Year-End Health News: From Cancer Prevention to Anti-Aging

medical technology The year of 2013 ended with a bang for the field of health technology. And in my haste to cover as many stories as I could before the year ended, there were some rather interesting news developments which I unfortunately overlooked. But with the New Year just beginning, there is still plenty of time to look back and acknowledge these developments, which will no doubt lead to more in 2014.

The first comes from the UK, where the ongoing fight against cancer has entered a new phase. For years, researchers have been developing various breathalyzer devices to help detect cancer in its early phases. And now, a team from the University of Huddersfield plans to introduce one such cancer-detecting breathalyser (known as the RTube) into pharmacies.

lung-cancer-xrayAccording to Dr Rachel Airley, the lead researcher of the Huddersfield team, these molecules – which consist of genes, proteins, fragments of cells, secretions and chemicals produced by the metabolism of living tissue with the disease – form a kind of chemical and biological signature. Using breath testing devices like the RTube, Dr Airley developed a project to define a lung cancer “biomarker signature” that is detectable in breath.

According to Dr Airley:

When you get certain chemicals in someone’s breath, that can be a sign that there is early malignancy. We are looking to be able to distinguish between patients with early lung cancer and patients who have maybe got bronchitis, emphysema or non-malignant smoking related disease… or who have maybe just got a cough.

cancer_breathalyserThe goal of the project is to validate the signature in a large number of patients to ensure it can reliably distinguish between lung cancer and non-cancerous lung disease. Dr. Airley told us that this will require tracking the progress of patients for up to five years to see if the disease develops and can be linked back to a signature picked up in the patient’s breath at the beginning of the project.

So far, the project has secured £105,000 (US$170,000) in funding from the SG Court Pharmacy Group with the University of Huddersfield providing matching funding. The SG also operates the chain of pharmacies in the South East of England where the initial trials of the breathalyzer technology will be carried out.

The researchers predict that people visiting their local pharmacy for medication or advice to help them quite smoking will be invited to take a quick test, with the goal of catching the disease before the patients start to experience symptoms. Once symptoms present themselves, the disease is usually at an advanced stage and it is often too late for effective treatment.

cancer_cellDr Airley stresses that the trial is to test the feasibility of the pharmacy environment for such a test and to ensure the quality of the test samples obtained in this setting are good enough to pick up the signature:

There are 12,000 community pharmacies in Britain and there is a big move for them to get involved in primary diagnostics, because people visit their pharmacies not just when they are ill but when they are well. A pharmacy is a lot less scary than a doctor’s surgery.

Dr Airley also says her team is about to start collecting breath samples from healthy volunteers and patients with known disease as a reference point and hope to start the pharmacy trials within two years. If all goes well, she says it will be at least five years before the test is widely available.

max_plank_testThe next comes from Germany, where researchers have created a test that may help doctors predict one of the most severe side effects of antidepressants: treatment-emergent suicidal ideation (TESI). The condition is estimated to affect between four and 14 percent of patients, who typically present symptoms of TESI in the first weeks of treatment or following dosage adjustments.

So far doctors haven’t been able to find the indicators that could predict which patients are more likely to develop TESI, and finding the right medication and testing for side-effects is often a matter of simple trial and error. But a new test based on research carried out by the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany, could change all that.

genetic_circuitThe researchers carried out genome-wide association studies on 397 patients, aged 18 to 75, who were hospitalized for depression, but were not experiencing suicidal thoughts at the time they began treatment. During the study, a reported 8.1 percent of patients developed TESI, and 59 percent of those developed it within the first two weeks of treatment.

To arrive at a list of reliable predictors, the team genotyped the whole group and then compared patients who developed TESI with those who didn’t. Ultimately, they found a subset of 79 genetic variants associated with the risk group. They then conducted an independent analysis of a larger sample group of in-patients suffering from depression and found that 90 percent of the patients were shown to have these markers.

antidepressantsIn short, this test has found that the most dangerous side-effect of antidepressant use is genetic in nature, and can therefore be predicted ahead of time. In addition, the research shed new light on the age of those affected by TESI. Prior to discovering that all age groups in the study were at risk, the assumption had been that under-25s were more at risk, leading to the FDA to begin issuing warnings by 2005.

According to some experts, this warning has had the effect of reducing the prescription of antidepressants when treating depression. In other words, patients who needed treatment were unable to get it, out of fear that it might make things worse. This situation could now be reversed that doctors can avail themselves of this new assessment tool based on the research.

DNA-MicroarrayThe laboratory-developed test, featuring a DNA microarray (chip), is being launched immediately by US company Sundance Diagnostics, ahead of submission to the FDA for market clearance. As Sundance CEO Kim Bechthold said in a recent interview:

A DNA microarray is a small solid support, usually a membrane or glass slide, on which sequences of DNA are fixed in an orderly arrangement. It is used for rapid surveys of the presence of many genes simultaneously, as the sequences contained on a single microarray can number in the thousands.

Ultimately, according to Bechthold, the aim here is to assist physicians in significantly reducing the risk of suicide in antidepressant use, and also to provide patients and families with valuable personal information to use with their doctors in weighing the risks and benefits of the medications.

Wow! From detecting cancer to preventing suicides, the New Year is looking bright indeed! Stay tuned for good news from the field of future medicine!

Sources: gizmag.com, hud.ac.uk, (2), mpg.de

Ending Cancer: “Canary” and Microscopic Velcro

cancer_cellEnding terminal illness is one of the hallmarks of the 21st century, with advances being made all the time. In recent years, efforts have been particularly focused on findings treatments and cures for the two greatest plagues of the past 100 years – HIV and cancer. But whereas HIV is one of the most infectious diseases to ever be observed, cancer is by far the greater killer. In 2008 alone, approximately 12.7 million cancers were diagnosed (excluding non-invasive cancers) and 7.6 million people died of cancer worldwide.

Little wonder then why so much time and energy is dedicated to ending it; and in recent years, a number of these initiatives have begun to bear fruit. One such initiative comes from the Mayo Clinic, where researchers claim they have developed a new type of software that can help classify cancerous lung nodules noninvasively, thus saving lives and health care costs.

lung-cancer-treatmentIt’s called Computer-aided Nodule Assessment and Risk Yield, or Canary, and a pilot study of the software recently appeared in the April issue of the Journal of Thoracic Oncology. According to the article, Canary uses data from high-resolution CT images of a common type of cancerous nodule in the lung and then matches them, pixel for pixel, to one of nine unique radiological exemplars. In this way, the software is able to make detailed comparisons and then determine whether or not the scans indicate the presence of cancer.

In the pilot study, Canary was able to classify lesions as either aggressive or indolent with high sensitivity, as compared to microscopic analyses of the lesions after being surgically removed and analyzed by lung pathologists. More importantly, it was able to do so without the need for internal surgery to allow a doctor to make a visual examination. This not only ensures that a patient could receive and early (and accurate) diagnosis from a simple CT scan, but also saves a great deal of money by making surgery unnecessary.

velcroAs they say, early detection is key. But where preventative medicine fails, effective treatments need to be available. And that’s where a new invention, inspired by Velcro comes into play. Created by researchers at UCLA, the process is essentially a refined method of capturing and analyzing rogue cancer cells using a Velcro-like technology that works on the nanoscale. It’s called NanoVelcro, and it can detect, isolate, and analyze single cancer cells from a patient’s blood.

Researchers have long recognized that circulating tumor cells play an important role in spreading cancer to other parts of the body. When the cells can be analyzed and identified early, they can offer clues to how the disease may progress in an individual patient, and how to best tailor a personalized cancer treatment. The UCLA team developed the NanoVelcro chip (see above) to do just that, trap individual cancer cells for analysis so that early, non-invasive diagnosis can take place.

NanoVelcro-deviceThe treatment begins with a patient’s blood being pumped in through the NanoVelcro Chip, where tiny hairs protruding from the cancer cells stick to the nanofiber structures on the device’s surface. Then, the scientists selectively cut out the cancer cells using laser microdissection and subject the isolated and purified cancer cells to single cell sequencing. This last step reveals mutations in the genetic material of the cells and may help doctors personalize therapies to the patient’s unique form of cancer.

The UCLA researchers say this technology may function as a liquid biopsy. Instead of removing tissue samples through a needle inserted into a solid tumor, the cancer cells can be analyzed directly from the blood stream, making analysis quicker and easier. They claim this is especially important in cancers like prostate, where biopsies are extremely difficult because the disease often spreads to bone, where the availability of the tissue is low. In addition, the technology lets doctors look at free-floating cancer cells earlier than they’d have access to a biopsy site.

Already, the chip is being tested in prostate cancer, according to research published in the journal Advanced Materials in late March. The process is also being tested by Swiss researchers to remove heavy metals from water, using nanomaterials to cling to and remove impurities like mercury and heavy metals. So in addition to assisting in the war on cancer, this new technology showcases the possibilities of nantechnology and the progress being made in that field.

Sources: news.cnet.com, fastcoexist.com

The Future of Medicine: The Breathalyzer Cancer Test

cancer_cellAs any medical practitioners will tell you, when it comes to cancer, early detection is key. And interestingly enough, there are a number of ways to do this. In addition to visual identification (i.e. change in skin pigment), or feel (i.e. noticing lumps), there is also the means of olfactory detection. Apparently, on top of its many other noticeable effects, cancer emits a smell which can lead to early detection and treatment.

Over the years, a great deal of anecdotal and clinical research has shown that dogs are capable of sniffing out cancer in patients. Building on this knowledge, a group of scientists from Israel and China and working at Technion (the Israel Institute of Technology) have developed a stomach-cancer-sniffing device made out of nanomaterials that essentially works the same way as a breathalyzer.

Cancer patientsIn an initial screening test, the device was used on 130 patients and was over 90% accurate in detecting not only the existence of cancer, but determining what stage it was in. Compared to conventional methods, which involves inserting a flexible tube that is inserted through the patient’s nose and into their digestive system, this test is far less invasive and unpleasant.

endoscopy 2What’s more, this process – known as endoscopy – is quite expensive, making a comparatively cheap breathalyzer even more attractive to both doctor’s and patients. And of course, this test is generally used when the patient begins showing signs of being in an advanced stage of cancer development, and is therefore not part of an early detection regimen.

In an interview with the British Journal of Cancer, Professor Hossam Haick, lead researcher from the Technion, desribed the benefits of their new device:

The promising findings from this early study suggest that using a breath test to diagnose stomach cancers, as well as more benign complaints, could be a future alternative to endoscopies… Nevertheless, these results are at an early stage and support the concept of a breath test to detect stomach cancers but further validations are needed… But if found to be accurate enough, the nanomaterial breath test presents a new possibility for screening a population for stomach cancer, which would hopefully lead to earlier diagnosis of the disease.

cancer_breathalyserIn an interview with the Guardian, Kate Law, the director of clinical research at Cancer Research UK, said the test could lead to earlier detection of stomach cancer, which could save lives:

The results of this latest study are promising – although large-scale trials will now be needed to confirm these findings. Only one in five people are able to have surgery as part of their treatment as most stomach cancers are diagnosed at stages that are too advanced for surgery. Any test that could help diagnose stomach cancers earlier would make a difference to patients’ long-term survival.

Naturally, Professor Haick admitted that more testing is needed before this can become a regular practice, but both he and his staff are encouraged by their results thus far. What’s more, they clearly have the support of many doctors in the field who see this test as an effective and preferable means of diagnosing cancer over conventional methods.

So for intents and purposes, it would not be farfetched to imagine that during your a trip to see your doctor, he or she might tell you to insert a tube into your mouth and blow, just to make sure you stomach tissue was healthy, pink, and cancer free!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, guardian.co.uk