22 Nov 2016

Daily Reads - November 22, 2016

The Atlantic - The Toxic-Waste Drum Is Everywhere
"Within a few years, drums were found in communities all across the United States—crushed, emptied, their walls eroded, piled like carcasses with bony ribs jutting from the earth."

STAT - As New Opioids Spread, Coroners Face a Wave of Medical Mysteries
"Another problem with synthetic opioids is that lab equipment can prove insufficient to identify minuscule amounts of drugs in a victim's system, even if that amount is enough to prove deadly."

21 Nov 2016

Daily Reads - November 21, 2016

STAT - Do Cancer Clinical Trials Exaggerate the Real-World Benefits of Drugs?
"In addition to being younger, whiter, and healthier than other cancer patients, those in clinical trials tend to be 'highly motivated and to have a strong support network,' both of which can improve survival, said Dr. Hanna Sanoff of the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center."

The Guardian - Cocaine Roadside Test Developed in Effort to Reduce Drug-Driving
"While roadside tests for cocaine already exist in the form of antibody-based kits the approach, researchers say, cannot reveal how much cocaine a driver has taken and can give false results."

Smithsonian - How Scorpion Venom Is Helping Doctors Treat Cancer
"When Tumor Paint entered Hunter's blood stream, it made its way to his brain, and to the tumor there. Then it stuck."

18 Nov 2016

History - Rainbow Herbicides and the Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, amidst carpet bombing and Hamburger Hill, the United States engaged in a particular form of chemical warfare that targeted not people, but plants. Between 1962 and 1971, Air Force transport aircraft were used as souped-up crop dusters to spray ~77 million liters of herbicides (plant-killing compounds) throughout Southeast Asia as part of Operation Ranch Hand. The idea was to destroy both food crops (primarily rice, which is difficult to incinerate) and forest canopy, which North Vietnamese forces took advantage of to conceal their activities.

A collection of herbicides, either single compounds or mixtures, were used by the US in 'Nam. Six of these were assigned a particular color code, a stripe of this color being painted on the 55 gallon drums in which the particular agent was stored. Thus the whole rainbow thing.

Unfortunately, these herbicides weren't just good at killing plants. They also harmed people, in part because they were contaminated with a really nasty poison. It's thought that millions of Vietnamese were directly exposed to herbicides over the course of the spraying campaigns.

Agent Orange is by far the best known of these "rainbow herbicides", largely due to the fact that it accounted for most of the herbicide sprayed in Vietnam. It consisted of a 1:1 mixture of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). These compounds resemble a group of plant growth hormones known as auxins. They stimulate rapid and uncontrolled cell growth, causing plants to literally grow themselves to death. In lab rodents, 2,4-D doesn't appear to cause cancer but can cause kidney and nerve damage. People who have inhaled this herbicide or ended up with a bunch of it on their skin tended to get an upset stomach and nerve damage affecting their ability to move and feel with their body parts.

Agent Purple, like Agent Orange, was a mixture of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. It was only used between 1962 and 1964.

Agent Pink and Agent Green each contained only 2,4,5-T. Boring.

Agents Purple, Pink, Green, and Orange were all contaminated with trace amounts of TCDD, a dioxin. Dioxins, more technically referred to as polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, are a group of incredibly toxic byproducts associated with the production of chlorine-containing herbicides such as 2,4,5-T. TCDD is likely responsible for increased rates of cancer and birth defects in Vietnamese populations who were exposed to this compound via the herbicide sprays. Researchers looking at veterans of the Vietnam War who were exposed to TCDD (via Agent Orange) have found evidence that this exposure is linked to prostate cancer and diabetes.

Agent White was a little different. It consisted of a 4:1 mixture of 2,4-D and picloram, another synthetic auxin herbicide. Since there was no 2,4,5-T included, there was no TCDD. Picloram doesn't appear to be all that toxic, although it does tend to stick around in the environment for a while.

Agent Blue contained cacodylic acid, an arsenic-containing herbicide that is very different from the chlorine-containing synthetic auxin pesticides found in the other five agents. Arsenic compounds, like inorganic arsenic, are able to disrupt energy production in the cells of both plants and animals. For plants, this can lead to, among other things, the interruption of water transport, causing them to dry out and lose their leaves. For people, organ damage can result. Exposure to arsenic also increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses.

17 Nov 2016

Daily Reads - November 17, 2016

AP - Surgeon General Report: 'Addiction is Not a Character Flaw'
"The report, 'Facing Addiction in America,' details the toll addiction takes on the nation - 78 people die each day from an opioid overdose; 20 million have a substance use disorder - and explains how brain science offers hope for recovery."

Popular Science - Scientists Just Synthesized the Deadly Toxin of an Adorable Frog
"Found in the skin of the golden poison dart frog Phyllobates terribilis, this toxin is so potent that one milligram of it would be enough to kill between 10 and 20 humans."

BuzzFeed - We Need To Talk About “Alcohol Blankets”
"Your body's natural response to pull blood away from the skin so it can warm itself up is impaired by alcohol’s vasodilation activity in the skin, says Raslau. So you still feel warm in a superficial way even if you're rapidly losing heat."

16 Nov 2016

Daily Reads - November 16, 2016

STAT - Explore How Illegal Drugs Have Become Cheaper and More Potent Over Time
Check out how the price and purity of illegal drugs has changed over time, based on data from the DEA's System to Retrieve Information from Drug Evidence (STRIDE)

Popular Science - This Pill Delivers Medication Days or Weeks After It's Swallowed
"The new device, which has been tested in pigs, could be a potential solution not only for patients with chronic diseases, but also as a way to treat conditions in third world countries that require long-term therapies, such as malaria."

Ars Technica - Bogus Claims by Homeopathic Drug Makers Will Now Face Wrath of FTC
"Makers of over-the-counter homeopathic drugs and products that claim to cure or treat ailments will now have to clearly disclose in their advertisements and labeling that: 1) there is no scientific evidence that they are effective, and 2) that any claims of effectiveness are only based on homeopathic theories, which are not accepted by modern medical experts."

15 Nov 2016

Daily Reads - November 15, 2016

AP - Cholesterol Drug Shows Promise to Help Reverse Heart Disease
"Repatha and a similar drug, Praluent, block PCSK9, a substance that interferes with the liver’s ability to remove cholesterol from the blood. Too much cholesterol, along with other substances, can build up and form plaque in arteries."

BuzzFeed - Drugs Are Getting Into Our Rivers, And That’s Bad News For The Fight Against Antibiotic Resistance
"When you take, say, ibuprofen for a headache, not all of the drug is broken down by your body. The bit that you don't break down ends up in your urine, which then goes down the sewer and into sewage treatment works."

Al Jazeera - Portugal: Fifteen Years of Decriminalised Drug Policy
"The methadone programme is part of a drug policy shift that Portugal underwent 15 years ago, under the left-leaning government of Jorge Sampaio. The country was suffering from a huge heroin problem."

14 Nov 2016

New Finding - Better Understanding the Poison Ivy Rash

  • Urushiol = compound responsible for the itchy skin rash (allergic contact dermatitis) resulting from a close encounter with poison ivy
  • Cases of poison ivy rash are increasing worldwide as the plant expands its range and grows larger - this seems to be due to the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
  • By applying urushiol to mice to give them a poison ivy rash and then looking closely at what happened in their skin, researchers found that levels of a cytokine (a protein used by cells to communicate with one another) called IL-33 increased as the rash developed
  • IL-33 sticks to a protein called ST2 found in skin nerve cells (primary sensory neurons), bringing about a rash
  • Researchers were able to influence how itchy the rash was by blocking IL-33 or ST2 (which reduced scratching and inflammation) or injecting IL-33 into the skin of mice with the rash (which led to much more scratching)
  • In the future, we might be able to target IL-33/ST2 with drugs to limit the itchy rash caused by poison ivy
PNAS - IL-33/ST2 Signaling Excites Sensory Neurons and Mediates Itch Response in a Mouse Model of Poison Ivy Contact Allergy

Random Case Report - Loss of Senses After Hip Replacement

  • Cobalt = bluish gray metal - mixed with chromium and molybdenum (other metals) to make an alloy found in artificial hips and knees - the alloy makes good joints since it's hard, resists corrosion, and resists the wear associated with the frequent movement of a joint
  • Although we need a tiny bit of cobalt in our diet for our bodies to work properly, in higher doses it can cause serious health problems
  • A middle-aged man had surgery to replace his damaged hip with a ceramic one, experienced persistent pain afterward, then had another surgery to replace the ceramic head of the joint with one made of a cobalt-containing alloy in an effort to improve its function and fix the pain issue
  • Two years later, his ability to see and hear started to fade - it got to the point he could only make out outlines and colors, and he needed a hearing aid - also his feet went numb, the skin on his head and neck became inflamed, and to top it all off his hip started to hurt again
  • Taking a closer look, doctors found that the level of cobalt in his body had increased after the second surgery, and an X-ray revealed that the metal head of the hip joint had been worn down where it was in contact with the ceramic socket, releasing cobalt into his body
  • A third surgery revealed that the area around his hip was stained with black metal debris - surgeons drained more than half a litre of black fluid from the hip joint!
  • The messed up joint was removed, the surrounding body parts cleaned up, and another artificial hip was implanted - afterward, the man's cobalt levels declined, his sight and hearing returned, and the foot numbness and skin inflammation he was experiencing disappeared
  • Lesson = don't replace part of an artificial joint with a part made by a different manufacturer
Acta Orthopaedica - Severe Cobalt Poisoning with Loss of Sight After Ceramic-Metal Pairing in a Hip—A Case Report