To hold you over for the weekend, here’s a brief roundup of some interesting science stories around the web this week:
How Victor Yushchenko’s Skin Saved Him from Poisoning
In 2004, Victor Yushchenko was running for president of Ukraine against an opponent hand-picked by the previous ruling regime, when he became suddenly and mysteriously ill. Saved by emergency medical attention, it was subsequently found that he had been suffering from poisoning with dioxin, one of the active ingredients in the infamous “Agent Orange.” Yushchenko, who was later elected president and is still in office, survived the rare poisoning but was left with odd facial scarring that doctors could not fully explain.
This week, Yushchenko’s doctors put forward a theory about the scarring that is fascinatingly bizarre: the facial growths were a defense mechanism of his body that helped isolate dioxin away from important organs as the body tried to remove the poison. Yushchenko’s case is so rare – only one other case has been reported on a person poisoned with pure dioxin – it has extended beyond political news into the realm of medical case study. One paper, published in British medical journal The Lancet this week, suggests that the reason these cases are so rare is that the unfortunate recipient of dioxin dies so quickly: “whether forensic investigators would have detected the poison in Victor Yushchenko had he died soon after the intoxication is unknown,” the authors report.
Unmentioned in this study, but appearing in a news report by New Scientist magazine, is the fact that Yushchenko’s strange facial growths may have helped save the Ukranian president’s life. Jean Saurat, a Swiss dermatologist who helped treat Yushchenko, told the magazine that the growths on his face and body sequestered the poison and produced an enzyme, normally expressed in the liver, to metabolize dioxin.
“A new organ was created out of normal structures of the skin, and the tissue expressed very high levels of dioxin-metabolizing enzymes,” Saurat told New Scientist.
Francis Collins Confirmed as NIH Director
As covered previously in this space, some online controversy has gathered around the nomination of Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project, as the new director of the National Institutes of Health, arguably one of the most powerful scientific positions in the world. After opposition was ignited again last week by atheist writer Sam Harris’ Op-Ed in the New York Times, Collins was nevertheless approved as NIH director late Friday afternoon by a unanimous Senate vote without facing a confirmation hearing.
The inconvenient timing of the news means that prominent online Collins critics, such as University of Chicago’s Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers of the University of Minnesota, Morris, have yet to post a response as of press time, but watch their blogs this weekend.
(Myers spent his Friday touring the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky – home of displays portraying humans and dinosaurs peacefully co-existing – with a group of more than 200 atheists. Sift through Twitter comments here for highlights including Myers riding a saddled triceratops.)
Rooks Use Tools to Capture Floating Worm
On a visit to the Lincoln Park Zoo last month, I was delighted to watch one of the chimpanzee fishing for bugs with a piece of straw, a favorite clip of nature shows illustrating chimps’ human-like ability to use tools. Thanks to Wired Science, I learned this week that birds have their own tricks to enlist their natural surroundings in the attainment of a snack. Check out the video below, where Connelly the rook uses the principle of water displacement to reach a tasty worm.
How the Injured are Treated at Music Festivals
This weekend brings the annual Lollapalooza festival to Chicago, just in time for the first really, really hot weekend of weather to hit the city – temperatures are supposed to hit the mid-90s. Though I’m not attending Lollapalooza this year (already saw all the bands I wanted to see at Bonnaroo), the event reminds me of one of my favorite Tribune articles, a peek at what goes on inside the medical tents of music festivals. My favorite factoid: the type of concert with the most medical-tent visits are Christian rock shows. “All these patients who would normally have albuterol inhalers for asthma or different medications would leave all their stuff at home,” Dr. Jeff Grange, a professor of emergency medicine at Loma Linda University told me. “Then they would come into the first-aid tent saying, ‘I thought I would be healed, so if I took my stuff it’d be like I didn’t have faith.'”