A Panel member reports on our recent meeting

We recently gathered again at Guy’s Hospital for our third student advisory panel meeting.  The theme this time round was Extreme Physiology – the branch of physiology that focuses on mechanisms of living systems under extreme conditions.

We were joined by Ms Fleming, Ms Attias and Mr Carvil – PhD academics from the Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological sciences at King’s.  Also with us was Dr Elliott, a lecturer in physiology at the University of Westminster.  We began with introductions from each of them where they outlined their journeys through science as well as some of their recent work.

They then joined us in our small group discussions.  Here we were presented with the following points which we subsequently discussed:

How to research extreme physiology:  We brainstormed the different ways in which research in this area can be done; evaluated the pros/cons of using simulators in comparison to real conditions and considered some ways to obtain accurate and reliable findings.  We also looked at some of the practical applications.  Common examples are with extreme conditions in space but others range from the post incident cooling of firefighters to the changes of body temperatures during prolonged swimming.

How the research should be funded:  Here we thought about the different ways to gain funding for the research, with common sources being charities and the government.  A key discussion was whether or not research in extreme physiology is worth funding at all.  Some argue that more funds should be going towards the arguably more beneficial areas of research like the development of pharmaceuticals.

The use of the research in other populations:  We discussed some potential applications of extreme physiology research to other fields.  For example, it could facilitate developments in nutrition and bone fracture healing.  Furthermore, some pointed out that the research could have applications that we are not yet aware of.  This links to the fact that many of the world-changing scientific discoveries were not deliberate. An example given was of Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin.  If Fleming’s contaminated bacterial cultures led to the development of a widely used antibiotic, then perhaps research in extreme physiology could one day impact the world on a similar scale.

When the small group discussions ended, I bravely took to the stage to summarise the points that my group came up with.  I was shortly joined by the panel members from the other groups and we ended the meeting by bringing together all of our points.

All in all, the meeting was insightful and I found it interesting discussing what seems to be a rather exciting branch of physiology.  Even if research in extreme physiology doesn’t change the world, I think we should still continue with it just for the thrill of gaining knowledge.

Anthony Butale, Year 13, Harris Academy Falconwood

NASA needs you!

You’ve probably heard about the idea of humans potentially travelling to Mars one day, and maybe even living there.  You might not know, however, that NASA want to hear your ideas about how the elements and compounds found on Mars could be used to support life. They have estimated that by using what’s already there, rather than transporting it to Mars from Earth, could save about $100,000 per kilo!  We don’t know much about using basalt compounds to build launch pads, but maybe we could come up with some way of creating the right gas mix to allow Martian visitors to breathe…?  It’ll be quite the task though, as the atmospheric pressure on Mars is about 0.6% of Earth’s, and the “air” is made up of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.9% nitrogen, 1.9% argon! and just a smidge of oxygen.  The air on Earth is 20.9% oxygen, 78.1% nitrogen, 0.9% argon and just 0.03% carbon dioxide. The winner of the challenge will be awarded $10,000 so it’s worth a go!  Do post a comment and let us know if you enter the ‘NASA in situ materials competition’

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015

No, nobody from King’s Muscle Lab has won it (maybe next year?), but do you know about the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine? The prize this year is shared. One half has gone to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura, and the other to Youyou Tu. All three scientists have undertaken work to develop new treatments for parasitic diseases, and it is thought that the impact of their work is likely to improve the lives or millions of people in developing nations, and save many lives. Progress in this field has been painfully slow for many years, so their breakthroughs are much needed.

Omura is a Japanese microbiologist, and has successfully cultured several strains of a group of soil bacteria called Streptomyces, with the aim to investigate their activity against dangerous microorganisms. Campbell then extracted and purified chemicals from these bacteria, the most powerful of which, Avermectin, was eventually found to be remarkably effective at killing the larvae of parasites that cause both river blindness and elephantiasis.  Thanks to this research and wide availability of the medication in some of the poorest countries in the world, these diseases are now on the verge of eradication.

Youyou Tu looked at ancient Chinese remedies to seek potential therapies for malaria, and found that a plant called Artemisia annua seemed promising but that previous research had had inconsistent findings. Going back to ancient literature gave her more clues, and allowed her to eventually extract the active ingredient and develop the drug Artemisinin. This drug kills the malarial parasites early in their development, and is extremely effective in treating severe malaria. When used with other drugs, it reduces death rates in malaria by about a fifth overall, and by almost a third in children. This means that it saves more than 100,000 lives each year in Africa alone.

Pretty incredible science – about as good as it gets at “making a difference”!

How Dr Bird saved millions of lives

Caroline happened upon this fascinating article about the man who was really the forefather of all the ventilators we use in hospitals today.  Until about 100 years ago, if a patient was too weak to breathe on their own or their lungs were too damaged to take up enough oxygen, they had very little chance of surviving.  In the early part 91-ironlungsingle1of the 20th century the ‘iron lung’ was invented.  This was a huge metal box that the patient would lie in, with just their head sticking out.  The box was attached to a bellows or pump system that altered the pressure inside the box and ensured the lungs would inflate even if the patient’s muscles were completely paralysed.  The use of the iron lung saved thousands of lives in the polio outbreaks across the world in the 1950s and 1960s, but as you can see from the photo they were cumbersome and didn’t make it very easy to look after patients’ needs.  The hero of our story, Dr Forrest Bird (I know, fabulous name) wanted to do better…

During the war, Dr Bird was part of the US Air Corps and found a device in a crashed German plane that controlled the flow of oxygen to the pilot; he realised that this allowed German planes to fly higher than the Allied aircraft.  After much tinkering, he produced a prototype of the Bird Respirator out of three baking tins and a doorknob!  Although basic, it allowed air and oxygen to be blown into a person’s lungs to support their breathing.  Further developments and more tinkering led to a device suitable for use in hospitals, and then later the development of the first ventilator for supporting seriously ill infants.  The Babybird ventilator is thought to be responsible for deaths due to breathing problems in premature babies dropping from 70% to below 10% – incredible!

Although the ventilators we use to treat breathing problems nowadays have moved on a IPPB-Birdmark7-1964bit, physiotherapists still use the Bird in hospitals to help clear mucus from the airways.  It’s a bit of a surprising feeling at first, having air blown very fast into your lungs, but for patients who struggle to take a deep breath it can feel fantastic.  So if you ever see a physiotherapist wheeling one of these little devices past you in a hospital, you’ll be able to think of Dr Forrest Bird and his baking tins!

It’s Biology Week 2015!

This week is Biology Week, ending on Friday with Physiology Friday, so there will be a post each day throughout the week to keep your biological interest piqued!  Today’s post is a link to the radio programme that a colleague of ours featured on recently. Dr David Green is a senior lecturer in the Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences at King’s College London.  Dr Green’s research is about how the body adapts to change, including in extreme environments, ageing, sport and disease, and what can be done to help this.  Dr Green does a lot of work related to space travel and what happens to astronauts both in space and when they return to earth.  He also runs the Space Physiology & Health Masters course – you will see the students from this course featuring in our Friday Physiology Facts throughout this term.  We think his research is pretty cool!  On this radio programme, he talks about what kind of people are physically and mentally suited to going into space.  If you’re a budding astronaut, make notes!