Archive for May, 2012


Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012


Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in North America, while retinitis pigmentosa causes approximately 1.5 million people worldwide to lose their sight every year. Individuals afflicted with retinal degenerative diseases such as these might someday be able to see again, however, thanks to a device being developed at California’s Stanford University. Scientists there are working on a retinal prosthesis, that uses what could almost be described as miniature solar panels to turn light signals into nerve impulses.

The system consists of a camera- and microprocessor-equipped pair of goggles, and a small photovoltaic chip that is implanted beneath the retina.

The output of the camera is displayed on a miniature LCD screen, located on the inside surface of the goggles. That screen is special, however – it emits pulses of infra-red laser light, that correspond to the images it’s displaying. Photodiodes on the chip register those pulses, and in turn stimulate retinal neurons. In theory, this firing of the neurons should produce visual images in the brain, as would occur if they had been stimulated by visible light.

“It works like the solar panels on your roof, converting light into electric current,” said Dr. Daniel Palanker, associate professor of ophthalmology. “But instead of the current flowing to your refrigerator, it flows into your retina.”

Palanker’s team has created a chip about the size of a pencil point, which is thinner than a human hair, and contains hundreds of the photodiodes. These were tested using retinas from both sighted rats, and rats that were blind in a fashion similar to human degenerative blindness – the retinal neurons were still present, but were generally inactive. While the chips in the blind retinas didn’t respond to visible light (unlike those in the sighted retinas), they did respond to the near-infrared light. “They didn’t respond to normal light, but they did to infrared,” said Palanker. “This way the sight is restored with our system.”

The photovoltaic chip is implanted under the retina in a blind rat (upper right corner) – it is comprised of an array of photodiodes (center and lower left) (Image: Palanker Laboratory/Stanford University)

The scientists are currently testing the technology on live rats, and state that it so far looks as if the electrical signals are indeed reaching the rats’ brains. They are now looking for a sponsor for human trials. Palanker notes that the system doesn’t allow for color vision, however, and that what vision is does provide would be “far from normal.”

While other retinal prostheses are also in development, these reportedly involve more in the way of hardware such as coils or antennas being implanted in the eye. Most of the technology used in the light-based Stanford system, by contrast, is located in the goggles.

A paper on the research was published this week, in the journal Nature Photonics

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Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012


A group of plant researchers & scientists at the University of Missouri have uncovered a new, inexpensive approach to extracting a powerful anticancer chemical from soybeans. The incidence of several common cancers (breast, colorectal, prostate, bladder, lymphoma, and oral cancers) is lower in Japan by a factor of two to ten times than in North America or Western Europe (GLOBOCAN 2008). The medical profession is edging toward a conclusion that a significant portion of the reduction in alimentary system cancers and breast cancer is connected with the significant importance of the humble soybean to Japanese diets.

Researchers have considered the medical benefits of the soybean over centuries. However, the modern level of interest began with the identification of the Bowman-Birk Protease Inhibitor (BBI) in 1963.

Molecular structure of the soybean-derived Bowman-Birk Protease Inhibitor (BBI)

This small protein (molecular weight of about 8,000 Daltons) has demonstrated strong cancer chemoprotective and anticancer treatment properties. It has been proved effective against breast, colon, liver, lung, esophageal, and oral cancers. The studies are so impressive that BBI has been an FDA Investigational New Drug since 1992.

Unfortunately, BBI has also been very expensive (~US$2,000/gram at Sigma/Aldrich) owing to the very complex extraction sequence developed during its discovery. Early studies showed that BBI is found primarily in the soybean hulls (seed coats), which are generally removed before processing raw soybeans for the produce and fermentation markets. As a result, the hulls are very inexpensive at around 10 cents per kilogram. Ten percent of soybean hulls extracts as sugary solids with a protease inhibitor activity equivalent to about 70 mg/gram of solids, so that protease inhibitors make up about 7 mg/gram of the raw hulls.

Protease is any enzyme which starts the digestion of proteins by breaking peptide bonds in proteins. The extract of protease inhibitors consists of two main inhibitors, the Kunitz trypsin inhibitor and the Bowman-Birk protease inhibitor (BBI), which make up about 6 percent of the total protein of soybeans. However, the fraction with the largest level of protease inhibition is that containing BBI, a substance known to possess chemopreventive activity against a range of cancers.

BBI is traditionally purified by ammonium sulfate precipitation, organic solvent extraction, centrifugation, gel filtration, column chromatography, or high performance liquid chromatography. Each of these procedures is time-consuming, involves a variety of hazardous materials, and results in limited amounts of purified material. The result is, as mentioned earlier, an extremely expensive substance.

The Missouri plant scientists have invented a green procedure for extracting BBI from soybean hulls. They found that soybean hulls soaked in water at 122ºF (50ºC) for about four hours naturally release large amounts of BBI that can easily be extracted from the water. Higher extraction temperatures yield less BBI activity – apparently the protein will denature with very long exposures to 50ºC water. When the chemoprotective anticancer properties of the extracted BBI were tested, the extract proved capable of stopping the dividing of in-vitro breast cancer cell division.

There remains considerable research and testing to be carried out on soybean-extracted BBI. However, it provides another tempting and relatively harmless approach to fighting a wide range of cancers.

Source: American Chemical Society

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Tuesday, May 15th, 2012


On a Tuesday, Aimee Copeland fell from a zip line and cut her leg.

By Friday her limb had been amputated and she was fighting for life.

The 24-year-old US university student is battling a rare flesh-eating bacterial infection called necrotising fasciitis, which destroys tissue and muscle while the surface of the wound appears to be healing.

Aimee Copeland ... ice cream is the first thing she wants when she is able to eat again.
Aimee Copeland … in a critical condition.

Ms Copeland was kayaking near the Little Tallapoosa River in Georgia on May 1, and went for a ride on a homemade zip line, otherwise known as a flying fox, which snapped, the LA Times reported.

Her father Andy Copeland wrote on a blog that his daughter got 22 staples in her left calf and was still in terrible pain the next day.

The pain got worse until she was diagnosed with the infection, forcing surgeons to amputate her leg and remove infected tissue from her abdomen.

Victim of a flesh-eating infection ... Paige Copeland cries as her father Andy Copeland speaks about her sister Aimee.Victim of a flesh-eating infection … Paige Copeland cries as her father Andy Copeland speaks about her sister Aimee. Photo: AP

“We take so much for granted in life, but I never imagined that one of my daughters would face this most unlikely of situations,” Mr Copeland wrote.

Dr William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical School told Reuters the infection was often quite subtle in its early stages.

“These bacteria lodge in the deeper layers of the wound. The organism is deep in the tissues, and that’s where it’s causing its mischief.”

Ms Copeland was in critical condition in the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta yesterday, a hospital spokeswoman told AP.

She will also lose her fingers, but doctors hope to save the palms of her hands so she can use prosthetics one day.

Her family have not yet told her about the exact extent of her injuries, her father wrote.

“She will learn about the loss of her beautiful leg. She will discover that her hands lack the dexterity and tactile response she has known all her life,” he wrote.

“How would you respond in such a situation? I think that moment will be one of horror and depression for Aimee.”

In more recent days Mr Copeland has updated his blog, describing his daughter’s progress as a miracle.

“The words I hear from the medical professionals to describe Aimee’s continued recovery are ‘astonishing’, ‘incredible’, ‘confounding’, ‘mind boggling’ and ‘unbelievable’.

“All those are fitting words. My favourite word is ‘miracle’.

Her parents have learnt to read lips to communicate with their daughter, who cannot speak because of a breathing tube in her throat.

Speaking on NBC’s Today show overnight, Mr Copeland said she told them she was thirsty, and that ice cream was the first thing she wants when she’s able to eat on her own.

“We just take it each day at a time,” he said.

“My daughter’s strong, she really is.” with AP



Monday, May 14th, 2012


Scientists at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have created a “magnetic-like” coating that traps and destroys 99 percent of the bacteria and fungi that it encounters. The antibacterial coating has been shown to be effective against superbugs like Staphylococcus aureus and is already being used in the manufacture of contact lenses. As well as finding numerous biomedical and household applications, the research could lead to new wound treatments and even be used to target bacterial infections inside the body without the use of conventional antibiotics.

Developed by NTU’s School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, Professor Mary Chan, the coating made from Dimethyldecylammonium Chitosan methacrylate holds a positive charge that snares and ruptures bacteria cells which have a negative charge on their cell walls.

The nanoporous coating is said to be effective against “superbugs” including Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus as well as fungi that can cause corneal infections – hence the use in contact lenses.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) when in contact with coated contact lenses

“The coating can also be applied on biomedical objects, such as catheters and implants to prevent bacterial infections, which is a serious cause of concern as many bacteria are now developing resistance to antibiotics – currently our main source of treatment for infections,” Prof Chan said.

“By developing novel materials which uses physical interaction to kill bacteria cells, we envisage this can be an alternative form of treatment for bacterial infections in the near future.”

The initial work has led Prof Chan and doctoral student Li Peng to the successful development of a liquid antimicrobial solution that’s highly selective, meaning it’s effective at killing bacteria and fungi but doesn’t harm human cells. Because it attacks cell walls, it’s also difficult for bacteria to develop resistance.

This liquid material, which is based on cationic antimicrobial peptidopolysaccharide, will be developed over the next five years with a view to creating a lotion to treat chronic wounds and also as a means of treating infections internally.

“Our long term goal is to develop this into an ingestible form, so it can effectively treat bacterial infections within the body, such as pneumonia and meningitis, replacing antibiotics as the standard treatment.” says Prof Chan.

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Saturday, May 12th, 2012


(Reuters) – An experimental obesity pill from Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc won the support of U.S. advisers on Thursday, as public health advocates push for new solutions to the nation’s growing obesity epidemic.

A panel of outside experts to the Food and Drug Administration voted 18 to 4 to recommend approval of lorcaserin, bringing the drug a step closer to U.S. approval as one of the first new weight-loss treatments in over a decade.

Lorcaserin is Arena’s most important product.

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Shares of Arena, which were halted pending the panel vote, nearly doubled in value to $6.92 after closing at $3.66 on Wednesday.

Arena’s pill is one of three new potential obesity treatments vying to gain U.S. approval and be the first new weight-loss treatment on the market after initial rejections over safety issues.

The FDA first rejected lorcaserin, which is being developed in partnership with Japanese drugmaker Eisai Co Ltd, in October 2010, citing potential cancer risks.

Arena resubmitted its application with more data after the 2010 rejection to show that the previous findings of tumors in rats did not apply to people, which seemed to soothe some of the FDA’s concerns.

The advisory committee members still had some concerns about side effects, especially uncertainty about heart valve problems, but most said these concerns could be addressed in post-approval studies.
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The panelists were also concerned about the drug’s modest weight loss, but said overweight and obese patients needed more options.

“Currently the options available to obese patients are very limited, and severely obese patients are willing to accept a high degree of risk,” said panel member Dr. Daniel Bessesen, chief of endocrinology at the Denver Health Medical Center.

“And while it isn’t an ideal drug… I think it will be a useful adjunct,” said Bessesen.

The FDA often follows panel recommendations, although it is not required to. It is due to make a final decision by June 27.

After the panel vote, Arena and Eisai said they were expanding their partnership.

If the drug is approved, Arena will manufacture lorcaserin at its facility in Switzerland, then pass it to Eisai for distribution in most of North and South America, including Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

Obesity, a leading cause of diabetes, heart disease and other serious health problems, has reached epidemic proportions in the United States with nearly a third of the population falling into the category.

The pricetag of obesity has also soared, with the condition contributing an additional $190 billion a year in healthcare costs, or one-fifth of all healthcare spending.

But the FDA has set a very high approval bar for weight loss drugs because such a large portion of the general population is likely to want to take them.


Vivus Inc and Orexigen Therapeutics Inc have also tried to get obesity pills approved in the last two years but been rejected because of safety.

Vivus resubmitted its pill Qnexa, and won the backing in February of the same advisory panel that voted in favor of lorcaserin. The FDA has pushed back its final decision on Qnexa by three months to July 17 in order to review the company’s risk evaluation plan for the drug.

Vivus shares closed down 0.3 percent on Nasdaq on Thursday, while shares of Orexigen, which is still testing the heart safety of its obesity drug Contrave, closed down 6.4 percent.

In a review earlier this week, staff from the FDA said Arena’s pill appeared to help people lose weight and was unlikely to cause tumors in humans, but questioned if the company had provided enough data to rule out heart valve problems.

Heart problems have dogged the obesity field for decades, making the FDA especially cautious about any potential issues.

Arena’s lorcaserin was designed to block appetite signals in the brain in a similar way to “fen-phen,” an infamous diet pill that was pulled from the market in 1997 after reports of sometimes fatal heart-valve problems.

Another diet pill, Meridia, was withdrawn in 2010 after also being linked to heart problems.

Some FDA advisers questioned whether the smaller weight loss of Arena’s pill, compared to the drugs from Vivus and Orexigen, justified its uncertain heart risks.

Lorcaserin helped people lose at least 5 percent of their weight compared to placebo, meeting the FDA’s threshold, according to a combined analysis of three clinical trials for the drug. But if any of the trials were analyzed alone, the drug did not meet the bar, FDA staff said earlier.

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“There remains a lingering uncertainty regarding potential (heart valve disorder) associated with lorcaserin, especially given the weight loss that’s observed,” said Dr. Sanjay Kaul, an influential cardiologist from Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, who voted against lorcaserin.

Most panel members suggested the company should study the risk of heart valve disorder after lorcaserin is approved, and make people who take it get regular echocardiograms.

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(Reporting by Anna Yukhananov; Editing by Gary Hill and Tim Dobbyn)

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Saturday, May 12th, 2012


(Reuters Health) – A new study suggests children born with a range of birth defects are at an increased risk of developing certain childhood cancers, especially during their first year of life.

The cancers, however, are generally rare and the study cannot say one condition causes the other — just that there is a link.

The finding “does sort of point to a global relationship to whatever is driving birth defects and what is driving childhood cancers,” said Susan Carozza, a cancer researcher at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

Carozza and her colleagues linked several databases from Texas to identify the number of children born in the state between 1996 and 2005, the number born with birth defects and those who developed cancer.

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There were over three million births in Texas during that 10-year period, and about four percent — approximately 116,000 — of those babies had at least one birth defect, such as Down syndrome and cleft palates.

Of all the Texas kids, about 2,350 — or .08 percent — developed cancer during the study period. Of those, 239 had been born with a birth defect.

The researchers calculated that children born with birth defects were three times more likely to develop a childhood cancer than those without birth defects.

Leukemias, eye and soft-tissue cancers and cancers of the ovaries and testis all seemed to be more common in kids who had birth defects, except those with a musculoskeletal deformity.

When the researchers took into account the already well-established link between leukemia and Down syndrome, the association between birth defects and other childhood cancers still remained.

“We had the same results — the same pattern,” said Carozza, whose study is published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Carozza and her colleagues also found that among children with birth defects, those not yet one year old had the highest chance of being diagnosed with cancer.

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Dr. Sonia Partap, who has researched connections between birth defects and brain tumors, told Reuters Health in an email that it’s important for parents and doctors caring for children with birth defects to know that childhood cancer is rare.

“This research is exciting in providing clues for the genetic links of childhood cancer which can perhaps in the future lead to new and better therapies,” said Partap, of Stanford University and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, California.

As to why the link exists, Carozza said there could be a number of explanations. She said kids’ genetics and environment may play a role, along with changes in how a person’s internal organs are structured or lifestyle differences in children who were or weren’t born with birth defects.

Unfortunately, according to Carozza, prevention techniques currently don’t exist for childhood cancers.

“From the cancer side, there’s no good screening. There is no parallel to a mammogram. It just doesn’t exist for childhood cancer now,” she said.

Partap, who was not involved with the new work, told Reuters Health that it’s important for all parents to engage in proper well-child care with their pediatricians as recommended.

SOURCE: American Journal of Epidemiology, online April 24, 2012.

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Saturday, May 12th, 2012

America’s hatred of fat

hurts the fight against obesity

(Reuters) – One night when Lynn McAfee was 5 years old, her psychologically troubled mother left her at the side of a road as punishment for a now forgotten infraction.

In the minutes before her mother’s car returned, the terrified girl looked toward the nearby houses on the suburban Philadelphia street and wondered if she should walk over and ask for help.

“But I didn’t,” said McAfee, 62, who is now the director of medical advocacy for the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination. “I didn’t think anyone would want a fat child.”

The stigmatization of obesity begins in preschool: Children as young as 3 tell scientists studying the phenomenon that overweight people are mean, stupid, ugly and have few friends. It intensifies in adulthood, when substantial numbers of Americans say obese people are self-indulgent, lazy and unable to control their appetites. And it translates into poorer job prospects for the obese compared with their slim peers.

It may be the nation’s last, accepted form of prejudice. But the stigmatization of obesity has repercussions beyond the pain it inflicts on its targets: It threatens to impede efforts to fight the obesity epidemic.

“As long as we have this belief that obese people are lazy and lacking in discipline, it will be hard to get support for policies that change the environment, which are likely to have a much larger impact than trying to change individuals,” said psychologist Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

That barrier to action is becoming clearer as the nation grapples with the costs of having two-thirds of adults overweight or obese. This week, an influential health panel proposed changes to an obesity-promoting environment, from farm policies to zoning, trying to shift the debate away from personal blame.

A new Reuters/Ipsos online poll of 1,143 adults from May 7 to 10 captures some of the prejudicial attitudes. Asked to identify the main cause of the epidemic, 61 percent chose “personal choices about eating and exercising”; 19 percent chose the actions of food manufacturers and the fast-food industry. The poll is accurate to within 3.6 percentage points. Because of the methods used to collect the data, accuracy is measured using a statistical measure called a credibility interval.

Reflecting the belief that the obese have only themselves to blame, 49 percent of respondents favored allowing insurers to charge obese people more for health insurance.

Poll respondents also showed broad support for efforts that target the food industry: 56 percent wanted to limit advertising of unhealthy food or taxing sugared soda, 77 percent were in favor of calorie counts at restaurants and sport arenas. But an all-out ban on fast-food restaurants? America loves its Big Macs: Only 21 percent said yes.


One effect of the obesity stigma is that discrimination on the basis of weight is legal. Michigan is the only state that prohibits it, along with a few towns and cities. Everywhere else, it is legal to deny people jobs or refuse to rent them an apartment if they are obese. The fact that two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese has not led to bans on such discrimination.

That does not surprise McAfee, who weighs about 500 pounds. “Studies show that fat people are even more prejudiced against fat people” than thin people are, she said.

Even respected leaders such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, seen as a potential running mate for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, are not spared the mockery.

Christie’s girth was the target of fat jokes at the White House Correspondents’ dinner last month, though he shrugged them off.

“When you’re overweight, fair or unfair, there’s going to be those who make really awful comments about you and there are going to be people who make jokes about it. That’s the way it goes,” Christie told reporters.

The stigma also hurts the efforts of America’s 73 million obese adults and 12 million obese children to get back to a healthy weight: Targets of stigma often fall into depression or withdraw socially. Both make overeating, binge eating, and a sedentary existence more likely, studies show.

Sophie Lewis and her colleagues at Monash University in Australia interviewed hundreds of obese adults who were the target of such comments as “look at that fat lady!” when out in public. As a result, found Lewis, obese people are less likely to exercise by walking outdoors.

Even healthcare professionals hold negative attitudes about the obese, studies show. Physicians often spend less time with an obese patient, for instance, and do not counsel them about a healthy lifestyle, perhaps believing it would fall on deaf ears.

Doctors and nurses who telegraph negative attitudes toward the obese can keep them from seeking treatment for diabetes, found a study led by Elizabeth Teixeira of Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professions in Philadelphia.

“Patients are afraid of hearing, ‘you’re fat,’ or ‘just lose weight,’ as if it were that easy,” said Teixeira, a nurse practitioner specializing in diabetes. “I’ve had patients tell me they delay seeking care, even having their blood pressure or glucose checked, because they don’t want to be lectured.”

A 2010 study by scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found that the fatter a patient, the more likely a doctor is to assume he or she is not taking medications as prescribed. That, other studies have shown, can keep physicians from prescribing needed meds, assuming they won’t be taken.

Taking all that data into account, it may not be surprising how reluctant people are to call themselves obese. In the Reuters/Ipsos poll, 14 percent of respondents said they are obese. Based on their self-reported height and weight, 26 percent are obese according to U.S. guidelines.


The belief that obesity reflects personal decisions implies that the solution, too, should be personal: Eat less, move more. But as the Institute of Medicine argued this week, the most effective way to combat obesity is to change the environment.

For average American adults, willpower is no match for “an environment in which we are constantly bombarded by food and food cues,” said David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration and author of the 2009 book, “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.” “Lecturing people doesn’t work.”

The IOM recommended building sidewalks to make it easier for people to walk, banning sugary drinks from schools and requiring 60 minutes of daily exercise in grades K-12, reducing portion sizes in schools and restaurants, and making low-cal choices widely available and as affordable as super-sized ice cream cones. Most important, it concluded, was changing the “messaging,” including the ubiquitous marketing of calorie-dense food.

Fat stigma makes those ideas ripe for attack by an industry that says how much to eat and move reflects individual choice. The restaurant- and food-industry-funded Center for Consumer Freedom called the IOM “arrogant and absurd” for suggesting “that Americans are too stupid to make their own food choices.” By proposing to keep unhealthy, calorie-dense food out of school lunch programs, it said, “food nannies” like the IOM are “flatly arguing against consumers having any choice in their snacks and meals.”

In the Reuters/Ipsos poll, respondents were almost evenly split over “government intervention” to reduce obesity, with 52 percent supporting it and 48 percent opposing it. There was greater support for specific steps, with 87 percent in favor of requiring 30 minutes per day of exercise in school.


Psychologist Chris Crandall of the University of Kansas has found that young adults who stigmatize obesity tend to be more ideologically conservative, favoring traditional sex roles and capital punishment, his studies found.

“Particularly in America, self-determination and individual choice is a fundamental value,” he said. “We blame people for everything that happens to them – being poor, being obese. It’s the ‘just world’ idea that people get what they deserve.”

The stigma is less pronounced in countries such as India, Mexico and Turkey, whose cultures assign more collective responsibility for personal outcomes, Crandall found. His studies, going back to the 1990s, surveyed hundreds of people worldwide about how closely they associate obesity with adjectives such as lazy and stupid.

Americans also stand out in their conviction that hard work and determination lead to success, while failure is due to lack of effort.

“Being thin has come to symbolize such important values as being disciplined and in control,” said Yale’s Puhl. The converse: If someone is not thin, he must be lacking in those virtues.

Indeed, some Americans value thinness more than life itself. In a 2007 study, 24 percent of women and 17 percent of men said they would trade three or more years of life to be svelte.

Yet despite the rising personal stakes, a growing body of research shows just how hard it is for the average person to keep the pounds off.

Just before speaking to Reuters, McAfee had exercised for an hour in her Florida pool and had a salad for lunch.

“I work out, I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, and I’m still not thin,” she said. “So please stop beating the crap out of me: It’s completely counterproductive.”

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Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012


Nothing can put a dampener on a summer holiday like a coliform bacteria outbreak. But even worse than being told to keep out of the water in the event of an outbreak is not being told to keep out of the water in the event of an outbreak and ending up paying the price. Researchers at McMaster University have now developed a paper strip test that is cheap to produce, extremely portable, simple to use, and detects E. coli in water in 30 minutes.

While many popular recreational waters are regularly tested for coliform outbreaks, the methods used are generally slow and cumbersome, with samples often having to be sent to a lab for amplification before testing. The new paper strips developed at McMaster overcome all these problems. They work quickly, they are portable, they are simple to use, and they are cheap and easy to produce.

Using inkjet-printing technology, the paper strips are coated with chemicals that change color in the presence of E. coli. Concentrations of the bacteria are indicated by different colors on the strip. While the strips can quickly indicate if water is safe for swimming, they aren’t sensitive enough to identify if it is safe for drinking – a standard that is hundreds of times tighter than for safe swimming water.

However, the McMaster team, led by chemistry professor John Brennan, is planning to conduct field-testing on the prototype strips to help in their refinement that may lead to the development of strips capable of testing the safety of drinking water.

The test strips have been validated by scientists from the Sentinel Bioactive Paper Network, which receives funding from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The NSERC is now funding the next stage of pre-commercial development of the strips, with a possibility the final product will become commercially available in two to three years.

The team’s research is detailed in a paper appearing online in the journal Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry.

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Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012


Scoliosis is a lateral deformity of the spine, that most often shows up in young children and adolescents. Besides resulting in disfigurement, in some cases it can also cause breathing problems. In severe cases, if the child is still growing, telescoping steel rods are surgically implanted alongside the deformed section of the spine, in order to straighten it. Unfortunately, repeat surgeries are necessary every six months, in order to lengthen the rods as the child grows. Now, however, scientists from the University of Hong Kong are reporting success in the first human trials of a system that incorporates rods which can be lengthened using magnets instead of surgery.

As its name suggests, the magnetically-controlled growing rod (MCGR) system uses magnets held outside of the body to engage and then extend the ends of the implanted rods. This can be done relatively quickly in a non-invasive outpatient procedure. The surgery required for the lengthening of traditional rods (a process known as a “distraction”), by contrast, requires hospitalization and general anesthesia. Not only is this unpleasant for the children, but it also causes them to miss school, involves considerable medical expenses, and often also requires at least one parent to miss work while the child recuperates.

In the recent trials, MCGRs were implanted in five test subjects. Once every month since, those subjects have been going into a clinic to get those rods lengthened. Two of the patients are now at the 24 month-mark of their treatment. The mean degree of their spinal deformities was 67º before implantation, but is now down to 29º. Their spines have grown at a normal rate, and they have reported no pain or other problems throughout the process.

“Whether MCGR leads to significantly better outcomes than traditional growing rods is not yet known, but early results are positive and the avoidance of open distractions is a great improvement,” the scientists said in a report on their research. “Additionally, this new growing rod system has potentially widespread applications in other disorders that could benefit from a non-invasive procedure to correct abnormalities. MCGR could assist with correction of limb abnormalities, thoracic insufficiency syndrome, limb lengthening, limb salvage procedures, or any disorders or injuries in which slow, progressive change to bone structures is needed.”

Source: Lancet

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Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012


It’s hard to convey the pain of a migraine to those who are fortunate enough not to suffer them. Compounding things, many sufferers get no relief from, or cannot tolerate, commonly prescribed or over-the-counter pain medications. Now researchers have shown that applying a mild electrical current to the brain via electrodes attached to the scalp can prevent migraines from occurring and reduce the severity and duration of those that do occur.

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, thirty-six million Americans suffer from migraine, with 14 million of them experiencing chronic daily headaches. Although existing brain stimulation technologies can help relieve a migraine that is already underway, the fact that chronic migraine sufferers can have over 15 attacks a month and the equipment is heavy and unwieldy makes treatment difficult.

While some techniques that stimulate deep brain regions require brain surgery for the implantation of electrodes, the new approach relies on transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which only requires a strong connection between the skin and the electrodes. It is currently used to treat some psychological disorders, in the motor rehabilitation in stroke patients, and is safe, portable and easy to use. It might also improve your mathematical skills for up to six months.

A team, including Dr. Marom Bikson, associate professor of biomedical engineering in CCNY’s Grove School of Engineering, Dr. Alexandre DaSilva at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and Dr. Felipe Fregni at Harvard Medical School, found that repeated tDCS sessions reduced the duration and pain intensity of migraines that did occur by an average of around 37 percent.

“We developed this technology and methodology in order to get the currents deep into the brain,” said Bikson. “If it’s possible to help some people get just 30 percent better, that’s a very meaningful improvement in quality of life.”

According to the team’s computational models, tDCS delivers a therapeutic current along the brain’s pain network, a collection of interconnected brain regions involved in perceiving and regulating pain. The team says the technology seems to reverse ingrained changes in the brain caused by chronic migraine, such as greater sensitivity to headache triggers.

The improvements accumulated over the four weeks of treatment, with the effects lasting for months. The only side effect reported by the test subjects was a mild tingling sensation experienced when receiving the treatment. Professor Bikson says a patient could potentially use the system every day to ward off attacks, or periodically, like a booster shot.

“You can walk around with it and keep it in your desk drawer or purse. This is definitely the first technology that operates on just a 9-volt battery and can be applied at home,” said Bikson, who envisions the future development of units as small as an iPod.

The team now plans to scale up clinical trials to a larger study population on the path to hopefully developing a market-ready version of the tDCS in a few years.

The team has published the results of their recent study in the journal Headache.

Source: City College of New York

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