Monthly Archives: March 2014

Suspended animation bringing patients back from the brink of death!

Frozen TimeGunshot and knife wound victims placed in suspended animation during surgery? It sounds like science fiction! Suspended animation involves replacing a patient’s blood volume with cold saline in order to induce hypothermia. Doctors at the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA will soon test this on patients with lethal injuries. This should give them more time to repair these injuries and increase chances of survival.

And if you’re thinking that this is crazy, you’re probably not alone. I read the first couple of paragraphs of this article and immediately re-checked the source to make sure I hadn’t accidentally clicked on an article from The Onion. But I hadn’t. Even though it’s true that a person can face irreparable brain damage after about 5 minutes without oxygen, cells can survive without oxygen when the body is cooled because chemical and metabolic reactions are suspended.

The technique of suspended animation has been tested successfully in pigs. Amazingly, these animals were able to be revived with no ill-lasting physical or cognitive effects! Now, the procedure will be tried on patients with no alternative treatments, likely someone with traumatic injuries who has already suffered cardiac arrest and lost most of their blood volume with little chance of survival.

Stay tuned for new developments on this trial! The advances we’ve made in medicine are amazing, and I hope that soon, there will be some very grateful patients in Pennsylvania!

The deadliest frog in the world

kermit pixabayAnd the deadliest frog in the world is….

NOT Kermit the Frog. Sorry. Although the idea of a nasty, Russian frog impersonating Kermit is pretty devious, neither Kermit nor the frog masquerading as him in the new Muppets movie hold a candle to the poison dart frog.

golden poison frog pixabayThe golden poison dart frog has enough poison to kill 10 people. It’s believed that their toxicity is related to their diet, as they consume insects that feed on poisonous tropical plants. The frogs absorb this poison and they’re able to secrete it out of glands on their backs when they feel threatened.

I’m definitely a frog lover, so this is fascinating to me! But even if you’re not a fan of these small amphibians, they may affect you more than you realize. By studying the venom of poison dart frogs, researchers are working to develop a synthetic compound intended for pain relief. This non-addictive, non-opioid drug is 200x stronger than morphine. Interested yet?

Frogs, snails, snakes, spiders, centipedes, slugs, and worms may make some people shudder, but the amazing things these animals are teaching us could make a huge difference to you and your loved ones! Some of the deadliest animals in the world helping with some of the deadliest diseases in the world? Unlike Kermit, that’s nothing to laugh at!

Osteoporosis and the goo that might prevent it

woman radiography scanNew research helps explain the extraordinary strength of human bones, and the answers are in the form of goo! It turns out that your bones are made up of a mix of tiny crystal-like fragments and molecules of citrate. A citrate molecule bonds to calcium, creates a sticky fluid when mixed with water, and acts as a kind of shock absorber for the bone crystals.

And your bones depend on that gooey shock absorber every day! Regardless of your body weight, your bones certainly take on quite a strain every time you jump, twist, run, or even walk. Without citrate, the layers of calcium phosphate in your bones fuse into clumps, and the bone becomes brittle and more likely to shatter.

This new understanding of the role of citrate ‘goo’ as it relates to bone strength will hopefully help researchers understand some of the mechanisms of osteoporosis and brittle bone disease. Past studies in bone structure and strength and new research in treating brittle bone disease in children have relied on animal studies and clinical trials, and hopefully researchers can utilize all resources at their disposal to make the most of this new discovery!

Nanovaccines: Little particles with big possibilities

syringeMost vaccines are injectable or inhaled solutions- needing refrigeration- that contain killed viruses or fragments of viruses that the body’s immune system will recognize. But researchers are working on creating nanovaccines, which also contain killed viruses, but in really small synthetic particles (think 1/1,000,000th of a millimeter) instead of suspended in solution like traditional vaccines. These particles are designed to be thermally stable, so they can be stored at room temperature for 6-10 months and still be effective. The goal is to maximize these vaccines so they can be delivered via nasal spray in only one dose, eliminating follow-up boosters! Nanovaccines have been effective in rodents, and studies in larger animals are already underway.

This could make a huge difference to EVERYONE receiving vaccines by reducing inconveniences associated with refrigeration, maximizing efficiency of nasal delivery, and eliminating the need for follow-up boosters. In 2012, only about 1/3 of teenage girls in the United States actually received all three doses of the HPV vaccine. In 2011, only 9% of children worldwide received all three doses of the rotavirus vaccine. Vaccine compliance could be dramatically increased by eliminating the need for booster shots, and availability could be greatly improved by eliminating the need for refrigeration! Let’s hope that researchers can create effective nanovaccines that will work in humans!

Hearing loss linked to a clock!

iStock_000014889492SmallDon’t worry, your alarm clock probably isn’t causing hearing loss. Well, at least not during the day! Let me explain. You probably know that your sleep patterns, hormone levels, body temperature, and immune system are affected by circadian rhythms, which are controlled by biological clocks. Circadian rhythms have also been linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, metabolism, and depression- and new research shows a potential link to hearing loss.

Researchers at the Karolinsksa Institutet in Stockholm have discovered that there is a biological clock in the ear, controlled by genes that regulate circadian rhythms. Through research in mice, they found that higher noise levels during the night resulted in permanent hearing damage, but the same noise levels during the day didn’t affect their hearing.

There is a growth hormone (called BDNF) that protects auditory nerve cells. These levels fluctuate through the day, regulated by your ‘ear clock.’ BDNF levels were lower at night, so the mice were more prone to hearing damage. But by stimulating BDNF levels at night, researchers were able to protect hearing during noise exposure!

This is an important discovery. Many people work in professions that expose them to higher noise levels at night, and understanding the mechanisms behind protecting hearing could help researchers develop new treatments for hearing loss. Read more about it here:,c9540948

Exploding cancer cells? Yes, please!

iStock_000006862055SmallGlioblastoma is an aggressive type of brain tumor. Glioblastomas are difficult to treat, very aggressive, and survival rates aren’t very good. But researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm have found a potential silver bullet- a substance called Vacquinol-1 that makes glioblastoma cells explode and die!

So how does it work? This molecule alters the cancer cells so they can’t control the substances being carried into the cell from the outside. This results in a large number of vacuoles forming inside the cell, and eventually, the cell explodes.

To develop this treatment, researchers used cell cultures and exposed tumor cells to different molecules. Once they found molecules that killed the tumor cells, they did more research to narrow down potential candidates for a treatment. They identified a single molecule that they wanted to pursue, and through further studies in mice, they found that tumor growth was reversed and the mice survived for longer than those in control groups.

This could potentially work on other types of cancer cells, too, but until clinical trials proceed, researchers won’t know. The hope is to get this treatment into clinical trials quickly, because this is definitely a novel approach to attacking this type of tumor! Read more:


Lyme Disease vaccinations- but they’re not for you…

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERALyme Disease is a tick-borne illness that affects over 300,000 people in the United States alone each year. Infected blacklegged ticks can transmit the disease to humans. Lyme Disease is no joke; untreated infections can damage the heart, joints, and nervous system. And although many people think that deer are the main cause of the spread of the disease (blacklegged ticks are commonly called deer ticks), the most common carrier of Lyme Disease is the white-footed mouse.

Currently, there are no human vaccines for Lyme Disease. So researchers are trying to tackle the problem in a different way- by vaccinating mice! They developed an oral vaccine, mixed it into an oatmeal pellet, and baited plots of land with these pellets. The theory is that ticks feeding on vaccinated mice would ingest the antibodies made in the mouse’s body, thus killing any bacteria carried by the ticks, and preventing them from transmitting the disease to humans. And it works- researchers saw a 76% decrease in infected ticks on the treated plots of land.

Right now, scientists are working on USDA approval for the vaccine pellets. If approved, hopefully this will make a big difference in reducing the number of cases of Lyme Disease in humans- and as an added bonus, it won’t hurt the animals or the environment!

Alzheimer’s, worms, and paper airplanes

Jet Aeroplane Landing from Bright Twilight SkyAlzheimer’s Disease affects over 35 million people worldwide, and it’s expected that by 2050, over 115 million people will suffer from this disease. Understanding this disease is important- so what do worms and paper airplanes have to do with anything?

As you age, proteins in your brain build up and can prevent normal cell function. Neural damage due to protein build-up is seen in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease. But researchers have found a molecule that can enhance defense mechanisms against these toxic proteins. And recent studies have shown that it effectively clears these proteins out of worms (C. elegans) and extends their lifespan. 

It sounds far-fetched, but this little worm can actually give scientists a lot of valuable information. By using such simple organisms, researchers can understand more about the underlying mechanisms of dementia. It’s like making paper airplanes- the aerodynamic principles behind paper airplane flight are also relevant when it comes to the principles behind flying a Boeing 777. Think of these little worms as the paper airplanes, and the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient as the Boeing 777. Let’s hope that these worms give researchers the important information they need to help develop a successful therapy for Alzheimer’s!

Heart attack prevention by wearing a SLEEVE on your HEART?

iStock_000026449104SmallIt’s the ultimate pacemaker- a sleeve, fitted over the heart, that acts as an artificial pericardium and keeps the heart beating at a consistent rate.

Researchers used a 3D printer to create an exact replica of a rabbit’s heart, then built an elastic silicon membrane around the model. This circuit-lined membrane is able to sense abnormalities in heart rhythm, and it can apply electrical stimuli to the heart in a way that could prevent the heart from stopping. Awesome.

It’s possible that this technology could be used on human hearts in about a decade. Unlike current pacemakers, which aren’t specifically made for a particular person, this would be a custom piece of equipment- unique to each patient! It also has the capability to cover the entire surface of the heart, making it more effective than 2D devices. It has the capability to sense pH, temperature, mechanical strain, and electrical, thermal and optical stimulation. Watch the device in action and read more about it here.

Sea turtles… and manicures??

iStock_000007256605XSmallLoggerhead sea turtles are amazing navigators- they can swim up to 15 miles per hour, and incredibly, females will return to the very beach where they were hatched to lay their own eggs! This journey is still somewhat of a mystery, though- in the 10 years or so between the time the hatchlings leave the beach and later return as mature adults, we don’t really know what they do.

To get more information about these turtles’ “lost years,” researchers are using satellite tracking tags that were originally developed for birds. The problem? Figuring out a way to attach the tags to the turtles without hurting their shells or affecting their movement. But when the researchers working on this project recognized that turtle shells are similar to human fingernails in the way they shed layers of keratin, they looked for some outside collaboration- and that collaboration was with their manicurist!

With inspiration from fingernails, they used a base coat of acrylic lacquer before gluing the tags to the turtles’ shells. And it worked! The tags safely stayed in place for months, and researchers have already collected important data that is giving them information about these turtles’ behaviors and migrations. Read more!