A bench? A pedestal? This clunky piece of furniture is a kind of medical lazy Susan — a rotating examination table from the leprosy colony on the island of Culion in the Philippines. Children born and raised within the colony, which opened in 1906, were regularly placed on this table and examined from almost every angle for suspicious lesions and numb patches of skin that might indicate an active leprosy infection. This exam was known as a “reconoser,” according to Dr. Arturo C. Cunanan, who waxes rather nostalgically about the routine in a recent Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation/World Health Organization newsletter.
In case you missed it, Sunday was World Leprosy Day, which was started as a PR gimmick almost 60 years ago back when everyone thought sulfa drugs were about to bring an end to this chronic mycobacterial infection. Didn’t happen, thanks to mutations of genes and political agendas. But there is good news on the horizon.
The Seattle-based Infectious Disease Research Institute just announced that it is launching the first rapid diagnostic test to identify people with leprosy before symptoms appear. This could be a game-changer because one of the many weird things about leprosy is that symptoms vary widely and often take five to seven years before they become full-blown. During that ramp up, it is common for patients to be misdiagnosed and treated for things like acne, fungal infections, or even cancer. By the time they’re properly diagnosed, leprosy patients may develop skin lesions and loss of sensation, which lead to their becoming disfigured, blind, or maimed. Although a multi-drug cocktail of powerful drugs can arrest the disease, treatment does not confer life-long immunity, nor does it reverse crippling nerve, muscle, and bone damage.
While early treatment will help, the only true long-term solution to leprosy is a vaccine. This has been the holy grail for decades, but all attempts have failed because it is impossible to grow m. Leprae in a test tube. Now scientists have found a way around that. Later this year, IDRI, plans to begin clinical trials of a leprosy vaccine based on recombinant DNA. The goal is to create a vaccine that not only immunizes against leprosy but also intercepts the disease and prevents its development before patients become symptomatic.
According to a study published in the journal Cell today, the leprosy mycobacterium can reprogram cells, turning adult cells into stem-like cells that are able to infiltrate the body’s muscle and nervous system. This mechanism explains one of the great mysteries of leprosy — how it spreads throughout the body–and could pave the way for early intervention to stop the disease in its tracks. Lead researcher Anura Rambukkana, a regeneration biologist at the he University of Edinburgh, UK, tells Nature, “This is a very sophisticated mechanism — it seems that the bacterium knows the mechanistic interaction of the Schwann cell better than we do.”
I just learned a new word –”spermcasting”–in this fascinating story in Science News, “Finally, the truth about barnacle sex”.
That was the first question my friend Lisa Burke and I asked a group of second and third graders in an after-school Hands On Science program last fall at my son’s school. Titled “Action Attraction,” the eight-week series was about natural energy, which the kiddos took to, well, naturally. Perhaps that’s because a lot of the experiments, designed to demonstrate concepts like gravity, magnetism, static electricity, and water pressure, seemed deceptively silly – blowing air through a paper cone to levitate a Styrofoam ball, poking holes in a paper cup of water to simulate a turbine, pulling iron filings through a maze with a magnet. They were delighted that we not only tolerated their getting down on the ground and making a mess, but required it. Then somehow during that magic hour, they would, one by one, Get It. I’m not sure many of these budding scientists would be able to spout the technical definition of the Bernoulli Effect or a “meniscus,” but that’s not the point. At this age, the goal is to leave them thinking that science can be fun.