Scientists at Yale just discovered an amazing new use for an arthritis drug called tofacitinib citrate that was recently approved by the FDA.
One of the patients who signed up for the trials of the drug suffered from a rare condition known as alopecia universalis, which causes rapid hair loss all over the body, leaving sufferers almost completely hairless.
Although the hair sometimes grows back spontaneously, it’s impossible to predict if or when this will happen, and there are no proven cures or treatments for the condition.
But that might be about to change. During the trials, the patient began to re-grow his hair. Not only did he grow a full head of hair, he also grew also eyebrows, eyelashes, and facial hair, as well as hair in his armpits and on other parts of his body.
The scientists at Yale had actually predicted this result. Here’s Brett King, assistant professor of dermatology at Yale’s medical school and lead author of a paper recently published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology about these new findings:
“The results are exactly what we hoped for… This is a huge step forward in the treatment of patients with this condition. While it’s one case, we anticipated the successful treatment of this man based on our current understanding of the disease and the drug. We believe the same results will be duplicated in other patients, and we plan to try.”
The drug has also been proven effective as a treatment for psoriasis. King is awaiting approval for a clinical trial to test the drug directly on people suffering from alopecia universalis.
Two years ago, researchers at Rice University began working on an innovative, unique way to treat particularly aggressive forms of cancer (like head, neck or brain cancer), which are often resistant to both drugs and chemotherapy.
To make the problem worse, cancerous tissue is often interlaced with healthy tissue, making it difficult to remove all of the cancer through surgery.
So a team of researchers, led by Biochemistry and Cell Biology professor Dmitri Lapotko, designed an ingenious 3-step treatment that will allow doctors and oncologists to treat these difficult cancers in a new way.
The process is known as quadrapeutics because of its use of four components: encapsulated drugs, colloidal gold nanoparticles, short laser pulses and X-rays. The success of the new procedure’s first preclinical trials was recently published in the journal Nature Medicine.
In the first step, a proven cancer drug is encapsulated and then tagged with an antibody that specifically targets cancer cells. Because of this antibody, the drugs will cluster around the cancer cells.
The second step involves colloidal gold nano-particles. A colloidal is basically a liquid or gel which allows the microscopic gold particles to travel smoothly through the bloodstream.
These nano-particles are also tagged with cancer targeting antibodies, so when a cancerous cell is found, the antibody on the colloidal will latch onto the cell and inject the envelope of gold nano-particles into it, as is illustrated below.
In the third step, infrared laser pulses are delivered to the tumor. This laser pulse causes the colloidal gel that encases the gold nano-particles to rapidly evaporate and expand into a tiny bubble known as a plasmonic nanobubble. This bubble then bursts, creating a mini explosion inside the cancer cell.
The explosion blows an opening in the cell wall, allowing the drugs that accumulated around the cell in the first step to rush inside of it.
The final step is to aim a very low dose of X-ray radiation at the tumor. The gold nano-particles, which are still in the cancer cells, amplify the effect of the radiation within the cells, allowing the treatment to deliver high doses of radiation to the cancerous cells while exposing healthy cells to only very low doses of radiation.
The combination of all of these methods and technologies led to,
“…a 100-fold amplification of the therapeutic strength of standard chemoradiation in experiments on cancer cell cultures,”
according to Lapotko. The method was so effective that the treatment only required between 2-6% of the typical clinical doses of drugs and X-rays.
The video below explains the process more and also has awesome footage of the treatment at work. The second video delves a bit deeper into the technology of nanobubbles and gold nano-particles which allows chemotherapy to be brought into the actual cancer cells.
You’ve probably seen it in sci-fi books or films before: some doctor or mad scientist will deep-freeze a patient only to bring them back to life later on. Well, suspended animation, as the process is called, is no longer a figment of the science fiction imagination.
This month at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 10 people will be put into suspended animation. But rather than using the process for intergalactic travel or some other futuristic application, the doctors will use it to try to save the lives of patients with wounds that would otherwise be lethal.
The real process is arguably crazier than the methods typically seen in science fiction. Rather than cooling the body externally (as is usually the case in science fiction), the doctors will actually drain all of the blood out of the patient, replacing it with a cold saline (saltwater) solution.
The solution cools the patient, slowing bodily functions to a halt and significantly reducing the body’s need for oxygen. Keeping the body in a state of suspended animation buys doctors and surgeons more time to repair the damage.
The technique was designed by Dr. Peter Rhee, who successfully tested it on pigs in 2000. Rhee and his colleagues induced fatal wounds to the pigs by cutting arteries, then replaced their blood with the saline solution, which cooled their body to 10º C (48º F).
All of the pigs in the control group (the ones that weren’t put into suspended animation) died, but the pigs who were put into suspended animation and then resuscitated at a moderate rate had a whopping 90% survival rate. Even more impressively, these pigs showed no signs of physical or mental impairment as a result of the process.
The procedure will be tested on patients who have gone into cardiac arrest and lost at least half of their blood as a result of a traumatic injury, a group with only a 7% survival rate. Though the body can only handle the suspended animation for a few hours, any increase in the survival rate of these patients will be a huge step forward for the medical field.
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.
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.
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.”
One of the reasons for this dangerous and hostile environment is that extremist groups like the Taliban spread superstitions that the vaccinators are,
“un-Islamic or Western purveyors of poison meant to sterilize Muslim women.”
One cleric from the Pakistani city of Punjab went so far as to say that the mission of the vaccinators was a Western conspiracy, and that jihad would be launched against polio vaccination teams.
Unfortunately, it seems like the CIA has been giving some legitimacy to these claims of conspiracy. Back in early 2011, when trying to local Osam Bin Laden, the agency tracked a courier to his compound in Abbottabad. They were unsure, however, if Bin Laden was actually there or not.
So, they hired a local doctor to lead a fake vaccination campaign, hoping to get inside the compound under the guise of vaccinating Bin Laden’s many children. The CIA hoped that during these fake vaccinations, the doctor could collect a DNA sample that they could match to Bin Laden’s to confirm he was there.
The doctor, Shakil Afridi, put up flyers all over the city advertising a vaccination drive that would offer free immunization for hepatitis B. He also bypassed health management officials and directly recruited low-level health workers, who, oblivious as to the Bin Laden connection, were eager to take the generous sum he offered.
Eventually, Afridi was able to get one of his nurses into the compound. According to the Guardian, he gave the nurse a handbag which contained some sort of electronic device and waited for her outside.
It is unclear what that device was or whether she planted it in the compound somewhere, but based off the information available, it seems that the operation was unsuccessful in collecting a DNA sample.
Despite this failure, U.S. special forces were still able to take out Bin Laden shortly thereafter on May 2, 2011. Afridi is currently serving 33 years in Pakistani prison for secretly aiding American intelligence agents.
On Monday, the CIA officially announced that they would no longer be carrying out any false vaccination operations. Lisa Monaco, Obama’s top advisor on homeland security and counterterrorism, wrote the following in a letter sent to the deans of 12 public health:
“I wanted to inform you that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) directed in August 2013 that the agency make no operational use of vaccination programs, which includes vaccination workers.
Similarly, the Agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs. This CIA policy applies worldwide and to U.S. and non-U.S. persons alike.”
Stacy Erholtz is a 50-year-old mother from Minnesota who spent years battling a rare form of blood cancer called myeloma which affects the bone marrow.
Stacy had virtually run out of options. She had undergone chemotherapy treatments as well as two stem cell transplants, but all of these procedures had proven ineffective.
The cancer got into her marrow and the tumors spread throughout her body. One tumor in her forehead was pushing on a bone in her skull- her children had nicknamed the tumor Evan.
So in a last-ditch effort, doctors at the Mayo Clinic tried a bold new experimental treatment: injecting Stacy with 100 billion units of the measles virus, enough to vaccinate 10 million people. Her doctors admitted they were entering the unknown.
Five minutes in, Stacy got an awful headache. Within two hours, she was shaking and vomiting. Her temperature got as high as 105ºF at one point.
After 36 hours, Stacy reported that the tumor on her forehead was shrinking. Over the next few weeks, the rest of her tumors shrank and disappeared as well. With just one measles-virus treatment, her cancer had gone into full remission.
The experimental treatment was tried on another patient, whose tumors were primarily in her leg muscles, but it was ineffective on her. Doctors and researchers are looking into how different types of tumors can influence the effectiveness of the treatment.
Everyone in the medical field is very optimistic though. Here’s Stephen Russell, lead researcher on the case:
“What this all tells us is something we never knew before – we never knew you could do this in people. It’s a very important landmark because now we know it can happen. It’s a game changer. And I think it will drive a development in the field.”
The next step is a large-scale clinical trial of the method, which will begin in September.
A group of experts from the British Drinking Water Inspectorate recently carried out a series of tests to see what chemical compounds were in British drinking water. Even after intensive purification treatments, the scientists found traces of cocaine.
Specifically, the scientists found benzoylecgonine, which is the form that the compound takes after being metabolized in the body. It’s the same compound that is looked for in urine when testing a person for cocaine use.
Steve Rolles of the drug policy think tank Transform believes that this finding is reflective of Britain’s rapidly growing drug use. In an interview with the British Sunday Times recently, he said,
“We have the near highest level of cocaine use in western Europe. It has also been getting cheaper and cheaper at the same time as its use has been going up.”
According to the charity DrugScope, England has 170,000 crack cocaine-dependent addicts, and an estimated 700,000 British citizens aged 16-59 use cocaine at least once every year.
But cocaine wasn’t the only thing found in the water. The inspectors also found traces of the common painkiller acetaminophen and the epilepsy drug carbamazepine. There were also significantly higher levels of caffeine in the water.
Public Health England recently published a report which assessed the health risks associated with these recent findings. Their report concluded that the levels of cocaine in the water after it was treated were 4 times lower than before treatment, and that the dosage (~4 nanograms/liter) was unlikely to pose a serious threat to public health. The report stated,
“Estimated exposures for most of the detected compounds are at least thousands of times below doses seen to produce adverse effects in animals and hundreds of thousands below human therapeutic doses.”
However, little research has been done into whether or not constant, regular exposure to these pharmaceuticals, even in small doses, can cause cumulative effects over time.
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.
The skin cell gun was created by Jörg C. Gerlach of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, along with colleagues at Stem Cell Systems GmbH in Berlin. It takes stem cells from healthy skin and puts then in a solution with water. This solution is then sprayed onto the burned area using the specialized cell gun.
Scientists have been able to grow sheets of skin from stem cells for decades. However, it takes weeks for this skin to grow, and the new skin is very fragile. The skin cell gun works in days, and the skin it grows is healthy and strong.
Check out this National Geographic video that talks more about the process and tells the story of one of the first people to receive the ground-breaking treatment:
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.
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.
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.”
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.