Away From the Bench

The world outside of the lab

Is That a Pancreas in Your Pocket?

When most people hear the term ‘vital organ,’ the pancreas doesn’t usually pop into their head.  However, the pancreas is vital for survival, keeping your blood sugar in check. That’s why artificial pancreas trials are so exciting.  A majority of Type 1 diabetics are diagnosed as children or teenagers, and must live the rest of their life with insulin injections or insulin pumps, which they control themselves. Having a machine to automatically adjust insulin and glucagon injections based on continuous blood glucose monitoring would make diabetic life much easier.  This is especially important in young children and during times when awareness of low blood sugar is impaired by low blood sugar itself (or during sleep), as the brain needs 6 grams of glucose per hour to function properly.  When blood sugar levels drop too low (hypoglycemia), a person can go into a coma or die because their brain and organs are not getting enough glucose as fuel to survive.

When you eat a meal, carbohydrates and other sugars get broken down or converted into glucose, which circulates through the bloodstream.  The pancreas contains clusters of endocrine cells (cells that secrete hormones into the bloodstream) called Islets of Langerhans.  The majority of cells in the islet are beta cells which secrete insulin and alpha cells which secrete glucagon.  The beta cells sense the glucose concentration in the blood and secrete insulin in response, which travels through the bloodstream to other organs.  The insulin signals to those tissues (such as muscle, liver, and fat) to take up the glucose from the blood into the cell to be used for energy or stored for energy later.  High blood sugar (hyperglycemia) results from lack of beta cells (in the case of Type 1 diabetics) and the tissues ‘starve’ because they are not getting the signal to take up and process glucose from the bloodstream.  The body then tries to remove the glucose from the blood through excess urine production.  This is why poor glycemic control over time can damage the kidney and transplants may be necessary, although hyperglycemia causes many other complications such as microvascular diseases and nerve damage.

Normally, when a person becomes hypoglycemic, glucagon is secreted from pancreatic islet alpha cells, traveling through the bloodstream to the liver.  Glucagon signals to the liver to break down glucose stores (stored in long, branching chains called glycogen) and release glucose into the bloodstream.  If both insulin and glucagon are provided in a regulated manner, blood glucose levels can be adjusted accordingly.


The current insulin pumps provide a basal infusion of insulin to help keep blood glucose levels steady, but they are under the control of the user and must be manually adjusted throughout the day, especially during eating (more insulin) or exercise (less insulin).  Most diabetics prick their finger several times a day to test their blood glucose levels, as continuous blood glucose sensors are not widely used and still need calibrated at least twice a day with finger pricks.  People using insulin must be aware of rapid declines in their blood glucose levels; if their blood sugar drops too low, they must eat or drink high sugar foods or injest glucagon tablets to restore normal glycemia.  It is imperative that artificial pancreas blood glucose sensors are accurate and able to sense downward trends exceedingly well.  If a person starts exercising, muscle tissue is more sensitive to insulin and can even take up glucose independently of insulin because the need for energy (glucose) is greater.  If the sensor cannot perceive the drop in glycemia quickly and accurately; confusion, coma, and death may follow.  Combining better automatic blood glucose sensing with insulin and glucagon infusion in a bionic pancreas is a major step towards creating a better life for diabetics.  Getting the technology reliable enough is the challenge.

Nerd Alert

If you thought science and discovery was only for nerds and PhDs, think again.  Computers and technology have allowed some researchers to collect so many pieces of data, that they cannot possibly sift through it by themselves.  Many times an algorithm cannot replace human recognition and analysis, and requires that the data to be examined piece by piece.  This led some groups to reach out to the public for help.

I was first aware of crowdsourcing, in a different form, several years ago when I downloaded Screensaver Lifesaver.  This screensaver used my computer to scan potential cancer-fighting compound structures while I was not using the computer myself.  The University of Oxford basically built a supercomputer through the networking of 3.5 million personal computers, even ones as crappy as my 16GB, 300mHz Dell desktop.  I was amazed when Amazon introduced Mechanical Turk in 2005, a website where anyone can post a project for others to do, or you can choose to do a project, usually for compensation.  Currently, there are projects that pay up to $17.50 for your time, but many are small tasks that can be done for pennies.  I was tempted to use the Turk to help analyze mitochondrial shapes within cells, but never did actually outsource my graduate work (much to the chagrin of my husband who also never understood why robots weren’t feeding my cell lines for me on the weekends).

Image by NASA/ESA

Most recently, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) announced that they will begin crowdsourcing the search for life outside of Earth.  Although they have been using the virtual supercomputer screensaver concept since 1999 to hunt for radio frequency signals coming from stars likely to have alien life, they are now reaching out to humans.  They need people to go through this data because there are so many man-made interference signals, their algorithms cannot distinguish the differences as well as a person.  Anyone can sign up and help the search for E.T. at

The crowdsourcing model has proven to be effective, as new planets have been identified by arm-chair astronomy enthusiasts searching the public images produced by the NASA Kepler Mission.  The Citizen Science Alliance, which works in collaboration with other organizations, now offers many different projects through Zooniverse, where you can search for new planets, stars, and supernovas.  There are even opportunities to branch outside of astronomy, such as categorizing whale calls to try to decipher the language of our wet mammal brothers.

The possibilities of crowdsourcing seems endless.  I am excited that the power of many can accelerate science and discovery much more than previously possible.  Public participation also increases awareness of scientific research and scientific literacy.  If you are ever sitting at home, bored of watching TV, maybe you should pop open the computer and look at some cool space pictures.  You never know, you could be the one to identify a never-before-seen astronomical anomaly.  Projects like these might just bring out the nerd in all of us.

“Stupid Design”

Through the Magic of Television

I’m guessing no one could have read the news a few weeks ago without glancing upon Paula Deen’s announcement that she now has Type 2 diabetes.  I’m not sure why this was such big news, other than she was making it that way for personal profit.

I understand that celebrities have avenues such as advertising to use their fame for a paycheck and professional gain.  I have a problem with her shilling for a drug company, for a treatment of a disease that she has, yet she contributes to that disease with her work.  I recognize branding and her desire to not hurt her career, but she got herself into this conundrum.  She could have kept her health issues out of the public eye (as she has for the past three years since her diagnosis) and kept her brand alive, or even *gasp* slowly change her brand to a healthier one?!?  However, her choice to get paid by a drug company AND tell the world:

You know, people see me on TV two or three times a day and they see me cooking all these wonderfully Southern, fattening dishes. That’s only 30 days out of 365.  And it’s for entertainment. And people have to be responsible. Like I told Oprah a few years ago, honey, I’m your cook, not your doctor. You are going to have to be responsible for yourself.

Her saying, “I have always encouraged moderation” of unhealthy foods hurts many more people than her recipes ever did.  A healthy diet and exercise can alleviate the symptoms of many cases of Type 2 diabetes, and there is currently no drug on the market that cures this disease.  Of course moderation is key to a healthy lifestyle, but moderation is not the technique people use to top 300 pounds.  People need tools other than pure self-control when they are making lifestyle changes.  If you are going to publicly promote diabetes awareness and treatment, you cannot tell them you’re not their doctor, so don’t listen to what you have to say and watch what you do on your cooking show every week.

I’ve seen The Next Food Network Star and I know you are never supposed to say, “Through the magic of television I have this baked Alaska right here.”  However, I feel as though that’s exactly what Paula Deen has done.  She is basically saying, “Through the magic of this one drug for diabetes, you can eat whatever you want and there will be no dire consequences.”  Did Tracy Morgan send out a press release when he was diagnosed with diabetes?  He lost a kidney because of this disease, even after he lost weight and tried to control his blood sugar better.  Perhaps stories like his should be front-page news as a warning to those who do not manage their diabetes properly and eat all the gooey butter cake that Paula Deen teaches them how to make.


Is Beer Making your Manboobs?

The amount of misinformation that the public gets from internet sources sometimes astonishes me.  People write about things they don’t understand and create rumors, perpetuate myths, or just plain make things up.  As I love good beer and am also a scientist, this article was brought to my attention (being passed around via email) and I decided to do some calculations to get to the truth.

Basically, the author on the Peak Testosterone website cites two peer-reviewed scientific articles to claim that hops have very high amounts of phytoestrogens (plant estrogens); therefore drinking beer is “anti-testosterone”.  Ok, I’m going to gloss over the fact that this person even wrote that phrase and that this website is dedicated to erectile strength.  The problem is people read these things and take them at face value all the time.

So let’s look at the real facts:

According to another peer-reviewed scientific article that actually measured the concentration of the hop phytoestrogen 8-prenylnaringenin (I’ll now refer to this as 8-PN) in different beers, one liter of beer contains between 0-19.8 micrograms of 8-PN.  The study that Peak Testosterone cites gave 7.5 milligrams 8-PN orally to 250 gram rats to reduce hot flashes (these rats did not produce their own estrogen because their ovaries were removed).  That means, for a 150 pound person, you would have to consume 2 grams (we’re talking 2 million micrograms) of 8-PN a day to use it as an estrogen hormone replacement.  That’s only 100,000 LITERS of beer.  So guys, don’t worry that the hops in beer will cause erectile dysfunction…if anything, it’ll be the alcohol.

Boston Sugar Party

As a diabetes researcher, I’m well aware of the atrocities that high sugar and fat consumption wreak on the body.  We have an obesity and Type 2 Diabetes problem in this country, there’s no denying that – have you seen the CDC heat maps over the past four years?  Yet, I disagree with those in the field that are calling for a tax on sugar.  Setting age limits and taxes on sugar and sugary foods will not protect Americans from obesity and diabetes.  Have age restrictions and excise taxes on alcohol decreased the number of alcoholics in this country?

First of all, the government is currently keeping production and importation of sugar high.  Domestically, farmers get subsidized for corn production, a portion of which is processed into high fructose corn syrup (although much of it can be used for other things such as ethanol…and…corn).  Internationally, sugar is imported from other countries tax-free.  The U.S. Sugar Program Fact Sheet, yes there is such a thing, states, “Sugars that receive preferential tariff treatment under free trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central American/Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA/DR), the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act, the Andean Trade Preference Act, or the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences enter at a zero duty.”  That’s nada, nothing, zilch, zip, in other words, no tax on imported sugar.  If the government were to institute a substantial consumer tax, that would theoretically decrease demand and keep supply high with subsidies and tax-free trade.  This would not be a logical step for the government nor towards reducing America’s dependence on sugar.

You also have to think about consumer habits.  People pay for Starbucks coffee because they enjoy it, they know the quality and consistency of the product, and they can buy it practically anywhere.  People buy Ding Dongs for the same reasons.  They will not change their lifestyle because they have to pay a few cents more.

I do applaud the idea behind encouraging people to eat healthier, but there needs to be proactive changes in communities and families, such as increasing access to healthier food and ease of preparing it, rather than government restriction of unhealthy food.

I know the Boston Tea Party was mainly about taxation without representation, but I can still imagine all the marine life that would die of hyperglycemic complications when all that sugar gets dumped into Boston Harbor in protest of high sugar taxes.

Creative Commons copyright bee wolf ray

Hello world!

I’m bursting out of the academic bubble!

I’d like to use this space to discuss interesting news about science, health, and perhaps life in general.  I don’t expect a rabid following, but there always seem to be articles that I read and that I have an opinion about.  Why not share those while getting some writing in?  Apparently my dissertation was not enough for me.  Ever since seeing Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the theatre, I always wanted to sign my name Alyssa, Esq.  However, I’m not of noble blood, nor a lawyer.  So I’ll leave you with,

Alyssa, PhD

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