Is Ginger Better Than Advil?

fresh ginger
Courtesy of Creative Commons

I just spent a sunny Sunday afternoon pulling weeds up on my hillside, and now my lower back is complaining. I guess I overdid it. Normally I’d stretch for a while and take a couple Advil, but maybe I should take ginger instead?

University of Georgia researchers have found that ginger reduces muscle pain caused by exercise. Their results were recently published in the Journal of Pain. They compared the effect of taking ginger capsules to  ”dummy” placebo capsules on muscle pain. Volunteers took either raw ginger, heat-treated ginger or placebo capsules for 11 days. The volunteers performed strenuous arm exercises on the eighth day, and the researchers assessed their pain level and various measures of inflammation during the final three days.

This was a “double-blind, placebo controlled, randomized” study, which simply means that neither the volunteers nor the researchers knew who was getting the ginger capsules. This is particularly important for these kinds of studies. Rating your pain level is subjective and can be affected by whether you think you’re taking the ginger.

The strenuous arm exercises induced mild muscle pain 24 hours later. However, the muscle pain was rated to be 25% lower by the volunteers taking ginger than those taking the placebo — a moderate-to-large reduction in muscle pain.

The researchers claim that ginger consumption may be more effective than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as aspirin or ibuprofen), based on past studies performed by others. Ginger has also been shown to reduce hip and/or knee pain in osteoarthritis patients.

However, it is important to recognize that you have to take ginger for several days for it to work. Unlike ibuprofen, you can’t just take a couple ginger tablets (after overdoing it in the garden) and wait an hour to feel better. So if you know that you’re going to be a weekend warrior, you might want to plan ahead and take ginger capsules during the week.

Solar-Powered Drip Irrigation May Save Lives in Africa

Americans spend on average 12.4% of their paycheck on food according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s latest survey. In contrast, sub-Saharan African communities spend 50-80% of their income on food, even though they are engaged in agricultural production as their main livelihood. These communities rely on rain-fed agriculture for crop production, despite having a short annual rainy season of only 3-6 months. Traditionally women and girls are responsible for hauling water by hand from very long distances in order to grow some crops, particularly during the long dry season.

Only 4% of cropland is irrigated in sub-Saharan Africa. Clearly irrigation could help improve quality of life for these food-insecure communities, if a water source is available. The most efficient type of irrigation for such a dry climate is drip (micro) irrigation, which delivers water and fertilizer directly to the roots of a plant. Low-pressure drip irrigation systems require only 1 m of pressure to irrigate plots of up to 1,000 square meters (0.25 acres). However, this irrigation technology requires access to a reliable water source.

One solution is a photovoltaic-powered drip irrigation system that combines the efficiency of the drip irrigation with the reliability of a solar-powered water pump. In such a system, a photovoltaic solar array powers a surface or submersible pump (depending on the water source) that feeds water into a reservoir. The reservoir then gravity-distributes the water to the low-pressure drip irrigation system. Energy is stored via the height of column of water in the reservoir. These systems can be configured so that no batteries are required. The pump only runs during the daytime and the system passively self-regulates. Namely, the volume of water increases on clear hot days when plants need the most water.

This kind of solar-powered drip irrigation system was tested in two rural villages in Northern Benin. The systems were installed and financed by an Non-governmental Organization, Solar Electric Light Fund, with the goal of boosting vegetable production from communal gardens in order to combat high malnutrition and poverty levels. The research was performed in collaboration with Stanford University. This NGO-academic research team scientifically evaluated the impact of the irrigation system on the community through a randomized controlled project that was rigorously studied and analyzed. The study results were recently published by Stanford University in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

Three solar-powered drip irrigation systems were installed in two villages. Each irrigation system was used collectively by an agricultural group of 30-35 women, who each farmed her own 120 square meter plot and some additional shared plots used for group expenses. Researchers monitored these communities, as well as two “control” villages in which women’s agricultural groups grew vegetables by hand watering. This allowed a comparison between the solar-powered drip irrigation system to traditional watering method.

Each of the solar-powered irrigation systems supplied on average 1.9 tonnes of produce per month — including high-valued crops such as tomatoes, okra, peppers, eggplants, carrots, and greens — without displacing other agricultural production. The women farmers kept on average 18% by weight of the vegetables and sold the rest at local markets. As a result, vegetable intake across all villages increased by about 1 serving (150 g raw weight) per day during the rainy season. For the villages with irrigation systems, the vegetable intake rose to 3-5 servings per day even during the dry season. Overall the users of the irrigation systems showed remarkable benefits even in the first year, compared with the control households. The article states, “Their standard of living increased relative to the non-beneficiaries (by 80% of the baseline), their consumption of vegetables increased to the Recommended Daily Allowance, and the income generated by production of market vegetables enabled them to purchase staples and protein during the dry season.”

Hardly anyone is going to argue against the potential benefit of irrigation in Africa. However, one question remains — is the expense of a solar-powered system really necessary? The Stanford researchers would argue that it is, despite the expensive up-front costs. They compared their irrigation system with a hypothetical alternative system that used a liquid-fuel (gasoline, kerosene, or diesel) engine-driven pump, instead of the photovoltaic array and pump. This alternate pump can have significant problems, because fuel supplies can be unreliable and fuel prices volatile. According to their analysis, the solar-powered irrigation system is actually more cost effective in the long run, particular when fuel prices are high. It is also better for the environment since it doesn’t cause carbon-emissions.

The solar-powered drip irrigation system in the Benin project cost approximately $18,000 to install ($475 per 120 square meter plot) and requires about $5,750 ($143 per plot) per year to maintain. Based on the projected earnings of the farmers, the system should pay for itself in about 2.3 years. In addition, the cost of the photovoltaic arrays is expected to lower for larger-scale projects.

The project in Benin isn’t the only one underway. Solar-powered drip irrigation systems are also being installed by other groups in different areas of the world. For instance, the Sustainable Agriculture Water Management Project has installed solar-powered drip irrigation systems to 5,000 farmers in Sri Lanka’s dry zones. The hope is that these international efforts can provide substantial economic, nutritional, and environmental benefits to food-insecure impoverished communities.

My First Physics Teacher

I always liked math. It took work, but it came pretty easily to me most of the time. I liked being able to work out the abstract problems and get the right answer. I liked getting positive feedback and encouragement from my teachers, as one of the top math students. Then I took physics senior year in high school. Suddenly sin(x) was equal to x, if x was a small angle. Suddenly all the nice rules of math were up for grabs and approximations had to be devised to solve the problems. Initially I found this to be hard. Sometimes I still do, even as a working research physicist. Because suddenly creativity and insight were a major part of my science education.

I still remember my first physics teacher. He had been working in industry for years prior to his new teaching career, so he was a “real” physicist instead of just a high school teacher. The lesson that I remember the most was about lenses. Before the teacher lectured on the subject in class, he handed out to each group a lens and a flashlight. We were suppose to devise experiments to determine the unknown properties of the lens. Most people tried various experiments inside the dark classroom, shining the flashlight on the lens (with only a vague understanding of what we were even looking for). A few people also went outside to use the sun as a very distant source of light. Very few, if any, of us figured out the lens equation or imaging properties of the lens. However, we ALL paid attention to the next lecture on lenses. Our teacher challenged and engaged us. He made us think, instead of just having us solve cookbook problems for the upcoming tests. My first introduction to physics was hard but interesting. And when I went off to college, it gave me a head start in my physics career. If I could grade my high school physics teacher, I’d give him an A.

A lot of women have stories about their science and math teachers — what did they do right or wrong? How did they influence your career, education and life? Now you have the chance to share your stories. Under the Microscope is a blog about women and science education. They collect stories from women involved in science, technology, engineering and math with the goal of publishing a survival guide for young women in science.  In the month of May, Under the Microscope is sponsoring a project to get women to write a “report card” for their early math and science teachers. Hurry and add your stories by May 31.

FDA Approves Prostate Cancer Vaccine

How much is 4 months of your life worth? Some men with advanced prostate cancer will be able to find out, as a result of a new drug developed byDendreon Corporation. This drug, Provenge (sipuleucel-T), was recently approved by the FDA to treat advanced prostate cancer.

They are calling Provenge a “vaccine,” but it doesn’t work like vaccines against infections such as measles or mumps. This vaccine is used to treat advanced prostate cancer rather than prevent it. It works by using the patient’s own immune system. The vaccine is made by taking a sample of the patient’s blood, removing the white blood cells, and exposing them to the Dendreon PAP-GM-CSF protein. This specialized fused protein includesprostatic acid phosphatase (PAP), which is an enzyme produced by the prostate and found at increased levels in prostate cancer. Once the vaccine is made, the cells are then infused back into the patient’s vein. The patient receives three of these treatments, 2 weeks apart. Basically the treated cells help stimulate the patient’s immune system to attack his prostate cancer.

The FDA approval of this new vaccine was largely based on the results of Dendreon’s recently completed Provenge Phase III Trial. This was a randomized clinical trial involving 512 men between the ages of 40 and 91 years, of which 341 men received Provenge and 171 men received a placebo. All the men had advanced prostate cancer that was unresponsive to hormone therapy. The common side effects of the Provenge were reported to be minor — such as chills (54%), fevers (29%), and headaches (16%) — and only lasted a couple days after infusion. The men that received the Provenge on average lived 4.1 months longer than the men that took the placebo (25.8 months v.s. 21.7 months). This is a significant break through for men with advanced prostate cancer, who have few treatment options.

There was no evidence that Provenge slowed progression of the disease. How the drug can improve survival rate without slowing disease progression is not clear yet. The FDA approval of Provenge is also limited to only men with prostate cancer (that has progressed despite hormone treatments) with only minimal symptoms at the time of treatment. So this vaccine is not for everyone with prostate cancer. However, it is the first active immunotherapy to demonstrate improvement in overall survival for advanced prostate cancer. As a “proof of concept” drug, it is expected to spark new interest in the development of drugs based on similar principles.

Other prostate cancer vaccines are also in development, including PROSTVAC-VF that uses a genetically modified virus containing prostate-specific antigen. The patient’s immune system is expected to respond to the virus by recognizing and killing the cancer cells with prostate-specific antigen. A randomized phase II clinical study of Therion Biologic’s PROSTVAC-VF was published this January. It involved 122 patients with metastatic prostate cancer who did not respond to hormone therapy, of which 82 received the vaccine and 40 the placebo. This study also demonstrated an increase in survival rate for those taking the vaccine, in this case an average of 8.5 months. This study is small, but the researchers are planning a phase III trial with 600 patients to further evaluate the drug’s effectiveness.

So lets hope that these new drugs represent only the first step in finding effective new ways to treat cancers. In the future, hopefully we’ll be able to “turn on” the body’s own defense mechanisms to treat or prevent many types of cancer.