New discoveries in laboratory science are exciting and often surprising. Sometimes they confirm our commonsense mental map of ‘how the world works.’ Underlying explanations from the fields of physics, chemistry or biology give us a feeling of confidence — that we truly understand the world around us. We know how everything works. But just as often, new scientific discoveries crop up that turn our idea of how things work completely upside down.
Sometimes these discoveries are exhilarating and full of good news for the future. Other discoveries, however, such as the outbreak of a new unknown and incurable disease, leave us fearful — wondering whether a scientific breakthrough in the form of a cure might come in time. This week we’ll begin a new multi-part series on laboratory discoveries across a variety of different scientific disciplines, including biomedical research, materials science, energy production, pathological disease control, pharmaceutical drug development, agricultural science, and space research. We’ll begin by taking a look at some of the very latest scientific discoveries and news announced this month:
Mice and Rats are Afraid of Male Laboratory Researchers
According to a scientific paper published this week in the scientific journal Nature, male laboratory investigators (we are talking about humans here) may get significantly different experimental results when working with rodent test subjects than female investigators. Huh??
The short version: Contrary to what we might expect, it appears that mice and rats are terrified of male laboratory workers. The mere presence of male humans (or their scent on cloth as used in the experiments) induces a strong physiological stress response in laboratory rats and mice. Specifically, male lab workers cause rats and mice to produce a chemical analgesia in their bodies that reduces their pain sensation. The rodents also increase their body temperature and generate higher levels of corticosterone.
The bottom line: current and historical rodent experiments, such as laboratory drug research, conducted by male laboratory investigators could be suspect and potentially compromised by this phenomenon. Researchers are now investigating the consequences of this discovery. Indeed, what you don’t know may surprise you!
Coming Soon From a Scientific Laboratory Near You: Disposable Batteries that Last Decades
Key-less entry systems that allow you to enter and start your car simply by having a key fob in your pocket or purse are one of the great conveniences of modern car design. That is, until the day the battery dies and then nothing works. While this type of battery failure is inconvenient, it doesn’t compare to the battery needs of a heart patient who wears a cardiac pacemaker — battery failure in a pacemaker could be a matter of life or death and surgery is required to implant a replacement. But short-lived batteries may be a thing of the past.
According to The Journal of the American Chemical Society, lab researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) challenged conventional wisdom on how batteries work, in a paper titled “Pushing the Theoretical Limit of Li-CFx Batteries: A Tale of Bifunctional Electrolyte.” Instead of treating the cathode, anode, and electrolyte as independent functions, ORNL researchers devised a new solution (pardon the pun) where the electrolyte functions as an ion conductor as well as a cathode supplement. The result of this research is a proof-of-concept disposable battery that could last decades — with unprecedented energy density and longevity. Next, we’ll look at some laboratory discoveries in the public health arena that are more troubling.
Epidemiological Research in the Laboratory and in the Field: MERS-CoV, Ebola Virus, and Dengue Fever
Epidemiologists are hard at work trying to cope with two disease outbreaks in the Middle East and in Africa. The first is an outbreak of what is called MERS-CoV, short for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus. This disease, which first appeared in April 2012, has resulted in over 250 laboratory-confirmed cases — 93 of these resulting in death. While the total number of cases is relatively small, the high MERS-CoV death rate (estimated at over 40% among confirmed cases) has caused great alarm. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 75% of recently reported cases are the result of human-to-human transmission, yet the source and the mode of MERS-CoV infection have yet to be determined by laboratory researchers.
Fortunately, there may be a breakthrough in identifying MERS antibodies. This is often the first step toward creating a preventive cure. Laboratory researchers at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill have just published findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In their study, laboratory researchers tested antibodies from the Dana-Farber Cancer’s Institute at Harvard (which has a library of over 27 billion human antibodies!) and they were successful in identifying antibodies which prevented replication of the MERS-CoV virus in the laboratory. Meanwhile, the first case of MERS-CoV has been detected in Egypt, contracted by an Egyptian who had been living in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. This is especially concerning for epidemiologists based in Africa, because the continent is already experiencing a renewed outbreak of the Ebola Virus in the West African countries of Guinea and Liberia (with additional suspected cases in Sierra Leon and Mali.)
Scientists believe that the current Ebola outbreak was initially spread by someone handling an infected fruit bat. Complicating matters further, this latest outbreak appears to be caused by a new variant strain of the Ebola virus, with death rates estimated between 71% and 86%. WHO reports that over 140 have contracted the disease and died. Some of the major research on the Ebola Virus is conducted much closer to home, at the Galveston National Laboratory on the Gulf Coast of Texas near Houston. At the 6th Annual Conference of the International Symposium on Filoviruses (a virus category which includes Ebola and its deadly cousin Marburg Virus), Dr Frederick A. Murphy and Dr Thomas G. Ksiazek, professors at the University of Texas Medical Branch, were awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for Contributions to Study of Deadly Diseases. These viruses are transported from Africa to the highly-safeguarded Bio-Safety Level 4 research lab in Galveston.
Dengue Fever in Houston, Texas?
However, the work is not done. These disease outbreaks, like the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, remind us all of the potentials for worldwide epidemics. Changing climate and mass transportation by airplane may cause the next outbreak in regions where we might not expect them.
For example, laboratory researchers looking for evidence of West Nile virus in dead birds in Houston have determined that Dengue Fever virus is also present in the area. It’s not yet understood if the disease is fully established in the Gulf Coast region or whether recent visitors, such as tourist or immigrants from dengue-prone regions, have introduced this disease on a temporary basis.
There are a Lot of Things We Simply Don’t Know About Pandemics
Almost 100 years since the worldwide influenza pandemic in 1918 that killed an estimated 50-100 million people, epidemiologists are still making new discoveries, such as why young people were affected in greater numbers than the elderly (which is the reverse of the normal pandemic).
The new research indicates younger people fell victim to the 1918 flu in disproportionate numbers because they had not experienced any variation of it before — unlike older generations who had experienced a milder outbreak of a variation of this virus years before, which made their immune systems more prepared for its virulent return in 1918. This new discovery will inform the composition of future ‘flu shots’ in coming years as epidemiologists take this “generational effect” into consideration when formulating flu immunization programs.
Next week our survey of scientific discoveries will take us into new developments in pharmaceuticals and drug discovery. This field is seeing many rapid advances but is not lacking in controversy.
We’re Excited to be Part of a Your Work in Scientific Discoveries
No matter what scientific field you’re working in, we here at Formaspace take great interest in your pursuit of scientific discovery. We take pride in all of the laboratory furniture we build here at our factory in Austin, Texas.
Whether you are building a brand-new facility, like a new wet lab, or you want to renovate your existing facility, we have the right laboratory furniture solution for you. Just give us a call at 800.251.1505 and speak with one of our friendly technical furniture consultants. We’ll be happy to share our expertise with you and together we can come up with the right combination of lab benches, workstations, laboratory storage cabinets and other equipment to make your laboratory efficient and productive.