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Real Science?

By Kriss J. Thiessen

The Ig Nobel Awards certainly don't recognize the same type of "excellence" in research as the real Nobel prizes, but are the Ig Nobel awardees actually doing good work?

Consider the case of Dr. Robert A. Lopez, a veterinarian from Westport, N.Y., who won the Ig Nobel in entomology for putting ear mites from cats into his own ears. What reason could a veterinarian have for experimenting on himself?

Lopez, who said he was "surprised and stunned" to win the award, claims that his research actually has scientific basis.

A few years ago, a woman brought a cat into his practice that had a lot of "black stuff" in its ears. Lopez, quickly diagnosed the cat as having ear mites, Otodactes cynotis, and promptly treated it.

But Lopez noticed that the women's young daughter was also sick and had a rash all over her stomach. Lopez was told that the daughter slept with the cat in her bed each night, so he began suspecting a connection between ear mites and the rash.

Lopez was unable to find any link in the scientific literature when he looked into this question some 20 years ago.

In a letter published last September in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Lopez described how he placed about one gram of ear mites from a cat into his left ear.

According to Harper's Magazine Lopez allowed the mites to infect his ear for four weeks, and lost hearing in that ear due to infection and clogging. Despite much suffering, Lopez repeated the experiment two more times to confirm his results. After the experiments, he flushed out his ear with warms water, which restored his hearing to normal in two weeks.

Lopez said he conducted the experiments because he was "worried about the kids." Lopez said that even though he developed an immunity to the infection, a minor infection in adults might make a young child rather ill.

Since the initial publication of his later, Lopez has found that ringworms, pinworms and roundworms can also be transmitted from animals to humans.

Because children have no immunity to infections of these common parasites, he said that parents should be educated about the dangers of children sleeping with their pets.

Lopez obviously has deep feelings about the importance of his work, and his sacrifice is far from "ignoble." After all, curiosity almost killed the cat doctor.

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