Tag Archives: science

If You Give A Mouse A Cigarette…

chances are, he’ll end up needing a vaccination to go with it.

Wednesday morning on Minnesota Public Radio, Ron Crystal, chairman and professor of genetic medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, said scientists there have created a “vaccine” that prevents nicotine addiction in mice. Traditional vaccines work by introducing a weakened form of whatever virus you are trying to fight into the body, where antibodies are created, building an army of specially built combatants that engulf and eliminate the vaccine’s virus from the vaccine, but also any future viruses of the same type which one may pick up at school, work, the playground or the grocery store. The nicotine vaccine is different. It is a gene therapy that alters  the liver, causing it to produce antibodies targeted to pick up nicotine in the bloodstream before it reaches the brain. Nicotine is addictive because it sets off fireworks in the pleasure center of the brain. No pleasure? No addiction.

In the course of the interview, the vaccine was described as both a measure to prevent addiction and a treatment for already addicted individuals. Laboratory mice addicted to nicotine were given the vaccine and over a short period of time stopped “smoking.” (I don’t know how the nicotine was administered; I presume there was a lever pressed somewhere. I can’t help picturing a group of mice huddled outside a non-smoking laboratory puffing away on cigarettes and grumbling, “WTH? Why isn’t this thing working?”) Presumably, the mice still crave the nicotine, but when the behavior isn’t rewarding, they quit the behavior. Crystal says that in terms of nicotine addiction, mice and human behaviors are very similar (again, I am picturing mice outside bars and restaurants, perhaps wearing smoking jackets.) No booster shots are needed to re-energize antibody production, because the altered liver will continue producing the antibodies. For life.

And this is my point. If there is a substance so destructive and yet so addictive that people would be willing to permanently alter their bodies at a genetic level just to help them stop consuming it, knowing they will still crave it for the rest of their lives, that says something. To me it says, “screw the vaccination, I will be declining tobacco in the first place, thank you.” (Growing up in a smoking household provided me with enough aversive experiences that I was never interested in smoking…until I hit my forties. There is something about surviving four decades of people-pleasing that makes me, in theory, want to light up. I liken it to flipping the world the bird. Now I have to work on a backup plan.) In the interview, the potential of parents choosing to inoculate their children was discussed as an ethically problematic issue. (I cannot imagine doing such a thing–performing an after factory add-on to prevent my child from engaging in a voluntary behavior, but there is no doubt in my mind that there are parents out there who would be eager to do so. People are doing crazier things to their children with less reason all the time: botox, overdoing it, etc.) Researchers are hopeful about expanding their results to other drugs like meth and cocaine. Now the issue gets grayer. There are stories upon stories of cases where “good parenting” and “a supportive environment” weren’t enough to prevent people from becoming dependent on drugs. If I had witnessed my own brother’s death spiral into meth addiction, would I inoculate my children to protect them and give me peace of mind? These are decisions my children may have to make someday, not me. (Am I alone here, or does it seem like the world is a game that gets progressively harder as time goes on? We don’t “pass the test,” we just move on to the next level.) I feel like we would be okay if we  just keep creating smarter and more resilient children, and provide them with a culture that offers them enlightenment and a society that offers them opportunity. I know the evidence shows this isn’t completely realistic, but we can try. Let’s keep the gene therapy as Plan B for now, okay?

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A Love Letter to Discover

Discover magazine, how do I love thee? I love thee a lot. Even when I don’t understand thee, I love thee. I recently received the July/August issue of Discover, which appears to be very biology-centric. This makes me happy because biology is like the hot boyfriend with a little bit of an accent and colloquialisms that make communication somewhat difficult, as compared to the gorgeous boyfriend of physics who speaks a completely different language but I don’t even care, I could just lustfully listen to him spout incomprehensibility all day. Science turns me on, yo. I have been a subscriber for years and even though I haven’t lately been able to read every issue cover-to-cover, I do try. I have gotten ideas for stories and plot twists as well as general information and entertainment from the magazine and it makes me feel better than reading People magazine does. Kind of like when I choose to eat an apple over a doughnut. As Bill Nye says, “Science rules!”

So far two articles in this issue have gotten me excited. The first, “Superhuman Vision” is about a mutant cone some women (maybe a lot of women) are carrying around, a fourth cone that allows them to see an exponential number of color variations not visible to other humans. It is kind of like the Bizarro World version of the green/red color blindness that diminishes color perception in some men. How cool is that?! Mutant powers! X-(wo)men! The thing is that many of these women probably aren’t aware that they are seeing anything the rest of us aren’t because the nature of perception is so individual. Imagine trying to describe red to someone who can’t see red or provoke someone who doesn’t taste chocolate or tobacco in their red wine to do so. Difficult. I want them to make the test they describe in the article available on the internet. Maybe I have super vision! Actually I suspect that the only thing special about my vision is the degree to which I am frazzled by floaters, which isn’t very special at all.

The other article was “Earth’s Last Unexplored Wilderness Is…Your Living Room.” I love articles which immediately make me change my behavior. I wasn’t even halfway through the piece when I jumped up and opened all the windows on the main level of my house. For fifteen minutes–until the heat and humidity (already? at 8:30 a.m.?) forced me to close them again. Now, science reveals some uncomfortable truths, that maybe not all of you want to know. Far be it for me to expose you to graphic information that could gross you out for life, so two things: you might want to disinfect your showerheads, and wash your pillowcases with bleach in the hottest water you can. As I am. That is all.

It isn’t like Discover has never led me astray. I preached the anti-high fructose corn syrup gospel for over a year based on a quoted scientist who described it as a “metabolic disaster.” Further study showed no such thing, of course. Sugar is sugar, and we are getting way too much in all of its forms. But that is part of what I like about science. People make hypotheses and test them and share the results and other people say, “Hey, that is interesting! Are you sure?” and re-test the results, using what comes to leap to more evolved hypotheses, and we are all better for it. We grow from knowledge and experience. Ideally, science is all about open-mindedness, and using evidence to guide us toward knowledge. Some also use the lack of evidence to deny the existence of things for which we cannot test, like God for instance. In earlier generations, the existence of germs and sub-atomic particles and dark matter was considered ludicrous. I wonder what fascinating things we will know for certain in the future that are unimaginable to us today? I can’t wait to read about them in Discover.