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Do you remember your PhD defense?

A new and already-dear friend is defending her doctoral dissertation tomorrow. I remembered that I had written a post awhile back on my feelings about my own defense, and how my perceptions at the time didn’t measure up to reality.

The timing of this repost also coincides with the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival just posted at Neurotic Physiology, written by another remarkable woman scientist friend of mine, Scicurious. The theme of that carnival is “imposter syndrome” – the broad pathology of self-doubt that one is somehow not qualified for one’s career. I should have submitted this post for that carnival because it falls into that category.

So, for what it’s worth, I’m reposting my feelings in 2008 from the 19th anniversary of my dissertation defense. (How quaint to see that I was using a Palm Treo back then!)


This post appeared originally on 13 November 2008 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata.

For whatever reason, I woke up really depressed and exhausted today – pretty much for no reason, I think.

I checked my schedule on my Treo – today marks 19 years since my dissertation defense.

I remember being really depressed throughout writing my dissertation thinking, “is this all I have to show for this many years of public support for my training?”

My defense was on a Monday so I spent most of Sunday practicing my seminar in the room where I’d give it – it sucked so badly that I couldn’t even get through it once.

When the time came, it was the most incoherent performance I had ever given or ever would.

I was a blithering idiot during my oral exam. There was a great deal of laughter in the room as I stood outside in the hall.

How in the hell did they give me a Ph.D.?

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Poppy seed tea can kill you (repost)

Almost exactly two years ago, I posted the following story at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata. I was drawn to revisit this moving, tragic story yesterday after reading a post by organometallic chemist Sharon Neufeldt at I Can Has Science? entitled, Morphine, Heroin, and Lemon Poppy Seed Cake.

In honor of Tom’s courage and the memory of his son, this repost is a fitting adjunct to Sharon’s essay.

The following post appeared originally on 31 March 2009 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata.

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Remembering Challenger…

This post appeared originally at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata on 28 January 2007.

It was a very cold morning in North Florida (in the teens/low 20s Fahrenheit) as I walked in to class during my second semester of graduate school. I vaguely recall some concerns about the launch of Challenger that morning because of the cold and I believe it was scrapped once before, this highly-touted launch of America’s first schoolteacher in space.
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What’s the buzz?: Synthetic marijuana, K2, Spice, JWH-018

The topic of one of our most popular posts of all time has been the synthetic marijuana products containing JWH compounds, naphthoylindole cannabimimetics synthesized in the 1990s in the Clemson University laboratory of John Huffman. This post first appeared at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata on 9 Feb 2010 and gives you some background on the active components of K2, Spice, and other products.

ResearchBlogging.orgThis post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

My field of natural products pharmacology was founded by indigenous cultures who recognized that plants and fungi contain compounds that produce altered states of consciousness, leading to their most common use in religious ceremonies. While we may most often associate these naturally-occurring drugs with hallucinogens, the arguably most common natural product in use today is marijuana or Cannabis sativa. Indigenous to India and China, Cannabis has been the subject of increasing decriminalization worldwide due in part to its clinical, medicinal effects in multiple sclerosis, cancer, and AIDS.

Over the last few months, I’ve seen reports of a so-called “synthetic marijuana” being sold on the internet with stories most commonly coming from England and Germany and, in the US, from Kansas, Missouri, and Arizona. In fact, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports today that a bill has been brought before the Missouri House Public Safety Committee seeking to add this product to the state’s list of illegal drugs.

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Sharks don’t get cancer but do they get Salmonella poisoning???

This post appeared originally at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata on 18 May 2007. I’m putting it up today to accompany a superb post by University of Hawai’i graduate student and science writer, Christie Wilcox, at Observations of a Nerd.

Actually, sharks do get cancer but a 15-year-old book by William Lane led people to think otherwise, launching investigation of shark cartilage as a source of antiangiogenic, anticancer compounds. While there is one promising shark cartilage extract (Neovastat) in clinical trials for multiple myeloma, most oral preparations on health food store shelves aren’t stabilized and characterized well-enough to guarantee stability of antiangiogenic compounds.

But it gets worse with this news today from FDA’s MedWatch program that illustrates once again the safety problems of some dietary supplements – shark cartilage may just not work; it might also give you Salmonella poisoning:

NBTY and FDA informed consumers and healthcare professionals of a nationwide recall of 3 lots of Shark Cartilage Capsules the company manufactured in 2004 and distributed to consumers through mail and internet orders, and retail stores throughout the United States. The product was recalled because of possible contamination with Salmonella, an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections, endocarditis and arthritis. Customers can return the product back to the place of purchase for a full refund. Read the press release for specific names and lot numbers of the recalled product.

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Undeclared drugs in herbal and non-botanical dietary supplements

This post appeared originally on 13 April 2009 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata.

An interesting question arose the other day when we discussed the Key West acupuncturist who was diverting prescription drugs for personal use as well as in her practice. While we are not certain that the defendant put the cited muscle relaxants and anxiolytics in remedies doled out at her practice, we doubt that the demographic she targeted would be too impressed if she were to hand out prescription drugs.

This scenario led our scientific and blogging colleague, DrugMonkey, to ask how common it might be for alternative practitioners to dope their herbs with prescription drugs exhibiting known efficacy. He also notes how disingenuous this practice might be in that the alternative practitioner is admitting in doing so that their herbs and elixirs have no efficacy on their own.

I can’t speak to trends among individual practitioners but this practice takes a page from the big boys: the dietary supplement industry.

Adulterating commercial herbal products with prescription drugs is so common that the US FDA is keeping a running tally of actions against companies selling supplements containing “undeclared drugs”: the polite regulatory term for deceptive doping of a useless product with a real drug.

We’ve spoken about these cases several times before [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. Most common approaches have been to dope weight-loss supplements with sibutramine, a prescription amphetamine-like, serotonin/norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor sold in the US and Canada as Meridia®. The US FDA list on this class of deception has increased from 28 to 69 products since 22 Dec 2008. For example, we get a large number of hits from readers searching for apple cider vinegar capsules and whether they can help one lose weight – well, yes they can, if they contain sibutramine, of course.

Another common adulteration tactic is for erectile dysfunction supplement manufacturers to boost their products with prescription phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitors such as sildenafil (Viagra®) or related compounds. So popular is this approach that the same manufacturer cited above for sibutramine-adulteration of apple cider vinegar products has also been found guilty of adding PDE5 inhibitors to their “Long Weekend” product. At least their business model is consistent, eh? A recent FDA investigation of such supplements sold online revealed that up to one-third of products are so adulterated.

This may all seem like fun and games but there is at least one case in the literature where supplement doping has been associated with unusual cases of prostate cancer (Clin Cancer Res 2008:607-11). In this case, the bodybuilding supplement Teston-6 was found to contain testosterone and other compounds more potent than testosterone in promoting prostate cancer cell growth in vitro.

As a natural products pharmacologist, I am all for researching botanical and non-botanical supplements that may intrinsically contain useful therapeutic molecules – that is the cornerstone of my field. Indeed, some traditional herbal medicines have been used as sources for modern pharmaceuticals.

But to dope supplement products with effective drugs is to admit that one is selling crap: a deceptive practice to prey upon those who choose to seek out “alternative” medical approaches.

This practice makes one wonder how many anecdotal cases of “success” with herbal products is due to adulteration with prescription drugs.

Getting a rise out of helium

This post appeared originally on 22 October 2007 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata.

Sci/Med blogging is an interesting pastime. You can spend a tremendous amount of time writing a post and get two comments and 30 total viewers, or you can write a brief post about your daughter asking where helium comes from and get many more commenters and nearly a thousand viewers.

Clearly, the five-year-old is a better source for blog content. Q.E.D.

And, wow, what we have learned from our readers in response: one frequent Australian commenter, Chris Noble, confirmed the abundance of helium in Amarillo by noting their next shipment was indeed coming from Texas. Casey pointed us to an NPR story on the current helium shortage and Gretchen wistfully told us to stop filling our balloons so she could complete her experiments. Amarillo native, Biggs, noted the 50-foot high helium molecule in town – isn’t the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo too? (Those Amarillians seem to be enthusiastic about memorializing big things.).
Dave S. shared the tidbit that helium was detected on the Sun before it was found on Earth and Dr William Dyer told us that helium is a non-renewable resource because, while it is generated from radioactive alpha decay, the velocity of the particles is greater than the Earth’s escape velocity.

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Arsenic: from drug to poison to drug again

This post appeared originally on 23 May 2007 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata.

The 2 May issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute has an interesting news article on the advancing use of arsenic trioxide against a variety of human malignanices, mostly cancers of the blood.

The medical uses of arsenic reach back more than 2,000 years, but only recently has Western medicine embraced its surprising rise from folk cure-all to proven cancer treatment.

The January announcement of positive results in a 6-year NCI-sponsored phase III clinical trial to treat a rare form of leukemia is merely the latest in a series of kudos for arsenic’s medicinal prowess. The latest study affirms that arsenic can effectively maintain remissions in acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). But some investigators hope that arsenic could go even farther and eventually replace chemotherapy as a front-line treatment for APL.

In 1908, Sahachiro Hata working in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Paul Ehrlich had identified an arsenic-containing compound they named Salvarsan (arsphenamine, compound 606) that was used to treat syphilis until the advent of penicillin. (The compound number came from it being 606th of those tested against Treponema pallidum in an animal model.). We consider arsenic a poison today, but Salvarsan was a great improvement over organic mercurial compounds of the day.

We still try to keep arsenic out of our water and seafood supply, but the old Paracelsan adage seems to hold that it is the dose that determine the difference between a remedy and a poison.

The JNCI article notes the recent successes in using arsenic trioxide (Trisenox) to treat leukemias and other cancers and its roots in traditional Chinese medicine:

[Mt Sinai School of Medicine Dr Samuel] Waxman was one of the first Western physicians to see promise in the a series of small studies in Chinese medical journals that reported intravenous doses of arsenic trioxide-induced long-term remission in APL [acute promyelocytic leukemia] patients. The medical uses of arsenic reach back at least 2,000 years, but it was political ideology that prompted its modern resurgence, Waxman explained.

Arsenic may never have entered the western pharmacopoeia were it not for the Chinese cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, he said. During that time, Western medicine virtually disappeared in China, and physicians turned to traditional Chinese herbal cures that had sustained the culture for millennia. The Chinese physician Zhang Ting-Dong of Harbin Medical University made the initial breakthrough by formulating a stable, low-dose solution of 1% arsenic trioxide in injectable form. Zhang presented his work at a Chinese medical society meeting in the early 1980s and gained interest from colleagues in Shanghai.

Around this same time, a researcher in Waxman’s lab began an exchange with Zhu Chen, M.D., Ph.D., and others at Shanghai Second Medical University in China, and thus began a decades-long collaboration between the two groups. They, along with colleagues in Europe, established that arsenic is associated with degradation of the PML-RARα oncoprotein that, in part, defines APL. The group also reported that arsenic trioxide is associated with induced apoptosis of the abnormal promyelocytic white cells.

“These cells are particularly sensitive to arsenic-induced apoptosis,” Waxman said. “Secondly, they are undergoing differentiation, so you are getting a double hit from the same drug. Thirdly, it is very well tolerated in the doses given.”

In my last search of clinicaltrials.gov for arsenic, I find there are currently 26 clinical trials ongoing in the US to test arsenic trioxide or novel organic arsenic compounds for a variety of human malignancies.