Tag: Medicine

Bacteriophages: The Future Of Medicine

With antibiotic-resistant bacteria becoming an increasingly bigger concern, attention is being paid to phage therapy – using viruses to beat infections. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for what can be done with bacteriophages, including cures for things like HIV and cancer.

Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, so-called “phage therapy” was all the rage. “Phage” is from a Greek word meaning “to devour”, so the notion was that certain viruses will eat certain bacteria. And those viruses are called bacteriophages.

The way a phage kills makes it more like a facehugger from Alien than a predator from…oh, some other movie…let’s say Jurassic Park. The point is, phage therapy works. It was considered a mainstream treatment for decades in Europe and Canada.

After penicillin became widely available in the 1940s, interest in phage therapy dropped. Antibiotics were just more effective at wiping out bacteria, and it was also easier to pop a pill than get a shot.

But antibiotics weren’t always easy to find in all parts of the world. In portions of the former Soviet Union, especially Georgia, doctors continued to use phage therapy for decades, and they were innovating on the idea the whole time.

Of course the Soviets were fanatically secretive, so the Georgians weren’t able to share their knowledge at the time. It’s only recently that the rest of the world has rediscovered the advancements they made.

Phages may turn out to be a gamechanger against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And possibly a lot more.

There have been some recent successes with phage therapy that are worth mentioning, including the case of Tom Patterson.

In 2015, Tom’s pancreas became inflamed while he was on a vacation in Egypt. Conventional treatment didn’t help, and pretty soon he slipped into a coma.

But recently his wife had gotten a tip from a colleague about phage therapy, and with the help of experts from UC San Diego a bacteriophage was harvested and administered.

Three days later, Tom woke up. He wasn’t completely out of the woods, the bacteria had developed an immunity and the doctors had to harvest other bacteriophage strains, but after several months, he was pronounced cured, making him the first US patient to be successfully treated with phage therapy.

This example highlights a strength of the therapy, namely, the abundance of bacteriophages. If one stops working, you can try another.

But there’s also a question of access. Tom and his wife work with the UC San Diego experts who saved his life, they were friends, so they put a lot of time and effort into saving him. Time and effort most of us probably wouldn’t be able to receive.

The point is, making therapies like his available to all will require a cultural shift towards personalized care.

Another fascinating recent case is that of Isabelle Carnell-Holdaway.

Isabelle was a teenager with cystic fibrosis and had just undergone a double lung transplant when her wounds became infected.

Her doctors administered a bacteriophage cocktail that cleared up the infection in days, though Isabelle continued needing treatment for some time.

Her eventual cure is great in itself, but the unique part is that the bacteriophages she was given were genetically engineered. This was a world first for phage therapy.

To Mend A Birth Defect, Surgeons Operate On The Patient Within The Patient

A team of surgeons performs experimental surgery on a fetus with spina bifida at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. A miniature telescope and camera are inserted into the mother’s uterus, above, after it is lifted from her body.

The patient, still inside his mother’s womb, came into focus on flat screens in a darkened operating room. Fingers, toes, the soles of his feet — all exquisite, all perfectly formed.

But not so his lower back. Smooth skin gave way to an opening that should not have been there, a bare oval exposing a white rim of bone and the nerves of the spinal cord.

All right, it’s the real deal,” said Dr. Michael A. Belfort, the chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and obstetrician and gynecologist-in-chief of Texas Children’s Hospital.

The fetus, 24 weeks and two days old, less than two pounds, was about to have surgery. He had a severe form of spina bifida, in which the backbone and spinal cord do not develop properly.

Children born with this condition usually cannot walk, and suffer from fluid buildup in the brain, lack of bladder control and other complications.

A pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. William Whitehead, joined Dr. Belfort at the operating table. Doctors have been performing fetal surgery to repair spina bifida since the 1990s; it is not a cure, but can lessen the degree of disability.




But now Dr. Belfort and Dr. Whitehead are testing a new, experimental technique — one that some in the field are eager to learn, but that others regard warily, questioning its long-term safety for the fetus.

The surgeons had made a wide incision in the mother’s lower abdomen, gently lifted out her uterus — still attached internally — and made two tiny, 4-millimeter slits. In one, they inserted a “fetoscope,” a small telescope fitted with a camera, light and grasping tool.

The second slit was for other miniature instruments. Lit from within, the uterus glowed, red and magical in the darkened room.

Spina bifida occurs early, at three to four weeks of pregnancy, when the tissue forming the spinal column should fold into a tube but does not close properly. There are 1,500 to 2,000 cases a year in the United States.

The causes are not fully understood, but in some cases a deficiency in the B-vitamin folic acid plays a role, which is why supplements are recommended for pregnant women and the vitamin is added to grain and cereal products.

Joshuwa and Lexi Royer the night before an experimental surgery intended to help correct their child’s spina bifida.

Introducing prenatal surgery for spina bifida was a bold step. In the early days, doctors were so worried about risk that they operated only for conditions that would be fatal if left unrepaired; if the surgery did harm, it would be to a fetus that would have died anyway.

Spina bifida is generally not fatal, so the standard practice was to operate after birth. But the results of postnatal surgery were mixed: most children could not walk and had other problems.

Doctors began to suspect that outcomes might be better if they could fix the defect before birth.

Some of the spinal damage is caused by amniotic fluid, which turns increasingly toxic to the exposed nerve tissue as the pregnancy progresses and the fetus passes more and more wastes into the fluid.

Surgeons thought that if the opening could be closed before birth, sealing out the fluid, some of the nerve damage might be averted. They began operating in the 1990s, but it was not clear the surgery was helping.

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Facebook And NYU Want To Use AI To Make MRI Exams 10 Times Faster

MRI scans may some day be available for a lot more people in need.

Facebook on Monday said it’s teaming up with NYU School of Medicine’s Department of Radiology to launch “fastMRI,” a collaborative research project that aims to use artificial intelligence to make MRI — magnetic resonance imaging that is 10 times faster.

Doctors and radiologists use MRI scanners to produce images that show in detail a patient’s organs, blood vessels, bones, soft issues and such, which helps doctors diagnose problems.

However, completing a MRI scan can take from 15 minutes to over an hour, according to Facebook’s blog post.

That’s challenging for children and patients in a lot of pain, who can’t lie still for a long time. It also limits how many scans the hospital can do in a day.




If the project succeeds, MRI scans could be completed in about five minutes, thus making time for more people in need to receive scans.

The idea is to actually capture less data during MRI scans, making them faster, and then use AI to “fill in views omitted from the accelerated scan,” Facebook said in its blog post. The challenge is doing this without missing any important details.

Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research, or FAIR, will work with NYU medical researchers to train artificial neural networks to recognize the structures of human body.

The project will use image data from 10,000 clinical cases with roughly 3 million MRIs of the knee, brain and liver. Patients’ names and medical information aren’t included.

We hope one day that because of this project, MRI will be able to replace a x-rays for many applications, also leading to decreased radiation exposure to patients,” said Michael Recht, MD, chair of department of radiology at NYU School of Medicine, in an email statement.

Our collaboration is one between academia and industry in which we can leverage our complementary strengths to achieve a real-world result.

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Scientists Are Farming Coral For Human Bones

It’s hard to say “coral molars” repeatedly without tripping over your tongue, but having teeth — and other bones — made from coral is becoming increasingly plausible.

It sounds crazy, but sea coral has actually been used in bone grafting for years as an alternative to using bone from cadavers or synthetic materials, which can introduce disease or infection.

Now, recent business successes and medical research suggests that coral bone grafting could become more mainstream.

First, some history: Back in 1988, Eugene White and h

Please is nephew Rodney White first noticed coral’s similarities to bones when diving in the South Pacific.

They went on to discover that sea coral naturally possesses the similar porous structure and calcium carbonate of human bones.




Over the years, researchers have developed coral as a bone grafting material by taking calcium carbonate from the exoskeleton of sea coral and converting it into a mineral called coralline hydroxyapatite.

Because the coral’s patterns matched the tissue in human bones, the coral could provide a platform for bones to grow.

But sometimes the coral didn’t biodegrade; it sort of stayed in the body, creating problems for the patient, including re-fracturing or turning into a source for bacteria growth.

Then, last year, Zhidao Xia, a lead researcher in coral bone grafting, and fellow researchers at Swansea University published a study in the journal Biomedical Materials, saying they had found a way to make coral more compatible with human bone.

Using their technique, 16 patients with bone defects healed four months after coral graft surgeries; two years later, the coral had naturally left the patients’ bodies.

Although coral bone grafting is still very much a “fringe thing,” according to Dr. Ruth Gates, a lead marine researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, coral reefs are definitely developing a reputation as 21st-century medicine cabinets.

According to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, corals can be used to treat cancer, arthritis, bacterial infections and even Alzheimer’s disease.

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Forget About Shots, Allergy Sufferers Can Now Find Relief In Toothpaste

If you have bad allergies you’ve probably been told that allergy shots are the best way to get relief.

But most people don’t like needles, and going to the doctor for a shot every week can be time consuming.

As CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez explained, there is a new way to treat your allergies, and it’s toothpaste. Not just any toothpaste, but a custom blended toothpaste with the same extracts that are in allergy shots.

It turns out the mucus membranes of the mouth are a really good way to show allergens to the immune system so it stops over reacting to things like pollen or mold.




Daniel Siefring is a year round allergy sufferer. He reacts to pollen and lots of other things too.

It turns out you can add the same allergens in drops to toothpaste.

Reisacher, an allergy specialist, compared the two approaches in a recently published study and found that they produced similar allergy relief, but that toothpaste was used more consistently.

The prescription kit is completely customized, the doctor or pharmacy adds in exactly what you’re allergic to, blends it into the toothpaste, and puts it into a handy pump.

Peanuts: the ultimate frenemy.

Now, Siefring treats his allergies with his usual morning routine, and no the paste doesn’t taste like cat, mold, or pollen.

Users have to brush for two minutes, which is what dentists recommend anyway.

Unfortunately, the toothpaste is not covered by health insurance. The cost works out to about $3 to $5 a day, so skipping the mocha frappucino in the morning could make your miserable allergy symptoms get better.

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Alternative Medicine For Cancer More Than Doubles Death Risk

Crystal healing stones are evidently a less effective way of beating a tumor.

Going the route of alternative medicine to treat a form of curable cancer instead of undergoing conventional treatment more than doubles a person’s risk of dying, according to a new study from Yale University researchers.

One in three Americans has engaged in some kind of alt-therapy with varying results, but when it comes to cancer, the data suggests that herbs and crystals will not save a life.




We now have evidence to suggest that using alternative medicine in place of proven cancer therapies results in worse survival,” lead researcher Skyler Johnson told the Yale News.

The researchers looked at 10 years’ worth of records from the National Cancer Database and found that 281 patients within that time who had early-stage breast, lung, prostate or colorectal cancer who decided to take an alternative approach to their treatment.

Those patients were then compared to 560 others with the same diagnoses who chose more scientific approaches like chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.

Patients who chose alternative medicine approaches that include things like “herbs, botanicals, homeopathy, special diets or energy crystals — which are basically just stones that people believe to have healing powers,” Dr. Johnson said.

To account for disparities that people face in the medical world the researchers placed biases in favor of the alternative medicine group — they were all younger, more affluent and were otherwise healthy.

These patients should be doing better than the standard therapy group, but they’re not,” researcher James Yu told MedPage Today.

That’s a scary thing to me. These are young patients who could potentially be cured, and they’re being sold snake oil by unscrupulous alternative medicine practitioners.

With this data and the urging of oncologists and all of their cancer expertise, the researchers are hopeful that doctors can educate their patients and communicate to them all of the drastic risks of alternative medical approaches.

Because of patient autonomy, they can do whatever they want,” Yu said. “We’re always advising them (but) we can’t make them do anything.

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The Age Of Immortality Is Coming, And It’s Going To Suck

When people write about our future as immortals, you see a lot of the word “we.” But make no mistake, there will be no “we.”

No one will be granted access to immortality, whether it be achieved through medical or technological means.

Immortality-granting technology would certainly be the most valuable commercial product in all of human history. There is absolutely no way that it’s going to be given out for free.

Sure, it might eventually be made available to the middle class as something like a subscription-based service once the technology is advanced enough that it can be scaled on that level in an economicall feasible way.

But in the early days of immortality, it’s likely to be insanely expensive, both because it’ll be extremely advanced technology and because people will be willing to pay it.




So while perhaps someone like Jack Ma can look forward to immortality if he simply lives another 30 years, you and I are going to have to wait a lot longer.

In fact, there’s a fair chance that immortality technology will widen the gap between rich and poor.

Most people would pay any sum to prevent their own death or the death of a loved one, even if it meant going into tremendous debt and essentially becoming a debt slave.

And if people will pay the money, what incentive do you think immortality companies will have to lower prices?

Until the technology is cheap enough to be truly universal, prices will stay high, shareholders will stay happy, and the rest of us will scrimp and struggle to keep ourselves and our families alive.

Medical immortality sucks

Medical immortality – the idea that we’ll be able to reverse the biological ageing process and eliminate the diseases that kill us – seems attractive at first.

But there are a litany of reasons why long-term medical immortality would actually be kind of a nightmare.

First and foremost: our brain capacity is limited. This is why the older you get, the harder it gets to remember details of things that happened when you were young.

There are only so many memories you can store and recall efficiently, and the higher they pile up, the harder and slower they are to recall at a moment’s notice.

That’s a problem, because we recall on quick memory recall for virtually every part of our everyday lives.

The end result is that even if you stay biologically twenty years old for 200 years, you’re still going to have the slow, embarrassing brain of a very old person: misremembering names and dates, calling up random or incorrect memories, and telling the same jokes over and over.

 

Your perception of time would likely also become extremely warped, as the older you get, the more quickly time seems to pass.

Also: being medically immortal also doesn’t mean being actually immortal. It just means you won’t die or old age or (possibly) disease.

Instead, you’ll die in an accident, or a homicide, or a war, or meet some other violent end.

And even if you’re OK with that, think about the absolutely brutal effect that will have on your friends and family in a world where people no longer have to die.

Now, death sucks but at least it’s fair – we all die.

In the world of medical immortality, that is much less true, and every death is a sudden, unexpected shock that seems all the more unfair because had you not been hit by that truck, you could have lived another 500 years.

Then of course there are all of the social problems: overcrowding, limited resources, the total pointlessness of the prison system, the elimination of retirement, and the stagnation of social, economic, and political systems as the old never die off to be replaced by the younger.

That may seem like a lot, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Death is a powerful force that has been motivating human behavior forever.

Taking it out of the equation will change everything about human life, and only a fool would assume that all of those changes would be for the better.

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Five Best Popular Science Books

With the Juno spacecraft arriving at Jupiter, a piece of amber-enclosed dinosaur tail showing up in a Burmese market, a child being born of three parents and, of course, the unprecedented detection of “ripples” in space-time, the past year has been a fruitful one in scientific achievement and discovery.

Any of us without the knowhow might be totally lost if it weren’t for the talented writer-scientists who take the time to pen popular science books about their respective fields.

Popular science is a protean genre spanning hundreds of topics, and this article tries to reflect that fact – we have books on neuroscience, books on genetics, books that blend neuroscience with memoir, books that blend genetics with memoir, books on the octopus, books on time and books on black holes.

These are the best in popular science from the past year – books that will enlighten, entertain, terrify and make you feel bad about how little you remember from school.




1. Black Hole Blues: And Other Songs From Outer Space by Janna Levin

In this book, Janna Levin – like many of the authors on this list, a writer trapped in a scientist’s body – tells the story of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (or Ligo) and the long journey that led to the detection of Einstein’s hitherto theoretical gravitational waves.

Perhaps more than any author on this list, Levin is a master of storytelling: the programme’s origins, its purpose, its eccentric architects and its wider significance for humanity all feature in this book as themes, converging to form a novel-like narrative that keeps the reader hooked in awe page after page.

Black Hole Blues is a captivating study of the process of scientific discovery.

2. The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee is a physician, researcher, biologist, geneticist, oncologist, a few more -ists, and, importantly for us, an excellent writer.

Six years ago he published a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on cancer – The Emperor of all Maladies – in which he strove to expel the mythology around cancer, to make it less the colossal affliction we imagine it to be and instead show it as something that can and likely will be overcome by scientists.

He places the gene in a triumvirate of scientific ideas that dominated the twentieth century, alongside the atom and the byte.

Mukherjee’s immense knowledge of genetics and formidable fluency in prose shows that there are few people more suited to tackling a subject as complicated, delicate and indeed dangerous – the pseudoscience of genetics and race has often led to catastrophe – as that of the gene.

3. A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

One of the most extraordinary things about this book is its sheer breadth. Rutherford, a writer and geneticist who has written previously on the subject, weaves from our genes a fascinating tapestry of human history from its most primitive origins to its sophisticated present, and beyond.

True to its title, Rutherford’s overview of genetics is brief: at 300 pages it is considerably shorter than Mukherjee’s, meaning that if you’re after just a quick though comprehensive survey of genetics, this is the book for you.

The writing is concise and often funny, and Rutherford never takes himself or his subject too seriously. It is one of those rare books that you’ll finish thinking you haven’t wasted a single second.

4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi – a neurosurgeon by profession and philosopher by temperament – died of lung cancer in 2015 at the age of thirty-seven.

At university he studied biology before completing a postgraduate degree in English literature, and only then did he decide that while literature may offer some answers to life’s big questions, it offers little in the way of practical remedies.

And so he began his career in medicine. This book was written in the months leading to Kalanithi’s death, and he writes with an eloquence that befits his love of the literary.

The memoir follows him from his birth through his youth in a desert town through medical school, his residency and, finally, through his illness.

Kalanithi often ponders the big questions that led him to medicine in the first place: the origin of personality, the nature of neuroscience, his spiritual quandaries and his rediscovery of Christianity all feature.

Perhaps for the piercing prose alone, Kalanithi’s book is one of the few must-reads of 2016.

5. The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman

Of his previous work – which includes the best-selling Incognito – Eagleman has been praised for making otherwise inaccessible topics (brain surgery and the like) accessible to lowly laymen like us.

One of the charms of his latest book on the brain is Eagleman’s casual approach to his subject.

Like a quirky tour guide in a gallery he leads us around the cranium explaining the brain’s biological mechanisms, pondering the differences between the “brain” and “mind” and discussing questions about reality and consciousness that make the reader suffer from spells of existential doubt – well, we did, at least.

Another of the book’s core attractions is its wealth of mini-facts.

As Stephen Fry has commented, memorable facts pervade every chapter of this book, whether about the magnitude of our neural networks or the power of conversation in warding off Alzheimer’s.

If you want to boost your understanding of the brain, read this book.

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Could This Man Hold the Secret To Human Regeneration?

Modern medicine clutches at a number of dreams. Some, like developing an AIDS vaccine, can seem tantalizingly close.

Others, like curing cancer, have frustrated so many minds for so many years that we’ve learned to temper our expectations.

Then there’s regeneration.

A future in which humans regrow lost or diseased body parts feels like a mirage. But why? After all, many species can accomplish the task with ease.

A decapitated flatworm, for example, will grow a new head, replete with a new brain. For the first week of their lives, tadpoles can replace lost tails.




And the axolotl, or Mexican salamander, has the ability to regenerate everything from its limbs and tail to its spinal cord and skin, all without any evidence of scarring.

Even some mammals have limited regenerative abilities: every year, reindeer regrow their shredded antlers. And, in some circumstances, young rats that lose a leg can grow it back.

Humans have a sliver of regenerative capacity, too. If a child experiences a neat slice through the end of his fingertip, that tip will grow back — although the ability disappears sometime around the age of 12.

The Greek legend of Prometheus, the god who was cursed to have an eagle peck out his liver each day, only to grow it back overnight, actually contains a grain of physiological truth.

If you were to lose part of your liver, it would, in fact, repair itself. With the exception of our skin, it’s the only human organ that can do this.

Regenerating a small body part under special circumstances is one thing, but what if we could regrow entire lost limbs?

What if we could signal to our bodies to regrow damaged retinal tissue — or even to regrow an entire eye? Michael Levin doesn’t think this is an outlandish fantasy.

In fact, he thinks he may be on the path to figuring out how to do precisely that.

Levin is director of Tufts University’s Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology in Medford, near Boston.

He’s a 43-year-old Russian émigré who looks like a geeked-out Gen Xer: His smooth hair is parted far to the side; a neat geometric beard frames his face; and he’s most comfortable in a college uniform of T-shirts over long sleeves.

Levin thinks that the key to regeneration — the key to pattern, to shape — may be found in the electrical signals that are transmitted among all our cells, much like the ones and zeros that zip around in a computer’s hard drive.

Manipulating these signals has already allowed Levin to produce results more suited to an X-Men comic than a scientific journal, including the creation of four-headed flatworms.

Over the course of the next year, he will begin experiments that could make human regeneration a reality.

Levin’s work is little known, perhaps because so many scientists believe that the key to human regeneration — if such a thing exists — lies in studies of genetics and stem cells.

Such studies have produced incredible results: a patient’s windpipe, repaired in a lab; a segment of functional bladder, fashioned on an artificial lattice.

These achievements offer the hope that a patient will one day be able to grow a new organ from her own cells, instead of waiting for someone else misfortune to be her good luck.

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Jeremy Hunt Launches Opt-Out Organ Donation Plans In England

The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is to launch plans for an opt-out system of organ donation, asking people to overcome their “fatal reluctance” to discuss the issue with family and friends.

Under the plans, everybody in England would be presumed to be happy to donate their organs on their death, unless they have signed up to a register stating that they do not want that to happen.

In practice, however, it is unlikely that organs would be taken against the wishes of the family.

The government’s ambition to change the NHS organ donation programme was announced by Theresa May in her Conservative party conference speech in October.

Last year, she said, “500 people died because a suitable organ was not available. And there are 6,500 on the transplant list today.”




NHS Blood and Transplant’s figures show that 1,100 families in the UK decided not to allow organ donation because they were unsure, or did not know whether their relatives would have wanted to donate an organ or not.

The consultation will ask three questions: how much say should families have in their deceased relative’s decision to donate their organs?

When would exemptions to “opt-out” be needed, and what safeguards will be necessary? How might a new system affect certain groups depending on age, disability, race or faith?

There are particular shortages of organs for people from ethnic minority backgrounds. Only about 6% of donors are black or Asian, although those groups make up about 10% of the population.

Orin Lewis, chief executive of the Afro-Caribbean Leukaemia Trust and co-chair of the National BAME Transplant Alliance, said: “As a parent of a young man who sadly passed away from multiple organ failure, I gladly welcome the prime minister’s decision to instigate a much-needed public consultation on the relative positive and negative merits of England having an opt-out donation policy.

There is still debate over how well an opt-out system works. Spain is often hailed as a success story and has a good supply of organs.

However, the opt-out was introduced at the same time as big investments in the transplant programme, and in particular the appointment of transplant coordinators who instigate conversations with the family of a dying patient.

If families refuse, their wishes are always respected.

Wales launched an opt-out system in December 2015 and the following June it was announced that it had already been a success.

Half the 60 organs transplanted in the six months came from people whose consent had been presumed.

But a recent year-on-year comparison showed little difference, with 101 donors under the old system and 104 under presumed consent.

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