Friday, May 14, 2010

Science Idol

The BBC's "Science and Environment" RSS feed included a real gem today*: news of a competition in which members of the public were asked to submit ideas for research projects. The four winners will be mentored by experts in their chosen field as they design and conduct the appropriate experiments, and then (hopefully) write them up for publication.

This is an absolutely brilliant idea, and I hope the BBC will continue to support (and report on) this initiative.

The article also reminded me of recurring conversations I've had with various scientist friends about our own fantasy research projects. The ones we would undertake if we had the time, resources, and specialist knowledge. The first is (more or less) within my field of expertise, the other is way, way outside it, but here goes - please feel free to submit reviewers' comments on each proposal!

Project I: a comparison of human and equine malignant melanomas.

My flatmate and all-round best friend during my PhD days was a physiologist who specialized in equine gastrology. She's been around horses her whole life, in roles from stable girl to veterinary assistant to physiologist to punter at the races, and loves to talk about her work whenever possible.

She mentioned just in passing one day that she'd just assisted at the necropsy of a white horse, and said "much less melanoma than usual".

"Um, what?", asked the person who worked at the cancer research centre just up the road from the vet school.

It turns out that a majority of white horses have extensive metastatic melanoma throughout their entire body, a condition that may be genetically related to their pigmentation.

My friend described the art of necropsy of white horses as "pulling out big black nodules like bunches of grapes to try and get to the organs to find the cause of death".

"The melanoma's not the cause of death?"

"No! They can live like that for years!"

Apparently this is something that every vet just knows. Y'know, like every cancer researcher just knows that malignant melanoma in humans is an extremely aggressive disease that's often fatal in just a few months.

But apparently, vets don't often talk to cancer researchers. Unless a university graduate student office happens to assign one person of each type to a shared university flat in their first year, and they end up becoming lifelong friends who enjoy talking about science in pubs.

There are a few clinical reports of "pigmented epithelioid melanocytoma", aka "equine" or "animal-type" melanoma, in humans. But not one basic cancer researcher I've ever talked to had heard of this phenomenon before I mentioned it.

As soon as I heard about melanoma in white horses, I wanted to perform a genetic comparison to human melanomas to try and uncover the reason for the differences in pathology. This was in the late nineties / early noughties, so I was thinking in terms of microarray studies and comparative hybridizations, but none of those approaches were really suitable. Of course now that we have next current generation sequencing technology, the problem is eminently soluble. "All" you need is the human and horse genome sequences (a high-quality draft of the latter is now available), and then normal DNA plus tumour DNA and RNA from each of:
  • a malignant melanoma from a white horse;
  • a pigmented epithelioid melanocytoma from a human;
  • a regular human melanoma;
and Robert's your father's brother.

I would love to see this study done, and sincerely hope that someone decides to tackle it in the next few years.

Project II: a comparison of visual response and decision making processes in (ice) hockey goalies and mere mortals.

Have you ever watched a game of (ice) hockey? It's fast. Scary fast. So fast that it took me months to learn how to follow the puck properly (it's all about inferring its position, speed and direction from the players' body language as well as from the brief glimpses of speeding frozen black rubber that you occasionally manage to catch). And the goalies are simply amazing. Here's a particularly impressive example of the art of the glove save, from the Vancouver Canucks' Roberto Luongo in last night's** playoff game that eliminated the LA Kings from Stanley Cup contention. Man, I loves me some regicide.



As soon as I started to get into hockey, I wanted to know how these guys get so good. How on earth do they manage to see the puck in time to stop it? (And why don't they run away gibbering and crying like normal people instead of trying to make the save?) Again, this discussion came up on a regular basis while watching games in the pub with my geeky friends. Are the parts of the brain that process visual information and turn it into quick decisions simply more developed in these players? If so, is this something that develops over time as they train, or is it innate?

There's only one even slightly relevant paper in the literature, a 1979 study titled "Visual cues in ice hockey goaltending" (no-one should be surprised that it was published in the Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Science). The study assessed the visual cues that young goalies can pick up from an attacker's approach on goal, but there was no control group and no real insight into my specific question.

As stated earlier, this study would be far outside my area of expertise. I know that some people find fMRI results, ahem, fishy, but maybe there's some kind of brain scan that could be done on junior and elite hockey goalies, compared to hockey players who specialise in other positions, elite players of other sports, and average Joes, to see if there are any structural or functional differences there.

Anyway, those are my picks. Does anyone else have a fantasy research project they'd like to see done?

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*Not actually today. I originally posted this on t'other blog, where it didn't get many comments. So I thought you guys might actually like to see some science blogging over here for a change :)

**Again, not actually last night, as much as I'd like to turn the clock back and have another chance at Round Two against those Chicago bastards

3 comments:

  1. very cool idea! I find the differences in behaviours between different animal groups amazing. For example, why have birds (penguins, eagles, swans) evolved to be magnanimous while larger mammals such as sea lions and lions have harems. What are the evolutionary forces at play?

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  2. Wow. I used to work at a cancer center, and have worked with horses most of my life (including several white ones) - I had no idea about the melanoma thing - that is so weird. Someone should totally fund that!

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  3. ScientistMother, that's an excellent question! There are differences even between very similar animals - not all birds are monogamous, and even the different kinds of great apes have quite different social structures. I'll have to have a delve into the literature when I get enough time to look properly.

    Ambivalent Academic, my friend said that you would never notice unless you opened the animal up. No symptoms. Amazing.

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