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Join Host Bob McDonald for Quirks and Quarks
 

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June 7, 2008

Download an MP3 of the entire program (22MB).


The Vitamin D Miracle Cure

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A couple soaks up the sun
A couple soaks up the sun

You're probably aware of how important Vitamin D is for building healthy bones and you've probably never heard of its potential as an anti-cancer compound. In fact, the "sunshine vitamin" is rapidly gaining a reputation as a panacea, promising to protect against disorders as diverse as juvenile diabetes and autism. All this from a humble compound our skin synthesizes whenever it's exposed to the sun's UV rays. But, you know what they say -- if it's too good to be true, it probably is. However, vitamin D may very well be the exception. More and more research supports the notion that vitamin D as a pretty important compound with some protective properties.

Dr. John Cannell is a physician at the Atascadero State Hospital in California and the founder of The Vitamin D Council: a non-profit organization dedicated to changing the way the public and health-care professionals view vitamin D. Dr. Cannell points out that our bodies, when exposed to the sun, can make up to 100 times the amount of vitamin D we're getting from our diet, and far more than we need for maintaining healthy bones. He also says scientists have discovered specialized vitamin D receptors in cells throughout the body, implicating it is a switch that regulates important biological functions. A chronic lack of vitamin D, he argues, can explain a wide number of diseases. Dr. Cannell believes we should be getting far more vitamin D than we currently do.

Dr. Pam Goodwin is a medical oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. She's recently completed a large study looking at the link between vitamin D and breast cancer. Dr. Goodwin discovered that women with higher vitamin D levels in their blood tended to fare better after a diagnosis of cancer than women who were vitamin D deficient. Women with higher vitamin D levels had less chance of a recurrence and were 75 percent less likely to die from the disease. However, Dr. Goodwin is cautious about putting too much faith in vitamin D as an anti-cancer agent, saying that much of this research is still in it's infancy.

Dr. John White is a molecular biologist at McGill University in Montreal. He's been studying the basics of how vitamin D interacts with our immune cells and says there is plenty of evidence that the sunshine vitamin spurs our immune system to produce natural anti-microbial agents. Dr. White has tested this in the lab and says vitamin D helps immune cells fight off some pretty nasty bugs.

Dr. Reinhold Vieth is a clinical biochemist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. He's one of Canada's more vocal advocates for increasing the amount of vitamin D we take. Dr. Vieth argues that we evolved under conditions in which we naturally made plenty of vitamin D, but as we migrated towards the poles we began to make less and less. Dr. Vieth says the current Health Canada recommendation for vitamin D intake is about 10 times lower than what we ought to be taking.

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Wolverine Frog

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frog_claws.jpg - Frog foot with bone claws - courtesy Dr. D. Blackburn
Frog foot with bone claws - courtesy Dr. D. Blackburn

Dr David Blackburn has spent several field seasons in Africa studying rare and new frog species. Nothing surprised him quite so much, though, as when he picked up a large frog and ended up with deep and painful scratches. Frogs, you see, aren't supposed to have claws, but this one did, and the claws on this frog were very strange. They were, he discovered, bone spikes that can pierce the frog's skin when the frog is seriously threatened. Dr. Blackburn, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, is hoping to discover more about how the frog manages the injuries that result from deploying its claws.

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The First Mom

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A placoderm mom with her newborn, courtesy of Nature Magazine
A placoderm mom with her newborn, courtesy of Nature Magazine

It's not all that often we get insight into family life dating as far back to the Devonian. But that's precisely what Dr. John Long, a palaeontologist with Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, recently stumbled upon while examining the fossil of a 380-million-year-old fish. The fossil was a perfectly preserved placoderm specimen, a early species of fish that ruled the seas, lakes and rivers during the Devonian, collected from the Gogo formation in north-western Australia. Dr. Long found the skeletal remains of a smaller placoderm inside the larger specimen and quickly realized he was looking at the oldest example of internal fertilization ever discovered. It's at least 200-million years older than any other fossilized example. He was also able to identify a mineralized umblical chord, making this the oldest mother-child pair in pre-history.

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Clothes Make the Bird

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Male Barn Swallows showing the variation in colouration, courtesy Kevin Stearns, Cornell University
Male Barn Swallows showing the variation in colouration, courtesy Kevin Stearns, Cornell University

Putting on a nice set of duds is certainly a good way to attract a potential mate, but can it actually improve your health as well? That's the suggestion of a new study by Dr. Rebecca Safran from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She's been studying Barn Swallows and has found that if she makes the males look more attractive to the females, their body chemistry changes, and they start producing more testosterone. This in turn may lead to more successful matings, and may even feed back into continuing to improve their success in the future. For Barn Swallows at least, it may really be better to look good, than to feel good.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein. Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0

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