Friday, October 31, 2014

PROFILES IN RESEARCH EXCELLENCE: Dr. Carol Hanchette

On Santorini, mid 80s
Man was it hot!
It is with great pleasure that I present Dr. Carol Hanchette for your admiring attention.  My enthusiasm has two sources.  First, Dr. Hanchette is an Earth Scientist, not a Biochemist or M.D.  Second, she is engaged in research that will further Clifton Leaf’s (and my own) priority – to “preempt” ovarian cancer.  Dr. Hanchette is using the techniques of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis to determine whether or not proximity to pulp and paper mills is associated with an enhanced prevalence of ovarian cancer.  She is on the faculty of the University of Louisville, in the department of Geography and Geosciences.  Dr. Hanchette is one of eight successful applicants for the Marsha Rivkin Center’s Pilot Study grants.  The award is $75,000, for one year.  For many of the biological cancer studies I have followed, $75K would barely cover the cost of feeding the lab animals, but for an earth scientist it is a considerable chunk of change.  Spend it wisely, Dr. Hanchette.
Apparently Dr. Hanchette has preliminary data suggesting a spatial correlation between ovarian cancer and pulp mills.  A systematic GIS study clearly is the way to rigorously test the hypothesis that the two in fact are related.  Then harder questions arise: (1) is the correlation one of cause and effect, or is it more complicated?  For instance, it is possible (although astronomically unlikely)  that the increased ovarian-cancer incidence arises because women living near pulp mills drink unusually high quantities of hard liquor, in order to be able to ignore the smell, and the booze is to blame.    And then, of course, once the cause-and-effect is established the biochemist must step in:  (2) How does a pulp mill cause ovarian cancer, and what can be done about it.
Dr. Hanchette obtained her PhD from the University of North Carolina.  She describes herself as a Medical Geographer.  Much of her previous work seems to involve environmental effects on the prevalence of prostate cancer.  Currently she is an Associate Professor.  One hopes that, with the results of this study in print and validated, she quickly is promoted to Full Professor, with a substantial raise. 



Thursday, October 30, 2014

GOOGLE WILL RULE THE WORLD: Inside and out.


Linda, thoroughly be-catted
The malevolent beast glaring at you is Murphy.
The fuzz ball in the foreground is Whiskers.
 
I am quite resigned to the fact that Google will soon rule the entire external world of humankind.  Resigned, not enthusiastic – Now I learn that they have their eyes on our internal world as well; stuff in or bathed by our personal bloodstreams.  About this I am enthusiastic, but skeptical.  Their plan seems a bit “Pie in the Sky-ish” to me, but what do I know?  It never is prudent to bet against Google.
Here is what the purportedly are preparing to do.  They will create a nanoparticle with a magnetic core.  (I blogged about nanoparticles previously: 4/12/2012 I also know that it is possible to produce such magnetic  particles, from a talk I once heard at the Hutch.)  They will then coat this particle with some kind of antibody – say, one for gloming onto ovarian tumor cells exclusively.   Next they will package these nanoparticles in a pill, and turn them loose inside our bodies.  After a suitable time they will summon them back (to a magnet attached to the body – the wrist is mentioned), and interrogate them.  Voila!  If you have ovarian cancer the magnetic nanoparticles will drag them to the collection point, and – if properly calibrated – the presence of OVCA will become known.  Sounds good!  It also sounds like black magic.  And, of course, expensive.
Don’t expect this technology any time soon.  They (Google) are pointing for clinical trials in five to seven years.  Maybe they will lose interest and divert their attention to ending war, disease, bad weather, and traffic jams instead.  Right now I hear that they are developing a car that even an octogenarian can drive safely.
 
 


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

WHAT IS A VIRUS? - And why you should care

At Lady Astor's modest country retreat on the Thames
2007
 
The Ebola epidemic has driven all other health news underground, and my cursed singles invasion leaves me with very little energy to chase down news of new developments in cancer research.  In desperation (I haven’t blogged for five days) I turned to my old pal, Google Scholar.  I asked for articles published in the last two years containing the phrase “ovarian cancer” in the title – and got “about” 5300 hits!  Thoroughly discouraged, I decided to use my aching stomach muscles as an excuse and fob you off on a general article about the biology of viruses in general.  It is reasonably interesting and accessible, and will give you a break from worrying about whether the Kansas City Royals can pull it off.  Here it is:
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/28/science/ebola-and-the-vast-viral-universe.html?ref=health
The author tosses in a few technical bio-chem terms, probably to appear erudite.  Most of them she explains:  here are several she doesn’t.
Interferon:  Proteins important in fighting viral infections.  They stimulate the immune system to fight back
Lipid:  fat cells
Capsid:  The protein shell of a virus
Ribosome:  A biological “machine” composed of proteins and RNA that converts DNA into protein.
Phyletic:  A fancy and obscure way to indicate an evolutionary lineage
I don’t give you these definition to appear erudite myself, but rather to save you the trouble of going to Google – which I had to do in all but two instances.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

THE FRED HUTCH NEWSLETTER

Enjoying a Michigan Autumn
With her brother Richard, niece Rebecca, and several Hunsinger boys
What looks like a bald-headed walrus surfacing in her lap actually is your faithful correspondent
 
I don’t get the Ukraine.  It is a poor country, engaged in a civil war.  Its people speak a Slavic language, written in Cyrillic script.  And yet I have more “hits” from Ukraine that fror any country other than the United States.  Twice as many Ukrainians ostensibly read my blog as do citizens of all English-speaking countries combined, again excusing the United States,.  What gives?  Obviously there aren’t dozens or hundreds of Ukrainian citizens avidly consuming my blog.  Some computer algorithm is doing the “reading”.  What ever can it be looking for?
The Fred Hutch newsletter is out, and you can read it by clicking on https://bay172.mail.live.com/?tid=cm1fAI-XxZ5BGUuWw75af65g2&fid=flinbox. 
There are several important articles in this issue.  One describes how Hutch scientists have developed a “tumor paint” which somehow will cause tumor cells to glow.  This should make it easier for surgeons to detect all the places where a spreading tumor is lodged.  The molecule that allows this was isolated from, of all things, a scorpion!
Another significant bit concerns the “Angelina Jolie effect”.  As you probably know, this prominent movie star went public about her troubles with breast cancer and urged women at elevated risk to get tested for the BRCA gene mutations.  Apparently since she did this, the number of women complying has doubled.  Good for her!
There are, of course, the usual pleas for money.
Several other articles in this edition of the Newsletter deserve mention, but my shingles hurt and I’m going to swallow two pills and take a nap.


Monday, October 20, 2014

ANOTHER DISMAL LITTLE ESSAY

Linda and the Kelly girls on Orcas Island
Impudent, but -- nice hair
 
A recent Wall Street Journal  raises some difficult and interesting  questions.  Here it is:
At least the questions are interesting to me.  I am writing this as a tool to clarify some issues in my head.  You are free, even encouraged, to correct or dispute my musings.
So, a hypothetical question:  What if a particular mutated gene made it inevitable that you will come down with an incurable, fatal disease?  Would you want to know if you had the mutation?  How about if the disease were curable?  Well, for me, the answers are, respectively, “no”, and “yes”.  If I’m certain to contract the disease and die, why would I want to go through life worrying about it?  There would be some small advantages to knowing, involving arranging your life to minimize the impact of your death on your family, but they would hardly repay living years or decades in a state of constant low-grade anxiety.  So, don’t tell me.
However, what if the disease were curable?  Then, of course I would want to know.  Then I could arrange close monitoring, enabling treatment to kick in in the early stages of the disease, when the chances of cure usually are greatest.  So, tell me.
These musings concern diseases that are inevitable, if you have the targeted mutation.  But what if the mutation merely predisposes you to the condition, such as the BRACA mutations in the case of  breast and ovarian cancer.  In my view, the situation doesn’t change: if the disease can’t be cured I don’t want to know about it, but if it can be cured, even if there is only a forlorn hope of cure, then tell me.
God!  This is one of the bleakest and most depressing blogs I have ever written!  I apologize.  Maybe my mood is darkened by the fact that my shingles hurt, and that a power outage last night fried my cable TV connection as well as wrecking communication between my computer and printer.  I have spent most of the day working on these twin problems: the computer problem is fixed, but my TV still is on strike.
But here is something from the WSJ article that might interest you.  Apparently there is a gene (PSEN1) that, when mutated, leads inevitably to early-onset Alzheimer’s.  (Note: only 2% of Alzheimer patients have this genetic flaw, but if you have it you are up a creek.)  So, let’s say your mother died of EOA (early onset Alzheimer’s.)  If she passed the gene to you, your goose is cooked.  But suppose that you want to have children but are terrified of passing your mutation on to them.  In the case of one woman undergoing in vitro fertilization, the lab tested her eggs for the mutation, and then implanted the ones that were clean.  All this without informing the mother whether or not she was positive for the mutation.  She chose not to be told if she would get EOA, but she knew her children are safe.  What would I do, I wonder?  What would you do?
This stuff is abstruse but not hypothetical.  Gene-sequencing techniques are improving so fast (and becoming commensurately cheaper) that inevitably we will have to deal with lots more of it in the future.


Friday, October 17, 2014

SHINGLES

Linda and the twins, on a winter day in Michigan
 
I am enjoying a world-class case of shingles right now, so I haven’t much energy to spare for digging into the cancer literature.  Ebola has chased all other health-related stories from my usual newspaper sources, and Dick Ingwall seems to be in transit to Borrego Springs so I haven’t been able to count on him.   Rather than sit around feeling sorry for myself, I decided to see if other people are busy in the ovarian cancer field.  I used my old friend Google Scholar, and confined my search to articles published since January 1, 2012.  I searched for “exact phrases” but left the author line blank.  It seems that in the last 34 months there have been 37,400 papers published containing the phrase “ovarian cancer:.  Getting more specific, I find that over 1000 of them relate to early detection, slightly over 300 deal specifically with prevention, and the rest – presumably – with therapy.  I guess I should be pleased that there is so much attention being paid to ovarian cancer, but I am mildly disappointed that early detection and prevention are so conspicuously under-represented.  And that’s all the energy I have for today.  My main reason for posting  this blog, if you must know,  is to share this wonderful picture.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION for CANCER RESEARCH


Linda and her Mom
Two beautiful women
 
For more than two years I have been scouring the world of cancer news, looking for information that I can pass on through this blog.  Many of you have helped, by alerting me to items published in the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, local newspapers, various news magazines, and on line.  Somehow, though, I have managed to remain completely ignorant of what may be a totally wonderful and convenient way to keep up with cancer research: the newsletter of the American Association for Cancer Research.  Somehow I have managed to remain unaware of even the existence of this organization, even though I conducted an intensive computer search for cancer foundations for the Rivkin Center just a year or so ago.  Anyway, I blundered onto the AACR web site just today, and discovered that – for free – I can receive a monthly update of advances in cancer research.  I just signed up, so I can’t tell you how valuable this e-newsletter will turn out to be, but I am hopeful.  If you want to sign up, here is the web address:
I know that all of you have better things to do with your lives than to join me in my inept but persistent crusade against ovarian cancer, so if you ignore this tip I forgive you in advance.  However, some of you might find it useful.  And, this is another excuse to post a picture of Linda.