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!

Some very wrong “science”

We are always pleased when things about breathing get into the media – we sometimes feel like nobody cares about the lungs so it’s nice when our area of research gets some attention!  Last week, though, Stylist magazine had a feature about ‘the importance of breathing properly’, which was so full of incorrect information that we thought it would be worth blogging about.  We can’t go through every bit that was wrong – we’d go on for ages – but here are three parts that were a long way off the mark:

  • “An estimated 80% of us who don’t breathe the way we should”.  Well, the human race seems to have survived quite a long time despite being so awful at something that we need to do right to stay alive.
  • “Breathing through the nose releases nitric oxide, which widens blood vessels”.  True, there is some of this gas in your nose, but in such tiny concentrations (a few millionths of one percent) that it couldn’t possibly have any influence on your blood vessels.  Also, widening blood vessels in your lungs (which is where the nitric oxide would act if indeed it had any chance of doing so) is not generally a good thing unless you have particular diseases.Screen shot 2015-03-27 at 15.04.02
  • “Most people… do not inhale enough air in one go to fully oxygenate their system”.  This really is rubbish.  Your body has heaps of receptors and nerves whose job it is to check oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood and to change your breathing pattern in tiny ways to make sure everything is kept exactly right.  There’s a whole part of your brain that’s responsible for making sure your breathing pattern matches your body’s requirements exactly.  It’s only when you are really sick that this can go wrong, and even then your body tries really hard to keep oxygen levels up (that’s why people with lung disease feel breathless, because their body’s trying so hard to get everything back to normal).

Bad science makes us cross, and can be dangerous.  Breathing too much, as many of the exercises in this article seem to encourage, can make you feel dizzy, have tingly hands, and sometimes actually faint, so it’s not at all helpful of the writers of this article to tell everyone to breathe deeper all the time.  Your body knows what it’s doing – leave it to its job and get on with your life!  Keep your eyes peeled for more bad science and tell us if you spot any…

Fun Physiology Facts for Physiology Friday!

Today is Physiology Friday so we thought we would share some interesting physiological facts.

The average human adult will breathe ten thousand litres of air in and out of their lungs every day – about the same as 37 bathtubs.  500 litres of this is carbon dioxide, produced by your body as a waste product.  Your body uses about the same amount of oxygen.

There is a small amount of water in the air you breathe out.  Over a day, this adds up to about 250 millilitres – the size of a teacup.

Horses can only breathe through their noses, not through their mouths.  When a horse exercises, the air tubes in its nose can get bigger to allow more air in and out.  Humans can breathe through their mouth or nose, so when we exercise we tend to breathe through our mouth.

There are about 480 million air sacs – called alveoli – in the lungs of a human adult.  This is the same as the number of people in the world who speak Spanish as their main language.

If you took a pair of human lungs and spread out them flat, they would cover a tennis court.

Did you know that your lungs are never completely empty, even if you breathe out as far as you possibly can?

Happy Physiology Friday!

It’s Biology Week!

This week is Biology Week, ending on Friday with Physiology Friday!  There are lots of events happening in schools, universities and public places around the country to demonstrate how the body works and to show off the research that physiologists do.  You can look on the Physiological Society website to find out about some of these events.

Lung cakeAs part of Biology Week, the Physiological Society are running a baking competition, asking people to create cakes and biscuits that show something about how the body works.  If you’re on Twitter, search for the hashtag #BioBakes and see the creations – some of them are amazing!  Vicky has entered the competition with this “Lung Cake”.  What do you think?  Let us know by leaving a comment!


Thanks Cara!

Like a lot of offices,Teapot we drink a lot of tea to get us through the day.  If we get the opportunity, we quite enjoy eating biscuits.  Our student, Cara, has just finished her project with us and very kindly gave us a teapot and some yummy biscuits as a thank you present.  We’re going to enjoy our afternoon cups of tea even more now!