I'm a health and science reporter who learns way more stuff than I can fit in my stories. Here, those tidbits get a chance to see the light of your inbox every week.

Issue 61

Diversity in clinical trials, the first ads for drugs, and grad students during the shutdown

Jan. 12, 2018

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

Poor representation in clinical trials means scientists have yet to know the details of Alzheimer’s disease.

Found while reporting: New Alzheimer’s research highlights the need for diversity in medical studies.

Clinical trials for Alzheimer’s research have overlooked people of color—particularly African Americans.

This means that black Americans—who make up roughly 13.4% of the population yet develop Alzheimer’s disease twice as often as white people—have not had the chance to benefit from any developments in Alzheimer’s medication.

John Morris, an Alzheimer’s researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, recently published work showing that Alzheimer’s may manifest itself differently in black people. He was disheartened by the historical lack of diversity, citing that for one clinical trial for a new Alzheimer’s drug, only about 2% of people who participated in a clinical trial for an Alzheimer’s drug were black. Another paper I found from 2007 suggested that only 3.6% of participants (paywall) in Alzheimer’s clinical trials were not white. This lack of diversity in clinical trials means that researchers have an incomplete picture of how the disease and potential treatments work in people of color.

There are a lot of reasons that people of color haven’t been well represented in Alzheimer’s research (and medical research as a whole). Largely, it’s because of the medical establishment’s history of racism and inadequate efforts to reach out to communities of color. People of color may also not have access to high-quality medical care, which means that they may not be properly diagnosed or referred to an open clinical trial.

As the researchers behind this recent paper discovered, it could be that Alzheimer’s has different chemical signatures in people of different races—which means that maybe, medical professionals may need different diagnostic criteria. More inclusive research needs to be done to see whether this is the case.

My hope is that it that more inclusion would also lead researchers to a much-needed breakthrough in the field. Alzheimer’s is a devastating and complicated disease, and is expected to be increasingly common as populations age. More diverse studies could lead to breakthroughs that would be impossible to find with homogenous participants.

The first drug advertisements in the US were for a vaccine and ibuprofen.

Found while reporting: Big Pharma spent an additional $9.8 billion on marketing in the past 20 years. It worked

If you’re reading this in the US, chances are you’ve seen an ad for a drug in the past week. Maybe it’s been in a magazine, or on TV, or on the internet, but you’ve seen one (even if you tune them out).

The US and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world where drug ads for consumers are perfectly legal. Drug companies usually say that that ads for their products increase medical literacy. Realistically, though, Big Pharma is looking out for themselves. Although advertisements don’t directly cause sales, it looks like ads have worked out pretty well for drug companies.

Drug ads to consumers have been legal in the US since 1969! The first ads weren’t run until the 1980s, and they were for an antipneumococcal vaccine (featured in Readers’ Digest). The second, featured on TV, was for brand-name ibuprofen called Rufen. Apparently, the commercial was boasting that it was cheaper than Motrin.

These ads were probably different from the ones you see today—they occurred before the FDA required drug companies to explain some of the risks in detail. However, ads now only have to contain a brief summary of these risks—which usually means we only hear about the major complications or common side effects. These two factors don’t paint the complete picture of how a pharmaceutical will affect you.

The FDA issued draft guidelines (paywall) late last year that would require drug companies to use absolute risks in their ads, and graphs where applicable (yay data viz!) but the comment period on those comments only closed last month. I’ll be on the lookout for any legal changes that happen this year.

Graduate students are also at risk of getting hurt by the government shutdown.

Found while reporting: The government shutdown leaves scientists without the means to research.

Yesterday was the first day that some federal employees missed a paycheck as a result of what is not the longest shutdown in US history. (They will hopefully be paid retroactively.)

The effects of the shutdown are everywhere—including the sciences.

Similar to the way we calculated the impact on national parks, (a woefully outdated figure now), we looked at all the grants from the National Science Foundation that were awarded this time last year compared to this year. Yesterday, that figure totaled over $103 million in awarded funding.

Although the NSF is one of several agencies that awards research grants to institutions, these grants can fund PhD candidates coming to work in a lab while they obtain their degree. Without assurance of funding, researchers may not be able to take on new grad students in 2019. Without grad students, a lot of research could be delayed.

In a way, it’s a good thing that US scientists get their funding from a diverse group of organizations. Some already have secured their funding, meaning that they can keep working as usual. But usually, teams of scientists get money from different sources. The shutdown effectively means that some key players have been removed from these teams, stalling research.

One of the biggest teams missing players right now? The group of scientists leading the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report. Four of 20 primary researchers have been unable to participate in their working group.

This is just a snapshot of how the shutdown is harming science. While science is important, I’d argue that it’s more worrying that thousands of federal employees may struggle to pay bills, and access to food stamps are only guaranteed through February at this point.

Stuff I learned from others:

Plants take up carbon dioxide imperfectly, and scientists are genetically modifying them to help them out, from Zoë Schlanger for Quartz.

Americans are swapping out soda for seltzer, from Chase Purdy for Quartz.

Some birds rely on fruit in the winter for food. However, warm weather after a frost can cause these fruits to ferment—which means these birds may accidentally get drunk, from Ryan Mandelbaum via Twitter. Ryan is one of my favorite science writers, and I feel I personally have benefitted from their birding hobby.

Animal of the week: The dumbo octopus, or Grimpoteuthis.

This octopus lives far below where you or I can thrive; it’s typical range is 9800 to 13000 feet below sea level, but it’s been found at 23,000 feet deep. Usually, it’s only about a foot long, but scientists found one that was six feet (like, human-sized) once. Although not much is known about these creatures, scientists believe that females can lay eggs throughout the year. They seem to store packets of sperm from males to use whenever they please.

Shout out to the Monterey Bay Aquarium twitter (also another one of my favorite twitters) for reminding us that we (yes, you, dear friend!) are some of the first humans to see the wonderful creatures that live in the depths of the ocean.

Two medium-reads of the week: Although there are life-saving antiretroviral therapies that boost the immune systems of most people living with HIV, there are tens of thousands of people for whom those don’t work. Apoorva Mandavilli writes for STAT.

If you’re feeling burned out (and you may, no matter what generation you’re a part of if you participate in the global digital economy), try to harmonize your present self with your planning self. How? Focus on being present on each task at hand, and controlling your time. A tip from Ephrat Livini and Annabelle Timsit for Quartzy.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider sending it to a friend. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Top image by E. Y. Smith.

Issue 60

Medical wisdom from ancient Greece, the truth about Dry January, and trashed parks.

Jan. 5, 2018

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

There were multiple Antiphanes in ancient Greece, and two had decent ideas about medicine.

Found while reporting: There are no hangover cures. That hasn't stopped us from trying for thousands of years.

Hopefully, you weren’t thinking about all the possible ways of getting rid of your hangover on New Year’s Day. But if you were, here’s hoping that you had a great time the night before!

Unfortunately, there are no real hangover cures (besides time, or not drinking so much), but medical history is full of old college tries.

One of the earliest documentations we have of “hair of the dog,” or the idea that a little more booze will actually make you feel better, comes from a Greek writer named Antiphanes.

Take the hair, it is well written,

Of the dog by which you’re bitten,

Work off one wine by his brother,

One labor with another.

He was channeling the idea that “like cures like” (and possibly some Egyptian mythology), which was really popular in Greek medicine ~400 BC. He was kind of right—booze can ease a hangover, but it’s really just putting off when you’re going to feel its full effect.

A different Antiphanes from a few centuries later (and an actual doctor) had some smart ideas about medicine. Antiphanes of Delos was a physician who is credited with stating that “the sole cause of diseases in man was the too great variety of his food.

To be perfectly clear, I couldn’t find much about this man beyond this quote with my time and resources. It could have been that he meant “one should find one food, and stick to that food their entire life,” which would be inadvisable.

However, if Antiphanes of Delos meant “food can contribute to disease,” he was ahead of his time. We know that poor diets can (but don’t always) lead to heart disease, diabetes, weight gain (although being overweight is not necessarily a mark of poor health), and is a suspected factor in Alzheimer’s disease.

Dry January probably won’t do all that much for your liver.

Found while reporting: The benefits of Dry January are mostly in your mind.

If you read my alcohol manifesto last week, you’d probably came to the conclusion that scientists still don’t know all the risks of alcohol. On the flip side, that means scientists still don’t know all the benefits of not drinking.

Of course, abstaining from drinking is good for you on some general level. Alcohol is essentially empty calories, and it can harm your body. But the liver heals relatively quickly, so it shouldn’t need a month to recover from the holidays. (Unless, of course, your liver or other aspects of your health were already compromised in some way.)

But exactly how much benefit you get from taking a month off from booze is unclear. There hasn’t been good work done in the space. There was one small study done by a group of curious journalists back in 2013 that showed minor changes in their biochemistry after some of them abstained for a month. Notably, though, none of them were considered to be unhealthy in an exam before the experiment began—including the person who reported drinking 80 units, or 40 to 64 beers, per week.

That said, there is one true benefit from Dry January (besides bragging): For a lot of people (who don’t suffer from alcoholism), drinking is a habit. Taking a dry month can be a great way to break that habit, provided you don’t go back to your old ways Feb. 1.

The government shutdown is truly awful for national parks.

Found while reporting: There are roughly 27 tons of garbage in Yosemite thanks to the government shutdown.

Based on visitation estimates to Yosemite national park and previously recorded numbers of trash produced by visitors to Yosemite, we estimated that there are literal tons of garbage piling up in the park. By the time you’re reading this, in fact, it’s probably way more than 27 tons.

It’s not just Yosemite, though—because of the government shutdown, many national parks are still accessible, but unmaintained. As a result, trash cans and toilets have been overflowing, despite the efforts of a handful of volunteers.

Here’s the thing, friend. I don’t think that the majority of these visitors mean to trash these parks. I think that a lot of people are stoked that for once, they don’t have to pay an entrance fee, which can be around $35 per car. I think, though, that perhaps there’s a lot of buck passing going on, meaning that everyone thinks someone else will come pick up trash or clean up waste. When thousands of people have that attitude, the effects add up. In this case, hopefully these impacts won’t cause any permanent damage.

Bonus fact: A friend of mine who works at one of Smithsonians informed my that usually there are 1.2 million people who visit each of the 19 museums and zoo in January. These museums shut down Wednesday, which means that by similar calculations, there have been over 116,000 people who have missed out on all the Smithsonians have to offer.

Stuff I learned from others:

There’s an actual difference between champagne, prosecco, and sparkling wine, from Jenni Avins for Quartz (from last year, but new to me).

Birds can fit a helluva lot of food in their beaks, from this photo essay from the editors of Audubon.

For some bizarre reason, donating plasma—a process in which you donate just the liquid part of your blood, but keep the red blood cells—turns the plasma of women taking hormones green, from David Scales reviewing Nine Pints: A Journey through the Money, Medicine, and Mysteries of Blood by Rose George.

Animal of the week: The slow loris

One of the best Christmas gifts I received this year was a symbolic adoption (read: donation to the World Wildlife Fund in my name) of a slow loris, a primate that lives in southeast asian forests and likes to snack on tree sap and insects.

In a word, the slow loris is fantastic. They are the only venomous primates on the planet. They secrete a highly toxic substance from their armpits. When threatened, they lift their arms to lick some of this venom (it becomes activated when mixed with saliva), and apply it to their teeth before biting. They may have actually evolved to mimic cobras. They also have super strong fingers and toes, and use their urine to communicate with other lorises (lori?).

Unfortunately, slow lorises are so cute they’ve become endangered as a result of horrific pet trafficking. Hopefully my donation gift will protect one of them in the wild!

I now have a slow loris stuffed animal that I have named Lois. I love her.

Long read of the week: This gorgeous interactive of our history of exploring the moon, from my colleague Youyou Zhou for Quartz membership.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider sending it to a friend. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Top image by E. Y. Smith.

Issue 59

Drinking around the world, the meaning of "superbug," and the dark history of a life-saving treatment.

Dec. 30, 2018

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

Standard drinks are not so standard globally.

Found while reporting: What we learned about drinking alcohol in 2018.

If you were confused by all the studies that came out about alcohol, don’t worry—you weren’t alone. In this deep dive, we explain the reasoning behind some of those scary headlines you may have seen, and why they don’t tell the whole story.

While I was reporting this story, I came across something odd: There is no specific definition of a “drink.” Countries (and not every one) have a rough estimate of the number of grams per alcohol that constitute a drink—which means it’s even harder to figure out what people mean when they say they have “seven drinks per week.” In the US, it’s 14 grams of alcohol per beverage, which is roughly a beer or a wine. In the UK, one unit is 8 grams, but per the National Health Service, typical glasses of wine or beers are 2 units. In Austria and Bulgaria, it’s 20 grams of alcohol. Of course, in actual drinks, the alcoholic content varies, adding another layer of confusion.

You can read through all those that are available here, courtesy of the World Health Organization (you’ll have to download a CVS file).

We actually don’t create all the drug-resistant bacteria out there.

Found while reporting: A report by the NIH Clinical Center shows how stealthy multi-drug-resistant bacteria can be

I read a paper this week in which researchers from the US National Institutes of Health described how they found a drug-resistant type of bacteria was found living in the sinks that lead to patients’ rooms in their Clinical Center. Unfortunately, this strain of bacteria ended up causing three deaths—although these patients had all had stem-cell transplants, and were also suffering from other infections, so it’s impossible to say that these infections caused their deaths.

When I hear (read) “multi-drug-resistant bacteria” I think “superbug.” And in a sense, this is correct. Superbugs are bacteria that have become resistant to multiple types of antibiotics. Ramanan Laxminarayan, an economist who runs the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, a public-health research organization in Washington DC, once told me “You have to think of it as a new disease which can’t be treated with any drugs that we have.”

However, I learned this week that a crucial definition of superbugs (and there is no real one, because it’s a term made up for non-scientists), is that they are made as a result of swapping genes that make them resistant to antibiotics. Some bacteria, like Sphingomonas koreensis, are just naturally immune to a lot of antibiotics, and don’t aid in the problem of growing drug resistance. They’re still nasty, though.

The procedure to cure intractable epilepsy has a dark history.

Found while reading Beneath the Skin.

The thing about being a human is that we think we’re in charge of ourselves, but that’s not totally true. On a conscious level, we may be able to decide what we want to do with our bodies. But subconsciously, we’re on a team with our organs. When everyone’s pulling their weight, we feel great. But when one player is struggling, our whole lives go out of whack, sometimes in horrible ways.

Beneath the Skin is a collection of essays by some of the world’s best writers about each of these players. The liver, the skin, the kidneys. (It was originally a radio series called “Body of Essays” but I suppose that was too cliche for the book title.) Some of them are better than others, but the one I liked the most had to do with the history of anterior temporal lobectomy—that awesome surgery I wrote about in my Thanksgiving edition this year that is used to treat patients with temporal lobe epilepsy.

The origins of anterior temporal lobectomy, or ATLs, is actually from lobotomies, which you’ve almost surely heard of. Lobotomies were possibly some of the cruelest and most disastrous procedures in medicine. They involved lightly sedating (no anesthesia) a patient, and then cutting open her skull and chipping away at her frontal lobe with what writer Philip Kerr calls “an ice pick.” The instrument was probably a little more sophisticated than this, but not much. The first lobotomy was performed in 1935, and the lead surgeon, António Egas Moniz was awarded a Nobel Prize for Medicine 14 years later for finding “the therapeutic value of lobotomy for certain psychosis.”

Neurosurgeons were essentially flying blind and fast—some surgeons reportedly performed 25 in a single day (for context, an ATL today can take eight hours.) There were no CT or PET scans back then, so often these surgeries were lethal, or severely debilitating. That didn’t stop them from performing 20,000 lobotomies in the US over the next 16 years, Kerr writes. They were used to a number of conditions including:

  • schizophrenia

  • chronic headaches

  • migraines

  • post-partum depression

  • manic depression

  • PTSD. A bunch of WWII vets received lobotomies.

  • “mild behavioral disorders,” which was likely Rosemary Kennedy’s (JFK’s sister) diagnosis when she received one at the age of 23. She was reportedly rebellious, and her father ordered the procedure that left her with the mental capacities of a toddler. Another boy Kerr found received one for the similar reason that “his mother didn’t like him.”

Fortunately, the first drugs for mental illness were invented around the 50s, and although these were not perfect, they made lobotomies pretty much obsolete. However, imaging technology and surgical tools improved, as did neuroscience as a whole. Scientists kept with it, and eventually developed ATLs (technically high-tech lobotomies), which can help patients with temporal epilepsy 80% to 90% of the time.

Stuff I learned from others:

For all the bad stuff that happened this year, there were some major developments that improved the quality of life of people as a whole, from Elijah Wolfson for Quartz. As my colleague Akshat Rathi says, “it’s still the best time to be alive as a human.”

Streaming services are not doing right by artists at all, from Ephrat Livini for Quartz.

Physicians of color are good for medicine, according to economics. One of the best economics papers of 2018 (according to a prominent economist) showed that African American men were more likely to listen to African American doctors, from Dan Kopf, for Quartz. For what it’s worth, physicians I have spoken to for other projects have expressed this same sentiment, and in general I’d say more diversity in medicine is a good thing.

Animal of the week: Hippopotamuses. This year like every year, I wanted a hippopotamus for Christmas, but alas, another year has gone by and all I got were new running shoes. Again.

I’m kidding. I love running shoes, and I most definitely would be unable to care for a hippopotamus. They are MASSIVE. This week, the Cincinnati Zoo celebrated the fact that Fiona, a premature hippo, finally hit 1,000 pounds. As an adult, she could weigh up to 3,000 pounds.

Hippos are mammals with ever-growing canine teeth. Known to be aggressive, and in the wild the males solve disputes within groups by chomping at each other with their 20-inch teeth. They also secret this cool red mucous-like substance that keeps their skin nice and hydrated under the hot sun, and in protected in the water. Great animals to admire from afar.

Not Fiona, but a very good baby hippo.

Long read of the week: My colleague Alex Ossola went to Guam, and saw first hand the tensions that come when the US military is the entity in charge of the local ecology. She wrote about it for National Geographic.

Thanks for learning with me this year, friend, and I hope the new year brings you peace and delightful tidbits. This newsletter is a labor of love—it takes up a decent chunk of free time. If it’s been worth something to you this year, consider sending me a tip through my Venmo. If that’s something that doesn’t work for you, love on any internet platform of your choice is great, too.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider sending it to a friend. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Top image by E. Y. Smith.

Issue 58

Animal organs, siphons on squid, and joy from a single confetto

Dec. 15, 2018

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

Please note: December has been proving to be a busy month! I’ll be off next week once more for vacation, and back in your inbox for the last issue of the year on Dec. 30.

Doctors have been hoping to make xenotransplants possible for multiple centuries.

Found while reporting: After over 50 years of human heart transplants, we may be ready for ones from pigs and Researchers are ready to test pig skin transplants on humans for the first time.

The future of organ transplants won’t involve human donors.

At least, that’s goal of a lot of transplant scientists. Getting tissue or organs from human donors is difficult: They either have to die in precisely the right setting (brain dead, in a hospital equipped to perform the organ harvest quickly) or they have to be living donors willing to go through an extensive surgery. As such, there simply aren’t enough human organs for every patient who needs them.

Medical researchers have always eyed animals as a possible solution. Animal-to-human transplantation is called xenotransplantation, and in the past two weeks, scientists made two major breakthroughs in the field. First, a team showed that baboons with pig hearts could survive about half a year, bringing us closer to the possibility of clinical trials. Then, a small company got approval to start a clinical trial for temporary pig skin grafts. Both of these developments happened thanks to the ability to genetically modify pigs to make them more similar to humans.

It has taken scientists literal centuries to get to this point. Although modern doctors wouldn’t dream of testing xenotransplantation on patients, up through the middle of the 20th century things were a little more lax. Here are some choice facts from this fabulous history of xenotransplantation by a renowned transplantation scientist:

  • Scientists have used sheep, rabbits, dogs, cats, rats, chickens, pigeons, and frogs for skin grafts through the 20th century.

  • In 1838, doctors gave a patient a new cornea from a pig (the success of which was not discussed).

  • Serge Voronoff, a Russian physician working in Paris, tried to give diabetic patients pig pancreatic cells. He actually had pretty good instincts in this case, but he also tried to insert chimp testicles into older men’s testicles to try to restore their virility. HUNDREDS OF MEN SIGNED UP FOR THIS PROCEDURE.

  • And finally, in the 1960s, Keith Reemtsma, a physician working at Tulane, gave 13 people with kidney failure chimp kidneys. Most of these people died, but one patient lived for a full nine months.

Even designers at Apple make mistakes when they’re hastily ambitious.

Found while reporting: Apple’s squid emoji had something stuck to its face for two years and no one said anything.

This was a story about squid in which I found a shared human experience.

If you have an Apple smart phone, you may have noticed that your squid emoji features a pasta-shaped tube that looks like a nose. This is presumably supposed to be the siphon, which squid and other cephalopods use to propel themselves through the water (and also poop). However, on real squid, the siphon is on the back.

A writer for Gizmodo pointed out that Apple’s emoji designers are the ones who screwed it up (emojis appear differently on every platform they’re used on). It’s true that Apple’s squid emojis are the only ones with a front siphon. But they’re also the only ones with a siphon at all; no one else bothered to try to include them.

Half the time I screw up, it’s because I’ve been trying to be too ambitious, without taking enough time to double-check my work. When this happens, I tend to assume that I am the only person in the world foolish enough to make this kind of mistake, and that maybe, my whole life has been an embarrassing blunder.

But no, folks: mistakes are a part of everyone’s life, even if you manage to get hired at Apple (and don’t bother to answer my request for comment). What matters is how we learn from them. I can only hope that future emoji designs will be anatomically correct.

The singular form of of confetti is “confetto.”

Found while reporting: Round boys were the best animal internet trend of 2018.

One thing that brought me joy this year was the Round Boys Twitter (and now Instagram) account. These accounts are run by the same college student named Noah Periord, and post only pictures of aesthetically pleasing round animals.

I know it sounds unbelievably silly, but I went ahead and investigated why this was the case. One of my editors pointed me in the direction of Ingrid Fetell Lee, a designer who focuses on what brings us instantaneous joy. A lot of what she’s found (and spoken about richly in her TED Talk) is that bright colors and round shapes—like polka dots or confetti—make us feel happy. One confetto on its own may be pleasing, but many are joyful.

Lee thinks that we may be able to feel some joy from looking at round animals for this reason, as well as a few others involving our evolutionary instincts to care for things that remind us of babies. Although we’d feel it most if we actually got to play with them in person, we get a bit of that feeling from seeing pictures or short videos (or gifs) of them too.

He snooze.

Stuff I learned from others:

There are literally hundreds of thousands of people applying for electric car license plates in China, who won’t be able to get them, from Elijah Wolfson, Akshat Rathi, and Echo Huang for Quartz membership.

Life expectancy can differ 20 years within a few miles of a city, from Daniel Wolfe and Dan Kopf for Quartz. Within DC, the life expectancy in Capitol Hill is 83 years at birth, and 63 years at birth just across the Anacostia river.

A double decker taco from Taco Bell helped ultramarathoner Camille Herron set a new record for the most miles run in a 24-hour race (162.9 to be precise), from Martin Fritz Huber for Outside Magazine.

Animal of the week: All those (likely) female reindeer who are gonna pull Santa’s sleigh.

Reader wisdom corner: Friend of the newsletter Aleka Gürel responded to last issue’s fact about birth control gel for men by musing, “having worked on research that touches the wild ways in which people use contraception incorrectly, I am certain that the typical use failure rate for the male hormonal gel will be substantially influenced by people applying it, ahem, not on their shoulders.” She also pointed me to some research that suggests that a lot of women don’t know how their hormonal birth control works, which could lead them to using it incorrectly, too. Health literacy matters!

Aleka and I would also like to remind everyone that the last day to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act is TODAY.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider sending it to a friend. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Top image by E. Y. Smith.

Issue 57

Rude whales, fat-soluble hormones, and Christmas at Hallmark

Dec. 1, 2018

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

Not a single whale chews its food.

Found while reporting: Millions of years ago, whales lost all their teeth and sucked in their snacks.

Whales are the rudest.

I’m kidding, they’re perfect creatures. Whales today either have baleen, which are straw-like protrusions that strain out krill or other small prey from ocean water, or they have teeth. These teeth are basically non-essential, though. Whales may chomp down on their prey, but then swallow the rest of their meals whole. Orcas use their teeth the most—they rip their food in big chunks.

At one point in time, whales actually had massive teeth and chewed their food. But over time, they ate smaller and smaller food, so their teeth became less necessary. Eventually, about 33 million years ago, some whales lost all their teeth, in fact, before they developed baleen.

Bonus fact: Whales have intense stomach acid. Because they don’t chew their food, they have to be able to break down huge chunks of meat filled with bones and cartilage.

Super bonus fact: Whales also have some of the best kidneys of the animal kingdom. When they slurp their food, they inevitably eat a lot of salt water—which you can imagine would be highly dehydrating and hard on the heart. Super kidneys can help filter out some of this salt.

When I asked the lead author of this work, Carlos Peredo, how whales got their fresh water, he said it was through their food—but that was only as best as scientists could tell. It’s still a mystery!

Some medicines for inner organs are best absorbed through the outer one.

Found while reporting: A male hormonal birth control is no longer a pipe dream.

This week, a new phase two clinical trial for a hormonal birth control for men began (there are three clinical trials before a drug gets approved). This is exciting, because right now men have only two options for birth control: condoms or a vasectomy.

This new product, called NES/T is actually a topical gel that contains two hormones: Progestin and testosterone. Progestin shuts down sperm production, which in turn shuts down internal testosterone production. The testosterone from the gel replaces it, so men feel fine. After they stop using the gel, their sperm production should rev back up again.

When I think of topical gels, I usually think of medicine targeted at the skin—our largest organ, and my personal favorite. But it turns out, skin can be a great delivery for some kinds of hormones, too. Stephanie Page, one of the lead clinicians on this work, explained that testosterone and progestin are steroid hormones—which means it’s fat soluble. Our skin contains fat, so these hormones can get into the blood stream and to the male reproductive organs more quickly than it can through pills in this particular case.

The only worry is that this gel applied at home could accidentally come into contact with someone else. Page explained that they gave thorough instructions to men in the trial (all of whom were partnered with a woman) to wash their hands after applying the gel to their shoulders, and that they should not allow anyone to touch their bare shoulders for up to four hours after application.

Hallmark is the most excited of any of us that it’s the holiday season.

Found while reporting: The twinkly Christmas rom-com feeds on the disappointment of women.

If you’ve never seen a Hallmark made-for-TV Christmas movie, don’t worry. There are 37 new films released this year alone.

Hallmark was the OG creator of formulaic, cheesy holiday rom coms. I think part of the reason they’re doing so well is because women (their target audience) are bummed out. For the past couple of years, the news cycle has featured a lot of awful things. A lot of these events demonstrated the inequalities and mistreatment that women around the world still face, despite the fact that we’re in the 21st century. These silly, low-budget rom coms provide a break from current events, but also show a world where True Love is easy and conquerors all. It’s a world that is both enviable and outrageous all at once.

This is purely an argument I made with my coworker Sam Rigby, but still near and dear to my heart.

If you haven’t seen any of these movies but are now excited to check them out, don’t worry, we also made you a drinking game. I’d suggest playing it with a viewing of Netflix’s A Christmas Prince Two: The Royal Wedding.

Stuff I learned from others:

The announcement of the genetically-edited twins was a PR disaster, from Akshat Rathi for Quartz. A longer read, but a fascinating story behind an incredible health story.

This week, the Supreme Court heard a case involving the fraudulent supplement “Cobra Sexual Energy.” Underwhelmingly, the case itself was about whether or not the timeliness of an appeal was valid. From Nicholas Florko for STAT News.

In the ocean, you can hear photosynthesis happening when tiny little bubbles pop, from Sarah Keartes for Hakai magazine.

Animal of the week: Jumping spiders, who secrete a high-protein milk for their babies.

This is not a jumping spider, but it is a cute spider.

Long read of the week: “The neuroscience that shows us what it’s like to be a dog,” from Ephrat Livini for Quartz.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider sending it to a friend. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Top image by E. Y. Smith.

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