SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

Life-saving venom
Radhakrishna Rao

M
an
has always associated venom with suffering and death. But for the medical researchers and drug designers, venom extracted from the poisonous plants and animals is veritable goldmine from which to develop a variety of life-sustaining drugs.

Trends
Isolated  eco-systems
T
rapped
beneath Antarctica’s kilometers-thick ice sheet are two bodies of water that rival North America’s Great Lakes, new analyses suggest. The geological setting of these huge, unfrozen lakes hints that they may harbour ecosystems that have been isolated for millions of years.

Robot surgery more accurate
Hints of mega solar systems

THIS UNIVERSE
PROF YASH PAL


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Life-saving venom
Radhakrishna Rao

Man has always associated venom with suffering and death. But for the medical researchers and drug designers, venom extracted from the poisonous plants and animals is veritable goldmine from which to develop a variety of life-sustaining drugs.

No wonder then that drugs and pharmaceutical giants across the world are in constant search of venom in the depths of forests and oceans. For instance, a poisonous secretion extracted from a species of toad from the jungles of Amazon is being studied to develop drugs for a variety of disorders afflicting the humanity.

For many years, researchers have been demonstrating that toxin and its harmless fragment strengthen the neural cells and protect them from external invasions. This implies that it has a clear-cut neuroprotective effect that prevents the death of neurons faced with aggressive situations.

Most importantly, the deadly snake venom has proved to be a big life saver by being an important ingredient in many vital drugs and vaccines. No wonder, snake venom is considered costlier than the gold.

Snake venom happens to be the most significant component of the anti- serum vaccine used to treat snake bite cases.

In India, around 300,000 cases of snake bites are reported each year. Unfortunately, 10 per cent of the victims die due to the lack of timely treatment. The number of snake bite cases in India could be more since many cases in the remote rural parts of the country go unreported.

The Mumbai-based Haffkin Institute and the Bangalore-based Vittal Mallya Scientific Research Foundation are among the premier institutions in the country involved in the development of snake bite vaccine.

In its natural state, the snake venom happens to be a prey immobilising chemical that is expelled from the poison glands. Normally, the venom is made up of water, protein, protein derivatives and some inorganic salts. According to researchers, the most beneficial facet of snake venom lies in its capacity to produce antivenin which helps to counter the effects of snake bite. Meanwhile, research efforts are on to use snake venom to develop drugs meant for combating cardiac disruptions. Significantly, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already given a green signal to "intergrilin" — a drug formulated using rattle snake venom for treating cases of cardiac arrest. In studies, Intergrilin has shown to decrease the number of heart attacks and death among people affected by chest pain or unstable angina. Researchers are also exploring the snake venom to develop anti-coagulant drugs capable of helping people recover from the devastating after-effects of a stroke.

On another front, Dr Francies Markland, a Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, says that snake venom could play a positive role in controlling breast cancer. For in the preliminary studies carried out by researchers, it has been found that protein extracted from the venom of a type of viper could slow down the growth process of tumours in mice that carried human breast cancer cells. Similarly, a drug formulation designed from out of a type of pit viper has been found to be useful in treating cases of kidney disorders, high blood pressure and heart failures.

On the other hand, researchers are optimistic that enzymes from cobra venom could be exploited to treat old age, degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Similarly, the possibility of developing drugs for treating Osteoporosis using viper venom is very much on the cards.

Cone snail is yet another potential source of toxin for developing drugs to treat that are normally not amenable to treatment by conventional drugs. Indeed, studies carried out by a team of Melbourne-based researchers have gone to show that cone snail toxin has the potential for easing pain and also providing an effective treatment for neuropathic pain associated with diabetes. Incidentally, neuropathic pain is the most difficult form to treat because it responds poorly to the available pain killers such as morphin and aspirin.

Tetanus toxin is yet another beneficial form of venom in developing drugs. Researchers have found tetanus toxin to be effective in tackling depression, anxiety and anorexia. In addition, it is also known to slow down the progress of degenerative disorders like Parkinson’s.

Researchers from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Institute of Neuroscience at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain have also used tetanus toxin for treating disorders arising out of the muscular contraction. During the experiments, researchers found that the harmless portion of the tetanus toxin inhibits serotonin from being transported through synaptic membrane and this quality makes the tetanus poison an excellent substance with which to develop drugs for treating a variety of disorders.

And now who says venom is a harmful and deadly substance?
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Trends
Isolated  eco-systems

Trapped beneath Antarctica’s kilometers-thick ice sheet are two bodies of water that rival North America’s Great Lakes, new analyses suggest. The geological setting of these huge, unfrozen lakes hints that they may harbour ecosystems that have been isolated for millions of years.

More than 140 lakes lie buried beneath varying thicknesses of Antarctic ice, but most of them are small and shallow, says Michael Studinger, a geophysicist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y. Lake Vostok, discovered decades ago, is the largest. It’s the size of Connecticut and holds 5,400 cubic kilometers of water, enough to fill Lake Michigan.

Scientists who’ve drilled through Lake Vostok’s overlying ice sheet to within 120 meters of the lake’s upper surface have found microbes trapped in the ice The researchers view that finding as a tantalising clue that the lake may hold a thriving 
ecosystem.

Robot surgery more accurate

A new study from Imperial College London shows that robot-assisted knee surgery is significantly more accurate than conventional surgery.

The team of surgeons tested whether Acrobot, a robotic assistant, could improve surgical outcomes for patients undergoing partial knee replacement. Acrobot works by helping the surgeon to line up the replacement knee parts with the existing bones.

The surgeons looked at 27 patients undergoing unicompartmental knee replacement. The patients were separated into two groups as part of a randomised controlled trial, with 14 having conventional surgery, and the remaining 13 having robot assisted surgery.

Although the operations took a few minutes longer using the robotic assistant, the replacement knee parts were more accurately lined up than in conventional surgery. All of the robotically assisted operations lined up the bones to within two degrees of the planned position, but only 40 per cent of the conventionally performed cases achieved this level of accuracy.

Hints of mega solar systems

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has identified two huge “hypergiant” stars circled by monstrous disks of what might be planet-forming dust. The findings surprised astronomers because stars as big as these were thought to be inhospitable to planets.

“These extremely massive stars are tremendously hot and bright and have very strong winds, making the job of building planets difficult,” said Joel Kastner of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

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THIS UNIVERSE
PROF YASH PAL

Prof Yash Pal

Prof Yash Pal

Why do we feel pain when we bleed?

We often bleed when we are hurt. Hurt implies that there is some trauma, some cells destroyed, some bones or muscles pulled out of alignment and very many things of this nature. Pain is a signal of this hurt. Sometimes it might be accompanied by external blood flow, sometimes not.

Let us now come to the basis of your question: why does the system decide to tell us of a cut or injury to our body through the mechanism of pain? You would recognise that it is good that we become aware of the fact that an injury or malfunction has happened so that we take appropriate measures to treat it. If neglected we can get into serious trouble.

These functions are performed by our central nervous system, ruled by our brain. All right, inform us but why through the mechanism of pain, we might ask our brain. There is a possible justification for the action that our brain takes.

It knows that we have developed in a way that we disregard many instructions that are good for us. Perhaps this is the reason pain was invented. We cannot disregard it, besides the fact it keeps us informed about the efficacy of our treatment. Sound sirens and light in our eyes could be easily disregarded.

There is a loophole allowed to us. Many times when we get hurt we are advised to take a painkiller. The painkiller does not repair the damage but it temporarily reduces or eliminates the pain, giving the system to mend itself. The painkiller works at the focus of the central nervous system in our brain and like an opiate reduces the signal that causes the pain. It is like turning down the volume control knob! I am told that brain has the capacity to manufacture the opiates it needs.

At -273°C the matter is said to have zero energy. Then the mass of that substance would also become zero since mass is equivalent to energy. Is this true?

What you have stated is not correct. What your first statement implies is that the molecules to atoms of the substance stop moving or vibrating at that low temperature. We are referring to the kinetic energy of particles. The rest mass is not affected by lowering of the temperature. If you were talking of a gas then the temperature of minus 273 degrees would imply that the random motion of the molecules has almost ceased. That is all.

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