Rae Ellen Bichell

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.

In the first century, a doctor called Aretaeus of Cappadocia described the rotting smell of "Egyptian ulcers." Ancient Chinese medical literature mentions a disease called "children-killing carbuncle." In 17th century Spain there were references to an illness known as "the strangler."

Fake birth control pills. Cough syrup for children that contained a powerful opioid. Antimalarial pills that were actually just made of potato and cornstarch.

These are, according to the World Health Organization, just a few examples of poor-quality or fake medicines identified in recent years.

In early autumn, it became clear that something was not right in Madagascar.

The country often sees small outbreaks of the bubonic plague, which comes from an infection spread by a flea bite. The disease is now easily treatable with antibiotics.

But this time, the number of cases was growing quickly, and the bacterial infection was spreading in a different, more serious form.

A 79-year-old man picked up an object with his left hand and suddenly felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. Something moved in his upper arm. And with that, he was Popeye.

His right arm looked the same as it always had: lean and sagging a little with age. But his left biceps now sported a baseball-size bulge that looked like it could land a powerful punch. The brand-new muscle mound looked even bigger when the man flexed his biceps. The only thing was, it hurt. A lot.

The day Dr. Roberto Montenegro finished his Ph.D. was memorable. But not for the right reasons.

"I still cringe when I think about it," says Montenegro.

It had started well. His colleagues at UCLA had taken him and his girlfriend (now wife) out to a fancy restaurant to celebrate.

An outbreak of the plague is growing in Madagascar.

Abstinence may have found its most impressive poster child yet: Diploscapter pachys. The tiny worm is transparent, smaller than a poppy seed and hasn't had sex in 18 million years.

It has basically just been cloning itself this whole time. Usually, that is a solid strategy for going extinct, fast. What is its secret?

In the spring of 2016, there was a frenzy over the threat of Zika virus at Brazil's Olympic Games. As infections reached their peak, a group of scientists called for the games to be moved somewhere else. A number of athletes, worried about sexually transmitting the virus to pregnant partners, chose to stay home.

But a group of researchers with University of Utah and the United States Olympic Committee announced Saturday that they weren't able to find any evidence that U.S. Olympians, Paralympians or staff got Zika virus at all.

This past weekend, basketball players from island nations across the Indian Ocean converged in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, to face off in the regional championships. But no one was to cheer on the teams. The bleachers were empty — because of the plague.

Many of the images we associate with the plague actually depict leprosy or smallpox. In fact, there are very few images of the Black Death from the time of the scourge.

A few weeks ago, I reported a story about three cases of the plague in New Mexico. The bacterial illness pops up fairly regularly around the globe but is now easily treatable with antibiotics, if caught in time.

This spring, 16 state patrol officers from Colorado and Wyoming took a couple days off their usual work schedule to do something special. They assembled in a hotel conference room in Denver. As instructed, they wore street clothes for their first assignment: going shopping at nearby marijuana dispensaries.

"It's a brave new world," said instructor Chris Halsor, referring to the years since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana.

The European slug is average in every way: slimy, brownish, shorter than a credit card.

But Arion subfuscus has a minor superpower: When it's scared, it can glue itself to wet surfaces very well, and do so while remaining bendy.

Victoria LaBarre was climbing out of a canyon and into a bright, vast, seemingly lifeless landscape when she started to experience an astronaut's nightmare.

"Suddenly," she said, "I couldn't breathe."

Before she confronts death straight on, Melissa Connor always puts on a pair of rubber boots. The shelf she takes the shoes from includes a bottle of hand sanitizer, a sign warning people to check their shoes for scorpions and a bundle of wooden stakes, each of which will eventually be marked with the abbreviation "Mr." or "Ms." followed by a number.

Three people in New Mexico caught the plague, according to health officials there, who reported the two most recent cases this week.

Yes, this is the same illness that killed an estimated 50 million people across three continents in the 1300s, though these days common antibiotics will get rid of it.

In 2010, Sonia Vallabh watched her mom, Kamni Vallabh, die in a really horrible way.

First, her mom's memory started to go, then she lost the ability to reason. Sonia says it was like watching someone get unplugged from the world. By the end, it was as if she was stuck between being awake and asleep. She was confused and uncomfortable all the time.

"Even when awake, was she fully or was she really? And when asleep, was she really asleep?" says Sonia.

Sonia Vallabh saw her mother die at age 52 from a rare disease that causes irreversible brain damage. Then Sonia learned she has inherited the genetic mutation that killed her mother. She and her husband quit their jobs and trained to become scientists. They're now racing against time to come up with a treatment that could save Sonia's life.

Decades ago, scientists surgically attached pairs of rats to each other and noticed that old rats tended to live longer if they shared a bloodstream with young rats.

It was the beginning of a peculiar and ambitious scientific endeavor to understand how certain materials from young bodies, when transplanted into older ones, can sometimes improve or rejuvenate them.

Viruses are supposed to be tiny and simple — so tiny and simple that it's debatable whether they're even alive.

They're minimalist packets of genetic information, relying entirely on the cells the infect in order to survive and reproduce.

But in 2003, researchers identified a new kind of virus that that turned scientific understanding of viruses upside down, and tested the boundary of what can be considered life.

Exposure to lead as a child can affect an adult decades later, according to a study out Tuesday that suggests a link between early childhood lead exposure and a dip in a person's later cognitive ability and socioeconomic status.

Lead in the United States can come from lots of sources: old, peeling paint; contaminated soil; or water that's passed through lead pipes. Before policies were enacted to get rid of lead in gasoline, it could even come from particles in the fumes that leave car tailpipes.

A few months ago, at her office in Houston, Kate Rubins was feeling weird.

She was dizzy, she says — "staggering around like a 2-year-old who had just learned to walk." She was constantly looking at her desk to make sure the objects on top weren't floating away.

Rubins wasn't going nuts. She was just readjusting to Earth after living without gravity for four months, hundreds of miles above the planet's surface.

There is such a thing as a memory athlete. These are people who can memorize a truly insane amount of information really quickly, like the order of playing cards in a deck in under 20 seconds, or 200 new names and faces in a matter of minutes.

Neuroscientists writing Wednesday in the journal Neuron found these champs of memorization aren't that different from the rest of us.

When you step outside after a big rainstorm and take a deep whiff of that fresh, earthy smell, you're mostly smelling a chemical called geosmin.

It's a byproduct of bacteria and fungi. And something about rain lofts the chemical — and sometimes the organisms themselves — into the air, a process that not only helps release that earthy smell but may, in very rare conditions, spread diseases.

Somehow raindrops launch tiny living things off the ground.

Each year, fish farms produce a massive amount of carp — so much that if you put all that fish on one side of a scale, and all the people living in the U.S. on the other side, they'd pretty much balance each other out by weight.

But for the past couple of decades, carp have been plagued by a type of herpes virus, known as Koi herpesvirus.

By the time Kay Schwister got her diagnosis last summer, she couldn't talk anymore. But she could still scowl, and scowl she did.

After weeks of decline and no clue what was causing it, doctors had told Schwister — a 53-year-old vocational rehab counselor and mother of two from Chicago — that she had an incurable disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD.

The disease was shrinking Kay's brain, and riddling it with holes. She would likely live only a few more weeks, the doctors said.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now as 2016 draws to a close, we're revisiting some of the people we met this year. And NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell checks back with a man who survived a stroke in his 40s and also a listener who heard his story.

The Washington, D.C., jail has big metal doors that slam shut. It looks and feels like a jail. But down a hall in the medical wing, past an inmate muttering about suicide, there's a room that looks like an ordinary doctor's office.

"OK, deep breaths in and out for me," Dr. Reggie Egins says to his patient, Sean Horn, an inmate in his 40s. They talk about how his weight has changed in his six weeks in jail, how his medications are working out and whether he's noticed anything different about his vision. Egins schedules an ophthalmology appointment for Horn.

Pandemic flu, Ebola, Nipah virus. Emmie de Wit has held all of them in her hands (with three layers of gloves in between, of course).

She's a virologist working at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana. The 450-person facility, which is part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is nestled in a town of 4,000. It's surrounded by mountains and national forests. Only one road passes through.

The golden poison dart frog is about an inch long and banana yellow. By some estimates, the skin of one little frog contains enough toxin to kill 10 adult men.

"Oh yeah, it's one of the more lethal poisons on the planet," says Justin Du Bois, a synthetic chemist at Stanford University.

A few months ago, neurosurgeon Jocelyne Bloch emerged from a 10-hour surgery that she hadn't done before.

"Most of my patients are humans," says Bloch, who works at the Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland.

This patient was a rhesus macaque.

The monkey's spinal cord had been partially cut. So while his brain was fine and his legs were fine, the two couldn't communicate.

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