into mature blood cells and growing them into red blood cells. Fibroblasts are cells of connective tissue that are critical in the process of wound healing.

This blood was developed by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service . They have been producing Type O negative blood, which is known as the universal donor blood and can be used in patients with any blood type.

Marc Turner, the principle researcher of the project, told The Telegraph  the plans are for the trial to be conducted by 2016 or 2017, which are likely going to be through the use of treating three patients with Thalassaemia, a genetic blood disorder that requires frequent transfusions.

“Although similar research has been conducted elsewhere, this is the first time anybody has manufactured blood to the appropriate quality and safety standards for transfusion into a human being,” Turner told The Telegraph.

Being able to produce blood on a large scale has plenty of good uses in medicine. Because the blood manufactured is Type 0, anyone can receive it. It would also cut down the need and costs associated for blood donations, which would most likely cut down costs of blood when it’s needed in medical situations.

Turner does say there might be some challenges to bringing this production, mainly because laboratory conditions are hard to replicate to an industrial scale.

Hopefully, they can find a way to do this and save some human lives as a result.

Is pollution in China causing erratic weather in the US?

Deep convective clouds are linked to intense storms. Photo courtsey of The Earth System Research Laboratory

After the few days of spring we got here in Upstate New York, it was a bit of a shock for a lot of people when they woke up this morning to snow. Recently, it’s seemed like Mother Nature can’t make her mind up.

But is it possible Mother Nature has nothing to do with this and there’s someone else to blame? I just came across an article from The Guardian that says air pollution in China may be linked to the erratic weather patterns in the United States.

This study, conducted at Texas A&M, used a multiscale global aerosol–climate model to simulate the effects the particles in the smog from China have on the weather patterns that form over the Pacific Ocean. 

They found that compared to pre-industrial days, the smog from China helps form deep convective clouds, which result in intense storms. These clouds are moving east from the Pacific Ocean and causing erratic weather in many parts of the United States.

While I’m not sure if this would have any effect on the snow I saw this morning, I do think it can be problematic for North American.

But this isn’t the first time pollution has effected the climates of neighboring continents. In 2013, research was done at the University of Washington that showed the sulfate pollution from coal factories in the US and Europe may have contributed the widespread drought of West Africa in the 1980’s. Previously, the drought had been blamed on overgrazing and bad agricultural practices.

I don’t know about you, but this is further proof to me pollution isn’t a good thing and should probably be addressed.

Medicine to erase memories; Sci-fi plot or real life?

I wanted to dedicate my blog post today to something I’ve been learning about in my Cognitive Psychology class. We are currently learning about memory and how malleable it is, but something was brought up that caught my attention.

Beta Blockers, traditionally prescribed to treat high blood pressure and anxiety, have been the subject of a lot of research in treating patients with PTSD or other disorders brought on by traumatic events.

People with PTSD usually have “triggers,” or things that remind them of the experience. When these triggers happen, they often go into a state of panic. Researchers are trying to find ways to get rid of or make memories of the event less vivid in order to reduce these stress responses.

When traumatic memories are bought up, or reconsolidated, in the mind, propranolol (a beta blocker) is administered. This makes it so the chemicals associated with strengthening memory are greatly lessened, and in turn, making the memory less memorable.

In a 2007 study by Brunet et al, compared to a placebo, patients who were administered propranolol experienced less PTSD responses(high heart rate, sweaty palms, etc.) after a two week period when the mental imagery of their traumatic experiences were brought up.

One thing people are concerned about is the possibility of the drug being “used for evil,” like some of the “mind eraser” devices or techniques used by evil villains in scifi stories. But most ethicists feel the research proves it only makes memories less memorable, and doesn’t completely erase them. The use of beta blockers would most likely be used along with therapy to speed up the recovery process.


Propranolol, like the neuralizer in the Men In Black series, is being researched to help people forget traumatic events. (Photo by Sony Pictures)

Overall, I think this type of research is great for the field of Psychology. People with PTSD, or even people with phobias, have another possible resource for treating their mental illness.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Controversy?

Helix Nebula
Helix Nebula, as seen from the Hubble Telescope. Photo courtesy of NASA

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered it’s second episode this past Sunday. This show is a follow up of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980)

The second episode, which focuses on molecules, contains information about the origin of life and evolution. This can be a controversial topic that many religious people may not enjoy watching, but I think the show’s host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, presented it very intelligently and non-threateningly.

“Some claim that evolution is just a theory, as if it were merely an opinion. The theory of evolution — like the theory of gravity — is a scientific fact. Evolution really happened. Accepting our kinship with all life on Earth is not only solid science. In my view, it’s also a soaring spiritual experience,” Tyson said during the program.

Some people, mainly Creationists, did not like Tyson’s outlook of the theory of evolution. Danny Faulkner, Professor of Astronomy and a Creationist, was interviewed on The Janet Mefferd Show. Faulkner said he thought it was only fair Creationists received a chance to rebuttal the claims made by Tyson in the show.

Faulkner said; “I don’t recall seeing any interviews with people – that may yet come – but it’s based upon the narration from the host and then various types of little video clips of various things, cartoons and things like that.”

Tyson had made a statement earlier in the month during a radio interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. In the interview, Tyson about one-third “Western/American scientists who claim that there is a god to whom they pray” and they’re “fully functioning” as scientists. He said problems arise when they use scripture as their source for theories.

Overall, I know there will probably be conflicting views of creationism versus the big bang theory for a long time, but I’m glad I can tune into the show to learn more about the major scientific theories there are about the universe.

Pharmaceutical companies; are they helping us stay healthy, or are they selling sickness?

Recently, I read an article from NPR about how people in the United States are often rushing to get brain scans at the first sign of a headache to make sure they don’t have a brain tumor. Researchers at the University of Michigan have found people in the US spend around one billion dollars a year because they have a simple headache.

This made me think about the state of the medical system in the US. In my opinion, it seems we are moving to be a country of hypochondriacs because many people go straight to the emergency room at the sign of a sniffle.

A lot of this change in culture may be caused by the pharmaceutical business practices as a whole. Since the beginning of drug regulations in the mid 1900s, pharmaceutical companies have made the pharmaceutical industry more of a business of selling sickness, and less about finding the right drugs for actual sicknesses.

In fact, pharmaceutical companies spend about nineteen times more money on marketing than basic research. This marketing includes advertising, paying doctors to promote and prescribe certain drugs, and sending pharmaceutical representatives around the country.

While many people obviously have a sickness that can be aided by certain drugs, I think pharmaceutical companies are selling us sickness, and in turn causing people to look to take a pill for anything that might be wrong with them.

The fact that people are bombarded with ads about different diseases may also cause people to become paranoid, and assume they have a certain ailment. Many doctors complain about the “WebMD patient” who diagnoses themselves with a disease and only go to the doctors to get a prescription. This type of practice is putting healthcare in the hands of people who aren’t trained in medicine.

Many people agree this pharmaceutical marketing practice has some downfalls, and recently, GlaxoSmithKline announced they will stop paying doctors to promote their drugs.

What are your thoughts on the current pharmaceutical industry setup? Do you think it is fine the way it is, or should changes be made?

Cold temperatures may cause damage to grape harvest in the Finger Lakes

Cold weather has caused damage to the grape vines

This winter’s extreme cold weather has raised concern about the health of grape vines in the upcoming harvest season, but local groups are taking measures to minimize the impact.

Currently, grape vines are in their dormant stage, meaning there are no blossoms, but the plant is still at risk to be damaged.

Dave Wiemann, vineyard manager of Sheldrake Point Winery in Ovid NY, said the coldest recorded temperature at their weather station was -4 degrees Fahrenheit.

“With this weather, the type of injury we suffer from with the vines is bud mortality,” Wiemann said. “Buds are the little itty-bitty things where the growth starts. And in that bud is the potential for having a crop, so if those buds freeze and die, the amount of crop we can have for the following year is reduced.”

Wiemann said this winter, Sheldrake Point has suffered about 20% bud mortality. He said other vineyards that reached colder temperatures will probably have a higher bud mortality, which results in less usable crops. These vineyards may have to outsource to get grapes for their wine production.

Hans Walter-Peterson, viticulture specialist and team leader for the Finger Lakes Grape Program, said this is the coldest winter vineyards have seen in this area in ten years.

The Finger Lakes Grape Program is a group that supplies participating vineyards all throughout the Finger Lakes with information about how to keep a healthy crop and maximize grape harvests. The program, a part of Cornell Cooperative extension, holds information sessions and distributes material from research that is being done at Cornell and elsewhere about grape farming.

Walter-Peterson said some varieties of grapes are less able to survive in this climate’s freezing temperatures than others, which makes them more susceptible to bud mortality.

“For example, something like concord, which is a grape that is based on a species from the northeast is much better adapted to these conditions than something like chardonnay, which is from a species that originated in the Middle East,” Walter-Peterson said.

In addition to bud mortality, Walter-Peterson said freezing of the woody part of the vine itself can also be damaging to harvests.

Ways to minimize impact

“The best thing to do every year is to make sure the vines are healthy going in and make sure they have plenty of the nutrients that make them winter hardy,” Wiemann said. 

One technique used to minimize impact to vines during the winter is ‘hilling up,’ which means arranging soil around the base of each vine so that it covers the graft. This helps ensure that even if the trunk of the vine freezes and dies, there is a chance enough wood will be insulated enough to be healthy and grow the following growing season.

Walter-Peterson also said having too big of a crop on the vines will weaken them and make them less likely to survive winter. Finger Lakes Grape Program makes sure to educate growers in order to minimize a decrease in harvest.

PUsh for Winter wine tourism

While vineyards are preparing for a possible decline in harvest, Finger Lakes Wine Country, a company that aims to attract people to visit the area, has been pushing to increase winter wine  tours in the past five years.

Christina Roberts, director of media relation and marketing of Finger Lakes Wine Country, said there is not any data yet to reflect this winter’s impact on tourism for wineries this winter, but they are working on collecting some.

Despite this extreme cold, Roberts said winter is a great time for people to visit wineries in the area and Finger Lakes Wine Country has been trying to change people’s perceptions that wine tours are only for the warmer months.

“We find the winter is really a wonderful time to visit,” Roberts said. “Accommodations typically are able to offer lower rates and it is more affordable to visit …. It’s also a great time to come because you don’t have to ‘fight the crowds’ and you get that individualized attention.”