Giant Cats, Reptiles, and … White-Lipped Peccaries?

Sony Salzman
BU News Service

White-lipped peccary ©siwild

A hog-like creature called the white-lipped peccary dashed through the Brazilian rainforest. Tracking the signal from the animal’s radio collar tagging device, a team of wildlife conservationists was not far behind. Their mission is to preserve the rainforest, and that’s why they’re tracking the strange mammals that live there.

On this day, however, these ecologists were distracted from their peccary quest when they stumbled upon a sandstone cave. Inside the cave, they found ancient human paintings. Archeologists later confirmed that these painting were scrawled by hunter-gathers between 6,000 and 2,000 BC.

CavePainting ©Liana Joseph:WCS

The ecologists, members of the Wildlife Conservation Society and a Brazilian NGO called Instituto Quinta do Sol, acted quickly and professionally after this accidental discovery.

“Since we often work in remote locations, we sometimes make surprising discoveries, in this case, one that appears to be important for our understanding of human cultural history in the region,” said Dr. Alexine Keuroghlian, researcher with WCS’s Brazil Program said in this press release.

In fact, this discovery was made in 2009. The story is just now coming to light because all members kept quiet until archaeologists were able to assess the paintings and publish a paper in Revista Clio Arqueológica.

Keuroghlian studies white-lipped peccaries because the herd’s movements through a rainforest indicate how much that rainforest has been affected by human activities like deforestation and hunting. When Keuroghlian came upon the paintings, she contacted a local archeologist named Rodrigo Luis Simas de Aguiar,

Keuroghlian and the other ecologists kept mum about their discovery for four years, which allowed the archeologists to conduct their work away from the preying eyes of sight-seers, or worse, looters.

What Aguilar and his partner Keny Marques Lima found is remarkable. Possibly painted up to 10,000 years ago, some of the cave drawings actually depict a northeastern Brazilian artistic style. The cave is in central Brazil, and also reflects some drawings in the expected central Brazilian style. These cave paintings have expanded the view of regional differences among early hunter-gatherers.

The ancient paintings depict some geometric shapes and figures. Mostly, the people there painted animals – giant cats, armadillos, deep, birds and reptiles. The ancient Brazilians, did not, however, draw a single white-lipped peccary.

An Even Descent

Sony Salzman
BU News Service

Deep underground, below the bustling streets of Mexico City, engineers navigate a complex system of struts and support pylons in an attempt to stop the oldest cathedral in the New World from sinking into the earth.

Their attempts are in vain. All of Mexico City is sinking at an astonishingly fast rate. Venice, Italy – arguably the world’s most famous sinking city – is loosing less than an inch per year. In the same time frame, Mexico City descends more than three feet.

The city rests on top of a giant underground lake. As 20 million thirsty citizens pump water up from the underground aquifer, the city sinks a little lower into the ancient lake bed.

This creates an uneven cityscape and a perilous water situation, but residents are particularly concerned with the preservation of the Metropolitan Cathedral, a splendid 500 year old church that can be compared to Notre Dam. When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, he came upon a magnificent Aztec city constructed smack in the middle of a lake. He conquered the city, filled in the lake with dirt, and broke ground on the first version of the cathedral with stones from the Aztec temple.

Mexico City ©Francisco Diez

Now, Metropolitan Cathedral rests in the heart of Mexico City. In the 1990s, the building had tilted so much that it cracked down the middle. The problem is that the lake bed beneath falls away unevenly, so that at one point one side of the building’s foundation sat more than 5 feet lower than the other size.

So far, the best solution engineers have come up with is to build support structures underground that level the building … so that the entire building sinks a the same rate. Clearly, it would be ideal to stop the sinking all together, but Mexico City inhabitants have a big problem on their hands that won’t go away with a quick engineering fix.

And the crisis is quickly getting worse. In fact, the sewage draining system that pushes waste away from the city center has reversed its course. Now, in times of heavy flood, sewage actually heads back to downhill towards Mexico City.

There have been many proposed solutions. One idea is filter the dirty water and re-inject it into the ground. This would keep the water table underneath the city relatively constant and prevent further sinking. Another solution is to import water from other regions. Both of these options are extremely expensive, and unlikely to take root any time soon. Mexico City’s sinking problem requires the attention of the world’s top engineers and a huge upfront investment. But in the meantime, the city will continue to sink … hopefully at an even keel.

Review: It’s Flu Season in The Walking Dead

By Sony Salzman
BU News Service

America’s favorite zombie show, The Walking Dead, was feeling a little anemic at the end of season 3. Actually, the grand finale of season 3 was a total letdown, but new showrunner Scott Gimple seems to have put new life into the show.

To recap, Rick’s ragtag group of survivors was gearing up for epic war when Governor crazy-eye kills almost all of his own people, for reasons unknown. The weird anti-climax in season 3 brings us to the start of season 4, where Rick and our team have established an almost-normal life at the prison. Rick has transformed from zombie slayer to pig farmer, his son Carl is acting like less of a psychopath, Tyreese has a girlfriend and people are generally feeling peachy.

But any moment of happiness in TWD is merely an ominous sign of chaos to come. And sure enough, at the end of episode 1, the nerdy new guy comes down with a pretty serious case of the sniffles, coughing into the prison’s water supply before croaking and waking up as a zombie. Clearly, chaos ensues when zombie-nerd wanders around the prison, munching on former friends (and expendable actors). The nerdy kid turned out to have the same weird flu that was killing off Rick’s cute pigs.

A swine flu outbreak, inside a prison, inside a zombie apocalypse? Go on…

In episode 4, swine flu sweeps through the prison community, and the survivors set up a quarantine. The decision to infuse a traditional disease horror story, like Contagion or Outbreak, within a zombie apocalypse was pretty inspired. Especially now that characters I love are sick, it’s pulling at my heartstrings and keeping me glued to my seat.

However, reading the post-show coverage online reveals some common misconceptions about the real-life (non-zombie) flu. If the show’s writers were indeed trying to depict H5N1 (swine flu), they got some things right, and some things wrong. Here were the top two in my book:


1. People can take animal meds – TRUE

The show patriarch’s sends a rescue team to a veterinary hospital for antibiotics. Some reviewers seemed shocked/dubious that you can use animal drugs on people, but in fact, this is 100% plausible. In fact, some physicians in rural areas actually order antibiotics and antiviral drugs meant for animals because they are less expensive than the people-packaged version.


2. Swine flu mostly kills the very young and very old – FALSE

Once the flu breaks out in full force, the leaders decide to quarantine the very old and very young. This makes sense when you’re thinking about typical flu, but if the writers were really trying to depict swine flu here (and if not, then why all the hubbub about Rick’s sick pigs?), they got this count wrong. In fact, the H5N1 outbreak of 2009, which may have killed as many as 400,000 people around the world according to new estimates, actually affected the young and healthy.

A California Sugar High

Creative Common, by Tambako the Jaguar Member

By Sony Salzman
BU News Service

I remember the day when my southern California public high school stopped offering soda in the vending machines, forcing us to drive a full four blocks to 7-11 for our Diet Coke and Red Bull. At first, my fellow classmates and I were aghast … but we quickly got over it.

And, as it turns out, the push for healthier public school beverages paid off in some ways. In the last seven years, the number of young children consuming sugary drinks dropped significantly, according to a new study from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

How Much Sugar?
There are approximately 8 spoonfuls of sugar in each can of soda.

The study, produced collaboratively by the California Center for Public Health Policy,  compared two sample periods, 2005 to 2007 and 2011 to 2012. For children ages two to five years old, there was a 30 percent drop in sugary drink consumption, and for children six to 11 years old, there was a 26 percent drop.

But the drop was only seen in elementary and pre-school. The story takes a dark turn when you look at high schoolers. Although smaller children are slurping down fewer sodas, teens are gulping up energy drinks at an alarmingly fast rate. The study found an eight percent spike in soda and sugary drink consumption for California adolescents, meaning that today, more than 65 percent drink these beverages daily.

In addition, when researchers drilled down into these numbers, soda-pop consumption has remained flat, but energy drink consumption alone has shot up 23 percent. So teens are drinking just as much Coke and Pepsi as ever, and also downing Monster and Red Bull with increasing frequency.

This may not come as a surprise, as the energy drink fad has been covered extensively in the media. The UCLA study illustrates an important point, that it’s not necessarily the “energy” in these drinks that is dangerous, but rather the massive amounts of sugar that contribute to childhood obesity and diabetes. This new study quantified the problem, and provided some interesting insights into the different sub-groups with more serious sugary drink habits.

The ULCA study looked at different ethnic groups, finding that Asian teens showed the most alarming uptick, climbing from one of the lowest levels of consumption to one of the highest. Black teens reported drinking the most sugary beverages, with 74 percent downing at least one per day, and Latinos fell closely behind at 73 percent.

The energy drink craze is a serious problem for public health officials, because these drinks contain tons of calories but provide very little nutritional content. And considering that more than 30 percent of California kids are predicted to develop diabetes in their lifetime, this problem will not disappear.

Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, said that these drinks “contribute half a billion empty calories a day to California’s costly childhood obesity crisis,” according to EurekaAlert.

Public health officials have made major strides in the obesity epidemic among very young children. This summer, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported a small but significant decline in obesity rates for preschoolers in 18 surveyed states, according to The San Francisco Gate.

The CDC gave due credit to state and local efforts against childhood obesity, such as California’s health department. While the progress for young children should be commended, this new UCLA study confirms that there’s a new front in the obesity battle: energy drinks among teenagers.



Don’t Judge Plasma by its Color

By Sony Salzman
BU News Service

At a Red Cross facility in downtown Boston, centrifuge machines churn in a low hum while nurses tend to paperwork and volunteers fight nausea.

Volunteers are here for more than just a typical blood donation. A needle in each donor’s left arm removes blood, which is then stripped of platelets and plasma and returned to the body through a needle in the right arm. The plasma will later be used later to help patients with hemophilia, compromised immune systems and other disorders. But for the time being, it collected into a bag that hangs like an IV drip over the donor’s left shoulder.

The whole assembly looks like so:

A woman donates blood components.


On this particular autumn day at the Red Cross Donation Center, four volunteers sit along the south wall as their plasma slowly drips into respective plastic bags hanging over the left shoulder. Each person’s plasma is a thin yellow color. That is, every person except one: a young woman in the last chair on the right, whose plasma is a mysterious Hulk-green color.

Typical plasma: 

Yellow Plasma ©

Hulk plasma: 

Green Plasma ©

Is there something wrong with this woman? Is she an alien? Is she part-squid? Is she maybe suffering from some kind of weird bacterial infection?

It turns out she’s just on birth control. Oral contraceptive pills create a harmless chemical reaction with certain proteins in plasma that turn the yellow liquid to green. Moreover, the green plasma is completely normal. Even plasma that looks orange or “milky,” instead of the typical yellow color is safe to donate.

Plasma is the watery part of every person’s blood, and makes up about half the total volume of blood. Swimming around in plasma are proteins, blood clotting factors and hormones. Plasma surrounds red blood cells, helping transport waste, nutrients and immune cells in case of infections.

This woman’s plasma is actually green because of increased levels of copper – just like the copper Statue of Liberty is green. Inside her body, the birth control hormones trick her liver into producing more of an enzyme called Ceruloplasmin (the same thing happens when women are actually pregnant). This enzyme has six copper atoms in its chemical structure. The boosted presence of this enzyme is enough to turn the plasma green.

There are a variety of chemical reactions that can have a benign effect on blood plasma. For example, if you eat a ton of carrots (and therefore a lot of vitamin A), your plasma will look kind of like SunnyD. If you eat a really high-fat diet, your plasma is going to look like butternut squash soup.

However, even though green or milky plasma is totally safe to donate, technicians are trained to watch out for more nefarious variations in plasma. For example, little particles inside the plasma baggie might indicate a blood-borne infection, and these donations have to be tossed in the garbage.

But despite the suspicious-looking green plasma bag in a room full of yellow bags, this woman’s donation is A-OK. The grateful recipients care much more about the generosity of this woman’s donation than the color of her plasma.

MacGyver’d Medicine

By Sony Salzman
BU News Service

MacGyver would love these three diagnostic devices designed around cheap and accessible items. As the Oct. 1 launch date of U.S. healthcare reform ticks closer, thoughtful engineering may be a solution to the problem of overpriced medical tests. What could be more American than that?

MacGyver would be proud of these nifty and thrifty medical diagnostic devices.
MacGyver would be proud of these nifty and thrifty medical diagnostic devices. © Tumblr

In medicine, the biggest hurdle before treating someone is finding out what’s wrong in the first place – a diagnosis. However, the devices used to diagnose patients are often cumbersome and extraordinarily expensive, leading to hefty bills for both the patient and insurance company.

In the world of medical diagnostics, engineers and chemists are defying the notion that bigger is better. This blog features three in-development tools that promise to deliver high quality healthcare at a fraction of the cost. The 1st comes from academia at the University of Texas at Austin, the 2nd comes from at student lab at MIT, and the 3rd comes from a private company called Diagnostics for All. As American’s confront growing medical costs and hospitals face healthcare reform’s belt-tightening, care providers are looking for low-cost options. And as an added bonus, cheap and easy-to-use tests can make a huge impact in developing nations without a way to pay for the more expensive alternatives available in the U.S. The three devices featured are merely a sampling of a growing wave of elegant and simple diagnostics, which I believe are the technologies of the future.


Lightweight Bloodflow imager

Used to: diagnose and study a variety of ailments, from migraines to strokes

Made by: University of Texas at Austin

Price: $90

MacGuyver’d parts: Off-the-shelf commercial parts including a webcam and a laser pointer.

Alternative (current standard of care): Laser speckle contrast imaging

What does it look like?

Lightweight Bloodflow imager, developed by the University of Texas at Austin.
Lightweight Bloodflow imager, developed by the University of Texas at Austin. © Andrew Dunn, University of Texas – Austin


Anemia iDX

Used to: Diagnose anemia, an iron deficiency

Made by: The D Lab at MIT

Price: (not yet priced)

MacGuyver’d parts: A red laser, which shines through the eyelids, a Photoresistor and LED display that shows the reflective levels, and a battery to power the thing.

Alternative (current standard of care): Blood test that measures red blood cell count and size/shape

What does it look like? 

Anemia iDX, an anemia diagnostic device created by MIT's D Lab.
Anemia iDX, an anemia diagnostic device created by MIT’s D Lab. ©Anemia iDX


Paper chip diagnostics

Used to: Diagnose a variety of infectious diseases

Made by: Harvard chemist George Whitesides and his company, Diagnostics for All.

Price: 3 to 5 cents

MacGuyver’d parts: The main component is paper, which has been chemically altered to change properties in the presence of certain markers, just like a pregnancy test. A drop of blood, urine or sweat is enough to trigger a chemical reaction for a variety of different tests.

Alternative (current standard of care): Blood and urine tests to identify pathogens

What does it look like? 

Diagnostics for All paper test, the size of a postage stamp.
Diagnostics for All paper test, the size of a postage stamp. ©DiagnosticsForAll


But wait, there’s more…  

Don’t overlook this TedTalk given by the nobel prize winning George Whitesides, who devotes his career to simplifying medicine. (Teaser: Whitesides mentions coffee, cheetahs and pornography in the first two minutes, but it’s well worth sticking around for all 18).

Most notably, “simple” to Whitesides means reliable, predictable and repeatable. The trick is engineering those three elements into a low cost medical product.

“If you find things that are cheap enough, people will use them … For example, stones. You can build cathedrals out of stones.”

The Power of Negative Pressure

Danielle Zurovcik
Danielle Zurovcik with her negative pressure wound therapy pump, inspired by a toilet plunger. Photo by Sony Salzman

By Sony Salzman
BU News Service

For Danielle Zurovcik, inspiration struck when she caught sight of a toilet plunger while wandering through Kmart. The mechanical engineer immediately saw this rudimentary structure not as a toilet plunger, but as the basic building block of a mobile medical device. In the plunger she saw a potential solution to an engineering problem that had been on her mind for some time. Her vision was to help doctors treat chronic wounds with a healing method called negative pressure wound therapy, but at a fraction of the cost of the devices currently used in U.S. hospitals.

Zurovcik spent much of her time at MIT, first as a masters, then a doctoral student, determined to solve the problem of negative pressure wound therapy. Slow-healing wounds like topical ulcers and surgical incisions keep low-risk patients tied to their hospital beds, hooked up to this negative pressure device. Victims of traumatic wounds from explosions and car accidents can also benefit from negative pressure wound therapy, but the current standard-of-care device used to speed up healing is expensive and cumbersome. Her device – inspired by the toilet plunger – produces almost the same amount of healing power, but costs less than $5 and gives wound patients more mobility.

Negative pressure wound therapy was originally pioneered in 1995 by medical device company Kinetic Concepts, Inc. (KCI). The device applies an external suction to a wound site, prompting cells on the surface of the skin to divide quickly, encouraging blood flow and reducing the risk of infection. The device works like a vacuum storage bag used to stow away winter clothes in the summer. Expect instead of compressing sweaters and coats, the vacuum acts on an ulcer, scar or amputation site on a patient’s skin. And unlike the storage bag, the skin’s surface has many nooks and crannies, making a perfect seal very difficult to achieve. A perfect seal theoretically allows a vacuum to exist forever (the reason sweaters stay compressed all summer). However, it’s tough to create a perfect seal on a wound site; instead, KCI’s device relies on pulling a lot of air across the wound site to create that vacuum.

Negative wound therapy has become increasingly common over the last 15 years, with many success stories from soldier’s injuries incurred in Middle East conflicts. KCI owns a majority of the market for negative pressure wound therapy, but its device relies on a continuous power source, putting it out of reach for American patients who want to heal at home, or for hospitals in developing nations with no reliable power.

For years, doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have been trying to find a negative pressure wound therapy without the leash of an electric cord. After Zurovcik’s Kmart epiphany, she discovered that once compressed, the plastic toilet plunger applies almost the same amount of pressure as the KCI electrical device. She built a prototype that included her modified toilet pump, a small hose and the dressing to seal the wound. Her device is small – so small that she carries it around in her tote.

Similar to the KCI device, the process of negative pressure wound therapy begins by dressing the wound, putting one end of a small hose near the wound and covering the entire wound with a plastic bandage. The difference between KCI’s device and Zurovcik’s is that instead of an electrical vacuum at the other end of the hose, her device uses the small, compressed plunger to create pressure inside the bandage at the surface of the skin. This design is portable, does not use use batteries or electricity, and it’s cheap. Collaborating with Brigham physicians working in Rwanda, Zurovcik specifically designed her device so that it could be used in worst-case, resource-poor scenarios. She was wrapping up the first prototype just as the devastating 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti in January of 2010.

“Hospitals in Haiti had $3 million in KCI devices, no electricity and 400 patients that needed negative pressure wound therapy,” she said. Moving quickly, she and her advisor formed a small humanitarian team. However, before they left for Haiti, she needed to be able to produce her gizmo on a massive scale. She started emailing and calling the CEOs of the toilet plunger and plastic tubing manufacturing companies. Within two weeks, she convinced these companies to donate all the component parts of to build 400 new vacuum pumps. When the pallets of materials arrived at the MIT loading dock, however, Zurovcik quickly realized she underestimated just how enormous an order of 400 pumps and hoses would be.

“I had no place to store them, so I shoved them into vacant classrooms at MIT and left my email in case people needed to use the rooms,” she said. The snafu didn’t cost them any time, and the team soon flew to Haiti with all the mechanical parts and assembled the devices on the ground. By the time they landed in Port-au-Prince, many wounds from emergency surgeries had been neglected, becoming infected and healing very slowly.

Zurovcik’s team treated more than 200 patients with basic first aid as part of the overall relief effort, and she was able to test her pressure device on six patients with positive results. As part of the humanitarian mission, she was not allowed to explicitly perform clinical trials on patients, but the few instances she was able to use her device as part of the overall relief effort encouraged her to continue developing her prototype. On more than one occasion in Haiti, she applied her wound care device to a tricky area of her own skin, like an elbow or knee, before going to sleep in her tent to help her understand how the patient’s natural movement might disrupt it.

“She’s definitely got that visionary engineer and mad scientist complex,” said Dr. Robert Riviello, a Brigham surgeon who was part of the Haiti relief team and consulted with Zurovcik during prototype development. “She’s been the prime human subject in all our wound pumps.”

Now, back in Boston with her PhD in hand, Zurovcik is working full time on her start-up company called WiCare. In May, she landed a $100,000 award from the Consortium of Affordable Medical Technologies to get her company off the ground. If her device is approved by the FDA it will be a vastly cheaper option than the current negative pressure wound devices on the market. Although replacing the standard-of-care is a daunting prospect, Zurovcik and other physicians believe patients across the globe could benefit from an inexpensive, mechanical wound treatment.

“Sure, we’ve helped patients and saved limbs, but I want to expand to a larger scale now. Every day I’m not working, I feel guilty.” she said.