The Future of Medicine: Improved Malaria Vaccine

flu_vaccineOf the many advances made by medical science in the past century, vaccinations are arguably the greatest. With the ability to inoculate people against infection, diseases like yellow fever, measles, rubella, mumps, typhoid, tetanus, polio, tuberculosis, and even the common flu have become controllable – if not eliminated. Nevertheless, medical researchers agree that there are still some things that can be improved upon when it comes to vaccinations.

Beyond the controversies surrounding a supposed link between vaccinations and autism, there is the simple fact that the current method of inoculating people is rather invasive. Basically, it requires people to sit through the rather uncomfortable process of being stuck with a needle, oftentimes in an uncomfortable place (like the shoulder). Luckily, many researchers are working on a way to immunize people using gentler methods.

malaria_vaccineAt the University College Cork in Ireland, for example, scientists have just finished pre-clinical testing on an experimental malaria vaccine that is delivered through the skin. To deliver the vaccine into the body, the researchers used a skin patch with arrays of tiny silicon microneedles that painlessly create temporary pores. These pores provide an entry point for the vaccine to flow into the skin, as the patch dissolves and releases the drug.

To make the vaccine, the team used a live adenovirus similar to the virus that causes the common cold, but which they engineered to be safer and produce the same protein as the parasite that causes malaria. Adenoviruses are one of the most powerful vaccine platforms scientists have tested, and the one they used produced strong immunity responses to the malaria antigen with lower doses of the vaccine.

TB_microneedlesThe research showed that the administration of the vaccine with the microneedle patch solves a shortcoming related to this type of vaccine, which is inducing immunity to the viral vector – that is, to the vaccine itself. By overcoming this obstacle, the logistics and costs of vaccination could be simpler and cheaper as it would not require boosters to be made with different strains. Besides, with no needles or pain involved, there’s bigger potential to reach more people requiring inoculation.

This is similar to the array used by researchers at King’s College in London, who are also developing a patch for possible HIV vaccine delivery. Researchers at University of Washington used a similar method last year to deliver the tuberculosis vaccine. The method is an improvement on this type of vaccine delivery since it is painless and non-invasive. It’s use is also being researched in relation to other infections, including Ebola and HIV.

The details of the research appeared in the journal Nature. Lead researcher, Dr. Anne Moore, is set to negotiate with Silicon Valley investors and technology companies to commercialize the vaccine.

Sources: gizmag.com, (2), ucc.ie, nature.com

Ending Cancer: Cancer-Hunting Nanoparticles

cancer_hunting_nanoparticleWhen it comes to diseases and conditions that have long been thought to be incurable – i.e. cancer, diabetes, HIV – nanoparticles are making a big impact. In the case of HIV, solutions have been developed where gold nanoparticles can deliver bee venom or HIV medication to cells of the virus, while leaving healthy tissue alone. As for diabetes and cancer, the same concept has proven useful at both seeking out and delivering medication to the requisite cells.

However, a new breakthrough may be offering cancer patients something more in the coming years. In what appears to be a promising development, researchers at the University of California Davis (UC Davis) Cancer Center have created a multi-tasking nanoparticle shown to be effective both in the diagnosis of a tumor and attacking its cells – a flexibility that could lead to new treatment options for cancer patients.

gold_nanoparticlesOne of the big challenges in developing multitasking nanoparticles is that they are traditional designed with one purpose in mind. They are constructed using either inorganic or organic compounds, each with strengths of their own. Inorganic nanoparticles, such those made from gold, are effective in imaging and diagnostics. Organic nanoparticles, on the other hand, are biocompatible and provide a safe method of drug delivery.

The nanoparticles developed at UC Davis are made from a polymer composed of organic compounds porphyrin and cholic acid, which is produced by the liver. The researchers then added cysteine – an amino acid that prevents it from releasing its payload prematurely – to create a fluorescent carbon nanoparticle (CNP). The team then tested the new nanoparticle with a range of tasks, both in vitro and in vivo (aka. in a solution of cells and in living organisms).

cancer_killing_laserThey found the particle was effective in delivering cancer-fighting drugs such as doxorubicin (commonly used in chemotherapy). In addition, they found that while applying light (known as photodynamic therapy), the nanoparticles release reactive molecules called singlet oxygen that destroy tumor cells, while heating them with a laser (known as photothermal therapy) provided another way for the particles to destroy tumors.

One notable finding was that the release of a payload sped up as the nanoparticle was exposed to light. The researchers claim this ability to manipulate the rate at which the particles release chemotherapy drugs from inside the tumor could help to minimize toxicity. This is a big plus considering that all known cancer treatments – i.e. chemotherapy, medication, radiation – all come with side effects and have a high risk causing damage to the patient’s healthy tissue.

NanoparticlesIn relation to imaging and phototherapy, the nanoparticle remained in the body for extended periods and bonded with imaging agents. And because CNPs are drawn more to tumor tissue than normal tissue, it helps to improve contrast and light them up for MRI and PET scans. This effectively makes the UC Davis nanoparticle a triple threat as far as cancer treatments are concerned.

As Yuanpei Li, research faculty member from the UC Davis Cancer Center, explains it:

This is the first nanoparticle to perform so many different jobs. From delivering chemo, photodynamic and photothermal therapies to enhancing diagnostic imaging, it’s the complete package.

The team is now focusing on further pre-clinical studies, with a view to advancing to human trials if all goes to plan. And this is not the only breakthrough inolving cancer-fighting nanoparticles to be made in recent months. Back in April, scientists at MIT reported the creation a revolutionary building block technique that’s enabled them to load a nanoparticle with three drugs, and claim it could be expanded to allow one to carry hundreds more.

MIT_nanoparticleTypical nanoparticle designs don’t allow for scaling, since they call for building a nanoparticle first, then encapsulating the drug molecules within it or chemically attaching the molecules to it. Attempting to add more drugs makes assembling the final nanoparticle exponentially more difficult. To overcome these limitations, Jeremiah Johnson, an assistant professor of chemistry at MIT, created nanoparticle building blocks that already included the desired drug.

Called “brush first polymerization,” the approach allows the researchers to incorporate many drugs within a single nanoparticle and control the precise amounts of each. In addition to the drug, each tiny building block contains a linking unit enabling it to easily connect to other blocks, and a protective compound to ensure that the drug stays intact until it enters the cell.

MIT_nanoparticle1The approach not only allows different drug-containing blocks to be assembled into specific structures, but it also enables each drug to be released separately via different triggers. The team has tested its triple threat nanoparticles, containing drugs typically used to treat ovarian cancer – such as doxorubicin, cisplatin and camptothecin – against lab-grown ovarian cancer cells.

The results demonstrated the new nanoparticles’ ability to destroy cancer cells at a higher rate than those carrying fewer drugs. As Johnson explained it:

This is a new way to build the particles from the beginning. If I want a particle with five drugs, I just take the five building blocks I want and have those assemble into a particle. In principle, there’s no limitation on how many drugs you can add, and the ratio of drugs carried by the particles just depends on how they are mixed together in the beginning… We think it’s the first example of a nanoparticle that carries a precise ratio of three drugs and can release those drugs in response to three distinct triggering mechanisms.

In this case, the cisplatin is delivered the instant the particle enters the cell, as it reacts to the presence of an antioxidant found in the cells called glutathione. When the nanoparticle encounters a cellular enzyme called esterases it releases the second drug, camptothecin. Shining ultraviolet light triggers the release of the remaining doxorubicin, leaving behind only the biodegradable remnants of the nanoparticle.

nanoparticle_cancertreatmentThe researchers believe this approach can potentially be used to link hundreds of building blocks to create multidrug-carrying nanoparticles, and pave the way for entirely new types of cancer treatments, free from the damaging side effects that accompany traditional chemotherapy. The MIT team is currently working on making nanoparticles that can deliver four drugs, and are also engaged in tests that treat tumor cells in animals.

Until recently, the fight against cancer has been characterized by attrition. While treatments exist, they tend to be a balancing act – inflicting harm and poisoning the patient in small doses with the hope of killing the cancer and not the host. Smarter treatments that target the disease while sparing the patient from harm are just what is needed to turn the tide in this fight and bring cancer to an end.

Sources: gizmag.com, (2), nature.com, ucdmc.ucdavis.edu

The Future of Medicine: The HIV Prevention Pill

https://i0.wp.com/cdn3.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_image/image/35164636/Andrew_Cuomo_2013__2_.0_standard_640.0.jpgEarlier this month, New York State governor Andrew Cuomo did something very meaningful and unexpected. In an effort to drastically cut the rate of new infections in the state, he announced that he was backing the development of Truvada – the controversial HIV prevention pill. The pill was officially endorsed by the CDC in May, but this is the first time that a high-level elected official has recommended its use.

Currently, about 3,000 new HIV infections are reported in New York state each year. Cuomo wants to reduce that to 750 by 2020, and to do so, he has introduced a three-pronged strategy. Parts one and two focus on more HIV tests and getting more people with HIV to see physicians. But the third part, which includes making Truvada readily available, has the potential to cause a stir since some believe that an HIV-prevention pill promotes lower rates of condom use.

truvada_0Luckily, a recent scientific study conducted by the University of California at San Fransisco found no link between use of the drug and condom use. More importantly, the drug has a proven track record when it comes to preventing HIV. Recent reports state that it cuts infection rates by more than 90 percent, and people who take the drug every day are 99 percent protected from the onset of infection.

Furthermore, despite its $13,000-a-year price tag, the drug is covered by most insurers. So, its continued obscurity appears to have more to do with marketing than anything else. In truth, many people who are at risk for HIV still aren’t aware of the drug’s existence. And despite the CDC’s recent backing, its manufacturer, Gilead, has yet to market the drug for HIV prevention, even though it is currently used as part of treatment regimens.

http://cbsnewyork.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/479278263_10.jpg?w=620&h=349&crop=1This is why Cuomo’s announcement, which took place during Pride Weekend, was so important. By backing the drug formally, and encouraging physicians to get the word out, he is helping to promote awareness and curb HIV infection rates. Naturally, there are those who think Cuomo’s announcement is part of a ploy to get votes from members of the LGBTQ community.

Given the recent decline in condom use among teens of all sexual orientations, this is certainly good news. While a drug like this does nothing to prevent the acquisition of other STIs – such as gonorrhea or chlamydia – it is important to remember that these diseases are treatable and non-fatal. Ultimately, having an HIV prevention drug available will ensure that there is a preventive measure in place that people are more likely to use.

HIV-budding-ColorBeside the Truvada endorsement, the state is also set to start enforcing a 2010 law that requires doctors to regularly offer HIV testing to patients between the ages of 13 and 65. And the state recently repealed a law that asked doctors and nurses to obtain written consent from patients before performing HIV tests, because the requirement acted as a barrier to testing.

As a recent article in The New York Times points out, the most notable aspect of the state’s rejuvenated approach to combating HIV is the combined economics of the strategies involved. None of these methods should lead to increased spending because they don’t include new medical breakthroughs. Instead, the state will probably end up saving money since every prevented HIV case saves about $400,000 in medical costs.

https://i2.wp.com/media.sacbee.com/static/weblogs/photos/images/2011/jun11/gay_pride_ny_sm/gay_pride_ny_09.jpgAnd this is just one of many HIV preventions that has been proven safe, effective, and ready to market. Between bee-venom nanoparticle treatments, vaccines, and even topical creams that have been proven to eliminate the virus, the coming decades are likely to see a severe drop in the number of deaths associated with the disease. And by mid century, who knows? The disease that became the plague of the 20th century may finally be history!

Source: theverge.com, nytimes.com

Looking Forward: 10 Breakthroughs by 2025

BrightFutureWorld-changing scientific discoveries are emerging all the time; from drugs and vaccines that are making incurable diseases curable, to inventions that are making renewable energies cheaper and more efficient. But how will these develops truly shape the world of tomorrow? How will the combination of advancements being made in the fields of medical, digital and industrial technology come together to change things by 2025?

Well, according to the Thomson Reuters IP & Science unit – a leading intellectual property and collaboration platform – has made a list of the top 10 breakthroughs likely to change the world. To make these predictions, they  looked at two sorts of data – current scientific journal literature and patent applications. Counting citations and other measures of buzz, they identified 10 major fields of development, then made specific forecasts for each.

As Basil Moftah, president of the IP & Science business (which sells scientific database products) said:

A powerful outcome of studying scientific literature and patent data is that it gives you a window into the future–insight that isn’t always found in the public domain. We estimate that these will be in effect in another 11 years.

In short, they predict that people living in 2025 will have access to far more in the way of medical treatments and cures, food will be more plentiful (surprisingly enough), renewable energy sources and applications will be more available, the internet of things will become a reality, and quantum and medical science will be doing some very interesting thins.

1. Dementia Declines:
geneticsPrevailing opinion says dementia could be one of our most serious future health challenges, thanks in no small part to increased life expectancy. In fact, the World Health Organization expects the number of cases to triple by 2050. The Thomson Reuters report is far more optimistic though, claiming that a focus on the pathogenic chromosomes that cause neuro-degenerative disease will result in more timely diagnosis, and earlier, more effective treatment:

In 2025, the studies of genetic mutations causing dementia, coupled with improved detection and onset-prevention methods, will result in far fewer people suffering from this disease.

2. Solar Power Everywhere:
solarpowergeWith the conjunction of increased efficiencies, dropping prices and improved storage methods, solar power will be the world’s largest single source of energy by 2025. And while issues such as weather-dependence will not yet be fully resolved, the expansion in panel use and the incorporation of thin photovoltaic cells into just about every surface imaginable (from buildings to roadways to clothing) will means that solar will finally outstrip fossil fuels as coal as the predominant means of getting power.

As the authors of the report write:

Solar thermal and solar photovoltaic energy (from new dye-sensitized and thin-film materials) will heat buildings, water, and provide energy for devices in the home and office, as well as in retail buildings and manufacturing facilities.

3. Type 1 Diabetes Prevention:
diabetes_worldwideType 1 diabetes strikes at an early age and isn’t as prevalent as Type 2 diabetes, which comes on in middle age. But cases have been rising fast nonetheless, and explanations range from nutritional causes to contaminants and fungi. But the report gives hope that kids of the future won’t have to give themselves daily insulin shots, thanks to “genomic-editing-and-repairing” that it expects will fix the problem before it sets in. As it specifies:

The human genome engineering platform will pave the way for the modification of disease-causing genes in humans, leading to the prevention of type I diabetes, among other ailments.

4. No More Food Shortages:
GMO_seedsContrary to what many speculative reports and futurists anticipate, the report indicates that by the year 2025, there will be no more food shortages in the world. Thanks to a combination of lighting and genetically-modified crops, it will be possible to grow food quickly and easily in a plethora of different environments. As it says in the report:

In 2025, genetically modified crops will be grown rapidly and safely indoors, with round-the-clock light, using low energy LEDs that emit specific wavelengths to enhance growth by matching the crop to growth receptors added to the food’s DNA. Crops will also be bred to be disease resistant. And, they will be bred for high yield at specified wavelengths.

5. Simple Electric Flight:
Solar Impulse HB-SIA prototype airplane attends his first flight over PayerneThe explosion in the use of electric aircraft (be they solar-powered or hydrogen fueled) in the past few decades has led to predictions that by 2025, small electric aircraft will offset commercial flight using gas-powered, heavy jets. The report says advances in lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen storage will make electric transport a reality:

These aircraft will also utilize new materials that bring down the weight of the vehicle and have motors with superconducting technology. Micro-commercial aircraft will fly the skies for short-hop journeys.

6. The Internet of Things:
internet-of-things-2By 2025, the internet is likely to expand into every corner of life, with growing wifi networks connecting more people all across the world. At the same time, more and more in the way of devices and personal possessions are likely to become “smart” – meaning that they will can be accessed digitally and networked to other things. In short, the internet of things will become a reality. And the speed at which things move will vastly increase due to proposed solutions to the computing bottleneck.

Here’s how the report puts it:

Thanks to the prevalence of improved semiconductors, graphene-carbon nanotube capacitators, cell-free networks of service antenna, and 5G technology, wireless communications will dominate everything, everywhere.

7. No More Plastic Garbage:
110315-N-IC111-592Ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (aka. the Pacific Trash Vortex), the mass of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean that measures somewhere between 700,000 and 15,000,000 square kilometres (270,000 – 5,800,000 sq mi)? Well, according to the report, such things will become a thing of the past. By 2025, it claims, the “glucose economy” will lead to the predominance of packaging made from plant-derived cellulose (aka. bioplastics).

Because of this influx of biodegradable plastics, there will be no more permanent deposits of plastic garbage filling our oceans, landfills, and streets. As it says:

Toxic plastic-petroleum packaging that litters cities, fields, beaches, and oceans, and which isn’t biodegradable, will be nearing extinction in another decade. Thanks to advancements in the technology related to and use of these bio-nano materials, petroleum-based packaging products will be history.

8. More Precise Drugs:
drugsBy 2025, we’ll have sophisticated, personalized medicine, thanks to improved production methods, biomedical research, and the growth of up-to-the-minute health data being provided by wearable medical sensors and patches. The report also offers specific examples:

Drugs in development are becoming so targeted that they can bind to specific proteins and use antibodies to give precise mechanisms of action. Knowledge of specific gene mutations will be so much more advanced that scientists and physicians can treat those specific mutations. Examples of this include HER2 (breast cancer), BRAF V600 (melanoma), and ROS1 (lung cancer), among many others.

9. DNA Mapping Formalized:
DNA-1Recent explosions in genetic research – which include the Genome Project and ENCODE – are leading to a world where personal genetic information will become the norm. As a result, kids born in 2025 will be tested at the DNA level, and not just once or twice, but continually using nano-probes inserted in the body. The result will be a boon for anticipating genetic diseases, but could also raise various privacy-related issues. As it states:

In 2025, humans will have their DNA mapped at birth and checked annually to identify any changes that could point to the onset of autoimmune diseases.

10. Teleportation Tested:
quantum-entanglement1Last, but certainly not least, the report says research into teleportation will be underway. Between the confirmation of the Higgs Boson (and by extension, the Standard Model of particle physics), recent revelations about quantum entanglements and wormholes, and the discovery of the Amplituhedron, the field of teleportation is likely to produce some serious breakthroughs. No telling what these will be – be it the ability to teleport simple photons or something larger – but the fact that the research will be happening seems a foregone conclusion:

We are on the precipice of this field’s explosion; it is truly an emerging research front. Early indicators point to a rapid acceleration of research leading to the testing of quantum teleportation in 2025.

Summary:
Will all of these changes come to pass? Who knows? If history has taught us anything, it’s that predictions are often wrong and much in the way of exciting research doesn’t always make it to the market. And as always, various factors – such as politics, money, public resistance, private interests – have a way of complicating things. However, there is reason to believe that the aforementioned 10 things will become a viable reality. And Moftah believes we should be positive about the future:

[The predictions] are positive in nature because they are solutions researchers and scientists are working on to address challenges we face in the world today. There will always be obstacles and issues to overcome, but science and innovation give us hope for how we will address them.

I, for one, am happy and intrigued to see certain items making this list. The explosion in solar usage, bioplastics, and the elimination of food scarcity are all very encouraging. If there was one thing I was anticipating by 2025, it was increased drought and food shortages. But as the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”. And as someone who has had two grandmothers who lived into their nineties and have both suffered from the scourges of dementia, it is good to know that this disease will be on the wane for future generations.

It is also encouraging to know that there will be better treatments for diseases like cancer, HIV, and diabetes. While the idea of a world in which all diseases are preventable and/or treatable worries some (on a count of how it might stoke overpopulation), no one who has ever lived with this disease, or known someone who has, would think twice if presented with a cure. And hardship, hunger, a lack of education, resources and health services are some of the main reasons for population explosions.

And, let’s face it, its good to live in an age where the future looks bright for a change. After a good century of total war, totalitarianism, atomic diplomacy, terrorism, and oh so much existential angst and dystopian fiction, it’s nice to think that the coming age will turn out alright after all.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, ip-science.thomsonreuters.com

Biggest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2013

center_universe2The new year is literally right around the corner, folks. And I thought what better way to celebrate 2013 than by acknowledging its many scientific breakthroughs. And there were so many to be had – ranging in fields from bioresearch and medicine, space and extra-terrestrial exploration, computing and robotics, and biology and anthropology – that I couldn’t possibly do them all justice.

Luckily, I have found a lovely, condensed list which managed to capture what are arguably the biggest hits of the year. Many of these were ones I managed to write about as they were happening, and many were not. But that’s what’s good about retrospectives, they make us take account of things we missed and what we might like to catch up on. And of course, I threw in a few stories that weren’t included, but which I felt belonged.

So without further ado, here are the top 12 biggest breakthroughs of 2013:

1. Voyager 1 Leaves the Solar System:

For 36 years, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has travelling father and farther away from Earth, often at speeds approaching 18 km (11 miles) per second. At a pace like that, scientists knew Voyager would sooner or later breach the fringe of the heliosphere that surrounds and defines our solar neighborhood and enter the bosom of our Milky Way Galaxy. But when it would finally break that threshold was a question no one could answer. And after months of uncertainty, NASA finally announced in September that the space probe had done it. As Don Gurnett, lead author of the paper announcing Voyager’s departure put it: “Voyager 1 is the first human-made object to make it into interstellar space… we’re actually out there.”

voyager12. The Milky Way is Filled with Habitable Exoplanets:

After years of planet hunting, scientists were able to determine from all the data gathered by the Kepler space probe that there could be as many as 2 billion potentially habitable exoplanets in our galaxy. This is the equivalent of roughly 22% of the Milky Way Galaxy, with the nearest being just 12 light years away (Tau Ceti). The astronomers’ results, which were published in October of 2013, showed that roughly one in five sunlike stars harbor Earth-size planets orbiting in their habitable zones, much higher than previously thought.

exoplanets23. First Brain to Brain Interface:

In February of 2013, scientists announced that they had successfully established an electronic link between the brains of two rats. Even when the animals were separated by thousands of kms distance, signals from the mind of one could help the second solve basic puzzles in real time. By July, a connection was made between the minds of a human and a rat. And by August, two researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis were able to demonstrate that signals could be transmitted between two human brains, effectively making brain-to-brain interfacing (BBI), and not just brain computer interfacing (BCI) truly possible.

brain-to-brain-interfacing4. Long-Lost Continent Discovered:

In February of this year, geologists from the University of Oslo reported that a small precambrian continent known as Mauritia had been found. At one time, this continent resided between Madagascar and India, but was then pushed beneath the ocean by a multi-million-year breakup spurred by tectonic rifts and a yawning sea-floor. But now, volcanic activity has driven the remnants of the long-lost continent right through to the Earth’s surface.

Not only is this an incredibly rare find, the arrival of this continent to the surface has given geologists a chance to study lava sands and minerals which are millions and even billions of years old. In addition to the volcanic lava sands, the majority of which are around 9 million years old, the Oslo team also found deposits of zircon xenocryst that were anywhere from 660 million to 1.97 billion years old. Studies of these and the land mass will help us learn more about Earth’s deep past.

mauritia5. Cure for HIV Found!:

For decades, medical researchers and scientists have been looking to create a vaccine that could prevent one from being infected with HIV. But in 2013, they not developed several vaccines that demonstrated this ability, but went a step further and found several potential cures. The first bit of news came in March, when researchers at Caltech demonstrated using HIV antibodies and an approach known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP) that it was possible to block the virus.

Then came the SAV001 vaccine from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ontario, which aced clinical trials. This was punctuated by researchers at the University of Illinois’, who in May used the “Blue Waters” supercomputer to developed a new series of computer models to get at the heart of the virus.

HIV-budding-ColorBut even more impressive was the range of potential cures that were developed. The first came in March, where researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis that a solution of bee venom and nanoparticles was capable of killing off the virus, but leaving surrounding tissue unharmed. The second came in the same month, when doctors from Johns Hopkins University Medical School were able to cure a child of HIV thanks to the very early use of antiretroviral therapy (ART).

And in September, two major developments occurred. The first came from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where researchers showed that an antiviral foot cream called Ciclopirox was capable of eradicating infectious HIV when applied to cell cultures of the virus. The second came from the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), where researchers developed a vaccine that was also able to cure HIV in about 50% of test subjects. Taken together, these developments may signal the beginning of the end of the HIV pandemic.

hiv-aids-vaccine6. Newly Discovered Skulls Alter Thoughts on Human Evolution:

The discovery of an incredibly well-preserved skull from Dmanisi, Georgia has made anthropologists rethink human evolution. This 1.8 million-year old skull has basically suggested that our evolutionary tree may have fewer branches than previously thought. Compared with other skulls discovered nearby, it suggests that the earliest known members of the Homo genus (H. habilis, H.rudolfensis and H. erectus) may not have been distinct, coexisting species, but instead were part of a single, evolving lineage that eventually gave rise to modern humans.

humanEvolution7. Curiosity Confirms Signs of Life on Mars:

Over the past two years, the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers have provided a seemingly endless stream of scientific revelations. But in March of 2013, NASA scientists released perhaps the most compelling evidence to date that the Red Planet was once capable of harboring life. This consisted of drilling samples out of the sedimentary rock in a river bed in the area known as Yellowknife Bay.

Using its battery of onboard instruments, NASA scientists were able to detect some of the critical elements required for life – including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. The rover is currently on a trek to its primary scientific target – a three-mile-high peak at the center of Gale Crater named Mount Sharp – where it will attempt to further reinforce its findings.

mt_sharp_space8. Scientists Turn Brain Matter Invisible:

Since its inception as a science, neuroanatomy – the study of the brain’s functions and makeup – has been hampered by the fact that the brain is composed of “grey matter”. For one, microscopes cannot look beyond a millimeter into biological matter before images in the viewfinder get blurry. And the common technique of “sectioning” – where a brain is frozen in liquid nitrogen and then sliced into thin sheets for analysis – results in  tissue being deformed, connections being severed, and information being lost.

But a new technique, known as CLARITY, works by stripping away all of a tissue’s light-scattering lipids, while leaving all of its significant structures – i.e. neurons, synapses, proteins and DNA – intact and in place. Given that this solution will allow researchers to study samples of the brains without having to cut them up, it is already being hailed as one of the most important advances for neuroanatomy in decades.


9. Scientists Detect Neutrinos from Another Galaxy:

In April of this year, physicists working at the IceCube South Pole Observatory took part in an expedition which drilled a hole some 2.4 km (1.5 mile) hole deep into an Antarctic glacier. At the bottom of this hole, they managed to capture 28 neutrinos, a mysterious and extremely powerful subatomic particle that can pass straight through solid matter. But the real kicker was the fact that these particles likely originated from beyond our solar system – and possibly even our galaxy.

That was impressive in and off itself, but was made even more so when it was learned that these particular neutrinos are over a billion times more powerful than the ones originating from our sun. So whatever created them would have had to have been cataclysmicly powerful – such as a supernova explosion. This find, combined with the detection technique used to find them, has ushered in a new age of astronomy.

antarctic_expedition

10. Human Cloning Becomes a Reality:

Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned via somatic cell nuclear transfer, scientists have wondered if a similar technique could be used to produce human embryonic stem cells. And as of May, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University managed to do just that. This development is not only a step toward developing replacement tissue to treat diseases, but one that might also hasten the day when it will be possible to create cloned, human babies.

cloning

11. World’s First Lab Grown Meat:

In May of this year, after years of research and hundred of thousands of dollars invested, researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands created the world’s first in vitro burgers. The burgers were fashioned from stem cells taken from a cow’s neck which were placed in growth medium, grown into strips of muscle tissue, and then assembled into a burger. This development may prove to be a viable solution to world hunger, especially in the coming decades as the world’s population increases by several billion.

labmeat112. The Amplituhedron Discovered:

If 2012 will be remembered as the year that the Higgs Boson was finally discovered, 2013 will forever be remembered as the year of the Amplituhedron. After many decades of trying to reformulate quantum field theory to account for gravity, scientists at Harvard University discovered of a jewel-like geometric object that they believe will not only simplify quantum science, but forever alters our understanding of the universe.

This geometric shape, which is a representation of the coherent mathematical structure behind quantum field theory, has simplified scientists’ notions of the universe by postulating that space and time are not fundamental components of reality, but merely consequences of the”jewel’s” geometry. By removing locality and unitarity, this discovery may finally lead to an explanation as to how all the fundamental forces of the universe coexist.

amplutihedron_spanThese forces are weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity. For decades, scientists have been forced to treat them according to separate principles – using Quantum Field Theory to explain the first three, and General Relativity to explain gravity. But now, a Grand Unifying Theory or Theory of Everything may actually be possible.

13. Bioprinting Explodes:

The year of 2013 was also a boon year for bioprinting – namely, using the technology of additive manufacturing to create samples of living tissue. This began in earnest in February, where a team of researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland used a new printing technique to deposit live embryonic stem cells onto a surface in a specific pattern. Using this process, they were able to create entire cultures of tissue which could be morphed into specific types of tissue.

Later that month, researchers at Cornell University used a technique known as “high-fidelity tissue engineering” – which involved using artificial living cells deposited by a 3-D printer over shaped cow cartilage – to create a replacement human ear. This was followed some months later in April when a San Diego-based firm named Organova announced that they were able to create samples of liver cells using 3D printing technology.


And then in August, researchers at Huazhong University of Science and Technology were able to use the same technique create the world first, living kidneys. All of this is pointing the way towards a future where human body parts can be created simply by culturing cells from a donor’s DNA, and replacement organs can be synthetically created, revolutionizing medicine forever.

14. Bionic Machinery Expands:

If you’re a science buff, or someone who has had to go through life with a physical disability, 2013 was also a very big year for the field of bionic machinery. This consisted not only of machinery that could meld with the human body in order to perform fully-human tasks – thus restoring ambulatory ability to people dealing with disabling injuries or diseases – but also biomimetic machinery.

ArgusIIThe first took place in February, where researchers from the University of of Tübingen unveiled the world’s first high-resolution, user-configurable bionic eye. Known officially as the “Alpha IMS retinal prosthesis”, the device helps to restore vision by converted light into electrical signals your retina and then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. This was followed in August by the Argus II “retinal prosthetic system” being approved by the FDA, after 20 years of research, for distribution in the US.

Later that same month, the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland unveiled the world’s first sensory prosthetic hand. Whereas existing mind-controlled prosthetic devices used nerve signals from the user to control the movements of the limb, this new device sends electrostimulus to the user’s nerves to simulate the sensation of touch.

prosthetic_originalThen in April, the University of Georgia announced that it had created a brand of “smart skin” – a transparent, flexible film that uses 8000 touch-sensitive transistors – that is just as sensitive as the real thing. In July, researchers in Israel took this a step further, showing how a gold-polyester nanomaterial would be ideal as a material for artificial skin, since it experiences changes in conductivity as it is bent.

15. 400,000 Year-Old DNA Confuses Humanity’s Origin Story:

Another discovery made this year has forced anthropologist to rethink human evolution. This occurred in Spain early in December, where a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany recovered a 400,000 year-old thigh bone. Initially thought to be a forerunner of the Neanderthal branch of hominids, it was later learned that it belonged to the little-understood branch of hominins known as Denisovans.

Human-evoThe discordant findings are leading anthropologists to reconsider the last several hundred thousand years of human evolution. In short, it indicates that there may yet be many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. What’s more, there DNA may prove to be part of modern humans genetic makeup, as interbreeding is a possibility.

The End of HIV: Vaccine Aces Clinical Tests

HIV_virusThe news that Caltech was developing a potential vaccine for HIV was considered one the biggest stories of 2012. And now, less than a year later, researchers at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ontario have announced that the vaccine not only passed its first round of clinical testing, but even boosted the production of antibodies in patients it was tested on.

The SAV001 vaccine is one of only a handful of HIV vaccines in the world, and is based on a genetically-modified ‘dead’ version of the virus. U.S. clinical testing began in the in March 2012, looking at HIV-infected men and women between the ages of 18 and 50. Half the target group was administered a placebo, while the other group was given SAV001. The first phase of trials wrapped up last month, with researchers optimistic about the vaccine’s future.

HIV_vaccine_westernDr. Chil-Yong Kang, a professor of microbiology and immunology and the head of the Western research team, explained the process in a recent interview with the Ontario Business Report:

We infect the cells with a genetically modified HIV-1. The infected cells produce lots of virus, which we collect, purify and inactivate so that the vaccine won’t cause AIDS in recipients, but will trigger immune responses.

This is the reverse of what researchers at Caltech did, who relied on a technique known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP) to stimulate antibody formation in lab mice. Here too, the researchers received immensely positive results. After introducing up 100 times the amount of HIV virus that what would be required to cause infection,  the mice remained protected.

vaccineBy demonstrating that not one, but two different methods of preventing the spread of HIV are effective, we could be looking at turning point in the war on HIV/AIDS. The only question is, when will a vaccine be commercially available? According to Sumagen, the South Korean biotech firm sponsoring the creation vaccine, manufacturing, as well as the USFDA requirements and other bureaucratic hurdles remain to contend with.

But, if all goes well with future trials, it could be commercially available in as little as five years. As CEO Jung-Gee Cho said in a press release:

We are now prepared to take the next steps towards Phase II and Phase III clinical trials. We are opening the gate to pharmaceutical companies, government, and charity organization for collaboration to be one step closer to the first commercialized HIV vaccine.

Paired with a possible cure which relies on nanoparticles and bee venom, we could even be looking at the beginning of the end of the pandemic, one which has caused between 25 and 30 million deaths worldwide since its discovery in 1981.

And in the meantime, check out this interview of Dr. Chil-Yong Kang as he explains how he and his research team developed their HIV vaccine, courtesy of the CHIR Canadian HIV Trial Network:

Sources: huffingtonpost.ca, mri.gov.on.ca, aids.gov, unaids.org

 

The Future of Medicine: Smartphone Medicine!

iphone_specIt’s no secret that the exponential growth in smartphone use has been paralleled by a similar growth in what they can do. Everyday, new and interesting apps are developed which give people the ability to access new kinds of information, interface with other devices, and even perform a range of scans on themselves. It is this latter two aspect of development which is especially exciting, as it is opening the door to medical applications.

Yes, in addition to temporary tattoos and tiny medimachines that can be monitored from your smartphone or other mobile computing device, there is also a range of apps that allow you to test your eyesight and even conduct ultrasounds on yourself. But perhaps most impressive is the new Smartphone Spectrometer, an iPhone program which will allow users to diagnose their own illnesses.

iphone_spec2Consisting of an iPhone cradle, phone and app, this spectrometer costs just $200 and has the same level of diagnostic accuracy as a $50,000 machine, according to Brian Cunningham, a professor at the University of Illinois, who developed it with his students. Using the phone’s camera and a series of optical components in the cradle, the machine detects the light spectrum passing through a liquid sample.

This liquid can consist of urine or blood, any of the body’s natural fluids that are exhibit traces of harmful infection when they are picked up by the body. By comparing the sample’s spectrum to spectrums for target molecules, such as toxins or bacteria, it’s possible to work out how much is in the sample. In short, a quickie diagnosis for the cost of a fancy new phone.

Granted there are limitations at this point. For one, the device is nowhere near as efficient as its industrial counterpart. Whereas automated $50,000 version can process up to 100 samples at a time, the iPhone spectrometer can only do one at a time. But by the time Cunningham and his team plan on commercializing the design, they hope to increase that efficiency by a few magnitudes.

iphone_spec1On the plus side, the device is far more portable than any other known spectrometer. Whereas a lab is fixed in place and has to process thousands of samples at any given time, leading to waiting lists, this device can be used just about anywhere. In addition, there’s no loss of accuracy. As Cunningham explained:

We were using the same kits you can use to detect cancer markers, HIV infections, or certain toxins, putting the liquid into our cartridge and measuring it on the phone. We have compared the measurements from full pieces of equipment, and we get the same outcome.

Cunningham is currently filing a patent application and looking for investment. He also has a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop an Android version. And while he doesn’t think smartphone-based devices will replace standard spectrometry machines with long track records, and F.D.A approval, he does believe they could enable more testing.

publiclaboratoryThis is especially in countries where government-regulated testing is harder to come by, or where medical facilities are under-supplied or waiting lists are prohibitively long. With diseases like cancer and HIV, early detection can be the difference between life and death, which is a major advantage, according to Cunningham:

In the future, it’ll be possible for someone to monitor themselves without having to go to a hospital. For example, that might be monitoring their cardiac disease or cancer treatment. They could do a simple test at home every day, and all that information could be monitored by their physician without them having to go in.

But of course, the new iPhone is not alone. Many other variations are coming out, such as the PublicLaboratory Mobile Spectrometer, or Androids own version of the Spectral Workbench. And of course, this all calls to mind the miniature spectrometer that Jack Andraka, the 16-year old who invented a low-cost litmus test for pancreatic cancer and who won the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). That’s him in the middle of the picture below:

ISEF2012-Top-Three-WinnersIt’s the age of mobile medicine, my friends. Thanks to miniaturization, nanofabrication, wireless technology, mobile devices, and an almost daily rate of improvement in medical technology, we are entering into an age where early detection and cost-saving devices are making medicine more affordable and accessible.

In addition, all this progress is likely to add up to many lives being saved, especially in developing regions or low-income communities. It’s always encouraging when technological advances have the effect of narrowing the gap between the haves and the have nots, rather than widening it.

And of course, there’s a video of the smartphone spectrometer at work, courtesy of Cunningham’s research team and the University of Illinois:


Source:
fast.coexist.com