You are currently browsing the archives for the Cancer category.
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Greetings! It’s time to dip into the weird and wonderful world of what ails us and I’ve decided that today we all need a boost so all the stories are good news. No ugly oil spills, no ‘the next new thing that will kill me’, just good news. So here goes.
A world that I don’t even want to try to imagine is the world of the blind. I love to read and although I also love to listen to audio books, blindness would remove a huge part of my enjoyment of life. And there’s very good news in this area. Scientists are reporting progress toward a test that could revolutionize the diagnosis of glaucoma, the second leading cause of vision loss and blindness worldwide, by detecting the disease years earlier then the typical diagnoses today.
Glaucoma is the name given to a group of eye disorders that damage the optic nerve, which carries visual information from the eye to the brain. It usually occurs when fluid pressure inside the eye slowly increases over time and damages the optic nerve. Glaucoma affects about 70 million people worldwide, including about 2 million in the United States. It’s called the ‘vision stealer’ because it damages with no obvious warning symptoms that would send patients to a doctor. There is no cure, and glaucoma causes irreversible loss of vision.
Doctors now use two main techniques to detect the disease. One test measures eye pressure by gently touching a special instrument to the outer surface of the eye. In the other, an eye specialist uses an instrument called an ophthalmoscope to look directly through the pupil of the eye at the optic nerve. The nerve’s color and appearance can indicate the presence of damage from glaucoma.
Unfortunately, all too often, these tests detect glaucoma after the disease has already damaged the optic nerve. Years may pass between the first biological change associated with glaucoma inside the eye and diagnosis. Eye doctors need to be able to diagnose glaucoma earlier, before permanent damage has occurred, so that patients can begin taking medication to control it.
The researchers in the current study used Raman spectroscopy, which chemists use to focus a beam of infrared laser light, invisible to the human eye, into a test sample to get information about the sample’s composition. The scientists used a Raman spectrometer to shine laser light through the pupil of the eye. Nerve cells inside the eye scatter the light, producing a rainbow-like "spectrum" or pattern revealing the chemical composition of the cells. The spectrum can be used to identify biochemical changes in retinal cells that announce the presence of glaucoma.
The research team has used animal subjects so far, and they look forward to clinical trials in humans. If everything goes well and no problems are detected, the technique could be ready to be used in your eye doctor’s office within five years. The test will probably take about 30 minutes, longer than existing glaucoma tests, but will benefit patients with a more accurate diagnosis of the disease.
A person with advanced glaucoma could have this view of the world, a risk that might be reduced by a new early diagnostic test for the common eye disease. (Credit: National Institutes of Health)
Early detection of glaucoma is certainly a good news story, but there are other ones out there. One of them involves a drug I take myself.
NEW USES FOR AN OLD DRUG
I am very proud of my doctors because several years ago they put me on a drug that many of you are familiar with. They put me on metformin, which is also called Glucophage. Metformin is the generic name for the drug, but its trademarked name actually tells you what it does. Glucophage means ‘sugar eater’ and metformin is a marvelous drug that literally ‘eats’ the sugar out of your bloodstream before it can trigger type 2 diabetes.
Metformin is given to diabetics, but it’s also routinely prescribed for non-diabetics like me who are at risk of developing the disease. When my fasting blood sugar went above 110, I was put on metformin. I’ve been on it for several years now and my fasting blood sugar is always right around 100.
As if diabetes prevention (and treatment) weren’t enough for this drug, new research shows that metformin may soon play a role in lung cancer prevention. Emerging research suggests metformin may inhibit tumor growth as well.
In the current study, conducted by researchers from the National Cancer Institute, mice were treated with metformin for 13 weeks following exposure to a nicotine-derived nitrosamine (NNK), which is the most prevalent carcinogen in tobacco and a known promoter of tumor development in the lungs.
The metformin was administered by mouth (hopefully they didn’t give the poor mice metformin pills the size of the ones that I take!) and it reduced the number of lung tumors developed by the mice by 40 percent to 50 percent. The researchers said that the levels of metformin used to do this would also be tolerated by humans.
The scientists discovered that the metformin inhibited the growth of a chemical called rapamycin which is know to promote lung tumor growth. They also discovered that if the metformin was delivered by injection, it reduced the number of tumors by 72 percent.
Although I’m not a smoker, I lived with one for many years. It’s nice to know that a drug I already take may be keeping me safe in other ways as well!
And now a story about a disease that is prevalent in our part of the world.
TAMPING THE FEVER
Dengue fever is also called ‘bonebreak fever’, not because it breaks your bones but because the disease makes you feel as though every bone in your body has been broken. Dengue fever is possibly the disease being suffered by whoever said, “For the first three days I was afraid I would die and for the next three days, I was afraid I wouldn’t”.
Scientists at the Imperial College in London have recently discovered the virus that cause dengue fever may be pirating some of our own immune system defenses to infect more cells. They hope their new findings can help with the design of a new vaccine against dengue. The study also shines light on the observation that people who contract dengue fever more than once usually experience more severe and dangerous symptoms the second time around.
Dengue fever is transmitted by mosquitoes and is prevalent in sub-tropical and tropical regions including South East Asia, South America and the islands of the Pacific. Symptoms include high fever, severe aching in the joints and vomiting. The dengue virus can also cause hemorrhagic fever, which can be fatal.
The researchers in the current study have identified a set of antibodies that are produced by the human immune system to fight off the dengue virus. Their research has also shown that these antibodies not only do a really lousy job of fighting off the virus, they may actually help the virus infect more cells.
The study suggests that when a person who has already been infected with one strain of dengue virus encounters a different strain, the antibodies awakened during the first infection spring into action again. However, rather than protecting the body from the second infection, the antibodies help the virus establish itself. The presence of these antibodies probably explains why a second infection of dengue with a different strain of the virus can be worse than the first infection.
Although we haven’t had an outbreak of dengue on Guam in many years, we still have the mosquito that carries it here as well as the mosquito that carries malaria. Which explains why I walk all around my property every month or so and upend anything that’s holding rainwater. This doesn’t necessarily endear me to the other people that live there, but it does mean that there are fewer mosquitoes around my house. It’s not a bad policy for everyone in the Marianas islands!
And now we come to my favorite story about one of my all time favorite things!
Researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered that a compound in dark chocolate may protect the brain after a stroke by increasing cellular signals already known to shield nerve cells from damage.
Ninety minutes after feeding mice a single modest dose of epicatechin, a compound found naturally in dark chocolate, the scientists induced an ischemic stroke by essentially cutting off the blood supply to the animals’ brains. They found that the animals that had eaten the epicatechin suffered significantly less brain damage than the ones that had not been given the compound.
While most stroke treatments given to humans must be administered within a two- to three-hour time window to be effective, epicatechin limited further damage at least three and half hours after a stroke. If it was given six hours after a stroke, however, there was no protections.
The amount of dark chocolate you’d have to eat to benefit from its protective effects remains unclear, since the researchers didn’t use people in their clinical trials. They warn that you shouldn’t take this research as a license to go out and consume large amounts of chocolate, which is high in calories and fat.
Scientists have also been intrigued by the potential health benefits of epicatechin by studying the Kuna Indians, a remote population living on islands off the coast of Panama. The Kuna Indians have a low incidence of cardiovascular disease. Scientists who studied them found nothing striking in their genetic makeup. Then they realized that when they moved away from Kuna, they were no longer protected from heart problems. Researchers soon discovered the reason was likely environmental: The residents of Kuna regularly drank a very bitter cocoa drink, with a consistency like molasses, instead of coffee or soda. The drink was high in the compound epicatechin.
The researchers warn that the epicatechin found in dark chocolate is extremely sensitive to changes in heat and light and that most commercial processes of making chocolate destroy it. Only few chocolates have the active ingredient and the label ‘dark chocolate’ is no guarantee that the chocolate contains epicatechin.
Quite frankly, I don’t care. I LOVE dark chocolate and I’m going to keep right on eating it! if there’s the tiniest chance it’s actually good for me so much the better!
A compound in dark chocolate may protect the brain after a stroke by increasing cellular signals already known to shield nerve cells from damage, new research shows. (Credit: iStockphoto/Lasse Kristensen)
Cruise on over to the Deep Website at www.thedeepradioshow.com to learn more about eye diseases, drug research and chocoholics! Enjoy!
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Well, my office is about to be taken over by the bulging medical files, so it’s off we go into a little excursion into what ails us. There’s good news and there’s bad news and today we’re considering some diseases that ail us specifically here in the Marianas. And of course, the disease that’s on the upswing with all that good food all over the world is diabetes.
GETTING AT THE ROOT
Scientists have known for quite some time that babies with low birth weights have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes as adults. This is usually attributed to malnutrition of the mother during pregnancy, but German scientists have done some data analysis and discovered that genetic background may also play a major role. They analyzed the data of 729 children whose mothers had type 1 diabetes and who thus had a higher diabetes risk.
The scientists investigated the genetic background of fetuses for alterations in individual DNA bases. They focused on three gene regions that are known to be involved in diabetes caused by reduced insulin secretion and looked at them in relation to birth weight. They discovered that two of the regions had a significant association with low birth weights in the infants. This implies that there may be a genetic cause for both low birth weights and the development of diabetes later in life.
With their findings, the German researchers have come a step closer to understanding the underlying genetic mechanisms of diabetes diseases. Their next investigation will be to see if the gene regions examined in the study also have an effect on body weight later in life. Since their study has run continuously since 1989, this data already exists and simply needs to be analyzed.
So, it appears that genetic factors can cause both low birth weights and diabetes later in life. But where are the diabetics? Well, we know that there are many in the Marianas, and that diabetes is becoming more prevalent in the mainland US, but that’s not where most diabetics are and their location may surprise you.
WHERE THE PROBLEM LIES
A large population-based study of diabetes conducted by investigators from Tulane University and their Chinese colleagues has concluded that the disease has reached epidemic proportions in the adult population of China. The study estimates that 92.4 million adults age 20 or older (9.7 percent of the population) have diabetes and 148.2 million adults (15.5 percent) have prediabetes, a key risk factor for the development of overt diabetes and cardiovascular disease. (This compares with 7.8 percent of the United States population).
The study builds on several recent large studies in China that have documented a rapid increase in diabetes in the population. The current study administered an oral glucose tolerance test to 46,239 adults aged 20 or older from 14 provinces and municipalities throughout China in order to identify cases of previously undiagnosed diabetes. Subjects of the study who had been previously diagnosed with diabetes were identified through questioning by the study’s data collectors.
Following recent rapid economic development in China, cardiovascular disease has become the leading cause of death in the county. Diabetes is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and the prevalence of diabetes in China, as this study indicates, is high and increasing. Diabetes increases the risk of cardiovascular complications and premature death, and results in a massive economic burden for society.
The researchers noted a higher prevalence of diabetes among urban residents in China than among rural ones, a result consistent with observations that have been made in developing countries throughout the world. "Urbanization is associated with changes in lifestyle that lead to physical inactivity, an unhealthful diet and obesity, all of which have been implicated as contributing factors in the development of diabetes," says Dr. Jiang He, a professor at Tulane University and the senior author of the study.
With its very large population, China may bear a higher diabetes-related burden than any other country. Especially alarming is the finding that the majority of cases of diabetes (60.7 percent) are undiagnosed and untreated. The researchers conclude that diabetes and its consequences have become a major public health crisis in China, and recommend that the country quickly develop and institute national strategies for preventing, detecting and treating diabetes in the general population.
So, how do the Marianas stack up in the race no one wants to win? According to the most recent data, our population is right up there with China’s at between 9 and 10 percent diabetic.
How do you keep from being diabetic? Exercise more and eat less! All your life!! And stop drinking the sugared soft drinks. It couldn’t hurt! And here’s something else that couldn’t hurt.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
So you want more advice on how to avoid diabetes and even heart disease? Start taking your vitamin D. According to a team of English researchers, middle aged and elderly people with high levels of vitamin D could reduce their chances of developing heart disease or diabetes by 43%.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in some foods and is also produced when ultraviolet rays from sunlight strike the skin and trigger vitamin D synthesis. Fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel are good sources of vitamin D, and it is also available as a dietary supplement.
Researchers looked at 28 studies with almost 100,000 participants. The people were from a variety of ethnic groups and the studies included both men and women. Half of the studies were conducted in the United States, eight were European, two studies were from Iran, three from Australasia and one from India.
The researchers discovered a significant association between high levels of vitamin D and a decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease (33% reduction), type 2 diabetes (55% reduction) and metabolic syndrome (51% reduction).
So keep eating that fish and taking time for a little sunshine in your busy day. Your body will love you for it!
And now we turn our attention to another real problem here in the Marianas. It’s a real killer and it’s on the upswing everywhere. It’s tuberculosis.
FIGHTING THE BAD ONES
Tuberculosis is a nasty disease that can take many forms in the body. The bad news is that a bad disease takes bad drugs to kill it and they must be taken every single day over a long period of time. The real problem is that once people start to feel better, they stop taking their drugs early. Unfortunately, they haven’t killed the killer; they’ve done something infinitely worse. They’ve made it drug-resistant.
According to the World Health Organization in some areas of the world, one in four people with tuberculosis (TB) becomes ill with a form of the disease that can no longer be treated with standard drugs regimens. That’s right, folks, there’s TB out there that’s resistant to every drug on the planet.
Not only that. TB has another little trick up its sleeve. TB can affect you two ways. When people are infected with TB they can become sick immediately. But in many cases, the TB hides in your body and becomes inactive or latent. Unfortunately, NONE of the antibiotics used to fight TB are effective against latent TB. They only work when the disease becomes active. This is a major problem as ten percent of the people who have latent TB will develop the active disease at some point and become both sick and contagious.
A team of researchers from Australia has discovered a protein that’s essential for TB to survive and they’ve had some success in developing a drug that will inhibit that protein. They are currently doing studies to see just how effective the drug is against latent TB. If the project succeeds, it will be the first new treatment for TB since 1962.
This is exciting news given that TB kills almost 2 million people each year. One third of the world’s population, or two billion people, are infected with TB. Every second of every day another person is infected.
And like diabetes, this one is at our doorstep too. It has reared its ugly head in my very own family. But at least here, there’s no problem with people not taking their drugs. Public Health requires that you take your drugs in front of a nurse. Every single day. Diabetes and tuberculosis. Just two of the things that are poised to get you. Live healthy and you’ll live longer!
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Well, the medical bag is full to overflowing this week so we’ll learn some more tales of the things that affect the human animal. Our first stories deal with one of the planet’s deadliest killers: tuberculosis. We thought we’d all but wiped out this deadly scourge in the middle of the last century when we began to develop our arsenals of antibiotics. But it turns out that TB is not only a deadly enemy, it’s a wily one and our first story should chill you to the bone, given TB’s prevalence, not in some far-off never-never land, but right here in the Marianas.
DISEASE VS. DRUGS
We’ve known for a long time that TB is a shape-shifter when it comes to antibiotics. It seems that virtually every few months we read about yet another strain of TB that’s become resistant to yet another drug developed to combat it. But the latest update has a terrible twist.
Scientists have identified a strain of antibiotic-resistant TB that thrives in the presence of rifampin, a front-line drug used to treat it. The latest strain was identified in a patient in China.
The doctors researching this particular strain discovered that it wasn’t one of the fast growing types UNTIL you treated the patient with rifampin. Then, it took off like a rocket. They also observed that the patient’s condition grew worse when they were given rifampin, but they were cured with rifampin-free regimens.
Roughly 5% of all TB cases are resistant to isoniazid and rifampin, two of the main drugs used to treat the disease. And now we have a TB strain that is feeding on and dependant on the drug that was developed to kill it.
The researchers say that rifampin-dependent tuberculosis is difficult to detect and may be a bigger problem than we currently realize, since the resistant bacteria don’t grow well in culture mediums unless rifampin is added. The researchers urge public health workers to closely examine patients who aren’t getting better when given rifampin, to see if they harbor the rifampin-eating strain.
Unfortunately, the researchers note that drug susceptibility testing is time-consuming and not easily performed in resource-poor settings where tuberculosis is frequently more common.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that tuberculosis kills approximately 2 million people worldwide each year. Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) is becoming an increasing problem in many parts of the world, largely because many patients take the antibiotics until they feel better and then they stop taking them. DON’T DO THAT!! That’s how you personally can create drug resistant disease!
And now in a bizarre twist, scientists have discovered that another bacterium that causes disease and kills many people may be an effective weapon against . . . wait for it . . . tuberculosis!
DISEASE VS. DISEASE
It’s been implicated as the bacterium that causes ulcers and the majority of stomach cancers, but studies by researchers at Stanford University, UC Davis, and the University of Pittsburgh have found that Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) also may play a protective role — against (you guessed it!) tuberculosis.
Jay Solnick, UC Davis professor of medicine and microbiology, and his co-authors report that H. pylori infection may enhance immunity against tuberculosis, a disease endemic in many parts of the world, and for which there is no effective vaccine.
"Here is a bacterium that we know is sometimes harmful and that is clearly associated with cancer," Solnick said. "But it’s not that simple."
Solnick explains that up until the 20th century, when public health improved and antibiotic use was widespread, virtually everyone was infected with H. pylori. That remains the case today in most developing countries, implying that H. pylori may have evolved with its human host because it confers some selective benefit.
"These new findings suggest that one such benefit may that H. pylori provides protection against tuberculosis, and perhaps other infectious diseases as well," he said.
Tuberculosis is second only to HIV as a cause of death due to a single infectious agent; an estimated one third of the world population has latent TB infection. But only 30 percent of people exposed to TB ever become infected, and only 10 percent of those infected will develop active tuberculosis disease.
"One explanation may be the presence of chronic infection of the stomach with H. pylori," Solnick said. The findings also may eventually aid in managing TB, since H. pylori infection may help determine whether someone infected with TB gets a latent, asymptomatic infection or active disease.
Early studies funded by the National Institutes of Health showed that a patient infected with H. pylori had elevated immune responses to TB antigens. The researchers then checked patients from immigrant populations in Santa Clara County, then in households in Gambia and Pakistan, where TB is prevalent. During the two-year study, they found that people exposed to TB who then developed the active disease were less likely to be infected with H. pylori than those who were not infected with H. pylori.
The researchers decided to test their theory in non-human primates. They examined 41 monkeys who were exposed to TB. The results were striking. Of the 30 monkeys that tested positive for H. pylori, only 5 developed active TB, but 6 of 11 monkeys that were negative for H. pylori developed active disease.
The authors acknowledge their findings are preliminary and propose several follow-up studies. First, they want to test whether experimental infection of H. pylori will protect monkeys from TB, and whether it enhances the protective effect of immunization. If successful, they will test a recombinant H. pylori strain that expresses TB antigens for possible immunization against TB.
Electron micrograph of H. pylori. (Credit: Yutaka Tsutsumi, M.D. Professor Department of Pathology Fujita Health University School of Medicine / Courtesy of Wikipedia)
Hmmmm. I think what we have here is a classic case of fighting fire with fire!
And now we turn our attention to yet another bane of human existence, at least many of us look at it that way. And that’s the trip to the dentist. Some of us (and you know who you are!) deal with awful pain and unsightly smiles because of our fears. I urge you to visit the dentist if you have problems; particularly if it’s been years since you went. New techniques have definitely eliminated most of the ‘torture-chamber’ aspects of the dentist office. And the following articles tell us about the possible elimination of two more.
LOOK MA, NO MERCURY
Most of us acquired our fear of the dentist in childhood when the dentist made holes in our teeth and filled them up with black stuff. The holes the dentist made were to make holes we already had bigger.
Tooth enamel is the hardest material in the human body because it’s made almost entirely of minerals. As tough as it is, however, enamel can be broken down by bacteria. This forms holes that we all know as cavities and if you don’t go see the dentist regularly, the cavities will eventually destroy the tooth. That’s why dentists repair cavities by filling them with a material to replace the lost enamel. The most common such filling material was invented in the 19th-century and it’s called amalgam — the classic silver-black fillings many people have.
Amalgam works well because it is very durable, easy to use, and (most importantly) cheap. The dark fillings can be unsightly (as a child I had a lovely black hole between my two front teeth) but the real problem is that they contain mercury, a real health and environmental no-no.
Because of the mercury, amalgam has raised health and environmental questions — though according to the American Dental Association, the mercury is bonded in amalgam in such a way that it poses no health hazards.
Dentists would love to have a perfectly white material that mimics natural enamel for repairing cavities in teeth and doesn’t use mercury, but for the most part, they still use amalgam. Other filling materials have been developed, but they often have problems with shrinkage or durability.
Kent Coulter and his colleagues at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio have developed a new dental restorative material under a program funded by the National Institutes of Health. The new fillings are made with a plastic-like material containing zirconia nanoplatelets — tiny crystals made of the same sort of material used to make fake diamonds and gem stones. Unlike their costume jewelry cousins, the zirconia nanoplatelets are super hard because of a difference in the particular arrangements of the atoms in the material.
Coulter and his colleagues designed a way to make a roll of this material under vacuum. They hope this material can be lifted from the roll and packed in a dental cavity and then cured — using an ultraviolet lamp or some other means — so that it hardens in place without shrinking. Zirconia nanoplatelets are still several years away from the dentist’s chair, however, and the next step will be to see if the new material performs as hoped for people with cavities.
Well, we hope that zirconia works in the mouth as well as it does on the finger, but for most of us dental sufferers, the problem isn’t the nasty black fillings, particularly if they’re inside the mouth and not front and center. The problem that keeps most people out of the dentist’s office is the DRILL. Read on, there may be hope there too!
A STAR IN YOUR MOUTH
One of the first misconceptions I tell my Astronomy students about is the ‘fact’ that the Sun is made from gas. Tell a first-grader this and they automatically assume the Sun is made from burning gasoline. As we get older, we figure out what a gas really is when we learn about the three states of matter, solid, liquid and gas.
Well, that one’s wrong too. There are actually FOUR states of matter and the most common one is the one you’ve never heard of. It’s plasma, the stuff stars are really made of. Plasma is ionized gas and it can have the characteristics of a solid and liquid and a gas.
Plasmas are common everywhere in the cosmos, and one of their characteristics is that they they’re highly reactive. For instance, scientists have discovered that high temperature plasmas react with oxygen and that makes them capable of destroying microbes. These hot plasmas are already used to disinfect surgical instruments.
We know how to make low temperature plasmas too, and it turns out that firing low temperature plasma beams at dentin — the fibrous tooth structure underneath the tooth’s enamel coating — was found to reduce the amount of dental bacteria by up to 10,000-fold. This means that plasma technology could be used to remove infected tissue in tooth cavities — a practice that conventionally involves drilling into the tooth.
Scientists in Germany have used these low temperature plasmas against common oral pathogens. These bacteria form films on teeth surfaces and are capable of eroding tooth enamel and the dentin below it to cause cavities. If left untreated it can lead to pain, tooth loss and sometimes severe gum infections. In this study, the researchers infected dentin from extracted human molars with four strains of bacteria and then exposed it to plasma jets for 6, 12 or 18 seconds. The longer the dentin was exposed to the plasma the greater the amount of bacteria that were eliminated.
These low temperature plasmas are right around body temperature which means that the dentist won’t have to fry your mouth to use them. The low temperature means the plasmas can kill the microbes while preserving the tooth.
The researchers say that plasma technology to disinfect tooth cavities would be welcomed by patients as well as dentists. As most of us know, drilling is usually uncomfortable and sometimes painful. Cold plasma, in contrast, is a completely contact-free method that is highly effective. The scientists are diligently working and they say that a clinical treatment for dental cavities can be expected within 3 to 5 years.
From TB to teeth. Science is an incredibly rich feast.
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Greetings everyone. Well, we had quite a bit of feedback on last week’s article on snakes. Many people think that the spread of the giant snakes into the southern US will be impossible because of the winter conditions. I certainly hope they’re right!
There were also a few comments about my story about Pete, the reticulated python. Someone pointed out that a three-foot long snake would hardly weigh 30 pounds and I suspect they’re right. I didn’t know Pete back then and I suspect five or ten pounds would be much more realistic.
I never personally weighed Pete either and have no clue if the 300-pound figure in the days when I knew her was actually accurate, but I can tell you from personal observation that the 33-foot length was certainly close to the truth. When she raised her head to my eye level, most of her was still on the ground!
We’ll leave the animals behind this week and concentrate on the planet’s most populous large animal and their woes. [For you sticklers out there, notice that I did NOT say ‘most populous life form’ (bacteria) or ‘most populous animal’ (insects)].
Certainly at the top of human woes is cancer. This dreadful disease, where the body’s own cells go rogue (sorry, Ms Palin) seems to be on the upswing. But there’s hope on the horizon from some unexpected sources.
NEW HOPE FROM JEWELERY?
We’ve known for a long time that heat is an excellent weapon against cancer cells. But it’s hard to cook tumors without cooking the surrounding tissue too.
Now, researchers from MIT are using tiny particles of gold to home in on tumors. Then the gold absorbs energy from near-infrared light and re-emits it as heat. This destroys tumors with minimal side effects. The particles called gold nanorods, can be used to diagnose as well as treat tumors.
Cancer affects about seven million people worldwide, and that number is projected to grow to 15 million by 2020. Most cancer patients are treated with chemotherapy and/or radiation, which are often effective but can have debilitating side effects because it’s difficult to target tumor tissue.
Gold nanoparticles can absorb different frequencies of light, depending on their shape. Rod-shaped particles absorb light at near-infrared frequencies. This light heats the tiny rods but passes harmlessly through human tissue.
In the study, tumors in mice that received an intravenous injection of nanorods plus near-infrared laser treatment disappeared within 15 days. The mice survived for three months (the end of the study) with no evidence of reoccurrence. Mice with tumors who received no treatment or only nanorods or only laser heating didn’t have that kind of survival rate.
Once the nanorods are injected, they disperse uniformly throughout the bloodstream. The research team developed a polymer coating for the particles that allowed them to survive in the bloodstream longer than any other gold nanoparticles (the half-life is greater than 17 hours).
In designing the particles, the researchers took advantage of the fact that blood vessels located near tumors have tiny pores just large enough for the nanorods to enter. Nanorods accumulate in the tumors, and within three days, the liver and spleen clear any that don’t reach the tumor.
During a single exposure to a near-infrared laser, the nanorods heat up to 70 degrees Celsius, hot enough to kill tumor cells. Additionally, heating them to a lower temperature weakens tumor cells enough to enhance the effectiveness of existing chemotherapy treatments, raising the possibility of using the nanorods as a supplement to those treatments.
The nanorods could also be used to kill tumor cells left behind after surgery. The nanorods can be more than 1,000 times more precise than a surgeon’s scalpel, so they could potentially remove residual cells the surgeon can’t get.
The nanorods’ homing abilities also make them a promising tool for diagnosing tumors. After the particles are injected, they can be imaged using a technique known as Raman scattering. Any tissue that lights up, other than the liver or spleen, could harbor an invasive tumor.
Another advantage of the nanorods is that by coating them with different types of light-scattering molecules, they can be designed to simultaneously gather multiple types of information – not only whether there is a tumor, but whether it is at risk of invading other tissues, whether it’s a primary or secondary tumor, or where it originated.
The researchers are looking into commercializing the technology. Before the gold nanorods can be used in humans, they must undergo clinical trials and be approved by the FDA, which will be a multi-year process.
MIT researchers developed these gold nanorods that absorb energy from near-infrared light and emit it as heat, destroying cancer cells. (Credit: Photo / Sangeeta Bhatia Laboratory; MIT)
Some how I’d never considered using gold as a cancer killer. Gold is one of the most inert things we know about and I don’t think I’d worry too much about being injected with gold nanorods if I was staring cancer in the face.
But gold isn’t the only new option. A old drug that I take every day and that many of you take as well, has been found to have some astounding new side effects.
NEW HOPE FROM OLD DRUGS
Researchers at the Harvard Medical School have found a drug that not only reduced tumors, but prolonged remission in mice longer than conventional chemotherapy. It apparently works by targeting cancer stem cells. What is this new miracle drug? Metformin, also known as glucophage.
There is a growing body of evidence in cells, mice and people that metformin may improve breast cancer outcomes in people. In the current study, the diabetes drug seemed to work independently of its ability to improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar and insulin levels, all of which are also associated with better breast cancer outcomes.
The results fit within the cancer stem cell hypothesis, an intensely studied idea that a small subset of cancer cells has a special power to initiate tumors, fuel tumor growth, and promote recurrence of cancer. Cancer stem cells appear to resist conventional chemotherapies, which kill the bulk of the tumor. The cancer stem cell hypothesis says you can’t cure cancer unless you also get rid of the cancer stem cells.
The possible usefulness of metformin against cancer supports an emerging idea that, in the vast and complex alphabet soup of molecular interactions within cells, there are a few biological pathways that may be important in the development of many different diseases.
In mice, pretreatment with metformin prevented the otherwise dramatic ability of human breast cancer stem cells to form tumors. In other mice, where tumors were allowed to take hold for 10 days, the dual therapy also reduced tumor mass more quickly and prevented relapse. In the two months between the end of treatment and the end of the experiment, tumors regrew in the mice treated with chemotherapy alone, but not in mice that had both chemotherapy and metformin. But in an interesting side note, metformin was ineffective in treating tumors when used by itself.
The researchers have applied for a patent for a combined therapy of metformin and a lower dose of chemotherapy, which is being tested in animals. Hopefully, the results will be very good and be in soon.
is rampant here on Guam and one of the unfortunate side effects of diabetes is kidney disease. There’s also some good news in that department.
NEW HOPE FROM GETTING OFF THE COUCH
Getting off the couch could lead to a longer life for kidney disease patients, according to a study that appeared in the Clinical Journal of the American Society Nephrology (CJASN). The findings indicate that, as in the general population, exercise has significant health benefits for individuals with kidney disease.
Many patients with chronic kidney disease die prematurely, but not from effects directly related to kidney problems. Because physical activity has known health benefits, researchers at the University of Utah looked into the effects of exercise on people with chronic kidney disease.
The study included 15,368 adult participants (5.9% of whom had chronic kidney disease [CKD]) in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III, a survey of the US population. After answering a questionnaire on the frequency and intensity of their leisure time physical activity, participants were divided into inactive, insufficiently active, and active groups. On average, participants were followed for seven to nine years.
The researchers found that 28% of individuals with CKD were inactive, compared with 13.5% of non-CKD individuals. Active and insufficiently active CKD patients were 56% and 42% less likely to die during the study than inactive CKD patients, respectively. Similar survival benefits associated with physical activity were seen in individuals without CKD.
"These data suggest that increased physical activity might have a survival benefit in the CKD population. This is particularly important as most patients with stage III CKD die before they develop end stage renal disease," the authors wrote.
So, it looks like getting off that couch is good for everybody and now that I’ve finished this article, I’m going to do just that. Why don’t you join me?
Jim is, above all, a passionate eco-humanitarian who has developed his own science talk-radio show to inform The DEEP’s listeners about such newsy topics as global warming, shark-finning and reef protection as well as to explore earth’s many underwater and space mysteries.
sailing 12,000 miles and visiting five countries Jim is back here, ready to explore the depths of the ocean to the deepest frontier, space MORE>>
Lady Pam Eastlick is an expert in both the stars
and seas as a graduate of the University of Guam Marine
Lab and the Director of the UOG Planetarium.