Strange But True: Astronaut had a sweet mission


Q: What did a candy bar have to do with an early astronaut heading for the high heavens?

A: It was returning from the high heavens that was recently on the mind of Human Factors expert Bob Hooson, who recounted to "Discover" magazine his assignment for the 1961 suborbital flight of astronaut Alan Shepard.

As a specialist in physiological psychology, Hooson was concerned for Shepard's well-being on splashdown, where one scenario envisioned the astronaut having to wait in the water several hours before pickup.

Because Shepard was supposedly going into this flight with an empty stomach and would be performing various pre-flight and post-flight duties, a delayed pickup would be his first opportunity to focus on his situation. "At the least, the hunger would become a discomfort. At the most, it could lead to distraction from mission objective."

Hooson recommended some food be taken along, and a several-ounce candy bar was considered an acceptable choice.

Though Shepard never removed the candy from his pocket, "I felt better knowing it was there."

Q: What's a "pharmaceutical sleuth" to do with an array of 6,000-plus existing drugs to treat some 100,000 known diseases?

A: If you're Rong Xu, medical informatics specialist at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, you'll be combining computer programs and medical data to uncover new uses for the drugs — those welcome or beneficial side effects — reports the university's "Think" magazine.

Extracting data from some 22 million medical journal articles, Xu is looking for reports of positive outcomes of drugs prescribed for another purpose. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved finasteride to address male pattern baldness, but the drug company formulated it to treat enlarged prostate.

The focus of her research will be diseases that have few treatments, such as schizophrenia and certain aggressive cancers and neurological disorders. As she says, "In some cases, we may be able to skip years of testing because we already know these drugs are safe."

Q: It seems that farm life protects kids from developing asthma and hay fever, but no one knows exactly why. What's the latest on this intriguing connection?

A: Various researchers in Belgium and Germany have confirmed that "dust from dairy farms switches on an anti-inflammatory enzyme in the lung cells of mice ..., keeping the immune system from overreacting to common allergens, such as house dust mites," reported Meghan Rosen in "Science News" magazine.

The key ingredient may be bits of bacteria called endotoxin, coming from dried-out manure that has crumbled to dust," explains pulmonary physician Bart Lambrecht of Belgium's Ghent University. Wind can pick up the tiny particles and loft them into the air. "We're used to breathing this in."

Based on data surveys, this same sort of protection against allergies was found in 1,700 children from four European countries.

Though not all scientists agree with the import of these findings, the work may offer a new mechanism for explaining how cells in the lungs can prevent allergic airway inflammation. Stay tuned.


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