Melodies divert droplets

So, today I’m revealing some the depths of my true chemistry geekiness. As I was poring over press releases, I found one from the University of Michigan that was fun– but probably also too geeky– to propose as a story idea: a microfluidic device that moves droplets based on sound waves.

First of all, some explanation: Microfluidic devices are tiny networks of channels that chemists and chemical engineers are building as ways to mix and recombine a variety of chemicals. One of these days this technology will probably run all sorts of diagnostic devices– the sorts of gizmos that might sequence your DNA and scan your system for all sorts of diseases by splitting up a tiny drop of your blood.

However, part of the problem with these devices, as the University of Michigan researchers note, is that though the systems of channels are often tiny, the devices that you hook to them to move the droplets around often aren’t. So they built a system that would move the drops that alter how the droplets move based on sound frequencies. So, the melody choreographs the droplet movement.

I guess it could make for a noisy lab, but, geek that I am, I can’t help but enjoy the video of the droplet dance.

a microfluidic device (Micronit Microfluidics)
a microfluidic device (Micronit Microfluidics)

Pop goes the antioxidants

fresh popped kernels courtesy of my kitchen
popped kernels fresh from my kitchen

Summer’s distracted me from blogging, but I just returned from the American Chemical Society meeting in Washington, DC. That meeting is a huge mishmash for me– a combination of catching up with former chemistry colleagues, meeting up with current writing colleagues, and getting myself back up to speed on what’s new with molecules.

Though it’s a small story in the broader sense of the ACS meeting, as a popcorn fan, I can’t help but be excited that my favorite salty snack– popcorn– also packs the highest per-gram punch of polyphenols, a class of antioxidants. Before anyone goes crazy, no, we shouldn’t all switch to a popcorn diet, particularly one that’s covered in butter, real or artificial.

Fortunately, I’m an old-fashioned gal when it comes to my kernels. I like them popped fresh in a little oil on a stove, just like Mom made before we had a microwave. Some of my most vivid memories of childhood road trips include riding down either I-95 or I-10 and the tug-of-war with my sister over who got to hold the large Charles’ Chips tin containing fluffy, crunchy saltiness that Mom had popped before we left home.

popcorn on the stove, just like Mom used to make
popcorn on the stove, just like Mom used to make

Back to the science, though– the popcorn was part of a larger study by Joe Vinson and his colleagues at the University of Scranton looking at antioxidants in whole grains. Like other plant-derived foods, whole grains have antioxidants and those chemicals could be part of the reason that these foods are healthy. Not a particularly new idea, I’ll admit. But as I’m crunching on a fresh pot of snack food, I don’t mind feeling just a little less guilty.


Tackling tuberculosis

Global health has been on my mind again recently. An article I wrote for Nature Reviews Drug Discovery (subscription required) examines efforts to find new drugs for tuberculosis.

Scanning electron micrograh of TB bacterium/ image: CDC/Dr. Ray Butler, credit: Janice Haney Carr
Scanning electron micrograph of TB bacterium/ image: CDC/Dr. Ray Butler, credit: Janice Haney Carr

TB is a wily organism that finds a way to wall itself off in the body. Under the best circumstances, knocking out “the best” TB, the drug susceptible variety, requires 6 to 9 months of antibiotics. That’s a long time to stay on drugs, particularly in a developing country where the health clinic could be miles away. But if people start treatment without completing it, drug resistant disease can develop. With multi-drug resistant (MDR) or extensively drug resistant (XDR) disease, that prognosis is far more uncertain. The treatments being given in these cases don’t have much scientific validation to show that they work. In some cases of XDR TB, doctors are cutting out portions of diseased lung tissue from patients because there’s not much else that they can do.

My article mostly talks about the drug discovery challenges: how do you find a new drug for an old disease particularly when half a century ago we thought this problem was solved. But there’s another piece of this story that didn’t make it into the article: how do you then do the clinical studies to test these drugs among the people who need these drugs most?

In countries where health care systems are already taxed and where doctors and nurses may not be trained to carry out clinical trial protocols, there’s an additional wrinkle. TB treatments– somewhat uniquely– are written into health care policy in countries around the world. Almost all other diseases¬† have recommended treatments, but the final decision belongs with the medical professionals who see the patients. What does that mean for TB clinical trials? Many more layers of red tape to set up a clinical trial. Not only do researchers have to work out trial protocols with the hospitals, they also have to get approvals from local and national authorities to modify the existing TB treatment protocols. I was amazed at the amount of coordination that’s involved.

Learn more about the search for new TB treatments at the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development.