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ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge: An Imperfect Place

The devil hides down amongst the cubes*.

You’d have to have not paid your Internet bill over the last couple of months to miss out on knowing about the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge thing.

It started with some professional athletes, not — as myth would have it — an ALS patient. The challenge was to either be filmed dumping a bucket of ice over your head or give money to a charity of your choice. It morphed from there.

And promptly went viral.

Which led to thousands of people filming themselves while having a bucket of ice dumped on their heads while challenging others to do the same. In fact, my dad and I even watched one of those happen poolside at Chabil Mar, a resort in the Central American country of Belize. It was a few weeks ago, before this really hit big so we had no idea what it was about.

Those last four words there. . . That’s what this is about.

So far this post, I’ve written a lot of words about the Ice-Bucket Challenge and mentioned ALS only twice. And never said what ALS really is.

Better known as Lou Gherig’s Disease, named for the New York Yankees baseball player who contracted the disease and thereby showed the bits of the country that liked baseball and were paying attention that the disease existed, ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a progressive, degenerative disease that gradually destroy neurons (nerve cells) in the brain and spinal column. Over time, the disease annihilates voluntary control over the body’s muscles, robbing the person with the disease of the ability to move, to speak, to breathe. For some patients, the end point of the disease is total paralysis of the body. And the worst part is that their mind still is active and aware and trapped in a decayed body incapable of responding to anything.

ALS is, to put it mildly, a horrifying disease. Donating money to help fund research into a cure or a way to slow the progression of the disease is definitely a worthy cause. (Those who want to donate without resorting to dumping ice water on their heads can do so at the ALSA gift page.)

So, given all that, I should be all for the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge, right, dudes?. After all, as of Friday, the challenges have resulted in the ALS Association receiving more than $41 million in donations.

My issue is with all the challengers who do nothing but dump ice on their own heads, laugh, record it and then post it to some social media site, daring others to follow suit. They don’t know what ALS is. They don’t donate to any sort of charitable institution, including the ALS Association, and only do it because everyone else is doing it. 

After all, the challenge is donate to the ALSA OR dump a bucket of ice on their heads.

I talked about this on Facebook and was called out by several of my friends there (actual friends who I actually know) for dumping (no pun intended) on the whole idea. They focused on the positives, on the donations that were raised, which are substantial.

I thought about it and talked it over with Zippy the Travelin’ Boy, who has some similar issues with the challenge. While Zippy the Travelin’ Boy still takes issue with it (mostly, I think, because it’s popular and he likes to be a contrarian) and, to be honest, so do I, it all led to the realization that I was focusing too much on the negative.

I’ll pause now for your shocked intake of breath.

This was brought home to me — literally — when Hyper Lad walked up to me with a hang-dog look, holding a bucket of ice and a video camera.

Before I would participate, he and I had a long talk about what amyotrophic lateral sclerosis actually does and agreed that he would donate money to the ALS Association.

Only then could I laugh at him when his oldest brother, Sarcasmo, poured cube-filled, ice-cold water over the young dude’s head.

Yes, in a perfect world, Hyper Lad’s fellow shiverers would be donating to worthy charitable causes on a regular basis and also donating their time, sweat and effort. They’d already know what ALS really is, why we should support research toward a cure, and be doing the ice thing only to help raise awareness and get more people to donate money to worthy charities.

But, as the estimable John Bender once said: “Screws fall out all the time, the world is an imperfect place.”

And it’s true.

Screws do fall out all the time.

I guess I’ll just have to live with the idea that people are dumping ice on their heads just because everybody else is doing it. And also some of them might actually understand that this is being used to help raise money to combat an appalling disease.

It’s not perfect, but that’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

As if the world were waiting for my approval anyway.

*Yes, this was an imperfect metaphor. I was trying to evoke the whole thing about the devil being in the detail and then conflating that with the ice-bucket challenge. Don’t judge me. I was . . . stretching.


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Freaky Friday: So Much For Night Hunting

by Richard

Despite what you might have learned in that high-school biology class where the teacher kept yelling at you about the difference between mitosis and meiosis, science can be fun.

Science also can do some pretty wacky stuff in the name of research. We’ve talked about the hilarious results available when you insert jellyfish glowing proteins into a monkey. You get glow-in-the-dark monkeys and that’s never not funny.

Now scientists are making something else glow in the dark and there’s even an actual reason for it other than “It’s possible, so why not?”

Okay, so glow-in-the-dark kittens are more adorable than hilarious, but it’s still a pretty cool thing to get a look at, yeah?

The kittens glow in the dark when they’re put under ultraviolet light thanks to having a gene from a jellyfish inserted into its DNA. This instruction for creating the glowing protein is attached to a gene called TRIMCyp, which originally was found in Rhesus monkeys.

By giving the gene to the cats, the researchers hope to shed light on how they might combat diseases like HIV/AIDS — not just in felines, but in humans, too.

Cats, like humans, can develop AIDS. In cats, AIDS is preceded by feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), while in humans it’s preceded by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Like HIV, FIV leads to AIDS by sapping the body’s ability to combat infection; in both humans and cats, a special class of proteins known as “restriction factors” (which are usually very effective in defending against viruses) are effectively useless when pitted against HIV and FIV, respectively. But what if one species’ restriction factors could be used to defend against another species’ immunodeficiency virus?

Well, guess what? It turns out, they can. The restriction factors of the rhesus macaque, the previously mentioned TRIMCyp, can block cells from being infected by FIV.

Which is why the cats glow in the dark. The scientists bonded the TRIMCyp with the glowing protein from jellyfish. That way, if the cats glow in ultraviolet, they know the kittens have the TRIMCyp gene.

A team led by Eric Poeschla of the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine has already demonstrated that white blood cells taken from the transgenic cats are protected from FIV; the next step is to give the virus to the cats themselves, to confirm that they are, in fact, immune to it. Their findings could help them and other researchers develop and test similar approaches to protecting humans from infection with HIV.

“One of the best things about this biomedical research is that it is aimed at benefiting both human and feline health,” said Poeschla. “It can help cats as much as people.”

Plus, let’s face it, the dudes get to make something really cool. Sure the kittens won’t be able to sneak up on many things at night, provided the birds and squirrels all chip in to buy some ultraviolet lamps, but I think we can all agree that getting glow-in-the-dark kittens is worth the inconvenience.

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