Category: Health & Medicine

FDA Approves New Clinical Trial Using Stem Cells to Treat Non-Healing Wounds

Futuristic Healing

Using stem cells to heal wounds is not a new concept, but up until recently testing has been largely experimental. Stem cells have been tested for skin tissue engineering and wound healing, regenerative wound healing, and at Samford Health as a treatment for shoulder injuries.  The FDA has approved the institution’s second-ever adipose-derived stem cell clinical trial which is designed to treat non-healing leg ulcers. The trial began back in September of this year.

Participants in the study are above the age of 18 with a leg wound 3-25 centimeters squared (about 1 to 9 inches) and an A1C less than nine. Additionally, to take part in the study, the leg wound must have been present for at least 3 months and non-healing. “This clinical trial can help explore treatments for people with non-healing wounds, including people who have diabetes and others with conditions that affect their quality of life,” according to David Pearce, Ph.D., executive vice president of innovation and research at Sanford Health.

Stem Cell Research

In 2014, the WHO estimated there were 422 million people living with diabetes worldwide. Non-healing wounds can be a complication of diabetes, as can several types of vascular disease. In the United States, 2.4 to 4.5 million people live with chronic wounds on some part of their body. Especially for those already battling a disease, the additional stress of caring for a non-healing wound can lead to infection, pain, and continuing chronic health issues.

Stem cells are being researched to cure diabetes, regenerate body parts, and so much more. The study at Sanford Health has yet to be completed, but the FDA’s support of the clinical trial shows that there is growing interest and investment in this avenue of research.

Stem cell research began in 1981 and has been viewed at both ends of a wide spectrum of possibility: as potential cure-all answer for some of our most enduring medical mysteries, or as an inherently immoral practice capable of great harm should it get into the wrong hands. In recent years, it would seem that stem cell research has become more widely understood and accepted by the general public, and it continues to grow as a body of research with seemingly countless applications.

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Lack of Access to Morphine Causes 25 Million People to Die in Pain Every Year

A Global Pain Crisis

A new special report from the medical journal Lancet has revealed that more than 25 million people — including 2.5 million children — die every year around the globe in terrible pain. The world’s poor lack pain relief in many nations, either because of fears concerning addictive drugs held by authorities, or a simple refusal to acknowledge the needs of the less privileged. Access to morphine would solve this crisis.

“The world suffers a deplorable pain crisis: little to no access to morphine for tens of millions of adults and children in poor countries who live and die in horrendous and preventable pain,” commission co-chair Professor Felicia Knaul told The Guardian, calling the situation “one of the world’s most striking injustices.”

The three-year study found that almost half of all deaths worldwide — that’s 25.5 million annually — lack palliative care and pain relief, resulting in a high level of suffering. An additional 35.5 million people live with chronic pain and distress, bringing the total in crisis to 61 million annually. 5.3 million of the total are children. Many suffer from preventable conditions.

The Future of Pain Management
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As an example, Haiti offers neither hospices nor nursing homes, and most terminally ill patients suffer at home without effective pain relief. “Patients in pain from trauma or malignancy are treated with medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen,” University of Miami School of Medicine expert Antonia P. Eyssallenne testified in the report. “Death in Haiti is cruel, raw, and devastatingly premature. There is often no explanation, no sympathy, and no peace, especially for the poor.”

The vast majority of this suffering (more than 80%) happens in low- and middle-income nations. Morphine is difficult or impossible to obtain in many countries. As an example of the world outlook in terms of ability to meet the need for morphine by country, Russia is able to meet 8% of its need, Vietnam 9%, and Uganda 11%. Palliative care with oral morphine does not exist in many of the poorest countries in the world.

Dr. M. R. Rajagopal testified about his palliative care experience in Kerala, India. He treated a man, Mr. S, suffering from lung cancer and in horrendous pain. Mr. S was given morphine and experienced immense pain relief. Upon returning to the clinic next month, morphine was unavailable, so he calmly told Dr. Rajagopal that he would hang himself without it. This is just one example of the difference morphine can make to the lives of patients.

Options Exist for Pain Management

The commission put forth a number of recommendations to deal with the global crisis of pain management. The most important of these is an “Essential Package” that meets minimum health standards for palliative care using medicine, medical equipment, and people who can administer the care.

Knaul expanded on this recommendation to The Guardian, saying, “immediate-release, off-patent, morphine that can cost just pennies should be made available in both oral and injectable formulations for any patient with medical need.” Access to morphine will ease patients’ suffering from a number of painful conditions.

As countries like the United States grapple with opioid addiction, researchers work to parse out what really causes pain — and how to stop it — potentially finding a solution that will help all humans everywhere. In the meantime, backlash against opioids and resistance to even medical marijuana are hurting patients in other countries who desperately need drugs like morphine to manage pain from devastating diseases like cancer.

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A New Calculator Tries to Tell You How Many Healthy Years of Life You Have Left

As the old saying goes, the only things certain in life are death and taxes. While death is inevitable, the quality of life you experience until death is often within an individual’s control.

This is what our team at the Goldenson Center for Actuarial Research chose to focus on by developing a rigorous measure of quality of life. How many healthy years of life do you have ahead before you become unhealthy?

Everyone understands the benefits of living a long healthy life, but this also has implications for industry and society. Medical costs, financial planning and health support services are directly related to the state of health of an individual or community.

We call this measure of quality of life “healthy life expectancy” and its complement “unhealthy life expectancy.” We define entering an unhealthy state as a severe enough state of disablement that there is no recovery, so you remain unhealthy until death.

It follows that life expectancy – a measure of the total future years an individual is expected to live – is simply the two added together.

Calculating

Imagine a healthy 60-year-old male who exercises regularly, has a healthy diet and healthy body mass index and sleeps at least eight hours a night. By our estimate, he could have an additional 13 years of healthy living compared to his unhealthy counterpart. That’s 13 more years of quality living with family and loved ones.

This is quite a startling revelation, not only because of the significant difference in healthy life expectancy between these two individuals, but also because this difference is driven by lifestyle choices within the individual’s control.

So what factors contribute to a better healthy life expectancy? Two factors that are not lifestyle-related are age and gender. All other things being equal, healthy life expectancy decreases with age. Women have a longer healthy life expectancy compared to men.

We have already seen that diet, exercise and sufficient sleep positively impact healthy life expectancy. Other positive factors that we have incorporated in our model include level of education, level of income, perception of one’s own state of health, moderate alcohol intake, not smoking and absence of Type 2 diabetes. The higher the level of education and income, the higher your healthy life expectancy. Having a positive perception of your state of health helps, too.

Try it yourself

Want to know your own estimate of healthy years ahead? We developed a free online tool that lets you calculate healthy, unhealthy and total life expectancy. This is work in progress.

This is the first time such a measurement tool has been developed. While it’s too early to validate the accuracy of our calculations with actual data, we have been careful to ensure that the model assumptions are based on established actuarial sources and the modeling results are logical and consistent.

It should be noted that healthy life expectancy is simply an educated prediction. Unforeseen incidents – like being hit by a truck – could render this estimate invalid, no matter how well you manage lifestyle habits. Also, there could be other nonmeasurable factors impacting healthy life expectancy that we have not included in our model, like level of stress, a positive attitude to life or social connections.

Putting our model to work

Our team plans to explore some of these practical applications of healthy life expectancy in industry.

For example, the concept of healthy life expectancy can help with retirement financial planning. Annual retirement spending should not be level across your life expectancy. More discretionary retirement spending should happen during healthy years and less during unhealthy years, while spending on basic expenses increases during unhealthy years.

Insurance products can be also designed using healthy life expectancy measures in mind. This can protect an individual against additional basic living expenses during the unhealthy period. One such product could be a deferred long-term care or temporary deferred life annuity, where the deferral period is for healthy life expectancy and the temporary coverage is for the unhealthy period. This can be a significantly cheaper and a more needed product compared to what is available in the marketplace currently.

Since healthy life expectancy is also related to quality of life and level of health, a relative index could compare an individual’s results against a benchmark healthy life expectancy for someone with “average” characteristics. This can then be used as an underwriting tool and to predict future health care costs. Our model could also serve as a patient screening tool for medical providers by incorporating more detailed lifestyle and dietary details as well as prior medical history information.

We hope that other researchers and practitioners will continue to build on this. Then society could focus on not just prolonging life, but prolonging quality of life using our model. As the saying goes, “In the end, it is not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

Jeyaraj Vadiveloo, Director of the Janet and Mark L. Goldenson Center for Actuarial Research, University of Connecticut

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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Here’s How The Latest Balding Cure Will Transform Lives

Balding Hair Today

It’s thought that 50 million men and 30 million women suffer from complete balding or partial hair loss in the US alone. However, a promising new treatment looks set to offer a new way to spur regrowth.

Scientists work at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine have released a new study that details a way to grow hair follicles from progenitor cells – which are broadly similar to stem cells, but don’t have the ability to divide and reproduce indefinitely.

Bioprinting: How 3D Printing is Changing Medicine
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The team found that these cells would form 3D conglomerations known as organoids, groups of cells that take on a structure similar to that of an organ. They then grouped themselves into the form of polarized cysts, which in turn gave way to layered skin. From there, they were able to produce skin bearing hair follicles that could be transplanted onto a mouse. The team observed that the follicles were able to produce hair once they had been placed on the animal.

There are hopes that this same process could be used to treat humans suffering from balding and hair loss. A patient’s own progenitor cells would be used to grow portions of skin with hair follicles in the lab, which would then be transplanted onto their scalp. This could provide relief for conditions ranging from alopecia to fully fledged baldness. The next step in the struggle contra balding is human trials, although there isn’t currently a timeline for when such tests will take place.

New Do

Hair loss has been around forever, but modern science is finally offering new compelling ways to tackle it with long-term results. Up until now, methods of dealing with hair loss and baldness have typically been pretty reactionary. Wigs and toupees are a common options, as well as medicines that spur hair growth – but neither of these routes really get to the root of the problem.

In recent years, there have been varying attempts to use stem cells to address the situation, introducing healthy follicles that are capable of producing hair. Last year, Japan’s largest research company, RIKEN, embarked upon a project to see how stem cells might be used to encourage follicle growth. Earlier this year, scientists at UCLA determined a way to jump-start stem cells responsible for growing hair via a medicine applied to the skin.

People who suffer from hair loss are set to have more options thanks to these projects – and it seems that in most cases, stem cells play a key role in establishing new treatments.

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Lifestyle Changes, Not a Magic Pill, Can Reverse Alzheimer’s

Last summer, a research group from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) quietly published the results of a new approach in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. What they found was striking. Although the size of the study was small, every participant demonstrated such marked improvement that almost all were found to be in the normal range on testing for memory and cognition by the study’s end. Functionally, this amounts to a cure.

These are important findings, not only because Alzheimer’s disease is projected to become ever more common as the population ages, but because current treatment options offer minimal improvement at best. Last July, a large clinical trial found little benefit in patients receiving a major new drug called LMTX. And after that, another hopeful drug designed to target amyloid protein, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, failed its first large clinical trial as well. Just two months ago, Merck announced the results of its trial of a drug called verubecestat, which is designed to inhibit formation of amyloid protein. It was found to be no better than placebo.

The results from UCLA aren’t due to an incredible new drug or medical breakthrough, though. Rather, the researchers used a protocol consisting of a variety of different lifestyle modifications to optimise metabolic parameters – such as inflammation and insulin resistance – that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Participants were counselled to change their diet (a lot of veggies), exercise, develop techniques for stress management, and improve their sleep, among other interventions. The most common ‘side effect’ was weight loss.

The study is notable not only for its remarkable outcomes, but also for the alternative paradigm it represents in the treatment of a complex, chronic disease. We’ve spent billions of dollars in an effort to understand the molecular basis of Alzheimer’s in the hope that it will lead to a cure, or at least to more effective therapies. And although we have greatly enlarged our knowledge of the disease, it has not yielded many successful treatments.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The situation is analogous in kind, if not quite degree, to the many other chronic diseases with which we now struggle, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. While we do have efficacious medications for these conditions, none work perfectly, and all have negative effects. Our understanding of the cellular processes at the root of these diseases is sophisticated, but technical mastery – the grail of a cure – has remained elusive.

Acknowledging these difficulties, the researchers at UCLA opted for a different approach. Beginning from the premise that Alzheimer’s disease is a particular manifestation of a highly complex system in disarray, they sought to optimise the system by changing the inputs. Put another way, the scientists chose to set aside the molecular box which has proven so vexing, and to focus instead on the context of the box itself. Although we cannot say precisely how the intervention worked, on a cellular level, the important thing is that it did work.

The method isn’t entirely novel. Researchers have already shown that multi-faceted, comprehensive lifestyle interventions can significantly improve outcomes in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension. But it’s difficult for these approaches to gain traction for two reasons. First, these protocols are more challenging than simply taking a pill at bedtime. Patients need ongoing education, counselling and support to effect meaningful change. And second, the pharmaceutical mode of treatment is deeply embedded within our current medical system. Insurance companies are set up to pay for medication, not lifestyle change; and physicians are taught pharmacology, not nutrition.

Despite these difficulties, it’s time to start taking these approaches much more seriously. The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease is expected to triple over the next three decades, to nearly 14 million in the United States alone. Diabetes and other chronic diseases are expected to follow a similar trajectory. Trying to confront this epidemic with medication alone will raise a new host of problems, from prohibitive cost to adverse effects, without addressing any underlying cause. We know that comprehensive lifestyle modification can work for many chronic diseases, in some cases as well as medication. It deserves more than passing mention at the end of an annual check-up – it’s time to make it a cornerstone in the treatment not only of Alzheimer’s disease, but of all chronic disease.Aeon counter – do not remove

Clayton Dalton

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Scientists Cured a Deadly Neurological Disease Using a Revolutionary Method

Oral Therapy for Neurological Disease

Sleeping sickness sounds like something from a fairy tale, except it isn’t, especially when you know how much pain and suffering this disease causes. Also known as human African trypanosomiasis, sleeping sickness is a parasitic disease that comes from the bite of a tsetse fly, which infects the central nervous system. It’s symptoms include fever, headache, joint pains, and itching. It gets worse after weeks or months, when a patient starts manifesting neurological symptoms, such as sleeping problems, confusion, poor coordination, and numbness.

Currently, treatment is effective only when sleeping sickness is detected early — i.e., before the onset of the neurological symptoms. The usual method involves a combination of pills and intravenous infusions. That might soon change, however, as researchers from the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), a non-profit based in Geneva, Switzerland, developed a method that relies only on pills. Clinical trial results presented on October 17 at the European Congress on Tropical Medicine and International Health in Antwerp, Belgium, suggest this oral method to be effective, and could potentially eliminate the deadly neurological disease within a decade.

sleeping sickness fexinidazole neurological diseases pills
Image credit: CDC

The pill called fexinidazole was able to cure 91 percent of patients suffering from a severe sleeping sickness. Although the usual combo therapy of infusions and pills cured 98 percent, fexinidazole was able to treat 99 percent of the patients who were still in an early stage of the disease. Usually, these would have to undergo a spinal tap before to determine the viability of infusions, but the revolutionary method makes it simpler. If approved, the researchers are convinced that the relative ease with which fexinidazole is given could save more lives than current methods.

Simple and Cost-Effective

Prior to the combined therapy, the only treatment for sleeping sickness was a toxic arsenic-based drug that ended up nearly as fatal as the disease itself, killing one in 20 patients. Sleeping sickness incidence, according to the World Health Organization, has dropped to around 2,200. However, the combined treatment method still doesn’t come easy. It’s tedious, costly, and requires materials difficult to come by, especially in the African areas where sleeping sickness remains prevalent.

Bioprinting: How 3D Printing is Changing Medicine
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“It’s not just the person with sleeping sickness, it’s the family that takes care of them during years of this neurological, very serious disease,” Philippe Büscher, a sleeping-sickness expert at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium and was not part of the study, told Nature. “Whatever money they have, they’ll spend on this instead of anything else.”

The DNDi continued to search for a better alternative, and in 2007 they stumbled upon fexinidazole, a drug that was previously shelved by Paris-based pharmaceutical company Sanofi. The clinical trials were conducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, areas with high number of sleeping sickness cases. The researchers estimate that, once approved by the European Medicines Agency, developing the new therapy would only cost around $50 million. That might seem a lot, but it’s only a fraction of what pharmaceutical companies usually spend on new drugs.

“This is a success,” Büscher said, “but it is not the end.” Indeed, the DNDi researchers are currently working on an even better option, one that could treat sleeping sickness with just one dose.

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Scientists May Have Discovered a “Functional Cure” for HIV

Suppressing HIV

Science has proposed multiple ways to rid the body of HIV, such as through careful surgery or gene editing, but a new study published this week offers a treatment for the disease unlike anything before it.

Researched by a team of scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), the method involves the use of a novel compound capable of suppressing the HIV virus and preventing its resurgence. TSRI Associate Professor Susana Valente calls it a “Block-and-Lock” approach meant to stop the “reactivation of the virus in cells, even during treatment interruptions, and locks HIV into durable state of latency.”

The compound used to subdue HIV-infected cells is known as didehydro-Cortistatin A (dCA), and it’s based on another natural compound. When introduced to the body, dCA stops the virus’s production, activation, and the replenishment of other infected cells that would contribute to the spread and growth of HIV.

Authors of the recent study (From left to right): Susana Valente, Cari F. Kessing and Chuan Li. Image Credit: The Scripps Research Institute
Authors of the recent study (From left to right): Susana Valente, Cari F. Kessing and Chuan Li. Image Credit: The Scripps Research Institute

“No other anti-retroviral used in the clinic today is able to completely suppress viral production in infected cells in vivo,” explained Valente. “When combining this drug with the standard cocktail of anti-retrovirals used to suppress infection in humanized mouse models of HIV-1 infection, our study found a drastic reduction in virus RNA present—it is really the proof-of-concept for a ‘functional cure.’”

Test Phase

Using lab mice to study the effects of dCA combined with anti-retroviral therapy, the team observed the virus did not reactivate for 19 days. For mice that only received anti-retroviral treatment, the virus returned in just 7 days. Prior to halting treatment, the mice were given a single month’s course using “the maximum tolerable dose of the drug—with virtually no side effects.”

It’s unclear how long HIV could be subdued, though Valente and her team think longer treatments could result in a longer period of time before the virus reappears. It could also result in a permanent suppression. There’s also the matter of hindering the virus again after it rebounds, and taking note of the reduced effects of the initial treatment. The team has already started on the additional research needed to address these questions.

“This is the only class of drugs that stops infected cells from making viruses outright,” continued Valente. “All current antivirals work later in the viral lifecycle, so only a HIV transcriptional inhibitor like dCA can stop the side effects of low-level virus production.”

A timeframe for when dCA could be tested on humans was not given, however its development is sure to bring hope to those studying, and living with, HIV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 1.1 million people in the U.S were living with HIV in 2014, with 40,000 people being diagnosed in 2015.

Science isn’t close to being done with HIV, and it’s hopefully only a matter of time before we have improved ways to fight back against it.

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Scientists Now Know HIV’s Complete Structure, Clearing Path To Cure

Know Your Enemy

A recent discovery from the University of Alabama at Birmingham may provide new inroads to combating the HIV-1 virus, the retrovirus that can cause AIDS. Researchers have solved the last unknown protein structure, called the cytoplasmic tail of gp41 protein, of the virus. Thanks to the tireless work of countless researchers, we now know the complete structure of HIV-1 which could provide important insight on how to properly fight the virus, as well as others with similar structure.

The discovery will also help researchers learn more about how the virus infects human cells, and how it propagates once it does. This particular protein structure plays a key role into the assembly of new viruses. “If we are able to inhibit incorporation of the envelope protein, we inhibit viral replication,” said Jamil Saad, Ph.D., the team’s lead. “This would disarm the virus and prevent disease. The cytoplasmic tail is a critical component of infectivity.”

Image credit: WHO
Image credit: WHO

Millions Living With HIV

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there are an estimated 1.1 million people above the age of 13 living with HIV in the United States alone. Statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that there are 36.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide.

The new insights into HIV’s complete structure could equip scientists who are researching better ways to battle the virus. Although it took arduous work and dedication from the team to finally crack the last remaining structural puzzle piece, it’s certainly paid off. As Saad stated, “It was the most challenging project I have encountered in the past 20 years. Many times I was about to quit, but I have a very persistent lab group.” The team’s work just may lead to future discoveries that would help us create new treatments, if not cures.

Much more research will be needed before researchers are able to weaponize their new knowledge against the virus. Even so, this is a monumental discovery that could be looked at as the turning point in the war against HIV infection.

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Here’s How Sleeping Too Little Literally Transforms Your Brain

Good Night, Sleep Tight

You’ve likely noticed your brain moving a bit slowly after a night of too little sleep. However, a substandard amount of shut-eye has greater consequences than feeling tired and irritable the following day. Research into how sleep affects the brain suggests that the amount of rest we get is of utmost importance.

Earlier this year, scientists at Western University in Ontario performed a study that compared the brain activity of participants when they had slept normally and had a reduced amount of rest. They were challenged with several different brain-teasing games, and given an MRI scan while they were completing the tasks.

Much less activity was observed in the brain when the participant was suffering from a lack of sleep. On an immediate level, we’re much less capable when we have had just a few hours at rest.

Researchers have increasingly found that lack of sleep may be a contributing factor for a number of psychiatric conditions, not just one of their symptoms. Sleep problems contribute to the development of depression and reduce the efficacy of treatment, and may be involved in bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and ADHD. Given recent discoveries about the physiological effect of sleep deprivation on the brain, this might not be so surprising.

Brain Strain

Work published earlier this year found that not getting enough sleep can lead to astrocytes and microglial cells being overactive. Normally, these cells would take care of damaged brain matter and other debris, which is a good thing–but they can cause damage if they do more clean-up than is necessary. Research from the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy found that the brains of sleep-deprived mice had some of their synapses “literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss,” as lead researcher Michele Bellesi told New Scientist.

In the long term, studies have shown that repeatedly under-sleeping can contribute to a host of cognitive conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease. Having the proper amount of good-quality sleep is thought to be an integral part of the process that removes proteins linked to the disorder from the brain.

This year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to a group of scientists for their research into the circadian clock. They discovered that the sleep cycle is encoded in our very genes, demonstrating just how far-reaching our need for sleep is.

We’re learning more about the human brain all the time. The field of neuroscience is constantly advancing, with new technology offering up a better understanding than ever before about what’s really going on in our minds. Given that an estimated 50-70 million Americans have some form of sleep disorder, continued neurological research will be essential to helping more people have healthier, well-rested brains–and in the meanwhile, it’s fortunate that there are ample ways to use modern technology to help you doze off and recuperate.

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Scientists Just Restored Breathing After Paralysis

Breakthrough Treatment

Medical researchers from Case Western Reserve University have developed a treatment that could herald a breakthrough for patients with spinal cord injuries. Using a combination of drug and light therapy, the researchers successfully activated an alternate nerve pathway in a rat with a severed spinal cord, allowing the animal to breathe without the assistance of a ventilator.

Normally, the brain is responsible for sending and receiving the signals necessary to control respiration. However, when a patient’s spine is damaged at the level of the neck, those messages won’t be able to travel along their regular channels. Ventilators are brought in to facilitate patient breathing.

The therapy seems to allow the spine to bypass this channel and commence breathing without the help of the brain. The subject rats had severed spinal cords, so there is no way the brain could have been involved in the breathing.

The research can be found published in Cell Reports.

ventilator-breathing-paralysis-breakthrough
Image Credit: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NIH)

Mitigating Risk

The researchers think the treatment triggers a survival response in the subjects. According to Dr. Jerry Silver, “This is a primitive response that has been kept in the spinal cord for emergencies, like gasping and screaming in response to danger.” The movements observed by the team resembled breathing, yet they are not positive that it would allow for sufficient respiration to sustain life.

Additional research could reveal the tremendous impact this therapy could have for human patients with spinal cord injuries. Dr. Silver mentions that the use of ventilators can often have dire consequences for patients. “Infections and other complications from mechanical ventilators are a leading cause of death after spinal cord injuries.” Bypassing the need for the brain to breathe could help keep the risks from compounding, thus further complicating an already arduous treatment.

That being said, this work is still far from even being tested on human subjects. However, the research into this particular therapy could be illuminating for other spinal injury treatments. By improving our understanding of the spinal network, similar research could provide key discoveries that may help patients in the more immediate future.

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New Study Puts Us One Step Closer to Being Able to Starve Cancer Cells

The Link Between Cancer and Sugar

Over the years, scientists have dedication innumerable time, energy, and resources to cancer research in an attempt to discover — or develop — cures. One of the most notable observations science has made comes from cancer’s relationship with sugar. While the extent to which the two relate has previously been unidentifiable, a new study sheds light on the relationship.

Referred to as the Warburg effect, we know cancer (not unlike the human body) needs sugar for energy and to promote growth. The amount of sugar the cancerous cells require, however, is much higher than what healthy cells need — as is the rate at which cancer cells turn sugar in lactic acid.

Due to the nature of the Warburg effect, it’s been difficult to firmly establish whether it is a contributing cause of cancer, or the result of it. The latest study, the result of a nine-year long research project, has provided new insights about the metabolic process, revealing that it does, indeed, stimulate the creation of cancerous tumors.

“Our research reveals how the hyperactive sugar consumption of cancerous cells leads to a vicious cycle of continued stimulation of cancer development and growth,” said researcher and Prof. Johan Thevelein from KU Leuven in Belgium. “Thus, it is able to explain the correlation between the strength of the Warburg effect and tumor aggressiveness.”

Thevelein and his team used yeast to conduct their research, as yeast contains the same ‘Ras’ proteins found in cancer cells. It also has a highly active sugar metabolism. The team observed that the introduction of a large amount of sugar caused the Ras proteins to overreact, leading to an increased amount of yeast and cancer cells created.

“It is striking that this mechanism has been conserved throughout the long evolution of yeast cell to human,” added Thevelein.

Enabling Future Research

It has been proposed in the past that cancer cells could be starved of sugar, thereby preventing them from creating more cells. The problem with that method is there’s no way to inhibit cancer cells without also affecting healthy cells, though that may be slowly changing.

In any case, the research done by Thevelein and his team, published in the journal Nature Communications, makes such a treatment slightly more plausible. Thevelein said the team’s work will “provide a foundation for future research in this domain, which can now be performed with a much more precise and relevant focus.”

The research did not, however, offer an explanation regarding the cause of the Warburg effect. Additional research would be required to establish the phenomenon’s cause.

The fight against cancer has made significant progress this year: from the FDA approving new treatments, to a recent study explaining how a modified virus could kill cancerous cells. It’s unclear how far away we are from having cures, but many remain hopeful they will eventually be developed.

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Ancient Viruses May be Our Only Defense Against a Threat That Can Kill 10 Million Annually

Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotic resistance — the phenomenon in which bacteria stop responding to certain antibiotics — is a growing threat around the world. It’s expected to kill 10 million people annually by 2050.

And it hasn’t been easy to develop new drugs in order to stay ahead of the problem. Many major pharmaceutical companies have stopped developing new antibiotics, and the drugs that are still in development have faced numerous stumbling blocks toward approval.

Image Source: National Summary Data, Antibiotic Resistance

So some drugmakers are starting to turn to other solutions, including one that’s actually had a fairly long history: phage therapy.

The treatments are made of bacteria-killing viruses called bacteriophages, or phages for short. Discovered in the early 1900s, bacteriophages have the potential to treat people with bacterial infections. They’re commonly used in parts of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as another way to treat infections that could otherwise be treated by antibiotics. Because they are programmed to fight bacteria, phages don’t pose much of a threat to human safety on a larger scale.

“There’s huge potential there that regular antibiotics don’t have,” NYT columnist Carl Zimmer told Business Insider in 2015. “I think what we’d actually have to work on is how we approve medical treatments to make room for viruses that kill bacteria.”

A conversation about approval pathways is already underway, with a handful of companies starting to get into the space. The trials, while still in early stages, could one day change the way we confront antibiotic resistance.

A Need For New Options

Dr. Paul Grint, CEO of one small company, AmpliPhi Biosciences, is trying to turn phage therapy into a tool that doctors might be able to one day use alongside antibiotics to treat serious infections. The company’s working on phage-based treatments to treat Staphylococcus aureus, a bug implicated in sinus infections, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bug connected to lung infections in people with cystic fibrosis.

There are a number of reasons why these treatments are gaining some momentum now: for one, there’s a big need for antibiotics. In September, the World Health Organization warned that the world is running out of antibiotics.

“There is an urgent need for more investment in research and development for antibiotic-resistant infections including TB, otherwise we will be forced back to a time when people feared common infections and risked their lives from minor surgery,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a news release.

For phages in particular, there have been a number of advancements that help make it more straightforward for phage therapy to go through the FDA approval process. Grint told Business Insider that includes being able to sequence the bugs, which would help determine that you’re absolutely getting the right phages in treatment.

AmpliPhi also has a way to manufacture the therapy that’s up to regulatory standards set up by the FDA.

Using Phage Therapy in the US

While phage therapy has been around for more than a century, Grint said there’s still a lot of education that needs to happen to get doctors and researchers on board, especially in the US. In July, the FDA and National Institutes of Health hosted a workshop regarding bacteriophages, which Ampliphi and others participated in.

There are also some researchers like a group at the University of California at San Diego that are researching phage therapy. In 2016, for example, researchers at UCSD used AmpliPhi’s therapy to treat a professor at the university who had a drug-resistant infection.

Even so, the US is treading carefully into the world of phage therapy. For now, AmpliPhi is able to recruit patients under the FDA’s “compassionate use” pathway, making it mostly a case-by-case situation for now when other antibiotics have failed.

The hope is to use that information, along with some phase 1 studies that are happening in Australia to gear up for a phase 2 trial in the US. The company’s aiming to start that trial in the second half of 2018, meaning it still might be a while before we start using viruses to treat our bacterial infections.

The post Ancient Viruses May be Our Only Defense Against a Threat That Can Kill 10 Million Annually appeared first on Futurism.

New Research Shows Asymmetry in Bacteria Might Help Us Fight Antibiotic Resistance

Membrane Vacuum Cleaner

In the ongoing war to defeat antibiotic resistance, a new study has identified a protein that acts as a “membrane vacuum cleaner” — an attribute that means it could serve as a new target for antibiotics. The research indicates that the process of purging the outer membrane of gram-negative bacteria of specific lipids (which requires a particular protein) might be a vulnerability drugs could target. More specifically, antibiotics could possibly enhance their existing effectiveness by using the protein researchers identified, or even decrease the virulence of many common bacteria such as E coli.

Gram-negative bacteria have two membranes — one inner and one outer. This new research implicates the outer rather than the inner membrane. The outer membrane is an asymmetrical bilayer composed of inner and outer leaflets. The inner leaflet is made up of phospholipids, and the outer leaflet is made up of mostly lipopolysaccharides, which create a sugar-coated surface that efficiently excludes hydrophobic molecules and resists antibiotics — as well as other compounds that might endanger the bacteria.

However, the outer leaflet requires a cleaning system, because phospholipids from the inner leaflet accumulate inside it creating “islands” that render the outer membrane more permeable to toxic compounds. This, in turn, makes the entire bacterium more vulnerable.

The asymmetry and permeability barrier of the outer membrane must be restored in order to keep the bacterium healthy, which means those phospholipid molecules must be removed. This is the job of the maintenance of lipid asymmetry (Mla) system, which most Gram-negative bacteria have. The focus of the recent research is the MlaA protein, a component of the Mla system.

Newcastle University Professor of Membrane Protein Structural Biology and lead author Bert van den Berg explained in a press release: “Our three-dimensional structures and functional data show that MlaA forms a donut in the inner leaflet of the outer membrane. This binds phospholipids from the outer leaflet and removes these via the central channel, somewhat similar to a vacuum cleaner.”

antibiotic-resistance-bacteria-asymmetry
Image Credit: Bert van den Berg/Newcastle University

The Threat of Antibiotic Resistance

The researchers plan to continue to study the MlaA protein as a target for antibiotics. This work is essential, as the development of new drugs is being outpaced by antibiotic resistance. As such, many researchers have pivoted to focusing bacteria themselves; in space, in nature, and even at the nanoscale for quantum effects. Researchers are also working to attack antibiotic resistance at the chemical and molecular level, searching for the genetic roots of resistance, using CRISPR and otherwise preventing expression of genes that enable resistance. The issue itself is at a crisis point, according to authorities like the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and the United Nations.

This new research will aid in our ongoing fight against this critical issue. Professor van den Berg commented in the release, “Our study illuminates a fundamental and important process in Gram-negative bacteria and is a starting point to determine whether the Mla system of Gram-negative pathogens could be targeted by drugs to decrease bacterial virulence, and to make various antibiotics more effective.”

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Researchers Discover Why Lower Socioeconomic Status Can Lead to a Shorter Life

Stressful Health

Studies have shown that the worse off a person is financially, the more likely they are to have health problems. But what are the concrete factors that contribute to this link between socioeconomic status and health? Is it a lack of access to medicine and healthy foods? Are the smoking rates different?

According to Mel Bartley, a professor emerita of medical sociology at University College London, those factors only tell part of the story. “If you exactly knew somebody’s diet, exercise level, smoking habit, or alcohol consumption, you would be about 30 to 40 percent likely to accurately predict how long they are going to live,” she told The Guardian. “But what’s the rest? That’s the big question.”

Researchers from the U.K.’s Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) are attempting to answer this question by studying biological markers (“biomarkers”) in the blood of 40,000 participants spanning a massive socioeconomic spectrum. Their initial analysis has been published in Scientific Reports.

“What’s happened historically is that social scientists have tended to measure health in a simple way – just asking people: ‘How do you rate your health right now?’” explained Meena Kumari, an epidemiologist and co-leader of the study. “But we wanted to bring together the biology and the social science.”

Biomarkers allow them to get an objective measure of each participant’s health and not just their perception of it. “These chemicals are like molecular flags: they allow us to see what happens inside people as they’re going through their life course, which they themselves might not be so aware of,” said Kumari.

Social Biology

Inflammation is a common response to a variety of ailments, including infections and stress, and chronic inflammation has been linked to conditions like diabetes, cancer, and depression. Research has even shown that people who have survived stressful natural disasters are at a higher risk of developing serious illnesses later in life.

To better understand the link between socioeconomic status and health, Kumari’s team focused their study on two molecules tied to inflammation: fibrinogen and C-reactive protein (CRP). When analyzing those molecules in 8,000 participants, the team found that lower socioeconomic status directly correlated with higher levels of these inflammation-linked molecules earlier in life.

The main takeaway from this research is something that we’ve all known in a casual sense, but that can now be backed up by science. Stress is intrinsically linked to our biology, and increased exposure to stress — a condition unfortunately familiar to those in lower socioeconomic standing — causes changes in our bodies that result in increased inflammation. That chronic inflammation, in turn, wreaks havoc on our health.

Of course, being able to point to higher levels of fibrinogen and CRP as concrete evidence of the link between socioeconomic status and health is just the first step. Finding ways to alleviate that stress to improve health is the ultimate goal.

“We need to understand what it is about living in a tougher social and economic situation that causes this underlying stress, in order to argue for more effective changes in policy,” asserted Bartley.

“Understanding the underlying biological pathways will help us to target what it is we should be focusing on,” added Kumari. “Our data suggest that it might be stress that we need to be thinking about, particularly for working age people. But this is just the beginning – there’s still a lot to do.”

The post Researchers Discover Why Lower Socioeconomic Status Can Lead to a Shorter Life appeared first on Futurism.

In Japan, Chickens Have Been Genetically Engineered to Lay Eggs That Fight Cancer

Genetically Engineered Eggs are Better than Golden Eggs

People often warn about the amount of cholesterol you get from eating too many eggs. But what if there were health benefits to eggs as well — like drugs that fight cancer, hepatitis, and other diseases? Japanese researchers from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) did just that when they successfully genetically engineered chickens to lay eggs that contain a special pharmaceutical agent.

How CRISPR Works: The Future of Genetic Engineering and Designer Humans
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According to a report by The Japan News, the researchers at AIST genetically modified precursor cells of chicken sperm to produce a type of protein that’s related to the immune system called interferon beta.

This protein has been found to be effective in treating malignant skin cancer and hepatitis. The modified cells were used to fertilize eggs that produced male chicks. A few rounds of cross-breeding the male chicks resulted in chickens that inherited the genes with interferon beta.

Cheaper Drugs

Reagent import and sales firm Cosmo Bio Co. in Tokyo, which developed the method together with the AIST researchers and the the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Ibaraki Prefecture, now has three hens that lay eggs every one or two day. The egg whites from those eggs contain interferon beta.

Why go through such a tedious process? The project’s goal was to potentially reduce the costs of making drugs. “This is a result that we hope leads to the development of cheap drugs,” Hironobu Hojo, professor at Osaka University, told The Japan News. “In the future, it will be necessary to closely examine the characteristics of the agents contained in the eggs and determine their safety as pharmaceutical products.”

This is just one example of how gene editing methods can reshape industries, especially healthcare. Others have worked on applying gene editing such as CRISPR directly into cancer cells or to a patient. Producing cheap drugs from chicken eggs is another possibility — and a rather creative one, at that.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to work on stabilizing the interferon beta contents of the eggs to produce some a dozen milligrams to 100 milligrams from a single egg.

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Magic Mushrooms “Reset” Key Brain Circuits in Depressed People

‘Shrooming Through Sadness

Psychedelics like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin are popular for their use as party drugs, but less so for what researchers claim to be their therapeutic effects — which has been a major focus for a number of clinical trials in the last decade. Magic mushrooms, for example, have been the focus of some recent work that saw how it could help with treating some of the symptoms of clinical depression. For instance, a study from the U.S. last year showed how a single does of psilocybin can lift anxiety and depression felt by cancer patients.

Now, scientists from the Imperial College London have found how psilocybin, which is the active psychedelic compound that occurs naturally in magic mushrooms, can “reset” brain activity in patients suffering from depression. Their study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports on Friday, highlights how psilocybin gave patients a “kick start” in fighting clinical depression.

psychadelics magic mushrooms psilocybin mental health
Image credit: Robin Carhart-Harris/Imperial College London

The researchers at Imperial gave two doses (10 mg and 25 mg) of psilocybin, with a week in between each dose, to 20 patients with a treatment-resistant form of depression. Immediately after receiving the doses, the patients said they felt a decrease in depressive symptoms, which MRI scans of their brains revealed to have been due to a reduce in blood flow to areas involved in handling emotional responses, stress, and fear.

Rebooting Through Depression with Magic Mushrooms

In short, the patients experienced a sort of reboot. “We have shown for the first time clear changes in brain activity in depressed people treated with psilocybin after failing to respond to conventional treatments,” Robin Carhart-Harris, head of Psychedelic Research — there’s such a thing — at Imperial, said in a press release. “Several of our patients described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment and often used computer analogies. For example, one said he felt like his brain had been ‘defragged’ like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt ‘rebooted’.”

Bioprinting: How 3D Printing is Changing Medicine
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It would seem that during the drug “trip,” brain networks went through an initial disintegration that was followed by a re-integration afterwards, when the patients “come down” from the psychedelic. “Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary ‘kick start’ they need to break out of their depressive states and these imaging results do tentatively support a ‘reset’ analogy. Similar brain effects to these have been seen with electroconvulsive therapy,” Carhart-Harris added.

The researchers acknowledged, however, that while their study provides a new window into the brains of people who’ve taken psychedelics, the small number of patients tested and the absence of a control/placebo group limits the significance of their study. “Larger studies are needed to see if this positive effect can be reproduced in more patients,” said senior author David Nutt, director of the Neuropsychopharmacology unit of the Brain Sciences division at Imperial. “But these initial findings are exciting and provide another treatment avenue to explore.” The researchers also warned against self-medicating using such psychedelics.

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An FDA Panel Approved a Breakthrough Gene Therapy That Fixes Hereditary Blindness

Unanimous Vote

After some emotional testimony from doctors and patients, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel has voted unanimously to approve a gene therapy that improves hereditary blindness. The treatment will now progress to a final decision from the FDA and, if approved, will be the first gene therapy legally available in the United States for an inherited disorder. The FDA is under no obligation to follow the advisory board’s recommendation but usually does.

The treatment, which will be marketed as Luxturna, fixes a mutation in the RPE65 gene. It involves a single treatment to each eye, which introduces genetically engineered virus particles carrying a corrected version of the mutated gene. Spark Therapeutics, the treatment’s developer, estimates that 6,000 people around the world could benefit from this treatment. More than 90 percent of the patients treated in the study showed some improvement in eyesight within just a few days of treatment.

Image credit: Spark Therapeutics
Spark Therapeutics could make history with the first legally available gene therapy in the US. Image Credit: Spark Therapeutics

Gene Therapy Breakthrough

This is a huge step forward for the field of gene therapeutics. “[O]n multiple fronts, it’s a first and ushers in a new era of gene therapy,” assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Oregon Health and Science University, Paul Yang, told NPR.

Alone, this treatment could also be applied to other formally incurable genetic eye diseases. “There are a lot of retinal diseases like this, and if you added them together it’s a big thing because they are all incurable,” says lead researcher Albert Maguire in an interview with NPR before the hearing.

Other gene therapy clinical trials are currently being held around the world. According to the Washington Post, diseases ranging from hemophilia to Huntington’s Disease, an inherited condition that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain, are being targeted for gene therapy treatments.

As with any medical treatment, successful gene therapy doesn’t come without risk. Still, this is huge progress toward correcting previously incurable conditions. This treatment and others like it have the potential to transform countless lives in the very near future.

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The First Gene Therapy That Fixes Hereditary Blindness May Finally Get FDA Approval

Second Sight

Today, a panel will advise the US Food and Drug Administration whether Luxturna, a gene therapy treatment developed by Spark Therapeutics, should be approved for general usage. The treatment has already been used to improve the eyesight of more than two dozen people with retinal disorders.

Gene therapy typically uses an engineered virus to administer a patient with a faulty gene with a corrected version. Rather than simply responding to the symptoms of the condition in question, it attempts to make changes to the individual’s genetic make-up in order to solve the problem at its root.

How CRISPR Works: The Future of Genetic Engineering and Designer Humans
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Luxturna fixes a mutation in a gene known as RPE65, which is responsible for telling the body how to produce a protein that’s essential for normal eyesight. It introduces billions of engineered virus particles bearing a corrected version of the gene to the retinal cell, via a quick injection to the eyes.

The company estimates that 6,000 people around the world could benefit from Luxturna, including between 1,000 and 2,000 people in the US who suffer from diminished eyesight. The majority of these people would eventually lose their current level of vision entirely without treatment, and there are currently no drugs designed for people with an RPE65 mutation that are approved by the FDA.

However, Luxturna is not without its drawbacks. It’s not an outright cure, and it doesn’t give recipients full 20/20 vision. There’s currently no data on how long its effects last, so there’s a chance that patients’ sight might begin to recede once again over time.

Cost is also a major factor in how accessible it is. Two of the treatment’s biggest competitors, Strimvelis and Kymriah, cost around $700,000 and $475,000 respectively. Consequently it seems likely that Luxturna have to drop in price to be a feasible competitor. They might be losing ground, as Spark has announced plans to set up a program to help patients cover out-of-pocket costs like travel to Spark-proffering facilities.

Gene Therapy

Gene therapy has the potential to make huge improvements to the quality of life of people suffering from various genetic diseases. This blossoming form of treatment could well be the wave of the future.

“This is what I believe medicine is going to be like for the next 20, 30, if not 50 years,” said Spark CEO Jeff Marrazzo, speaking to the MIT Technology Review. “I think this is the beginning of an age that is going to fundamentally change medicine.”

We’ve already seen projects that use gene therapy to tackle everything from brain diseases to broken bones. However, these treatments will all require FDA approval — so scientists working in this sphere will likely be watching today’s decision regarding Luxturna very closely.

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A New Company Allows You to Monetize Your Genetic Data

Genetic Wallet

The organizations and scientists working hard to develop the next generation of medical treatments and pharmaceuticals rely on genetic data for their research. That data has to come from somewhere, and now, a startup has formed to give individuals the opportunity to get paid for the information that’s locked away in their genes.

How CRISPR Works: The Future of Genetic Engineering and Designer Humans
Click to View Full Infographic

The market value of genetic data hit $5.9 billion in 2010, a figure that’s predicted to grow significantly in the coming years. However, at present, a small number of genomics corporations, pharmaceutical firms, and scientific and medical institutions control all the available information.

Zenome wants to change that. The startup’s argument is that individuals should control the rights to their own genetic data. Using blockchain technology, the company plans to create a network that will offer anyone who needs genetic information the ability to purchase access to it while ensuring the privacy of the genetic donor.

Cash for Data

Because genetic data contains so many details about a person, ensuring that the data is not linked to the donor’s identity is vital if a service like the one proposed by Zenome is going to be successful. Though best known as the technology that allows traders to exchange cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ether anonymously, blockchain could be the perfect way to ensure that an individual’s identity is decoupled from their genetic information.

However, this anonymity is just one advantage of blockchain technology. It can also add an extra layer of security. A large-scale leak of genetic data would be a huge scandal for companies conducting research, so storing this data on a blockchain would lessen the risk of such a scenario.

Of course, Zenome’s biggest selling point is the agency it offers to individuals. The platform would give donors added control over who can access their genetic data and for what purpose while still allowing them to make money off it.

When the Zenome platform goes live, ZNA tokens will be the currency used to buy access to data. The startup will launch an initial coin offering pre-sale on October 17, at which point interested parties will receive a 100 percent bonus on any ZNA tokens they purchase.

Disclosure: Several members of the Futurism team, including the editors of this piece, are personal investors in a number of cryptocurrency markets. Their personal investment perspectives have no impact on editorial content.

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Scientists Have Discovered a Drug That Fixes Cavities and Regrows Teeth

Goodbye, Fillings

Dental fillings may soon be left in the ash heap of history, thanks to a recent discovery about a drug called Tideglusib. Developed for and trialled to treat Alzheimer’s disease, the drug also happens to promote the natural tooth regrowth mechanism, allowing the tooth to repair cavities.

Tideglusib works by stimulating stem cells in the pulp of teeth, the source of new dentine. Dentine is the mineralized substance beneath tooth enamel that gets eaten away by tooth decay.

Teeth can naturally regenerate dentine without assistance, but only under certain circumstances. The pulp must be exposed through infection (such as decay) or trauma to prompt the manufacture of dentine. But even then, the tooth can only regrow a very thin layer naturally—not enough to repair cavities caused by decay, which are generally deep. Tideglusib changes this outcome because it turns off the GSK-3 enzyme, which stops dentine from forming.

Image Credit: ales_kartal/Pixabay
Image Credit: ales_kartal/Pixabay

In the research, the team inserted small, biodegradable sponges made of collagen soaked in Tideglusib into cavities. The sponges triggered dentine growth and within six weeks, the damage was repaired. The collagen structure of the sponges melted away, leaving only the intact tooth.

Thus far, the procedure has only been used in mouse teeth. Yet as King’s College London Dental Institute Professor and lead author Paul Sharpe told The Telegraph, “Using a drug that has already been tested in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease provides a real opportunity to get this dental treatment quickly into clinics.”

He added, “The simplicity of our approach makes it ideal as a clinical dental product for the natural treatment of large cavities, by providing both pulp protection and restoring dentine.”

The post Scientists Have Discovered a Drug That Fixes Cavities and Regrows Teeth appeared first on Futurism.

Hearts Can Now Survive Outside of the Human Body

Heart Safe Box

Conventional methods of heart transplantation require that a donated organ reach its recipient within four hours of removal. Now, scientists at Sweden’s Lund University have made a major breakthrough that extends that timeframe for organ donation to at least 12 hours and perhaps as high as several days. This extra time could significantly widen the area where any given heart can travel for a transplant, putting us one step closer to a borderless network for organ donation.

An Exponential Timeline of Organ Transplants
Click to View Full Infographic

The method involves a mini-heart lung machine that provides the donated heart with an oxygenated solution containing vital substances. Testing done on animal hearts showed that the device was able to preserve a heart for up to 24 hours, and last month, the researchers were able to store a human heart in the machine for three hours prior to transplanting it into a patient at Skåne University Hospital.

“The heart started at once with a good mobility in the whole heart, including the septum between the ventricles, which we normally do not see,” Johan Nilsson, senior consultant cardiotoracic surgeon, reported in a Lund University press release. If five more tests of three hours are successful, the researchers plan to increase the period gradually to 24 hours.

Global Organ Network

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, nearly 4,000 patients in the United States are waiting for a heart, but given the short window of viability for the organs, heart donations are limited to a patient’s general region.

Nilsson is looking forward to the new possibilities that a longer transport time affords. “This new method gives increased opportunities for exchanges with countries far away, such as between Europe and eastern United States, and it also makes it possible to use older donors,” he explained.

Should the device be made available in the United States, we could see a nationwide network of hearts become available to patients. Recipients living near major airports, in particular, would have increased opportunities for organ donation, but as the longest domestic flights in the continental U.S. are under seven hours, that leaves some wiggle room for ground transport to patients in more remote areas as well.

In the future, we could see the development of similar devices for other organs, but in the meantime, this system has the potential to save thousands of lives simply by extending the window of opportunity.

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Scientists Have Found the Gene That Governs an Organism’s Waking Life

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The Biology of Sleep Cycles

The day-night cycle is an inescapable part of living on planet Earth, so it wasn’t too surprising when scientists discovered that organisms (including humans) have an internal body clock that follows this same day-night rhythm; however, when we look at ostensibly drab or banal subjects like the rhythms that govern wakefulness and sleep, the “why” and the “how” transform the quotidian and banal into fascinating challenges requiring the most creative minds in the world.

This is exactly what happened to three American biologists, Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael Young. Last week, they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for discovering the master genes that govern a creature’s waking life and, ultimately, solving the mystery of the body’s circadian rhythms.

Scientists who lived during the 18th century, like the Frenchman Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan, saw the first hints of the body’s internal clock when plants that were kept at a constant temperature in a dark cupboard retained their daily rhythm, opening and closing their leaves at regular intervals. Strangely, de Mairan believed this was because plants can “sense the Sun without ever seeing it.”

Of course, this wasn’t actually the cause, and we can prove that now, thanks to the work of the latest Nobel winning scientists.

Sleep is in the Genes

For their work, the three American biologists above isolated the gene in fruit flies that determines the rhythm of a living organism’s waking life. In so doing, as the Nobel prize committee noted in their press release, the scientists peered into the machinery that “explains how plants, animals, and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.”

To break this down a bit, the active “period” gene encodes a protein inside the cell overnight. This protein later degrades during the daytime hours. This process goes on, and on, and on, governing the rhythm of when we are awake and when we are not.

In the human brain, this gene exists in a tiny part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. It’s linked to the retina in the eye and, farther back, it connects to the brain’s pineal gland, which secretes the sleep hormone melatonin.

Prof Robash, a 73-year-old faculty member of Brandeis University of Waltham in Massachusetts, noted that, when he published his study in the 1980s, he never had any “grandiose thoughts” about the significance of the discovery. But since then, it has become a major topic in scientific circles and the significance well understood.

Robash explains the gravity of the discovery, noting that, ultimately, this process is a fundamental component of our biology and has a significant impact on how organisms function on the cellular level: “It’s [now] pretty clear that it has its fingers in all kinds of basic processes by influencing an enormous fraction of the genome.”

American Insomniacs

So what does this mean for you? How does it impact your day-to-day life? Well, for starters, it allows scientists to better understand the biology of sleep. This, in turn, helps us understand how to achieve optimum conditions for rest. And one of the things that we know now is the role that deep touch has when it comes to sleep.

But to back up a bit, in 2014, 30 to 35 percent of Americans had brief symptoms of insomnia, this is caused by a myriad of factors and the symptoms usually last no more than three months. However, a full 10 percent of the American population suffers from chronic insomnia disorder, which occurs at least three times weekly for at least three months.

Obviously, insomnia can affect productivity at work or undermine job advancement. In the U.S. alone, about $63 billion in lost work is attributed to insomnia-related work performance each year. It can prevent you from performing at your best in school. It could also exacerbate background depression, cause anxiety attacks, and even cause death.

Image credit: hernanpba
Image credit: hernanpba

Earlier this year, The Center for Sleep Research at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) reported that up to 70 million Americans suffer sleep disorders, which adds a maddening $15.9 billion to the national healthcare bill. So what’s a sleepless insomniac to do?

Perscriptions are one option, but they can have high reoccurring costs and may not be suitable for all individuals. Moreover, as a study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders notes, “drugs are often addictive or have side effects, and psychological/behavioral methods require long treatment sessions and it may take time to achieve satisfactory results….Hence there is a need for additional, simpler methods to promote and maintain better sleep.”

And it turns out there are simpler solutions to sleepless nights on top of us (nearly) every night. This is where deep touch comes in. Blankets actually affect how you sleep, and weighted blankets have proven to be exceptionally effective at helping you keep your eyes shut.

Weighted blankets spread an even amount of pressure across the entire body while you’re asleep. Pellets inside the blanket give it roughly 10 percent of the user’s body weight, and gravity forces contours to form around the shape of the sleeper’s body. The pressure is a kind of deep touch therapy. This increases serotonin levels, which then creates melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate sleep. This is similar to the way swaddling a baby helps them sleep.

Gravity Blanket, made by Gravity Products LLC, is specifically designed to do all of this. With a tried-and-tested gravity blanket, your body can heal and repair heart and blood vessels, battle illness, and regulate hormone levels.

Head here to check out the science behind the gravity blanket’s proprioceptive input and select a blanket of your very own.

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New Stem Cell Line Could Open New Doors in Medical Research and Treatment

A Fresh Start for Stem Cells

Researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the U.K. and their collaborators have developed what could potentially be a tabula rasa, or clean slate, for stem cells, which could allow any type of cells to grow and develop. This breakthrough study is published today in the journal Nature, and it shows how researchers, for the first time, created what’s known as Expanded Potential Stem Cells (EPSCs) in mice.

Prior to this breakthrough, stem cell lines existed in two basic types — embryonic stem cells (ES) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). In theory, both stem cell lines can grow to a good number of cell types, and previous research has shown them to be the most effective in doing so. However, ES and iPS have limitations: they aren’t capable of growing into every type of cell, as they’re already limited to only particular cell lines right at the onset. On the other hand, EPSCs are able to form whatever type of cell because they possess features similar to that of the very first cells of their source organism’s embryo. In the case of this study, it was mice. The team is confident, however, that they can develop similar EPSCs from humans as well as other mammals.

To develop the mice EPSCs, the researchers cultured mice cells from their earliest stage of development — i.e., when the fertilized egg has divided into only 4 to 8 cells, each still able to grow into any cell type. In contrast, ES cells are usually taken from around the 100-cell stage in development. Additionally, the researchers developed mouse ES and iPS cells into this new condition and grow EPSCs from them. In short, they were able to turn back the development clock to the earliest type of cell.

Recharging Regenerative Medicine

Already, scientists have been able to achieve quite a lot using available ES and iPS cells. They’re now able to turn skin cells into motor neurons, treat baldness, and even slow aging in mice using stem cells. Indeed, the potential of stem cells in regenerative medicine is currently unprecedented. The new study’s EPSCs can push even further. Accordingly, these EPSCs are the first stem cells able to produce all three types of blastocyst stem cells — differentiated cells from a fertilized egg — which expands their potential for development.

“This is a fantastic achievement, by working with the very earliest cells, this study has created stem cell lines that can form both embryonic and all the extra-embryonic cells. The methods and insights from this study in mice could be used to help establish cultures of similar stem cells from other mammalian species, including those where no ES or iPS cell lines are available yet,” study co-author Hiro Nakauchi of Stanford University explained in a press release.

“The research also has great implications for human regenerative medicine as stem cells with improved development potential open up new opportunities. Further research in this area is vital, so that we can properly explore the potential of these cells,” he added.

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Scientists Have Successfully Reversed Advanced Heart Failure in Mice

Studying Heart Failure

A team of researches from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas have discovered a way to reverse severe heart failure, one of the leading causes of death from heart disease. The discovery, which involves “silencing” the Hippo pathway in the heart, could lead to better treatments for those at risk of heart failure — potentially ones that could eliminate the condition entirely.

Contrary to its name, heart failure (also known as congestive heart failure) is not a condition in which the heart suddenly stops beating. Instead, it’s a condition in which the heart is unable to pump enough blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. It’s most likely to occur in those who have experienced a heart attack, during which blood and oxygen cease to flow to the heart. This lack of oxygen causes part of the heart muscle to die and be replaced by dead scar tissue, known as fibroblasts. Over time, the heart weakens to the point of being completely unable to support the body.

To study the condition, the team from Baylor College started by creating a mouse model that could be substituted for a human heart suffering from heart failure. Animals models are often used to study the same/similar diseases and conditions that can affect people. In the case of heart failure, the hearts of mice and humans are incredibly alike, making the former perfect for studying the heart and testing potential treatments.

“One of the interests of my lab is to develop ways to heal heart muscle by studying pathways involved in heart development and regeneration,” explained Dr. James Martin, Vivian L. Smith Chair in Regenerative Medicine at Baylor and corresponding author of the research. “In this study, we investigated the Hippo pathway, which is known from my lab’s previous studies to prevent adult heart muscle cell proliferation and regeneration.”

Improving the Heart

The decision to hamper the Hippo pathway came as a result of the increased activity that occurs within it during heart failure. According to John Leach, primary author and graduate student of molecular physiology and biophysics at Baylor College, the team believed if they could turn it off, the heart may improve. Turns out they were right.

“Once we reproduced a severe stage of injury in the mouse heart, we inhibited the Hippo pathway,” said Leach. “After six weeks we observed that the injured hearts had recovered their pumping function to the level of the control, healthy hearts.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that over 5.7 million people in the U.S. live with heart failure, with about 50 percent of people diagnosed expected to die within five years. While Dr. Martin and Leach’s research yields favorable results, there is more work that needs to be done with regards to hindering the Hippo pathway.

Specifically, turning off the Hippo pathway has two effects: one is increased muscle cells capable of surviving inside the damaged heart, while the second is the altered fibrosis. Fibrosis plays a key role in the dead scar tissue that forms during a heart attack. Before any test can be done on people, the team will need to ascertain a better understanding of the changes in fibrosis. Hopefully that leads to a positive discovery that can save more people sooner, rather than later.

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Is Amazon Moving Forward with Plans to Sell Medicine Online?

Selling Medicine Online

E-retail giant Amazon has reportedly been considering a move to sell prescription drugs online for quite some time. Back in July, Jeff Bezos’ billion-dollar company was said to have set up a secret lab called “1492” — a reference to the old rhyme about Christopher Columbus — as Amazon supposedly wants to usher in a new age in healthcare with the introduction of selling medicine online. The stealthy lab is developing plans to set up a new healthcare system by making medical data services available for the Amazon Echo.

With this move, it seems that the company is serious about entering the pharmacy business to sell medicine online. According to an email from Amazon, which CNBC viewed together with an anonymous, well-informed source, the company is working out the details of its strategy to enter the multibillion-dollar prescription drug industry — a $560-billion-per-year market, to be exact.

To do this, Amazon needs a dedicated team, which sources close to the company said it has already started to create. Amazon has been looking for people to be part of a project simply called “healthcare,” and among its first hires was Mark Lyons, an executive from the nonprofit health insurance company Premera Blue Cross. Reportedly, Lyons created an internal pharmacy benefit manager for Amazon’s employees, the success of which could determine how they plan to proceed with this pharmacy business. Eric French, the VP for Amazon Consumables, has also consulted with a number of people about this possible move.

Disrupting Healthcare

Amazon is a leading force in the impending era of artificial intelligence (AI) in business, alongside Google, which is dominating. Amazon’s presence in the Internet of Things (IoT), thanks to the Echo and Alexa, is obvious. The company’s cloud platform, Amazon Web Services, has also become a go-to for companies in the health and medicine industry. If the company does end up selling prescription drugs online, it could disrupt the entire healthcare industry.

A 30-page report from Goldman Sachs’ investment research arm showed just what this disruption could mean. Amazon won’t immediately replace pharmacies. Instead, they would start by serving as an intermediary between health insurers, consumers, and the rest of the healthcare industry by working with a pharmacy benefits manager (PBM) — essentially Lyons’ role — which would provide “access to patient data and the potential to cross-sell related products,” the report stated, according to CNBC.

Banking on their IoT devices, Amazon could also improve the so-called digital health industry. “Imagine seeing a virtual doctor on your Amazon app, having it prescribe you a certain medication, and then tapping a ‘buy now’ button — all without leaving your home.” In short, Amazon would serve as the new “middleman” in healthcare, potentially improving drug price transparency for consumers by reducing out-of-pocket drug costs.

Still, the Goldman Sachs report notes some challenges worth considering. The general profile of Amazon’s users is younger and healthier, which isn’t typically the market for prescription and maintenance drugs that their services could cater to. Amazon has time to consider how it would decide to move forward, of course, but it’s obvious that technology, like AI and the IoT, is driving us to a future of personalized healthcare.

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Researchers Find “Executioner Protein” That Causes Cancer Cells to Self-Destruct Without Hurting Healthy Cells

Killing Cancer with Apoptosis

Albert Einstein College of Medicine scientists have induced cancer cells to commit suicide with a new compound that leaves healthy cells untouched. They deployed their novel treatment approach against acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cells, which kill more than 10,000 Americans, and makes up about one-third of all new cases of leukemia, each year. Patients survive AML at a rate of only about 30 percent, making effective new treatments a hot commodity. And although the team has only tested the treatment on AML, it could have the potential to successfully attack other varieties of cancer cells.

“We’re hopeful that the targeted compounds we’re developing will prove more effective than current anti-cancer therapies by directly causing cancer cells to self-destruct,” associate professor of medicine and biochemistry and senior author Evripidis Gavathiotis said in a press release. “Ideally, our compounds would be combined with other treatments to kill cancer cells faster and more efficiently—and with fewer adverse effects, which are an all-too-common problem with standard chemotherapies.”

Image Credit: Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Image Credit: Albert Einstein College of Medicine

The new compound fights cancer by triggering apoptosis: a natural process the body uses to get rid of malfunctioning and unwanted cells. Apoptosis also takes place during embryonic development: trimming excess tissue from the growing embryo, for example. While certain existing chemotherapy drugs induce apoptosis indirectly by damaging the DNA in cancer cells, this treatment directly triggers the process intentionally by activating BAX, the “executioner protein.”

The Executioner Protein

Pro-apoptopic proteins activate BAX in cells. Once BAX molecules go to work, they find the mitochondria of target cells and drill lethal holes into them, scuttling their ability to produce energy. Cancer cells resist BAX and this process by producing large quantities of “anti-apoptotic” proteins that suppress BAX and even the proteins that activate it. The process discovered by these researchers wakes BAX up again and sends it back to work.

“Our novel compound revives suppressed BAX molecules in cancer cells by binding with high affinity to BAX’s activation site,” Dr. Gavathiotis said in the release. “BAX can then swing into action, killing cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unscathed.”

In 2008, Dr. Gavathiotis was part of the team that first described the BAX’s activation site’s shape and structure. Since that time, he has been searching for small molecules to activate BAX and produce sufficient activity to overpower the natural resistance cancer cells mount to apoptosis. His team screened more than one million compounds and narrowed the field to 500, many of them synthesized by the team, and then evaluated them. These results reveal the outcome of that search.

BTSA1 (short for BAX Trigger Site Activator 1) was the best compound against several different human AML cell lines, including those found in high-risk AML patients. BTSA1 was also able to induce apoptosis in AML cells without affecting healthy stem cells. In AML mice treated with the compound, there was a significantly longer survival rate: 43 percent of the control group was alive and AML-free after 60 days. The BTSA1-treated mice also exhibited no signs of toxicity.

“BTSA1 activates BAX and causes apoptosis in AML cells while sparing healthy cells and tissues—probably because the cancer cells are primed for apoptosis,” Dr. Gavathiotis said in the release. Next the team plans to test BTSA1 on other types of cancer using animal models.

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Scientists Discover Neuronal Effects of Psychedelic Drugs Using Human Minibrains

Parsing Out Psychedelics

New research using human minibrains has revealed that a hallucinogenic compound known as 5-MeO-DMT triggers changes in neuronal signaling pathways associated with inflammation, neural plasticity, and neurodegeneration. The discovery is critically important now, because various studies have found benefits from psychedelic use, but have been unable to parse out how and why these compounds have produced specific positive effects.

“For the first time we could describe psychedelic-related changes in the molecular functioning of human neural tissue,” Stevens Rehen, study leader and head of research at the D’Or Institute for Research and Educationsaid in a press release.

5-MeO-DMT. Image Credit: Harbin / Wikimedia Commons

Although past research had demonstrated that psychedelic substances, including ecstasy (Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) and LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide), may impart antidepressant and anti-inflammatory effects, scientists lacked the tools to prove why. The specific molecular pathways that psychedelics target in the brain had not been identified.

To solve this problem, the researchers in this study used cerebral organoids — 3D cultures of neural cells that resemble a human brain still in the developing stages.

Discerning Molecular Pathways

The team exposed these human minibrains to single doses of 5-MeO-DMT to identify which pathways the molecule might effect. The team found that the psychedelic drug changed the expression of almost 1,000 proteins. Next, they mapped out what roles these proteins played in the human brain.

The team discerned a clear pattern in their results. Exposure to the psychedelic downregulated proteins connected to brain lesion, degeneration, and inflammation. This hinted that the molecule and similar psychedelic substances may play a neuroprotective role in the human brain. At the same time, 5-MeO-DMT caused a upregulation of proteins critical to synaptic formation and maintenance, including proteins connected to cellular mechanisms for learning and memory

Potential For Cannabis
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“Results suggest that classic psychedelics are powerful inducers of neuroplasticity, a tool of psychobiological transformation that we know very little about,” Sidarta Ribeiro, study coauthor and director of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte Brain Institute, said in the press release. Professor and coauthor Draulio Araujo added, “The study suggests possible mechanisms by which these substances exert their antidepressant effects that we have been observing in our studies.”

In the U.S., these psychedelic substances remain heavily restricted, although new research may be changing minds. The FDA’s recent determination that ecstasy is a “breakthrough therapy” for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, may motivate lawmakers to dismantle some of the legal roadblocks to accessing these drugs.

This research should further this trend, as Rehen confirmed in the release: “Our study reinforces the hidden clinical potential of substances that are under legal restrictions, but which deserve attention of medical and scientific communities.”

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Researchers Discover New Vessel System in the Human Brain

Exploring the Human Brain

The human brain is a complicated organ that’s difficult to understand, so it’s only natural that we always have more to learn. But recently, researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke published images of a previously undocumented system of vessels that are part of the lymphatic system in the brain. That’s right, up until this very moment many weren’t even positive that these vessels, which transport fluids critical to metabolic and inflammatory processing, existed at all.

Up until the present, not only were these deep-purple vessels largely unheard of, most doctors have been taught that the skull contains no lymphatic vessels. This previous notion however existed in complete contradiction with how the rest of the body works. The lymphatic system both collects and drains fluids, removing waste, facilitating infection response and inflammation, and so much more. In-the-know about the necessity of the lymphatic system of the human brain, it feels like an absurdity in retrospect to think that somehow our brains would not work with the lymphatic system.

3D rendering of human dural lymphatics. Image Credit: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Undiscovered Human Biology

About this finding, Senior Investigator Daniel Reich stated that “The discovery of the central-nervous-system lymphatic system may call for a reassessment of basic assumptions in neuroimmunology.” In other words, while this is a major discovery, it could lead to other, greater discoveries in the exploration of our own biology.

In 2015, researchers discovered the “glymphatic system,” or fluids that were found in the brains of both humans and mice that could transport things like glucose and lipids. But at the time, they didn’t know how these fluids might connect and communicate with the rest of the body. This most recent discovery bridges that knowledge gap.

Because these vessels were so unknown, the initial reaction to this discovery varied, from, in Reich’s words, “No way, it’s not true,” to “Yeah, we’ve known that.”

But this discovery doesn’t just identify this system of vessels, it explores how it operates and just how complex and intricate it is. “The study shows that these vessels exist. We haven’t shown that they’re involved in any disease process,” Reich carefully worded, “but it’s reasonable to think that they might be.”

As we explore the far reaches of the Universe and stretch our knowledge far beyond our modest, planet-bound selves, it’s surprising to learn that we still have so much to learn about our own bodies. With this discovery, it is possible that there “is a connection between [the] two systems, glymphatic and lymphatic,” according to Reich. When a discovery this major is made, it creates a well of new questions about the human condition that no one ever suspected await our attention.

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A New Cell Therapy Successfully Restored Movement in Paralyzed Patients

Successful Cell Therapy

In a recent study, six people suffering from spinal cord injuries that left them completely paralyzed and without motor function below the site of injury were treated with a new cell therapy. And, according to this new study, of those six people, four have so far recovered two or more motor levels on at least one side of their body. That is an impressive 67% recovery rate, a number that is typically unattainable for patients suffering from severe paralysis, in fact, it is roughly double the typical recovery rate for similar patients.

Within the study, the patients had 10 million of the studied cells injected surgically and, according to Dr. Richard G. Fessler, lead investigator of the study of AST-OPC1 nerve cells and professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, “Having worked on this research for more than 20 years, and given that we hadn’t seen any significant improvement before, these results are beyond anything I would have hoped for in the study.”

After severe spinal chord injury, patients regained motor function. Image Credit: Derks24 / Pixabay

Fessler continued, “Normally with a spinal cord injury, a person will improve for a month or two, but that’s it. We are 12 months out and we are continuing to see improvements in patients who receive the treatment. That’s vastly better than anything we’ve ever seen before…This is a meaningful improvement for a patient who is paralyzed in the neck. The patient goes from not being able to use his or her arms or hands, to being able to perform normal functions such as eating, writing/typing, all of the things we do with our hands every day.”

A New Hope

In the United States alone, 1 in every 50 people lives with paralysis, which is approximately 5.4 million people and currently, roughly 450,000 in the U.S. are affected by a spinal chord injury. This is not as uncommon as many might think, but the symptoms and repercussions of such an injury are extensive and paralysis is often thought of as, at least mostly, irreversible. But this new cell therapy could be a step in the right direction towards rehabilitating those with severe spinal chord injuries.

Bioprinting: How 3D Printing is Changing Medicine
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Now, while the results of this study range from promising to life-changing, there are limitations and restrictions to using this therapy. AST-OPC1 was, in this study, administered 21-42 days after initial injury, but patients must be able to receive treatment 25 days after their injury, which is very quick. Additionally, patients can only receive the treatment if their spinal cords are not completely severed. However, despite these difficult restrictions, those that are eligible for this treatment have the potential to restore motor function, something that many treatments do not and can not hope for.

In the words of Christopher Block, a patient in this study in August 2016 who was injured in an accident in July 2016, “Not being able to feel your chest and the temperature of water, regaining that feeling is like being reborn. It’s amazing.”

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A New Gene Therapy Could Literally End Fatal Brain Disease

HIV Gene Therapy

Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) is a rare disorder caused by a gene mutation. Children who inherited this gene took part in a new study testing the effectiveness of a new gene therapy that gets some surprising help from HIV.

ALD causes nerve cells in the brain to die. Children with the disorder typically begin to show symptoms at age 7 and afterward stop being able to both walk, talk, eat, see, hear, or even think. After diagnosis, most don’t survive more than 5 years. Previous treatment methods include a bone-marrow transplant, which is only possible with a compatible donor, or a cord blood transplant, which is only possible if it was saved at birth. It is significant and promising, then, that for the first time ever, the disease was suppressed using gene therapy.

ald gene therapy hiv brain disease
Gene therapy could save the lives of patients with ALD. Image Credit: PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, included 17 boys between the ages of 4 and 13, as one in every 20,000 boys inherits the disease, and two years after gene therapy, 15 of the boys were functioning without any obvious ALD symptoms.

Curing the Incurable

While it mostly affects boys, and sometimes men, on average 1 in every 18,000 people will be affected by ALD. The disease is fast-acting and most heinous in its symptoms. Unfortunately, two boys in the study did end up passing away, one because their ALD progressed too quickly for the therapy, and the other because they withdrew to pursue a bone-marrow transplant. But compared to other existing treatments for this aggressive and severe disease, this novel gene therapy has so far proven to be extremely successful. Dr. Jim Wilson, the director of the gene therapy program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine who was not involved with the study, stated: “To me, it seems to be working.”

The Evolution of Brain-Computer Interfaces [INFOGRAPHIC]
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This research began with Dr. Amber Salzman, a mathematician and concerned aunt of a young boy diagnosed with ALD. She expressed that “All of a sudden he loses his abilities. He crumbles in front of your eyes.”

There are many who are skeptical of gene therapy, as previous studies have sometimes ended with fatal complications. But by creatively engineering a disabled form of HIV, the genes can be more safely inserted into human cells than when other carriers are used. Who would have guessed that HIV could save lives. Now, proposing and following through with the use of disabled-HIV garnered, as you might guess, a fair amount of skepticism. But the results of the study might be proving the non-supporters wrong.

This is only one study in a fight against a severe and unrelenting disease. However, its results are objectively remarkable. If these results can be replicated and this therapy can be further explored and validated, sufferers of ALD might have more tangible hope in the future.

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CRISPR Is on the Cusp of Eradicating a Host of Diseases

Using CRISPR

The CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tool has had a busy year. It recently removed genetic disorders from human embryos, targeted the “command center” of cancer, extracted HIV from a living organism, and forced superbugs to kill themselves. This is all thrilling news, but one of the most exciting potentials for CRISPR is the amazing advances it’s making possible in the field of medicine — particularly disease eradication.

In fact, New Scientist reported that approximately 20 human trials featuring CRISPR are already in progress, or soon will be. While the act of removing cells from the body, editing them, and replacing them in order to help cure a patient is a fruitful pursuit, the ability to edit cells inside the body will open up the entire realm of human diseases to treatment and potentially even eradication. Asked by New Scientist which diseases might be treatable this way, University of California, Berkeley scientist Irina Conboy answered simply, “Absolutely everything.”

The challenge? Delivering the CRISPR tool to the areas in the body where it needs to go to work. Unlike old-school medicine, CRISPR can’t be consumed in pill form or injected into the bloodstream on its own to find its way to a target. CRISPR gene editing demands a minimum of two elements: a cutting protein that severs the DNA, and a guiding piece of RNA that ensures that cut is made in the right place. Fatty particles, gold nanoparticles, and hijacked viruses have all been CRISPR delivery candidates in various labs, with varying levels of success.

How CRISPR Works: The Future of Genetic Engineering and Designer Humans
Click to View Full Infographic

Recent Developments in CRISPR

The payoff from being able to put CRISPR to good use is a high-value motivator, because of how many diseases the technique appears to have the potential to treat, if not completely eradicate. The tool has been used to treat liver disease, including the rare genetic disease transthyretin amyloidosis, as well as hepatitis B. CRISPR has proven successful in both of these cases: by disabling a faulty, disease-causing gene in the former and eliminating viral DNA in the latter.

CRISPR has also been used to delete the single nucleotide responsible for sickle cell disease, a painful malady that limits the lifespan of its sufferers. CRISPR has also proven able to disable the gene that causes Huntington’s disease in 65 percent of subjects’ brain cells. Researchers have also used the tool to induce bacteria to destroy its own antibiotic-resistant genetic sequence, which in effect causes the pathogens to kill themselves.

In the case of muscular dystrophy, CRISPR has been taken one step further than in the case of transthyretin amyloidosis; researchers have used CRISPR delivered by gold nanoparticles to repair the faulty gene responsible for muscular dystrophy rather than merely disabling it. This only worked in around five percent of subjects’ muscle cells so far, but that was enough to produce improvement in muscle tone. Researchers have even targeted the cancer “command center” in mice, resulting in a 100 percent survival rate.

With results like these in such a short period of time, there’s no telling just how much CRISPR, and those who wield it, will be able to accomplish. It’s safe to say, though, that CRISPR is on the brink of treating a number of serious diseases — and maybe wiping them out forever.

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Harvard’s Futuristic “Intelligent Bandages” Can Repair Your Body

Healing Arsenal

Bandaging technology has come a long way in the almost 100 years since Band-Aids were first introduced. Now, researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Harvard Medical School, and MIT are ready to usher in the next century of wound care with a smart bandage whose individual fibers store medications that can be deployed using a smartphone or another mobile device.

Wearable Technology
Click to View Full Infographic

The bandage is made up of electrically conductive fibers that are coated in a gel that can house medications — anything from antibiotics to painkillers in any effective combination. Individual fibers can then be activated via voltage from a connected microcontroller no larger than a postage stamp using a connected mobile device.

“This is the first bandage that is capable of dose-dependent drug release,” Ali Tamayol, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering at Nebraska, explained in a press release. “You can release multiple drugs with different release profiles. That’s a big advantage in comparison with other systems. What we did here was come up with a strategy for building a bandage from the bottom up.”

Bring on the Biotech

As Tamayol noted in the press release, “This is a platform that can be applied to many different areas of biomedical engineering and medicine.” Not only could it be useful for dealing with battlefield injuries, it could also help in the treatment of chronic wounds, which are common in patients living with diabetes.

An estimated 25 million Americans could be experiencing these wounds right now, and as Tamayol explains, “The medical cost associated with these types of wounds is tremendous. So there is a big need to find solutions for that.”

This isn’t the only next-generation bandage in development, either. A team from Swansea University’s Institute of Life Science has created bandages loaded with nanoscale sensors that can instantly transmit health information to medical professionals using 5G wireless data. Heat-responsive bandages that cause wounds to heal faster are also in the works.

Technology is providing us with remarkable ways to enhance our natural biological processes, and this emerging field will create new avenues of treatment for medical professionals to consider. Some are even experimenting with the use of tech to revive brain dead individuals.

However, most of these technologies are in their infancy and will take time to develop before they are approved for widespread use. In the interim, we can look forward to a time when technology and human biology work together to create a healthier world.

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We Just Took a Significant Step Towards Eradicating Polio Forever

The Nanopatch

Thanks to vaccines, the number of polio cases has decreased by 99% since 1988. In 2016, there were 37 reported cases, compared to a staggering 350,000 29 years ago. But, while significant progress has been made, there is still work to be done to officially eradicate the disease. But a new method, the Nanopatch — a microscopic technique for delivering vaccines — could eliminate polio forever.

Thanks to funding from the World Health Organization (WHO), researchers led by University of Queensland (UQ) bioscience experts, including the patch inventor Professor Mark Kendall, have developed the Nanopatch, which more effectively battles poliovirus than traditional vaccines delivered through needles/syringes.

vaccines polio nanopatch cdc who
The Nanopatch inventor with the Nanopatch itself. Image Credit: University of Queensland

According to the head of UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences’ professor Paul Young, “Polio was one of the most dreaded childhood diseases of the 20th century, resulting in limb disfigurement and irreversible paralysis in tens of millions of cases…[T]his most recent study showed the Nanopatch enhanced responses to all three types of inactivated poliovirus vaccines (IPV) – a necessary advancement from using the current live oral vaccine…[W]e are extremely grateful to the WHO for providing funding to Vaxxas Pty Ltd, the biotechnology company commercialising the Nanopatch. The support specifically assists pre-clinical studies and good manufacturing practices.”

Advancing Vaccines

According to the patch’s inventor, “It targets the abundant immune cell populations in the skin’s outer layers, rather than muscle, resulting in a more efficient vaccine delivery system…[T]he ease of administration, coupled with dose reduction observed in this study suggests that the Nanopatch could facilitate inexpensive vaccination of inactivated poliovirus vaccines.”

Because it is so effective and cost-effective, this patch truly has the potential to eradicate polio once and for all. It is a terrible, debilitating disease and any number of cases is too many. But, besides potentially ridding the world of polio, the Nanopatch could forever change how vaccines are administered.

Bioprinting: How 3D Printing is Changing Medicine
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The Nanopatch was developed with polio, specifically, in mind. However, this technology has the potential to be applied to a whole host of other diseases. Lifesaving vaccines are unfortunately not available everywhere in the world. This is due to many factors, including cost, transportation, and specific requirements for how vaccines must be kept (temperature, etc.). Vaccines delivered through the Nanopatch, however, would both be more effective, less costly, and potentially easier to transport and store.

It might be easy to take the availability of vaccines for granted, but their indispensable, life-saving properties are truly remarkable, and this new delivery method could, if they became mainstream, make vaccines available for all in a remarkable way.

In the words of Vaxxas chief executive officer David Hoey, “The research we are undertaking in conjunction with UQ and WHO can improve the reach of life-saving vaccines to children everywhere.”

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Neuroplasticity: After Watching This, Your Brain Will Not Be the Same

Neuroplasticity deals with the brain’s ability to form new neural connections. In essence, it is literally the human brain’s capacity to reorganize itself. In this research-based TEDx Talk, Dr. Lara Boyd describes how neuroplasticity gives you the power to shape the brain you want.

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Light-Activated Particles Could Lead to a New Age in Medicine

Old Dog, New Tricks

Antibiotic treatments are increasingly threatened by drug-resistant superbugs like E. coli and Salmonella, which have evolved to make many previously successful antibiotics useless. But light-activated nanoparticles called quantum dots could boost the effectiveness of antibiotics against such superbugs, according to new research from the University of Colorado (CU) in Boulder. Some pathogens evolve their defenses faster than new antibiotics are developed as potential treatments. In 2013, the production of superbug killers cost the United States around $20 billion in direct healthcare costs and another $35 billion in wasted labor.

But the CU Boulder researchers re-designed existing antibiotics for specific clinical isolate infections via nano-engineered quantum dots, which they introduced by special selection. They activated or de-activated these dots by using key wavelengths of light.

Image credit: DaveR1988
Image Credit: DaveR1988

Quantum Dot Tactics

Instead of attacking infectious bacteria normally, the dots emit superoxide, a chemical species that interrupts bacteria’s metabolic and cellular processes, which engage their fight response. This leaves them susceptible to the original antibiotic; like a shadow punch in boxing.

“We’ve developed a one-two knockout punch,” said Prashant Nagpal, an assistant professor at CU Boulder’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CHBE) and the co-lead author of the study. “The bacteria’s natural fight reaction [to the dots] actually leaves it more vulnerable.”

Published today in Science Advances, the findings show that the dots successfully reduce antibiotic resistance of clinical isolate infections by a factor of 1,000, completely free of adverse side effects.

“We are thinking more like the bug,” said Anushree Chatterjee, an assistant professor at CHBE and co-lead author of the study. “This is a novel strategy that plays against the infection’s normal strength and catalyzes the antibiotic instead.”

These findings are significant because super-resistant bugs run rampant in hospitals, and are only one mutation away from exploding into an epidemic of untold scale. Consequently, the researchers view quantum dots as a figurative platform technology, upon which more advanced methods can be tested against a wide range of infections, with possible applications for therapeutics on the horizon.

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Scientists Have Uncovered a Way to Regenerate Human Bone and Tissue

Regenerative Medicine

A new method of regenerating human tissue has been discovered by researchers at the University of Birmingham. The method harnesses the body’s natural healing process to target cellular regeneration using particles called extracellular vesicles, encouraging them to regenerate more effectively. The team’s research can be found in the journal Scientific Reports.

The new process begins with the stimulation of cells to naturally produce nano-scale particles called vesicles. According to one of the researchers in a video produced by the University, Dr. Owen Davies, EPSRC E-TERM landscape fellow at the University of Birmingham and Loughborough University, “What we aim to do is to capture these vesicles, to purify them and then to exploit them as a regenerative tool.” The method opens up entirely new possibilities for the regeneration of bone, teeth, and cartilage.

An article on EurekAlert explains that current regenerative methods have definite limitations which this new technology will allow healthcare providers to circumvent. Grafts taken from patients have greater risks of morbidity and often cannot meet the demands posed by some circumstances, bone tissue transplants from donors run the risk of being rejected by the recipient, and other methods have possible serious side effects and prohibitive costs.

The extracellular vesicle method allows researchers to regenerate human tissue without running into these factors and others like the ethical concerns inherent in other developing solutions like stem cell therapies.

Growing Strong

Technology like this could eventually be a game changer for people with a degenerative bone disease like osteoarthritis. Still, the technology is in its infancy. It will be a long time before researchers are able to prove its effectiveness in humans and then get it through the regulatory process before it can be administered widely. As researcher Sophie Cox, Ph. D., from the School of Chemical Engineering explains, “Though we can never fully mimic the complexity of vesicles produced by cells in nature, this work describes a new pathway harnessing natural developmental processes to facilitate hard tissue repair.”

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Developments allowing medical professionals to work at the nanoscale has created a new smorgasbord of possibilities for treating well-established issues in new and novel ways. Medical researchers are devising ways to repair blood vessels using “nanoneedles,” making gene editing easier with the addition of carbon nanotubes, and allowing for earlier cancer detection with nanobiotech chips.

Regenerative medicine will lead us into a new era of medical science. Diseases that were difficult to battle in the past, like osteoarthritis and multiple sclerosis (MS) may finally have definitive treatments so patients can start to see their bodies really regenerate. Long-term, and admittedly lofty (if not unreachable), goals of this emerging field could also see the beginnings of humanity finding the secrets to living longer, perhaps even indefinitely.

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Science Could Allow Us to Literally Reset Our Bodies’ Clocks

For people who don’t get sleepy until 2 a.m., the buzz of an alarm clock can feel mighty oppressive.

Relief may be on the horizon, thanks to the discovery this spring of a genetic mutation that causes night-owl behavior.

Whether you’re a night owl or a morning lark rising effortlessly each day with the sun, your sleep habits are regulated by circadian rhythms. These internal clocks control just about every aspect of our health, from appetite and sleep to cell division, hormone production, and cardiovascular function.

Like many who study the intricacies of circadian biology, I’m optimistic that one day we’ll be able to design drugs that synchronize our cellular clocks. Bosses frowning on tardy arrivals could soon become a thing of the past.

Our internal clocks

Nearly every cell in your body contains a molecular clock. Every 24 hours or so, dedicated clock proteins interact with one another in a slow dance. Over the course of a day, this slow dance results in the timely expression of genes. This controls when particular processes will occur in your body, such as the release of hormones like sleep-promoting melatonin.

Why are heart attacks and strokes two to three times more common in the early morning? Chalk that up to our internal clocks, which coordinate an increase in blood pressure in the morning to help you wake up. Why should teens listen to their parents’ pleas to go to bed? Because human growth hormone is secreted only once a day, linked to sleeping at night.

Nearly every biological function is intimately linked to our internal clocks. 

Nearly every biological function is intimately linked to our internal clocks. Our bodies are so finely tuned to these cycles that disruptions caused by artificial light increase our risk of obesity, chronic inflammatory diseases and cancer.

The timing of meals can also impact your health: When you eat may be more important than what you eat. Several years ago, a study looked at the feeding behavior of mice, which are nocturnal animals. When the mice ate a high-fat diet during their nighttime active phase, they stayed relatively trim. Those who nibbled on the same diet throughout the day and night became morbidly obese. Ongoing studies may soon show how this translates to human eating habits.

What’s more, some 1,000 FDA-approved drugs target genes that are controlled by our internal clocks. That means the time of day that drugs are administered could matter. For example, some cholesterol-fighting statins are most efficient when taken in the evening so they can best hit their target, the HMG-CoA reductase enzyme.

Clock care 101

Our internal clocks are individually encoded, with most people falling in the middle range of a 24-hour cycle, but there are many outliers – including night owls – whose clocks are out of sync.

One in 75 people are predicted to have the “night owl mutation” in clock protein CRY1, delaying sleepiness until the wee hours. Not only does this make it harder for night owls to wake up in the morning, but their longer-than-a-day internal clocks puts them in a perpetual state of jet lag.

For night owls, the sleep cycle is largely beyond their control. But for the rest of us, there are steps we can take to rest easier and improve our health.

The clocks in individual cells are synchronized by the brain. The light that streams into the eye helps the brain’s “master clock” stay in harmony with the day/night cycle. That’s why, when you travel to another time zone, your internal clock no longer matches up with the solar cycle. It takes about a week to sync up to a new local time.

Bright artificial light at night tells the master clock that it’s still daytime, leading cellular clocks to race to keep up. That’s why seeing too much bright light at night can give you jet lag without going anywhere. One recent study found that simply viewing e-readers at night for a few hours can cause worse sleep and less alertness the next day.

You can minimize disruptions caused by artificial light by practicing good “light hygiene.” Expose yourself to plenty of bright light during the day and minimize your exposure to artificial light after dusk. These steps will help your internal circadian clock stays in sync with the light/dark cycle, promoting good sleep patterns and overall health.

What makes you tick?

As we learn more about how circadian rhythms work, we’ll be better able to design therapeutic treatments that harness life’s natural rhythms.

In my lab, we study the complex molecular mechanisms that govern circadian rhythms. By looking at how CRY1 interacts with other clock proteins, we hope to understand how inherited mutations can wreak havoc on circadian rhythms. The night owl mutation in CRY1 appears to make it grab onto its partner proteins more tightly, like a bad dance partner who doesn’t know when to move on. When CRY1 doesn’t release its partner with the right timing, it delays the timing of everything controlled by the clock.

If we could understand these mechanisms better, it would set the stage for new drugs that could bring relief to a significant portion of the population. Perhaps we could shorten night owls’ internal clocks back to about 24 hours, helping them go to sleep at a “normal” time.

Given the complicated nature of biological timekeeping, there are likely many more genes that influence circadian timing. Imagine tailoring the timing of dosages to each patient’s circadian cycle, maximizing a medication’s impact while minimizing exposure to side effects. Picture patients checking their watch before popping a pill to treat high blood pressure or lower cholesterol. Ideally, one day our Fitbit-type devices will monitor our circadian rhythms, giving us precise real-time measures of our biological functions.

This may sound far-fetched, but it’s not that far off. Scientists are now searching for biomarkers that could be measured in blood to figure out internal clock timing.
The Conversation

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Researchers May Have Discovered a Way to Reverse Blindness

Giving Sight to the Blind

Visual impairment is still rather rampant, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Some 285 million people worldwide are considered visually impaired, and 39 million of them are blind. Thankfully, 80 percent of all visual impairment can now be treated or cured, except in cases of total loss of sight, particularly those due to severe retinal degeneration.

But what if it’s possible to restore visual function to blind patients? Laboratory tests in the University of Oxford demonstrate how this may be possible. In a study published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the Oxford researchers led by Samantha de Silva showed how it’s possible to restore the sight of people suffering from blindness previously considered untreatable.

“Inherited retinal degenerations may result in blindness due to a progressive loss of photoreceptor cells,” the researchers wrote. “We assess subretinal delivery of human melanopsin using an adeno-associated viral vector to remaining retinal cells in a model of end-stage retinal degeneration.”

Light Sensitivity

Using gene therapy, the researchers introduced a viral vector in retinal cells found at the back of the eyes that weren’t originally sensitive to light. The viral vector introduces a light-sensitive protein called melanopsin, which enables these residual retinal cells to respond to light and send visual signals to the brain. In lab tests with mice suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, the most common cause of blindness in young people, the researchers were able to maintain sight in the mice for over a year. The mice demonstrated high levels of visual perception, recognizing objects in their environment.

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It’s worth noting that de Silva and her colleagues have also been successfully trialing an electronic retina. However, they observed that gene therapy may be simpler and easier to administer. Similar work has been done by others involving age-related blindness, while an FDA-approved gene therapy seeks to cure hereditary retinal blindness.

The results are quite promising, and de Silva noted how much hope this treatment gives to patients suffering from blindness. “There are many blind patients in our clinics and the ability to give them some sight back with a relatively simple genetic procedure is very exciting,” she said in a press release. “Our next step will be to start a clinical trial to assess this in patients.”

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Scientists Establish New Nonviral Method for CRISPR Using Gold Nanoparticles

Golden Ticket

CRISPR has the potential to revolutionize genetic engineering, but up until now, delivery methods have been something of a limiting factor. However, a new study has successfully used gold nanoparticles to carry out a nonviral application.

Scientists coated a gold nanoparticle with DNA that had been edited so that it would latch onto it. Donor DNA used to carry out a process known as homology-directed repair (HDR) was bound to the particle, and finally, the Cas9 protein and guide RNA was added.

The assembly, dubbed CRISPR-Gold, was then coated in a polymer that’s capable of triggering endocytosis, which helps the Cas9 protein, guide RNA, and template DNA abscond from the endosomes inside cells.

“You have to provide the cell [with] the Cas9 enzyme, guide RNA by which you target Cas9 to a particular part of the genome, and a big chunk of DNA, which will be used as a template to edit the mutant sequence to wild-type,” co-author Irina Conboy told The Scientist, explaining the HDR process. “They all have to be present at the same time and at the same place, so in our system you have a nanoparticle which simultaneously delivers all of those three key components in their active state.”

Right on Target

The researchers were able to use CRISPR-Gold to induce HDR in human embryonic stem cells and muscle cells from a mouse in vitro. They also performed a successful test in vivo by injecting the assembly into a mouse model for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which was not able to produce the protein dystrophin. Post injection, the researchers observed an improvement to muscle function.

One the biggest concerns for researchers regarding current methods of administering CRISPR is that they run the risk of unwanted off-target effects. However, a more targeted, nonviral approach, like the one Conboy’s team has developed, avoids those potential pitfalls.

However, while this is a promising step in the right direction, there is still plenty of work left to be done. A localized injection is well-suited to the treatment of a condition like Duchenne muscular dystrophy, but other applications would require systemic delivery — which isn’t currently possible with CRISPR-Gold.

Conboy and fellow co-author Niren Murthy will continue to investigate new methods of delivery in hopes of making CRISPR editing more accurate for both Duchenne muscular dystrophy and other conditions. Meanwhile, their collaborators Kunwoo Lee and Hyo Min Park have established a company called Genedit, which plans to look into the potential commercial applications of CRISPR-Gold.

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Dying Cells Can Warn Their Neighbors in an Attempt to Stave Off Infection

Communication Breakdown

Researchers have gained new insight into how the human body wards off infection, thanks to a new study of its response to pathogens. According to their findings, dying cells are capable of issuing a warning to their neighbors.

“In the context of an infection, the cells that are dying are talking to the other cells that aren’t infected,” said Igor E. Brodsky of the University of Pennsylvania, who led the research, in a press release. “I don’t think of it as altruistic, exactly, but it’s a way for the cells that can’t respond any longer to still alert their neighbors that a pathogen is present.”

The immune system keeps a close eye on what’s going on inside the body, spotting foreign organisms before they’re able to cause any problems. However, pathogens have methods of counteracting this process, like emitting proteins that can interfere with immune cells’ signalling pathways. Brodsky’s group investigated Yersinia, the genus of bacteria that causes the black plague, which can prevent immune cells from signalling by injecting them with special proteins.

However, it’s possible for humans and mice to fight off infections caused by the bacteria, as their bodies are somehow able to communicate news of its presence.

Pass it On

To investigate this response, the researchers used a strain of mouse engineered by GlaxoSmithKline that bears a specific mutation of an enzyme called RIPK1.

“RIPK1 sits at a key decision point for the cell,” explained Brodsky. “Depending on the stimuli the cells see, this protein can transduce a signal to activate gene expression, programmed cell death, or apoptosis, or it can activate another form of cell death called programmed necrosis.”

In the engineered mice, RIPK1 is unable to trigger apoptosis, a form of controlled cell death, when it detects Yersinia bacteria. As a result, the animals perished when they were exposed to the pathogens, even though they would normally be able to fight off the infection. 

How We Beat Smallpox [COMIC]
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While it had previously been observed that RIPK1 can prompt cell death, this study offers up an explanation for why this is happening — other cells nearby are being warned of the pathogen’s presence. The researchers demonstrated that apoptosis induced by RIPK1 prompts the release of cyokines, the substances created by the immune system, by uninfected bystander cells. Without apoptosis, the cells can’t create the inflammatory response that saves them.

Cell Sacrifice

Having observed how this process serves to induce cell death, Brodsky and his team are hopeful that the same concepts could be used in cancer treatment. “We could imagine that modifying bacteria that trigger these pathways, or delivering this bacterial protein to tumor cells, could be potentially useful as an anti-cancer therapeutic,” he said.

Moving forward, there are plans to investigate the way that infected cells send messages to bystanders, and which molecular pathways play the biggest role.

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A New Drug Uses CRISPR to Fight Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

Creating Eligobiotics

The rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases has prompted the development of more powerful drugs. More powerful drugs come with the potential for more powerful side effects or risks — as do current antibiotics.

The antibiotics we use today don’t specifically target the harmful bacteria plaguing our bodies when we’re ill. Instead, they attack both the good and bad bacteria. As this mechanism is uncontrolled, it has contributed to the increased development of infectious diseases that are immune to the treatments we have at present. Those drug-resistant infections and their sequelae are expected to kill over 10 million people by 2050 if left unchecked.

A French startup company called Eligo Bioscience aims to introduce a new kind of drug, Eligobiotics, that can attack bacteria in a more focused way. The company announced earlier this week it has received $20 million in funding from Khosla Ventures and Seventure Partners, which includes a $2 million award from the Worldwide Innovation Challenge.

Eligobiotics would be designed to carry out specific rather than broad attacks: these could range from killing the harmful bacteria to turning it into a drug producer.

“Antibiotics are weapons of mass destruction: extremely powerful but imprecise,” said Eligo CEO Dr. Xavier Duportet in a statement. “With eligobiotics, we can precisely intervene on the microbiome – targeting specific bacteria for interventions of our choice. By engineering the microbiome itself with sniper-like precision, we can address the cause, not just the symptoms, of bacteria-associated diseases.”

Taking Advantage of CRISPR

Possibly the most attractive thing about Eligobiotics is how it uses CRISPR — the new method of gene editing — to scan the bacteria and delivery precise cuts to its genetic code to wipe it out completely. In the past, CRISPR has been used to create crops, edit embryos to better understand human development, and could one day cure sickle-cell disease.

If everything goes well — between trial in mice and eventual human trials — Eligobiotics could be taken as a pill instead of an injection.

“This is a bit futuristic, but eventually we envision having a pill that will clean your microbiome daily,” Duportet said to Business Insider. “It’s the ultimate form of personalized medicine.”

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The FDA Just Approved the First Continuous Glucose Monitoring System

Monitoring Diabetes

Current diabetes health monitoring equipment requires the person to prick their finger and provide a blood sample (a process often called a “fingerstick”), which can become frustrating over time. For people who can’t stand the thought of doing that indefinitely, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has something for them: a new glucose monitoring system that doesn’t require harming yourself.

The organization announced earlier this week it had given approval to the FreeStyle Libre Flash Glucose Monitoring System from Abbott Diabetes Care Inc. Instead of a fingerstick, it utilizes a small sensor placed underneath the skin, enabling it to continuously measure and monitor glucose levels; a mobile reader can be waved above the sensor to see if glucose levels are too high or too low.

The new system is intended for adults over the age of 18. The FDA explains it can be worn for up to 10 days after a 12-hour initialization period. However, it’s not capable of offering real-time alerts, or alerting the wearer of low blood sugar levels.

“The FDA is always interested in new technologies that can help make the care of people living with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, easier and more manageable,” said FDA Deputy Director of New Product Evaluation Donald St. Pierre. “This system allows people with diabetes to avoid the additional step of fingerstick calibration, which can sometimes be painful, but still provides necessary information for treating their diabetes—with a wave of the mobile reader.”

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Health Risk

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 30 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, with 1 out of 4 unaware they have it. While there’s currently no cure, multiple vaccines are headed to human trials next year, while stem cell implants are also being explored as a potential cure. Healthcare startup Vitra, meanwhile, believes it can combat diabetes using nutrition and personalized diets.

Regardless of which method yields success, it’s clear that diabetes is a serious threat to a person’s health. Diabetes is the seventh-leading cause of death in the country, but the new FreeStyle Libre Flash and aforementioned treatments could significantly reduce the number of people living with the disease.

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A New Blood Test Lets Doctors Know Instantly If You’ve Had a Heart Attack

Instant Answers

Researchers have developed a blood test that can rule out a heart attack in less than 20 minutes. The team from King’s College London says that the cMyC test ought to be used routinely, and expect that it may be rolled out in the UK’s National Health System (NHS) within five years. If so, it will save millions of pounds annually by sending well patients home faster and freeing up hospital beds.

Patients who are seen in the hospital with chest pain usually have not had heart attacks: about two-thirds of patients who present with chest pain are not, in fact, having heart attacks. For those that are, diagnosis can be tricky: while major heart attacks show up easily on ECGs, it’s sometimes more difficult to detect smaller myocardial infarctions — which can still be life-threatening. The current protocol requires patients to undergo an ECG, have a troponin blood test twice (three hours apart) before a heart attack can be ruled out and the patient discharged home. It’s that second troponin blood test after the three-hour wait, that either eliminates the possibility of a mild heart attack — or confirms that one took place.

Image Credit: sbtlneet/Pixabay
Image Credit: sbtlneet/Pixabay

The cMyC test, however, can provide results much more rapidly, as levels of cMyC (cardiac myosin-binding protein C) in the blood rise faster and to higher levels after a heart attack compared to troponin proteins. This will help doctors rule in (or out) the diagnosis of a potentially life-threatening heart attack much sooner.

Lower Costs, Better Care

Lead researcher Dr. Tom Kaier told the BBC: “Our research shows that the new test has the potential to reassure many thousands more patients with a single test, improving their experience and freeing up valuable hospital beds in A&E departments and wards across the country.”

According to Dr. Kaier, if the test were routinely used, it could produce reliable results within 15 to 30 minutes. If it was rolled out across the NHS, more than 350,000 patients annually could go home within 15 minutes. The savings to the NHS would likely be millions of pounds.

Professor Simon Ray of the British Cardiovascular Society told the BBC that before the troponin test could be replaced by the cMyC test, more research is needed, but emphasized the promise of the test. “Unlike currently available blood tests which need to be repeated at least three hours after pain it looks as though a single test is enough to make a confident decision on whether a patient has or has not suffered a heart attack. Not only can it be done earlier after the onset of symptoms but it also seems to be better at discriminating between heart attacks and other causes of chest pains. This is very important.”

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Scientists Are Creating a Peptides Pill That Can Neutralize the Flu Virus

Potent Peptides

Scientists from the Scripps Research Institute and Janssen Research & Development have been able to develop artificial peptides capable of neutralizing almost all known group 1 influenza A viruses. It’s hoped that this research might help in the fight against the flu, which causes as many as 500,000 deaths worldwide every year.

The influenza A classification includes strains like H5N1, a form of avian flu that has infected hundreds of people in Asia, and H1N1, the swine flu that spread around the world in 2009 and 2010.

The team took inspiration from two recently discovered super-antibodies as it designed the peptides (compounds built from chains of amino acids). Both organizations that collaborated on the study have been performing research on the broadly neutralizing antibodies, known as FI6v3 and CR9114, since they were discovered, in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

Based on knowledge gained from structural analysis of these antibodies, the group was able to design peptides that can bind themselves to the flu virus in a similar fashion, albeit not quite as comprehensively.

The peptides latch on to the hydrophobic stem groove, which is situated on the primary envelope protein of the flu virus. This site’s molecular structure is common across a wide variety of flu strains; it’s one of the reasons that the viruses can change shape to gain access to, and infect, a host cell.

The peptides produced by this study are able to prevent the virus from modifying itself in this way, which prevents infection.

No Injection Necessary

The peptides produced by the team are much smaller than the antibodies that they’re designed to mimic. This makes them much easier to administer them to a patient.

Besides carrying a high price tag, antibodies need to be delivered via an injection, or an infusion. However, the team expects that in the future, it will be possible to dispense the peptides in the form of a pill.

The peptides also boast amino acid building blocks, which offer some significant advantages when combined with their cyclic structures. These traits mean that they’re resistant to enzymes that can flush drugs of this kind from the bloodstream.

“It’s pretty revolutionary that we were able to use structural information on antibodies to make much smaller molecules that have almost the same binding affinity and breadth of neutralization against flu viruses,” said Rameshwar U. Kadam, a senior postdoctoral research associate and co-first author on the study. “There has been skepticism in the field that we could get such good results with such small molecules, but this study proves that we can.”

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We Finally Have a Way to Detect Brain Damage From Concussions in Living Brains

CTE: Detection and Treatment

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a devastating, degenerative neurological condition that strikes athletes who play contact sports, veterans who’ve seen combat, and domestic violence survivors, among others. CTE can affect anyone whose brain sustains too much trauma, even multiple “mild” concussions—but thus far, there’s no way to diagnose the disease until after death, when it’s too late to treat.

New research into a biomarker specific to the disease is providing fresh hope, however. Researchers from Boston University (BU) and the VA Boston Healthcare System (VABHS) have identified a biomarker — a protein called CCL11 — that points to the specific presence of CTE. Since CTE symptoms (confusion, memory loss, speech and language difficulties, and dementia) can cause the disease to be confused with other neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, a specific biomarker would allow an exact, accurate diagnosis despite similarity in symptoms. If the research pans out, doctors will be able to detect the problem in living patients, treat them, and monitor their progress.

(Image credit: Pixabay/KeithJJ)

The protein eotaxin-1 or CCL11 may be the early indicator researchers have been looking for. The protein itself isn’t new to scientists, but the connection with CTE is novel. The link arose from a study of the protein’s presence in spinal fluid and blood of those diagnosed with CTE post-mortem.

The researchers found that levels of CCL11 were higher in the diagnosed athletes, and that it increased annually. They also found that this was not true of Alzheimer’s patients or control athletes. The inference is that since the spinal fluid provided similar information to what the post-mortem brain tissue offers, it may be enough to make a diagnosis in living patients.

“What’s most likely going to happen is that we’ll end up with a panel of biomarkers — maybe three or four — that will let us diagnose CTE reliably,” BU researcher Jonathan Cherry told BU Today.

The CTE Epidemic

CTE develops in brains that sustain repeated trauma, as the soft tissues of the brain hit the hard bone of the skull repeatedly. Football players, boxers, and other contact athletes suffer these kinds of hits, as do people subjected to violence under other circumstances. The damage to the brain is caused by clumps defective tau proteins, which kill neurons; it’s a similar process to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. However, in the case of CTE, the damage itself may be done early in life, while symptoms might not be noticeable for years, or even decades.

Symptoms range from impulse control problems and subtle changes in mood in the earlier stages of the disease, to severe cognitive decline, dementia, impaired judgement, and memory loss in later stages. Early intervention and targeted treatments can help slow the disease’s progression and mitigate against the symptoms, but since formal diagnosis of CTE can currently only be made post-mortem, this kind of intervention is rare.

Image Credit: Ann McKee
A sample of normal brain tissue (top, left), alongside samples showing mild and severe CTE. The brown stain indicates tangles of tau protein. Defective tau is associated with CTE, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. The bottom row shows microscopic images of tau, stained red, embedded in brain tissue. Image Credit: Ann McKee

There is no way to know exactly how prevalent CTE is among the general population, or even among those populations most likely to have it, given the difficulty in diagnosing it. However, we are currently learning more about the problem. Earlier this year, a study from BU Medical School’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center revealed that all but one of 111 brains of NFL players donated for analysis had some form of CTE. Research has also found connections between combat service, traumatic brain injury, CTE, and post traumatic stress disorder among veterans.

The ability to identify the presence of the disease early will be a tremendous step in helping those who suffer from it. Prevention is, of course, even better than being able to treat or cure the disease. As we learn more about CTE, one of the results may be enhanced safety equipment and regulations for athletes — a welcome change for anyone who loves sports and cares about athletes.

“The whole point is to understand as much as we can from the individuals who’ve fallen, so we can apply it to our future veterans and athletes,” McKee said to BU Today.

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There’s a New Plan to Make Male Birth Control a Reality

Preventing Pregnancy

The US National Institutes of Health and the Population Council are set to run a clinical trial for a promising new form of male birth control. 420 couples from the UK, Sweden, Italy, Chile, Kenya, and several medical facilities in the US will test out the contraceptive, once the proper permissions have been acquired.

This birth control comes in the form of a gel that’s applied to the shoulders once a day. The gel contains progestin, which impedes the production of sperm, and testosterone, to counteract reduced levels of the hormone.

A pilot trial found that the contraceptive was able to reduce sperm counts to one million per millimeter or less — which is generally accepted as the level at which sperm production is being suppressed — among 89 percent of participants. It’s thought that noncompliance might explain some portion of the remaining 11 percent.

The Trouble with Testosterone

Last year, a method of male birth control administered via a bimonthly injection proved to be effective. However, a clinical study was brought to an end ahead of time when 20 subjects began to experience side effects including mood changes, erectile dysfunction, and pain. One participant found that their sperm levels were still subnormal four years after receiving the injection.

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One of the biggest difficulties in creating new forms of male birth control is establishing a way of suppressing sperm production without causing negative effects related to a lack of testosterone. This is why a pill isn’t feasible — men would have to take several capsules a day, or the hormone would leave their body too quickly.

A gel application allows testosterone to enter the bloodstream at a steady rate, without unintentionally promoting sperm production in the testes. As a result, there are high hopes that this method could succeed where others have failed.

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Study Finds the Flu Shot Might Work Better if You’re Happy When You Get It

Curious Finding

A new study has found a link between being in a positive mood when you’re getting your flu shot and the vaccine’s protective effect.

It’s a curious finding, and these surprising results could really help researchers looking for new ways to boost the efficacy of the seasonal flu vaccine.

Image Source: Airman Joseph R Schmitt, U.S. Navy/ Wikimedia Commons

You’ve probably noticed that the annual flu shot isn’t 100 percent effective – not just because of the differences in virus strains attacking us, but also based on the person getting the shot and whether they develop a strong protective immune response.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham in the UK set out to assess how a range of known behavioural and psychological factors might be having an effect on the immune response to getting a flu jab.

“Patient behaviours and psychological well-being can influence immune responses to vaccination,” they write in the study.

Sleep, stress, physical activity, mood, and even nutrition can serve as these ‘immune modulators’, prompting researchers to look into whether these could be targeted to improve vaccine effectiveness.

But we know little about the relative importance of these factors, and, until now, no research has looked at them simultaneously.

Knowing that older adults are especially affected by influenza and also have worse rates of developing immunity after getting the shot, the team recruited 138 adults aged 65-85 years who got the 2014/15 flu vaccine and also one in the year before.

Data collection started two weeks before the flu jab, with a pre-vaccination blood test to check antibody levels and standardised diaries detailing food and drink intake, physical activity, positive affect, negative affect, stress, and sleep for each participant.

On the day of the jab the participants also completed a questionnaire checking for positive and negative mood.

Then, for the next four weeks after the vaccine the participants continued to record their diary entries and gave another blood sample on week four, concluding with one more blood sample at week 16.

After all the data was gathered, the team compiled the information and discovered that only one of all the factors they looked at was predictive of higher flu antibody levels in the blood samples.

“We found that greater positive mood, whether measured repeatedly over a 6-week period around vaccination, or on the day of vaccination, significantly predicted greater antibody responses to influenza vaccination,” they write in the study.

The researchers noted that this finding is actually consistent with previousresearch showing that positive mood can act as an ‘immune modulator’ for vaccines.

The effect appeared to be particularly strong on the day of the vaccination itself, raising the interesting question of whether being happy when you get your jab could really boost your chances of developing a stronger protective response.

As to why this might be the case, the team speculates that there could be both a link between positive moods and healthier lifestyles, and a biological pathway linking the immune system and the brain mechanisms that regulate our moods.

How Immunization Works

These results give a fascinating insight into the weird workings of immunisation, even if we keep in mind the relatively small sample size and the fact that this was a prospective observational study – so it’s tricky to establish a solid causal link.

The team also emphasises that the mood effect was only significant for one of the flu strains in that year’s vaccine, H1N1 – and participants had the smallest levels of antibody for this one prior to vaccination.

“One explanation is that any influence of psychological or behavioral factors on antibody responses may only be observable when the host immune response to the antigen is relatively weak,” they note.

Either way, the team says these findings are a great starting point for investigating this effect further.

And based on the data so far, maybe try having a really great time next time you’re due for a flu jab. It might help.

The study was published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

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Researchers Restore Consciousness in Man After 15 Years in a Vegetative State

Electrical Stimulation

Current medical practices tend to look at people with consciousness disorders — those in a vegetative or comatose state — to be almost impossible cases. Recovery is uncertain at best. A breakthrough new study, however, suggests that this may no longer be the case. A team of researchers and clinicians from the Institut des Sciences Cognitives (ISC) Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France restored signs of consciousness to a 35-year-old man who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years through a method called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS).

Used to prevent seizures in those with epilepsy and to treat depression, VNS sends mild pulses of electrical energy at regular intervals to the brain via the vagus nerve. Because it’s the longest cranial nerve, the vagus nerve connects the brain to various parts of the body — even the gut — and is critical to maintaining certain essential body functions, like alertness and walking.

In this new research, a vagus nerve stimulator was implanted on the chest of the patient, who was in a vegetative state because of a car accident, a procedure conducted by Jacques Luauté and his team of clinicians. The results, published today in the journal Current Biology, was compiled by researchers led by Angela Sirigu from the ISC Marc Jeannerod.

Irreversible No More

After a month of VNS, the patient exhibited improved response capabilities. He was able to respond to simple commands, like following an object with his eyes or turning his head when asked. The patient also showed an improved attention span, by being able to keep awake when listening to his therapist reading a book. At the same time, his ability to respond to perceived “threats” was restored — like how his eyes opened wider, showing surprise when one of the examiner’s heads moved closer to his face.

Various brain tests also revealed improved brain activity. In areas of the brain involved with movement, sensation, and awareness, there was a marked increase in theta ECG signal activity, which is important in distinguishing between a vegetative and a minimally conscious state. Meanwhile, a PET scan spotted an increase in metabolic activity in the brain’s cortical and subcortical regions, which translates to improved neural functional connectivity.

Image credit: Corazzol et al.
Image Credit: Corazzol et al.

In short, after 15 years of existing in a vegetative state, the patient had minimal consciousness restored — a feat previously regarded to be impossible. Prior to this research, it was thought that patients suffering from consciousness disorders for longer than 12 months could no longer be helped. This study shows that “it is possible to improve a patient’s presence in the world,” Sirigu said in a press release. “Brain plasticity and brain repair are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished.” Not only that, the study also demonstrates “this fascinating capacity of our mind to produce conscious experience.” The researchers purposefully chose a difficult case for their study to eliminate the probability that such improvement could be due to chance. Still, Sirigu’s and Luauté’s teams are planning to conduct a much larger collaborative study to confirm their findings.

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This App Tracks Opioid Overdoses in Real-Time All Over the U.S.

Tracking — and Predicting — Epidemics

The opioid epidemic continues to tear at the fabric of America. Opioid abuse kills almost 100 people every day in the US, and experts trying to combat the problem need better data. “The number one question is, how do we get a better sense of what’s going on in our communities in real-time,” Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) deputy director Jeff Beeson said to WIRED.

That’s why the Washington/Baltimore HIDTA developed ODMAP in 2016: a web app that compiles street-level data with digital mapping tools to help first responders, public health officials, and police departments respond to and track overdoses in real-time. Unlike other tracking apps that focus on opioids, ODMAP is national in scope. Some states are pushing to create similar tools for managing the opioid crisis in their areas, with varying levels of success. Indiana has been particularly successful in collecting data, tracking trends, and building a statewide database. ODMAP takes a similar approach, but instead of mapping drug seizures, arrests, overdoses, and use of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, ODMAP maps only overdoses, all over the country, in real-time.

Image Credit: ODMAP/Baltimore Washington DC HIDTA
Image Credit: ODMAP/Baltimore Washington DC HIDTA

Much of a modern epidemiological response depends upon detailed geospatial data that is contemporaneous and can help both public health officials and people in the community be prepared. “You’ve seen those epidemiology maps where a disease spreads outward from an initial set of dots? We’re seeing similar patterns on a daily basis with ODMAP,” Beeson told WIRED. In the same way that you might get real-time traffic data and an optimal route from a navigation app, ODMAP has allowed officials to make correlations and see geographical patterns in overdoses which they can now turn into early warnings for first responders. They can now literally anticipate waves of overdoses and warn communities so they can prepare hospital staff and stock up on naloxone, for example.

Accessing ODMAP

Right now there are almost 1,000 first responders using this system nationwide; it’s fast, easy, and free for to use. Only users such as public health chiefs and police leadership can access the backend and see the patterns.

As more users adopt the tool, it will become more accurate and powerful. “From a surveillance perspective, the more data you have on a given health issue the better,” Harvard University computational epidemiologist John Brownstein told WIRED. “Having direct data on overdoses is super exciting, but it’s a crowdsourcing tool, so you want as much engagement as possible.”

ODMAP does seem to be catching on. Since it was launched in January, users in 70 counties and 19 states have started to add data to the system. This pattern of adoption is, no doubt, a recognition of our nationwide opioid addiction crisis — something that technology like this alongside other AI and machine learning solutions are uniquely suited to tackle. While more research on what causes drug-seeking behaviors and how to more effectively prevent addiction and support those seeking help is certainly needed, in the meantime it’s critical to give first responders and public health officials accurate and up-to-date data to work with.

“Ask any health or law enforcement agency in the country: We don’t have the time, and we don’t have the resources to sufficiently deal with the opioid crisis,” Beeson said to WIRED. “We can’t throw money at it, and we can’t arrest our way out of it. But what we can do is use data and technology as a tool, to maximize what limited resources we have.”

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Study Asserts Lead in Flint’s Water Had “Horrifyingly Large” Effect on Birth Rates

“Horrifyingly Large” Effects

According to new research, the fertility rate in Flint, Michigan, dropped significantly in 2014 after the city switched to Flint River water, causing lead poisoning. The authors of the working paper, which has not been peer-reviewed yet, argue that the drop was caused primarily by a “culling of the least healthy fetuses” — meaning that the lead killed unborn babies that were not strong and healthy enough to withstand it.

The authors, David Slusky of Kansas University and Daniel Grossman of West Virginia University, estimated in their study that between November 2013 and March 2015, “between 198 and 276 more children would have been born had Flint not enacted the switch in water.”

One of the causes for the decrease in birth rates seemed to be a drop in the numbers of women who were able to conceive during that time. The researchers saw a significant decline in the number of fetuses conceived starting in October 2013, which would have been exposed to the tainted water for at least one trimester after the April 2014 water switch, through births taking place until the end of 2015. There was no such drop in 15 other Michigan cities that were economically similar to Flint and had had similar birthrates to Flint before the lead poisoning.

Another reason for the low birth rate was likely that the lead was causing miscarriages and stillbirths. The team examined deaths of fetuses of at least 20-weeks gestation reported by hospitals, excluding abortions, and detected a 58 percent increase in fetal deaths in Flint compared with areas without water affected by lead-poisoning. The authors characterized the change as “horrifyingly large.”

Lead exposure causes cognitive deficiencies, lower educational attainment, increased antisocial behavior, and many physical problems affecting the liver, kidneys, and brain in children. Although scientists have documented the harmful effects of lead exposure on the health of children, those effects on fetal health are less understood. Maternal lead exposure is known to be linked in the literature to fetal death, reduced birth rates, prenatal growth abnormalities, and reduced birth weights and gestational periods.

Limitations and future directions

The authors argue that their results probably underestimate the effects of the lead poisoning on fetal deaths and miscarriages because they were limited to data from reporting hospitals. They also did not include miscarriages occurring before 20 weeks’ gestation or abortions.

It is important to note that the children born during the lead-poisoning period were also exposed to lead outside of the womb, so these children can be expected to experience a host of health problems throughout their lives. Furthermore, everyone in Flint is still being exposed to lead in the water.

Flint is still overhauling its water infrastructure, which will take years, and is not fully funded despite various legal settlements. At least 10 percent of homes in Flint still had lead concentrations of 12 parts per billion or higher in their water at the end of 2016, which is three times the level observed in Detroit. And although the EPA sets the safe drinking water threshold at 15 parts of lead per billion, according to the World Health Organization “there is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.”

For all of these reasons, this is probably just the first of many such statistics and studies that will come out in the coming years as we continue looking at the damage in Flint, which is truly ongoing.

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Blockchain Is Ready to Completely Transform the Healthcare Industry

Digital Ledger

Blockchain technology has played an important role in the rise of cryptocurrency, underpinning the likes of ether and bitcoin. A decentralized digital ledger could have a similar impact on various other industries, and a new white paper published by researchers from the MIT Media Lab argues the case for its healthcare applications.

MedRec is a prototype system for tracking who has permission to view and edit information relating to a patient’s medications, based on the Ethereum platform. “Our system gives patients a comprehensive, immutable log and easy access to their medical information across providers and treatment sites,” states the paper’s abstract.

When blockchain technology is used to keep track of cryptocurrency transactions, miners who offer up computing power to verify data are given a monetary reward. Medical records don’t generate cash, but the researchers behind MedRec suggest a different way of giving miners an incentive.

Rather than a payout, miners would receive access to aggregated and anonymized data from consenting patients. We’ve already seen how this kind of resource can be used to great effect by companies developing new drugs and treatments — having access to a huge pool of genetic data is one of the reasons 23andMe has been able to amass millions of dollars in funding.

MedRec’s co-creator Andrew Lippman, associate director of the Media Lab, told the MIT Technology Review that future iterations of the system might eliminate the mining process altogether. Instead, it could utilize the ample computing power found at major hospitals for verification purposes.

Shared Information

MedRec could potentially solve one of the biggest challenges of modern medicine — the fact that patients’ records might be distributed across various different facilities.

Modern technology has allowed medical institutions to begin the transition from physical to digital records, but it’s difficult to ensure that all instances of that information are kept up-to-date. A system like MedRec would mean that practitioners could be absolutely sure that they are working with the most current data.

It also provides advantages in terms of privacy and security. A private blockchain is a great way to handle access rights to a particular pool of data. Given the personal nature of information relating to medication and general health, implementing this technology would be a good method of ensuring that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Putting the blockchain to work in a medical context will be no small feat, as any major change to the practices employed by the industry must be scrutinized before it takes effect. However, projects like MedRec demonstrate just how much emerging technologies can do to help improve healthcare and save lives.

Disclosure: Several members of the Futurism team, including the editors of this piece, are personal investors in a number of cryptocurrency markets. Their personal investment perspectives have no impact on editorial content.

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Newly Engineered Antibody Can Fight Back Against 99 Percent of HIV Strains

Advanced Antibodies

Research carried out by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in conjunction with pharmaceutical firm Sanofi has produced an antibody capable of attacking 99 percent of HIV strains. The International Aids Society has heralded the finding as an “exciting breakthrough.”

The human body has difficulty fighting HIV because of the way that the virus changes and mutates — a single patient can have numerous unique strains of the infection present in their body simultaneously. However, a slim minority of people who suffer from HIV eventually develop a means of battling back in the form of broadly neutralizing antibodies.

These proteins are capable of killing off numerous HIV strains at once, so for this joint study between NIH and Sanofi, researchers set out to find a way to harness this natural defense.

To that end, they combined three unique antibodies to produce a tri-specific antibody. While the most effective naturally occurring antibodies can only target 90 percent of HIV strains, this tri-specific antibody was observed to take on 99 percent. It was even successful at low concentrations. Furthermore, an experiment in which 24 monkeys were administered with the antibodies and then injected with the virus didn’t result in a single infection.

As Sanofi’s Dr. Gary Nabel told the BBC, “[The tri-specific antibodies] are more potent and have greater breadth than any single naturally occurring antibody that’s been discovered.” The next step to putting these powerful antibodies to work is a clinical trial, which is expected to get underway in 2018.

Still Much to Do

Over the last few decades, we have seen some amazing advances in the fight against HIV. These range from the various treatment methods that are now available to the hugely successful educational campaign that’s been carried out in Africa.

Truly, no stone is being left unturned in the search for better HIV treatments. Scientists in South Africa are investigating the case of a nine-year-old child who was seemingly cured of HIV after receiving antiretroviral therapy. Another study saw researchers look into cows’ ability to produce broadly neutralizing antibodies with the goal of using them to combat the virus.

With any luck, methodology will continue to improve at a fast pace. At the end of 2015, 36.7 million people around the world were living with HIV/AIDS, so clearly a lot more work needs to be done. However, this new research project and others like it could lead to the next level of advancements with regards to the virus.

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Researchers May Have Discovered a New Way to Kill off Cancer Cells

Locking on Cancer Cells

Since 2011, researchers have been conducting clinical trials involving a modified type of poliovirus as a form of treatment against recurrent glioblastoma — a very aggressive kind of brain tumor. The promising results of these trials prompted researchers from the Duke Cancer Institute to look into the deeper mechanisms behind the treatment, and the results of their study have now been published in Science Translational Medicine.

The Story of How Vaccines Changed the World
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Led by Matthias Gromeier and Smita Nair, the research team studied the impact of introducing the modified virus, known as a recombinant oncolytic poliovirus (PVS-RIPO), to two human cancer cell lines: melanoma and triple-negative breast cancer.

They learned that the CD155 proteins produced by the cancer cells acted as receptors for the poliovirus. Once attached to the cancer cells, the virus began to attack them, causing the tumor to produce antigens. These antigens then triggered an immune response from the body, which began attacking the malignant cells.

In addition to attacking the cancer cells, PVS-RIPO also infected the immune system’s dendritic cells and macrophages. The former are tasked with processing antigens in a way that brings them to the attention of T-cells, thus triggering their defensive response. Once these dendritic cells were infected by PVS-RIPO, the T-cells knew to begin attacking the tumor.

The results of the researchers’ tests were later on validated on mouse models in the lab.

Promising Potential

While the results of the clinical trials already suggested that PVS-RIPO was a promising new treatment option, the Duke team’s research adds an entirely new dimension to its potential as a weapon against cancer.

“Not only is poliovirus killing tumor cells, it is also infecting the antigen-presenting cells, which allows them to function in such a way that they can now raise a T-cell response that can recognize and infiltrate a tumor,” Nair explained in a press release. “This is an encouraging finding, because it means the poliovirus stimulates an innate inflammatory response.”

cancer poliovirus brain tumor immunotherapy
Image Credit: Duke Health

In short, this modified poliovirus is able to create a cell culture that’s harmful to cancer cells, and it does so in tandem with mechanisms already present in the human body. “This is hugely important to us,” said Gromeier. “Knowing the steps that occur to generate an immune response will enable us to rationally decide whether and what other therapies make sense in combination with poliovirus to improve patient survival.”

To that end, the Duke researchers think that their study warrants pushing clinical trials to the next level. “Our findings provide clear rationales for moving forward with clinical trials in breast cancer, prostate cancer, and malignant melanoma,” Gromeier told Medical News Today. “This includes novel combination treatments that we will pursue.”

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Electrical Stimulation Can Effectively Restore Movement in Paralyzed Limbs

Shocking Results

Most of us would likely go out of our way to avoid being electrocuted (brave biologists, excluded). However, based on new research published in Physiology, people suffering from paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries (SCI) may soon be seeking out electrical stimulation.

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After reviewing more than 90 studies, two researchers from the University of Washington concluded that three kinds of stimulation therapies can be used to effectively restore movement in the limbs of paralyzed patients:

  • Transcutaneous stimulation, which delivers stimulation via electrodes placed on the skin
  • Epidural spinal stimulation, which delivers stimulation via electrodes that are placed under the skin but on the outside of the spinal cord
  • Intraspinal stimulation, which delivers stimulation via electrodes implanted directly into the spinal cord

Each type of treatment had a unique impact on patients. For example, the first improved muscle tightness and stepping ability, while the second improved hand function. According to the researchers, all three treatments were most likely to be effective when combined with physical therapy and medications that help the spinal cord generate new neural pathways.

The Path to Recovery

More than a quarter of a million people in the U.S. alone are affected by paralysis due to SCI, and approximately 17,000 new cases emerge each year.

These injuries can affect far more than a person’s ability to walk or move their limbs. SCI sufferers can be unable to control their bladder, have problems regulating their temperature, or experience other issues with autonomic functions that severely limit their ability to function in everyday life.

As the study’s authors note, electrical simulation is not a cure for paralysis. However, it’s also just one of the many paralysis treatments currently being researched.

Synthetic spinal cords, magnetic brain stimulationmind-controlled exoskeletons, or any other one of these promising endeavors could lead us to a world in which paralysis is a thing of the past.

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The Development of New Drugs Isn’t Matching the Pace of Antibiotic Resistance

Dwindling Resources

Last year, the United Nations raised the issue of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to crisis level, calling the situation “a fundamental, long-term threat to human health, sustainable food production, and development.” Now, the World Health Organization (WHO) is reporting that not nearly enough new antibiotics are in development to replace those that are now ineffective.

Bioprinting: How 3D Printing is Changing Medicine
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In their newly published report, the organization notes that only 51 new antibiotics and 11 biologicals are in clinical development. Only 33 of those target the “priority pathogens” identified by the WHO last year. These pathogens are showing an increased immunity against current drugs, and they can be deadly — tuberculosis alone is responsible for more than 250,000 deaths each year.

Of those 33 antibiotics in development, only eight are said to be innovative in a way that will be beneficial. The other 25 are tweaks to existing treatments that are, ultimately, short-term solutions. Additionally, the WHO reports that very few oral antibiotics, which are vital to treating infections outside of hospitals in low- or middle-income nations, are in development.

Fighting Back

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, laid out the situation in a statement: “There is an urgent need for more investment in research and development for antibiotic-resistant infections including [tuberculosis], otherwise we will be forced back to a time when people feared common infections and risked their lives from minor surgery.”

Thankfully, the WHO is doing something to combat this issue. They’ve partnered with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) to set up the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership (GARDP). The goal of that collaboration is to gather funding for the research and development of new antibiotics that bacteria and other diseases have yet to build an immunity to.

According to Dr. Mario Raviglione, Director of the WHO Global Tuberculosis Program, new tuberculosis treatments are particularly needed. “Research for tuberculosis is seriously underfunded, with only two new antibiotics for treatment of drug-resistant tuberculosis having reached the market in over 70 years,” said Raviglione. “If we are to end tuberculosis, more than US$800 million per year is urgently needed to fund research for new antituberculosis medicines.”

New medicines alone won’t be enough, however — we also need to improve infection prevention and control. To that end, the WHO is creating a series of guidelines that will hopefully ensure better use of antibiotics in the human, animal, and agricultural sectors. When combined, these various efforts, and others like them, are our best hope for fighting the superbugs currently plaguing the world’s population.

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Scientists Are Developing a Vaccine That Could Prevent Tooth Decay

Keeping Cavities Away

Regular visits to the dentist are an important part of keeping your teeth healthy. But what if you could give your oral health a boost by receiving a vaccine on top of your regular dental care routine? Researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIOV) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are working on such a vaccine, and their study has just been published in Scientific Reports.

Led by WIOV scientist Yan Huimin, the researchers tested a fusion of proteins to prevent the development of dental caries. Better known as dental cavities, caries is caused by the bacteria Streptococcus mutans (S. mutans).

In previous studies, the Chinese researchers had attempted to protect against caries by fusing the recombinant PAc (rPAc) proteins of S. mutans with the C-terminal of E. coli-derived recombinant flagellin (KF) proteins. Though effective at protecting against caries, this protein fusion was found to produce unwanted side effects, including possible inflammatory injury.

In an attempt to lessen these side effects, the researchers developed KFD2-rPAc, a second-generation of their flagellin-rPAc fusion protein.

In lab tests using mice and rats, a vaccine prototype of the protein fusion was administered through the nasal cavities. When mice without caries received this vaccine, it conferred a 64.2% prophylactic efficacy, and in those mice that had already developed caries, the vaccine produced a 53.9 percent therapeutic effect.

Overall, the protein was shown to retain the original version’s high level of protection against caries, while producing fewer side effects.

A Global Problem

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dental carries remains a major health problem in most industrialized countries despite recent advances in oral healthcare. Some 60 to 90 percent of schoolchildren, as well as adults, are known to suffer from dental caries, so clearly, a huge number of people could benefit from a vaccine that prevents their formation.

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However, though promising, much more testing will be necessary before a version of this vaccine could be ready for clinical tests. Once perfected, though, it could be used to help the millions of people suffering from dental caries.

Patients in areas where access to basic health services is limited or non-existent could benefit the most, as children and adults in those locations very rarely have the opportunity to see a dentist. The current increase in the consumption of sugars also makes protecting against caries even more essential.

Still, there’s no replacement for regular dental care. While this potential vaccine could help keep teeth healthy, it isn’t really meant to take the place of brushing them or using dental floss.

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Bill Gates Reveals The Biggest Public Health Threats Over The Next 10 Years

Goalkeepers

Bill and Melinda Gates have released their first-annual “Goalkeepers” report, a celebration of key milestones in public health and a look at which issues are still most pressing.

bill gates africa sustainability ai jobs disease
Image Source: Mohammad Jangda/ Wikimedia Commons

The wins include sizeable declines in childhood mortality and HIV infection rates, while the ongoing struggles include family planning and equality for women.

In a recent conference call with reporters, Bill Gates named infectious and chronic disease as the two biggest public health concerns in the coming decade.

“The chronic diseases, including things like diabetes or Alzheimer’s, neurological conditions, they are increasingly what the big problem is,” Gates said.

“In a lot of the still-developing countries, you have infectious disease, whether it’s malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia, [tuberculosis], HIV, still in very large numbers.”

Chronic Diseases

Many of the chronic diseases found in developed or still-developing countries stem from environmental factors, some of which are poorly understood.

In developed countries, for instance, rates of Alzheimer’s and dementia have been on the rise for years. In the US, the Centres for Disease Control estimate total numbers will triple by 2050.

Scientists have yet to pin down specific causes for the rise, however, and often attribute the increase to factors like genetics, diet, and social engagement.

Other chronic diseases are more straightforward. The greatest killers in the US, for instance, are heart disease and cancer, which collectively are responsible for some 1.2 million deaths each year. Gates said the biggest burdens in these developed countries are research and development costs for creating more effective drugs.

Already, researchers are making inroads toward smarter, more accurate cancer diagnostics. Some American labs have even created experimental blood tests that can diagnose cancer months earlier than the current gold-standard techniques.

“I think you can be pretty hopeful there’ll be big progress there,” Gates said.

Infectious diseases are a different breed. Disease-carrying insects – like mosquitoes that infect people with malaria – sit beside unclean drinking water, unsanitary living conditions, and poor sexual health practices as major drivers of illness.

In these cases, Gates said the burden lay on governing bodies and foundations such as his own to deliver aid to developing nation, while research efforts work on permanent solutions, such as vaccines.

“There isn’t the same type of market, the same type of opportunity to charge for drugs there,” he said.

 

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New Research Reveals Tattoo Ink Particles Circulate Inside the Body

Chemical Compositions

First of its kind research by scientists in Germany and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France has revealed that tattoo ink leaves behind micro and nanoparticles that travel inside the body. The scientists conducted an in depth characterization of the ink pigments in a lab experiment involving tattooed tissues. The hazards generally associated with tattoos are to do with the use of needles, but this research implies the circulating ink particles could pose risks, too.

The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, demonstrated how these elements from tattoo inks — organic and inorganic pigments, as well as toxic element impurities traveling as micro and nano particles — actually reach the lymph nodes, a key component of the body’s immune system.

“We already knew that pigments from tattoos would travel to the lymph nodes because of visual evidence. The lymph nodes become tinted with the color of the tattoo. It is the response of the body to clean the site of entrance of the tattoo,” lead author and ESRF visiting scientist Bernhard Hesse explained in a press release. “What we didn’t know is that they do it in a nano form, which implies that they may not have the same behavior as the particles at a micro level. And that is the problem—we don’t know how nanoparticles react.”

tattoos nanoparticles lymph nodes toxic chemicles
Image credit: Christian Seim

Checking for Adverse Effects

While most tattoos contain organic color mixtures, they can also contain preservatives and contaminants such as nickel, chromium, manganese, or cobalt. The most common ingredient in tattoo ink is carbon black, followed by titanium dioxide (TiO2) — a compound also used in food additives, sun screens, and paints. TiO2 has been associated with delayed healing, skin elevation, and itching in the case of white ink tattoos.

However, there’s a lot we don’t yet know about the potential impurities in tattoo ink mixtures. The researchers further investigated using two ESRF beamlines called ID21 and ID16B, which revealed micro and nanoranges of TiO2 in the tattooed skin and the lymphatic environment. Only the smaller particles were transported to the lymph nodes, but those appear to be enough to cause chronic enlargement and lifelong exposure.

“When someone wants to get a tattoo, they are often very careful in choosing a parlor where they use sterile needles that haven’t been used previously. No one checks the chemical composition of the colors, but our study shows that maybe they should,” ESRF scientist Hiram Castillo, one of the study’s authors, said in the press release.

This research is important, especially with the development of advanced, tattoo-based technologies. Moving forward, the team plans to study more subjects that experience adverse effects from tattoos to establish possible links with the chemical and structural properties of the color pigments used.

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This Microscopic Robot Could Be a Minuscule Medical Marvel

Taking Care of Nanobusiness

Robots can do what humans can’t—travel through space for huge distances, clean up the life-threatening nuclear waste, and take on tasks too tiny for us to tackle, to name a few. One new, minuscule robot is a single strand of DNA, and it picks up and delivers microscopic cargo as it moves in 6-nanometre steps. Eventually, it may be used to deliver medicines specifically to diseased cells as it moves through the bloodstream, or enable the assembly of chemical compounds that are otherwise difficult for us to create.

Many tiny robots have already been developed, some for deployment in the bloodstream. However, to remain useful, they were forced to be much larger than a DNA strand. This tiny robot moves along a random path that retains a predictable final destination, because what it collects and where it drops it off are programmed into its chemical composition. The robot, which consists of two feet and arms on a leg that hops — all on a single strand of DNA — is big enough to complete more than one kind of task with predictable results.

Image Credit: typographyimages/Pixabay
Image Credit: typographyimages/Pixabay

“It is one of the first steps towards developing general-purpose DNA robots,” the California Institute of Technology’s Lulu Qian told New Scientist.

Slow but Predictable

In testing, the robot moved along a flat 58-by-58-nanometer surface, hopping randomly between DNA stepping stones. One foot would life as the other foot lands, and eventually the robot would come into contact with the cargo it’s searching for and pick up the load. It then carries the microscopic “parcel” and keeps hopping around until it locates the drop-off point. In development, the robot successfully picked up and delivered three yellow and three pink fluorescent dye.

Because a single hop takes 5 minutes, covering distances can take a very long time, even in small spaces. Adding a chemical motor or boosting this speed with an enzyme could make the robot faster, or perhaps, as the team points out, many robots working at the same time might be an improved strategy. Either way, this robot could play a critical role in precision medicine, being predictable, reliable, and perfectly tiny.

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Research Shows Communication Between Both Halves of the Brain Increases With Age

Growing Older

We all age. It’s an inevitable part of life that brings with it adventure, experience, difficulties, learning opportunities, and so much more. It also, as explored in a new study published this week in Human Brain Mapping, includes increased communication between regions in the brain. According to the study, this change happens to compensate for the parts of aging that aren’t so positive.

Specifically, as we age there is an increasing amount of bilateral communication in the brain; meaning that the two halves of our brain communicate with each other more as we grow older. Now, this isn’t new information, but this study did step into previously unexplored territory in our understanding of this phenomena. The team of researchers accomplished a first by directly manipulating this communication, using a brain stimulation technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). This technique allowed them to better understand if the process is a positive or negative adaptation. It was performed while adult subjects undertook memory-related tasks, giving the research team practical insight into how their brains responded.

Image Credit: Seanbatty / Pixabay
Image Credit: Seanbatty / Pixabay

Brain Age

According to lead author Simon Davis, Ph.D., “This study provides an explicit test of some controversial ideas about how the brain reorganizes as we age…These results suggest that the aging brain maintains healthy cognitive function by increasing bilateral communication.” This communication increases, according to the study, “as needed,” — depending on how your brain transforms over time.

The researchers also found that patients with stronger white matter pathways, which exist between the halves of the brain, showcased greater bilateral communication. This signifies that it is likely that the brains of those with similar pathways might retain higher levels of functioning later in life.

This study has unveiled crucial information about the inner workings of the brain as it ages. Not only is this phenomenon now understood to be a progressing method of compensation, but we better understand bilateral communication, as well as how the pathways between the halves of our brain contribute to our brain health over time. This study, and others like it, will continue to contribute to research that could support a more robust understanding of the biology of aging, and provide clues about how we and our brains can stay healthy throughout our lives.

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“We Think That We Beat AIDS. We Think It Is Done. It Is Not.”

The Battleground

Over the course of the 20th century, tens of millions of people have died because of HIV. In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that, since the epidemic started in the early 1980s, more than 70 million people have been diagnosed with HIV. More than 35 million people have died of HIV. And today, there are more than 36 million people living with HIV or AIDS.

Keep in mind, these are just the numbers that we know about. The actual numbers could be far, far higher.

When the outbreak began, the disease was a death sentence. The chances of survival, all but zero. In previous decades, after being diagnosed with HIV, most individuals developed AIDS within 8 to 10 years. Once an individual was diagnosed with AIDS, they had a life expectancy of just two years.

In a harrowing report, the WHO summed the nature of this global killer:

Untreated disease caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has a case fatality rate that approaches 100%. Not since the bubonic plague of the 14th century has a single pathogen wreaked such havoc. AIDS has torn apart families and caused untold suffering in the most heavily burdened regions. In hard-hit areas, including some of the poorest parts of the world, HIV has reversed gains in life expectancy registered in the last three decades of the 20th century. HIV/AIDS is a major global health emergency.

Fortunately, recent advances in medicine have allowed us to fight back. In fact, because of these advances, the disease is no longer considered a terminal illness. It is no longer a death sentence. As we previously reported, scientists now list HIV as “chronic, manageable illness.” Although there is no cure, and you will have to take medicine to manage the disease the rest of your life, we can manage it. And in the end, individuals who have HIV ultimately have the exact same life expectancy as those without the virus…at least, they do if they are fortunate enough to have access to basic healthcare.

Globally, 400 million people do not have access to essential health services.

At the Social Good Summit today (Sept. 17, 2017), an event organized by the United Nations Foundation and Mashable, Whoopi Goldberg, the Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF, outlined the ways that we are—to be blunt—failing.

Recognizing a Truth

Goldberg began her discussion with Quinn Tivey, who is the Trustee for The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, by noting a harsh truth: “We are under the impression that we beat AIDS. We think that it is done. It is not.” She continued her criticism by asserting that, while there are many people globally who are living normal lives with HIV, there are many more who are dying. “Yes, there are people living on medication, but we have not eradicated the disease.”

The truth of Goldberg’s assertions cannot be denied. Unfortunately, HIV education and treatment is not universal, and access to both effective prevention and medication dramatically impacts an individuals fate. These things are, quite literally, the difference between life and death.

In impoverished areas—in poor communities in wealthy societies—HIV remains a death sentence.

Although people living with HIV who have access to the latest medical advances can lead relatively normal lives, in impoverished countries and in poor communities in wealthy societies, HIV remains a death sentence. As Tivey noted in his conversation with Goldberg, “Poverty, inequality and HIV and AIDS are inextricably linked issues, particularly in the United States.”

Ultimately, facts like this are precisely why the Social Good Summit exists. Organized during the annual United Nations General Assembly week, the Summit aims to bring together entrepreneurs and innovators, scientists and thought leaders, politicians and citizens discuss how we can unlock the potential of science and technology and harness them to make the world a better, more equal, place.

The key, the first step, according to Goldberg, is to recognize that this is not an issue faced by one nation or people. This is an issue that we all must contend with, “It does not matter how wealthy you are. The disease doesn’t care…and that is the great equalizer.” She continued by noting that assisting others does not just help them, it greatly contributes to our own well-being by encouraging new collaborations and innovations. In this respect, Goldberg noted that “If you have, then you have to share.”

It is simple. It is small. But according to many experts and political leaders, developing a global consciousness is the first step to building the future that we all want.

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New Florescent Dyes Could Help Doctors Image and Diagnose Diseases

Dye Diagnostics

Have you ever seen a heart glow? The researchers at UConn Health have. Using the staining power of a voltage-sensitive dye (VSD), this team was able to transform ordinary organs, tissues, and cells into vibrant, fantastical displays on their medical-viewing monitor. Now, they didn’t do this just for the psychedelic experience — they used these dyes to illuminate tissues to allow for effective diagnosis of injury and disease. 

Intrusive diagnostic techniques might soon be a thing of the past if this new method is further implemented. Researchers were able to accomplish this thanks to the natural electrical signaling and functioning of heart and brain tissue.

psychedelic coloring might soon have medical value. Image Credit: Caseleighb / Pixabay
Psychedelic coloring might soon have medical value. Image Credit: Caseleighb / Pixabay

Electrodes can’t accurately measure electrical activity in these tissues for the purposes of drug screening or diagnostic imaging because of the small size of the membranes. These VSDs, also known as fluorescent voltage sensors, change how they light up when the voltage changes in their immediate environments, allowing for imaging tech to accurately see what’s going on — electronically speaking.

Healthy Hearts

Now, VSDs are nothing brand new, but existing dyes have flaws which make them, as an example, effective for drug screening but less so for diagnostic imaging. The dye used by this team was developed specially so that, unlike its varied and flawed predecessors, it is highly sensitive to small electrical changes while still becoming fluorescent very quickly.

The research team’s next steps will take this innovative design and run with it — hopefully making the method and VSD commercially available. As stated by Radenka Maric, UConn’s vice president for research in a UConn press release, “Dr. Loew’s experience is a prime example of how the NSF I-Corp program can transform high-potential academic discoveries into viable products and services … Accelerate UConn helps our preeminent faculty move their ideas beyond the lab so they can join the ranks of other successful entrepreneurs and industry leaders, and have an impact in our communities and on the economy.”

It is not always so that innovate research directly and immediately translates into realistic applications. But this improved VSD, which could allow for widespread diagnostics, has the potential to provide effective and non-invasive imaging.

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What Was Once Considered Cell Waste Could Now Treat Pancreatic Cancer

Cell Waste?

Exosomes, which are microscopic sacs, were initially thought to be simply cell waste, but scientists began to theorize they may play a larger role in cellular activities. These theories were confirmed by recent research, explored in the journal Nature, which demonstrated that exosomes carry things like proteins and RNA, communicating important genetic messages to other cells.

This process isn’t just an essential piece of information that was previously misunderstood; it could be used to treat the often incurable pancreatic cancer.

All cells we have studied both release and receive exosomes. These little blobs hold a payload and, like a purposeful spacecraft, find their next destination based off of the instructions included in that haul. This natural communication system is constant and allows essential materials to be transported to and from cells.

Image Credit: the3cats / pixabay
Image Credit: the3cats / pixabay

Researchers, led by Valerie LeBleu, assistant professor of cancer biology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, are genetically engineering these exosomes to carry pancreatic tumor-destroying molecules.

To accomplish such a hefty task the team modified exosomes from human foreskin cells so that they would contain types of RNA capable of “shutting off” genes. The gene defined as the target was KRAS, which is linked to pancreatic cancer and the growth and multiplication of cancer cells.

In patients suffering from the disease, this gene is mutated in a way that keeps it permanently “on.” So, the introduction of this RNA — thanks to the communication power of the exosome — could potentially stop the cancer’s progression.

Medical Applications

This method was tested on mice with pancreatic cancer. After the exosomes were injected into the animal, they were able to deliver the RNA to switch off the KRAS gene. This effectively stopped tumor growth — and extended the lifespans of the mice as well. While this has only been tested with pancreatic cancer because of the lack of effective treatment options for it, LeBleu believes it could be modified for other cancers as well.

“This could become a type of personalized medicine,” LeBleu said in an interview with MIT Technology Review. “It gives us hope for something more tailored to each cancer case, each patient progression, and each genomic landscape.” Now, while this approach has not yet been tested in humans, the researchers are confident in the potential that this technique holds.

This research explored a previously misunderstood part of cells and revealed a surprising and effective treatment method. But above and beyond that, it has the potential to lead to a reduction in the long list of traumatic side-effects that many cancer patients face because they are subjected to traditional cancer treatments.

Radiation, chemotherapy, and other more traditional treatments are not always as effective as desired and often come with a host of sometimes debilitating side-effects. From pain to nausea and so much more, patients might improve and even go into remission, but the road to get there is staggeringly difficult.

Perhaps, if human trials prove to be successful and this method is further validated and tested, there could be a new treatment option that gives patients promising results without compromising the rest of their health.

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A Professor Has Become the First Person to Donate His Entire Genome Sequence to the Public

I had my complete genome sequenced a few years ago — all six billion base pairs of it. And rather than keeping it to myself, I became the first person in the world to make it publicly available by donating it to the Personal Genome Project UK, an organization led by academic researchers. As anyone can access the data, the public can contribute to analyzing it — in collaboration with professional scientists.

I made my donation under “open consent,” which is controversial. Four other people have done this since. It means that we agree for our personal data to be freely available to anyone and make no claim to privacy. The project does not stop at disseminating personal genome sequences but goes much further by linking the data with personal health records, information on traits and the environmental exposure of the individual.

It is this rich combination of information which makes the personal genome project initiative both unique and powerful.

Revealing Data

The human genome sequence can also be considered the ultimate digital identifier — we will all have a unique sequence. Currently, most human genome data is kept anonymous and it is not generally possible to relate this data to the personal data of the subjects. But this greatly reduces the potential usefulness of it.

The more genomes we can link to additional information, the closer we will get to uncovering exactly which traits and conditions are linked to which genes. When we know this, the possibilities for treatment will be enormous. It will enable true, personalized medicine where we can predict diseases and know exactly which treatments each individual will respond to. Since scientific and medical research is continually making such discoveries, these can be shared with participants of the projects in the future through updated genome reports.

Many leading scientists consider that it is extremely difficult to keep genomic data anonymous. Although there are attempts to improve methods, there have been cases where anonymous subjects in research papers have been readily identified — often through information such as age range, sex and postcode. So perhaps we need to give up on the idea that data can be perfectly anonymized for all eternity.

Genome equipment is now fairly cheap. Image Credit: ‘UC Davis College of Engineering/flickr’, CC BY

There are great things about joining the personal genome project. You get access to a team of leading genomics and bioinformatics researchers and you get to receive detailed reports on your personal genome. I have found my personal genome report to be very helpful. It has flagged up potential health risks, some of which I have followed up with my GP.

Another very useful finding is that I have several DNA variants that prevent me from metabolizing or transporting many different prescription drugs. As a result, I know which drugs won’t work on me and, in fact, one class of drug could be potentially fatal for me. Now that is good to know!

I would certainly encourage people to participate in the program. Once there are hundreds of thousands or even millions of participants, the knowledge that we will gain about how our genomes influence our health, traits and behavior will be unprecedented. While we can’t predict exactly what we will learn, it is likely that we will gain insights into mental health conditions, drug metabolism, personal human nutrition, allergies, autoimmune conditions, longevity, diabetes, cardiovascular health and cancers.

Thorny Issue

But I am also aware that getting one’s personal genome sequenced is not for everyone — some people simply don’t want to know, and feel that the information could cause them a lot of anxiety. No one should be made to feel under any compulsion to get their genome sequenced.

I did find out that I was at increased risk of a rare, unpleasant condition when having my genome sequenced and immediately I started developing symptoms. When medical tests finally revealed I didn’t have the condition, the symptoms evaporated — showing that such information can cause psychosomatic symptoms.

Another issue that some may worry about is how the data could be used by private companies, including employers or insurance companies. Although the researchers haven’t looked at things like genes linked to criminal activity, the raw data is there for anyone to analyze. While insurance companies are not currently allowed to make decisions based on genomics data, some might be concerned that this could change in the future.

Family is another important factor. After all, we share genes with our parents and children — and so may want to discuss the issues with them before publishing our genome. One other issue to bear in mind with genomic testing is that you may discover that one of your biological parents is not the person you thought they were. This happens in up to 10% of cases.

I do understand that these things can be concerning for certain people. Indeed, I have considered them all but decided that, ultimately, being forewarned is being forearmed. By knowing you have an increased risk of a health condition you can act early — for example, by modifying one’s diet or by requesting some medical tests through your doctor. That is the most important thing to me along with donating my genomic and health data for the greater public good.

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This New Vaccine Technology Could Make Multiple Injections a Thing of the Past

Sealed and Timed

Nobody enjoys getting a shot; especially when you have to get more than one. Currently, there is no way to avoid your booster shots when it comes to allergies, diabetes, or even cases of cancer which require several injections. That may soon change, however, thanks to a new technology, being developed by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which can deliver multiple doses with just a single injection.

The researchers invented a new 3D fabrication method, inspired by computer chip manufacturing, which develops drug-carrying particles into cups. The particles are made from an FDA-approved and biocompatible polymer called PLGA, designed to degrade at different rates to release the doses at different times.

“Each layer is first fabricated on its own, and then they’re assembled together,” Ana Jaklenec, co-author of the new study published in the journal Science, said in a press release. “Part of the novelty is really in how we align and seal the layers. In doing so we developed a new method that can make structures which current 3-D printing methods cannot.” They’re calling the method SEAL, which stands for StampEd Assembly of polymer Layers.

The "cups". Image credit: Langer Lab/MIT
The “cups”. Image Credit: Langer Lab/MIT

Efficient and Effective

How the particles were made, as well as how these cups deliver drugs in doses, are particularly innovative. In lab tests with mice, they successfully delivered a drug in sharp burst doses over intervals of 9, 20, and 41 days after injection. “What’s novel here is that the sharpness of how quickly the drug releases from the particle and the fact there is no leakage at all from the particle until [then],” Jaklenec explained to The Guardian.

The researchers expect this new method to be especially beneficial in developing countries, where there might be limited access to vaccines. “One of the main limitations there is access to vaccines and the fact that you have to come back several times in order to get immunity from the pathogen,” Jaklenec added. “A child or a baby is usually seen once, sometime around the birth time by some sort of healthcare worker.”

One challenge remains, however. The researchers still have to find a way to stabilize all these vaccines inside the body at higher temperatures over time, as these drugs are usually stored in refrigerators. Nevertheless, significant progress has been made with this research which so far shows an innovative way to deliver vaccines.

As MIT’s Robert Langer explained in the press release, “We are very excited about this work because, for the first time, we can create a library of tiny, encased vaccine particles, each programmed to release at a precise, predictable time, so that people could potentially receive a single injection that, in effect, would have multiple boosters already built into it.”

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How Diseases Can Be Targeted Using Nanotechnology – and Why It’s Difficult

Nanomaterials

Scientists are designing materials that are a thousand times smaller than the width of a hair.

Known as nanomaterials or nanoparticles, some could help treat diseases.

Image Source: divya desai/ Flickr Commons

However, the engineering of particles for biomedical applications remains challenging, particularly when moving from the test tube to biological environments.

This is an issue we discussed in a recent paper. A nanoparticle in the lab is one thing, but a nanoparticle interacting with blood, cells and tissues is another, and the behaviour of particles can change considerably when moving from one environment to another.

“Bio-nano interactions” are what govern these changes in behaviour, and this is a research area with plenty of difficulties, but also significant rewards.

Using Nanoparticles to Target Diseases

Nanoparticles could help create more effective medical treatments. The aim is to improve areas ranging from drug delivery to the detection of diseases.

One of the potential benefits of nanoparticles is the possibility of developing targeted therapies, so that drugs go exactly where they are needed in the body.

For example, many highly effective chemo-therapeutics exist today, but because they do not interact only with cancer cells but with healthy ones too, many of them have side effects such as heart and bone marrow damage. This limits their efficacy and plays a big role in why treating cancer can be so difficult.

Why is Targeting So Hard?

But targeted drug therapies using nanoparticles also remain limited. As in many other areas, what works in the laboratory can be difficult to translate into the clinic.

One example is the use of nanoparticles as “carriers” that are loaded with a drug and then accumulate at target cells (see image below).

These types of nanoparticles can perform well in the laboratory, but when used in more complex biological environments (such as in blood rather than in salt buffer solution) things rapidly become more complicated.

For example, when nanoparticles are injected into blood, proteins adsorb onto their surface and this can completely change their behaviour. This is because this bio-coating changes important properties of the particles, including charge (positive, neutral or negative) and size.

Possible Solutions

New methods are being developed to evaluate nanoparticles in better ways. This includes investigative techniques that can complement cell and animal studies.

One example is microfluidic channels that can mimic blood vessels and can be used to study nanomaterial behaviour in blood capillaries.

Another option uses 3D printed tissues and organs. In one recent example, hydrogels filled with cells were printed onto a surface using a custom-built 3D printer.

The key point is to have adjustable complexity. That is, being able to adjust these methods so that we can get relevant and valuable information out of the studies. But not so complex that it becomes difficult to understand the mechanisms involved.

This is important, because a nanoparticle administered to an animal experiences several levels of biological complexity on its journey from the bloodstream to the target area (see image below). To understand fully what is happening, we need to study them all.

Nanomedicines of Tomorrow

The more we learn about bio-nano science – or how materials interact with biology on the nanoscale – the easier it will be to design nanoparticles that behave like we want them to.

After years of concerted efforts, a more clear picture of the mechanisms that determine how well a nanoparticle will work is emerging and the full extent of the challenge before us is starting to become clear.

It is unlikely that a single “quick fix” will be discovered.

Instead, research that manages to successfully combine ideas from different fields and researchers will likely lead to the development of new and improved targeted nanoparticles.

The aim is to provide new treatments for diseases that are difficult – or even impossible – to treat today.

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A Stanford Neuroscientist is Working to Create Wireless Cyborg Eyes for the Blind

Seeing The Light

For the nearly two million Americans who have degenerative eye conditions, the ability to see is anything but a guarantee. Although we can slow the progression of vision loss—for example, patients can take special vitamins for the disease—there is no cure. And once it’s lost, vision can’t be restored.

Two of the most notable conditions, retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cause cells on the retina, which is the region at the back of the eye that converts light into electrical signals, to die off. As a result, those afflicted with the diseases lose their sight as they get older. Thus, these conditions are of increasing concern, given our growing aging population.

Fortunately, a futuristic solution is on the horizon. And it has to do with becoming cyborg.

Bionics: The Astonishing Future of the Human Body
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In the past few years, some patients have been fortunate enough to get devices implanted on their retinas to help them see again. Unfortunately, these devices aren’t very good, only illuminating blotches of light and dark, devoid of details. Alos, they’re expensive, costing patients upwards of $150,000. To some, that’s better than nothing. “I understand that I will not have 20/20 vision and that I won’t be able to distinguish faces. But at least I will be able to know that my grandchildren are running across the yard or walking into my house,” one recipient told the University of Michigan in 2014.

But E.J. Chichilnisky, a professor of neurosurgery and ophthalmology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, has a much grander vision for retinal implants. To fulfill it, he plans to create a device that revolutionizes the way electronic devices interface with the brain.

A Dialogue With The Retina

To break down the issue a bit more, in a healthy eye, light passes through the cornea and lens, entering the eye through the pupil. That light then falls on the retina, where a series of different cells turn light into electrical signals that are then transmitted into the brain via the optic nerve.

As previously noted, retinitis pigmentosa and AMD cause many of the cells in the retina to die, so the signals that transmit visual information are stopped before they can reach the brain. Current retinal implants simply take the place of those dead cells, turning light into electric signals.

But the disease doesn’t kill all cells in the retina—and this is where the problems arise with current implants.

Retinal ganglion cells, which pull in information from all the other cells in the retina, seem to survive the culling. There are about 20 different types of retinal ganglion cells scattered across the retina, each of which transmits a different type of information to the brain.

Timing is essential to the function of these cells. One type of cell could tell the brain a region on the image is brighter now than it was a moment ago, and another could tell the brain the image is darker. If both are activated at once, “that’s a nonsense signal sent to the brain,” Chichilnisky says.

That’s part of the reason current retinal implants are so limited. As Chichilnisky notes, they ignore the functioning retinal ganglion cells, activating them all at once. “Vision is like an orchestra trying to play a symphony. It depends on having [the right signals] at the right time and right place,” Chichilnisky tells Futurism. “If you instruct all the instruments to play indiscriminately, someone will hear you. But it’s not music.”

The tiling effect of cells on the retina. Image credit: Chris Sekirnjak

Chichilnisky aims to get each type of ganglion cell, each “instrument,” to play at its proper moment. Eventually, his team’s so-called smart prostheses will be surgically implanted into patients’ eyes and be powered wirelessly, probably from a pair of specialized glasses that the patient would wear.

But they’ve got to do a lot to get there. Getting the right signal to the right cell at the right time is difficult because the mixture of different types of ganglion cells varies between individuals and may even change over time, Chichilnisky says.

Chichilnisky’s solution is to create a device that can not only transmit the right signals to the ganglion cells, but also read the retina to figure out which kind of ganglion cell sits where. Then, the device can stimulate it at the right time to create a cohesive image. “It’s a dialogue with the retina—you have to talk back and forth to the circuit,” he notes. He envisions that the final version of the device will “write” all the time, but “read” the retina only occasionally.

But there are other technical challenges. The device has to be made of the right material so that it can stay on the retina for long periods of time without damaging it or sparking an immune response. It also demands a dense concentration of fine-grained electrodes on a small chip that doesn’t emit too much heat. “We have to take everything we know and program it effectively into chip that can sense its environment, figure out what’s going on, and do the right thing at right time in the right place, always. And it has to be smart enough to talk to a neural circuit,” Chichilnisky says. “It’s a tall order.”

A Bright Future

Chichilnisky’s team, made up of neuroscientists, circuit designers, and an eye surgeon, is still figuring out the exact design of their device. Currently, the researchers are testing different techniques on the excised retinas of animals used for other experiments. To perform all the tasks that their compact device will eventually perform, they need an entire room full of scientific equipment. They plan to reduce all this to a small implanted chip.

But this isn’t the only team in the game.

Other scientists are working to restore vision in patients with retinitis pigmentosa and AMD, and already, tests of gene therapy and stem cell therapy techniques have produced interesting results. But Chichilnisky isn’t worried. “I’ll be thrilled if someone comes along and cures AMD while we’re doing this stuff,” he says.

The retina—one of the best-understood and most accessible avenues to the brain—is only the beginning

This is because Chichilnisky believes that, regardless of what other developments in treating blindness come about, the technology he is developing will represent the future of neural implants, as their utility extends far beyond just sight. Devices that can both listen and talk to the brain in the same “language” will enable humans to treat neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s or control prosthetic limbs.

The same tech will likely be used to hack our own biology, augmenting our memory and pushing our vision to new limits. “It’s going to happen. If you think it won’t, you haven’t been reading enough,” Chichilnisky says. According to him, the retina—one of the best-understood and most accessible avenues to the brain—is only the beginning.

Chichilnisky hopes to have a lab prototype in the next couple of years and to start testing it on live animals within five years. Predicting when such a device could be tested in humans, to say nothing of when it could be widely available, becomes murkier. But he hopes that human studies could happen within the next decade.

Though the technology is still at too early a stage to spin off into a company and seek investors, Chichilnisky has no doubt that many will be interested…and soon. “The thing I’m talking about is a revolution,” he says. And we are fortunate enough to be here to witness the start of it all.

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Potential Vaccine and Oral Medication for Alzheimer’s Disease in Human Trials

Focusing on Prevention

Researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine are tackling Alzheimer’s disease (AD) proactively by focusing on prevention. AD, the sixth-leading cause of death in the US which affects 47 million people worldwide, is the subject of a new study and series of clinical trials testing both a vaccine and oral medication. Both interventions aim to prevent or delay AD in older at risk adults.

This focus on prevention is a new approach to fighting AD. “One of the challenges in developing new medications for Alzheimer’s is that researchers tend to test medications on people with more advanced Alzheimer’s, and the medications are simply not proving to be effective,” Lon Schneider, Keck School professor of psychiatry and study lead investigator, told Neuroscience News. “By intervening 10 to 12 years before Alzheimer’s manifests, we may be able to stop it before it begins or delay the symptoms.”

The APOE4 Gene

According to Schneider, approximately half of all AD patients carry the apolipoprotein e4 (APOE4) gene, which can be inherited from either parent. Around one-quarter of the population carries one APOE4 gene, while two to three percent of the population carry two copies, one from each parent. Participants must have two copies of the gene to qualify for the study; interested adults ages 60 to 75 with normal cognition must undergo genetic testing for the APOE4 gene. If the vaccine, the oral medication, or both prove effective in treating people with two copies of the APOE4 gene, it is highly likely to be effective for other at-risk people.

 

Image Credit: Boku wa Kage/Wiki Commons
Amyloid beta fibrils. Image Credit: Boku wa Kage/Wiki Commons

Participants are randomly assigned a vaccine, an oral medication, a placebo vaccine, or a placebo oral medication which they will take for five to eight years. Both the vaccine and the oral medication target amyloid beta, the primary component of amyloid plaques in the brain and a major cause of AD, but in two different ways. The vaccine assists in the development of amyloid beta antibodies, while the oral medication blocks an enzyme that makes amyloid beta.

“If we are able to show that the vaccine or oral medication is effective at delaying Alzheimer’s among people at higher risk, then this would strongly imply that we are on the right track for developing treatments,” Schneider said to Neuroscience News. “If we can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by five years, for example, the incidence of the illness would drop by half. It would also give individuals five more years without symptoms of the illness.”

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New In-Utero Treatment Could Prevent One of the World’s Most Common Birth Defects

It’s in the Genes

When the bony tissue that covers the roof of the mouth doesn’t completely fuse at the midline while a fetus is in the womb, the infant will be born with a cleft palate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this deformity affects around 2,650 babies in the United States every year, making it one of the world’s most common birth defects.

Now, scientists from the University of Utah Health (U of U Health) may have found a way to treat this condition in-utero. Their research has been published in Development.

The UH team was originally hoping to learn more about how two sets of genes, PAX 9 and Wnt, affect the formation of teeth. To their surprise, they discovered that these same genes must work together to ensure palatal shelves grow and fuse during a critical development period in fetal formation.

During their research, they noticed that the two sides of the palate didn’t fuse properly in mice lacking the PAX9 gene. Furthermore, those mice also had an increase in two genes that inhibit Wnt signaling: Dkk1 and Dkk2.

“It was really serendipitous,” U of U Health dentistry professor Rena D’Souza, one of the researchers in the study, said in a press release. “For the first time, we can show the involvement of the Wnt pathway during palate fusion.”

Giving Hope

After discovering that these genes were involved in the development of a cleft palate, the researchers decided to see if they could be manipulated to prevent the defect. To that end, they administered a drug called WAY-262611 intravenously through the tail vein of the mother mouse during that critical moment when palate formation happens.

How CRISPR Works: The Future of Genetic Engineering and Designer Humans
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The medication blocked the Dkk genes and activated the Wnt signaling pathways, normalizing palate fusion in all the mice pups treated. For 18 months after the treatment, the researchers observed the mother mice and the pups that were exposed to the treatment and didn’t notice any adverse health effects.

The researchers intend to carry out more test to ensure that their Wnt-based therapy won’t affect other organ systems in development nor lead to long-term health issues. In-utero gene therapy is also controversial, so the researchers plan to explore the possibility of delivering this treatment directly to newborn infants.

Still, D’Souza and her colleagues at U of U Health are hopeful that their treatment could eventually end the need for children to undergo the costly and painful surgeries required to fix cleft palates: “As a clinician, I understand the devastating consequences of cleft palate. Clearly, there is more work to be done prior to implementation for humans, but it seems feasible to translate this research into Wnt-based treatments for people.”

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A Natural Molecule Has Been Shown to Stop Cancer Cells From Producing Energy

The Warburg Effect

The Warburg Effect refers to the way cancer cells “rewire” their metabolism to survive, voraciously consuming glucose to produce energy. Although scientists have known about this process for decades, they have not yet been able to harness it to stunt tumor growth. However, new research out of the Duke Cancer Institute may be able to change that.

In a study published today in Cell Metabolism, researchers detail how they were able to interpret the unusual wiring system that cancer cells use to metabolize carbohydrates, as well as identify a natural compound that shuts the system down selectively, at least in the lab.

Whereas healthy cells break down sugar with oxygen, cancer cells use fermentation, a less efficient process that requires more sugar, so the researchers began by studying cancer cells to better understand how their metabolism differs from that of normal cells.

Next, the team observed cancer cells undergoing the Warburg Effect to determine specific points where the cells controlled carbohydrate metabolism differently than their healthy cell counterparts.

The researchers found that the enzyme GAPDH controls the rate of glucose processing in cancer cells, so they then searched for any compounds known to have the potential to block the GAPDH enzyme. They saw potential in koningic acid (KA), a molecule that’s produced by a sugar-eating fungus to prevent bacteria from honing in on its food supply.

Based on their suspicions that it might naturally target the cells engaged in accelerated glucose metabolism, the team tested KA in cancer cells and mouse models. The results of these tests indicate that KA does curb glucose consumption in tumors undergoing the Warburg Effect by selectively inhibiting the GAPDH enzyme, all while leaving normal cells alone.

Targeting Tumors

The Warburg Effect is strong in some cancers, but weak or even absent in others. During the course of their study, the Duke researchers found that they could develop a model to predict the extent to which a cell would be under the influence of the Warburg Effect by measuring its GAPDH enzyme. These models could make it easier to predict when a therapy that targets the metabolic process is most likely to have the biggest effect.

How CRISPR Works: The Future of Genetic Engineering and Designer Humans
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“We’ve seen with genetics that cancers can be targeted based on whether certain mutations are present, and it could be that selectively targeting tumors based on their metabolism could have a similar impact,” lead author Maria Liberti said in a press release.

The team believes their results demand further study, specifically to determine whether other molecules might work along the same pathway and whether KA’s effects can be reproduced in other cell and animal studies.

“These findings not only show that KA’s efficacy is linked to the quantitative extent of the Warburg Effect, but that this also provides a therapeutic window,” explained Jason Locasale, the paper’s senior author and an assistant professor at Duke’s Department of Pharmacology & Cancer Biology. “This could provide another way to attack cancer beyond the genetic makeup of the tumor. That’s encouraging.”

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23andMe is Raising $200 Million to Make Drugs From Your DNA

Big Money

Genetic testing and analysis firm 23andMe has reportedly raised close to $200 million in its latest round of funding. The company is now at a $1.5 billion pre-money valuation, up from the $1 billion it was valued at ahead of its last private round in 2015.

For the past several months, 23andMe has pursued extra funding in order to continue expanding its genetic research capabilities, and to facilitate the launch of new products. It’s understood that CEO Anne Wojcicki is reluctant to go public at this time, so private funding rounds remain the preferred option.

How CRISPR Works: The Future of Genetic Engineering and Designer Humans
Click to View Full Infographic

The company came to prominence thanks to its original product, a personal genomics test that could offer up estimates of the subject’s predisposition for a range of different genetic traits, including the likes of baldness, blindness, and conditions like Parkinson’s disease.

However, in 2013 the Federal Drug Administration ordered 23andMe to stop selling the test. The kit was relaunched in 2015 having gained FDA approval, although this version didn’t offer anywhere near the scope of information served up by its predecessor.

Now, it seems that the company is taking steps in a different direction.

Drugs from DNA

When 23andMe was prohibited from selling its genomics tests, it began to delve deeper into research, and since then it’s made some major hires that indicate a potential shift away from genetic testing.

In 2015, 23andMe hired Richard Scheller, who was previously in charge of drug discovery at Genentech for 14 years, and more recently it has brought Angele Maki — who was the company’s associate director for business development — into the fold. The two firms previously collaborated on a multi-million dollar research project.

Genentech had bought access to the 23andMe’s library of DNA information belonging to 1.2 million people. People who take the company up on its genetic testing services are given the option to add their data to its “biobank” and answer supplementary survey questions. Now, it seems that the plan is to use this powerful resource in the search for new drugs.

For example, a survey question that asked respondents when they got up in the morning linked early risers with specific variations. This provided some useful pointers on how to develop a drug that adjusted the recipient’s alertness.

23andMe has long since offered up access to other companies at a price, but now it looks set to make a greater effort to develop treatments in-house. It opened a drug lab in 2016, and thanks to this recent round of funding, the company is in a great position to build out more infrastructure to facilitate its research.

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A New Bio-Ink Could Be Used to 3D Print Artificial Organs

Lifesaving Gel

Patients in need of an organ transplant face a grim reality: according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, in the US alone there are over 116,000 people on the life-saving transplant waiting list. But so far, in 2017, there have only been 10,866 donors. A new innovation could change that reality by creating artificial human tissues and organs from bio-ink.

Developed by engineers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Okanagan, bio-ink is made of cold-soluble gelatin (which can dissolve without heat), which served as a building block in hydrogel alongside living cells to mold 3D-printed tissues. The hydrogel performed better than others made of pig or fish skin, forming healthy tissue scaffolds for new cells to grow on while remaining stable at room temperature.

“A big drawback of conventional hydrogel is its thermal instability,” explained Keekyoung Kim, an assistant professor at UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering in a press release. “Even small changes in temperature cause significant changes in its viscosity, or thickness.”

The cold-soluble gelatin is also inexpensive, allowing for a much cheaper alternative to traditional organ transplants.

3D printed models of human organs are already helping surgeons better plan for surgery, but we’ve yet to see an artificial organ transplant; a 3D printed-tibia is as close as we’ve come.

“We hope this new bio-ink will help researchers create improved artificial organs and lead to the development of better drugs, tissue engineering and regenerative therapies,” Kim said. “The next step is to investigate whether or not cold-soluble GelMA-based tissue scaffolds are can be used long-term both in the laboratory and in real-world transplants.”

With another person added to the organ transplant list roughly every ten minutes, this new method can’t come soon enough.

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We May Soon Charge Devices by Harnessing Electricity from Our Bloodstream

Inner Space Hydropower

It’s a truly modern experience: losing battery power on your mobile device and searching desperately for a source of electricity. But what if that source was flowing through your veins? A team of researchers are looking to harness that power from within our own bodies, using power generators inside the bloodstream.

The team from Fudan University in China has developed a lightweight power generator that can convert flowing blood in vessels into power. This is made possible by a fiber made of carbon nanotubes, which are electroactive. In tests, this thread of fibers, called a “fiber-shaped fluidic nanogenerator” (FFNG), is attached to electrodes and immersed in a solution to imitate the bloodstream. According to the researchers, “The electricity was derived from the relative movement between the FFNG and the solution.”

The researchers were inspired by the concept behind hydropower, which uses flowing water or steam to turn a turbine and generate electricity. Like hydropower, blood-based electricity would be a source of renewable electricity not dependent on the weather, as solar and wind energy are.

Image source: Pixabay
Image source: Pixabay

Blood Power

The researchers stated that their method was able to harness twenty percent of the energy generated from a test with a saline solution, a far more efficient result than previous models.

The mechanical properties of the material will potentially allow it to have some interesting applications. For one, this could turn into an easy way to generate power for internal medical devices, like pacemakers. Additionally, according to the press release, “Other advantages are elasticity, tunability, lightweight, and one-dimensionality,” which could allow the material to be woven into fabrics, allowing you to power wearable devices using yourself as an energy source.

The device also has the upside of being stationary; proposed energy generators that floated in the blood raised concerns that they could lead to blood clots.

It’s understandable to question how much power could feasibly be generated by this technology when working with materials at this scale; so far, the method has only been successfully tested in a living body by using frog’s nerves. There will also have to be much more testing and a battery of regulatory approval before we could see this technology in use with humans. Still, even the medical applications alone leave plenty to be excited about. This single innovation could majorly revolutionize medicine and, more broadly, the way we generate and utilize energy.

The post We May Soon Charge Devices by Harnessing Electricity from Our Bloodstream appeared first on Futurism.

Researchers Find ‘Internal Clock’ Within Live Human Cells

A Closer Look

A new study by researchers at New York University (NYU), as published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), has established a method of gauging what stage of the cell cycle a living cell is currently at. Previously, it was only possible to take such measurements when working with a dead cell.

It was already known that the size and shape of a cell nucleus typically undergo big changes over the course of a cell’s lifespan. However, the challenge of taking measurements from a living cell meant that we didn’t know whether its shape changed over a shorter span of time.

Human cell nuclei with the nuclear envelope highlighted in green. Image Credit: New York University/Alexandra Zidovska/Fang-Yi Chu
Human cell nuclei with the nuclear envelope highlighted in green. Image Credit: New York University/Alexandra Zidovska/Fang-Yi Chu

Using a cutting-edge fluorescence microscope, researchers were able to observe a previously undetected flicker of the nuclear envelope, which takes place over the course of just a few seconds. The amplitude of this fluctuation was seen to decrease as the cell cycle went on.

This motion could serve as an internal clock, as scientists could take measurements in order to understand what point in the cell cycle a living cell is currently occupying.

A Better Understanding

Being able to discern where a cell sits in its life cycle will hopefully facilitate a greater understanding of the most basic processes of human biology. This discovery stands to improve our knowledge of both healthy and diseased cells.

“We know that structural and functional errors of the nuclear envelope lead to a large number of developmental and inherited disorders, such as cardiomyopathy, muscular dystrophy, and cancer,” Alexandra Zidovska, the paper’s senior author and an assistant professor of physics at NYU, said in a statement released by the school. “Illuminating the mechanics of nuclear shape fluctuations might contribute to efforts to understand the nuclear envelope in health and disease.”

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The UK is Pioneering a Heart Transplant Program That Could Cut Waiting Lists in Half

Amazing Success

In a new program about to be rolled out all over the U.K., doctors will be using donor hearts that have stopped beating. The procedure is called Donation after Circulatory-determined Death or Donation after Cardiac Death (DCD). Although this medical technique isn’t new, it is coming into its own within the medical establishment.

Given the ongoing shortage of organ donors, the fact that adoption of DCD across the U.K. will cut the waiting list for donor hearts by more than 40 percent is no surprise. If the program succeeds in the U.K., we may see other nations take the same tactic.

The program will be building off the success that the procedure has already achieved on a small scale. In March of 2015, Doctors at Cambridge, England’s Papworth Hospital, became the first in Europe to successfully perform the DCD operation. Since that time they have completed 30 operations, according to reporting from The Independent, boosting the hospital’s heart transplant rate by more than one third.

Image Credit: DrJanaOfficial/Wikimedia Commons
Image Credit: DrJanaOfficial/Wikimedia Commons

“We’re delighted. It’s a phenomenal program and such a fantastic operation, because you’ve got people with complete, end stage heart failure, and it can bring them back to their normal form,” Papworth Hospital cardiothoracic transplant registrar Simon Messer told The Independent. “The rest of the world is interested because they’ve seen our results, and the patients with us who have survived.”

Tom Shing is one of Papworth Hospital’s DCD success stories. The agricultural engineer was only 25 years old and — aside from his heart disease — was in great health. However, for a variety of reasons, he was unlikely to find a donor heart without the DCD procedure. However, Shing was out of bed and working with a physiotherapist within seven hours of the surgery. Ten weeks later, he was wakeboarding.

Donation After Circulatory-Determined Death

DCD donor patients have sustained serious brain injuries that result in minimal brain function and the need to be kept alive on life support. Since these patients will not recover and are being kept alive by artificial means, sometimes their families determine that they should be removed from life support.

When the ventilator and other support is withdrawn, the patient’s heart will stop. After five minutes, the attending physician will declare the patient dead. Then this donor will be moved to the operating room, where the removal of the heart takes place. The heart is then revived using the TransMedics Organ Care System (OCS), a portable device which restores function by pumping blood through the coronary arteries. The heart is then ready for transplantation.

Image Credit: Realmastery/Wikimedia Commons
Image Credit: Realmastery/Wikimedia Commons

DCD was used until the mid-1970s when brain death criteria were established; after that point, only brain-dead patients were used as heart donors because their hearts were still beating despite the “brain death” diagnosis. The difference now is that the OCS renders hearts that have stopped beating usable, and the results of the DCD procedure are comparable or better than those from brain-dead donor transplants. In fact, U.K. surgeons are reporting a 90 to 93 percent survival to discharge rate with the DCD procedure.

A Desperate Need

As of this writing, there were 3,952 people waiting for donor hearts in the U.S., and this is in line with the number waiting any given year. More than 20,000 patients in the U.S. would benefit from heart transplants every year, but the number of donors has been stagnant some time.

“…the world is interested because they’ve seen our results.” -Simon Messer

In 2015, Stanford researchers found that, according to data from the U.S. government’s Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, of 82,053 potential donor hearts from all potential adult cardiac donors between 1995 and 2010, only 34 percent were accepted. On average, the wait time for a donor heart is 144 days, but about half of the people on the heart transplantation list have been waiting for more than one year. Since transplants are the treatment of last resort, many people die waiting for donor organs.

The need for new options here in the U.S. is clear. And while advancing technologies might someday produce alternatives, for now, donor hearts are the only option for many patients. Hopefully we’ll see DCD programs rolling out worldwide soon.

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For The First Time Ever, A Woman in China Was Cryogenically Frozen

Preserving Life Through Cryonics

Cryonics is the practice of deep-freezing recently deceased bodies (or even just the brains of those who have recently died) in the hopes of one day reviving them. It has been the subject of serious scientific exploration and study — as well as a fair share of pseudoscience, lore, and myth. Fictional accounts like Batman’s Iceman, and the (untrue) rumors of Walt Disney being cryogenically frozen have, unfortunately, cast a speculative shadow over the field of cryonics.

But recently, for the first time ever in China, a woman has been cryogenically frozen. Zhan Wenlian died at the age of 49 from lung cancer and her husband, Gui Junmin, “volunteered” her for the cryonic procedure. Both he and his late wife wanted to donate her body to science to “give back to society.” He told Mirror UK that he was initially “pitched” the idea of cryonics with it being described as a “life preservation project.”

This procedure — which has Wenlian’s body resting facedown in 2,000 liters of liquid nitrogen — was completed at the Yinfeng Biological Group in Jinan. This project is the collaborative effort of the Yinfeng Biological Group, Qilu Hospital Shandong University and consultants from Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a nonprofit cryonics company based in the United States.

Even with all the faith many have in the procedure, the question remains: how scientifically possible is a project like this? Is this just an experiment to allow us to better understand human biology, or could cryonics one day become a feasible option?

Zhan’s body undergoing the cryogenics process after an initial procedure following death. Image Credit: AsiaWire

The Future of Death

Cryonics is all about timing. The bodies of the deceased are cryogenically frozen immediately after the heart stops beating. “Freezing” is a bit of a misleading term, because cryonic freezing is actually very specifically trying to avoid ice crystal formation — which damages the cells of the body’s tissues. Rapid cooling, rather than freezing, is a more accurate description of the process. A chemical cocktail of preservatives like glycerol and propandiol, in addition to antifreeze agents, are commonly used to get the body into a stable state where it won’t be decaying, but also won’t suffer damage from being stored at low temperatures for, conceivably, a very long time.

From there, the bodies are given specific care that caters to the idea that death is a continuing process; one that can ultimately be reversed. The aim of cryonic preservation would be to one day be able to thaw the bodies and reanimate them at a cellular level — preferably without too many epigenetic changes.

“I tend to believe in new and emerging technologies, so I think it will be completely possible to revive her.”

With our current understanding and technology, this process of reversing death so completely is just not possible. The closest kind of revival we have are the moments after clinical death where patients are revived by something such as cardiac defibrillation. Cryonics acts within this critical, albeit brief, period as well — but works within the belief that death is a grey area. More of a process rather than a definite, final, event.

Just because we haven’t succeeded in reviving the dead yet doesn’t mean the field of cryonics is unnecessary or unimportant. This first case in China is a major step forward for everyone researching in the field of cryonics — and those of us who may, one day, hope to benefit from advancements in it.

We may not be able to reverse death just yet, but it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility to imagine that, with such wild scientific advancements underway, technology could one day allow it to be possible. Whether or not it does in our lifetimes, this most recent development is certainly a positive one.

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A Common Gut Bacteria Could Prevent a Top Killer of Newborns Worldwide

A Common Enough Cure

Newborn infants are some of the most delicate creatures on Earth. As soon as they emerge from their mothers’ wombs, human infants are exposed to an environment they aren’t yet equipped to handle. This could lead to infection which could turn into a life-threatening condition, the most common of which is the extreme infection response known as sepsis.

Fortunately, an inexpensive prevention technique for sepsis might soon be available, thanks to the work of scientists in the United States and in India — and to a bacteria commonly found in Asian kitchens. Probiotic bacteria, which is abundant in kimchi, pickles and other fermented vegetables, could drastically reduce the chances of babies getting sepsis.

The trick was figuring out which probiotic bacterial strain would work most effectively, according to University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health pediatrician Pinaki Panigrahi, who’s been working on a way to prevent sepsis for 20 years now.

“We screened more than 280 strains in preliminary animal and human studies,” he told NPR. “So it was a very methodical process.” Probiotics are also known to be effective in preventing an infection of the intestines of newborns called necrotizing enterocolitis. Best of all, the use of these probiotics could cost as little as $1 per baby, Panigrahi said.

A Fighting Chance for Babies

Sepsis remains the primary cause of death from infection globally. It’s known to affect 6 million newborns and children every year, accounting for about 60-80 percent of lives lost annually, including the deaths of about 600,000 babies. Worst of all, it’s not easily detected in newborns. “All the sudden the baby stops being active. It stops crying and breastfeeding,” said Panigrahi, lead author in the report published in the journal Nature, “By the time the mother has a chance to bring the baby to the hospital, the baby dies.”

In this study, the risk of death from sepsis dropped by 40 percent, from 9 percent to 5.4 percent in the 4,000 babies fed with the probiotic microbes. The administration of probiotics was also shown to prevent lung infections, which dropped by about 30 percent. “That was a big surprise, because we didn’t think gut bacteria were going to work in a distant organ like the lung,” Panigrahi said. Abdominal distention was the only significant side-effect observed, affecting just six of the babies tested.

Manufacturing a treatment using probiotics will be remarkably inexpensive. And it might not be long before this treatment is found in common use. “[Probiotics] can promote maturation of the immune system in a healthier way,” neonatologist Pascal Lavoie, from BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia, told NPR. “Probiotics can be much more powerful than drugs.”

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Australian Researchers May Have Created a Cure for the Peanut Allergy

A Cure for the Peanut Allergy

Australian researchers seem to have found a way to cure children of their peanut allergies. As reported by The Guardian, an immunotherapy trial left a group of children cured for the last four years, allowing them to eat peanuts and other peanut-based foods as part of their diet.

“These children had been eating peanut freely in their diet without having to follow any particular program of peanut intake in the years after treatment was completed,” said Professor Mimi Tang, lead researcher on the study.

Tang created this new form of treatment, known as PPOIT, by combining a probiotic with peanut oral immunotherapy. The treatment reprograms the body’s immune system, allowing it to build up an immunity. According to Tang, the combination of probiotic and immunotherapy provides the body will the small push it needs to combat the allergy.

Following the initial trial in 2013, 82% of the children involved developed a tolerance to peanuts. Four years later, 70% of that group were tested once again, confirming the treatment’s long-term effects.

Life-Changing Effects

“The way I see it is that we had children who came into the study allergic to peanuts, having to avoid peanuts in their diet, being very vigilant around that, carrying a lot of anxiety with that and, at the end of treatment and even four years later, many of these children who had benefited from our probiotic peanut therapy could now live like a child who didn’t have peanut allergy,” said Tang.

Peanut allergies are relatively common these days, being the most common form of anaphylaxis, with more than 200,000 reactions requiring emergency medical attention each year. The peanut allergy, specifically, is also largely associated with children, though one-in-five are expected to outgrow it.

If work on Tang’s treatment progresses and is confirmed by larger clinical studies, it could eventually be used to greatly reduce the prevalence of peanut allergies and the medical risk that comes along with them.

The post Australian Researchers May Have Created a Cure for the Peanut Allergy appeared first on Futurism.

Here’s Everything You Need to Know About the Recent Human Gene Editing Trial in the US

Gene Editing In Embryos

Recently, scientists achieved a world first using the genetic editing tool, CRISPR, when they corrected a genetic mutation that causes heart failure in viable human embryos. This means that certain genetic defects may be relatively simple to correct in the near future. The issue that really has people talking, though, is the fact that the same tool could potentially be used to enhance healthy embryos, altering physical traits such as appearance or mental traits like intelligence.

However, the authors of the study firmly point out that the technology’s purpose is to save lives. “This is for [the] sake of saving children from horrible diseases,” lead author Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov explained in a Nature podcast. With this “milestone” achieved, humanity is getting closer, Dr. George Church confirmed to The Scientist.

The work in this study solved past problems with embryo editing including the issue of mosaicism, which happens when “fixed” cells contain a mix of the new, repaired DNA and older, damaged DNA. It also conquered the issue of unintended problems in the DNA being passed down in the germline. The technique that made the difference was injecting the CRISPR setup right into the fertilized embryo or egg cell about to be fertilized. It can then be degraded after it does its work, rather than floating around on plasmids in cells where it can do damage over time.

Future Applications

This discovery is significant for anyone suffering from hereditary, genetic diseases. For people with fatal diseases such as Huntington’s, for example, carrying certain genes means they are certain to get the disease, and a 50/50 chance of passing it on. For this reason, many people with Huntington’s don’t have children. If this discovery pans out, these patients won’t have to worry about passing on a genetic disorder.

How CRISPR Works: The Future of Genetic Engineering and Designer Humans
Click to View Full Infographic

Of course the specter of the “designer baby” is always raised in this context — but the study demonstrates that the way the cells repair the genes in question, researchers can’t add anything that wasn’t already present in the DNA. In other words, repair is possible, but not adding limitless “super” traits.

Regulations And Benefits

Nevertheless, there are critical voices in the fray: former molecular biologist Dr. David King (also founder of independent genetic engineering watchdog group Human Genetics Alert) said in an editorial in The Guardian that, “In fact, the medical justification for spending millions of dollars on such research is extremely thin: it would be much better spent on developing cures for people living with those conditions.” King believes that despite medical cures being the original motivation for developing genome editing, the creation of “designer babies” for the very wealthy is inevitable — as is the deepening class stratification caused by this modern eugenic drive.

In any event, there is significant work left to be done before CRISPR could be used in clinics. Scientists want to increase its accuracy and precision, for one thing. Furthermore, IVF clinics already screen out genetic disease and other abnormalities before implanting embryos; to justify the cost of using CRISPR, it would need to show more benefits unachievable otherwise.

Either way, now is probably the time to start grappling with the ethical issues surrounding CRISPR. Waiting until it is possible to use it — and dying people are waiting for it — seems shortsighted. In any event, more dialogue and research only stands to help resolve the societal issues that remain.

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Scientists Have Developed a New Method to 3D-Print Living Tissue

Cell by Cell

3D-printing technology has made significant strides over the past several years. What started as a tool for producing small objects can now be used to craft food, build houses, and even construct “space fabric.”

One of the tech’s most impressive applications, however, is the creation of artificial tissues and organs, a process known as 3D bioprinting, and now, a team of researchers from the University of Oxford has developed a new method that takes 3D bioprinting to the next level. They published their work in the journal Nature Communications.

Bioprinting: How 3D Printing is Changing Medicine
Click to View Full Infographic

A major challenge faced by researchers when 3D printing artificial tissues is getting them to maintain their shape. The cells are apt to move around in the printed structure and collapse in on themselves.

To avoid this, the Oxford team, led by 3D-bioprinting scientist Alexander Graham from Oxford Synthetic Biology (OxSyBio), contained their cells within nanolitre droplets that were wrapped in a lipid coating. These droplets could then be placed one layer at a time into living structures. Thanks to the structural support provided by the container, the tissues would maintain their shape, and the individual cells could survive longer as well.

Better Tissues

Because this new method allows tissues to be built one drop at a time, researchers can use it to more accurately mimic natural tissues.

“We were aiming to fabricate three-dimensional living tissues that could display the basic behaviors and physiology found in natural organisms,” Graham said in a press release.

“To date, there are limited examples of printed tissues, which have the complex cellular architecture of native tissue. Hence, we focused on designing a high-resolution cell printing platform, from relatively inexpensive components, that could be used to reproducibly produce artificial tissues with appropriate complexity from a range of cells including stem cells,” he explained.

Researchers across the globe have already made considerable advances in 3D bioprinting and how it can be applied to regenerative medicine. We can now create 3D-printed organs and body parts that resemble and function like their natural counterparts, such as those realistic-looking ears. By enabling the production of complex tissues, the Oxford team’s method could revolutionize regenerative medicine even more, allowing for the repair or replacement of more intricate diseased and damaged body parts.

“There are many potential applications for bioprinting, and we believe it will be possible to create personalized treatments by using cells sourced from patients to mimic or enhance natural tissue function,” OxSyBio CTO Sam Olof said in the press release. “In the future, 3D bio-printed tissues maybe also be used for diagnostic applications — for example, for drug or toxin screening.”

The next step, according to Graham, is to develop complementary printing techniques that will allow for the use of additional kinds of living and hybrid materials. At the same time, they’re exploring the production of their current artificial tissues on an industrial scale.

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Can A New Supplement Change How We Age?

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Long-Term Health Starts With Your Cells

Leonard Guarente is a molecular biologist and the Director of the Glenn Laboratory for the Science of Aging at MIT. He is one of the world’s leading scientists in the realm of age-related research. He’s also the co-founder of a direct-to-consumer health company called Elysium Health – an impressive list of credentials, to be sure.

If you haven’t heard of Elysium yet, you’ll want to pay attention. They work to take the latest discoveries from health and aging research and translate them into products that consumers can benefit from today. While they might not have found the fountain of youth (yet), they have created a “cellular health pill,” and their product pipeline has been guided by a Scientific Advisory Board that is comprised of seven winners of the Nobel Prize in areas of research including neuroscience, complex chemical systems, and biochemistry — an impressive list of supporters, to be sure.

The pill is called Basis, and it’s a once daily supplement that supports human health at the cellular level.

Basis

According to the company, Basis exists thanks to a coenzyme inside each of our cells called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD+, which is involved in metabolism and is known to diminish with age. NAD+ is essential for hundreds of biological processes. As a recent article in The Observer explains, “While Elysium is careful not to make claims about the health benefits of Basis, the coenzyme NAD+ has, for years, been revered among the bio-hacker community.” This is, in part, because NAD+ has been shown to maintain DNA health and improve metabolic function in animal studies — hence the desire for consumers to liken it to the fanciful concept of “a fountain of youth.”

Other preclinical research reveals that an increase in NAD+ levels can improve mitochondrial function, circadian rhythms, and the detoxification of cells, which can help to support a sturdy immune system and feelings of overall health.

As we age, NAD+ levels decline, compromising the systems it supports. But a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial in humans indicated that Basis is effective at restoring NAD+ levels by 40 percent in adults. An exciting discovery for Elysium, which is continuing to study the various health benefits in humans associated with increasing NAD+ levels.

Boosting NAD+

The pill itself is comprised of two active compounds: pterostilbene (a polyphenol found in blueberries, grapes, and peanuts) and nicotinamide riboside (a form of vitamin B3 naturally found in milk and beer). Together, these compounds, that are generally recognized as safe, work to boost NAD+ levels in the human body — creating an opportunity for the body to experience health benefits as a result.

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While the research behind the pill has been over 25 years in the making, and while there are compelling reasons to believe that increasing NAD+ levels can and will increase health function, it is important to remember that this is still early research. That said, the research and clinical trials completed to date have garnered promising results.

To learn more about Leonard Guarente, his insight into healthspan, and the scope of human longevity, check out Elysium Health. For $60, you’ll get a month supply of 60 capsules and play a part in this research. Or, you can subscribe and save up to 33%.

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Researchers Used Tiny Autonomous Vehicles to Deliver Medicine to the Stomach of Mice

Micromotor Medic

Researchers used autonomous vehicles known as micromotors to cure bacterial infections in the stomachs of mice. Micromotors are only the width of a single human hair, which allows them to negotiate the labyrinthine confines of the human body, and administer precise treatment.

In this study, micromotors were used to provide mice with a dose of antibiotics every day for five days. This regimen was found to be more effective than the standard method of administering the medicine.

Micromotors are a relatively new technology, but they’re coming along in leaps and bounds. Earlier this year, researchers in Germany developed a method of combining the vehicles with sperm cells to help combat tumors.

This particular implementation of micromotors is comprised of a spherical magnesium core that’s coated with specialized layers that perform various different functions,, like protecting the vehicle, carrying the treatment, and giving it the ability to stick the walls of the stomach.

However, it’s the core that’s the really clever part — it propels the micromotor along, but it does so in a way that helps the medicine have the desired effect.

Acid Drop

The micromotors are able to move around the stomach thanks to the propulsion provided by the magnesium as it reacts with gastric acid. This reaction actually reduces the level of acidity in  the stomach for a short amount of time.

This amounts to more than complementary antacid; antibiotics and protein-based drugs can be rendered useless by the gastric acid in the stomach. As such, it’s essential that the acidity level be dropped before they are released from the micromotor to do their job. This particular layer of the vehicle responds to the acidity around it, and it will only administer the medicine when it detects safe conditions for it to do so.

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The acidity level of the stomach is said to return to its normal state within 24 hours. The micromotors themselves are largely biodegradable, so when finished, they simply dissolve within the stomach without leaving anything harmful behind.

“There is still a long way to go, but we are on a fantastic voyage,” said Dr. Joseph Wang, professor at the University of California San Diego and the lead researcher on the project, alongside fellow professor Dr. Liangfang Zhang. Following the success of these tests, the research team plans to engage in a larger study with animals — but the long-term goal is to investigate whether the same technique can be used safely on a human subject.

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Researchers Have Devised a Method to Erase Memories Associated With Fear

Fear Leads to Stress

Fear comes in both healthy and harmful doses. Healthy fear, for example, teaches one to avoid touching fire or a sharp edge so as not to be harmed. Traumatic experiences also develop fears, and in the case of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) or even some phobias, it can be psychologically and emotionally harmful.

What if you could get rid of such fears? That’s what researchers from the University of Califronia, Riverside have developed, and they published their findings today in the journal Neuron. They’ve developed a method to erase specific fear memories in the brain.

“In the brain, neurons communicate with each other through synaptic connections, in which signals from one neuron are transmitted to another neuron by means of neurotransmitters,” lead researcher Jun-Hyeong Cho said in a press release. “We demonstrated that the formation of fear memory associated with a specific auditory cue involves selective strengthening in synaptic connections which convey the auditory signals to the amygdala, a brain area essential for fear learning and memory. We also demonstrated that selective weakening of the connections erased fear memory for the auditory cue.”

 

Selective Synapse Weakening

Cho’s team conducted behavioral training tests involving mice, exposing them to a high-pitch and a low-pitch tone. Then, they exposed the mice again to the high-pitched tone, this time accompanied by a mild footshock. Exposing them to the two tones again, the mice stopped moving when it heard the high-pitched one, despite the absence of an actual electric shock on their feet. No such response was noted when it heard the low-pitched sound.

The freezing behavior happened because the experience developed stronger synaptic connections that relayed high-pitch tone signals to the amygdala. The mice learned to fear the sound, in short. This neural connection, the team explained, could be reduced using optogenetics — i.e., exposure to light could weaken the synaptic connection and erase the fear memory. 

The Evolution of Brain-Computer Interfaces [INFOGRAPHIC]
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“In the brain, neurons receiving the high- and low-pitch tone signals are intermingled,” Cho explained. “We were able, however, to experimentally stimulate just those neurons that responded to the high-pitch sound. Using low-frequency stimulations with light, we were able to erase the fear memory by artificially weakening the connections conveying the signals of the sensory cue — a high-pitch tone in our experiments — that are associated with the aversive event, namely, the footshock.”

Traumatic fear memories often lead to unhealthy reactions or even harmful behaviors. For example, a person who suffered from a car accident might develop fear that triggers him to relive that traumatic memory every time he steps inside a car. Such a fear could be debilitating. Now, it’s possible to target such fears.

“This study expands our understanding of how adaptive fear memory for a relevant stimulus is encoded in the brain,” Cho added. “It is also applicable to developing a novel intervention to selectively suppress pathological fear while preserving adaptive fear in PTSD.” It could even be developed into treating addictive behavior, which Cho’s team wants to explore next by studying the mechanisms for “reward learning.”

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Plants Have Been “Hijacked” to Create a Vaccine — And it Could Eradicate Polio

 

Polio’s Last Days?

Polio cases have decreased by over 99% since 1988, but a recent breakthrough could lead to this disease’s elimination once and for all.

In an interesting way of using one virus to combat another, scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, England, “hijacked” a relative of the tobacco plant, and used its own metabolism to turn its leaves into the leafy equivalent of polio vaccine factories. The end result is a virus that looks and acts like the polio virus, but technically isn’t; it has everything needed to train the body’s immune system, but nothing that can pass on the polio virus — which can cause an infected person to eventually become paralyzed or suffer from meningitis.

Scientists began this process by taking the genetic code used to make the outer layer of the polio virus, and combining it with material from various other virus known to effectively infect plants. From there, the resulting combination was inserted into soil bacteria, which then went on to infect tobacco. After the infection took hold, the plants responded to the newly made genetic code and began making the virus-like particles that would later be extracted.

When used in preliminary animal tests, the particles completed prevented polio from occurring.

Speaking to BBC News, John Innes Professor George Lomonossoff called the particles “incredibly good mimics.”

A =  Virus-like particles (VLPs) in vitreous ice. B = Reconstruction of poliovirus. C = VLP showing empty internal surface. D and E = Resolutions of poliovirus. (Image Credit: John Innes Center)

A Replacement for the Polio Vaccine

The World Health Organization (WHO) has already provided funding towards this research, with the goal of using it to replace the polio vaccine still in use. Current polio vaccines utilize the actual polio virus, albeit a much subdued version; however, that poses a few risks, included its potential reintroduction into society.

The virus-like particles, and the process in which they were created, also aren’t exclusive to polio. There are plans to expand it to treat many other diseases, such as the flu, as well as outbreaks of new diseases. In theory, so long as the genetic code is available, as it was with polio, then a vaccine can be made.

“In an experiment with a Canadian company, they showed you could actually identify a new strain of virus and produce a candidate vaccine in three to four weeks,” Lomonossoff told the BBC. “It has potential for making vaccines against emerging epidemics, of course recently we had Zika and prior to that we had Ebola.”

Tinkering with plant machinery could also potentially yield other useful results, including clean fuel for our vehicles and compounds to fight diseases.

While Lomonossoff’s unique process provides a cheaper, more efficient way to make vaccines, there are still aspects to work out before its fully implemented; for example, whether using a tobacco plant will lead to a vaccine with nicotine in it, and in turn, create a nicotine craving.

Polio currently affects very few people — 37 cases were reported in 2016 — but the disease is so infectious that even a single case could be disastrous; that one case could lead to 200,000 new cases every year within ten years. What is perhaps scariest about it is those infected may not even be aware of it; its symptoms include a sore throat, headache, or a fever, all of which are fairly common among less dangerous diseases.

The WHO estimates that, thanks to the global push to eradicate polio, more than 16 million people have been saved from paralysis. If there’s a way to eradicate it completely, it’s worth it.

 

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Are Vertical Farms the Future of Farming?

This is the sort of conversation explored in Peter Diamandis’s online community called Abundance 360 Digital (A360D). If you want access to the A360D knowledge base and community lead by Peter Diamandis, click here to learn more.

Futurism only supports products that we trust and use. This video post is in partnership with A360D, and Futurism may get a small percentage of sales.

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We Just Figured out How to Activate Stem Cells to Treat Baldness

External Problem. Internal Solution.

Researchers have already explored ways to use stem cells to treat everything from diabetes to aging, and now, a team from UCLA thinks they could potentially offer some relief for people suffering from baldness.

During their study, which has been published in Nature, the researchers noticed that stem cells found in hair follicles undergo a different metabolic process than normal skin cells. After turning glucose into a molecule known as pyruvate, these hair follicle cells then do one of two things: send the pyruvate to the cell’s mitochondria to be used as energy or convert it into another metabolite known as lactate.

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Based on these findings, the researchers decided to see if inactive hair follicles behaved differently depending on the path of the pyruvate.

To that end, the UCLA team compared mice that had been genetically engineered so that they wouldn’t produce lactate with mice that had been engineered to produce more lactate than normal. Obstructing lactate production stopped the stem cells in the follicles from being activated, while more hair growth was observed on the animals who were producing more of the metabolite.

“No one knew that increasing or decreasing the lactate would have an effect on hair follicle stem cells,” co-lead on the study and professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology William Lowry explained in a UCLA press release. “Once we saw how altering lactate production in the mice influenced hair growth, it led us to look for potential drugs that could be applied to the skin and have the same effect.”

Potential for Growth

Based on their study, the researchers were able to discover two different drugs that could potentially help humans jumpstart the stem cells in their hair follicles to increase lactate production.

The first is called RCGD423, and it works by establishing a JAK/STAT signalling pathway between the exterior of a cell and its nucleus. This puts the stems cells in an active state and contributes to lactate production, encouraging hair growth.

The other drug, UK5099, takes the opposite approach. It stops pyruvate from being converted into energy by the cells’ mitochondria, which leaves the molecules with no choice but to take the alternate path of creating lactate, which, in turn, promotes hair growth.

Left: Untreated mouse skin. Right: Mouse skin treated with the drug UK5099. Image Credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Center / Nature Cell Biology

Both of the drugs have yet to be tested on humans, but hopes are high that if tests are successful, they could provide relief for the estimated 56 million people in the U.S. alone suffering from a range of conditions that affect normal hair growth and retention, including alopecia, hormone imbalances, stress-related hair loss, and even old age.

However, as undoubtedly pleased as many of those people would be to stimulate their hair growth, the potential relevance of this research stretches far beyond hair loss. The new knowledge gained regarding stem cells, specifically their relation to the metabolism of the human body, provides a very promising basis for future study in other realms.

“I think we’ve only just begun to understand the critical role metabolism plays in hair growth and stem cells in general,” noted Aimee Flores, first author of the study and a predoctoral trainee in Lowry’s lab. “I’m looking forward to the potential application of these new findings for hair loss and beyond.”

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New Study Reveals Stem Cells from Young Hearts May Help Reverse the Aging Process

To Be Young Again

Old hearts may find new life, according to a new study, which shows that stem cells taken from younger hearts can be used to reverse the aging process. This could potentially cause older hearts to act and perform like younger ones.

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The study, conducted by the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute and published by the European Heart Journal, set out to observe the effects of cardiac stem cells on various aspects of the heart, including its function and structure. Prior applications of Cardiosphere-derived cells (CDC) resulted in positive effects, but this was the first time its effects in the aging process were tested. This is different from the tests performed last month at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where the hypothalamus region of the brain was discovered to be a key part of aging in mice.

Cedars-Sinai researchers instead took CDC cells from newborn mice and injected it into the hearts of older mice, while another group of older mice were injected with saline. Blood, echocardiographic, haemodynamic and treadmill stress tests were performed on all mice after injections, with the older groups tested 1 month later.

The mice given the Cardiosphere-derived cells saw a number of benefits compared to their saline counterparts. They had improved heart functionality, were able to exercise 20 percent longer, regrew hair at a faster rate, and had longer heart cell telomeres. This is important because telomeres are compounds found at the ends of chromosomes whose shortening is directly correlated to the aging process.

stem cells aging anti-aging research medicine
Telomeres (purple) are found at the ends of chromosomes and shorten over time. Image Credit: Cedars-Sinai

“The way the cells work to reverse aging is fascinating,” said Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute Director and Lead Researcher Eduardo Marbán, MD, PhD. “They secrete tiny vesicles that are chock-full of signaling molecules such as RNA and proteins. The vesicles from young cells appear to contain all the needed instructions to turn back the clock.”

Too Early For Practical Use

Tests on rats have shown that CDCs have shown cardiac and systemic rejuvenation on the aging process, but there is much work to do before the anti-aging treatment is tested on people, let alone over the table. Lilian Griorian-Shamagian, MD, PhD, who was co-primary researcher on the study, notes that it’s still unclear if the cells actually extend the lifespan of the rats, rather than simply providing a new heart in an old body. It’s also unknown if CDCs need to be taken from younger hearts in order to be effective. If any CDCs, regardless of their origin, can be used, it could lead to a new round of tests comparing the effects of CDCs from the young to the CDCs from the old or middle-aged.

If stem cells were used for medical purposes, they could help those suffering from heart failure, or the Duchenne muscular dystrophy Marbán and his team are hoping to treat. Beyond that, it could lessen the number of deaths caused by heart disease, which is currently responsible for over 610,000 deaths a year.

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Alternative Cancer Treatments Come With Increased Chances of Death

Alternative Doesn’t Mean Better

Cancer is nothing to mess around with. While alternative treatments may seem appealing to patients, some have been found to have more harmful effects in the aftermath.

Skyler Johnson and his colleagues at the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut discovered this very fact when they decided to look into cancer treatments and cancer survivors. Records from the US National Cancer Database provided data on 281 people who tested positive for four types of cancer — lung, breast, prostate, or colorectal — and sought out alternative methods to deal with the disease, instead of the more conventional and often recommended treatments like chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or surgery.

“[These alternative treatments] could be herbs, botanicals, homeopathy, special diets or energy crystals, which are basically just stones that people believe have healing powers,” said Johnson.

Johnson doesn’t know specifically what treatments this group used, but his team’s results are telling.

Johnson and his team compared the aforementioned 281 people to 560 others of similar ages and race who also had cancer, but chose the conventional route. The alternative treatment group was two and half times more likely to die within five years of being diagnosed. That said, Johnson notes that the nature of prostate cancer makes the comparison a little inaccurate, since it takes longer for this specific form of the disease to progress to the point of becoming life-threatening.

Among breast cancer patients, specifically, those that chose alternate treatment were over five times more like to die within the same span of time. Forty-one percent of lung cancer patients who took conventional treatments survived at least five years, compared to 20 percent of those who eschewed the treatment in favor of alternatives. Only 33 percent of colorectal cancer patients survived five years following alternative treatments; 79 percent survived five years using recommended means.

Those Who Chose

Interestingly enough, those that decided to try alternative treatments were also people who were considered wealthy or well educated. Alternate treatments like herbs or diets can often be expensive, especially when offered by a large company.

“It’s a multibillion dollar industry. People pay more out-of-pocket for alternative treatments than they do for standard treatments,” John Bridgewater, an oncologist at the University College London Hospital, told New Scientist.

There’s nothing to prove these method work or do not work, however, making it hard to keep people from seeking them out. The fact that people sometimes survive the treatment can also make it difficult to condemn it, though Johnson has speculated they managed to do so because they eventually got the necessary treatments. Secondary treatments are not kept on record, so there’s no official way to tell if this was the case, or if instead the person was incredibly fortunate.

Alternative cancer treatments might sound appealing when compared to methods like chemotherapy, which can have frankly unpleasant side effects. Yet the fact remains that these methods have gone through rigorous scientific testing and peer review, which confers some degree of safety and effectiveness. The scientific process is far from perfect — but it’s still the best we’ve got.

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These NASA Approved Glasses Are the Safest Way to Watch Next Week’s Solar Eclipse

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A Sight To See

On August 21, America will experience a total solar eclipse for the first time since 1979. While total solar eclipses occur every 18 months 0n Earth, it has been 38 years since the American mainland has fallen in the path of totality. Unlike “black moons” and “blood moons,” which have been inflated on social media as of late, this celestial event is actually a big deal — especially if you live somewhere between Oregon and South Carolina.

Indeed, the sight has been called “life-changing” and “mind-bending” by even the most seasoned astronomers. Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astrophysicist, recently described his first eclipse experience to Vox, noting that it is “truly spectacular” and that “once in a lifetime [is] not enough.” Astronomer Jay Pasachoff reminisced with Scientific News about his last eclipse viewing experience, discussing the strong emotional reaction viewers had: “People cheer, and people cry.”

And while the best visual experience will be had from the path of totality, the rest of North America and even parts of South America will see a partial solar eclipse, which is still worth stepping outside for. But whether you’re in for a full black-out or partial blockage, you’ll need a pair of protective eyewear. NASA strongly recommends certifiably safe eyewear for viewers of the solar eclipse, meeting the ISO 12312-2 standard.

A Tour of the Solar Neighborhood [INFOGRAPHIC]
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A Dangerous Illusion

Staring into the Sun with a naked eye can result in injury to the retina and even blindness. The danger to the eye comes from infrared radiation, ultraviolet radiation, and excessive blue light. And before you ask, yes, it’s more dangerous than looking at the Sun on any other ordinary day.

This danger is due to the fact that our normal built-in ocular safety doesn’t really work the same during an eclipse, thanks to the juxtaposition of the dark shadow of the Moon against the blazing Sun. The combination of extreme brightness against total darkness creates a sharpness that challenges the eye’s safety focus features, causing it to absorb the damaging image on the most sensitive neural tissue.

Of course, even if it didn’t direct this radiation to the most sensitive areas, the eclipse would still be dangerous. Depending on exposure time and other personal health factors, the damage could be temporary or it could last a lifetime. In either case, it’s not a risk worth taking, and proper glasses are a must.

SUNoculars

There are lots of solar eclipse branded glasses on the market right now, but NASA warns that many of them fall below the safety standard, so it’s important to make sure you’re purchasing a NASA approved brand.

NASA stands behind Lunt SUNoculars, which have been personally tested on the Sun with a 100% quality and safety guarantee. The lenses reduce the light of the Sun to an ND-5 transmission, blocking all ultraviolet and infrared components. Plus, they’re pocket-sized, include a case, strap, lens cap, cleaning cloth, a one year warranty, and only cost $129.

While there won’t be another total solar eclipse until 2024, you can use your SUNoculars to safely view planetary transits, sunspot activity, magnetic storms, and other astronomical events. To get your pair of SUNoculars, head to Amazon asap—August 21 is almost here.

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New Stamp-Sized Tissue Patch Could Be Used to Regenerate Damaged Organs

No Surgery Required

A team of engineers at the University of Toronto have created a way to fix damaged organ tissue without surgery. The method involves a needle, a patch the size of the postage stamp, and a bit of time.

The patch itself has shape-memory capabilities, meaning it will always return to its default state when introduced to the right temperature. Once inserted into the needle and injected into the body, the patch unfolds and expands before proceeding to repair and replace missing tissue. Made using a biocompatible, biodegradable polymer, the patch will dissolve over time, and in its wake, leave behind newly-made tissue.

Biomedical engineering Professor Milica Radisic and her team have been working on the project for nearly three years, with a lot of their work devoted to creating a tissue patch that could work via injection. Miles Montgomery, a PhD candidate in Radisic’s group, finalized the patch’s design after a dozen attempts.

“At the beginning it was a real challenge; there was no template to base my design on and nothing I tried was working,” said Montgomery in an interview for Eureka Alert. “But I took these failures as an indication that I was working on a problem worth solving.”

Fixing More Than Hearts

The expanding tissue patch was initially made to treat those that have suffered from heart attacks, and could be used instead of open-heart surgery. And while it could have been an implant, Radisic explains that the risks outweigh the benefits. If the implant required surgery to be implemented, it wouldn’t be easily accessible to everyone that needed it. Since heart attacks are extremely traumatic on the human heart, leaving it in a vulnerable and precarious condition, surgery after the fact could risk the patient’s survival.

Going forward, Radisic and her team are working with researchers from the nearby Hospital for Sick Children. They intend to study the long-term benefits of the patches, as well as their stability. The patch has been tested on rats, to great success, but there is a long way to go before clinical trials. But if things pan out, the patch might also be used for other traditionally damaged organs, such as the liver. To buy more time for these studies, patents on their patch and the injection process have been applied for.

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Scientists Still Don’t Fully Understand the Connection Between Obesity and Depression

Mind and Body

About 15 years ago, Dr. Sue McElroy, a psychiatrist in Mason, Ohio, started noticing a pattern. People came to see her because they were depressed, but they frequently had a more visible ailment as well: They were heavy.

McElroy was convinced there had to be a connection.

“Many of my [depressed] patients were obese. And they were very upset by obesity,’’ McElroy recalled. “I looked into the literature, and it said there was no relationship. It didn’t make sense.”

That sense of disconnect has started to change, promising new avenues for treatment, but also presenting a puzzle: Just how can you chart the mechanics of what ties the two together? And how can treatment be linked for two disorders that exist in totally different parts of the health care system?

Ingrid Donato, a top official in the federal agency that promotes mental health treatment, says that both conditions are on the rise, heightening the need to unlock the connection and develop treatments that address both conditions simultaneously.

“You can’t address obesity in a person that’s struggling with major depression without addressing that major depression,” said Donato, chief of mental health promotion at SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “When a person’s coming in with depression… or they’re coming in with the struggles on the physical side of obesity, if they’re not having those treated both ways, they’re only going to be having half a treatment plan.”

A Two-Way Street

The relationship between obesity and depression is what researchers call “bidirectional.” Being obese or overweight ups the odds of depression, and vice versa.

For example, about 43 percent of people with depression are obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared with a third of the general population. People who are obese are 55 percent more likely to be depressed, and people with depression 58 percent more likely to develop obesity, according to one 2010 study. “This is a massive public health issue when you have numbers that large,” Donato said.

While on the surface the two conditions appear very different, they share important similarities. Both are chronic diseases that are tricky to treat, requiring long-term physical and mental health interventions.

In cases in which depression and obesity coincide, those interventions can be even more complex, with research often showing the best results when care involves not only doctors and nurses but also other health professionals such as dietitians, behavioral health specialists and physical therapists.

“We need to find synergistic therapies — or it’s going to be the same kind of messy system in which we spend a lot of money and don’t get any return,” said William Dietz, the director of George Washington University’s Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness, who researches obesity interventions.

A Double Cure?

2011 paper by researchers from the University of Texas-Southwestern found that patients’ depressive symptoms were reduced when physicians gave them prescriptions for weekly exercise sessions, which were supervised at the Cooper Institute in Dallas or at home. And in 2014, a study at Duke University found that simply helping obese women maintain their weight — via small lifestyle changes and monthly dietitian check-ins — cut their rates of depression in half.

Still, this kind of care-syncing is not yet the norm. While the Affordable Care Act promoted coordinated care as part of its efforts to lower costs, those initiatives haven’t yet been directed toward depression and obesity.

But federally funded efforts to coordinate care for diabetes and depression could provide a template, said Madhukar Trivedi, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas-Southwestern who was involved in the 2011 study.

“This is going to require a real mindset change. We have to be thinking at a policy level,” Trivedi said.

Counting the Cost

One reason is cost. Depression and obesity are among the largest drivers of health care cost increases.

Obesity already costs the medical system almost $150 billion per year in direct costs, and the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimates that by 2030, obesity will sap the U.S. economy of an additional $390 billion to $520 billion in lost worker productivity.

Depression makes the price tag worse. Its most severe variant, major depressive disorder, costs the country more than $200 billion per year in direct costs such as psych visits, medication and other treatments as well as the hours and days in which people afflicted aren’t able to work.

The federal government foots much of this bill.

About 13 million Medicare-eligible senior citizens — an estimated 35 percent of people older than 65 — are obese, according to CDC data from 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available. It’s estimated that Medicaid pays as much as 30 percent of the total bill for U.S. mental health care.

“These are both incredibly burdensome on the health care system. … They’re both on the rise, and there’s a correlation,” said Dori Steinberg, an assistant research professor at Duke’s Global Health Institute who was involved in the 2014 study.

And resources to tend to patients with each condition, even individually, are limited.

The federal government has worked to expand mental health care access and insurance coverage, but in many parts of the country, few mental health specialists accept insurance, rendering that theoretical benefit useless.

Obesity interventions also fall short. The American Medical Association, a leading trade group for doctors, dubbed the condition a “disease” four years ago and the ACA limited cost-sharing for some preventive obesity treatments. Some critics say the benefit doesn’t go far enough in terms of consultations with more specialized health care providers, such as dietitians and nutritionists, to make a meaningful impact. That means patients may get little help until they have gained enough weight or suffered sufficient health consequences that they qualify for more extreme measures, like bariatric surgery.

Doctor Shortage

And there’s the added challenge of finding a physician able to address both problems at once.

“It’s not a one-shot thing. Both of these are chronic conditions. They don’t lend themselves to episodic treatment,” said Anita Everett, president of the American Psychiatric Association. “It’s not like you take a course of treatment to [make it] go away.”

Already, research suggests primary care physicians, who are on the front lines in providing care, aren’t meeting clinical standards for treating depression. Most psychiatrists aren’t trained in weight management.

“This is an important area, and I don’t think people are trained how to do it,” said Dietz.

Progress has been slow, in part, because of the stigma surrounding both conditions.

Having either is “like having the scarlet letter,” suggested Karen Coleman, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente’s Southern California branch. (Kaiser Health News is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.) Despite a now vast body of evidence to the contrary, even health professionals are more likely to place some blame on the patient. That makes patients more hesitant to seek care, and physicians don’t necessarily make efforts to provide it.

“We have a long, long way to go before we treat obesity like we do … heart failure,” Coleman added.

Treatment That Works

In her Ohio practice, McElroy says she has seen the benefits of what she called a self-taught approach to treating obesity and depression together. She screens patients for weight and BMI. And, because some of the medications used to treat mental health conditions can cause weight gain, she tailors what antidepressants she prescribes, so that they don’t cause more weight gain.

Her patients vouch for her methods.

Ask 26-year-old Michael Stewart, who has bipolar disorder. He joined her practice within this past year for weight treatment — he sees a psychiatrist separately — and has dropped 20 pounds, or about 6 percent of the 335 pounds he weighed when he started. Treating both conditions isn’t easy, he said, and there’s been some difficulty in finding medications that help his bipolar disorder and his weight problems.

“I’ve had to work harder with my doctor to find something that works — so that I don’t weigh 500 pounds,” he said.

McElroy has prescribed him a new pill that’s helped control his weight, he said. Had his psychiatrist known how to treat both conditions, he added, he would “for sure” had begun addressing weight sooner.

McElroy worries that without broader changes to the health care system, patients like Stewart are just that: individual cases.

“If we addressed this systematically, you would think it would be not only better for patients’ health but also cost-effective,” she said.

This story is part of a reporting partnership between POLITICO’s The Agenda 2020 and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit health newsroom, an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The post Scientists Still Don’t Fully Understand the Connection Between Obesity and Depression appeared first on Futurism.

Reducing Food Waste in Creative Ways Could Help the World’s Hunger Problem

Forgotten Food

It’s a problem of leviathan proportions: every year, an amount of food equivalent to roughly 9,553 blue whales — the largest animal that has ever lived — gets thrown in the garbage. (That’s 1.3 billion tonnes, or 2.9 trillion pounds.)

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, as much as one third of all food is wasted before it can be eaten, either by food loss (spilled or spoiled before reaching a store) or food waste (when it gets thrown away or spoils before use).

Food production is already an environmentally costly process: it depletes nutrients and helpful organisms from the soil, adds pesticides and algal-bloom-causing nitrogen to nearby water sources, accounts for 69% of all water use worldwide, and produces greenhouse gases. In fact, agriculture is second only to energy in producing the most planet-warming carbon dioxide and methane worldwide.

Add in the impact of food waste, and the footprint of food production becomes dizzying. The FAO estimates the cost of wasted food is equal to about US $750 billion every year — and that doesn’t take into account costs that can’t be calculated, like impacts on biodiversity and shortages that feed social conflict. In the below video, FAO estimates that nature could charge us at least an additional $700 billion for these hidden side-effects.

However, entrepreneurs all over the world are stepping up to the plate to address food waste in remarkably creative ways.

Barnana produces snacks from dehydrated bananas, sourced from Latin America, that would have been otherwise wasted — either because they’re scuffed, too ripe, or an unappealing size for consumption. The company has even “close(d) the banana waste loop,” as chief marketing officer Nik Ingersoll told Forbes, by powering their dehydrator using pellets made from dried banana peels.

In the Netherlands, Koffiekik is growing protein-rich oyster mushrooms using discarded coffee grounds. In California, Imperfect Produce delivers produce that supermarkets won’t sell in-store, due to their odd shapes and sizes, for 30-50% below market price. Bronx-based Baldor Fresh Cuts uses food scraps from restaurants, like carrot tops and pineapple cores, to make cookies, supplements, breadcrumbs and more.

Food Waste: An Epidemic Of Abundance
Click to View Full Infographic

“The idea is to take an item that normally would be wasted and turn it into a consumer product,” Tom McQuillan, Baldor’s director of food service sales and sustainability, told Popular Science.  “It’s a great way to get food into the hands of the food-insecure, and to people who should be eating healthy foods.”

Tipping the Scale

By turning food waste back into food, these entrepreneurs are beginning to tackle one of our planet’s biggest paradoxes: despite producing much more food than we consume, millions of people remain hungry.

According to the World Hunger Education Service, nearly 795 million people suffered from chronic undernourishment in 2014-16.

In developing regions, this impacts about 12.9% of the population, compared to less than 5% of developed countries. Unsurprisingly, the balance of food waste skews in the opposite direction, with hungrier countries producing less waste.

In these countries, food waste usually isn’t due to distaste for bumpy produce, but instead lack of access to the technology needed to keep food fresh. A 2014 study from the University of Birmingham found that India loses 4.4 billion UK pounds, or roughly US $5.8 billion, worth of fruits and vegetables due to the absence of refrigerant technology.

As such, projects are underway in these countries that seek to preserve food before it can spoil. In Kenya, where more than half of the mango crop often spoils before reaching market, Azuri Health is developing a facility to dry the mangoes into fruit leather, a shelf-stable product and dense source of nutrients.

The FAO-partnered SAVE FOOD Initiative is among the biggest organization pursuing this mission. Thirteen African countries already have SAVE FOOD initiatives underway to reduce food loss and bolster small farmers, as do India, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, and Timor-Leste. In January 2017, the initiative launched its first project in Russia, where food waste is lower than the global average, but still estimated, as of 2013, at roughly 56 kilos per person per year.

“If each of us takes a look at their fridge and starts counting the volume of food we throw away each year, we will end up with industrial-scale figures. This is particularly disturbing against the background of the large numbers of people around us who have to save on the essentials and need help,” said Viktoria Krisko, president of Foodbank Rus, at the launch.

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The Placebo Effect Is Real and It Can Lead to Better Healthcare

It Feels Like the Real Thing

The placebo effect occupies a liminal space in clinical consideration, somewhere between biological and psychological, therapeutic and phony. Scientists maintain that it is a collective term for a host of processes and mechanisms that effect our experience of our condition — gymnastics of perception — rather than helping to cure the underlying, objective, and measurable causes of it.

Ted Kaptchuk, Director of the Harvard-wide Program in Placebo Studies, summarizes it as “finding out what is it that’s usually not paid attention to in medicine — the intangible that we often forget when we rely on good drugs and procedures. […] The placebo effect is a surrogate marker for everything that surrounds a pill. And that includes rituals, symbols, doctor-patient encounters.”

A study undertaken by Kaptchuk and colleagues that shows the power of perception over objectivity particularly well was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011. Subjects were given the effective drug albuterol, a placebo inhaler, acupuncture, and periods without treatment. They all took each treatment three times, which had the double effect of producing lots of data and allowing subjects to serve as their own controls. While everyone reported a similar level of improvement in their symptoms regardless of which treatment they had most recently undergone, objective measures indicated that only the albuterol improved airflow — but all three options actually increased their lung functionality.

While a significant amount of the placebo effect remains obscured by a lack of research, scientists have been able to discover some of the perception mechanisms behind what allows our brains to fool our bodies into feeling better.

The main cluster is the effect that conditioning has on our body’s responses — the results of a soft-Pavlovian training that has been built up since birth. The most rudimentary form of this is the power of expectation. In an interesting study, Luana Colloca has conducted experiments involving lights. One such experiment involved flashing a red light when a subject was given a high voltage electric shock and flashing a green light when they were given a lower one. She then played with the levels and eventually found that, even when the shocks were equal, when the green light flashed, subjects reported less pain. Conversely, when the red light was on, they exhibited higher pain than the shock would reasonably evoke; this is called the nocebo effect.

The essence of this is manipulated and made more complex by the very presence of clinical procedure — a real world “green light.” It can be seen most pertinently when it comes to drugs.

The body responds positively to any drug because it remembers the healing effect drugs have had on it before. This is reflected in one of the most interesting pieces of placebo research in recent years, in which participants knew they were taking sugar pills but still experienced therapeutic effects. This showed that something beneath our conscious and rational mind believed the administration of drugs was beneficial, and exhibited the positive effects of taking drugs when it received one — despite the conscious mind knowing it was fake. The action taking of a pill, rather than what was in the pill itself, became the signal to release the chemicals that the real pill normally would.

Prescribing Placebos?

The next stage in the research is to codify the precise natures and mechanisms of the placebo effect. Franklin Miller, a retired NIH bioethicist, asserts that “sooner or later we’ll get rid of the term” because it will be broken down into component parts.

If we can break it down into these parts, these precise mechanisms, it then becomes hypothetically possible to begin to use them in a therapeutic setting. Because the doctor is using the mechanisms of perception, this actually means that manipulating the placebo effect becomes a psychological treatment of biological phenomena — a psychosomatic treatment.

While Miller goes on to say that the effect can never cure an objective disease with definite biological causes — it could, for example, not cure the ebola virus, but may help with symptoms — because “There are real limits to what you can condition.” The placebo has to treat something that the brain can adjust itself, without help, such as pain.

An example of this is irritable bowel syndrome, which Kaptchuk used for an experiment. Two groups got placebo acupuncture, but half were treated with empathy by the doctor, while the other half were treated without any warmth. The half who had been treated kindly reported 15 percent more relief. Experts have also suggested using the effect to reduce America’s current opium crisis, as it could provide an effective pain relief with smaller doses of physically addictive substances being involved.

The placebo effect remains obscured by a lack of research and the enigmas and riddles of the human mind. However, what is clear is that there is huge potential for it to be a part of our medical system.

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