I’ve said it before, but the AAAS Meeting is my favorite scientific conference, a cross-disciplinary feast of research that’s perfect for omnivores of science. As I wait for the meeting to return to Chicago (2014!), I spent the week attending from afar through the many online recaps. Depending on your preferences, you can get your AAAS download from The Economist (writing about alchemy, of all things), Science News, in podcast form from Scientific American, The Scientist, the inside-baseball view of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, or AAAS itself. Or you can read more focused recaps of a study that suggests being bilingual can protect against Alzheimer’s disease, the debate over how to effectively communicate climate change to a skeptical public, or monkey video-game self-awareness.
The University of Chicago was represented at the meeting by two talks on very different subjects: the future of health care spending, and the history of human evolution. David Meltzer, associate professor of medicine, argued that cost-effectiveness studies must be performed to control surging health care costs in the United States and other countries. Runaway costs can be partially explained by the flood of new technologies and therapies that are dropped into the healthcare market each year, Meltzer argued. While the FDA makes sure that these new technologies are safe for patients, there is less oversight on whether they actually will offer enough clinical value for their often high price tags. Even old methods, such as pap smears to screen women for cervical cancer, have rarely been assessed from an economic perspective, Meltzer said. Yearly pap smear exams are three times as expensive as exams every three years, but increase life expectancy by only 32 hours compared to less regular screening.
“The value of scientific advance and the resources available for it are greatest when we use scientific advances wisely,” Meltzer said.
On the other end of the spectrum from the future of medicine, Anna Di Rienzo, professor of human genetics, spoke about the history of man. Expanding upon her PNAS study from 2010, Di Rienzo presented genetic data found by her method of using environmental differences to find regional variation. In this case, the search ended in sweat: a gene called keratin 77, expressed in the sweat glands of the body, that has a variant more prevalent in hotter regions of the world. That variant may have become popular in tropical populations due its role in cooling off the body, but in the modern world, such environmental adaptations may be counter-productive.
“We know for sure that a lot of these differences are due to environmental risk factors that differ,” Di Rienzo said, according to Science News. “But there’s also a growing consensus that genetic factors may also contribute to these differences in disease or trait prevalence.”
Last May, we told you about Zoltan Takacs, who spends half his year chasing venomous animals around the world and the other half studying their poisons in the University of Chicago laboratory of Steve Goldstein, professor of biophysics. The good people at PBS’ Nova series got wind of Zoltan’s exciting adventures, and featured him in an episode this week on the potential of deadly venoms to be re-cast as life-saving medications for diseases such as cancer and heart disease. That’s one of his snake photographs up top.
Remember the call for Facebook questions to cancer biologist Janet Rowley? The answers are in. Hear Rowley’s thoughts on personal genomics and gene patents.
Talking About Pets Dept.: I’ve been a proud turtle owner for nearly four years now, and despite nightly observation, I still have no idea what he is doing most of the time. One of his favorite pastimes is to swim determinedly against the glass on the back side of his tank for several minutes at a time, for some unknown purpose. Recently, we rotated his tank 90 degrees in remodeling attempt, and now he does his swimming exercises to the left wall – the same direction as before. Whatever he’s up to, this Not Exactly Rocket Science post about the ability of turtles to navigate via magnetic fields might be part of the answer. If nothing else, there’s an adorable picture.
Beast vs. Virus: An interesting study for scientists and science communicators alike: do the metaphors used to describe research and social concepts influence our responses and actions? NatureNews and Ed Yong weigh in.