CLOSE
Original image
PLOS One

Building a Puking Robot—For Science

Original image
PLOS One

As the passengers of many a cruise ship can attest, Norovirus is a nasty illness. When people come into contact with it—via someone else who has norovirus; by eating contaminated food or water; or by touching a surface with norovirus particles on it—and are infected, the linings of their stomachs or intestines (or both!) become inflamed in something called acute gastroenteritis. First comes the stomach pain and nausea, and then the projectile vomiting and diarrhea, which bring billions of new noroviruses into the world. That number is staggering considering the fact that just 18 particles of the virus are enough to make a person ill, and the amount of virus particles that can fit on the head of a pin can infect at least 1000 people.

Norovirus, according to Carl Zimmer at National Geographic, has “Olympic-level feats of transmission.” Each year, as many as 21 million people come down with norovirus in the United States, and between 570 and 800 die. So naturally, scientists are very interested in determining just how the virus spreads—and they're building vomiting machines to figure it out.

Vomiting Larry at the Health and Safety Laboratory in Derbyshire, England, is one; another, built by researchers at North Carolina State University, was a key part of a study released this week in PLOS One.

This machine, which was built at one-quarter human size, is equipped with tubes that stand in for the esophagus and mouth; a pressurized simulated stomach; valves, pistons, and pumps to create vomiting; and, of course, a sad clay face that perfectly shows what it’s like to have norovirus. (That’s not all the mask is good for—according to Science News, it “provides weight to bend the throat down, simulating the flexed neck of a heaving human.”)

During projectile vomiting, particles of vomit—and the noroviruses they carry—become aerosolized and land on surfaces, where they’re hard to eradicate (according to Zimmer, norovirus “can survive freezing and heating and cleaning with many chemical disinfectants”). In this study, scientists were interested in both demonstrating the aerosolization and figuring out just how much of the virus was present in those airborne particles—a particularly tough challenge, considering that norovirus can’t be cultivated in a lab. 

The scientists created two “simulated vomitus matrices”—one with high viscosity, for which they used vanilla Jell-O pudding, and one with low viscosity, which was made with pre-gelatinized starch and simulated human saliva—and loaded them up with high and low concentrations of a norovirus stand-in called MS2. The scientists inserted 13.1 mL of the solutions into the vomiting machine’s stomach chamber and expelled it at various pressures that simulated vomiting and coughing.

After running the experiment, the scientists discovered that every vomiting trial led to aerosolization of the virus, ranging from “as few as 36 and as many as over 13,000 virus particles,” according to Science News.

Compared to the amount of virus in the vomit—most of which ended up at the bottom of the puking chamber—“the degree of aerosolization was rather minimal (<0.01 percent),” the scientists write. “However, based on human NoV infectious dose and estimated virus concentrations in vomitus, even these small percentages of aerosolization would likely result in significant disease risk.”

The higher the pressure of the vomit, the more noroviruses were aerosolized—but not always by a statistically significant amount. “This was partially due to the large standard deviations in the measurements, suggesting high variability in degree of virus aerosolization during vomiting,” the scientists write. “This implies that even a relatively minor vomiting event may have public health significance.”

Given all of this information, you might be asking yourself: Is there any way to prevent norovirus? The CDC recommends thoroughly washing not just your hands, but also fruits and vegetables, and thoroughly disinfecting surfaces with a bleach solution (5 to 25 tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water should do the trick). Keep sick people away from your food—and if you’re unlucky enough to get sick, don’t prepare any food yourself.

[h/t Science of Us]

Original image
iStock
arrow
Medicine
Why Haven't We Cured Cancer Yet?
Original image
iStock

Walkathons, fundraisers, and ribbon-shaped bumper stickers raise research dollars and boost spirits, but cancer—the dreaded disease that affects more than 14 million people and their families at any given time—still remains bereft of a cure.

Why? For starters, cancer isn't just one disease—it's more than 100 of them, with different causes. This makes it impossible to treat each one using a one-size-fits-all method. Secondly, scientists use lab-grown cell lines cultivated from human tumors to develop cancer therapies. Living masses are far more complex, so potential treatments that show promise in lab experiments often don't work on cancer patients. As for the tumors themselves, they're prone to tiny genetic mutations, so just one growth might contain multiple types of cancer cells, and even unique sub-clones of tumors. These distinct entities might not respond the same way, or at all, to the same drug.

These are just a few of the challenges that cancer researchers face—but the good news is that they're working to beat all of them, as this TED-Ed video explains below.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Health
Skipping Breakfast Could Be Bad for Your Heart
Original image
iStock

There are mountains of evidence supporting the claim that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. Getting something in your stomach in the first hours of the morning can regulate your glucose levels, improve your cognition, and keep your hunger in check. Now new research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology points to another reason not to wait until lunchtime to break last night’s fast. As TIME reports, people who skip breakfast are at an increased risk for atherosclerosis, a disease caused by plaque buildup in the arteries.

Researchers surveyed over 4000 men and women between the ages of 40 and 54 living in Spain. After looking at the dietary habits of each participant, they broke them into three groups: people who consumed more than 20 percent of their daily calories in the morning; those who got 5 to 20 percent; and those who ate less than 5 percent.

The subjects who ate very little in the a.m. hours or skipped breakfast all together were 2.5 more likely to have generalized atherosclerosis. This meant that plaque was starting to collect on the walls of their arteries, hardening and narrowing them and increasing the risk for heart attack or stroke. People who fell into the 5 to 20 percent calorie category were also more likely to show early signs of the disease, while those who ate the most calories in the morning were the healthiest.

These results aren’t entirely surprising. Previous studies have shown a connection between skipping breakfast and health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and unwanted weight gain. A possible explanation for this trend could be that waiting several hours after waking up to eat your first meal of the day could trigger hormonal imbalances. The time between getting into and out of bed is the longest most of us go without eating, and our bodies expect us to consume some calories to help kickstart our energy for the day (drinking straight coffee doesn’t cut it). Another theory is that people who don’t eat in the morning are so hungry by the time lunch rolls around that they overcompensate for those missing calories, which is why skipping breakfast doesn’t make sense as a diet strategy.

But of course there are many breakfast skippers who aren’t motivated by health reasons either way: They just don’t think they have the time or energy to feed themselves in the morning before walking out the door. If this describes you, here are some simple, protein-packed meals you can prepare the night before.

[h/t TIME]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios