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What Do Witches’ Cauldrons and Medical Researchers Have in Common? A Need for Diverse Biospecimens

October 31, 2016


“Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing — For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

Most of us know this famous line uttered by the three ugly crones in Macbeth as they stir their boiling brew. But did you know that many of the types of human biospecimens used to conduct today’s medical research sound like they belong in a witch’s cauldron? Today’s medical researchers are gleaning important data and findings from all sorts of “spooktacular” samples such as eyeballs, toenails, and teeth – so what you consider eerie as you step out this year for Halloween, scientists find enlightening, as they seek to learn more about disease.

We’ve identified four such current research projects to show you what we mean. So put your brave face on and learn what’s brewing in modern medicine. We promise, you won’t be sorry.

A Dash of Toenails to Understand Ovarian Cancer & Cardiac Disease

While witches bubble and boil toenails to create their dark potions, scientists are using these protein layers as part of research examining how stress levels coincide with tumor progression in patients with ovarian cancer. They are also being used to study risk factors for cardiac disease. Toenails give scientists a glimpse into hormones and trace elements like arsenic and selenium levels over the course of several months.

Learn More About Biospecimens

Sinking Teeth into Toxicology Reports

The Tooth Fairy might have taken your first pair of incisors, but biologists are now suggesting that these childhood remnants could represent a unique health record of what toxins you were exposed to as a kid. This new field of study on the “exposome” is predicated on the theory that the total environmental exposures you’ve experienced in life can determine future health risks. If true, a child’s first teeth could reveal the potential impact of toxins such as lead and pesticides, and stress hormones produced by the baby in utero.

BRAINS! (Banks) Are Key to Cognitive Research

Brains are the preferred food of zombies, but scientists at the world’s largest brain bank are finding better use for this grey matter. More than 2,000 brains are stored at the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center (HBTRC), with many frozen or floating in tubs along a vast network of shelves. The HBTRC needs both healthy as well as damaged brains, and is currently using them to investigate Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a variety of other illnesses that affect our cognitive function.

Keeping an Eye on Glaucoma

Detached eyeballs are a staple of any good trick or treat basket, and are now serving as the baseline for a new collaborative project between the U.S. and India to identify genetic risk factors and traits related to glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness worldwide. The research is based on eye exams as well as blood samples that will be used for genetic analysis. The researchers’ goal is to help develop effective screening, prevention, and treatment strategies for glaucoma.

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