Posts Tagged ‘Drugs’

Have a nap and let your computer cure cancer

// October 18th, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Drugs, How Things Work, Recent Research, Science Communication

computer doing science

Image by John Watson

While waiting for inspiration to strike a solid introduction into my head, my computer screen went blank. Good ol’ MacBook conserving energy! But letting your computer go idle doesn’t mean you have to waste its processing power. Why not cure cancer with grid computing?

It’s a kind of parallel computing, which breaks up complex problems into smaller calculations and then solves them at the same time. Instead of one processor working on one calculation a time, a group of processors work on different calculations together. Dual-core computers is one way to do it. Grid computing is another.

Grid computing is like a massive virtual computer whose processors are computers linked by a central software.

World Community Grid is one group which utilises the personal computers of over half a million volunteers around the globe. Their software switches on when the computer is idle and runs virtual experiments, calculating and number crunching its way through chemical simulations. They provide this public grid to humanitarian research projects.

Childhood cancer
One of the projects they are running is helping to solve childhood cancer by finding potential new drugs for neuroblastoma, one of the most common solid tumors in children. In some people the tumors do not respond well to chemotherapy. This research is hoping to turn this around by targeting three proteins which are important to the cancer’s survival. Knock out those proteins and the cancer will in turn be knocked out by chemo.

Good plan, but how to knock out the proteins? That’s where the grid comes in.

There are three million potential drug candidates who MIGHT bind to one of the proteins and knock them out. Of course, that’s a lot of laboratory time right there. A computer would be better, but to run these nine million virtual experiments would take 8000 years. By working with the public grid they expect the project to be finished in just two years. Possibly less.

That’s a big saving on time and grant money. It’s rational based drug design (which I blogged about here) taken to a crowd sourcing extreme. They are trying a similar thing to discover dengue fever drugs.

Carbon Nanotubes

Image by Mstroeck

Clean Water
Drug design isn’t the only industry using the World Community Grid. Last month universities in Australia and China announced they are running simulations through the grid to find out how to filter water using nanotubes.

Nanotubes are small tubes that only water molecules can fit through. Not bacteria, not even viruses. It’s a great way to get rid of water dwelling nasties and desalinate sea water. But with such small pores you would expect the pressure and energy needed to force water through the filter to be incredible. And incredibly expensive. But in 2005 experiments showed that actually the water flowed pretty fast through the filters.

Why? Possibly the water molecules touching the nanotubes act more like ice and reduce friction. But who knows? To find out exactly what’s happening they’re running realistic simulations using the grid. The outcome could lead to huge improvements in water availability, potentially saving millions of lives a year in the developing world.

Like the idea of grid computing? Sign up to the World Community Grid here, and let your down time make a difference.

Apothecary bottles found in a collectibles shop

// August 21st, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Drugs

About a week ago I was in Gulgong, a small town in New South Wales near the wine region of Mudgee. The main road was spelled Mayne Road, and was brown stone rather than tarmac. Along the footpaths were old stone troughs for watering horses. Key landmarks included the Ten Dollar Motel and the Gulgong Butchers Cafe. It was an old gold mining town which had lost its gold but kept its rural charm.

Wandering the streets I came across a collectibles shop filled with coloured glass jugs and gold rimmed plates. Amongst the copper kettles I found these old bottles from an apothecary, dated around the 1800’s I believe.

Old Apothecary Bottles

The craftsmanship is stunning, and they teased my imagination. What were these drugs used for? What did they look like, when those bottles were filled, and who was the chemist who filled them?

I have since looked into some of the medicines written on the bottles.

Iodoformum is now called tri-iodomethane (CHI3). The crystals are lemon yellow and have a disagreeable odour and taste. I think it was used to treat tuberculosis, and is still used in homeopathy for a range of ailments. Hexamine may have been mixed with hippuric acid to make methenamine hippurate, which was used to treat lower urinary tract infections. Salol was a white powder derived from salicylic acid, the active ingredient in willow bark, which we take as acetylsalicylic acid in asprin. It was used to reduce pain and fever. Menthol you probably recognise from chest rubs. It comes from mint oil, though it can be made synthetically. As well as clearing sinuses it can ease sore throats and muscle pains, and is one of the ingredients in tiger balm.

While researching I found an issue of the British Medical Journal from September 5, 1885 which is an interesting read.

Hallucinogenic drugs, animal studies and explosm

// May 18th, 2010 // 3 Comments » // Drugs, Just for Fun

So I have had a really busy week in the lovely sunshine coast, and haven’t had a chance to track down the quality science content you know and love. Instead, I have comics of drugs.

WAIT!!! THIS IS SCIENCE! Because sometimes scientists give hallucinogenic drugs to animals to see what happens to them, and to find out how the drug works. Studying hallucinogens can give insights into how the mind works and manages itself.

There are a few famous cases of animal drug studies. The first is the spider web experiment, where spiders were given LSD, caffeine, cannabis or mescaline and the resulting webs were photographed. Another one is the elephant on acid, which happened in the 60’s (or 70’s) when LSD was new and being tried on EVERYTHING. They tried giving it to an elephant at about 400 times the human dose to see if it would go into musth, if it did it would prove LSD induced a kind of psychosis. The elephant didn’t go into musth, it actually died. And they were in a zoo and everything, not cool.

So here are the drug comics. Enjoy!

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic
Cyanide & Happiness @

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic
Cyanide & Happiness @

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic
Cyanide & Happiness @

Oh Cyanide and Happiness, how I love thee!

Absinthe drinking makes Homer something something

// January 15th, 2010 // 6 Comments » // Drugs, Poisons

When I was but a lass, freshly ID’d and able to finally hit the local tavern, there was a rumour around that Absinthe was THE drink if you wanted to get drunk fast, and as a bonus, if you could get the proper stuff, it causes hallucinations. OMG terribly exciting. I could feel jolts of electricity down my spine as I tremulously ordered (with much nudging from my friends) a round of Absinthe.

And oh, the DRAMA of it all! Green liquid, a sugar cube on a special spoon, and all of it on fire! We could only afford one each, before our pockets resolutely returned us to ordering jugs of Sangria. The bitter licorice taste lingered on though, and we were rollickingly tipsy.

Ah, the folly of youth. ‘Tis all a lie!

At the core of the myth is that Absinthe contains essential oil from the Wormwood plant, which is psychoactive and hallucinogenic. It’s true that Wormwood does contain thujole, which is a GABA antagonist (it blocks the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA), but it’s more likely to cause seizures than hallucinations. Also the amount of thujole in Absinthe is very low because of the way the spirit is made, and nowadays there are rules about what percentage of thujole is allowed. People have studied old bottles of the stuff too, and it wasn’t found to be super-thujolated. It was very popular with poets and artists; they said the green fairy helped them be more creative.

More creative, or more deadly? One tale tells of a man who killed his family in 1906 and claimed Absinthe drove him crazy. He was actually excessively drunk from a number of drinks, and was found guilty. After this and the subsequent public outcry, Absinthe was prohibited in Switzerland. France and the USA followed suit. Nonetheless, it’s the remarkably high alcohol content in Absinthe that makes it a dangerous drink, you’d definitely die from alcohol poisoning before dying from Wormwood poisoning.

The scariest story by far is the one in Eurotrip where a guy makes out with his sister after an Absinthe bender. “Dude, you kissed your sister!” That’s way worse then killing your family!

So by all means, if you like Absinthe (I’m not a fan) then drink it, but any mind-alterations are probably just your imagination. You’re supposed to mix it with water to let the flavours come out. Has anyone actually done this? Apparently it makes the clear green liquid go cloudy, because the essential oils are not soluble in water. Now that’s science.

Spoons Will Kill You

// January 6th, 2010 // 3 Comments » // Recent Research, Science at Home, Science Communication, Unethics

The deadly spoon, it makes a knife look tame by comparison. Indeed, only a meat cleaver attached to a hand beater is more dangerous.

Being a lover of spoons (not literally thank you very much. I’m just fond of them, okay? Nothing wrong with that) I am skeptical of this research which suggests that spoon dosing of medication is a major health risk. Yes sir, skeptical I am. This is the first time I’ve disagreed openly with research, so here’s hoping it doesn’t bite me in the ass like my last parrot did.

So I found this story in Science Daily today – “Can Kitchen Spoons Be Dangerous Spoons? Too Little or Too Much Medicine, Depending on Spoon Size” which takes you through to this press release and this swanky picture

Made by this swanky photographer.

With a shoot like this, you know you’re onto some quality research, and oh yes, it’s been picked up by several news sources. To quote the press release (as so many of these news articles did) using kitchen spoons to measure liquid medication tends to lead to significantly over- or underdosing “beneath the point of effectiveness” according to Dr. Wansick.

Here’s the method they used: They took 195 university students, and asked them to measure out a teaspoon of cough medicine into three spoons in order: 1. A teaspoon. 2. A medium sized tablespoon. 3. A large spoon. Then the researchers measured how much liquid they poured. The conclusion: In the medium spoon they underestimated by 8%, in the large spoon they overestimated by 11%. Over time this could add up to an overdose.

Why I think it’s crap
In the paper and especially the press release they say this is an important health risk. Is it? The first line of their report says that “spoon dosing has been identified as 1 of the 3 major causes of dosing errors and pediatric poisonings,” but when you read the report they’re referencing, it says the cause is people giving a child a whole tablespoon worth of medicine rather than a teaspoon (because of the confusing tsp / tbsp shorthand.) It’s not parents taking a tablespoon and try to measure out a teaspoon of medicine in it!

Who in their right mind would do that anyway? Why not just use a teaspoon, particularly if giving it to a child? Is the “I’ll measure it sort-of teaspoonish that’s close enough” thing a common issue in poisonings? Not according to the paper they reference in that first line. How many people use teaspoons to measure medicine nowadays? The report doesn’t say.

All this paper concludes is that people are crap at estimating how much a teaspoon of liquid is when they use a tablespoon to measure it. Big whoop.

What I have a problem is, is how they’ve marketed it with a press release and a photo shoot to say that spoons are dangerous, based on no clear evidence to suggest this is a real health threat as there’s nothing to say PEOPLE ARE EVEN DOING IT let alone getting sick from it!

This crappy example of science communication made me snap my peg leg in half. Now I’m going to eat a bowl of jelly to console myself, and I’ll enjoy every damn spoonful.

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