Celebrating liquorice, sweet or savoury, strong or mild

Today, 12 April, is the celebration of National Licorice Day, an unofficial US holiday thought up by US licorice company Licorice International. As I tend to do with these regional days, I will again simply disregard the ‘national’ and internationalise the day for the rest of us – why, after all, should our US friends have the exclusive right to celebrate this amazing candy? So let’s just standardise the English, and celebrate (international) Liquorice Day.

Liquorice is made from the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant, a legume native to southern Europe and Asia. As a legume, it is related to beans and peas, and despite its flavour it is not related to the similar tasting and smelling aniseed or fennel. Interestingly, in many liquorice flavoured sweets, the liquorice flavour is in fact enhanced with aniseed oil (in some cases, there may not even be any liquorice in the candy!). The liquorice extract from the the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant is created by boiling the root of the plant and evaporating most of the water.

Liquorice candy comes in all shapes and sizes, with some types really tempting you to play with your food! (© All Rights Reserved)
Liquorice candy comes in all shapes and sizes, with some types really tempting you to play with your food!
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Flavours and styles of liquorice differ vastly between different parts of the world. Most liquorice produced and sold in the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand tend to be sweet, ranging from very mildly flavoured to medium strong. Continental Europe, on the other hand, prefer their liquorice strong and robust, in both sweet and salty varieties. Dutch liquorice is sometimes flavoured with mint for a different taste sensation. Italian and Spanish liquorice is often enjoyed as small pieces made from unsweetened, 100% pure liquorice extract. In China, liquorice is used as a culinary spice for savoury dishes.

Beyond its use as candy, liquorice is also consumed for medicinal purposes. Liquorice contains glycerrhizic acid, which, among other things, increases mucus production and decreases acid secretion. These properties make liquorice useful as an aid in the treatment of mouth and stomach ulcers, and the general treatment of an upset stomach. It is also used to treat irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease. Liquorice is also used to relieve a spasmodic cough. In Japan liquorice extract is used for the treatment of chronic viral hepatitis, while the Chinese use it to treat tuberculoses.

(Note that, while it has beneficial properties, excessive liquorice consumption may cause hypertension, hence it is recommended that liquorice products should be consumed in moderation.)

Whether you prefer your liquorice sweet or salty, strong or mild, and whether you eat it for medicinal purposes, or simply because it is so irresistibly yummy, I am sure you’ll agree that it is worthy of a day of celebration!

Raising kidney awareness on World Kidney Day

Today, 13 March 2013, is World Kidney Day, a day which “aims to raise awareness of the importance of our kidneys to our overall health and to reduce the frequency and impact of kidney disease and its associated health problems worldwide.” Every year the day has a unique theme, and this year it’s “Kidneys for Life – Stop Kidney Attack.”

The main role of the kidneys is to remove toxins from the blood. It also helps control blood pressure, produces red blood cells and helps control blood acidity. Unfortunately, the incidence of chronic kidney disease, and other kidney-related diseases, is increasing significantly around the world, placing huge added pressure on already stretched health systems. It is estimated that between 8 and 10% of all adults have a notable level of kidney damage, with the impact of this ranging from loss of productivity to premature death.

Kidney beans, like most legumes, are super foods when it comes to controlling blood sugar and preventing diabetes. People with diabetes are more likely to develop kidney damage. So, interestingly, kidney beans are actually good for kidney health!(© All Rights Reserved)
Kidney beans, like most legumes, are super foods when it comes to controlling blood sugar and preventing diabetes. People with diabetes are more likely to develop kidney damage. So, interestingly, kidney beans are actually good for kidney health!
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The important message on World Kidney Day is that there are things we can do to reduce the risk of kidney disease. Focus is placed on 8 golden rules of kidney care:

  1. Keep fit and active.
  2. Control your blood sugar levels.
  3. Monitor your blood pressure.
  4. Eat healthy and avoid obesity.
  5. Maintain a healthy fluid intake.
  6. Do not smoke.
  7. Avoid excessive over-the-counter medication such as anti-inflammatory drugs.
  8. Finally, if your habits related to points (1) to (7) above place you at risk, get your kidney-functions checked on a regular basis.

Be aware of kidney-health, and take action before it’s too late – it might just save your life!

Scientist extraordinaire Linus Pauling

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the 20th century’s truly great scientists, Linus Pauling (28 Feb 1901 – 19 Aug 1994). Beyond being a world leading chemist and biochemist, he was also a famous and outspoken peace activist.

Pauling holds the distinction of being the only person to be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes – the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (awarded for research into the nature of the chemical bond and its use in elucidating molecular structure) and the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize (for his efforts to ban the testing of nuclear weapons).

As a scientist, Pauling was one of the founders of the fields of quantum chemistry and molecular biology. He did groundbreaking research on the analysis of molecular structures using the experimental technique of x-ray diffraction, complimented by quantum mechanical theory.

Linus Pauling is generally considered the father of molecular biology.(© All Rights Reserved)
Linus Pauling is generally considered the father of molecular biology.
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During the later part of his career, Pauling’s interest moved to molecular medicine and medical research. It is during this period that he started promoting the controversial idea of high dosage vitamin C as a treatment for various illnesses, notably cancer. Research conducted by Pauling and the British cancer surgeon Ewan Cameron was reported to show a significantly increased survival rate among terminal cancer patients who were treated with high doses of Vitamin C. These results were, however, later questioned by researchers at the Mayo Institute, who claimed the test group and control group in Pauling’s trial were too dissimilar, with the test group alleged to be less ill than the control group. The Mayo Institute repeated the experiment and found that the Vitamin C had no greater effect than the placebo given to the control group. Pauling, in turn, criticised the Mayo experiment for using oral rather than intravenous Vitamin C, and for not continuing the treatment long enough.

The Mayo results were widely publicised and reduced public interest in the value of high dosage Vitamin C. Pauling, however, continued to study the subject, and kept promoting the treatment as an adjunctive cancer therapy. He also investigated the potential for vitamin C to treat the common cold, to prevent atherosclerosis and to relieve angina pectoris.

Acknowledging his contribution to science, Pauling was included in a list of the 20 greatest scientists of all time by the magazine New Scientist, with Albert Einstein being the only other scientist from the 20th century on the list.

Alice Hamilton, pioneer of industrial disease and toxicology

Today is the birthday of Alice Hamilton (27 Feb 1869 – 22 Sep 1970), an American pathologist and pioneering toxicologist, known for her research into industrial and occupational diseases.

Many workplaces are fraught with disease risks resulting from the presence of industrial poisons.(© All Rights Reserved)
Many workplaces are fraught with disease risks resulting from the presence of industrial poisons.
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Hamilton started working as a special investigator for the US Bureau of Labour in 1911, where she got involved in field investigations of mines, mills, and smelters. Initially she focused on lead poisoning, but later extended her research into other industrial poisons including arsenic, carbon monoxide, picric acid and aniline dyes. She compiled statistics on worker mortality and morbidity at various sites over time, documenting the industrial poisons that caused the workers’ deaths.

By actively publicizing the dangers of industrial toxic substances  to workers’ health, she made a meaningful contribution to improved, safer working conditions for American workers.

In 1919 she became the first woman appointed to the faculty at Harvard Medical School. Here she continued her research into toxicology and occupational health until her retirement in 1935. After retirement she served as a medical consultant to the US Division of Labor Standards, and retained her connections to Harvard as professor emerita. She lived to the ripe age of 101.

Everything is coming up roses

Today, 7 February, is Rose Day, apparently conceived to mark the start of Valentine week*.

Valentine week!? As if Valentine’s Day isn’t already more than enough! It seems some clever marketer has decided there’s yet more money to be squeezed out of the poor consumer, who is scarcely back on his feet after the Christmas marketing onslaught.

'First Love' hybrid tea rose. (© All Rights Reserved)
The ‘First Love’ hybrid tea rose from New Zealand – a rose of classic beauty.
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While Rose Day may have seen the light as part of an extended Valentine’s sales pitch, that does not mean we shouldn’t use the occasion to celebrate roses for what they are – really interesting, and rather lovely, flowers.

Roses are nothing if not diverse. In total there’s more than 100 species of roses, including bush roses, climbers, erect schrubs and miniature roses. While most are used as ornamental plants or as a favourite among cut flowers, roses are also used in the making of perfume, as well as in cooking and medicine. Rose hip (the berry-like ‘fruit’ at the base of the flowers of certain rose species), which is a rich source of Vitamin C, can be made into jams and jellies, while rose syrup can be made from an extract of rose flowers. Rose water (obtained as a by-product from distilling rose petals) is used in cooking and natural medicines. The Rosa chinensis species is used in traditional Chinese medicine for stomach problems and, linking back to World Cancer Day, this species is also being investigated as a substance for the control of cancer growth.

Not bad for a flower often taken for little more than a rather cheesy ‘symbol of love’.

The 'Chinensis Mutabilis' Chinese heirloom rose (© All Rights Reserved)
The ‘Chinensis Mutabilis’ Chinese heirloom rose – a picture of elegance and simplicity.
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On a rather unrelated note, I’ve discovered that ROSE also happens to be an acronym for the Relevance of Science Education project. According to the site, “ROSE, The Relevance of Science Education, is an international comparative project meant to shed light on affective factors of importance to the learning of science and technology. Key international research institutions and individuals work jointly on the development of theoretical perspectives, research instruments, data collection and analysis.”

Now surely science education is something worthy of celebration, so there’s another angle to ROSE Day allowing you to celebrate the day while steering clear of the Valentine’s Day connection.

So, whether you’re a lover, a cook, a poet, an artist or a scientist, surely there’s more than enough reason to join me in celebrating Rose Day.

* If you really need to know, Valentine Week’ consists of the following days:

  • 7th Rose Day
  • 8th Propose Day
  • 9th Chocolate Day
  • 10th Teddy Day
  • 11th Promise Day
  • 12th Kiss Day
  • 13th Hug Day
  • 14th Valentine’s Day

Liver, anaemia and the work of William Murphy

Today we celebrate the birthday of William P Murphy (6 Feb 1892 – 9 Oct 1987), the American physician who received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1934, together with George Minot and George Whipple, for work done towards the treatment of pernicious anaemia by means of a diet of uncooked liver.

Chicken liver (© All Rights Reserved)
Chicken liver – richer in iron but lower in Vitamin B12 than beef or lamb. I’d rather have it fried, thanks!
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Murphy’s initial research involved bleeding dogs to create anaemic conditions in the animals (not a nice thought!), and then treating them with various diets, one of which was a diet of uncooked liver. The discovery that liver helped to relieve anaemia prompted further research into liver by Murphy, Minot and Whipple, and it was found that it contained iron, and that the iron was largely responsible for curing anaemia from bleeding.

Experiments with intramuscular injections of liver extract to treat pernicious anaemia led to further discoveries – it was discovered that in this case the active ingredient was not the iron, but a water-soluble substance later identified as Vitamin B12.

This new knowledge, and the discovery that raw liver and its extracts could be used to treat anaemia, were major advances in medicine at the time.

Debunking myths on World Cancer Day

Today, 4 February, is World Cancer Day, the international day to raise awareness about cancer. This is a little confusing, since later in the year we also celebrate Daffodil Day, which has a very similar goal. Considering the impact of cancer on the human race, however, I suppose this is one topic that deserves a couple of days in the year.

Cancer prevention strategies can include some very basic, everyday tips, like promoting the use of sunblock before venturing into the sun.
Cancer prevention strategies can include some very basic, everyday tips, like promoting the use of sunblock before venturing into the sun.
Note: The yellow Livestrong wristband is a popular symbol, and fundraising item, of the Livestrong Foundation (formerly the Lance Armstrong Foundation until it changed it’s name folliowing Armstrong’s doping scandal in late 2012). Despite the famous cyclist’s recent fall from grace, there’s no denying the huge contributions made during his professional career, towards cancer research and awareness creation, as well as providing support and inspiration for many living with cancer.
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There is a minor focus difference between World Cancer Day and Daffodil Day – where the latter has a specific focus on raising funds to support cancer research, World Cancer day is all about awareness creation, and busting some of the myths that still exist around the disease.

Specifically, the World Cancer Day website lists 4 common cancer myths, ranging from general societal misconceptions to very personal issues:

Myth 1: Cancer is just a health issue

Truth: Cancer is not just a health issue. It has wide-reaching social, economic, development, and human rights implications.

As such, it is critical that interventions addressing the prevention and control of cancer need to be included in the wider post-2015 global development goals. By spreading the responsibility to address cancer control beyond the health sector, there is a better chance that all the relevant challenges (at individual and community level) can be addressed.

Global policies, however, are not enough – real investments are needed as part of national, country specific cancer control interventions.

Myth 2: Cancer is a disease of the wealthy, elderly and developed countries

Truth: Cancer is a global epidemic. It affects all ages and socio-economic groups, with developing countries bearing a disproportionate burden.

This is a no-brainer, really – cancer does not discriminate. If anything, the poor and disenfranchised are hit harder by the disease, and more often than not get sicker and die sooner as a result of cancer. Therefore cancer prevention and control policies and funding must be equally non-discriminatory, with interventions made available to everyone – rich and poor, young and old, in both the developed and the developing world.

Myth 3: Cancer is a death sentence

Truth: Many cancers that were once considered a death sentence can now be cured and for many more people, their cancer can be treated effectively.

To achieve this, however, strategies need to be put in place to facilitate cancer control measures such as breast and cervical cancer screening, as well as improved access to cancer services including medicines and other treatment solutions such as radiotherapy.

Myth 4: Cancer is my fate

Truth: With the right strategies, a third of the most common cancers can be prevented.

Of all treatment strategies, prevention remains the most cost-effective way of reducing the global cancer burden. This not only includes putting in place early detection systems, but also implementing programmes that reduce the level of exposure to risk factors and promoting healthy lifestyle choices.

Another critical prevention strategy is improved knowledge dissemination – helping people understand the risk factors as well as ways of addressing these.

More info

For more information on the above myths about cancer and its control and prevention, have a look at the fact sheets prepared by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). General background information on World Cancer Day 2013 and the UICC is available here.

Gordon Gould, laser shows and space battles

If you were young in the late 70s/early 80s, you may have a special appreciation for today’s subject. Remember those high-tech night club laser shows that were so popular at the time? Well, today we celebrate the invention of the laser.

On this day back in 1957, the American physicist Gordon Gould, noted down the principles of ‘Light Amplified by Stimulated Emission of Radiation’, or ‘LASER’ in a dated notebook entry. His notes also included various applications for laser light, and he was the first to coin the term ‘LASER’ at a conference in 1959.

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Sadly Gould’s patenting savvy at the time didn’t match his physics skills, and his 1959 patent application was denied by the US Patent Office. The USPO subsequently went on to grant a patent in 1960 to Bell Laboratories, whose scientists, Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow, were independently and in parallel to Gould, also working on the concept of lasers.

This effectively ‘robbed’ Gould of his share of the benefits – money, prestige, science acumen – derived from the invention. Not willing to accept this fate, Gould took the matter to court, an action that set in motion 28 years of lawsuits. He won a minor patent in 1977, but it was only in 1987 that he succeeded in achieving a major victory, claiming patents for a number of laser devices.

To this day, science historians are not in agreement about who to give primary credit for the invention of the laser, but there is no doubt that Gould deserves a large portion of the credit.

Since its discovery, many different types of lasers have been developed, producing emissions in ways too intricate to try and discuss in a blog post. However, the key feature of a laser beam is its high degree of spatial and temporal coherence. ‘Spatial coherence’ means there is very little diffraction in a laser beam, so it can be focused on a tiny spot over a significant distance. ‘Temporal coherence’ means the wave phase of the light beam is correlated over a large distance, producing a polarised wave at a single frequency.

Lasers are not just important scientific tools – they’re also a great subject for science photography.
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Of course lasers are far more useful than simply creating special effects light shows. They have become a ubiquitous part of modern society, being used in electronics, information technology, medicine, industry and military applications. In any single day you may encounter lasers in barcode scanners, CD players, computer hard disks, laser printers and more.

Thanks to their precise focusing ability, lasers are used in a range of medical applications, including surgery, treatment of kidney stones, eye treatments etc. They are also used in cosmetic skin treatments. Their accurate cutting ability makes them extremely useful in many modern industrial cutting and part-making applications. They are also an integral part of many military systems, including guidance and electro-optical defence systems.

And perhaps most importantly, judging by countless science fiction movies over the years, lasers will be absolutely indispensable as the weapon of choice to defend our planet and obliterate enemy space ships!

Conquering mountains with a little help from Viagra

Today we celebrate the birthday of Ferid Murad, born on this day in 1936.

So why is the birth of this American-Albanian physician noteworthy? Well, he is the co-winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with Robert Furchgott and Louis Ignarro. Their award-winning research involved studying the effect of nitroglycerin and related nitric oxide-releasing drugs on the body. The release of nitric oxide in the body acts as a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system, which causes blood vessels to dilate.

While the above fact may not necessarily cause Joe Average to sit up and take note, what is interesting is that the research of Murad et al was instrumental in the development of the drug Sildenafil citrate, used to treat, among other things, erectile disfunction and pulmonary arterial hypertension.

Yep, Dr Ferid Murad’s research was critical in the development of Viagra.

Now even though the mention of Viagra almost involuntarily calls to mind the sexual application of the drug, this is a family friendly blog, and so I thought it might be prudent to discuss a different, and rather interesting, application of Sildenafil citrate. it has been reported, fairly recently, that Sildenafil can be successfully used in the treatment and prevention of high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), a condition associated with altitude sickness typically suffered by mountaineers.

Uhuru Peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. 5895 metres above sea level. Guess who took Viagra!?
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Anyone who has ever climbed a mountain of significant height, will be well aware of the dangers of HAPE and altitude sickness. HAPE involves the accumulation of fluid in the lungs, a condition that can occur in otherwise healthy mountaineers, typically at altitudes above 2500 metres. The scary thing is that there is almost no preventative actions that can be taken to avoid altitude sickness striking – it can strike the healthiest, fittest member of a mountaineering team, and mountaineers can scale the same heights countless times without problems, only to become victim to altitude sickness the next time they climb.

As such, having a treatment such as Sildenafil handy as part of your mountaineering first aid kit can be extremely valuable, and even life-saving, if for some reason the normal treatment of HAPE (rapid descent) is not possible.

Scaling high mountains can be a potentially safer experience with Sildenafil citrate on hand to fight altitude sickness.
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So, Viagra can help you scale mountains.  Which I guess makes the fact that tall mountain peaks also happen to have something of a crude Freudian symbolism to them, very apt.

My, who’d have thought?

Celebrating the birth of the first ‘test tube’ baby

Today we celebrate a special birthday – Louise Joy Brown, the world’s first ‘test tube’ baby, was born on this day back in 1978 in Oldham, England.

Louise was conceived in a petri dish (so technically she was a ‘petri dish baby’ rather than a ‘test tube baby’), via the process of in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Her parents, Lesley and John Brown, had been trying to conceive for nine years, but faced complications of blocked fallopian tubes.

The process was a great success, and amazingly, by the time Louise turned 21 in 1999, more than 300 000 babies had been born using similar IVF techniques.

Louise’s IVF was performed by Dr Robert Edwards of Cambridge, who had previously successfully performed similar procedures with animals. He was assisted by gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe, who was already the Browns’ doctor. Edwards was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his contributions in the field of reproductive medicine.

The Latin term ‘in vitro’ is used for any biological process that occurs outside the organism it would normally be occurring in.
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In vitro fertilisation is a procedure where an egg cell gets fertilised by sperm outside the body. After successful fertilisation, the fertilised egg (zygote) gets transferred to the patient’s uterus in order to continue developing like a normal pregnancy.

The term in vitro (Latin: ‘in glass’) came about to describe a procedure that specifically occurred in a glass container (such as a test tube or petri dish), but its use has been extended to refer to any biological procedure that occurs outside the organism it would normally be occurring in.

Louise Brown got married in 2004, and her own son, conceived naturally, was born in late 2006. Happy 34th birthday, Louise!