Births and Improving Life After Birth
With the birth of a new year, I’ve noticed a number of other
recent births of an unusual nature. For example, a panda in
Japan gave birth to two pandas. This isn’t that unusual except
for the fact this birth put the number of pandas bred in captivity
at a record 30 for one year. Until I read an article by Dorie
Turner of AP in the December 29 Star-Ledger, I didn’t fully
appreciate the dedication needed to maintain pandas in a zoo.
I knew pandas relied on bamboo for subsistence in the wild but I
didn’t realize how finicky they are. According to the article, Zoo
Atlanta relies on four full-time bamboo hunters to feed the zoo’s
pandas Lun Lun and Yang Yang. They not only demand
bamboo but they also insist on certain types of bamboo, changing
their preference depending on the time of year! They also won’t
touch stale bamboo with wilted leaves. This keeps the bamboo
hunters busy scouring the bamboo patches of Georgia to supply
the 20 to 30 pounds a day each of the pandas devours.
Back to unusual births, there were media reports of a human
mother with two wombs giving birth to triplets in England.
Identical twin girls occupied one womb, while a fraternal twin
girl occupied the second womb prior to birth. This was
reportedly the first known case of triplets born under these
conditions. I hadn’t heard of a woman having two wombs, but
gather that it occurs in about one in a thousand women. Equally
surprising was the birth of twins to a Spanish mother in
Barcelona. The woman was 67! She reportedly received
artificial insemination in the U.S.A. but chose to have the babies
in a hospital in Barcelona that specializes in premature births.
A third birth of note hasn’t happened yet as far as I know but the
pregnancy fits in with the Christmas season. This is the virgin
pregnancy of a Komodo dragon in a London zoo. It seems that
this female Komodo has been deprived of any contact with a
male Komodo. Nevertheless, she became pregnant on her own
initiative. How she accomplished this feat is unknown, although
certain female lizards have been known in the past to dispense
with the need for male partners in the reproductive process.
Let’s turn from births to the prolonging or improving the quality
of life after birth. In deference to StocksandNews editor Brian
Trumbore, consider two significant scientific contributions from
his alma mater, Wake Forest University. Last night, Brian was
in Miami watching Louisville defeat Wake in the Orange Bowl –
no cause for celebration there. Here, however, we can celebrate
the efforts of two teams of researchers from Wake Forest in the
fields of diet and in tissue engineering.
The December Harvard Health Letter ranked trans fat as number
two in its list of the top ten health stories of 2006. Today, New
York City puts into effect a law phasing out the use of all but
traces of trans fats in restaurant food. The January 2007 issue of
Discover magazine ranks the work of Lawrence Rudel and his
colleagues at Wake Forest on trans fats as number 14 in its top
100 science stories of 2006. Their work was a key study that is
helping put the nail in the coffin of these nasty fats.
Last year saw the culmination of their six-year study targeted at
finding the effects of trans fats on atherosclerosis in two groups
of vervet monkeys. One group received trans fats, the other
traditional monounsaturated fats in their diets. After six years,
the trans fat group had gained 7.2 percent in body weight while
the monounsaturated group gained 1.8 percent, only a quarter of
the weight gain of the trans fat group. The trans fat group’s diet
was high in trans fats but not much different from the diets of
those of us who really love their French fries and donuts. The
weight gain also was concentrated around the abdomen, the
pattern associated with cardiovascular disease in humans. In
addition, there was an alarming pattern of atherosclerosis and
insulin resistance in the trans fat monkeys.
Walter Willett of Harvard was led by the study to proclaim,
“Trans fats are clearly toxic to humans and have no place in
human diets.” You may remember Willett as the fellow who
shook up the dietary establishment with his new food pyramid
that replaced the one previously promoted by dietary authorities.
The second Wake Forest contribution was rated number 2 in
Discover’s top 100 science stories of 2006. Actually, it was a
joint effort by Anthony Atala, formerly at Harvard and at Wake
since 2004, and a team of Wake and Harvard researchers. In the
April 15 issue of The Lancet, a British medical journal, they
described their work with spina bifida patients ranging in age
from 4 to 19. These patients had abnormal bladders in addition
to their spinal cord defects. Such abnormal bladders not only
pose problems with control of urination but also lead to severe
kidney problems. In 1999, Atala and his colleagues began to
implant lab-grown bladders in these patients.
For patients such as these, Atala, then a pediatric surgeon at
Harvard, was performing a century-old operation in which a new
bladder was formed from sections of the bowel or stomach. This
operation has drawbacks due to the nature of the tissues used.
Stomach and bowel tissues absorb chemicals whereas the bladder
is supposed to store and eliminate chemicals. The surgical
bladders therefore tend to absorb chemicals that should be gotten
rid of, leading to higher chances of cancer and other problems.
Atala wasn’t happy with this situation and wondered if it would
be possible to grow an artificial bladder.
The bladder is a 3-layered structure, the inner wall consisting of
urothelial cells that hold in the urine and other waste liquids.
The middle layer is collagen and the outer layer is muscle. It
took Atala about ten years to come up with an artificial bladder.
The first step is a biopsy to remove a small dime-sized section of
the patient’s bladder. The three layers are separated and cells
from the muscle and urothelial layers are cultured and grown
separately until, after several weeks, there are enough cells to
form a bladder.
A mold of collagen is formed and the inside is covered with the
urothelial cells while the outer surface is coated with the muscle
cells. The whole structure is then placed in a special nutrient
solution and incubated at 90 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 days. The
result is a shiny pink ball, an artificial bladder ready to be
implanted. Since the bladder contains cells cultivated from the
patient’s body, there should be no rejection problems.
The Discover article by Bijal Trivedi cites the case of a patient,
who received her artificial bladder five years ago at age 12 and
now lives without diapers, has stopped having kidney infections
and enjoys a vastly better quality of life. Atala and his
colleagues are hoping that they can expand the use of artificial
bladders to other patients such as those with bladder cancer.
As of today, the past two months have not seen a speck of snow
on the ground in our part of New Jersey and temps are slated to
be in the mid fifties this week. We often get a “January thaw”
but this year we’ve had no really cold weather from which to
thaw. Tulips are actually poking their shoots above the ground
under our breakfast room window – way too early! While our
unusual weather cannot be ascribed definitively to global
warming, it may well be that 2006 was the year when the
evidence accumulated to such an extent that no rational person
can deny the existence of global warming, whether or not due to
And to those poor souls suffering in the monstrous storms west
of here, you have our sympathy. If our local warmth is due to
global warming, remember that such warming is not a uniform
Happy New Year.
Allen F. Bortrum