Monthly Archives: December 2012

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Using nanotechnology he and other scientists hope to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels

When he was in secondary school, Alex Orlov and his family had to take an unusual device with them to shop. While his parents checked how ripe and fresh the fruits and vegetables were, they also put a Geiger counter near each item.

Orlov grew up in the Ukraine — only 60 miles from the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion. In the first few weeks after the explosion, food and milk at farmer’s markets in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, wasn’t screened for radiation.

“If a potato had too much radiation, we didn’t want to buy it,” he said. Orlov’s mother, who was a doctor, went into the exclusion zone after the explosion to treat firefighters and police officers who, he remembered, sometimes fought radioactive flames with a hose and water.

Greatly affected by the dramatic events that caused his family to evacuate their home in Kiev for six months, Orlov went on to become a scientist, where he combines his interests in energy and the environment.

An assistant professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Stony Brook, he is working on a range of projects, including some that may one day reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and whose byproducts may include water, instead of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

Orlov recently teamed up with colleagues from SBU, including Peichuan Shen and Shen Zhao from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Dong Su from the Center for Functional Nanomaterials and computational scientist Yan Li from Brookhaven National Laboratories, on research with incredibly small amounts of gold.

As it turns out, the properties of the precious metal change when there are only a dozen or so atoms. For starters, instead of being shiny and yellow, the way it is when it adorns an ear or flashes from a finger, it can appear red, blue or other colors on that small scale. More importantly, though, the gold atoms are much more reactive. When exposed to light, they can help break apart water, which has two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen, into its different elements.

The gold is 35 times more effective than ordinary materials, such as the naturally occurring mineral cadmium sulfide, at separating water.

Hydrogen, the lightest element in the periodic table, can be a clean-burning fuel, producing water as a final combustion product.

The results were “very unexpected,” he said. “People used nanotechnology before and they might get a single digit improvement.”

Orlov said there is considerable work ahead before this process has practical application, although he does keep that goal in mind when he approaches his research.

He is going in “about a dozen different directions” as he explores other possible materials that might generate fuel, he said.

The commercial world has already embraced nanotechnology in several other arenas and has figured out how to make these miniature reactions scalable.

Orlov has advised one company, called PURETi, that produces a coating for buildings that will make them self-cleaning and air purifying. Nanotechnology is also used in industries ranging from cosmetics to health care to car manufacturing.

Nanotechnology has had “an immediate impact in everyday products.”

While gold may prove prohibitively expensive to generate hydrogen fuel, these experiments may provide a footprint to find other materials that could be just as effective.

“The devil is in the details,” Orlov suggests.

Orlov, who earned a Ph.D. and one of his three master’s degrees at the University of Cambridge, has coupled his interest in energy and the environment to serve as a scientific advisor to world leaders. Prior to his taking office as prime minister in the United Kingdom in 2010, David Cameron asked Orlov to serve as policy advisor for science, engineering and technology policy development. Nowadays, he travels to the UK every three months, where he advises on hazardous substances and the environmental impact of nanotechnology.

A resident of Smithtown, Orlov has been at Stony Brook for about five years and has been inspired by the interdisciplinary opportunities at the university and the affiliations with nearby institutions.

“Researchers from the top 10 institutions in the country are coming to Stony Brook” in part because of the connection to BNL, he said. “We couldn’t wish for better facilities.”

As for his research, Orlov recognizes — after his experiences in the Ukraine — that there is an ongoing need to balance the energy benefit of any new technology with its potential environmental
impact.

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Sandy Feinberg has been at the library since 1971. File photo
Sandy Feinberg has been at the library since 1971. File photo

Visitors to the Middle Country Public Library may find it hard to imagine what the library would look like today if Sandra Feinberg had left her job as a children’s librarian to become an accountant decades ago.

Today, the library has one of the largest memberships on Long Island and is unique in its partnerships within the community and the programs it offers residents. Earlier this week, Feinberg, known to most as Sandy, and responsible for much of the library’s growth since she became director in 1991, announced her retirement.

“I always said I was fortunate to take a job in Middle Country because it’s the type of community that appreciates its library,” Feinberg said.

Feinberg began working at the MCPL in 1971 as a children’s librarian and went on to develop and found the Family Place Libraries initiative, an early childhood and family support program. In September, the library was awarded an Institute of Museum and Library Services National Leadership Grant of $450,000 to support the initiative, which is now offered in more than 300 libraries in 24 states across the country.

During an October interview, Feinberg said winning the award was an honor, as only a small number of public libraries receive grants like it.

“It’s really an acclamation of my work and our work here,” she said.

Feinberg said she would continue to work part time with Family Place Libraries and will volunteer for various functions after she leaves her position in April 2013.

“It’s a nice way for me to stay mentally attached to the library and the work we’ve done here,” Feinberg said.

In addition to the Family Place Libraries programs, Feinberg also established the 2-1-1 Long Island database, a free online health, human services and education directory, the Nature Explorium, the first outdoor learning area for children at the library, and the library’s Miller Business Resource Center, a resource center for businesses, not-for-profit organizations and independent entrepreneurs. For the past 12 years, the library has also held an annual Women’s Expo, a showcase of Long Island women artists, designers, importers and distributors, with the showcase’s proceeds going to help the Miller Business Resource Center.

Feinberg said it is simply time to leave her position and is looking forward to seeing her staff have the chance to lead. Sophia Serlis-McPhillips, the library’s assistant
director, will succeed Feinberg.

Serlis-McPhillips began her career as an adult services librarian and went on to work with the Miller Business Resource Center. She said Feinberg has always worked to make the library better and it has been wonderful to work with an “innovative leader” like Feinberg.

“I am really just going to work hard to continue and foster all that is in place here at Middle County,” Serlis-McPhillips said.

In addition to her work with the MCPL, Feinberg is also a founding member and former president of the Greater Middle Country Chamber of Commerce and was one of the first women to receive the Governor’s Award for Women of Distinction. In 2007, she received the Public Library Association’s Charlie Robinson Award and in 2008 she was inducted into the Suffolk County Women’s Hall of Fame.

Feinberg said she is looking forward to spending time with her husband, Richard, who has been retired for a couple of years, and with her family who live in seven different states.

She said she has always identified with the Middle Country community and remembers how supportive they have been since her first day as a children’s librarian.

“I don’t think I could have been in a better community,” she said.

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Distant clouds, light and shadows, black energy are all part of his research

Anze Slosar has his head in the clouds. No, not the ones that drop rain or that provide a welcome respite from the sun in July, but the ones at the edge of the universe, as many as 11 billion light years away.

An assistant professor at Brookhaven National Lab, Slosar is a cosmologist who looks at the way hydrogen clouds absorb light and change its color as it makes the long journey to Earth.

The way light from quasars — bright regions that can be a trillion times brighter than the sun — passes through hydrogen gas clouds helps paint a picture of the expanding universe.Slosar will be examining light from thousands of points of light to create a three dimensional map. He is currently analyzing 60,000 quasars and has another 100,000 in hand.

“I sometimes fool myself into thinking I’m like Christopher Columbus, discovering new structure in the world,” he offered.

He looks at the graphs that show statistical properties of those clouds. Slosar’s promising work in creating maps with the Lyman Alpha Forest — as this technique of using the shadows through hydrogen gas to recreate maps of the early universe is known — has earned him distinctions.

Last year, his proposal was one of only 65 chosen for funding from 1,150 submitted by researchers around the country. The funding will support five years of research.
He likens his efforts to put together a picture for a Chinese puppet show, where he sees traces of objects through the clouds.

He is participating in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which operates one of the world’s largest digital cameras, based in Apache Point, N.M. Slosar said he doesn’t look through the lens of the telescope at the images. Rather, he collects the digital data and uses computer programs to analyze, interpret and make sense of the nature of the universe.

The universe had a tremendous explosion of energy — the Big Bang — billions of years ago. After the Big Bang, the pieces of the universe would be expected to stop moving away from each other, and might even turn over and begin to collapse, he explained. Instead, they are expanding at an accelerated rate.

Physicists believe so-called dark energy is responsible.

Explaining dark energy using familiar objects, Slosar suggests “imagine throwing a stone in the air. You would expect it to slow down completely and start returning. You could also expect it to never return if you threw it so energetically that it would leave the Earth and travel in empty space. However, you wouldn’t expect it to suddenly start to speed up and this is what is happening with dark energy.”

“It’s undeniably there,” Slosar said. “You can’t touch it, but we can measure its effects on the expansion of the universe.”

While he feeds his scientific interests by looking back in time at a map of the universe, he said the pursuit itself includes challenges and frustrations.

More often than he’d like, he comes to his office and sits “at my computer and I swear, because the program doesn’t work the way it should,” he laughed.

Slosar recognizes the pursuit of basic science itself doesn’t improve the productivity of a crop, lower the cost of gasoline or create a sturdier structure that won’t collapse in a strong wind. It can and does provide other benefits, including feeding the minds of those curious enough to ask questions about the universe.

“There are always nice side effects from science,” he said. “The Internet came from fundamental research. The side effect of developing rocket science is going to the moon. Whenever you try to do something hard, you inevitably learn new things.”

A permanent resident of the United States, Slosar lives in Queens with his wife Maja Bovcon, who was his high school sweetheart when they grew up in Slovenia. Bovcon got her Ph.D. in political science from Oxford, while Slosar earned his doctorate from Cambridge “as if we were both British aristocrats, but instead we are from working-class families from Slovenia.”

Bovcon is at the end of a three-month-long study in Senegal.

Slosar explained that his work is “trying to make sense of how the universe behaves as a physical system. What is it made of, how did it begin and how will it end up?”

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Treatments including CPAP and diet can reduce the risk of many complications

Most of us have experienced a difficult night’s sleep. However, those with obstructive sleep apnea may experience a lack of restful sleep much more frequently. OSA is an abnormal pause in breathing, while sleeping, that occurs at least five times an hour There are a surprising number of people in the United States who have this disorder. The prevalence may be as high as 20 percent of the population, and 26 percent are at high risk for the disorder (WMJ. 2009;108(5):246).There are three levels of OSA: mild, moderate and severe.

The risk factors for OSA are numerous and include chronic nasal congestion, large neck circumference, being overweight or obese, alcohol use, smoking and a family history. Not surprisingly, about two-thirds of OSA patients are overweight or obese. Smoking increases risk threefold, while nasal congestion increases risk twofold (JAMA. 2004;291(16):2013). Fortunately, as you can see from this list, many of the risk factors are modifiable.

The symptoms of OSA are significant: daytime fatigue, loud snoring, breathing cessation observed by another, impaired concentration and morning headaches. These symptoms, while serious, are not the worst problems. OSA is also associated with a list of serious complications, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and cancer.

There are several treatments for OSA. Among them are continuous positive airway pressure — known as CPAP — devices; lifestyle modifications, including diet, exercise, smoking cessation and reduced alcohol intake; oral appliances; and some medications.

Cardiovascular disease

In a recent observational study, the risk of cardiovascular mortality increased in a linear fashion to the severity of OSA (Ann Intern Med. 2012 Jan 17;156(2):115-22). In other words, in those with mild-to-moderate untreated sleep apnea, there was a 60 percent increased risk of death, and in the severe group, this risk jumped considerably to 250 percent. However, the good news is that treating patients with CPAP considerably decreased their risk by 81 percent for mild-to-moderate patients and 45 percent for severe OSA patients. This study involved 1,116 women over a duration of six years.

Not to leave out men, another observational study showed similar risks of cardiovascular disease with sleep apnea and benefits of CPAP treatment (Lancet. 2005 Mar 19-25;365(9464):1046-53).There were more than 1,500 men in this study with a follow up of 10 years. The authors concluded that severe sleep apnea increases the risk of nonfatal and fatal cardiovascular events, and CPAP was effective in stemming these occurrences.

In a third study, this time involving the elderly, OSA increased the risk of cardiovascular death in mild-to-moderate patients and in those with severe OSA, 38 percent and 125 percent respectively (Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2012;186(9):909-16). But, just like in the previous studies, CPAP decreased the risk in both groups significantly. In the elderly, an increased risk of falls, cognitive decline and difficult-to-control high blood pressure may be signs of OSA.

Though all three studies were observational, it seems that OSA affects both genders and all ages when it comes to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death, and CPAP may be effective in reducing these risks.

Cancer association

In sleep apnea patients under 65 years old, a recent study showed an increased risk of cancer (Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2012 Nov. 15). The authors believe that intermittent low levels of oxygen, which are caused by the many frequent short bouts of breathing cessation during sleep, may be responsible for the development of tumors and their subsequent growth. The greater the percentage of time patients spend in hypoxia (low oxygen) at night, the greater the risk of cancer. So, for those patients with more than 12 percent low-oxygen levels at night, there is a twofold increased risk of cancer development, compared to those with less than 1.2 percent low-oxygen levels.

Sexual function

It appears that erectile dysfunction may also be associated with OSA. CPAP may decrease the incidence of ED in these men. This was demonstrated in a small study involving 92 men with ED (APSS annual meeting: abstract No. 0574). The surprising aspect of this study was that, at baseline, the participants were overweight — not obese — on average and were young, at 45 years old. In those with mild OSA, the CPAP had a beneficial effect in over half of the men. For those with moderate and severe OSA, the effect was still significant, though not as robust, at 29 percent and 27 percent respectively.

Dietary effect

Although CPAP can be quite effective, as shown in some of the studies above, it may not be well tolerated by everyone. In some of my patients, their goal is to discontinue their CPAP. Diet may be an alternative to CPAP, or may be used in combination with CPAP.

In a small study, a low-energy diet showed positive results in potentially treating OSA. It makes sense, since weight loss is important. But even more impressively, almost 50 percent of those who followed this type of diet were able to discontinue CPAP (BMJ. 2011;342:d3017).The results endured for at least one year. Patients studied were those who suffered from moderate-to-severe levels of sleep apnea. Low-energy diet implies a low-calorie approach. A diet that is a plant based and nutrient rich would fall into this category. Recently, one of my patients who suffered from innumerable problems was able to discontinue his CPAP machine after following this type of diet.

The bottom line is that if you think you or someone else is suffering from sleep apnea, it is very important to go to a sleep lab to be evaluated, and then go to your doctor for a follow-up. Don’t suffer from sleep apnea and, more importantly, don’t let obstructive sleep apnea cause severe complications, possibly robbing you of more than sleep. There are effective treatments for this disorder, including diet and/or CPAP.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, go to the website www.medicalcompassmd.com and/or consult your personal physician.

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Not only treatment, but early diagnosis is a challenge in dealing with this tumor

It’s an all-too-familiar pattern. Someone he’s never met reaches out to David Tuveson for his opinion. After exchanging emails or talking on the phone, Tuveson gets an update from a friend or family member: they buried the person who sought his help. He or she died from pancreatic cancer.

“It’s gut-wrenching,” he declared.

A scientist and doctor at Cold Spring Harbor Lab, Tuveson is leading a team of researchers to tackle pancreatic cancer, the most lethal form of cancer.

A world-renowned expert in pancreatic cancer, Tuveson recently opened the Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Research Laboratory, where he will direct research on ways to improve medical knowledge of a cancer that kills 250,000 people worldwide each year, including 37,000 Americans.

While that number is smaller than lung cancer, it also carries a more daunting prognosis. Using current treatments, only 6 percent of people with pancreatic cancer survive five years after their diagnosis.

The pancreas is an organ below the stomach that produces hormones including insulin and makes digestive enzymes.

Pancreatic cancer presents several challenges. For starters, it’s difficult to diagnose. The symptoms, which can include abdominal pain, diarrhea, jaundice or weight loss, often appear at a point when the cancer has already progressed.

Scientists at the lab are looking for ways to spot the presence of pancreatic cancer early through blood or urine samples, in much the same way doctors check for cholesterol levels, blood sugar and blood pressure to look for signs of heart diseases.
Pancreatic tumors themselves are also difficult to penetrate.

“The tumor is hard, like a rock,” explained Tuveson. “Other tumors are soft, like a grape.”
Pancreatic tumors have a type of cement between the cancer cells called stroma. That makes it difficult for vessels to pump blood. Even the most effective medicine would need some way to loosen the stroma to deliver targeted tumor toxins. Tuveson and others have shown that drug delivery is limited in pancreatic cancer.

Indeed, one recent study tested the hypothesis that drugs aren’t getting into the tumor.
This was “the first clinical evidence” in an early-phase trial that drugs aren’t reaching their targets, Tuveson offered. The study should be completed within a year. “This is giving us hope that the science we’re doing is correct. Now, there are a variety of ways to increase the delivery of our therapy.”

Tuveson and his colleagues are looking for ways to develop new drugs.

“We are taking novel platforms and novel payloads that can bind to and inactivate the root causes of cancer,” Tuveson explained.

He is inspired by the opportunity to work with people throughout Cold Spring Harbor, including professors Gregory Hannon, who has done innovative work with RNA, the cousin to DNA, and Adrian Krainer, who has worked with antisense therapies.

Asked to compare the task of diagnosing and treating pancreatic cancer to climbing a mountain, Tuveson suggested that researchers don’t know how far or high they have to climb to understand and conquer this cancer.

“We are scaling this mountain, but no one has ever climbed it,” he suggested.

Tuveson recognizes it’s likely to be a steep ascent.

“Some would say what we’re attempting is not possible,” he said. Many have tried and failed to solve pancreatic cancer, he explained. Tuveson, however, said he ignores the naysayers and feels fortunate for the support of Cold Spring Harbor and the Lustgarten Foundation.

He is inspired by the resources, the energy, and the talent in a lab that includes postdoctoral students, Ph.D.s, and technical staff. If these approaches are effective, they might help in treating other forms of cancer.

Tuveson, who lives on the Cold Spring Harbor campus with his wife Michelle, explained that his early training in medicine prepared him for the interactions with patients and their families when they face the daunting challenge of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

“When I was training as a physician in East Baltimore in the late 1980s, a lot of my patients were dying from this new disease no one knew much about, which became known as HIV,” he recalled. “When that happened, I convinced myself I would be an HIV doctor.”

By the time he started his residency in Boston, medicine had come up with treatments for HIV.

“When I went through that very young, I became interested in being a healer,” he said. “I learned how to talk to the families of patients. I became a doctor for the family, equally or more so, than a doctor for the patient.”

As for his pancreatic cancer team, he said he is eager to make progress in understanding and conquering this lethal form of cancer.

“I am the most excited I’ve been in my career,” he explained.

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