Daily Archives: March 29, 2010

A Diversion to the Present: 1. Cancer in Popular Media 2. Amphibian Morphogenesis

I am at the airport on my way to the Las Vegas Gift Show for work. Though pre loaded with things to read, I survey the new stand for something better, Science Magazine. I flip though the pages. A smear of green sugar icing topped with little purple grapes pops off a two page spread.  It has a strange sci-fi beauty. The caption reads “Invasion of the Bleb.”

Lung Cancer Cell by Anne Weston

It is an electron microscopy image taken by master photographer, Anne Weston, EM Unit, Cancer Research UK. This little landscape is a lung cancer cell. Anne has dyed the cell to better differentiate the little balls or as they are officially called, “blebs” from the cell surface.  The blebs are bubbles that form when a cell divides or undergoes stress. I guess one could classify uncontrolled cell division as stress. Scientists use images like this one to examine cancer’s disruption of normal cell function. pg 8 Science, March/April 2010.

I try to contact Anne Weston when I get home to see if I can use the image here in the blog. The first Anne Weston I see on Facebook has the American Cancer Society listed as a favorite organization. I think that I have found the photographer and send her an email. Instead, I have coincidentally come across the art director for the American Cancer Society publication, Triumph! By researching more electron microscopy sites, I find the photographer, Anne Weston and she kindly agrees to let me publish her image. If you would like to see more fantastic images of hers and other scientists cum artists, please visit Visuals Unlimited at http://www.visualsunlimited.com/c/visualsunlimited and the Wellcome Image Library at http://medphoto.wellcome.ac.uk/

Once in Vegas, I meet up with Prima Entrepreneur Margaret Majua, for whom I do design work. We are looking for ideas and products for her stores.  The gift show sprawls in typical Vegas extravagance across three conventions centers. Glittery bling, hippo netsuke, walky talky dinosaurs, military fashion wear, Prada purses, kitsch of all kinds adorn the aisles. We buy the remote controlled dinosaurs because anything that moves, sells. We also look for sayings magnets and I see this one:

Stupidity Causes Cancer

I keep staring at it, trying to figure out the point of view of its creator, and finally decide that it is one of those numbing conundrums, like “This sentence is false.”

We walk up and down the aisles until my eyes and feet ache equally. Suddenly I am stunned:

My African Cousins

The Booth is called Wild Creations. 4” x 4” x 6” aquariums line the shelves. In each are two of my cousins, African Dwarf Frogs, about 1.5” long, hind legs kicking furiously, front feet scraping the sides of their plexiglass prison. A young man hands out fliers touting these so called “EcoAquariums™ as having been nominated “Toy of the Year” by the Toy Industry Association, Inc..  The brochure quotes Julie J. Charlotte, NC, “The best product I’ve ever used in my classroom to teach kids about ecosystems.” Ecosystem??? The choices for the aquarium are either 4” x 4” x 4” or 4” x 4” x 6” with decorative gravel or rock, living bamboo, and Living Gravel™.  The brochure goes on, “There is nothing like our EcoAquarium™. Change the water twice a year . . . feed the frogs twice a week. All of the living elements inside the EcoAquarium contribute to the needs of each other.  The frogs and snail in the aquarium consume oxygen and produce carbon dioxide.  Naturally occurring bacteria in the Living Gravel convert ammonia from animal waste and left over food into nitrates.  These by-products provide food and nutrients for the living plants and algae, which in turn produce oxygen through photosynthesis.  Through this cycle a balanced ecosystem is created.”

Here is what I found out about African Dwarf Frogs:

“These semi-scavengers should be fed every alternate day . . . The African dwarf frogs need to be kept in a large tank of 10-gallon or more .  .  .  the African dwarf frog is a rather timid and shy amphibian . . . it is  essential to provide these amphibian lots of hiding places.” http://www.aquaticcommunity.com/frogs-turtles/africandwarffrog.php

These frogs are together in about 3 cups of water. they have no place to hide and they look miserable.

Close up of African Dwarf Frogs

“These are inhumane and I do not approve of them,” I say to the salesman, as though I am Oprah and my opinion will determine his success or failure. “Okay’” he says, and smiles knowing he has “one of the highest grossing products per sq. ft. in stores today” (also in their brochure).

We have an extra day in Las Vegas and tour the Valley of Fire, a flaming sandstone expanse that bursts up out of the Nevada desert.

Valley of Fire

Thanks to the movement of tectonic plates, the grey limestone mountains surrounding the valley will eventually bury it. There are Anasazi petroglyphs scratched onto some of the wall faces. This one shows my species:


In addition to petroglyphs, the guide points out creosote bush.

Creosote Bush

“Cup your hands over some leaves, smell them, then exhale and smell again.” We do this. At first the leaves have no odor, but after we exhale, they open their cells to suck in the moisture from our breath, and emit a subtly pungent odor. A little miracle. “The creosote bush has nothing to do with creosote, except for its odor but does have medicinal uses and is being studied for uses in cancer treatment.” This sounds like something I should verify and discover that researchers have performed experiments with an acid extracted from the creosote bush “that corroborate(s) its chemopreventive potential against skin cancer.”
1Department of Medical Elementology and Toxicology, Hamdard University, New Delhi 110062, India, 2Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425, USA and 3Department of Neurophysiology, Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology, Brenneckestrasse 6, Magdeburg D-39118, Germany

I also read this: “The creosote plant was a virtual pharmacy for Native Americans and the steam from the leaves was inhaled to relieve congestion. It was also used in the form of a medicinal tea to cure such ailments as flu, stomach cramps, cancer, coughs, colds, and others.” Phil Persson, a resident of Phoenix http://phoenix.about.com/cs/desert/a/creosote.htm

There are surprises for me when I return to California. It has rained every day while I have been gone. When I go out, I notice some long black dotted strands of slime in the rain puddles. At first I think they are some awful horse worm.


Remember my distant cousin, the Western Toad?

 Western Toad

It turns out these are her eggs (or her sister’s):

Toad Eggs

There are more in a second puddle, and in a third, hatched tadpoles. I start tracking the progression.

Hatchlings on their egg tube:

Hatchlings on the Egg Tube

Close up of hatchlings looking embryonic:

Embryonic Hatchlings

Within 2-3 days, they are swimmers with fins. BTW, that other little green thing in the human hand is also a creature!

2-3 days old with fins!

Small guys compared to the older tadpoles I find in the second puddle. Note that the fins are gone:

2 day old hatchlings & tadpole, compare

Tadpole Pin-up

Arty Tadpole

I read on a creature info site (http://www.fishpondinfo.com, developed by Robyn Rhudy) that zero to ten out of all the hundreds of eggs a toad lays will mature to adult hood – Zero because the toad may have chosen an inopportune place to lay – very likely in California where rain is sparse and puddles have an unpredictable duration. There are three puddles on my property. All start to dry up before a single tadpole matures. The shallowest dries up a few days after the rain. I rescue some of its hatchlings, scoop them into a plastic container with mud, algae and rocks, but leave most to die. I rescue every single one of the larger tadpoles in the second puddle – put them in a kiddie swimming pool. Out of the third puddle, I place the unhatched egg strands in a separate container so I can track them from tadpole to toadom. The third puddle is the largest. I rescue many of the swimmers, even buy a second kiddie pool; but most die in the drying mud.

I notice that the tadpoles from a single puddle and presumably the same egg strand develop at different rates – possibly as much as this:

Different Growth Rates

These are not from my control group so I cannot be sure they came from the same strand. I will survey my control group and compare them as they grow.

I am not good at survival of the fittest. The fact that I have made it into my late 50’s is by the grace of niche markets, compassionate friends and family, and some lucky stumbling. The TV Show “The Weakest Link” seemed mean-spirited to me. I hate Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.” It is as Darwinian as the baboon downing the baby Gazelle, the upstart cabochin monkey killing its pack leader. The fact that my cancer was not papillary serous, that I came out of the surgery and returned to relative robustness, that I earn a living and can draw using computer tools – all of this seems to be the result of luck, not willfulness. When I tell a friend, a doctor whom I haven’t seen for 20 years, that I survived cancer, he says, “Nu, so you’ll die of something else!”

My need to save all the tadpoles is a fool’s errand – by averting one calamity I am postponing or causing another. I scoop up one bunch of tadpoles and not another. Death is delayed longer for the scooped up bunch. Eventually they will succumb to cannibalism, predatory attack, lack of food or water, will get run over by a truck, or die of old age (unlikely). My surgeon, the oncology team at Kaiser, scooped me up.

I find an ant who has met some accident. It is curled into a ball and cannot unfurl its body, though it waves its legs with great intention. The humane thing to do is smash it, put it out of its misery. But I wait in cowardice long enough for a puff of wind to carry it away, leave it to its painful fate.

Cancer  quotidienne is my new nomenclature for serendipitous mentions of cancer in the media.  In a March 2010 issue of the New Yorker: Joseph Papp (Joseph Papirofsky), died of prostate cancer October 31, 1991. What he did during his lifetime – turned the old Astor Library into one of the most prestigious theater venues in New York – The Public Theater, “responsible for among others, the original productions of “Hair,” “A Chorus Line,” “The Normal Heart,” and “That Championship Season.”

The next FrogBlog entry will be back on track with the cancer story continued. Sometimes I cannot help myself by yielding to distraction – and my fascination with worlds under the radar.

Tadpole close-up; nostrils, eyes, pupils and sparkly irises:

Eyes, Nostril, Pupils