Hidden Science archive

Hidden Science was a mobile phone action – found within the Orange ‘Do Some Good’ app between April 2011-July 2012. Users were asked to submit their burning science questions via the app to have them answered directly by scientists, with all answers posted onto the Future Morph website.

Submitted questions had to related to one of the 16 different themes which included Space, Food, Sport, Medical Science, Earth Science, Computers & IT, Fashion & Textiles, and more!

A selection of the questions submitted to Medical Science are shown below. There is such a huge range and variety of jobs related to medicine for those of you who may want to help people and work in a healthcare setting, but not necessarily as a doctor. There are so many branches of medicine available. You could combine your science and engineering skills as a medical engineer designing the next artificial limb, you could help babies overcome jaundice using medical physics, or you could work towards finding a cure for disease in a clinical trials role, to name but a few.

Examine the questions below and find out where your interests lie. Your chosen career could not be too far away…

1. Why do we need blood?

We need blood to survive. There are two different kinds of blood called red blood cells and white blood cells. The red blood cells are needed to carry oxygen around your body to the different cells without this cells start to die. White blood cells are needed to fight infection there are several different types of white blood cell which do slightly different jobs.

2. Why does the heart not tire out like other muscles?

The reason why the heart has such an endurance and doesn’t get sore or tired is because the muscles that the heart is made of are different from the muscles that you use for, say, regular work. The muscles that we normally use for motion such as those in your arms, legs, chest, back, abs, etc. are “skeletal” muscles. While the muscles that make up your heart are “cardiac” muscles. The “power house” within all types of muscle cells are the mitochondria, which are small pockets within the cytoplasm that generate ATP or energy for the muscles to contract and keep working. Through evolution, mitochondria make up only 1% to 2% of the skeletal muscle cell volume. This explains why when we lift weights at the gym, we feel tired after a few repetitions because the few mitochondria in the skeletal muscles have worked “overtime” and cannot produce enough energy for the continuous motion. However, cardiac muscle cells have 30% to 35% in volume of mitochondria, which means there are always sufficient mitochondria to produce energy for every single beat for as long as there’s calorie intake. It’s like having a lot more power generators as back-up.

3. Why doesn’t it hurt when you cut your hair?

Hairs of the body do not contain nerve endings. The skin in which they are embedded do, but none translate up the hair shaft. Hair is simply made from collagens and a few other fibres and components, nothing actively respiring (living).

4. What speeds up your reactions?

Practice! Practising certain reactions such as stopping a ball (as a goal keeper) will reduce the time it takes to react to the ball coming towards you. Reactions such as this can become almost automatic with training.

5. Why do we shiver when we are cold?

The shiver we see is used to heat the body – muscle activity only turns a fifth of the energy it uses into contraction, the remaining four fifths are “lost” as heat. Normally the heat is a nuisance and difficult to get rid off (hence all the sweating during exercise) but in the cold, the body uses this property of muscle to warm itself.

6. What qualifications do you need to become a pathologist?

A pathologist is a medic and as such has undergone training as a doctor, before choosing to specialise in pathology, and there are different areas within pathology to chose from. Most people associate pathologists with post mortems etc, from watching Quincy or CSI, (depending on your age!)

7. How many times can you be x-rayed?

The main risk associated with having an x-ray is that you receive a dose of radiation every time you have one. While high amounts of radiation are bad for your health (e.g. risk of causing cancer) there is no limit to the number of x-rays you can receive as part of medical treatment. The reason is simple; as a patient it would be unacceptable to get into a situation wherein your treatment or diagnosis was witheld because you had reached your maximum number of allowed x-rays. In the UK, your exposure to radiation in hospitals is governed by two key pieces of law; the Ionising Radiation Regulations 1999 (IRR99) and the Ionising Radiation Medical Exposure Regulations 2000 (IRMER00). IRR99 defines the legal maximum dose of radiation an organisation such as a hospital can allow you to get if you are a staff member or a visitor but there is no upper limit for patients. That said, a doctor will think carefully before sending you for an x-ray and ask “Is this x-ray necessary?” and “Is the benefit to this person’s health worth the extra radiation dose I’m going to give them?” That is where IRMER00 comes in; it legally requires the doctors, radiographers, medical physicists, etc to justify the reason for giving you an x-ray. It also requires them to try and get the job done with the minimum amount of dose possible (optimised exposure).

So in short, the answer is that there is no limit to the amount of x-rays you can have, provided each one is justified by the medical staff under the requirements of IRMER00.

8. How do wounds heal?

Here’s an answer from a product development specialist from 3M Healthcare – it’s his job look into new ways to help wounds heal more quickly….

“Wound healing is a complex process that happens in phases. Each phase is triggered by chemicals and proteins that are always present in the body.The phases happen in the order described below, but they overlap (different phases can happen at the same time – they don’t always wait for the last one to finish). Firstly the wound responds by stopping the bleeding, this is blood clotting and happens through blood platelets and fibrin – two types of proteins found in the blood- sticking together to form a plug. This initially plugs the blood vessels and protects you from bleeding to death!. The next phase is called the vascular response. This is the physical closure and further ‘plugging’ of the blood vessels. This all happens from the moment of injury and continues for a few hours afterwards.

The Next phase is the inflammatory phase – in this phase your immune system moves to the injury site to clear away an infection or dirt that is in the wound. This is evident by increased heat, reddening of the wound site, sensitivity to pain and sometimes fluid leaking from the wound! (this fluid is called exudate).

After any infection or dirt has been cleared, the healing phase (sometimes called scar formation) can begin. In this phase new material- called collagen- is supplied to the wound site to fill the gap. This is the start of scar formation. After some collagen has been laid into the wound, a process called epithelial healing can take place. During this phase new blood vessels grow upwards from under the wound site. At the same time the skin is growing in from the edges of the wound to link up with newly formed blood vessels, thereby closing the wound.

Once the wound is closed there is some further remodelling of the scar……..this can occur over a year after the initial injury. However, if the scar is visible you will notice it is never quite as strong as the original skin and any pores for sweating and hairs that were in the original skin are never replaced. ”

9. Why does our body age?

Scientists working on ageing and the biology of cells have found a few different processes that contribute to ageing. One key cause is the power generators in our cells, mitochondria, become less efficient and produce damaging oxygen radicals as we age. These oxygen radicals can damage the proteins in our cells and even our DNA, which can contribute to the development of certain cancers.

Another cause of ageing is the accumulation of errors in the DNA in our cells as we age. UV light from the sun, X-rays, some drugs and environmental chemicals, can all damage DNA. The accumulation of DNA damage can cause the instructions to make proteins to change, or even stop working completely. This is a key cause of cells dying and the early stages of cells becoming cancerous.

As cells stop working so efficiently, the visible signs of ageing begin to show. Our skin loses its elasticity because the cells that produce collagen stop working so efficiently as when we were younger. The lenses in our eyes become more rigid as they are not replaced, or repaired as we age, and our eyesight deteriorates.

There are many scientists working in Health and Ageing, trying to understand what causes our bodies to age and how we can slow the ageing process down, or give people a better quality of life as they age. This is a very important part of medical science as people are living longer and want to be active into their old age.