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The End Of A Golden Era?

Antibiotics have become so familiar in our lives it’s sometimes hard to appreciate what a medical marvel they are.

Antibiotics and anesthesia are often cited as the two developments that led to the golden age of medicine we have experienced. Anesthesia kept patients unconscious for long periods during surgery which enabled surgeons to do more thorough surgeries with greater precision. And antibiotics eliminated the possibility of infections following surgery, which was formerly a common, and often deadly, occurrence.

Indeed, much of modern medicine is predicated on the availability of antibiotics. They treat infections that occur following major trauma or those that patients experience in intensive care. They are a vital means of preventing infections following surgeries both routine and complex and play a critical role in the treatment of life-threatening infections in patients with cancer or leukemia.

Unfortunately, the golden era of antibiotics is quickly coming to a close.

The overuse and misuse of antibiotics in human and veterinary medicine, including their role as growth promoters in intensive farming, have resulted in the rapid emergence of antibiotic resistance.

In Europe in 2007, the number of infections by multidrug-resistant bacteria was 400,000 and there were 25,000 attributable deaths.

In the United States alone, antibiotic-resistant infections are responsible for $20 billion per year in excess health care costs, $35 billion per year in societal costs and 8 million additional hospital stays per year.

The problem of resistance is compounded by the fact that we live in a global economy, resulting in a worldwide spread of antibiotic-resistant genes.

Also compounding the problem is the fact that the economics of pharmaceutical drug development offer little incentive for companies to develop new antibiotics, since the drugs are used on an episodic, rather than continual, basis.

Shahriar Mobashery, a Notre Dame researcher, is one of the world’s leading authorities on antibiotic resistance. Shahriar studies the mechanisms of resistance to antibiotics and the means to circumvent them; the development of novel antibiotics; the mechanism of action of these antibiotics; and complex microbial systems such as the outer core membrane and the cell wall.

Shahriar also works tirelessly to raise awareness of antibiotic resistance as a public health crisis. He recently joined with a group of the world’s leading scientists in academia and industry to author a paper that calls for strong steps to be taken to control the global crisis of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. The group issued a priority list of steps that need to be taken on a global scale to resolve the crisis.

These recommendations include increased international funding to enable scientists to track new antibiotic-resistance threats worldwide, as the World Health Organization and other agencies track influenza outbreaks. The group also calls for better control of antibiotic use, repurposing of old antibiotics to battle resistance and new alternatives to antibiotics.

It’s hard for us to imagine a time when antibiotics didn’t play a vital role in maintaining our health. If the scourge of antibiotic resistance isn’t addressed soon, we won’t have to imagine it; we’ll be living it.



Catholicism and Science

One of the challenges I face as a science communicator at Notre Dame is the common assumption that Catholicism and science are somehow incompatible.


I frequently attend the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The AAAS meeting is the largest scientific gathering in the world and it also features a newsroom which houses the largest gathering of science reporters in the world.


On many occasions when I’ve talked with reporters at AAAS, I’ve heard their skepticism that Notre Dame can be both Catholic and a center for preeminent science research. For example, a few years ago I was talking to reporters about a conference titled “Darwin in the 21st Century: Nature, Humanity and God” being sponsored by Notre Dame’s John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values and the Pontifical Council for Culture’s Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest (STOQ). Many reporters were shocked to learn that the Vatican and Notre Dame would be holding such an event because of the widespread view that evolutionary theory is fundamentally incompatible with religious belief.


Scott Locklin, a physicist previously affiliated with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and, most notably, a nonbeliever, tackles the myth of the incompatibility of Catholicism and science in recent New Oxford Review piece. A portion of the article is available for free at the blog “Complete Catholicism,” but it well-worth visiting New Oxford Review and paying the modest one-time fee to view the entire piece.

However, it’s well worth the one-time cost to read the full piece.


Locklin rightly points out that the scientific method itself is an invention of the Catholic Church.


Catholics have long understood nature to be ordered, the work of an intelligent Creator. The natural world is understandable and worthy of rigorous inquiry.


The great Catholic thinkers of the Middle Ages paved the way for Newton and Einstein. And many Catholic clerics throughout history have made significant contributions to science, including Nicholau Copernicus, Gregor Mendel, Roger Bacon and Notre Dame’s own Rev. Julius A. Nieuwland, C.S.C., and Rev. John Augustine Zahm, C.S.C.

Rather than being contradictory, Notre Dame’s drive to be authentically Catholic and preeminent in science and  engineering research is consistent with a centuries-old, glorious tradition of the Church.

Understanding The African American Catholic Experience

Growing up Catholic in Northeastern Pennsylvania in the 1950s and early 1960s, I existed in a sort of closed Catholic universe. I attend a Catholic school, played sports in a Catholic league and all my friends, not to mention my parents’ friends, belonged to my home parish.


It was a closed Catholic universe in another sense as well. Northeastern Pennsylvania’s population was composed almost entirely of descendants of the Irish, Italian, and Eastern Europeans who worked in the anthracite coal region. This population was overwhelmingly white and African American Catholics were virtually nonexistent. It wasn’t until my freshman year at the University of Scranton that I first met an African American Catholic, a seminarian of the Washington D.C. Archdiocese who was assigned to Scranton for undergraduate studies.


Becoming friends with a black seminarian was a revelation for me and I learned much about the African American Catholic experience from him. Over the past few weeks, however, I’ve learned an extraordinary amount about the African American Catholic experience through my work with Notre Dame social scientists Darren Davis and Don Pope-Davis.


Darren and Don recently completed the largest and most comprehensive survey ever undertaken of African American Catholics at the request of the National Black Catholic Congress. The project was also supported by Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life and Office of the President. I had the pleasure of traveling to Baltimore to attend a meeting of a National Black Catholic Conference Board of Directors at which Darren and Don revealed their survey results.


Information on the survey’s findings is available  here:

Darren and Don uncovered many fascinating insights about African American Catholics, including the fact that on almost every measure of religious engagement, they are considered stronger in their faith than white Catholics. They also discovered that African American Catholics attach greater importance to social networks in the parish than do white Catholics.


Because the survey included a significant comparative component between African American and white Catholics, it also offers key insights into the white Catholic experience. Darren explains that the survey reveals that the forces working against white Catholic religious identity and engagement began to develop decades ago, long before the recent clergy sexual abuse scandals. Understanding and addressing these forces is a serious and pressing challenge for the Catholic Church.


The survey also identified a number of important demographic trends that have great consequences for the future Church.


Notre Dame’s President Emeritus Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., is often credited with describing Notre Dame as a place where the Catholic Church does its thinking. Darren’s and Don’s groundbreaking and thought provoking survey gives the Church much to think about.

Tackling The Epidemic of Football Concussions

I don’t remember my Baltimore Catechism defining the sin of football gluttony, but I felt I was dangerously close to committing such an offense last weekend. There were so many compelling college and NFL games, it was a challenge to decide which to devour.

My own football immersion weekend started when I attended the University of Dayton and San Diego University game at Welcome Stadium in Dayton, Ohio. The game was a great example of football at its purest: a close, compelling contest between two schools that don’t offer football scholarships and aren’t caught up in the often seedy world of big-money college athletics.

Personally, I felt that the half-time performance by the Pride of Dayton (POD) Marching Band overshadowed the game itself, but that was probably due to the fact that my daughter is a freshman clarinetist in the POD. Four complete half-time shows and 80-some individual pieces of music learned this season: how about those statistics?

I also had an opportunity to catch parts of the Ohio State-Indiana, Michigan-Iowa, Wisconsin-Purdue, Indianapolis Colts-Atlanta Falcons, and Pittsburgh Steelers-Baltimore Ravens games. I missed the latest college game of the century between LSU and Alabama because as a loyal Domer I stayed focused on our game with Wake Forest.

However, I’m watching football from a far different perspective this year thanks to research being conducted by Mayland Chang of Notre Dame’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Mayland is studying a class of injuries know as Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). Football concussions belong to this class of injuries and they produce a series of neurological effects, damage to the brain, hemorrhage and motor and cognitive deficits.

Mayland points out that an important factor in the pathology of brain injuries is the activation of “matrix metalloproteinases,” or MMPs, in particular gelatinase B or MMP-9.

Mayland is working to develop a water-soluble gelatinase inhibitor compound. The water-soluble aspect is critical, because the goal is to make the compound suitable for intravenous administration in the treatment of acute gelatinase-dependent diseases, like concussions.

She and her team of researchers recently achieved a breakthrough that produced a greater than 5,000-fold increase in the water solubility of the compound they are developing. She believes that the compound can eventually be translated from her lab to the clinic for the treatment of traumatic brain injuries.

The breakthrough raises the possibility that football players who experience a concussion could quickly receive an intravenous injection to prevent further neurological damage.

It also raises hope that a sport many of us love doesn’t result in a lifetime of severe neurological damage for the athletes who play it so passionately.


Creepies and Crawlies

In case you missed it, last Sunday’s (Oct 30) “CBS Sunday Morning” program had a particularly apt Halloween Eve story on the scary threat posed by invasive species. Notre Dame biologist David Lodge was prominently featured throughout the nine-minute piece.

Here’s a link in case you missed it: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-3445_162-20127579/the-threat-of-invasive-species/?tag=contentBody;cbsCarousel

David is one of the world’s leading experts on the problem of invasive species and served as the first chair of the national Invasive Species Advisory Committee. He has attracted media attention worldwide for his research on the problems posed by the Asian Carp invasive species.

In an age of 24-hour news cycles and get it fast even if it’s not right media, it was impressive for me to have a chance to work with the Sunday Morning team that came to campus to shoot David’s segment. The producer relied on a research book that rivaled NFL playbooks in size. The producer and cameraman spent a full two hours setting up the interview, continually assessing lighting, backgrounds, sounds, etc. And the correspondent posed thoughtful, balanced and well-researched questions to David for two hours.

It was a special pleasure for me to see David featured on such a prestigious program. David is a science communicator’s dream. He is an especially gifted researcher who has devoted much time and effort to developing his media skills. He is widely respected by journalists for his honesty, transparency and accessibility.

He is a shining example of Notre Dame’s claim to being both a place of faith and world-class research university.


Goin Nuclear…

Notre Dame’s Department of Physics and College of Science, and even nuclear scientists worldwide, are excited that installation of a new National Science Foundation-funded nuclear accelerator has begun in the Nuclear Science Laboratory in Nieuwland Hall.

It’s the first accelerator that NSF has funded in nuclear physics in nearly a quarter of a century and it represents a major equipment upgrade for Notre Dame researchers.

The accelerator will be used primarily to expand the reseach programs of Notre Dame’s Institute for Structure and Nuclear Astrophysics and its Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics. And it will draw a large number of national and international groups to campus to do research.

So it’s easy to see why the nuclear science community in excited. But why should the rest of us care?

One would hope it would be becase of a natural curiosity about both the origins of our universe and our own origins. “We are all made of star stuff,” the late astronomer Carl Sagan once noted.

If philosophical and theological pondering is not your cup of tea, perhaps you may be more interested to learn that the Institute for Structure and Nuclear Astrophysics is also involved in a wide array of research outside astrophysics. For example, it is working with the Department of Anthroplogy to test the provenance and age of archaeological samples.

And if you’re not interested in matters archaeological, you may be interested to learn that the the nuclear structue folks work with the medical industry to test new detectors and artificial joint components.

In short, the accelerator will play a role in telling us how we got here, how we’ve lived here and how we can remain here longer.

Definitely worth getting excited about.