2011: Science and technology stories that made healines
December 19, 2011 12:28 p.m.
Peggy Pico, KPBS Science and Technolgoy reporter
Related Story: 2011: Top Science And Technology Stories
CAVANAUGH: Is this KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. 2011 was a big year for invasions in science and technology in San Diego, and beyond. KPBS science and technology reporter, Peggy Pico, joins us with a few of her favorite and most important stories of the year. Hi, Peggy.
PICO: Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you have one story that you're particular he fond of. You call it the Catholic church goes green to tackle global warming. Tell us why you chose this story.
PICO: I really, really like this story. And the reason is because it showcased on the biggest of scales, the Vatican and the world, that science and religion don't have to be exclusive of each other. It seems to be they've gathered scientists from lots of different nations and religious backgrounds, from all around the world to come together in what seem to be the name of information to better all humanity. There's this ethical component, but not necessarily a religious one, bringing scientific information onto the Vatican stage
CAVANAUGH: How does the Vatican actually go green as your title suggests?
PICO: It's not like they're replacing things with bamboo floors. However! What they are doing is back in May, pope benedict issued what everyone considered a bold call to action. He did this by calling on all Catholics of all nations to deal with climate change. And those were his words. He did this after the pontiffical academy of sciences presented years' worth of scientific evidence on global warming.
CAVANAUGH: That is remarkable. The pontifical academy of sciences has a long history. How is it different now than it used to be?
PICO: Well, to my surprise, the academy began around the 16 hundreds. Then it died down for several hundred years, shut down, and nearly burnt down. Then in 1847, it was reestablished, and updated to its current method of scientific gathering in the 1930s. Since then, it has been informing the pope and bishops on a wide range of scientific and various environmental issues as well.
CAVANAUGH: Historically, I can see people listening to this. The Vatican has not had a great reputation for promoting science. What's changed?
PICO: Since Galileo? Yes, back in the day, before the -- know, before Galileo, they will have changed a lot. I think what's really different now is they're gathering the information. They're getting it from scientists that are nondenominational. You don't have to be a Catholic. You don't have to be in Rome. So I think that's what's different. And all of that information isbing delivered to the pope and to the specific academy so that they can filter that out and make an informed decision.
CAVANAUGH: And when was this substantiate back home -- a San Diegan at Scripps is a member of that elite group of scientists in the academy. What is his role?
PICO: Well, it's pretty significant. Doctor ramanna than is an atmospheric researcher. He's not a Catholic. And he was selected for his scientist expertise, and his sort of ethics, providing information more for the information of the greater good the information of public.
CAVANAUGH: What sorts of scientist topics will the Vatican explore next?
PICO: It's surprisingly progressive. They had a list. And they'll tell you what they're looking at. And in 2011, the pope is going to hear about new developments in stem cell research, and its possible applications in medicine, which as you know has been controversial from day one because of the embryonic stem cells. But he's figure to look at all areas of that, hear what has to be said, and make some statements about that, which will actually affect -- I don't know if it'll affect people. But it'll be interesting to people here in San Diego because we have so many stem cell research projects going on here.
CAVANAUGH: From the Vatican to San Diego, San Diego's biotech and life sciences community made headlines with some innovatiff studies this year including research into the causes of diabetes. And that could fundamentally change our understanding of the disease. Tell us about the first ever diabetes movie.
PICO: This was a very rare thing that happened. Scientists were able to prove a theory. And they were able to do something that was very rare for a scientist, much less the average person to be able to see. And that is in real-time, views the process of a disease in a living being, in this case, diabetes, as it's starting. At the very moment somebody is starting to get kibeats.
CAVANAUGH: Why is this individual video consider aid breakthrough?
PICO: Let me start with the researchers at the La Jolla constitute for allergy and immunology. They had an opportunity to change the course of diabetes research. And that's why it's becoming a breakthrough. And I rarely use that word. But basically, they were able to get video and let people see and prove a hypothesis through video
CAVANAUGH: Now, this is a very short video. That's why it's a little bit of a problem calling it a movie. It's on our website. Describe what it looks like
PICO: First, there's a whole series of them, if you put them all together, it's a little bit longer. But it's really just about four seconds where you get to see things happening. If you go onto our website, you're going to see immune cells. And the immune cells are T-cells, and they look like -- they have little purple tales to them. And basically, you see them attacking and devouring these green insulin cells. They're actually Alive inside a pancreas. Now, after hours and hours of taping, they saw the immune cells completely destroy those insulin cells. So like some ant, you drop some food on the floor of your kitchen, one scouter ant comes out, calls back his buddies, the army of ants come out search and destroy it. And that's what they were able to show was happening inside the pancreas with immune cells attacking insulin cell
CAVANAUGH: So is diabetes now considered part of an autoimmune problem?
PICO: Yes, I know there were theories on that before. It is. Now they're looking at it like that's the breakthrough. Like, wow, we're actually able to in part prove this hypothesis
CAVANAUGH: How did they get this video?
PICO: This is interesting. Researcher Mateas vonhara and his team placed a state of the art photon microscope, opened up this mouse who was under anesthesia. So he was Alive, everything was functioning. And they put the microscope directly onto the pancreas, which is hard to research. And they were able to record through the microscope this happening in real-time
CAVANAUGH: From what I understand, doctors have thought that overuse of insulin production in a sense wears out the system, and that's why production of insulin goes down and people become diabetic. Are you saying this shows that insulin production can actually be under attack from immune cells? Is that the nature of the breakthrough of this video?
PICO: Absolutely, yes. And that's what was shocking. And that's why researchers from around the world were commenting on it. Yes. They say, wow, once these insulin cells are devoured, they don't grow back, evidently. So if you have 90% of them destroyed by the time you're diagnosed with diabetes, you're fighting an uphill battle.
CAVANAUGH: This video was taken inside a mouse. Do we know the process is the same in humans?
PICO: We don't yet. It was the first time it was ever done. And usually putting on a microscope on a human being's pancreas under surgery, not so sure about that.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. Another fascinating story from our own biotech sector. Now, you said you would tell us your favorite, and the most important stories you covered this year. Topping the list has to be your own battle with breast cancer. Why did you decide to take this very personal experience and turn it into part of your science and technology coverage?
PICO: I was doing a lot of research on my own, of course, enormous amounts of research. And I'm a talker, so I was talking to a lot of people. And a lot of people were asking me questions because of my background, because of the research. So I just thought it's time to share this. It's time to express my journey on it, along with, as you know, we have had the experts talking about what's going on for everybody else as well.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you have trepidations of I want to keep this to myself? I don't want to share this with the listening and viewing public. Because I may not feel so good some day as I may have bad thick things to say.
PICO: I'm a little bit of a blabber. So the sharing part wasn't too bad. I actually looked forward to it. And it's been approximate empowering which is a neat sideeffect that I didn't anticipate. I was hesitant to commit to it. And folks here were great at letting me do it on my own pace. I really waited to the end of my chemo. I'd want to come in, do some work, and I couldn't get out of bed. And they allowed me to be able to do it on my time
CAVANAUGH: What have you learned about cancer treatment in San Diego from your own experience?
PICO: I learned we have some of the best oncologists and researchers in the world here. We're certainly cutting edge here. I wonder if I was some place else filled have that same experience. UCSD Moors cancer center, my doctor, she is also very involved in research. So you have this enormous amount of research. I would come in with stacks of new research, and they all knew about it. And we're significant enough of bringing on new equipment, like that proton therapy radiation device
CAVANAUGH: Is that one of the newest therapies you were talking about? And we've been talking about new therapies that -- new radiation building they have. And also gene therapy. And things of that nature.
PICO: Yes. What was the question again? Sorry. That would be chemo brain right there.
CAVANAUGH: I really didn't ask a question. What I'm trying to say is what were the new therapies besides the radiation building that you talked about?
PICO: OKAY, yes, you are correct. The gene therapy, huge. Medication induced -- they have been doing that for a while, but basically injecting information into a cancer tumor waysod your kind of tumor. They did a biopsy, and that biopsy took a couple of weeks to examine at several different sites to figure out exactly what type of cancer, how many types cancers, what the genetic components of it, so they could treat me specifically. Therapy for your cancer is very much based on your tumor. Not just oh, it's breast cancer or it's pancreatic cancer. It's your breast cancer, and what kind of genetic elements it has on that. And I found that to be very amazing.
CAVANAUGH: How different is it being part of the story you're covering?
PICO: Love that question. It makes a difference. One of the things that we talked about some things Tharp personal to me, and the controversy surrounding cancer screening. I'm passionate about that, and have a different perspective because of my personal involvement in that. It's a matter of life and death for me. So of course I took things more personally. And my filter was faster. If something was being tested in my that may not prove to be effective in 5 to 10 years, I wasn't interested. I wanted to know what was happening today and right now.
CAVANAUGH: And what kind of reaction have you gotten from people who have been following your cancer series?
PICO: I've had an amazing reaction. Lots of followers, both on twitter and online, and watching the show, and listening to midday, of course. So very positive, lots of people saying that I've inspired them which is great of course. And that they've learned something, which is even better. One of the shocking things that happened to me is I -- you know, I lost all my hair. And I have been asked out by more men with no hair -- are you kidding me? So to me, that would show me that it wasn't really about looks. Perhaps it's confident. I don't know. All I know is I saved a lot of money on not having hair. And yet I was still asked out. So for all those gentlemen who asked me out, thank you. I wasn't feeling up to it on account of the chemo. It's remarkable, the support that people get every day. I'm not talking about the big support I get from American cancer society which is fantastic. But the support from strangers, and the stores saying oh, is your head cold? Can I get you a hat? People in general aren't bothered by the fact you're walking around bald. They're just supportive and want to encourage you.
CAVANAUGH: And you want every dime you spent in those hair salons back now!
PICO: Every bit of it.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much, Peggy, and happy holidays.