All posts by Chloe Westley

Based in Manchester, UK, Chloe spends most of her time getting up close and personal with a zippy bit of kit called a Raman spectrometer. In between doing some high-brow research as part of a PhD, she follows tennis, cricket and Man United (unfortunately) and loves watching Suits, The Big Bang theory and Breaking Bad (obviously!).

Is there a fish that can walk on land?

Senegal BichirFish can walk on land. Yes, that’s right, you didn’t misread it – those gill-bearing, aquatic animals can survive on the same surface that terrestrial animals have occupied for the last few millions of years. Oh, and not to mention humans for the last 200,000 years or so!

Fossil evidence suggests that around 400-500 million years ago fish made the grand journey from living in the sea to venturing over land. There is a lot of research dedicated to understanding this transition – with amphibious fish evolving to be able to spend time away from the murky depths of ponds, lakes and seas. Strong muscular limbs and the ability to breathe in air (through the evolution of lungs, co-existing with gills) has enabled fish to survive on land with mudskippers, Mangrove rivulus and lungfish being notable examples.

So how did fish come to walk? It’s one thing existing on land but to walk on it is another matter altogether! Well, when evolution led to fish trading water for land, it is believed that the lobe-finned fishes evolved into the first four-limbed animals, known as stem tetrapods (which ultimately led to the evolution of amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals). From the fossil records, it is believed that there was great diversity and competition among fish, and so a switch to a land-based life was necessary. But how this transition actually happened is largely a mystery…. until recently. An interesting study conducted by researchers in Canada have plumbed the depths of nature’s mysteries.

Researchers at (the suitably named) McGill University and Ottawa University studied a species of freshwater fish known as bichir (Polypterus senegalus). Bichir possess similar traits those seen in the fossils of the stem tetrapods, such as the possession of primordial lungs and the ability to breathe. The experiment involved taking bichir fish and raising them on land (as well as a control group in water), to test how life on land might trigger changes in such fish.Publishing their findings in the prestigious journal Nature, they deduced that over time, generations of the fish raised on land underwent changes in their skeleton and muscles that allowed them to lift their heads higher, hold their fins closer to their bodies, take faster steps, undulate their tails less frequently, and evolve fins that slipped less often than bichir raised in water

So although it is a stretch to say fish can ‘walk’ as you and I might think it, it is fair to say that the bichir fish (from the experiment) can walk in their own fishy way! And who knows, they may even evolve to do other un-fish like things – a dancing fish would be a sight to behold!

Answer By Chloe Westley

Article by Chloe Westley

November 25, 2014

Based in Manchester, UK, Chloe spends most of her time getting up close and personal with a zippy bit of kit called a Raman spectrometer. In between doing some high-brow research as part of a PhD, she follows tennis, cricket and Man United (unfortunately) and loves watching Suits, The Big Bang theory and Breaking Bad (obviously!).


Back To Top

New cancer-killing headwear so successful clinical trials abandoned

Testing of a new head-mounted cancer treatment device has been so successful that clinical trials have been abandoned – so that more patients can use it straight away.

The ‘NovoTTF-100A System’ is a futuristic-looking piece of headwear designed to treat of one of the deadliest and most common forms of brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme – a condition with an average life expectancy of one year from diagnosis. The device directs a low intensity electrical field to the tumor site in the brain – disrupting cell division and killing the cancer cells.

Image: Jeremy Brooks via flickr
Image: Jeremy Brooks via flickr

Originally created in 2000, the therapy threatens to shake up how brain tumours and other cancers may be treated in the future. Existing treatments involve surgery, radiology and chemotherapy; this new method is non-invasive and, when worn, offers a significantly improved outcome. Phase III trials (the final stage in patient testing) showed such remarkable results at the interim stage, that it was deemed unethical not to abandon the trial and let all patients use it. Plans are for the device to be made available to newly diagnosed glioblastoma patients throughout Europe and Switzerland under its new brand name ‘Optune’.

When the device is worn continuously, in combination with temozolomide (a standard chemotherapy drug), 43% of glioblastoma patients were alive after two years, compared to 29% for just drug treatment alone. For years, there has been little progress in treatment for glioblastoma sufferers but this type of research has been a welcome discovery, paving the way for alternative methods in treating solid tumor cancers as well as demonstrating ‘out-there’ concepts can in fact become a reality.

We originally broke the news of the NovoTTF-100A invention back in July when the device was still undergoing testing. Although it is not a cure for glioblastoma, it has fewer side effects than most standard cancer treatments and an entirely innovative way of extending and improving quality of life of cancer patients.

Perhaps most excitingly are the potential uses for this kind of electric field treatment. Given that this is the first device to use this technique, it is likely that future generations of devices will prove to be even more successful – and could be designed for other types of tumour.

Dr Roger Stupp, heading this breakthrough, says ‘A new standard of care for patients suffering from glioblastoma is born’.

 

Article by Chloe Westley

November 21, 2014

Based in Manchester, UK, Chloe spends most of her time getting up close and personal with a zippy bit of kit called a Raman spectrometer. In between doing some high-brow research as part of a PhD, she follows tennis, cricket and Man United (unfortunately) and loves watching Suits, The Big Bang theory and Breaking Bad (obviously!).


Back To Top

What are all the possible causes for hair falling out?

hair styling by anthony kelly, on FlickrHair is weird. Every year, millions of pounds are spent on shampoo, conditioners, hair styling, colouring services and hair accessories (and sound the alarm bells, the forecasted spend on cosmetic products will be $635.7 billion by 2019). But all of this money is spent on looking after what, essentially, are dead cells. We feel so protective over our beloved locks that many of us would do almost anything to keep it in our scalp. If we glance at the floor or in the hairbrush and see clumps of hair, it is easy to go into panic mode and enter a full-on meltdown – why is my hair falling out!? Is there something wrong with me? Of course, you spend the next 45 minutes surfing the internet trying to self-diagnose…

Well, hair falling out is actually very common and quite normal; so much so, that on average, a person loses 50 to 100 hairs from their head every day (and on the days you wash your hair it can be as much as 250 strands!)

Obviously, we don’t really notice this a lot because – think about how many hairs are made per day, and how many there are on our head. It has often been said that you should think of your hair like a garden – how well it grows is mostly dependent on what’s happening ‘underground’ i.e. not the hair itself! Like the life of a plant, hair production has a normal hair cycle. But there are many things that have the potential to disrupt this process. Here are some of them:

  • Hormonal imbalances, e.g. high thyroid levels
  • Diabetes
  • Autoimmune conditions, such as lupus
  •  Long-term medical conditions, such as cancer or liver disease
  • Sudden weight loss or nutritional deficiency e.g. from crash dieting
  • Medications (there are many), such as beta-blockers and anticoagulants
  • Cancer chemotherapy and radiotherapy
  • Specific chemicals, such as bleach and dyes

And Many more…

Each strand of hair is produced from a hair follicle – a tiny ‘skin organ’ that functions as a hair-producing factory. The life of the follicle – and the hair – goes through a cycle that has three main phases: ‘growth’ phase (anagen phase) – that lasts 3-5 years, with hair growing around half an inch (just over 1 cm) per month; the ‘slowing down’ phase (catagen phase) – a short transitional phase, lasting around 10 days when hair production slows down, and lastly the ‘end’ phase (telogen phase) –a time of resting lasting up to 3 months, before the hair finally falls out.

Normally, about 90% of your hair on your scalp is growing at any one time (in the anagen phase). There are many factors that can influence overall hair cycle, causing the anagen phase to shorten resulting in hair loss. Some medications, infection, certain chemicals and starvation – basically anything that affects the overall health of the body – can cause increased hair loss. ‘Alopecia’ is the general term given to excess hair loss and has many different forms such as involutional alopecia (otherwise known as hair thinning in old age!) when more hair follicles enter the resting (telogen) phase, meaning the remaining hairs are fewer and shorter. Androgenic alopecia, also known as ‘male pattern baldness’ (or ‘going bald’!) is characterised by a receding hairline most often seen in men. It can also affect women, and who experiences androgenic alopecia is determined by our genes. (There are several other variations of alopecia, you can find more about them here.)

Hair loss has many causes and can be a very sensitive, emotional issue. I guess the only reassuring thing is that it happens to pretty much everyone to some degree!

 

Answer By Chloe Westley

 

Image Source: Hair Styling By Anthony Kelly, on Flickr

Article by Chloe Westley

November 20, 2014

Based in Manchester, UK, Chloe spends most of her time getting up close and personal with a zippy bit of kit called a Raman spectrometer. In between doing some high-brow research as part of a PhD, she follows tennis, cricket and Man United (unfortunately) and loves watching Suits, The Big Bang theory and Breaking Bad (obviously!).


Back To Top

How and why are some people born with perfect pitch?

Mini-amplifier and headphones by Dineshraj Goomany, on FlickrMost people think they can sing better than they actually can (cue the image of you forcing a smile, hoping your ears could actually close up rather than endure the dreadful warbling coming out of your friend!). And a lot of people think they have perfect pitch and can sing better than Mariah Carey and Ella Fitzgerald; but if truth be told, you probably aren’t. Not even close!

Perfect pitch (or absolute pitch) is the rare ability to identify a note (on a musical scale) without a single reference point. Just like most people can recognize triangles and squares as shapes, people who possess perfect pitch can instantly recognize an E or an F sharp.

One piece of research claims EVERYONE is born with perfect pitch, with only 1 in 10,000 people sustaining this unique skill into adulthood. Many different studies have been performed (pun unintentional) trying to pin down its conception, with differing results. What is consistent within the different studies is that practice is needed to maintain this talent:

Like most other skills and abilities (swimming, reading, juggling, burping the alphabet etc), a certain level of training is required. Think about when you first tried to learn another language at school – at a young age you were able to remember a few of those French phases, but you needed to practice and learn them in order to recall it in later life.

Psychologists have suggested that training needs to happen at a very early age: proper terminology needs to be learnt in order to associate them with sensory impressions of pitch (i.e. the pitch and loudness of sound that contribute to the overall sensory impression). For example, someone like Mozart who apparently had perfect pitch would have ideally needed to begin music lessons at around the age of 5. As if it wasn’t unfair enough, you only really have until the tender age of 9 before it essentially becomes impossible to develop true perfect pitch – so best to get your practices in early!

To support this, other psychological studies (like statistical learning) have been performed that show how a group of infants and a group of adults hear and process sounds in fundamentally different ways – with the babies displaying more perfect pitch, trumping their adult competition!

So, if you wish for your child to be the next Celine Dion or Mariah Carey – you know what you need to do: switch those Ipads and game consoles for musical instruments and training before their ninth birthday! (Or get some musical apps – Ed)

Answer By Chloe Westley

 

Image Source: Mini-amplifier and headphones by Dineshraj Goomany, on Flickr

Article by Chloe Westley

November 18, 2014

Based in Manchester, UK, Chloe spends most of her time getting up close and personal with a zippy bit of kit called a Raman spectrometer. In between doing some high-brow research as part of a PhD, she follows tennis, cricket and Man United (unfortunately) and loves watching Suits, The Big Bang theory and Breaking Bad (obviously!).


Back To Top