Running After Recovery, A Woman’s Goal to Cross the Finish Line

By Stacy Shepherd
BU News Service

On Monday morning, Dr. Judy Lytle laced up her black-and-pink Adidas running shoes and lined up at mile zero in Hopkinton. Having met up with fellow runners on the Boston Medical Center marathon team, at 11:25 a.m. Lytle began her 26.2-mile trek to the finish line.

Just over one year ago, the starting line of the Boston Marathon was the last place anyone would have imagined Lytle being.

In December of 2012, Lytle was just one month into her dramatic chemotherapy for acute promyelocytic leukemia. The 56-year-old primary care physician for Boston Medical Center was diagnosed with the blood cancer just one month earlier. The treatment left her confined to the hospital during the month of December and, after that, required her to return to the hospital for treatment daily for another two and a half months. During the month that Lytle was confined to her hospital bed, running her first ever Boston Marathon became her seemingly impossible goal.

“Running the marathon seemed like a high-in-the-sky thing to hold onto while I was so confined,” said Lytle, a petite woman with brown eyes and hair and a modest demeanor.

Lytle said she doesn’t know how or even why the Boston Marathon came up that day in her hospital room, but once she made the decision to cross the finish line on Boylston Street in April of 2014, her whole family resolved to help make it possible.

“Running the marathon was talking big from my bedside,” Lytle said. “I said, ‘I’m going to run the marathon next year.’ A few of my family members signed on at that time.”

Lytle got the news that her leukemia treatment was successful in June of 2013, just eight months after the diagnosis. Not long after, Lytle, her daughter Julia and her son Joe began their training.

Julia Lytle, a Boston University senior, started training with her mom in August.

“[The family] is running for my mom,” she said. “And she’s actually running it, which is amazing.”

Although Julia Lytle decided not to run the marathon as a result of tendentious in her foot, Lytle is thankful that Julia supported her throughout her training.

“I kind of envisioned she and I would literally run the marathon together,” Lytle said. “Julia and I were much more at the same pace than my son.”

When Lytle began training for the marathon, making it past the first two miles was her first struggle. She started gaining mileage by running in intervals, walking for four minutes and running for one minute.  She says that some days were more difficult than others, but over time she built up her stamina.

“I kept saying I was going to do it but the reality of doing it kind of unfolded over time.”

Lytle was also thankful for her team at Boston Medical Center. In December when she decided to commit to running the marathon, she initially knew that she wanted to raise money for the hospital. She primarily wanted to raise money for the hematology department, where she was personally treated, but to raise money for Boston Medical Center, she had to apply for a bib through the hospital’s running team.

“I signed up for the BMC team and it turns out their money is going to the emergency room,” she said. “It’s going to benefit everybody.”

Ultimately, running the marathon not only allowed her to raise $10,000 for Boston Medical Center, it enabled her to begin healing after the fight she endured with leukemia.

“I feel like preparing for the marathon has been my mechanism in which I have gotten back to feeling healthy again,” Lytle said.

However, Lytle did not consider completing the marathon as a triumph or an awe-inspiring event. She views it as just another connecting factor that has allowed her family to come together more deeply over the last year.

“The family support, to me, that’s what it’s all about,” Lytle said.

While Lytle was in the hospital fighting leukemia, her family helped her to get through each day by simply being by her bedside. Her brother and sister would come and spend weekends with her, and her husband, daughter and son were nearly always present.

“I don’t wish [leukemia] on anyone and I don’t really want to do it again, but it didn’t seem that bad because there was always somebody there,” she said.

On Monday, after running for five hours, 45 minutes and 47 seconds, Lytle crossed the finish line at 5:17:27 p.m., surrounded by her family.

Afterward, she said there’s only one reason she would do it again.

“The reason I would want to do it again will be to do it with Julia,” she said. “If it’s something she wants to do, I will do it in support of her. But I probably will move onto something else.”

Sloth Hair Harbors Medicinal Fungi

The three-toed sloth, a tree-dwelling mammal from the rainforests of Central and South America.  Photo by Stefan Laube
The three-toed sloth, a tree-dwelling mammal from the rainforests of Central and South America. Photo by Stefan Laube

by Kate Wheeling
BU News Service

Sloths are known for their slow-paced lifestyles. Their sedentary habits allow sloths to pick up a wide variety of microscopic passengers that settle down in the cracks that crisscross their coarse, spongy hair.

A vast fungal community thrives in this shaggy, green-algae glazed coat, churning out bioactive compounds that could one day serve as the basis for new drugs, according to a new study published January 15th in PLoS ONE. The study’s authors identified over 80 distinct fungal species from sloth hair samples, many of which proved to have anti-parasitic, anti-bacterial and even anti-cancer activity.

“The structure of sloth hair itself is ideal,” says Higginbotham. The crazed hairs absorb water like a sponge, creating a warm damp environment where myriad microorganisms cohabitate in a fast-paced community that drives up competition for space and thus the production of bioactive compounds.

“It’s a pretty clever study,” says Nicholas Oberlies, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It’s a new niche for scientists to explore in their search for new bioactive compounds.

The researchers took hair samples from nine living three-toed sloths living in Soberanía National Park, Panama in February 2011. Higginbotham and her colleagues at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Arizona, chopped up the hair samples, placed them on agar plates and collected anything that would grow—an important step in drug development research; if it doesn’t grow in the lab, it can’t be used to make drugs. They identified 84 fungal species, three of which were previously unidentified.

The authors used concentrated samples of the fungi, to test for bioactivity against parasitic diseases, cancer cells, and pathogenic bacteria. The crude fungal extracts were considered highly bioactive if they inhibited 50% of the growth of the pathogens and cancer cells they were tested against. They found two fungi that were highly bioactive against the malaria parasite, eight active against the parasite that causes Chagas disease, and a full 15 fungal species that produced compounds active against the breast cancer cell line MCF-7. Another 20 fungi had antibacterial properties. At least one killed off Gram-negative bacteria in a way that didn’t match up with any known antibiotics, suggesting a completely new mode of action—a valuable attribute for potential drugs.

This is just the first step towards the identification of bioactive compounds suitable for drug development. Future studies will need to look at purer, more concentrated samples of the bioactive fungi identified, rule out anything with less than 90% inhibition rates, and tweak growing conditions in the lab so that they’re closer to nature. In the lab, under ideal conditions, fungi might quit producing the same bioactive compounds they need to compete out in the wild.

“It’s quite likely that what they produce in the lab is only a snapshot of what they produce in the wild,” says Higginbotham.

Higginbotham and her co-authors demonstrate that there are still plenty of places to look for new antimicrobials, but in order to tap into those resources we have to preserve them. Some species of sloth, like the pygmy three-toed sloth, are critically endangered. Studies like this demonstrate why “it’s more valuable to have that rainforest as a rainforest than it is to turn it into some sort of turpentine plantation,” says Oberlies. “The conservation aspect transcends the science.”

“Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” Shakes Up Scientific Community

The open access journal has a few obstacles to clear before it can truly compete with more tradition, peer-review journals. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Tinou Bao.
The open access journal has a few obstacles to clear before it can truly compete with more tradition, peer-review journals. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Tinou Bao.

By Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

As pop culture would tell you, scientists are old white guys with crazy hair. While that perspective is heavily biased (my hair is crazy, but not white), it isn’t totally unfounded.

The people who make science share their knowledge through academic journals, which traditionally take their contents very seriously. The journals accept science by peer review, meaning that the most prestigious, whitest haired, top-of-the-line scientists make sure the contents of the journal are up to snuff. And you can only read the journal if you, as part of the scientific elite, choose to pay for access.

But this model is outdated…or so would say the open access journals, which sprung to popularity about a decade ago. Open access journals claim their goal is to remove legal, financial, and technical barriers between people and their science. The only thing keeping people from reading the contents should be access to the internet itself.

The problem is, open access journals don’t have quite as spiffy a reputation as traditional journals. And this was what inspired the recent efforts of John Bohannon.

John wrote a spoof paper and sent it to hundreds of open access publishers. 157 published it. And then Science published him.

“Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately,” John writes. “Its experiments are so hopelessly flawed that the results are meaningless.”

John submitted a paper that proclaimed a new wonder drug. He set up the paper with a simple formula: “Molecule X from lichen species Y inhibits the growth of cancer cell Z.” He substituted each variable with molecules, lichens, and cancer cell lines to create hundreds of papers. Each was unique enough to not attract attention, but the structure was similar enough to be used as a constant in John’s investigation. He submitted the paper using false names and institutions that he generated randomly from databases of common African names, words in Swahili, and African capital cities.

He included the same flaws in each paper – data that showed the opposite of his conclusions, an obvious lapse in the methods, and a control group that didn’t receive one of the constant level of radiation as the others.

Over 150 open access journals accepted the fake paper. John writes that over 250 of his papers went through an editing process, but that 60% showed no sign of peer review.

The final verdict is that open access journals have a long way to go. There may in fact be some merits to the peer-review system…even if you have to pay to get in.

You can also see John’s paper at BMJ. But of course, you’ll have to pay to get in.

Also, here’s a history of open access journals, courtesy of the wise people of tumblr:

click to embiggen
click to embiggen