Archive for March, 2015

Monsanto seeks retraction for report linking herbicide to cancer

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

(Reuters) – Monsanto Co, maker of the world’s most widely used herbicide, Roundup, wants an international health organization to retract a report linking the chief ingredient in Roundup to cancer.

The company said on Tuesday that the report, issued on Friday by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), was biased and contradicts regulatory findings that the ingredient, glyphosate, is safe when used as labeled.

A working group of the IARC, based in Lyon, France, said after reviewing scientific literature it was classifying glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

“We question the quality of the assessment,” Philip Miller, Monsanto vice president of global regulatory affairs, said on Tuesday in an interview. “The WHO has something to explain.”

Monsanto officials have asked to meet with WHO and IARC members, and Miller said the company wants a retraction.

A representative of the IARC could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Miller said the company provided scientific data to the IARC showing the safety of glyphosate, but that the agency largely ignored it.

Miller said the IARC report should not affect the safety review of glyphosate currently under way by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA, which has the power to limit or ban use of glyphosate, said it would look at the WHO report as part of the review process.

Farmers have been using glyphosate in increasing quantities since Monsanto in the mid-1990s introduced crops genetically engineered to withstand being sprayed with Roundup herbicide.

“Roundup Ready” corn, soybeans and other crops are popular because of the ease with which farmers have been able to kill weeds. But weeds have developed resistance to glyphosate, leading farmers to use more herbicide.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated agricultural use of glyphosate in 2012, the most recent year available, at more than 283 million pounds, up from 110 million pounds in 2002.

The United States and other international regulatory bodies have backed the safety of glyphosate when used as directed, but the IARC report cited studies that raised concerns about glyphosate and impacts on health.

Monsanto says such studies are invalid. But critics say they merit attention.

“There are a number of independent, published manuscripts that clearly indicate that glyphosate … can promote cancer and tumor growth,” said Dave Schubert, head of the cellular neurobiology laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. “It should be banned.”


Henry Sapiecha


Experimental cholesterol drugs could halve heart attack and stroke rates

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

A new class of experimental cholesterol drugs might sharply reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, preliminary research has found.

A new class of experimental cholesterol drugs may sharply reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, initial research has discovered.

by Andrew PollackA new class of experimental cholesterol drugs might sharply reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, researchers reported on Sunday, citing what they described as preliminary evidence.

The drugs, one being developed by Amgen and the other by Sanofi and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, are already known to sharply reduce so-called bad cholesterol, sometimes to levels lower than those achieved by statins like Lipitor, the mainstay lipid-lowering medicines.

What has not been known, however, is whether the drugs do what patients and doctors really care about: protect against heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular problems or “events.”

Big benefits may be possible

The early results suggest that there might be such a benefit, maybe even a big one. In small studies sponsored by the manufacturers, both drugs reduced the rate of such cardiovascular problems by about half.

“To see a reduction in cardiovascular events already is very encouraging that we’re on the right track,” says Jennifer G. Robinson, the lead investigator in the trial of the Sanofi drug.

The studies were published in The New England Journal of Medicine and were presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology on  Monday in San Diego.

More research required

Researchers caution, however, that the studies were small and intended to assess whether the drugs lower the bad cholesterol and were safe, not whether they stave off heart attacks. That could make the conclusions about heart attack and stroke risk less trustworthy. Judging those effects will require larger trials involving tens of thousands of people; such studies are underway and are expected to be completed by 2017.

“I do not think that either study answers the question definitively of cardiovascular benefit,” says Steven E. Nissen, chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, referring to the drug makers’ research. He was not involved in either study.

Risk of memory problems

Researchers say long-term safety still must be assessed, especially since these drugs are reducing LDL cholesterol to levels never achieved by medicines before. While the drugs appear to be generally safe, there is evidence that they could cause memory problems.

Still, the findings could help smooth the way for regulatory approval, wider use of the drugs by doctors and possibly reimbursement by insurers.

The drugs, evolocumab from Amgen and alirocumab from Sanofi and Regeneron, inhibit a protein in the body called PCSK9 that helps regulate cholesterol. In the studies detailed on Sunday, both drugs reduced the bad cholesterol by about 60 percent, to about 50 milligrams per deciliter from about 120 at the start of the studies. In many cases such big reductions were achieved even though the patients were already taking statins.

Both drugs could win approval from the US Food and Drug Administration by the Northern summer. Analysts say the drugs will have billions of dollars in annual sales and will be taken by millions of people who cannot lower their cholesterol enough using statins alone or cannot tolerate statins. (However, the PCSK9 drugs are taken by injection every two weeks or four weeks, which could deter some users.)

Statins reduce cardiovascular risk and scientists believe it is because they decrease low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol. But merely looking at cholesterol levels can be misleading. The drug niacin did not protect against heart attacks and strokes even though it raised so-called good cholesterol and modestly lowered bad cholesterol.

Insurers in particular might demand proof that the PCSK9 drugs stave off heart attacks, strokes, deaths from coronary disease and procedures to open arteries before agreeing to pay for them for many patients. Executives at CVS Health, a leading pharmacy benefits manager, recently said that PCSK9 inhibitors might cost $US7,000 to $US12,000 a year and would strain health care budgets because so many people might use them.

“Managed care pharmacy, indeed the health care system, has never seen a challenge like this to our resilience in absorbing costs,” they wrote in the Health Affairs blog.

Whether the results from these two small studies will be persuasive enough remains to be seen.

The New York Times


Henry Sapiecha

Google patents device to remove cancer, other molecules from blood

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015


A wearable to fight disease: An image from Google's patent application.

A wearable to fight disease: An image from Google’s patent application.

Google has filed a patent application with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) for a wrist-worn device that could destroy cancer cells in the blood.

The patent application, which has the name “Nanoparticle Phoresis”, describes a wearable device that “can automatically modify or destroy one or more targets in the blood that have an adverse health effect”.

These targets could include enzymes, hormones, proteins, cells or other molecules that, when present in the blood, may affect a medical condition or the health of the person wearing the device.

The wearable device is able to modify or destroy the cells by transmitting energy into the blood vessels. The transmitted energy could be a radio frequency pulse, a time-varying magnetic field, an acoustic pulse, an infrared or visible light signal.

This energy brings about a physical or chemical change in the targets, with the aim of reducing or eliminating adverse health effects.

Above: an example wearable device from Google’s patent application.

Google gave the example of certain proteins have been implicated as a partial cause of Parkinson’s disease. The wearable device could be used to destroy these proteins, thereby slowing the development of the disease.

“As a further example, the target could be cancer cells; by selectively targeting and then modifying or destroying the cancer cells, the spread of cancer may be diminished,” it said in its patent application.

This is not the first indication that Google is investing in cancer research. In October 2014, it emerged that Google X, the company’s research lab, was developing a pill that could detect cancer and other diseases.

The pill, which is filled with tiny iron-oxide nanoparticles that enter the bloodstream, can identity cancer tumour cells – which give off early biochemical signals when they contract the disease. It works by “painting” infected cells which travel round the body.

The nanoparticles are magnetic, so a wearable device worn on the wrist that creates a magnetic field can draw the particles – with their target cells in tow – toward it, where they can be detected and counted.

At the time, Google said that it was at least five years away from a product approved for use by doctors, but said it was working towards proactive detection rather than reactive treatment.

Above: Google’s pill “paints” infected cells.

Meanwhile, Bill Maris, head of Google’s investment arm, recently made headlines by saying that humans will live to be 500-years-old in the future, while today’s cancer treatments will soon seem “primitive”.

He also revealed that Google had hired scientists as partners in order to identify start-ups that could cure cancers.

Mr Maris said it was his duty to invest in companies that could help people to live longer: “There are plenty of people, including us, that want to invest in consumer internet, but we can do more than that,” he said.

“There are a lot of billionaires in Silicon Valley, but in the end, we are all heading to the same place. If given the choice between making a lot of money or finding a way to make people live longer, what do you choose?”

The Telegraph, London


Henry Sapiecha

Asbestos victim wins right to claim compensation from miner for malignant mesothelioma

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Malignant mesothelioma caused by asbestos judge says he is satisfied on that point in court claim

A former Gove [Australia] alumina refinery worker has successfully claimed $425,000 in compensation for malignant mesothelioma, which developed as a result of asbestos exposure during the 1970s.

Zorko Zabic, 74, was denied compensation by a Supreme Court ruling in January as he did not make the claim within the period outlined in the statute of limitation.

Zabic began to experience chest pains in January 2014, after a typically long latency period for that type of cancer, but it was ruled a year later that his claim was statute-barred as it should have been filed before 1987.

Asbestos victim wins right to claim compo

Justice Barr said at the time he was satisfied that Zabic’s condition was caused by unprotected exposure to asbestos dust and fibres during his employment as a result of negligence by Alcan Gove (purchased by Rio Tinto).

However, Justice Chief Riley has told the Court of Appeal that Zabic’s appeal has been granted.

Zabic’s lawyer Roger Singh of Shine Lawyers said the decision would pave the way for other asbestos victims in the Northern Territory previously denied the ability to make similar claims, ABC reported.

“Today’s decision is a win for workers, a win for their families and a win for humanity,” he said last week.

A spokesman for Rio Tinto said although company did not own the refinery at the time of Zabic’s employment, they had sought to resolve the matter fairly as owner of the site.

“Given that the NT had abolished the right to bring common law claims from 1987, it was our understanding that the correct process under Northern Territory legislation was for Mr Zabic to lodge a statutory workers’ compensation claim,” he said.


Henry Sapiecha


Sunday, March 15th, 2015



Henry Sapiecha

Video shows how Stretchable, Long-Term Neural Implant on the Spinal Cord Could Restore Walking

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

So-called “surface implants” have reached a roadblock. They can’t be applied long-term to the spinal cord or brain, beneath the nervous system’s protective envelope (known as the dura mater), because when nerve tissues move or stretch, they rub against the rigid devices. Repeated friction causes inflammation, scar tissue buildup, and rejection. Scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) now introduce the e-Dura implant, which is designed specifically for implantation on the surface of the brain or spinal cord. The neural implant combines electrical and chemical stimulation and has successfully made paralyzed rats walk again. Soft and stretchable, it is the first of its kind that can be implanted directly on the spinal chord without damaging it. Its silicon substrate is covered with cracked gold electric conducting tracks, and the electrodes are made of an innovative composite of silicon and platinum microbeads. They can be deformed in any direction, while still ensuring optimal electrical conductivity. A fluidic microchannel enables the delivery of pharmacological substances that will reanimate the nerve cells beneath the injured tissue.
Henry Sapiecha

The science of telepathy..Brain-to-brain interface is happening we are now told

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

The science fantasy of transmitting thoughts directly from one brain to another is turning into a reality.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to walk a mile (or 1.6 kilometres) in somebody else’s shoes? Or have you ever tried to send a telepathic message to a partner in transit to “pick up milk on your way home”?

Recent advances in brain-computer interfaces are turning the science fantasy of transmitting thoughts directly from one brain to another into reality.

Studies published in the last two years have reported direct transmission of brain activity between two animalsbetween two humans and even between a human and a rat. These “brain-to-brain interfaces” (BBIs) allow for direct transmission of brain activity in real time by coupling the brains of two individuals.

So what is the science behind this?


Reading the brainwaves

Brain-to-brain interface is made possible because of the way brain cells communicate with each other. Cell-to-cell communication occurs via a process known as synaptic transmission, where chemical signals are passed between cells resulting in electrical spikes in the receiving cell.

Synaptic transmission forms the basis of all brain activity, including motor control, memory, perception and emotion. Because cells are connected in a network, brain activity produces a synchronised pulse of electrical activity, which is called a “brain wave”.

Brain waves change according to the cognitive processes that the brain is currently working through and are characterised by the time-frequency pattern of the up and down states (oscillations).

For example, there are brainwaves that are characteristic of the different phases of sleep, and patterns characteristic of various states of awareness and consciousness.

Brainwaves are detected using a technique known as electroencephalography (EEG), where a swimming-cap like device is worn over the scalp and electrical activity detected via electrodes. The pattern of activity is then recorded and interpreted using computer software.

This kind of brain-machine interface forms the basis of neural prosthesis technology and is used to restore brain function. This may sound far-fetched, but neural prostheses are actually commonplace, just think of the Cochlear implant!

Technical telepathy

The electrical nature of the brain allows not only for sending of signals, but also for the receiving of electrical pulses. These can be delivered in a non-invasive way using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

A TMS device creates a magnetic field over the scalp, which then causes an electrical current in the brain. When a TMS coil is placed over the motor cortex, the motor pathways can be activated, resulting in movement of a limb, hand or foot, or even a finger or toe.

Scientists are now working on ways to sort through all the noise in brainwaves to uncover specific signals that can then be used to create an artificial communication channel between animals.

The first demonstration of this was in a 2013 study where a pair of rats were connected through a BBI to perform a behavioural task. The connection was reinforced by giving both rats a reward when the receiver rat performed the task correctly.

Hot on the heels of this study was a demonstration that a human could control the tail movements of a rat via BBI.

We now know that BBIs can work between humans too. By combining EEG and TMS, scientists have transmitted the thought of moving a hand from one person to a separate individual, who actually moved their hand. The BBI works best when both participants are conscious cooperators in the experiment. In this case, the subjects were engaged in a computer game.

Thinking at you

The latest advance in human BBIs represents another leap forward. This is where transmission of conscious thought was achieved between two human beings in August last year.

Using a combination of technologies – including EEG, the Internet and TMS – the team of researchers was able to transmit a thought all the way from India to France.

Words were first coded into binary notation (i.e. 1 = “hola”; 0 = “ciao”). Then the resulting EEG signal from the person thinking the 1 or the 0 was transmitted to a robot-driven TMS device positioned over the visual cortex of the receiver’s brain.

In this case, the TMS pulses resulted in the perception of flashes of light for the receiver, who was then able to decode this information into the original words (hola or ciao).

Now that these BBI technologies are becoming a reality, they have a huge potential to impact the way we interact with other humans. And maybe even the way we communicate with animals through direct transmission of thought.

Such technologies have obvious ethical and legal implications, however. So it is important to note that the success of BBIs depends upon the conscious coupling of the subjects.

In this respect, there is a terrific potential for BBIs to one day be integrated into psychotherapies, including cognitive behavioural therapy, learning of motor skills, or even more fantastical situations akin to remote control of robots on distant planets or Vulcan-like mind melds a la Star Trek.

Soon, it might well be possible to really experience walking a mile (or a kilometre) in another person’s shoes.

Kristyn Bates is Research Assistant Professor in Neuroscience at University of Western Australia.


Henry Sapiecha



Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Iron may be a factor in dementia

Dominic Hare at work in his laboratory. Photo: George Ganio

Alzheimer’s disease is no respecter of fame or fortune. Former US president Ronald Reagan had it. Legendary AC/DC guitarist Malcolm Young has been diagnosed. Hazel Hawke suffered until her death in 2013. And author and broadcaster Anne Deveson is experiencing the distressing progression of Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, a group of brain disorders affecting thinking and memory.

There is no way to spot Alzheimer’s early, no effective treatment and no known cure. However, a neurochemist at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Dr Dominic Hare, and his colleagues are homing in on a biomarker, or disease indicator, to help diagnosis.

Moreover, Dr Hare – who is also with the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City – says the team’s work promises to help reveal the cause of the baffling disorder.

“The disease develops so slowly and has so many effects on the body, being able to separate what’s cause and what’s effect is a big problem,” he says. “If we can identify why the disease is happening, we could intervene to alleviate the symptoms and potentially halt the disease process.”

At present, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is made only after careful clinical consultation, and any diagnosis can be confirmed only by examining the brain after death.

However, Dr Hare and his co-workers are not looking in the brain for clues. They’re looking in the blood. In a recent article in the US journal ACS Neuroscience, the group outlined its work with a potential biomarker and a possible causative culprit: iron.

“The body uses metals like copper, zinc and iron to facilitate biochemical reactions it wants. In the case of disease, these are reactions that are unwanted,” Dr Hare says, adding that iron plays a very important role in the ageing process, and ageing is the key risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. One in four people over the age of 85 have dementia; 75 per cent of those have Alzheimer’s.

Professor Perminder Sachdev, co-director of the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing at the University of NSW, says metals have previously been linked to Alzheimer’s but the findings were inconclusive.

“This study by Dr Hare and his colleagues is, therefore, of interest to researchers in the field,” says Professor Sachdev, chief medical adviser to Alzheimer’s Australia.

Specifically, Dr Hare’s team is studying transferrin, a protein that helps ferry iron around the body.  In the case of Alzheimer’s, if transferrin falls down on the job iron may accumulate in the brain, where it contributes to the build-up of “plaques” and “tangles”. Plaques impede the transmission of signals among brain cells and tangles kill them.

To track transferrin’s activity, Dr Hare teamed up with Dr Blaine Roberts, head of the Metalloproteomics Laboratory at the Florey Institute. They designed the research using blood samples collected for the Australian Imaging, Biomarker & Lifestyle Flagship Study of Ageing (AIBL).

The multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional project is one of world’s largest studies of the biomarkers, cognitive characteristics and lifestyle factors implicated in Alzheimer’s.

“Putting all these pieces together will help find methods to maintain quality of life, possibly slowing or even halting the progress of the disease.”

Dr Dominic Hare

“The unique thing about AIBL is that it’s following 1000 people through time,” Dr Hare says. “That gives us statistical power.” Participants provide blood samples and are tracked over 54 months.

Dr Hare, Dr Roberts and their colleagues used samples from 34 AIBL participants and 36 healthy participants.  They employed specialised equipment to analyse samples: an inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometer (ICP-MS), and a size exclusion chromatography-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometer (SEC-ICP-MS).

The results revealed, first, that compared to healthy volunteers, participants with Alzheimer’s had lower levels of iron in their plasma, a condition linked with anaemia of unknown cause.

Intriguingly, results from the ICP-MS and SEC-ICP-MS tests, showed healthy and Alzheimer’s participants had the same amount of transferrin in their blood but that the amount of iron carried by the transferrin was lower in Alzheimer’s samples. The implication: transferrin isn’t shuttling excess iron efficiently from the brain.

“The next step is to look at a copper-binding protein called ceruloplasmin that interacts with transferrin,” says Dr Hare. “Putting all these pieces together will help find methods to maintain quality of life, possibly slowing or even halting the progress of the disease.”


Henry Sapiecha


Sunday, March 1st, 2015


Human life expectancy: myth and reality

When we talk about human life expectancy, we have to take a close look at how we’re measuring it – and this is where things can get confusing.

What most of us refer to as ‘average life expectancy’ is actually ‘life expectancy at birth’.What most of us refer to as ‘average life expectancy’ is actually ‘life expectancy at birth’. It’s based on the average number of years a newborn baby can expect to live in a specific society at a particular point in history, assuming living conditions will remain roughly the same for the duration of that life. Unfortunately, this isn’t a terribly efficient way to measure and compare adult longevity. It’s based on the average number of years a newborn baby can expect to live in a specific society at a particular point in history, assuming living conditions will remain roughly the same for the duration of that life. Unfortunately, this isn’t a terribly efficient way to measure and compare adult longevity. Why? Because one of the most influential factors in life expectancy at birth is the infant (and child) mortality rate. For our ancestors (whether 200 or 2000 years ago), this figure was much higher than it is today, which had the effect of skewing ‘average life expectancy’ rates downward quite dramatically in previous eras.

To say that ‘the life expectancy of our prehistoric ancestors was only 37’ doesn’t mean that the average person in those times only made it to age 37. Many of them would have lived to 60 or 70, but extremely high infant/child mortality rates seriously dropped the average age of longevity.

So the common modern perception that we’re living nearly twice as long as people did in the not-too-distant past isn’t accurate at all. What these statistics show instead is that a lot more of us today are now surviving into adulthood, thereby increasing our ‘average lifespans’ in a big wayAccording to the US National Centre for Health Statistics, life expectancy for American men was 45.6 years in 1907 but rose to 75.5 years by 2007 – an astounding increase of 30 years within one century! What made the major difference, however, was infant mortality – a rate of around 10% in 1907, but only 0.68% in 2007. Infant mortality reduction wasn’t the only factor in this extraordinary increase of course, but it was the defining one.

So the common modern perception that we’re living nearly twice as long as people did in the not-too-distant past isn’t accurate at all. What these statistics show instead is that a lot more of us today are now surviving into adulthood, thereby increasing our ‘average lifespans’ in a big way. Interestingly, if you look at the age of the oldest-living people from around 1960 (between 110 and 115 years of age), you’ll find that it’s virtually identical to the ages of the longevity record-holders of today – so maximum lifespans really haven’t changed at all in over half a century.

The age of medical miracles

Latest figures show that life expectancy in Australia is 79.9 years for men and 84.3 years for women1, which puts us among the top 10 countries in the world for both male and female longevity2 according to WHO World Health Statistics (2014).

There’s no doubt that medical advancements in the past century have played a huge part in improving life expectancy rates in Australia. Our understanding of the causes of diseases has progressed mightily, which in turn has led to major victories in the battle against illness and age-related ailments. Medical science has put a big dent in many of the diseases that once led to premature death.There’s no doubt that medical advancements in the past century have played a huge part in improving life expectancy rates in Australia. Our understanding of the causes of diseases has progressed mightily, which in turn has led to major victories in the battle against illness and age-related ailments. Medical science has put a big dent in many of the diseases that once led to premature death.

Looking back to the beginning of the 19th century, the primary causes of premature death were diseases like typhoid, scarlet fever, smallpox and rheumatic fever. Modern vaccination programs, antibiotics and a better understanding of medical science have made these diseases far less of a threat today.

Historically, here are some of the most important medical breakthroughs that have contributed to increased human longevity:

  • Vaccines
    Vaccination has had a profound effect in preventing the spread of a number of once-dreaded diseases including polio, diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus. The first successful vaccine was developed in 1798 (for smallpox). Smallpox was once rightly considered one of the world’s most dangerous diseases, but it was declared officially eradicated by the World Health Organisation in 1979, thanks to a comprehensive global vaccination program.
  • Penicillin
    The surge in life expectancy in the 20th century owes a lot to the discovery of penicillin in 1928. This was the first of the antibiotics, and it had a massive impact in the prevention of deaths from bacterial infections due to staphylococci, streptococci and similar scourges. Deaths from tuberculosis also plummeted and cases of infections after surgery fell to all-time lows. Antibiotics still play a major role in the fight against infection today.
  • Pasteur’s Germ Theory
    For most of us, the name Louis Pasteur is mainly associated with pasteurised milk. Pasteur did a lot more than make milk safer to drink, however – he was the clever fellow who discovered that germs were the cause of many common diseases. Before his discovery, there were all sorts of dubious theories about what caused disease, which meant that many of the popular treatments of the day were either ineffective or even harmful to patients. It’s no exaggeration to say that Pasteur’s research into the role played by viruses and bacteria in disease causation marked the birth of modern medical science.
  • Anaesthesia
    Another of the reasons post-surgery life expectancy has increased so much in the past century is because of major advances in the science of anaesthesia. Long gone are the days when anaesthesia consisted of a quick dose of whiskey followed by a hard piece of rubber to bite down on!
  • Insulin
    For diabetics, the discovery of insulin and other advances in the control of blood sugar levels has meant vastly improved life expectancy rates for those who suffer from this disease.


Of course, these are just a few of the breakthroughs that have played a starring role in helping humans live longer. Others include X-rays, DNA research, blood-thinning agents, high blood pressure medications and cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Medical advancements have become such a normal part of our everyday lives that we now tend to take them for granted. Australian snakebite statistics present a classic example. Anyone who watches Animal Planet knows that 19 of the 23 deadliest snakes on earth are found Down Under, and that we’re the only continent where venomous snake species outnumber non-venomous varieties. Every year around 2000 people are bitten by snakes in this country, so you would naturally assume the potent combination of lots of deadly snakes and plenty of bites would translate to a fairly high death rate. But the statistics tell a completely different story: on average, only 3 or 4 people die from snakebite in Australia each year3.

This extremely low fatality rate is due to the increased availability and effectiveness of antivenins and the introduction of much improved first aid techniques. As recently as the 1960s, some outdoor survival manuals were still advocating cutting a cross shape into the bite site with your penknife, sucking out the venom and then applying a tourniquet – methods considered not only ineffectual but downright dangerous today (the modern technique involves a pressure bandage and immobilisation).

And now for the bad news

It’s clear that recent generations have done a great job of eliminating or at least seriously reducing many of the factors that once resulted in lower life expectancies. Poor sanitation practices have been replaced with a better understanding of hygiene (doctors didn’t adopt the practice of washing their hands before surgery until the mid-1800s). The quality of training for medical personnel has improved out of sight, along with health technology. Guesswork about the causes and best treatments of illnesses has been replaced with scientific fact (people once believed malaria was caused by breathing ‘bad vapours’ and that bloodletting was a handy cure for just about everything). Cutting edge stem cell research, new medications, space-age treatments and superior aged care are all playing a part in ensuring that people today have every chance of living to a ripe old age.

Unfortunately, just as we celebrate our successes in conquering many of the major health issues of yesterday, we find ourselves confronted with a whole new set of health and environmental challenges in the 21st century.

According to the World Health Organisation, the 3 major causes of premature death in 2014 were coronary heart disease, stroke and lower respiratory infections (such as pneumonia). We may have thrashed smallpox and diphtheria, learned how to tackle gangrene and put the bite on bubonic plague, but we’ve supplanted these gains with a whole new set of ‘lifestyle diseases’, many of which are caused by nothing more than physical inactivity, poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle choices.According to the World Health Organisation, the 3 major causes of premature death in 2014 were coronary heart disease, stroke and lower respiratory infections (such as pneumonia). We may have thrashed smallpox and diphtheria, learned how to tackle gangrene and put the bite on bubonic plague, but we’ve supplanted these gains with a whole new set of ‘lifestyle diseases’, many of which are caused by nothing more than physical inactivity, poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle choices.

The human race is now fatter than ever before – and this has all happened very quickly. Obesity rates in Australia have doubled in the past 20 years, and if current trends continue, 83% of Aussie men and 75% of Aussie women over the age of 20 will be overweight or obese by 2025 – not to mention about a third of all 5-19 year olds. This equates to roughly 17 million obese/overweight Australians within the next 15 years4.

These days we sit more, move less and eat a lot of processed and adulterated foods that previous generations would scarcely recognise as food at all. In an increasingly urbanised society, the family vegetable garden, chicken coop and milking shed are long gone. In their place are ‘diet’ soft drinks with no nutritional value (but plenty of ‘interesting’ chemical ingredients) and takeaway foods overloaded with harmful fats and excessive sugar.


And while the number of smokers in Australia has been steadily decreasing since 19905 (great news), diabetes is on the rise and is now the fastest growing chronic disease in Australia (and the 6th-highest cause of disease death in this country overall), with one person being diagnosed every 5 minutes6.

21st century afflictions like obesity, heart disease and stress-related illnesses are sure to put a damper on any optimistic predictions of soaring life expectancies in the near future. Global cancer cases are also on the rise, up 20% in just the past decade7, with a fair chunk of this increase attributed to lack of exercise, excessive alcohol and tobacco consumption, poor dietary habits and other lifestyle-driven factors. We’re working longer hours, sleeping less and being bombarded with conflicting marketing messages about exactly what is ‘healthy’.

Be careful what you wish for

The other obvious question is this: even if we could live to be 150, would we really want to? By stretching out the human lifespan, age-related health issues would expand: Alzheimer’s, dementia, coronary heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s, cancer, eye problems and much more; incidents of broken bones and head injuries from falls would soar. Many of us like to think of increased human longevity as a wondrous possibility symbolising our ingenuity, but there are negative aspects to consider as well.

So, could we really live to be 150? At the moment, such a prospect is pure conjecture – there is no scientific evidence to suggest it will ever happen.


Henry Sapiecha