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Cate Swannell
Med J Aust 2015; 203 (9): 352. || doi: 10.5694/mja15.n1102
Published online: 2 November 2015

Testing zero-gravity genomics in “vomit comet”

Nature reports that geneticists from Johns Hopkins University have successfully performed genetics experiments onboard NASA’s reduced-gravity aircraft — known as the “vomit comet” — to see whether astronauts will be able to sequence their own DNA during future long-term spaceflights. “The researchers tested two key tools in zero-gravity: one might aid long-term storage of genetic material; another is a small, transportable genetic sequencer”, known as a MinION. They also tried three pipetting methods on their flights — best results came when they used a small plunger inside the pipette, which touches the sample directly, ensuring that no air gets in. “And the pipette’s tip is small enough to avoid ruining the surface tension, which would let fluid escape up the tube.” One of the researchers, Andrew Feinberg said: “I really have to give NASA huge credit in allowing us to do this”, he says. “They’re very curious people. They really want to know.”

Taking off protective clothing spreads germs

A new study in JAMA Internal Medicine shows 46% of carefully removed protective clothing still showed contamination with a fluorescent lotion used to simulate germs or other dangerous matter, The Washington Post reports. “Researchers set up a simulation that involved asking doctors, nurses and other health-care personnel at four hospitals to put on their standard gowns, gloves and masks and smear themselves with [the lotion]. After the participants carefully removed the protective equipment as they usually would the researchers searched their bodies with a black light to see whether any lotion was transferred. Both participants and researchers were surprised to find contamination in a high number — 46% — of the 435 simulations.” The researchers recommended that “educational interventions that include practice with immediate visual feedback on skin and clothing contamination can significantly reduce the risk of contamination”.

Mexico’s soda tax produces drop in sales

Two years after it was passed into law, Mexico’s so-called “soda tax” is showing solid signs of reducing sales of sweetened drinks, reports The New York Times. “Preliminary data from the Mexican government and public health researchers in the United States finds that the tax prompted a substantial increase in prices and a resulting drop in the sales of drinks sweetened with sugar, particularly among the country’s poorest consumers. The long-term effects of the policy remain uncertain, but the tax is being heralded by advocates, who say it could translate [to other countries] … It cost bottlers a peso for every litre of sugar-sweetened drinks, which amounts to about a 10% price increase, a substantial jump. Because it was applied to distributors, any resulting increase would show up on list prices.”

Patient tweets give insights into hospital experiences

A study published in The BMJ collected more than 400 000 public tweets directed at the Twitter handles of nearly 2400 hospitals in the US between 2012 and 2013, FierceHealthcare reports. “They then tagged 34 735 patient experience tweets directed at 1726 hospital-owned Twitter accounts, and broke them down by sentiment (positive, neutral, negative) and then put them into topical categories, such as time, communication and pain.” Lead researcher Jared Hawkins from Boston Children’s Hospital said: “We were able to capture what people were happy or mad about, in an unsolicited way. No-one else is looking at patient experience this way because surveys ask very targeted questions. Unsurprisingly, you get back very targeted, narrow answers.” The data are “suggestive and highlight Twitter’s possible use as a way to supplement … surveys to improve quality.”

  • Cate Swannell


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