Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ethics and Organs

The United Nations and Council of Europe recently held a panel to discuss issues surrounding organ trafficking and policies to shut down heartless brokers of the underground market. The business of organ tourism and trafficking is a booming, billion-dollar cash business that exploits the world’s poor. The market’s inventory comes from a variety of sources: some organs are extracted from murdered prisoners in China, others come from people who are desperate enough to sell their organs to support their families or pay a dowry, and still more come thieving doctors. Individual accounts are horrifying—-respected journalists have reported stories about mothers who sell their children’s organs, doctors in New Delhi who deceive their patients by falsely claiming that the patient has an illness which calls for the removal of a kidney, and beggars who sell body parts in order to become more effective.
The panel at the UN discussed free markets and whether one should have the right to make the decision to sell what is rightly theirs. Each panelist opposed this idea, agreeing with Dr. Caplan, who noted early in the discussion that those who sell their organs do not do so out of choice so much as out of desperation and exploitation. Dr. Diflo added that the economic consequences of selling an organ actually tends to worsen both the economic and health conditions of the seller in the long run. He cited a study in India where the average yearly salary of donors was reduced by an average of 30% and the health of most donors declined quickly after their operation.

People who are reduced to selling an organ are not the only ones who are desperate, of course. Two thirds of those on the waiting list to receive an organ have a slim chance of getting one in time. The line is deathly long and the options are limited:

Option 1. Take part in the underground market that exploits the world’s poor by buying or stealing their organs. The black market is now accessible via Google, which makes it fairly easy to take part in this option. It is risky, however, as black market organs are often not tested for diseases, and the “donated” organ, perhaps from a murdered Chinese prisoner, could be rotting from a nasty disease. Additionally, Maude de Boer-Buquichhio, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, stated that international organizations are considering new policies that will criminalize clients of trafficked organs.

Option 2. Continue to wait, and hope that it doesn’t take too long to get your organ in a legitimate manner. Sites such as can help, and some have even had success by posting requests on Craigslist.
For more information about organ harvesting, or to get involved, see Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting at

Monday, July 9, 2007


Last Saturday, 2 billion people rallied at Live Earth concerts and gatherings across every continent to raise awareness about the climate crisis; it was a hot turnout indeed. Although I was not one of those who bellowed my belief in social change to the tunes of Kanye West in 90 degree heat at the Giants Stadium, I did, however, take energy-saving mass transit to Queens to attend a MoveOn.Org gathering of random strangers who like to talk about their concern for the environment, drink wine, and gab about what politicians should do about it. It was a GREAT party, and everyone had a solution of sorts.
If it was just the thought that counted, I believe we would have solved the issue of global warming by now— but raising awareness only helps if we all act on it. I bring this up because every single person at the MoveOn.Org gathering enthusiastically promised to send a creative energy-saving suggestion to the TalkingScience blog, but I still haven’t received a single one. Now, perhaps I’m being a bit harsh- I bet they’re all saving energy by keeping their computers turned off. Hmmm…
In any case, there are a lot of fabulous groups and individuals who are doing their part to reduce their carbon footprint. The Live Earth event proves that people across the globe are fully capable of making a concerted effort (excuse the pun). Now, if we could simply make an equal effort in acting on all these plans to solve the climate crisis as we do partying and awareness raising, I’m sure we could make an enormous impact. I hope that the people who attended the Queens MoveOn.Org event will flood my inbox with suggestions tomorrow, and in the meantime, here’s an energy-saving tip from yours truly:
As soon as you finish reading this entry, turn off your computer (don’t just put it to sleep), turn off your cell phone, and turn off your lights. Light a few candles.
It will save energy, money, and maybe even your relationship! :)

Monday, May 28, 2007

Phallacy: Fact versus Fake

Most of us are perfectly happy with fakes—at least, when it comes to art. Whether it is a tacky reproduction of the Mona Lisa or a tasteful Rothko print, most of us have purchased cheap posters of our favorite works of art at some point in our lives. And why not? If it gives us pleasure to see it, who cares if it’s real or just a reproduction? Art historians and chemists care, of course. And there’s no one in the world who is better qualified to write a play about the conflicts between art and science than the world renowned chemist-cum-playwright who has received countless awards and recognition for inventing the birth control pill as well as for his talent in the theatre. In his latest creation, Phallacy, Charles Djerassi directs our attention to a debate between aesthetic connoisseurship and anal analysis. They both have their place, but can they co-exist? I won’t give you the answer—you’ll have to go see the play.
If you’re neither an artist nor a scientist, perhaps you doubt that you'll find the play appealing on a personal level. I bet you’re wrong. The debate between Regina Leitner-Opfermann, an art historian who has very real hot flashes in the presence of her favorite fake, and a stuffy chemist, Dr. Stolzfuss, could be viewed as a front for an entirely different theme. It is through their ridiculous arguments that Djerassi humorously points our attention to the ramifications of falling in love (or at least obsession) with an idea and defending it against every shred of evidence that suggests otherwise. For those who are stubborn, prepare yourselves: Phallacy will be a bitter pill to swallow. But see it anyway-- it’s a brilliant play written by a true Renaissance man. Don’t bother leaving a comment if you don’t agree, this is my idea and I’m sticking to it against any shred of evidence to the contrary.
Cherry Lane Theatre: 212-239-6200

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Take Me Out To The Ball Game

Last week, I ALMOST caught a ball at the Yankees game. Two things happened that prevented my would-have-been magnificent catch:
1. I ducked (I really don't like fast balls coming near my head, but I still put my hand out and half expected to catch it anyway).
2. The ball curved at the last second and landed ions away from me.
Slightly relieved and VERY embarrassed that I assumed the duck-and-cover position, my friend consoled me, "Hey, it's not your fault you didn't catch the ball. It was impossible with that curve." Well, he was right. It certainly wasn't my fault that the ball didn't arrive right in the palm of my hand like I thought it should have-- it was the fault of science. More specifically, it was the fault of the ball's stitches and speed.
When I got home, of course I googled "curve balls" just so I could find an "official" reason why I didn't even come close to catching the ball. As it turns out, there have actually been a lot of studies on the curve ball situation. For example, back in 1959, Lyman Briggs, (former director at the National Institute of Standards and Technology) did a study to settle a ferocious dispute over how much a ball could curve over the course of 18 meters (the distance from the pitcher's mound to the home plate). I'm not sure what was "ferocious" about the dispute, but that's what the article said. In any case, Lyman found out that the amount of curve is determined NOT by the spin but rather by the speed of the ball.
One thing that affects the speed are the stitches. So in addition to fashion, these little notches also have a a function: they are a force of resistance as the ball goes whizzing through the air, ultimately causing the ball to slow down. The force of resistance is proportional to velocity because faster objects experience more drag. The curve depends on how the ball rotates through the air and at what speed it is going, as well as how the stitches form a "boundary layer" that reacts with the air around a moving ball. Still confused? Here's how the "Why Files" explain it:
"Consider a pitched ball rotating about a vertical axis and approaching the plate. Due to the rotation, one side is moving considerably faster through the air than the other side. The air will exert a greater force on that side, pushing the ball away from it -- toward the side with the slower relative motion. The result is a curve ball."

I find this stuff interesting, but not at all reassuring, so I plan on assuming my duck-and-cover position at the next game too. Maybe one of the players will (slowly) throw me a helmet. Honestly, with all those fast balls flying into the bleachers, it's not a bad idea. Unless you're a total math geek, you'll never be able to calculate the curve of a ball as it comes at your head. Science gives you an excuse for not catching the ball, but it's really no help otherwise. Baseball fans, the moral of the story is to protect your noggin. Wear a helmet.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Yuri's Night NYC: The Sky's The Limit

Yuri's night NYC was, dare I say, out of this world. The auditorium at CUNY was packed with writers, scientist, a few astronauts, and plenty of space cadets with soaring dreams.
One of speakers at Yuri's Night was Edward Belbruno, author of Fly Me To The Moon. For anyone who has a burning desire to be great at, well, everything, Dr. Belbruno is a man who will inspire. The founder of the first patent on a route to the moon, a boxer, a painter...the list goes on. Ed is full of magnificent stories-- and they're all true.

For more information, see and

Friday, April 13, 2007

Sri Lanka: Serious Monkey Business

One evening in Kandy, Sri Lanka's second largest city, I waited on the main highway for a a bus to the capital. I waited patiently at first; I finished reading a bulky novel, drank three cups of sugary chai, and wrote a few post cards. But then patience abruptly ran out and I started fidgeting. It was at this moment, when I was tapping my foot nervously, drumming my fingers, looking left, right, and even up at the sky (did I really expect the bus to fall from the sky?) that an English-speaker shuffled over and clued me in: "No buses or vehicles on the main highway at night. The headlights attract the wild elephants." Well, who could argue with that? Wild elephants-- of course. What was I thinking? Welcome to Sri Lanka.

I had read that Sri Lanka was a hot spot for biodiversity, but I wasn't prepared to have my schedule interrupted by elephants, to be stared at by leopards, or to be pounced on by monkeys. I've never been so alert in my life.

On the subject of monkeys, it seems that David Zellnik was also fascinated by them when he visited-- in fact, one monkey even tried to groom him. But instead of writing a blog entry about this monkey business, David got a grant from the Sloane Foundation and wrote an incredible play called Serendib. Serendib is a hilarious story about the seemingly parallel lives lead by scientists and monkeys. It's a short play that packs a punch, questioning the human conscious, the idea of destiny from the genome, sex, and power struggles among species. You can see it at Swing by soon-- this one sells out fast so don't monkey around until the last minute (sorry for the pun. I couldn't help it).

Friday, March 16, 2007

Got Milk...and Dung, and Urine

A vast majority of Indians living in rural areas do not have reliable access to electricity or petroleum-based fuel, but this doesn't stop them from cooking up feasts of delicious dishes.
60-80% of rural residents use cow dung as their principle source of cooking fuel. It's a cheap and fairly simple process that consists of collecting the dung (called "gobar" in Hindi), squishing it into patties, and leaving it to bake under the scorching Indian sun. Once the patty is dry, it can be used under the stove to make possible those scrumptious curries, samosas, and chai.
For those unaccustomed to this creative alternative source of energy, the mere idea of dung near food may cause queasiness and stomach upset. Luckily, many people on the subcontinent have discovered that cow urine can be used to relieve the symptoms of an upset gut. For example, to cure serious constipation, a dose of 10-40ml of filtered cow urine should do the trick. This may also help to kill worms and other parasites that your dinner may have left in your belly. Some even claim that cow urine is the answer to AIDS, cancer, and kidney problems. Holy cow indeed!
* A disclaimer: I am simply reporting the news and have never used cow urine. Pursue medical alternatives at your own risk.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Stem Cell Solution

Jan. 19th, Mumbai:

With about 550 million people in poverty, it's safe to say that a lot of Indians don't have much in the bank-- but that's about to change. Soon, Indians will have the opportunity to bank their babies' umbilical cords for free, which is priceless when it comes to health.

While the Bush administration is limiting stem cell research at home, India is opening their arms to welcome partnerships with some of the best brains in America. Being from the United States, I would lower my voice a bit when telling you: these brilliant, young, liberal scientists who are pioneering new stem cell research in India are...Canadians. Eh? Yes, Canadians. They’ve come out on top again.

Following in the footsteps of Canada ’s James Till and Ernest McCulloch who proved the existence of stem cells in the 1960s, Dr. Jeffrey Turner and Dr. J. E. Davies are setting high standards in the latest mesenchymal stem cell technologies. Ontarian Premier Dalton McGuinty is also doing his part as head of the Ministry of Research and Innovation (MRI). Together, these three visionaries hope to start a global trend when it comes to big philanthropy on a cellular level.

"What we see as a tremendous resource of life-giving cells is being discarded as medical waste everyday," remarks Dr. Turner, CEO of Tissue Regeneration Therapeutics (TRT). Dr. Turner is joined by Dr. Davies (TRT President) and McGuinty in Mumbai to partner with Indian officials in developing a national policy on the deployment of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) in India. They plan to facilitate the creation of a national MSC bank that will be accessible to all Indians, free of charge, by summer 2009.

Instead of throwing the umbilical cord in the wastebasket, parents will have the opportunity to donate their newborn's cord to a national MSC bank where the cord perivascular cells (HUCPVCs) will be extracted and cryogenically preserved in nitrogen at -200 degrees for 15 to 20 years. In return for the donation, the parents will have free access to stem cell treatment on a later basis, should their child become sick.

"It is a cost-effective treatment on a massive scale," Dr. Turner emphasizes. Hundreds of thousands suffer from auto-immune disorders that can be treated with the use of MSCs. In India, this is especially relevant as there has been a sharp rise in health-related issues along with the rapid growth in the subcontinent's development. Over the past 10 years, for example, India has significantly improved the quality of public sanitation. While this is clearly a positive development, scientists have noticed that the quick change has taken its toll on the immune systems of Indians. "An Indian’s immune system is insulted with an incredible number of bacteria every day, beginning with the day they are born. Thus, they develop an iron-strong immune system. As India adopts higher standards of cleanliness and public sanitation, the immune system becomes weaker, leaving individuals at risk of developing auto-immune disorders, such as Crohn's disease," states Dr. Turner.

Luckily, MSCs can regenerate into 200 types of tissues, thus creating a solution for many of these disorders. While the stem cell therapy may not be a cure-all, it will almost certainly reduce the symptoms and flare-ups that can be debilitating to patients.

Not only are human umbilical cords an ethical source of MSCs, they are also a much denser source than bone marrow, the current gold standard. "Bone marrow is a very rich cellular smorgasbord that gives rise to a wide variety of different cells, including MSCs," explains Dr. Turner," Yet in adults, the number of MSCs is small: about 1 in 100,000. So if you needed a billion MSCs, it would be possible to use bone marrow but it is a completely impractical source." With the emerging MSC bank, the standard for stem cell extractions could very well shift from bone marrow to umbilical cords. It's no wonder that Indian officials have declared MSC research and technology a "national priority." Will the USA follow suit or will India become another place that Americans visit as medical tourists? We’ll keep you posted on policy changes and flight deals to Mumbai.
For more information, visit

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

An Interview with Dr. Singh, Director of Nanotechnology

Currently, scientists in India are making enormous strides in their work on synthesis and characterization of various nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes, nano oxide, and phospors for industrial applications. It sounds exotic, but it simply means improvements in the quality of paints, pigments, and textiles, to name a few everyday things.
Perhaps even more important than the betterment of consumer products, nanotechnology also has great potential in health care. In fact, many of India’s 25 R&D labs are focusing specifically on developing drug delivery systems that will rely on nanotechnology to reduce a number of health-related issues.

Amity Institute of Nano-Technology in Uttar Pradesh is dedicated to keeping nanotechnology in India’s future. In fact, it is the only university in India that is undertaking a teaching program in nanoscience and nanotechnology at the post-graduate levels. In an interview with the University's Director of Nanotechnology, Dr. R.P. Sing, he explaines that "At the present time, Indian initiatives are aimed more towards research, but industries here are expected to pick up on nanotechnology soon. After all, there is a big scope of opportunity in the market for nano products in India and elsewhere in the world. " Dr. Singh emphasizes that ultimately, his objective is to promote a program that will generate skilled manpower so as to meet the growing in-house requirements and also to "exploit the potentials of nanotechnology."

Amity Institute is sponsored by the Indian government. For more information, visit

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Coming Soon: Oh Baby! Banking the Belly Button Cord

With about 550 million people in poverty, it's safe to say that a lot of Indians don't have much in the bank-- but that's about to change. Soon, Indians will have the opportunity to bank their babies' umbilical cords, which is priceless when it comes to health.

While the Bush administration is limiting stem cell research at home, India is opening their arms to welcome partnerships with some of the best brains in America. Being from the United States, I would lower my voice a bit when telling you: these hot scientists who are pioneering new stem cell research in India are...Canadians. Eh? Yes, Canadians.

Keep an eye out for the next post to find out how umbilical cords are likely to solve enormous health problems that affect millions of people world-wide.

First Stop: India

Contrary to popular belief, India is not just a land of re-routed phone calls, curry, and an opportunity to see your name written on rice. It is a subcontinent science super-power with less restrictions and extra zeal to get ahead. India is a hot spot for science and technology.