Tag Archives: disease

Despite All the Depressing News, The World Is Not Getting Worse, It’s Getting Much, Much Better

Today, I woke up and skimmed the world news headlines. 80% of the stories were about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis or the Malaysian aircraft shot down in Ukraine. The other 20% was mostly news on the Air Algerie flight which disappeared earlier this morning and ISIS’s exile and persecution of the Christians in Mosul.

It was a very depressing experience. But then, I thought to myself: are things really that bad? And I realized, the answer is undoubtedly NO.

What we must realize here is that it’s only in the last 10 years or so that the average person has really had unlimited access to news and information with the emergence of the internet. And it’s only in the last five or so years that social media emerged as a platform to share news.

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It may seem like more bad things are going on, but really we are just more aware of world events than we have ever been in the past.

Ignorance may be bliss, but awareness solves problems. It can be hard to read about the bad things happening in other places, but often times, the only reason those bad things persist is because not enough people around the world have been made aware of them.

And, with all that being said, the world is actually getting better- much, much better. Here’s a few pieces of evidence to support that claim.

First off, our health and medicine is improving at an extremely fast pace. Infant mortality is down about 50% since 1990, and we have significantly reduced the number of deaths from treatable disease like measles and tuberculosis as well.

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A second indicator is the rapid decline in poverty worldwide. Since 1981, the proportion of people living under the poverty line ($1.25/day) has decreased by 65%. 721 million fewer people were living in poverty in 2010 than in 1981.

The third indicator is violence. Or more specifically, the lack thereof. It may seem like the world is constantly embroiled in one conflict or another, but overall, war is almost non-existent when compared to past decades:

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Click to enlarge

And while we regularly see reports of gang violence and constantly debate how much guns should be regulated, violent crime and murders has been plummeting:

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Click to enlarge

So when you start getting too down from watching, reading, or listening to the news, just remember:

We can change the world for the better. We are changing the world for the better.

(h/t Think Progress)

China Seals Off 30,000 People After A Man Dies of Bubonic Plague

The Chinese government has sealed off about 30,000 residents in parts of Yumen, a city in northeast China.

The move comes a week after a 38-year-old man died from the bubonic plague (also known as the black death). The man is said to have contracted the disease after coming in contact with a marmot- a rodent similar to the groundhog.

Residents have been told they cannot leave the area, and police have set up roadblocks to enforce that decree. Yumen has a population of 100,000 people, but only certain portions of the city have been isolated.

One of the police blockades

Besides the 30,000 people sealed off, the government has also put 151 people who had direct contact with the man under quarantine.

There is no word yet on how long the situation will last, but city officials have said they have enough rice, flour and oil to supply the 30,000 residents for a month.

China has sent in hundreds of extra “standby” medical workers to help contain the plague

Although the bubonic plague is rare in China, it is not totally unheard of. Since 2009, there have been an estimated 12 cases in China, with four deaths.

The plague can work extremely fast, sometimes killing a person within 24 hours of the initial infection. However, modern antibiotics have proven effective in treating the disease if it is detected quickly. Beijing officials say the chances of the outbreak spreading are low.

Check out the original story from the Daily Mail here.

New Discovery: HIV Can “Cut and Paste” In Our Genome, Allowing Us To Use It to Repair Genetic Conditions

Researchers in the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University in Denmark just did something truly amazing: they altered particles of the HIV virus to simultaneously “cut and paste” within our genome. Here’s Jacob Giehm Mikkelsen, associate genetics professor at Aarhus:

“Now we can simultaneously cut out the part of the genome that is broken in sick cells, and patch the gap that arises in the genetic information which we have removed from the genome. The new aspect here is that we can bring the scissors and the patch together in the HIV particles in a fashion that no one else has done before.”

The technology will allow doctors to repair the human genome in a new way, and will also be invaluable in the treatment of hereditary and viral diseases as well.

HIV particles (yellow) infecting a human T-cell (Image: NIAID/NIH)

The cutting and pasting process isn’t actually a new one- we have been able to “cut and paste” parts of the genome using cells for a while now. The problem with this process, however, is that these cells would keep producing more “scissors”. Mikkelson explains,

“In the past, the gene for the scissors has been transferred to the cells, which is dangerous because the cell keeps on producing scissors which can start cutting uncontrollably. But because we make the scissors in the form of a protein, they only cut for a few hours, after which they are broken down. And we ensure that the virus particle also brings along a small piece of genetic material to patch the hole… We call this a ‘hit-and-run’ technique because the process is fast and leaves no traces.”

We have known for years that HIV particles can be turned into transporters of genetic information. However, this new discovery that they can also be altered to carry proteins that can have a direct effect on infected cells, rather than just on the genes, is huge.

Artist rendition of the HIV virus (Image: Russel Kightley)

Ironically enough, HIV infection is one of the main fields in which the researchers plan to employ this new process. Here’s post-doctoral professor Yujia Cai, who was also part of the research team:

“By altering relevant cells in the immune system (T cells) we can make them resistant to HIV infection and perhaps even at the same time also equip them with genes that help fight HIV. So in this way HIV can in time become a tool in the fight against HIV.”

Read more from Aarhus University News here.

Illustrating the Epic Battle Between Cells and Viruses Using a Sweet Cartoon (Video)

If you’re not familiar with the TED organization, you really ought to be. TED, which stands for technology, education and design, is a series of conferences where great minds give presentations (known as TED talks) on the topics I just mentioned.

While browsing videos of these presentations on their website, TED.com, I stumbled upon this awesome illustrated video which shows what happens inside your body when it is attacked by a virus. It’s a great way to understand a pretty complex scientific process, plus, the illustrations are awesome! Enjoy!

Lesson by Shannon Stiles, animation by Igor Coric.

How Scientists Are Using Genetically Modified Mosquitos to Combat Disease

Jacobina is a small farming town in the eastern Brazilian state of Bahia. Like in many other places in Brazil, Jacobina is plagued by dengue fever The most serious form of the disease, known as dengue hemorrhagic fever, can cause shock, comas and death. The disease is primarily carried by the Aedies aegypti species of mosquito and is one of the leading causes of illness and death in Brazil.

The people of Jacobina had tried out all sorts of different strategies to combat the disease-carrying mosquitos with little success. Methods like air fumigation and putting larvicides in the water were ineffective because the mosquitos tend to live and breed inside homes, and are able to build up a resistance to the insecticides.

Mosquito nets put over beds had little impact because the mosquitos that carry the disease only bite during the day, and public education campaigns urging citizens to wear long sleeves and use repellent mostly fell upon deaf ears.

The city of Jacobina- click to enlarge. (Photo: Carlos Augusto)

So Aldo Malavasi, president of Moscamed, decided to try out a bold, mostly untested strategy. He and his team worked with mosquitos genetically modified with a lethal gene (the mosquitos are kept alive in the lab using the antibiotic tetracycline). This method for genetically modifying mosquitos originated with Oxitec, a company which describes itself as an “innovative insect controller”.

The modified mosquito, known as the OX513-A, is the first ever genetically modified insect to be released into the wild- they were initially tested in 2010 in the Cayman Islands and Malaysia, but only in small numbers.

Once Moscamed’s collection of genetically modified mosquitos reached larval state, Malavasi and his team extracted all the males (who don’t bite) and destroyed the females.

Twice a week, Moscamed workers hop in trucks and drive around releasing the genetically-altered males, who then mate with females, passing on the lethal gene which kills the offspring since they have no access to the antibiotic.

A worker releasing genetically modified mosquitos (Photo: Vincent Bevins/L.A. Times)

There have been some concerns raised though. Among these is the worry that a decline in Aedies mosquitos will simply lead to an increase in the population of Asian tiger mosquitos, which also live in the area. Malavasi points out, however, that tiger mosquitos are much less efficient in terms of spreading dengue fever.

Some critics of genetic modification also raise concerns that a few female mosquitos will inevitably end up getting released with the males, and worry about the consequences of one of them biting a human. Malavasi also dismisses this worry, saying that it’s highly unlikely that the female mosquitos would come into contact with the antibiotic tetracycline in just the right doses for them to survive after release.

Malavasi also stresses that field tests in isolated towns like Jacobina are what give us the answers to many of our questions and concerns, adding,

“We need to provide alternatives because the system we have now in Brazil doesn’t work.”

Alvo Malavasi (left) examines a sample of mosquitos with a colleague
Aldo Malavasi (left) examines a sample of mosquitos with a colleague

The people of Jacobina, tormented by dengue fever for years, are all for the plan, and Moscamed does a good job of remaining transparent. They hold regular public meetings with local health officials to answer questions and have passed out literature about the project to the people of Jacobina.

Moscamed has reported a 90% decrease in the population of the Aedies mosquito thus far.

Read more from the Global Post here.

Feature photo courtesy of CORBIS.

If You Don’t Believe In the Transformative Power of Music, Watch This Video

Meet Henry. In his younger days he was a vibrant, fun-loving man who was always full of energy. As Henry grew older and his health began to deteriorate, however, he became more and more depressed and withdrawn. It got to the point where Henry was almost completely unresponsive.

Enter Dan Cohen. Dan is a social worker who came up with the genius idea of giving iPods to seniors, customized with music from their era. This video (an excerpt from the documentary Alive Inside), shows Henry’s reaction to his favorite music. Enjoy!

What impressed me the most was how the effects of the music remained after the headphones were removed. I think we should be seriously looking into including music as part of mental health treatments.

Our brains are wired to find patterns, but as we get older, this skill becomes less and less necessary, contributing to mental deterioration.

Is it possible that the patterned structure of music played just as much of a role in Henry’s transformation as the joy he got listening to music from his era? I think the chances are pretty good, but either way, there is no denying that music has a powerful effect on our minds.

To find out more about the documentary Alive Inside, visit their homepage here.

So You’re Telling Me That the Tobacco Plant Holds the Key to Destroying Cancer??

As crazy as it sounds, it sure looks like it.

Scientists led by Dr. Mark Hulett of the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science in Melbourne, Australia, have been examining the inner defense mechanisms of the tobacco plant.

Recently, they identified a molecule known as NaD1 which the plant typically uses to fight off fungi and bacteria, but they were shocked to find that it also destroys cancer cells. The molecule basically forms pincers which attach themselves to lipids in the cell membrane of a cancerous cell and then rips them open, causing the cell to release its contents and explode.

Flowering Tobacco plant

Here’s Dr. Hulett speaking on the doscovery:

“There is some irony in the fact that a powerful defence mechanism against cancer is found in the flower of a species of ornamental tobacco plant, but this is a welcome discovery, whatever the origin … The next step is to undertake pre-clinical studies to determine what role NaD1 might be able to play in treating cancer … So far the preliminary trials have looked promising.”

One of the reasons researchers are so excited about this discovery is the “clean” way in which NaD1 does its work. Most cancer treatments in use today are fairly indiscriminate, often destroying a large number of healthy cells along with the cancerous ones. NaD1, however, has little to no effect on the healthy cells according to the study published on Friday (4/4) in the scientific journal eLife.

Dr. Mark Hulett (left) with fellow researcher Dr. Marc Kvansakul (Photo: Supplied)

Hulett is confident in NaD1′s potential for human treatment, and adds that it may have an impact not only on cancer treatment but in other aspects of medicine:

“We’ve discovered the workings of this universal defence process, which could also potentially be harnessed for the development of other therapeutic applications, including antibiotic treatment for microbial infections.”

Read more from The Daily Mail here.

Feature image courtesy of BayHealth.

WOW! Aging Was Just Successfully Reversed in Mice; Human Trials Are Up Next

David Sinclair is a gerontologist (scientist who studies aging) from the University of New South Wales. He has been leading a team of researchers attempting to slow or stop the degenerative effects of aging in mice.

Sinclair was optimistic about their most recently tested compound, but even he was shocked by how successful it was:

“I’ve been studying aging at the molecular level now for nearly 20 years and I didn’t think I’d see a day when aging could be reversed. I thought we’d be lucky to slow it down a little bit. The mice had more energy, their muscles were as though they’d be exercising and it was able to mimic the benefits of diet and exercise just within a week. We think that should be able to keep people healthier for longer and keep them from getting diseases of aging.”

Lead researcher David Sinclair (Photo: Tim Pascoe, News Limited)

The compound toned the mice’s muscles as if they had been exercising, reduced inflammation (one of the biggest factors in age-related health issues) and drastically reduced insulin resistance, which naturally increases as we grow older.

The researchers compared the effect observed in the mice to a 60-year old person suddenly having the muscle tone and energy of a person in their 20s. More impressively, these results were seen in only one week.

One of the keys to the success of the anti-aging compound was that it raised levels of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide. This substance is naturally produced in our bodies, and decreases with age. It decreases more slowly, however, in people who maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

Sinclair hopes to begin testing the compound on humans soon, but says he must raise more funding before he can set an official start date for these human trials.

Read the full story from The Guardian Liberty Voice here.

Also, check out David Sinclair’s awesome TED talk on this topic from last year:


Neurosurgeons Just Performed the First Successful Implant of a 3-D Printed Skull

A young woman in the Netherlands had spent all her 22 years suffering from a bone disorder that increased the thickness of her skull.

At the time of the procedure, it was 5cm thick (normal skulls are around 1.5cm). The extra bone was putting pressure on her brain, causing vision problems and chronic headaches.

So a team of brain surgeons from University Medical Centre in Utrecht in the Netherlands decided to attempt a bold procedure: removing the top half of her skull and replacing it with one they had created using a 3-D printer.

The operation took 23 long hours, and was lead by Dr. Bon Verweij, who said,

“It was only a matter of time before critical brain functions were compromised and she would die.”

The printed skull before implantation

That was 3 months ago, but the hospital has just recently released details of the procedure. Since the operation, the patient has fully regained her eyesight, and is symptom-free and back to work.

The university claims that this operation is the first of its kind.

Read the full story from Wired here.

All images courtesy of UMC Utrecht.

New Discovery: The Black Death Was Not Spread By Rats, Must Have Been Airborne

In the autumn of 1348, The Black Death came to Britain from east Asia. By the next spring, it had killed 6 out of every 10 people in London.

It has long been thought that the plague spread via flea-infested rats, but a new discovery has prompted scientists to revise this theory.

Amidst pre-construction excavations for a train line in Charterhouse Square (to the north of the City of London) about a year ago, workers discovered 25 skeletons which were found to have been from the time of the plague.

Scientists were able to extract samples of the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, from the teeth of the skeletons, and compared it to a strain of the plague which recently killed about 60 people in Madagascar.

One of the skulls used to extract Black Death DNA (Photo: Philip Toscano/PA)

They expected that the strain from the 14th century would be far more virulent, because of how devastating it was when it hit London, but found instead that it was no more virulent than the strain from Madagascar (their DNA code was almost a perfect match).

The researchers realized that the only way the plague could have spread as fast as it did was for the disease to have been airborne, getting into the lungs and then being spread by coughs and sneezes.

Here’s Dr. Tim Brooks, who’s been leading the research:

“As an explanation [rat fleas] for the Black Death in its own right, it simply isn’t good enough. It cannot spread fast enough from one household to the next to cause the huge number of cases that we saw during the Black Death epidemics.”

Read the full story from The Guardian here.