9 April 2006

What we can do for each other

The mien of those approaching us
May reek of pow’r, contumely,
Or desperation may exude,
A fawning love that makes us flee.

A multitude of outward shapes 
Mask just two things that might be wrong:
They want but to be listened to;
Assurance, too, that they belong.

~ Josh Mitteldorf

8 April 2006

“We cannot know the consequences of suppressing a child's spontaneity when he is just beginning to be active. We may even suffocate life itself. That humanity which is revealed in all its intellectual splendor during the sweet and tender age of childhood should be respected with a kind of religious veneration. It is like the sun which appears at dawn or a flower just beginning to bloom. Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child to open up himself to life.”

~ Maria Montessori

7 April 2006

“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity - designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man...

“The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we shrink from being fully alive.”

Ernest Becker

6 April 2006

When an embryo develops, a single egg cell differentiates as it divides into different cell types – nerve and muscle and bone, liver, lung, and larynx.  How do the cells find their appropriate shapes?  How are the organ and skeletal and circulatory structures created?  Incredibly, a big part of the answer seems to be self-assembly!  Cells of a particular type migrate through the tissue until they find their appropriate place, surrounded by the right mix of other cell types.

This presents an exciting prospect for regenerative medicine.  The laboratory of Anthony Atala at the Wake Forest Medical School in North Carolina has been working on creating natural replacement organs, grown in the lab from a patient’s own stem cells, so that they will be recognized by the body and not rejected.  Their first project was to grow replacement bladders, since bladders are simple balloon shapes, with less structure than other organs.  Cells are given a hand-made scaffold of collagen that defines the shape of the organ.  But even though the general shape is defined for them, the cells themselves perform an incredible feat, creating muscles from muscle cells and nerves from nerve cells, arteries from blood vessel cells, all forming themselves into a functionally complete organ.

This week, for the first time, a lab-grown bladder was implanted back into a patient whose own bladder had become dysfunctional.  The lab is working next on lab-grown hearts, which have the potential to save many more lives.

New Scientist article
New York Times article

Video interview of Dr Atala

5 April 2006

Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

~ Robert Frost, from The Gift Outright 

4 April 2006

In the last generation, as China has become factory to the developed world, companies have assumed that there is an unlimited supply of cheap labor, willing to work under conditions of near slavery.  Efforts to improve working conditions by law and by 'sweatshop boycotts' here in the US were overwhelmed.

But now demographics are succeeding where regulation and activism have failed.  Chinese workers have some bargaining power, and factories are beginning to compete with each other to attract them. Working conditions, hours, and wages are improving for the world's largest working population.  A booming Chinese middle class will soon be the world's dominant demographic engine.

New York Times article

3 April 2006

One of the most promising medical technologies for the near future involves unleashing the body’s regenerative capacity, healing in ways that were previously thought to be available only to invertebrates.  And of these, the most dramatic involve regeneration of nerves.

In an experiment reported last month, hamsters that had been completely blinded because of severance of their optic nerves were able to regrow the nerve's tentacles, called "axons", with the help of a biodegradable scaffold implanted by the experimenters.  Gerald Schneider at MIT reports using a chemical trick: protein molecules were designed to self-assemble into filaments that would guide the nerve growth the way a trellis guides shoots of climbing ivy.  He estimates that 30,000 axons regrew in six weeks, enough so that the hamsters could find their way around their cages and function normally.

New Scientist article
Research article, PNAS-Bio