Monthly Archives: July 2012

From Foe to Friend

A chemical called thapsigargin is a deadly poison derived from a plant botanists call Thapsia garganica. The weed is native to the area around the Mediterranean Sea. It killed enough camels in caravans that it acquired the name “death carrot” in the Middle East. Thapsigargin destroys cells by blocking the action of a protein that keeps them alive. This protein is found in almost all animal cells and is necessary to sustain them.

Now scientists have been able to modify the chemical into a drug called G202, which affects only cancer cells. Tumors have a biochemical signature that distinguishes them from healthy tissue. This signature is the focus of much oncologic research, providing a target for tumor fighters.

G202 is engineered to respond to those signals, allowing it to attack tumors while moving harmlessly through the bloodstream and sparing healthy cells. In tests, G202 shrunk prostate tumors by an average of 50 percent within 30 days. That’s far better than docetaxel, the first-line drug used against prostate cancer. G202 was also an effective fighter of breast, kidney and bladder cancer tumors.

“Our goal was to try to re-engineer this very toxic natural plant product into a drug we might use to treat human cancer,” study author Samuel Denmeade, M.D., said in a release. “We achieved this by creating a format that requires modification by cells to release the active drug.”

Because the modified toxin is triggered by the cancer cells themselves, they are unlikely to develop resistance to it, a common obstacle to long-term cancer treatment.

Cruelty-Free Safety Testing

Researchers hoping to get a look at how human bodies work may have a new tool to help them understand. A Federal program has been launched with 17 grants totaling $70 million to be put toward research into simulating organs with computer technology. The program, which initially is expected to have uses in drug testing, will allow study of how organs work on the molecular level, without the need for animal testing.

Scientists already use the silicon substitutes, but they are crude and simple simulations that only allow studies of specific cells within organs. Often, these are flat structures, and cells in them work differently—in ways that are not always predictable—from how they work in the body. Under the new program, techniques from the computer industry would be used in conjunction with modern tissue engineering to put hardware mimicking living organ tissues together in three dimensions on a transparent microchip. These chips, lined with living cells and no bigger than a house key, would give an unprecedentedly realistic look at how organs function biologically.

These tissue chips would be tested with chemicals the safety of which in humans has already been determined. That would allow researchers identify the most reliable drug safety signals, in order to predict the safety of potential drugs. This safety testing is currently the the purpose of controversial animal testing.

Often condemned as cruel, animal testing is not wholly useless, because of the resemblance of some animal physiology to that of humans. However, the resemblance is imperfect, and more than 30 percent of drugs expected to be effective on the basis of animal tests prove not to be in humans. Tissue chips would help find toxic trugs earlier in the development process by testing them in a virtual human body.

Grant recipients include Harvard University, the Morgridge Institute for Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University, Vanderbilt University, Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California-Berkeley. The Harvard study, at the Wyss Institute, will build on prior research on hearts, lungs, and intestines, improving current flat chips used there.


It is estimated that 4.4 million Americans are living with viral hepatitis, and many of them don’t know it. Unfortunately, the disease can do some damage even when it’s completely asymptomatic. Hepatitis is the leading cause of cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and if left untreated, may lead to end-stage liver disease and liver cancer.

To raise awareness of this disease, the World Health Organization has designated tomorrow as World Hepatitis Day. Even policymakers are not always fully aware of the impact of hepatitis. Around the world, hepatitis B alone affects 2 billion people—more than one in every four people in the world.

The three main types, A, B, and C, can be transmitted sexually or through infected blood. In addition, type A can be spread through contaminated food, and B and C can be passed from mother to child during labor. Early diagnosis is important because hepatitis necessitates certain lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol or anything else that can harm the liver It also gives infected people a chance to use safer sex practices to avoid further spreading the disease. When treatment is available, it is also important to begin the treatment sooner rather than later.

When symptoms occur, they generally include yellowed skin or eyes, dark urine, extreme fatigue, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. However,the disease is not infrequently asymptomatic and, at least in the initial stages, very difficult to detect without testing. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 be tested regularly.

There are vaccines available for types A and B, but none for C. All forms of hepatitis can be prevented by avoiding unprotected sex, touching used needles or syringes, and other contact with bodily fluids. Type A thrives in unclean environments, so proper sanitation is an important part of fighting it.

Hepatitis is difficult to treat, but symptom relief may be possible where needed and doctors can limit the damage it does. Hepatitis A is typically self-limiting,and B can be sometimes—they go away on their own. More commonly, however, the virus remains in the body, either dormant or remaining active; the usual treatments are anti-virals such as interferon. A treatment strategy is usually developed for each patient.

Let’s Move at the Olympics

With the Olympic Games upon us—the opening ceremony is tomorrow—organizers and others are hoping people watching at home will be inspired to get out and get active. In fact, a delegation of American athletes and other dignitaries led by Michelle Obama are taking the opportunity to promote the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative to fight childhood obesity and foster wellness.

Tomorrow Mrs. Obama is scheduled to host an event for students and U.S. military children as part of that initiative, co-sponsored by the children’s television channel Nickelodeon.

Saturday, the first day of competition, will be “Let’s Move! Olympic Fun Day.” At least 200 communities are on board for encouraging kids to not only cheer on America’s Olympic competitors but to get out and get moving themselves. In addition to meetups, suggested activities include running, swimming, tennis, soccer, volleyball, and bike rides. The idea is to use the games on television to inspire kids at home to get in more activity.

“Some of my fondest memories when I was young and not-so-young involve watching the Olympics on TV and cheering on Team USA,” the First Lady told reporters.

She hopes to use the Olympic spectacle to encourage American kids to make sports and physical activity a part of their lives, starting lifelong habits that will keep them fit and healthy as they grow to adulthood.

The United States isn’t the only country trying to use this occasion to get kids fit. In the host country, England, officials are also creating programs that use the Olympic Games to spur young people into taking up sports.

There, the Places People Play program is supposed to upgrade and improve sports facilities and playing fields and recruit and train volunteers to create programs in various towns to use those refurbished fields and facilities.

Help Fighting Cavities

Each year, Americans spend over $70 billion on dental care. Now two researchers say they’ve developed a superweapon in the fight against cavities. The scientists, one at Yale and one at the Universidad de Santiago in Chile, say the substance they developed completely eradicates the bacteria responsible for cavities.

Most people know sugar leads to cavities, but the more immediate culprit is a type of bacteria called Streptococcus mutans. The S. mutans digests sugar on teeth, which turns it into lactic acid. It is this lactic acid that creates cavities by eating away at the tooth enamel.

In fact, cavities have reached near epidemic proportions in the United States. Recently, it was determined that more than 60 million Americans have at least one cavity, and an increasing number of preschoolers are coming to the dentist with ten or more. That’s why it’s important to brush and floss regularly.

Now researchers believe they’ve found a molecule that destroys S. mutans, protecting teeth from its deleterious effects. Called Keep 32, it can be added to a variety of products—such as toothpaste and even candy—to help millions of people. Unlike fluoride, which attempts to minimize the damage lactic acid does by building up and strengthening tooth enamel, Keep 32 goes after the producers of the lactic acid and fights decay at the source.

This is among the first medically developed weapon against the bacteria, though there have long been folk remedies. In fact, a compound in roasted barley tea has been demonstrated to be effective. However, Keep 32 would, if proven effective, be far more versatile in administration. That is, you don’t have to drink tea or take a pill with the extract to get the effect.

The researchers are preparing to test the substance in human subjects, though they are already in discussions with toothpaste manufacturers and confectioners if, as expected, the molecule proves effective in people.

The creators say they hope to have commercial products incorporating Keep 32 available in about a year and a half.

Burn Safety in the Kitchen

Cooking is fun, but cooking burns, the most common kitchen injury, are not. It’s estimated that this year, 70,000 Americans will get burned badly enough to require hospital admission. The kitchen is especially dangerous for children, who are both curious and less experienced in the kitchen.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to make your kitchen significantly safer for the whole family. Here are some tips to prevent you—or your child—from being one of the unlucky ones:

  • Have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, easily accessible and away from the stove. You should also have a smoke detector, recently tested and in good repair.
  • Turn pot handles towards the back, and don’t leave pans on the stove unattended.
  • Be careful lifting lids, steam can be a scalding hazard.
  • Never cook or carry hot food while holding your child.
  • Don’t put hot foods on tablecloths or placemats children can pull onto themselves.
  • Don’t use extension cords in the kitchen. they make electrical fires more likely.
  • Be sure appliance cords are in good repair, and not frayed. The insulation shouldn’t be cut or patchy.
  • Keep matches and lighters where children can’t get to them.
  • Candles should be in flameproof containers and should not be left unattended.
  • Put a child-safety latch not just on cabinets but on your oven as well.
  • If you heat something in the microwave, test it before giving it to kids.
  • Baby’s bottle should not go in the microwave. If you must microwave a bottle, do it very briefly and test the bottle, the nipple, and the formula before feeding.

Of course, sometimes burns do happen, despite all precautions. Minor burns can be put under cool running water, though you should not use ice. Serious burns need medical attention. Also call a doctor if you have swelling, pain, redness, oozing, or fever, which may mean infection.

Electronic Medical Records

Behind the scenes, one of the most important aspects of patient care is record keeping. Having a patient’s medical history, allergies, medications, and other data available can speed diagnosis or even save lives.

Now more and more medical facilities are moving over to electronic medical records systems. This is partly because the new heathcare reform program contains elements designed to encourage the switch, but mostly it’s because EMR has many important benefits.

With EMR, records are available to healthcare professionals immediately, and from anywhere. Records maintained electronically can easily be shared among members of a patient’s treatment team, and can be transferred quickly and easily if a patient has to change doctors.

The records can also be easily updated, so any change—in condition, in medication, in diagnosis, in status, or in anything else—can be noted immediately and accurately. EMR makes it significantly easier to keep track of a patient’s treatment and progress, so everyone is on the same page.

Electronic records are also more durable. They can be stored in multiple locations without taking up space, meaning there’s no need to get rid of records after a certain amount of time. This helps ensure that no important information is lost. If an important notation or bit of information is added to the file early on, an electric system helps ensure that personnel have access to that information, if they need it, for quite some time after.

There are some risks of electronic records. Privacy may be a concern, although medical record-keeping is very tightly regulated and access strictly controlled. In general, records should not fall into the wrong hands, and there is no reason to suspect electronic records would be more vulnerable in this regard.

On the whole, electronic medical records streamline the bureaucratic bits of the treatment process while making the important parts more efficient. That means better outcomes for patients and better-run practices for doctors, a success story all around.

Improving Antibiotic Effectiveness

Antibiotic resistance is a big problem in medicine. As a particular antibiotic is used more—and some are tossed around quite indiscriminately—the bacteria populations it is intended to kill gradually lose their vulnerability to the medication. Each time an antibiotic becomes ineffective, a useful weapon in the medical arsenal is lost.

Now a team of researchers in California is looking for ways to prevent bacteria from developing resistance to medications. We already know that bacteria build structures, called biofilms, that are communities of microbes which make it possible for the resistance of a handful of bacteria to be shared by the group.

The research team, based at the University of California, Berkeley, is looking for ways to attack these biofilms. This would slow down the process of antibiotic resistance and significantly extend the useful life of medications. What they’ve found so far is that bacteria create the structures immediately before expanding and growing into a full-blown infection.

The scientists looked at cholera bacteria to figure out the process by which this biofilm construction operates. This will provide valuable tools for destroying the structures and exposing individual bacteria to antibiotics and other forms of treatment.

“Now, we can come up with a logical approach to discovering how to take down their building, or prevent them from forming the building itself,” lead researcher Veysel Berk said in a release. “Eventually, we want to make these bugs homeless.”

These techniques may also be useful against other biofilms, such as dental plaques. The process could have widespread applications in areas outside medicine as well.

Other avenues of research include genetic manipulation of bacteria to prevent antibiotic resistance entirely. Bacteria pass on to their offspring the genes that allowed them to survive the initial antibiotic onslaught and eventually most of the bacteria are unaffected. What the team aims to do is find a way to deactivate or remove the genes that allow some bacteria to be safe from antibiotics, so as to prevent resistance from evolving.

Better Display Technology For Improved Diagnosis

An OLED monitor displaying internal organs.

A medical-grade OLED monitor helps diagnosticians and surgeons

Increasingly sophisticated diagnostic technology is helping medical personnel better treat their patients. Now there’s a medical-grade organic light-emitting diode monitor that shows pictures and scans with unprecedented clarity.

Most monitors use backlighting, meaning they shine a light through the color elements that make up the image. OLED technology is different. In these displays, each element is an independent light source.

This means that black is not displayed as darkened light but as the absence of light—true black. The high color contrast makes small but important details easier to see.

The display technology also allows for a wider viewing angle. That facilitates working together by making it possible for more people to get a good look at one monitor.

Another important aspect of OLED is response time. The elements respond instantaneously to changes in input, meaning even fast movement is shown in real time. Camera-based surgery is facilitated by this real-time response.

In addition, these displays are far less bulky and heavy than other kinds. Even large displays—which provide greater clarity and are easier to see, presenting more visual information in less time—can be easily moved or placed where they are most prominent. When every second counts, it’s important to have everything in a diagnostician’s line of sight.

Getting Enough Sleep

The time you’re asleep is actually one of the most important parts of your day. Not getting enough sleep could lead to diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease, even weight gain. In June, a Chinese soccer fan died after staying up eleven straight nights to watch matches overseas.

As many as 40 percent of Americans are not sleeping enough at night. That may be why in 2005, 42 million prescriptions for sleeping pills were filled.

If you’re not well-rested, it affects your memory, your ability to focus, your productivity, your creativity and your mood. It is estimated that lack of sleep costs Americans $50 billion per year in lost productivity. Unfortunately, the things people do to help themselves sleep don’t always work. Here are some tips that might actually help:

  • Pay attention to what you eat and drink, particularly after 2 p.m. Caffeine is the obvious no-no, but alcohol can also disrupt sleep. Conversely, look for foods high in the amino acid tryptophan.
  • Exercise regularly. Your morning workout will give you energy during the day and help you sleep at night.
  • Yoga or other relaxation techniques help calm you down, making it easier for you to fall asleep.
  • Lower your body temperature. That means no hot baths late at night. Your body needs to cool down to fall asleep.
  • Turn down the lights before you turn in. Mimic nightfall, with the gradual lessening of natural light, which is what our bodies expect at night.
  • Stick to a schedule, going to bed around the same time every night and getting up around the same time every morning. Avoid the temptation to stay op late Friday and Saturday night and sleep in the next morning, which can throw off your schedule all week.
  • Unplug yourself an hour before bed time. Gadgets can rev you up, so turn them off and put them away.
  • Reserve the bed for two things, sleep being one of them.

If you have persistent sleep troubles, it may be a symptom of a physical or psychological condition that requires treatment. If these tips don’t help, and you’re still not getting enough sleep, it’s important to call your doctor.