(I wrote this article in the The News Minute on October 13, 2014. I am reproducing the article here, on my blog).
The Nobel Prize is considered as the pinnacle of recognition in sciences. They are awarded in three categories: Physiology or Medicine, Physics, and Chemistry. From a common man’s perspective, these science category prizes are often awarded for some esoteric areas of research. Areas of research which are very important and path-breaking, but something that a common man cannot easily relate to. This year though, it was different.
All three prizes were awarded for work that has tremendous practical significance and immediate real world benefits.
The ‘Internal Brain GPS’ system
Have you wondered how some people have an innate sense of ‘direction’? Well turns out, we have some kind of an ‘internal GPS’ system in our brains. Research has identified specific nerve cells: ‘place cells’ and ‘grid cells’, which are located in the hippocampus area of the brain. These cells help in determining our ‘orientation’ and ‘position’ in space, and help in navigation.
For their pioneering work in this area, the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to John O´Keefe, and the husband & wife team of May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser. It is interesting that O’Keefe’s work on the ‘place cells’ was done in the early 1970s, while the Mosers’ work was done in the last decade.
To quote from the Nobel Prize Press Release, “The discovery of the brain’s positioning system represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of how ensembles of specialized cells work together to execute higher cognitive functions. It has opened new avenues for understanding other cognitive processes, such as memory, thinking and planning.”
From ‘Microscopy’ to ‘Nanoscopy’
For over 125 years, the limit of the optical microscope has been set by Abbe’s law , which implies that we cannot magnify objects that are smaller than half the wavelength of light (400 nano-meters). Viruses, cell components, protein molecules are much smaller than this size. Until recently, the only way to ‘look’ at these objects was via electron microscopes. However, unlike optical microscopes, electron microscopes have limitations. One of the biggest ones (as far as micro-biology is concerned) is that they cannot observe ‘living’ cells and interacting molecules.
The pioneering work of the 2014 Nobel laureates in chemistry has helped in working around this optical microscope limit, and opening up the world of ‘nanoscopy’. Two separate principles were awarded, but both have one commonality. They work by using ‘fluorescent’ molecules. Stefan Hall developed the system of ‘STED’ (stimulated emission depletion) microscopy in 2000. Here, two laser beams are utilized; one stimulates fluorescent molecules to glow, another cancels out all fluorescence except for that in a nanometre-sized volume. Scanning over the sample can then yield an image that is better than the Abbelimit.
Eric Betzig and William Moerner, working independently of Stefan Hall worked on the ‘single-molecule microscopy’ method. The method tries to turn on the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off. The same area is imaged multiple times, and a composite processed image delivers a resolution much better than that dictated by the Abbe’s limit.
The LED Lighting Revolution
I am sure everyone has seen a Blue/White light emitting diode (LED light. These are getting increasingly popular over the past few years. LEDs are revolutionizing lighting and deliver over 90% electricity savings over conventional incandescent lights. They can also last over 100 times longer. Today, close to 25% of world’s electricity consumption is used for lighting. Over the next few years, LED lights have the potential of driving down world’s electricity demands by up to 20%!
Red and Yellow LED lights have been around for over 40 years. To produce white LED, we need to mix the Red and Yellow LED light, with a Blue LED light. Hence the need for a Blue LED light. Theoretically, building a Blue LED seemed straight forward, but practically it took over 30 years to come up with a process to produce a diode that can emit blue light.
Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in the early 1990s that produced bright blue light beams from specialized semi-conductors. Over the past 2 decades, further development has driven down the cost of the blue and white LEDs significantly and the prices continue to fall.
If you want to understand these research areas better, I would recommend the Nobel Prize website, as well as these terrific podcasts from Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/science-talk/
Recently finished reading this brilliant, fascinating, (and at times) depressing book. Highly recommended. This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011.
#Cancer is a tough topic, across many dimensions. The author Oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee presents a detailed journey of our understanding of this disease (or a collection of diseases), going back 4000 years. There is good amount of technical details about cancer, its diagnosis and treatment…but explained beautifully so that a non-medical professional can understand it quite well.
The first few chapters read like an interesting history novel. The concluding chapters delve into genetics and core understanding of what is going on internally, inside the cell, inside the DNA.
It is amazing how our understanding has changed and improved over the past few decades. But there is a long way to go. The sobering truth is that we still don’t understand many things in this area.
Pune is well-known in India and internationally for being a hub of education and research. It has a wide range of academic & research institutions spanning various domains in science, technology, medicine, agriculture, arts, humanities, law, finance, etc. This blog article is an attempt to list out these various institutions. If you find any missing, please add a comment.
Science & Technology
University of Pune www.unipune.ac.in
One of the top universities in the country, established in 1948.
College Of Engineering Pune (COEP) www.coep.org.in
One of the top engineering colleges in the country. Also, the second oldest engg college in India (Established: 1853).
National Chemical Laboratory http://www.ncl-india.org/
The top research organization in India that is focused on Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.
Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) http://www.araiindia.com/
A collaborative effort between the Government and Industry, focused on testing and validation of various automotive related technologies.
Bhaskaracharya Pratishthana (Bhaskaracharya Institute of Mathematics) http://www.bprim.org/
Educational and Research Institute in Mathematics
Inter University Center For Astronomy & Astro-Physics (IUCAA) http://www.iucaa.ernet.in/Home.html
Focused on academics research in astronomy and astro-physics.
National Center For Radio Astro-Physics ((NCRA – TIFR) http://ncra.tifr.res.in/
A division of TIFR, focused on research in Astro-physics. (Also involved with the GMRT (Giant Meter Wave Radio Telescope) Project near Naranygaon.
Central Institute Of Road Transport (CIRT) http://www.cirtindia.com
Research on roads and transportation.
Indian Mathematical Society http://www.indianmathsociety.org.in/
Indian Mathematical Society (IMS) is the oldest and the largest Mathematical Society of the Countrywith more than 1600 Life Members. The objects of the Society is the promotion of Mathematical Study and Research. Its central activity is to inspire and encourage researchers, educationists, students and all the mathematics loving persons .
Tata Research Development & Design Center (TRDDC) http://www.tcs-trddc.com
Part of the Tata Group – focused on research in various engineering and computer science related areas.
Computational Research Laboratories (CRL) http://www.crlindia.com/
CRL is a wholly owned subsidiary of Tata Sons Ltd. The company is into the R&D and business of High Performance Computing (HPC) services and solutions.
Center For Development In Advanced Computing (CDAC) http://www.cdac.in/
Focused on advanced computing related research. Renowned for developing India’s first supercomputer ‘Param’.
Systems Research Institute (SRI) http://www.sripune.org/
Indian Institute of Science Education and Research IISER http://www.iiserpune.ac.in/
Research and post-graduate academics in Sciences
Indian Meteorological Department http://www.imd.gov.in/
Weather forecasting and analysis
Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology IITM http://www.tropmet.res.in/
Weather forecasting and analysis
Central Water & Power Research CWPRS http://cwprs.gov.in/
Agharkar Research Institute http://www.aripune.org/
Bio-sciences, agriculture research
BAIF Development Research Foundation http://www.baif.org.in/aspx_pages/index.asp
Research in rural sustainable development – agriculture, animal sciences and bio-energy.
Vasantdada Sugar Institute http://www.vsisugar.com
Sugarcane and sugar research and process development
Agriculture College http://mpkv.mah.nic.in/PUNECOL.HTM
One of the first Agricultural Research Institutions, established over 100 years ago. Research in various types of crops, cultivation, seeds, etc.
National Center For Research In Grapes http://nrcgrapes.nic.in/
Institute of Bio-Informatics & Bio-Technology (IBB) http://www.unipune.ac.in/snc/institute_of_bioinformatics_and_biotechnology/default.htm
Research in advanced bio-informatics and bio-technology.
BJ Medical College http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B._J._Medical_College,_Pune Academics & Research in the field of Medicine.
Academics and research in medicine.
National Institute of Virology (NIV) http://www.niv.co.in/
Research in virology. WHO Collaborating Center for arboviruses reference and hemorrhagic fever reference and research. National Monitoring Center for Influenza, Japanese encephalitis, Rota , Measles and Hepatitis.
National AIDS Research Center http://www.nari-icmr.res.in/
Various aspects of research on HIV and AIDS through infra-structural development, capacity building & research programs.
National Center for Cell Science http://www.nccs.res.in/
National Center For Research In Onion & Garlic http://nrcog.mah.nic.in/
Arts, Humanities, Management & Law
University of Pune www.unipune.ac.in
Deccan College http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deccan_College_(Pune)
Film & Television Institute Of India (FTII) www.ftiindia.com
National Film Archives http://nfaipune.nic.in/
ILS Law College www.ilslaw.edu One of the top Law Colleges in India
Gokhale Institute http://www.gipe.ernet.in/
Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute http://www.bori.ac.in/
Bharat Itihaas Sanshodhak Mandal http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bharat_Itihas_Sanshodhak_Mandal
Max Mueller Bhuvan http://www.goethe.de/ins/in/poo/enindex.htm
National Institute of Banking Management http://www.nibmindia.org/
Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration (YASHADA) http://www.yashada.org/
National Insurance Academy http://www.niapune.com/
International center of excellence in insurance training, education and research
DRDO (ARDE, ERDL, HEMR, others) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defence_Research_and_Development_Organisation
Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC) http://afmc.nic.in
National Defense Academy (NDA) http://www.nda.nic.in/
Defense Institute Of Armament Technology (Previously: Institute of Armament Technology )http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defence_Institute_of_Advanced_Technology
College of Military Engineering (CME) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/College_of_Military_Engineering,_Pune,_India
I have always been interested in learning more about the ingredients in the various common medicines. During school days, chemistry was one of my favorite subjects and may be it is this reason; or it could simply be my general interest in any ‘trivia’! To add to this, I have had the misfortune of having a variety of minor (and a few major) illnesses, resulting in me being at the receiving end of various pills. Over the years, I have made an attempt to understand some of these common medicines, their ingredients, actions, and other properties. In this series of articles, I will make an attempt to provide some basic information of the categorization of common prescription drugs, as well as provide some information about their ingredients and their effects. I will start off with my discussion on why many people today don’t have a basic understanding of this area, and why I feel this is very important. Based on the feedback, I will publish follow-up detailed articles on individual medicine categories.
At the outset, I would like to put out a few clear disclaimers and ground-rules. 1) I am neither a doctor, nor a pharmacist. Hence please consider this article as ‘general information’ only. Please do not use this information to decide on any self-medication/self-treatment strategy. Always consult your doctor prior to taking any medications or undergoing any treatment. 2) While I have researched the various terms and medicines in this article, there might be some inadvertent mistakes or omissions. Please provide me feedback and corrections (especially, if you are a Doctor!). Like some of my previous blog articles, this one too is targeted towards readers in both India and USA; hence I will make some distinctions where necessary. At some places, I will try to provide mappings between American OTC (over-the-counter) medicines and basic medicines in India. This is of particular interest to people like me, who have moved back to India after spending many years in the US.
How many people make an attempt to review, understand, and re-check their tax returns, prepared by their tax-accountants? How many pay attention to their financial planning and investing, in spite of having a good financial advisor? How many get involved in the detailed designing of their homes, after hiring top architects & designers? According to my knowledge, a good percentage of people do spend time on these activities. Yet when it comes to medications, these same highly-educated and well-to-do people can be completely ignorant. A common excuse one would hear is, ‘I trust my Doctor! Why do I need to know this?’ Another one, ‘This is not my area – I am too busy to spend time on this.’ Or one more, ‘If I start thinking about this, I will have too many questions, worries and concerns – potentially driving me towards a hypochondriac behavior! It’s best I stay away from it!’ There are quite a few other similar questions…let me make an attempt to put forth my views on these.
An interesting saying goes this way, “In God I trust; everyone else bring me data!’ Or the famous Ronald Reagan quote, “Trust but Verify”. Clearly, people think it is important to understand and verify the outputs of their financial and tax experts. Same holds true when they work with other specialists. Yet, when it comes to their own personal health, why this sudden blind trust? I have nothing against the doctors; they are doing their noble jobs in the most professional way. The onus is on the patients to have some understanding of what is being prescribed to them; and what course of treatment they are on. Simply saying I don’t understand this, is not the right answer. A top-notch design engineer will go out of his way to understand the minute details around tax codes on his returns, and still be completely clueless about basics of common cold medications. An experienced computer professional will learn the subtle nuances of home building/architecture when building his new house, while not knowing anything about the prescription antacid medicines he has been taking for months. These successful professionals, one would presume, are ‘too busy’ to learn anything about their medications. I guess these are not as important to them as their financial or residential priorities.
In today’s world of constant stress, many people don’t want the added worry about their health & medicines all the time. They would rather have their Doctor worry about it. This third concern about ‘potential hypochondria’ is partially valid. Yet, there is a thin line between complete ignorance on one side, verses full blown hypochondria on the other. Some of my Doctor friends suggest that patients with partial knowledge (especially those that have ‘learnt’ things on the internet) cause more harm to themselves than patients who don’t know anything, and completely trust the Doctors. This may be partially true to some extent. Partial knowledge is always a bad thing. Not only could it cause hypochondria in some patients, it also leads them to often ask irrelevant questions to the Doctors (who, especially in India are highly pressed for time). However the solution for this cannot be to stop learning about the basics. ‘Partial Knowledge’ in any discipline is a bad thing – yet the solution to this cannot be to stop learning! There is this phenomenon in India to blame many things on the ‘internet’ (this is especially prevalent amongst the people of older generations who haven’t been fully exposed to it…). Blaming the ‘internet’ for partial knowledge is like blaming newspapers, or books! What’s the point in blaming the medium? We, the human race haven’t progressed by stopping the learning process. I do agree that the medium needs to be utilized properly.
I think it is imperative that patients understand some basics about the common medications. Moreover, in my view they also need to understand some fundamentals that they should have learnt in their high-school biology class. As medical sciences advance year-over-year, isn’t it the responsibility of the common man to at least be aware of some basics, when interacting with the Doctor? If nothing else, it can speed up the efficiency of the whole diagnosis process.
In this series of articles, I will discuss some of the common medications that most people end up taking at some point or the other. For simplicity sake, I will divide these common medicines into the following categories (this is my no means an exhaustive and complete list. Feedback/additions most welcome).
Basic Pain-killers (Opiates based pain-killers not covered here…)
Anti-Inflammatory – NSAIDs ( and COX2 Inhibitors)
Antibiotics (1st gen – 4th gen)
Common Cold & Cough Medications
Antacids & Other Digestive System Related Medicines
Vitamins & Supplements
Other External-Use Medications
Others (This is a place-holder for other important common meds that are not categorized in the above categories)
In subsequent articles, I will discuss each of these categories in more details. For now, simply classifying common medicines into these categories can be the first step towards their understanding. Note that many of these basic medications are available in the US as ‘OTC’ drugs (Over the Counter – available without any Doctor prescription). In India, while rules are in place to ensure what drugs are sold through prescription only, often times this ends up being implemented at the discretion of the pharmacist.
I understand it can be overwhelming to deal with the myriads of medicine names that are available in pharmacies and drug stores. One problem here is the competition in the drug industry. Most common medicines are out of patent and can be produced virtually by any drug company. Hence multiple versions (brand names) of the exact same medicine are often created. This brand proliferation leads to more confusion. Here’s a simple US example. ‘Motrin’ and ‘Advil’ have the exact same active ingredient – ‘Ibuprofen’. Yet I have seen people who stick with one of these brands, like a true brand loyalist! By the same token, in India – many cold medicines, marketed under variety of different brand names have often times the same list of active ingredients. Same is true regarding various prescription antibiotics. In US, all prescription medications come with a fairly detailed information sheet, from the pharmacist. However, in India no such additional information is available, making the understanding that much more difficult.
How do we start this learning? As I said earlier, the first step is to just understand the categorization. Simple classification is often times the first step in structured learning in most disciplines of knowledge. Secondly, be observant! Next time you look at a medicine bottle; don’t spend time looking at the brand-name. These change all the time. Instead, please look at the ‘active ingredients’. Active ingredients are key chemical compounds in the medicine. These provide the necessary therapeutic properties of the medicine. The ‘inactive ingredients’ serve other purposes such as providing bulk, etc. This will be a good step towards understanding these medicines. Initially don’t worry if you don’t understand these complex chemical names! For now, just try to find the common names across different medicines that you might be taking. Soon you will start noticing the commonalities. You might realize that most cold medicines have an active ingredient of ‘Paracetamol’. This active ingredient is also referred by its other name ‘Acetaminophen’. This is probably one of the most common ingredients found in a variety of common cold medications, fever medications, and pain-killers.
Well, this is already turning out to be a long introduction article…I think I should stop here, and continue further discussions on these categories in the next article! Once again, comments, feedback and suggestions are most welcome.