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Must-See ACS Webinar: Superbugs and Drug Development

Maryn McKenna.

SUPERBUG author, Maryn McKenna.

One of science journalism’s expert voices, author Maryn McKenna, will be the guest on this Thursday’s ACS Webinar Joy of Science series at 2:00 – 3:00 pm Eastern time.

Free, as always, you can sign up to participate at this link.

McKenna’s book, SUPERBUG: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, is a thorough and accessible investigation of the reemergence of lethal bacterial infections while new drug development lags.

The book, now in paperback, received the 2011 Science in Society Award from the the National Association of Science Writers.

McKenna had spent much of her career at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as the only U.S. reporter assigned full time to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, her first book, Beating Back the Devil, detailed her experiences with CDC’s Epidemic Investigation Service (EIS), the team dispatched anywhere in the world that’s experiencing an unusual infectious disease event.

From her book’s website:

I was following a group of disease detectives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, through an investigation of bizarre skin infections in Los Angeles. The CDC wanted to know where men were picking them up. I wanted to know something more fundamental: How could a minor problem — something that the victims all described as looking like a tiny spider bite — blow up into massive infections that ate away at skin and muscle, put people into the hospital for weeks and drained their health and their bank accounts? Where had it come from? And if it could do that, what else was it capable of?

A multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) plushy from GiantMicrobes.com, personalized for the author by Maryn McKenna. Photo credit: DJ Kroll

A multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) plushy from GiantMicrobes.com, personalized for the author by Maryn McKenna. Photo credit: DJ Kroll

Maryn’s one of the best science writers in the world in terms of mastering her subject and making it widely accessible.

Of course, her webinar will be of interest to anyone concerned about the proliferation of drug-resistant infectious diseases and how to design drugs to stay a step ahead of evolution.

But she’s also a great model to emulate for anyone trying to make their scientific work more approachable to non-experts. You might even learn a thing or two about telling a gripping story.

And, thanks to your American Chemical Society, dialing into the webinar is FREE. Go here to register.

You don’t even need to be an ACS member!

You can thank me later.

The webinar will be archived but you can also hear from Maryn McKenna on a regular basis at her Wired Science blog, Superbug and on Twitter @marynmck.

Why Isn’t Caffeine Called “Theoanaleptine”?

This question came to me as I read last week’s C&EN cover story by Dr. Lauren K. Wolf on caffeine toxicity entitled, “Caffeine Jitters.”

By the way, read it if you haven’t — it’s open-access on C&EN right now and remains the most-read (last 7 days), most-commented (last 30 days), and most-shared (last 30 days) article since it appeared. Lauren did a terrific job of sifting through decades of information on the physiological effects of caffeine to make sense out of the true health hazards of caffeine consumption at “normal” and excessive doses.

Caffeine, a natural alkaloid found predominantly in coffee beans, is 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine (not IUPAC, but you get it). In the body, the hepatic cytochrome P450 CYP1A2 catalyzes the N-demethylation of caffeine to theophylline, theobromine, and paraxanthine.

The cytochrome P450 CYP1A2 catalyzes the N-demethylation of caffeine to one of three dimethylxanthines, with paraxanthine predominating. Credit: C&EN

The cytochrome P450 CYP1A2 catalyzes the N-demethylation of caffeine to one of three dimethylxanthines, with paraxanthine predominating. Credit: C&EN

 

Divine chemicals

Of note, theobromine and theophylline also occur in nature. Theobromine is found in cacao beans. Because chocolate is heavenly, it was given the Greek name for “food of the gods”: theos – god; broma – food.

Correct, theobromine contains no bromine. Had it contained bromine, the name might have been the same but would have been derived from the Greek bromos, or “stench” – “stench of the gods,” which, clearly, it is not.

Stimulant of the Gods. Available now at the Pharmacopolis store at Zazzle.

Stimulant of the Gods. Available now at the Pharmacopolis store at Zazzle.

Theophylline also occurs naturally and had been extensively used as a bronchodilator for folks with asthma. Primatene tablets used to contain theophylline but today are ephedrine. Again, theophylline has the godly theo- prefix while the -phylline suffix indicated that it comes from leaves.

And apologies to paraxanthine. It’s known historically for having first been isolated from urine in 1883. Not until the 1980s was it shown to occur in some plants. In any case, the biosynthesis of the di- and tri-methylxanthines originate with xanthosine from purine metabolism.

So to my question. . .

Because caffeine is so widely worshiped, why is it not known as theoanaleptine? The Greek analeptikos means stimulant and the English term analeptic is defined as a stimulant drug.

So, why not?

My best guess is because caffeine was described in the literature prior to theophylline and theobromine. From M.J. Arnaud’s chapter in Caffeine (Springer, 1984):

The isolation of caffeine from green coffee beans was described in Germany in 1820 by Runge and confirmed the same year by von Giese. In France, Robiquet in 1823 and then Pelletier in 1826 independently discovered a white and volatile crystalline substance. The name “cofeina” appeared in 1823 in the “Dictionaire des termes de medécine” and the word “caffein” or “coffein” was used by Fechner in 1826.

Arnaud goes on to say that theobromine was discovered in cocoa beans in 1842 and theophylline in tea leaves in 1888.

So, caffeine had about a two-decade headstart in being named for its presence in coffee before related methylxanthines took on their divine monikers.

Sure, sure, caffeine is a well-recognized name that derives predictably from its source. But let’s live a little. Wouldn’t you rather be drinking the stimulant of the gods?

If you’re as excited about this as I am, you may purchase theoanaleptine coffee mugs here. They’ll set you apart from ever Tom, Dick, and Harriet who think they’re clever with their caffeine coffee mugs.

And even with accepting the new colloquial name of theoanaleptine, our friend Scicurious can still keep her tattoo unchanged.

 

 

Naming Genes Unlike Named Reactions

Our best wishes to all of you in the Northeast getting ready for Hurricane Sandy. I understand that even DC is closed today. So if you still have power at home, let me share a bit of levity with you.

Meghan Radford, science writer and NC State graduate student in zoology. Credit: Meghan Radford.

Over the weekend I learned that my science writing student, Meghan Radford (@meradfor), had a clever piece published at mental_floss, the magazine and website, “where knowledge junkies get their fix.”

Megan’s article entitled, “18 Gene Names that Cover the Gamut, From Movies to Pop Culture to Cartoons,” illustrates the comical yet discordant and unscientific process behind naming genes.

Her article reminded me of C&EN’s Carmen Drahl when she wrote about named reactions in both the magazine (C&EN, 17 May 2010) and her Newscripts blog here at CENtral Science.

I’m not familiar with any genes that are named after the person who discovered them but, as Radford points out, a great many have been given interesting colloquial names. International gene nomenclature organizations exist but the standardized rules of these committees still make refer to the less formal names.

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L’Embarras Des Richesses: ScienceOnline2013 and ScienceWriters2012

In this quiet moment on a rainy Saturday evening in North Carolina Piedmont, I lie here in awe of the breadth of creative talent and boundless enthusiasm that this place attracts.

Tonight at 5:00 pm Eastern time, a couple hundred folks or so learned that they had not scored a slot in the lottery for the remaining spaces at ScienceOnline2013. I won’t be there this year either but I can certainly understand the disappointment. This simple idea of Bora Zivkovic along with Let’s-Get-Together-and-See-Where-This-Goes Guy, Anton Zuiker, has grown from a small gathering of likeminded online science enthusiasts to become the South-By-Southwest of science meetings, now under the exceptional leadership of Karyn Traphagen.

I encourage everyone to stay on or sign up for the waitlist. Lots of plans change between now and late January so registration slots will most certainly open up.

Y’all come! Click for details.

But in the meantime, you might consider another possibility that just happens to be available this year very near to the same GPS coordinates: ScienceWriters2012, the annual conference of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and the National Association of Science Writers.

Scheduled for October 26-30, 2012, ScienceWriters2012 will be headquartered at the very same hotel with a program crafted by a broad group of science communicators that include a subset of ScienceOnline folks. (For the record, we’re called Science Communicators of North Carolina, or SCONC.).

Here, look at the schedule yourself.

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RTI scientists solving forensic, designer drug mysteries

Kerstin Nordstrom, PhD, AAAS Mass Media Fellow, News & Observer. Credit: Losert Laboratory/Univ of Maryland.

Catching up on my reading this Sunday morning, I’m beaming with pride on the collective accomplishments and coverage of some old friends and colleagues.

Kerstin Nordstrom, a AAAS Mass Media Fellow with the Raleigh News & Observer, had a nice story on 3 September about the work of Dr. Peter Stout at RTI International. You old-timers will know this non-profit entity as Research Triangle Institute, home to the discoveries of Taxol and camptothecin by Wall and Wani and colleagues.

Kerstin, or Dr. Nordstrom I should say as she holds a PhD in physics, interviews RTI’s Dr. Peter Stout on the institute’s forensic analytical chemistry capabilities with regard to the “designer drug” industry. Yes, here we go again with my long-running commentary on the “synthetic marijuana,” “herbal incense,” “plant food,” and “bath salts” products that have recently taken a direct hit from “Operation Log Jam,” a coordinated, federal operation to shut down the industry.

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Talking fungi at Skeptically Speaking

A brainy, free, and fun online and radio chat-type call-in show on all things science. Hosted by Desiree Schell and edited by K.O. Myers. Awesomesauce. From Canada, of course.

Well, if you’re looking for something to do during Super Bowl halftime than watch Madonna, you’re welcome to join me online for the wildly-successful science radio show, Skeptically Speaking.

With Edmonton-based host Desiree Schell (@teh_skeptic) and her US-based producer K.O. Myers (@KO_Myers), we’ll be discussing the secret lives of fungi, particularly as related to the synthesis of secondary metabolites that we use as therapeutic agents.

If you’re able to join us live, we’ll be at this UStream.tv page at 8 pm Eastern, 6 pm Mountain. On the chat bar at the right of the page, you can follow the online discussion and submit questions of your own.

I hope that you can dial us in. If not, the complete podcast will be downloadable on the evening of February 10.

Amy Harmon’s “Navigating Love and Autism”

I can’t gush enough about today’s page one story by Amy Harmon in The New York Times.

Jack Robison and Kirsten Lindsmith. Credit: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

As part of her continuing series, Love on the Spectrum, Amy follows a college couple who are emblematic of the relationship and intimacy challenges of young adults with Asperger syndrome or other forms of autism. I thought that CENtral Science readers would be interested in both Kirsten Lindsmith and Jack Robison, the latter having an intense interest and facility in chemistry.

The article leads with a warm and well-edited, five-minute video of the couple (by Sean Patrick Farrell) but I’d encourage you to read the whole piece first, as I did. But when you do watch it, pay attention to Kirsten’s closing statement on the definition of love.

I left the story seeing glimpses of myself and my own relationships, although I’ve not been diagnosed with any spectrum syndromes. In fact, I’d venture to say that many readers here might see some commonalities with Kirsten and Jack. I absolutely loved these two kids and seeing the video has me cheering that they do indeed successfully navigate the challenges we all face between our scientific passions and personal relationships.

While Harmon’s article isn’t open to comments at the NYT, I’d welcome any thoughts here that folks might have after reading her brilliant piece.

Source:

Harmon, Amy. Navigating Love and Autism. The New York Times, 26 December 2011.

Twitter:

Amy Harmon @amy_harmon

Sean Patrick Farrell @spatrickfarrell

 

Bryostatins: Panacea?

Bryostatin was first popularized by Bob Pettit at Arizona State University. Click on the picture for Halford's profile of Dr. Pettit.

I just had the delightful pleasure of participating in the C&EN Advisory Board meeting late last week. Among the outstanding C&EN writers and editors at the DC headquarters, I got to meet several others who are stationed around the US and the world.

One of these new friends based in New Jersey, Bethany Halford, has this week’s C&EN cover story on the marine natural products, the bryostatins. These complex compounds were originally studied for anticancer activities but, as Bethany tells us, are now showing promise in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease.

And while Bethany tells us that the first bryozoan source of these compounds was collected in 1968 from Gulf Specimen Co., she resisted the urge to tell us that the company is in Panacea, Florida. (Here’s a definition and etymology of panacea.)

Go forth and read.

References:

Halford, Bethany. Chemical & Engineering News 89(43): 10-17 (24 October 2011)

Cover story - The Bryostatins’ Tale

Profile on George (Bob) Pettit - Pioneer: Undersea Treasure Hunter

Natural product drug development – Drug Development: Taking the Long Route

On journalists copy-checking with scientist sources

Should science journalists solicit scientist sources to fact-check article content prior to publication?

Or do scientists have no more right to do so than, say, politicians previewing the latest criticism of their policies.

"Just try fact-checking with me, pal." The legendary Helen Thomas. Credit: helenthomas.org

I have to admit that I had not quite anticipated the magnitude of interest in these questions when I first wrote about the topic in late September at my Take As Directed blog on the PLoS Blogs network.

The backstory: I had been watching an episode of Vincent Racaniello’s excellent netcast, This Week in Virology (TWiV), from the the International Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC) in mid-September. The first 35 minutes saw Vincent and Rich Condit turn the tables to interview Chicago Tribune science and medical reporter, Trine Tsouderos. Trine is perhaps best-known of late for her coverage of the faulty link between XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome as well as the suspension of Dr. Mark Geier, a physician using a chemical castration drug to treat people with autism.

Trine mentioned in the interview that she often runs passages of complex science from her articles past the scientists she had interviewed for the piece. She doesn’t do so for approval or in any way to affect the tone of her writing but rather to be sure that she has interpreted the scientific findings accurate (my words, not hers).

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Most important lessons learned from a teacher

Keith with a model of a DNA molecule. Credit: Steve Silberman/NeuroTribes

In the current US political climate, teaching as a profession is taking a beating. I don’t quite understand how one of the most important jobs in this country, particularly at the K-12 level, is somehow perceived at the heart of our economic woes.

Over at his NeuroTribes blog (mind, science, culture) at PLoS Blogs, science journalist Steve Silberman has a superb collection of science writer reflections on the most important lessons some of us have learned from teachers. I’m honored to have been invited to be in such lofty company – thanks, Steve!

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