Archive for the ‘April 2013’ Category

Day 261. Vaccination versus immunisation

In April 2013 on May 1, 2013 at 12:54 pm


You say immunisation, I say vaccination, who is right?

A comment from Gary Lum on my Killing smallpox and parasites blog post brought up the question of which term is correct.

As described in his own article posted yesterday, Gary chased down a 1997 edition of the Australian Immunisation Handbook (6th edition) to find an official answer. It reads thus:

The terms ‘vaccination’ and ‘immunisation’ are often used interchangeably, but their meanings are not exactly equivalent.

Vaccination originally referred to the inoculation of vaccinia virus to render individuals immune to smallpox.

These days the term ‘vaccination’ means the administration (usually by injection) of a vaccine or toxoid, whether or not the injection is successful in making the
recipient immune.

On the other hand, the term ‘immunisation’ denotes the process of inducing or providing immunity by the administration of an immunobiological product .

I’m going to stick to immunisation from now on, as I like the fact that the word is based on the the expected outcome of the procedure.

‘Cause we all know immunisation works, right?

[image thanks to Gary too]


Day 260. Day of Immunology

In April 2013 on April 29, 2013 at 8:35 am


Happy Day of Immunology!

Yes that’s right, immunology. The science of your immune system.

What has your immune system done for you lately? Well how about some or all of the below:

  • It has fought off viruses you picked up on your hands from the escalator rail at the shopping centre;
  • It has sampled bits of food you ate and worked out they weren’t worth getting excited about – unless you have a food allergy or a condition like inflammatory bowel disease;
  • If you’re a menstruating woman, it may have decided whether or not to let deposited sperm survive and fertilise an egg – and subsequently, whether to let a resulting embryo implant and grow;
  • If you breathed in pollen from your neighbourhood pine tree, it probably decided it to be non-threatening –  if you have hayfever on the other hand, a localised immune response may have resulted in mucous, sneezing and coughing;
  • If some of the cells in your body started growing in an abnormal way (the precursor to a tumour), hopefully it managed to detect this change and kill the cells;
  • If you had an immunisation, it formed ready-to-go cells and antibodies so that if you happen to encounter the corresponding disease you will be armed and ready for action.

Here in Adelaide, the RiAUS is running a Vaccination Cafe in association with the Australasian Society for Immunology to mark World Day of Immunology. Have a cup of coffee, get a flu shot, and chat to some scientists, how fun does that sound?! I think it’s a great idea.

You can read more about immunology on the Australian Society for Immunology website, or even take an immunology quiz. FYI, I achieved 16/16 correct answers. Go on, try and match that*!

*All bragging aside, it’s a great quiz actually, as all answers are explained.

[image thanks to NHSE on flickr]

Day 259. Learning more

In April 2013 on April 28, 2013 at 8:45 pm


No matter how experienced you are in your field of choice, there’s always room to learn more.

This weekend I’ve been touching up on my approach to communication and use of social media.

A Guardian newspaper interview with author, blogger and professor of journalism Deborah Blum highlights the following important aspects of communicating science:

  • A well-written article which features science as a key element has the power to suck in even those readers who don’t see themselves as science lovers;
  • The opening line of your story is critical! You must entice your audience to want to know more;
  • Make sure you get the absolute most of out interview opportunities;
  • Leaving excess detail and irrelevant material out of stories is what makes them really sing;
  • Science is not just about outcomes – it’s more about a process and an approach to solving problems. Reflect this in your stories.

A PLOS Biology article An introduction to social media for scientists by Holly Bik and Miriam Goldstein reminds readers of the amazing tools that social media can add to a scientist’s kit. The piece offers:

  • A wrap of online tools and resources available to scientists;
  • Advice for new users;
  • Why you should venture into using social media in the first place;
  • Defining goals and an approach to using online tools;
  • Supporting scientists to use social media wisely and better.

Both articles offer advise which is applicable beyond the world of science – have a read if you’re interested in communication, and using social media to interact with the world.

[image thanks to joelk75 on flickr]

Day 258. Nonsense

In April 2013 on April 27, 2013 at 8:59 pm


What did 19th century artists Lewis Carol, Vincent Van Gogh and Edward Lear have in common?

Temporal lobe epilepsy.

And whilst many people at the time viewed this so-called affliction as a sign of demon possession, or a curse, in fact it is now thought to have been one of the key elements contributing to the wonderful creativity displayed by these artists.

So I learned today at the Slingsby/State Opera of South Australia production Ode to Nonsense.

Ode to Nonsense tells a 70 minute operatic tale of Edward Lear – artist, writer, traveller, epileptic and depressive – using a cast of three adults, 17 children and a chamber orchestra.

Much to his own chagrin, Lear could not sustain his early talents in painting birds and landscapes, but instead became famous for writing nonsense. Nonsense such as The Owl and The Pussycat, which contains my favourite line ever,

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon.

The opera was an absolute pleasure, not only because I learnt a lot about Lear and his story, but also because the singing, instrumentals, staging, lighting and costumes were simply stunning.

Catch it if you can.

[image of a pea-green boat thanks to B4bees]

Day 257. Killing smallpox and parasites

In April 2013 on April 26, 2013 at 10:02 pm


This is my small-pox vaccination card from 1973.

Leaving Canada for Australia at the age of 20 months, I was immunised because I was a travelling infant during the tail end of a global program aimed at eradicating smallpox.

Actually, mass vaccination was not the overall strategy which finally brought success in non-Western countries. Instead, in 1967 a process of ‘surveillance-containment’ was rolled out for the first time in Sierra Leone and operated locally by a young doctor called Donald Hopkins (under direction from Dr William Foege). The process involved actively seeking out new cases of small pox, and then rushing in to vaccinate contacts of the sick individual in wider and wider circles until it died out. Applying this approach ultimately defeated smallpox, which was declared officially eradicated by WHO in 1980.

At the age of 71, that Dr Hopkins fellow is currently still working in disease prevention, and was the subject of a New York Times Profiles in Science article written by Donald McNeil and published earlier this week.

Dr Hopkins’ target of choice is now Guinea worm disease, a parasitic infection once common in the rural poor and still persisting in pockets of Africa.

McNeil writes of the disease:

People become infected when they drink from ponds containing tiny freshwater crustaceans, known as copepods, that themselves have swallowed microscopic worm larvae. The larvae escape being digested by either the crustacean or the human, and grow inside the body to about a yard long. They then migrate to the skin — usually in a foot, but sometimes a hand, a breast or even an eye socket. Then they exude a burning acid to create a blister, which they burst through. As soon as the victim dips the inflamed area in cooling water, the worm (described by Dr. Hopkins as “a giant uterus”) squirts out millions of larvae, starting the cycle anew.

So disgusting, so fascinating!

But don’t let the horror scare you off. McNeil’s article is highly readable and a lovely story of a man committed to helping humanity. And ignoring the idea of retirement.

Day 256. ANZACs and Double Helices

In April 2013 on April 25, 2013 at 8:10 pm

tim hudson

Today has been a poignant day for many Australians and New Zealanders, with 25th April marking ANZAC Day. On this day in 1915 allied forces landed on Gallipoli; now we use the occasion to remember all men and women who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.

The photograph above shows my great Uncle Robert Douglas “Tim” Clarke (1913-1942), a member of the RAAF Beaufighter squadron in Darwin. He died in action off Timor in November 1942.

Today also marks 60 years since the publication of the double-helix structure of DNA by Watson and Cricks, a discovery which changed the face of science.

Adam Rutherford – editor at the journal Nature – has written a lovely article about the discovery and its publication:

“our understanding of life was changed forever that day, and the modern era of biology began.”

[image courtesy of Russell Hudson, Perth, WA]

Day 255. A skinny post

In April 2013 on April 24, 2013 at 10:07 am


No, not skinny meaning lack of fat. Skinny meaning of the skin.

Move over kids, there’s a new skin cell in town.

Although their proper title is skin ILC2 cellsI’m going to call them SKILLS. Just ’cause it’s easier…and more fun.

So SKILLS. What are they, and why does it matter?

SKILLS were recently discovered in the skin of mice, where they are believed to crawl about and regulate other populations of immune cells. In particular, their main day-to-day job seems to be keeping so-called mast cells under control. This is important – unruly mast cells can trigger inflammation. This sort of inflammation is good if you have a parasitic skin infection – it helps get rid of worms for example – but not so good if you’re living in a low-parasite environment like most of us in ‘Western’ communities do.

This is where my personal interest kicks in.

If mast cells somehow avoid or deflect the influence of SKILLS  even when there are no parasites around, this means swelling, itchiness, redness and pain for no good reason. And indeed, the same study shows that if you change SKILLS so they interact with other skin cells differently, mice develop spontaneous inflammatory skin conditions. Kinda like mouse excema.

To summarise then:

  • Normal SKILLS keep skin inflammation under control, and
  • SKILLS which are tickled to change the way they behave allow a cycle of excema-like inflammation to begin.

As the mother of a beautiful three-year old whose excema has challenged my sanity over the past few years, I tend to get pretty excited about any new discoveries which might help our understanding of inflammatory skin conditions like excema.

Of course, it’s early days yet, and this is just one animal study. But it’s a start.

Because this paper has been published in the very high calibre journal Nature Immunology, it’s sure to initiate a whole lot of new research projects in other immunology laboratories around the world. Some of these studies will be in mice, but others will investigate whether similar systems are operating in humans.

And although his behaviour is animalistic at times, my kid definitely is a human.

[image of skin thanks to kevin dooley on flickr]

Day 254. Science fiction

In April 2013 on April 23, 2013 at 10:38 am

This week I’m remembering in-your-face Divinyl’s lead singer Chrissie Amphlett, who died on April 21.

Although Boys in Town is my favourite Divinyls song, their single Science Fiction is probably more appropriate for this forum.

Here are the lyrics:

I thought that love was science fiction
Until I saw you today
Now that love is my addiction
I’ve thrown all my books away

When I was young I was so naive
I didn’t believe, no I didn’t believe
I didn’t believe

Never thought that we’d last this long
Always thought that they’d dropped the bomb
Dropped the bomb

I’ve been waiting for a man from space
To come to earth to meet the human race
The human race

Day 253. The hardest decision

In April 2013 on April 22, 2013 at 8:57 pm


The birth of a new baby, what a joyous and wonderful occasion it is.

For a small proportion of births, the joy is accompanied by the need to make very difficult decisions regarding the life of that child.

When babies are born very prematurely or after long and difficult deliveries, they can face many and complex health problems which need to be managed in the very short term and – if they survive – for the duration of their lives.

Newborn intensive care specialist and ethicist Dominic Wilkinson sees many families and doctors struggle with life and death decisions regarding very sick babies. His new book ‘Death or Disability? The ‘Carmentis Machine’ and decision-making for critically ill children’ tackles the very difficult topic of how to decide whether babies with severe and multiple disabilities should be medically supported, or allowed to die.

Here’s a Science Story I wrote regarding the launch of Dominic’s book for the Robinson Institute.

[image thanks to _-0-_ on flickr]

Day 252. Google Science Fair

In April 2013 on April 21, 2013 at 10:50 pm


Are you a science-lover and aged 13-18 years?

Then you only have nine days left to enter the Google Science Fair.

The Google Science Fair is simply a teen online competition focussed on science ideas that will change the world. Anyone of valid age can enter, participation is free and the prizes are pretty damned impressive.

Past winners include:

Also, you should take a look at calendar of events put on in the lead up to the closing date. Simply fantastic online opportunities for young scientists to learn, and join the global science community.

[image thanks to hiler2002 on flickr]