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Archive for the ‘Health sciences’ Category

Seeking a safe food supply

Carrots from Stanwood, Washington. Courtesy USDA/ARS

Carrots from Stanwood, Washington. Courtesy USDA/ARS

When we think about food safety, we usually think about protecting ourselves from food-borne illnesses like salmonella and E.coli. But another type of food safety has caught the concern of community leaders in Seattle and around the Puget Sound – that of ensuring a safe and consistent food supply for a growing population.

This weekend (Dec. 4 and 5, 2010) a number of Northwest scientists and policy makers are meeting in Seattle to talk about how to grow and distribute enough food to sustain our population. The premise of the conference, titled “Cultivating Regional Food Security: Recent Research in Urban-Rural Food Systems,” is that our region’s food supply could be endangered by any number of factors including population growth and sprawl, climate change, damage to our transportation networks, and rising energy costs.

According to the agenda, “The urgency is to plan now for increased food production in our area, strengthened markets for producers, and conservation efforts to ensure safe food and a healthy environment.”

And the event, co-sponsored by Washington State University Extension and the University of Washington’s Botanic Gardens is riddled with WSU experts who have been thinking and working on just this subject. WSU’s Small Farms Program director Marcia Ostrom plans to talk about where our food is currently coming from. Chad Kruger, interim director of WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, will examine climate-friendly food and whether locally-produced food is better than food from other regions in the United States and outside the country.

Realizing that the food available now is not an adequate supply for our region, the group will discuss changing land use policy so that high-yielding farmland isn’t converted into housing and industry, how others could follow Seattle’s efforts to adapt city codes and programs to promote food production in urban neighborhoods, and how to help local farmers bring their produce to local customers.

For more information about the conference, visit the website:

A Better Mouse Pain Picture

Loyal readers will recall Friday’s post in which Stephen Greene, professor in anesthesiology at WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, commented on the first study of how a non-human animal’s face can express pain. Its publisher, Nature Methods, has kindly granted us permission to show a great set of pictures showing the “mouse grimace scale” that may some day be put to use in drug testing and veterinary care.

The "mouse grimace scale," according to the authors, "may provide insight into the subjective pain experience of mice."

Photo courtesy of Nature Methods and Dale J Langford, Andrea L Bailey, Mona Lisa Chanda, Sarah E Clarke, Tanya E Drummond, Stephanie Echols, Sarah Glick, Joelle Ingrao, Tammy Klassen-Ross, Michael L LaCroix-Fralish, Lynn Matsumiya, Robert E Sorge, Susana G Sotocinal, John M Tabaka, David Wong, Arn M J M van den Maagdenberg, Michel D Ferrari, Kenneth D Craig & Jeffrey S Mogil, authors of “Coding of facial expressions of pain in the laboratory mouse.”

A Better Mouse Pain Map

Photo courtesy of iklash via Flickr--

Animal pain has intrigued scientists for centuries, with questions ranging from whether they feel it at all–no kidding–to just how to gauge it. To state the obvious, they can’t talk, nor can they point to the smiley and not-so-smiley faces on a pain chart.

Canadian and Dutch researchers took a big step forward this week with the first study of how a non-human animal’s face can express pain. Putting mice in painful situations, they videotaped their reactions and documented bulging cheeks and noses, squinting eyes, and shifting ears and whiskers. Categorizing these gestures in levels of no pain, moderate pain, and severe pain, they created a “mouse grimace scale” for use in drug testing and veterinary care.

We brought this to the attention of Stephen Greene, a professor in anesthesiology at WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, who has naturally made animal pain a central concern of his career. It turns out he has long been teaching veterinary students a range of methods of gauging an animal’s discomfort.

“The mouse study is interesting,” he said. “We teach veterinary students that recognizing pain in each species is an important step in developing successful analgesic therapies. In the clinical setting, behavioral cues such as food and water consumption, posture, activity level, and vocalization are used to categorize the degree of pain in animals. Physiologic variables like heart rate and blood pressure also contribute to the pain assessment. The development of the mouse grimace scale appears to be a reliable metric of pain (in the mouse) that will likely contribute to better understanding and treatment of pain in many other species.”

Nature Methods , 2010. DOI: 10.1038/nmeth.1455

Pinning New E. Coli Hopes on Old DNA

Some detective stories move forward, one lead taking an investigator to the next, right up to when the case is solved.

Then there are times when the detective looks back, picking through a thick file, returning to witnesses for another round of interviews, poring over old evidence with new eyes.

WSU researchers hope to stop E. coli infections at the source, dairy cows and beef cattle/Cow Whisperer by Caese courtesy of Flickr

That’s what Tom Besser, professor of veterinary microbiology at Washington State University, hopes to do with the enigma of 0157:H7. Besser this month received $1 million from the federal Agriculture and Food Research Initiative to see if previous research into stopping the bacteria at its source—cattle—may be more effective once different strains of the disease are considered.

The E. coli bacterium infects an estimated 70,000 Americans a year, but researchers have yet to get a sure grip on preventing its spread. Health experts have worked on reducing the infection rate through a suite of improvements in meat handling and food preparation. But when only ten E. coli cells can make a person sick, vigilance can only go so far.

Besser hopes to stop the bacteria by focusing specifically on beef and dairy cattle and the different types of E. coli they harbor.

“Cattle don’t get sick from this,” he said. “It doesn’t bother them. But that still doesn’t mean we can’t go into cattle and maybe do something to reduce their infection rate with 0157. And we think if we do, then depending on how important cattle are as a source for humans, the human rate should go down too.”

So far, he has seen promising work in reducing the rate with which cattle get infected. Vaccines, beneficial bacteria or “probiotics,” and certain feeds have had some good results in reducing the numbers of infected cattle. Researchers have also been struck by how much the bacteria seem to die off in the winter but march back with great force in the summer months

Now Besser thinks researchers might see even more striking results if they take different E. coli strains into account.

Two strains tend to be particularly infectious, being found in 95 percent of the human illnesses. These are called clinical genotypes.

Another group of three strains, the “bovine-biased” genotypes, is found in only five percent of human illnesses.

But as researchers have tested the effectiveness of different vaccines, feeds and treatments, they didn’t determine which of the strains were involved, since the strain types had not been discovered when most of the work had been done.

“We’ve got 15 or 20 years of research on 0157:H7 in cattle and we don’t have a clue in any of those research projects whether we were measuring bovine-biased genotypes or clinical genotypes,” said Besser.  “And those interventions that we studied—the vaccines and the probiotics and the seasonal variation and everything else—it would be really helpful to know whether the bovine-biased genotypes behaved differently than the clinical genotypes for those things.”

A vaccine, for example, could cut incidence of 0157 in half. “That could be really good if the half that it’s cutting it by is mostly clinical genotypes,” said Besser.

But if the half being reduced is mostly bovine-biased genotypes, it is only affecting the cause of a small percentage of illnesses. “Then you’re probably not affecting the human risk at all,” he said.

“We’ve spent a lot of money over the years trying to investigate feeds and management systems and manure handling systems,” he said. “Now that we know about these genotype differences, I want to go back and say, ‘Well, maybe some of those interventions that looked effective really aren’t very effective and we should write them off. Or maybe some of them that didn’t look very effective actually were much more effective than we thought.’ And I don’t think this is a far-fetched possibility. I think it’s quite possible.”

The three-year USDA grant will cover work in finding genetic markers that clearly define differences in the five strains. Researchers will then use the markers to take a new look at the effectiveness of different treatments and strategies. The grant will also involve an outreach program aimed at improving the accuracy of 0157 information going to industry, health professionals, the media and policy makers.