Archive for the ‘medicine’ Category

Ebola outbreak reaches city of 1 million residents

December 14th, 2018
Ebola treatment center at the Hospital in Beni, North Kivu Province.

Enlarge / Ebola treatment center at the Hospital in Beni, North Kivu Province. (credit: MONUSCO/Alain Coulibaly)

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has spread to a city of nearly 1 million residents. There are now 30 confirmed cases and 15 deaths in the city of Butembo reported in the latest update provided by the World Health Organization (WHO). The number of cases in the city center is still low, according to Doctors Without Borders, but that number is rising quickly in more outlying districts and suburbs.

The outbreak, which has been going on since August, has so far resulted in 467 confirmed cases and a further 48 probable cases. More than half of the cases have resulted in death (including those of 17 health workers), while 177 patients have recovered, including a newborn baby.

Limited containment

The rate of transmission is beginning to slow down in Beni, a smaller city approximately 36 miles north of Butembo that has the highest number of reported cases so far. But “the outbreak is intensifying in Butembo and Katwa,” writes the WHO, “and new clusters are emerging elsewhere.”

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Posted in ebola, Health, medicine, science | Comments (0)

A look at the Apple Watch’s ECG, from someone who needs it

December 12th, 2018
A look at the Apple Watch’s ECG, from someone who needs it

When Apple introduced the fourth iteration of its smartwatch, the big new selling point wasn't a feature we typically associate with a watch or any sort of smart device. Instead, the company added a feature that had only recently arrived in the form of specialized consumer devices: an electrocardiograph (ECG), a device made for monitoring the heart's electrical activity.

But the watch was ready before the software was, meaning an examination of the technology wasn't possible in our comprehensive review of the Apple Watch Series 4. Last week, Apple finally enabled the missing features, and we've spent a few days checking them out.

Basic features

People who haven't used the Apple Watch may not realize just how much it's an extension of an iPhone. This includes the heart-monitoring software, which requires an update to both the Watch and iPhone OSes before it will work. (This caused a small bit of confusion when the software wouldn't launch after we upgraded only the watch's OS.) Once the update is done, the Health app on the iPhone will incorporate any ECG data generated using the watch. On the watch side, the update will install a new app.

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Posted in apple watch, arrhythmia, atrial fibrilation, ECG, heart, medicine, science, Tech | Comments (0)

Researchers grow a placenta in a petri dish

December 4th, 2018
Fetus in the womb, computer artwork.

Enlarge / Fetus in the womb, computer artwork. (credit: Science Photo Library - SCIEPRO)

The placenta supports the fetus while it is in utero (and, according to some, a placental can support a rosebush if it's buried under one after delivery).We know a placenta is essential for a successful pregnancy, but we don’t really know exactly how it works because we’ve had no experimental models we can use to study it. Until now.

Researchers in England examined all of the signaling molecules they could find rushing around between the mother and the placenta (which originates from fetal tissue), figuring they might induce the placenta to grow and develop. From this analysis they generated a blend of signaling molecules that they expected could induce placental formation in a culture dish.

They then obtained cells from first trimester placentas from women who had had normal pregnancies but decided to abort. These cells were grown in media that contained the factors identified by this team. Within a week, the cells were growing into organoids—small blobs of tissue similar to organs in mature organisms. The cells seem perfectly happy in this media; at the time this paper was written, they have been stable for a year.

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Posted in Biology, embryology, medicine, science | Comments (0)

The fight against measles has taken a turn for the worse

November 30th, 2018
A baby hospitalized with measles in the Philippines, in an outbreak following 2013's typhoon Haiyan.

Enlarge / A baby hospitalized with measles in the Philippines, in an outbreak following 2013's typhoon Haiyan. (credit: CDC Global)

In 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) set some ambitious goals for measles worldwide. By 2015, they wanted to reduce the number of deaths caused by measles by 95 percent compared to 2000. They set similarly ambitious targets for vaccination rates and measles infections.

The world has not reached these goals. And between 2016 and 2017, there was an alarming uptick in measles cases worldwide, according to a joint report by the WHO and CDC. “Complacency about the disease and the spread of falsehoods about the vaccine in Europe, a collapsing health system in Venezuela, and pockets of fragility and low immunization coverage in Africa are combining to bring about a global resurgence of measles after years of progress,” said Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, in a statement about the report.

Overall, between 2000 and 2017, there has been a lot of progress: annual global deaths have decreased 80 percent, from 545,174 to 109,638. Over this time period, measles vaccination has prevented approximately 21 million deaths globally, compared to a hypothetical world with no measles vaccines (in this world, the death rate would have been a lot higher in 2000, too). The number of cases reported annually plummeted from 145 cases per million people to just 25—although the goal was five cases per million. And 85 percent of people globally had received the first dose of the measles vaccine in 2017, compared to 72 percent in 2000.

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Posted in Health, medicine, science, vaccination | Comments (0)

Scientists, ethicists slam decisions behind gene-edited twins

November 30th, 2018
Chinese geneticist He Jiankui speaks during the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong days after the Chinese geneticist claimed to have altered the genes of the embryo of a pair of twin girls before birth, prompting outcry from scientists of the field.

Enlarge / Chinese geneticist He Jiankui speaks during the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong days after the Chinese geneticist claimed to have altered the genes of the embryo of a pair of twin girls before birth, prompting outcry from scientists of the field. (credit: S.C. Leung/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As more details regarding the first gene-edited humans are released, things continue to look worse. The researcher who claimed the advance, He Jiankui, has now given a public talk that includes many details on the changes made at the DNA level. The details make a couple of things clear: we don't know whether the editing will protect the two children from HIV infections, and we can't tell whether any areas of the genome have been damaged by the procedure.

All of that raises even further questions as to whether He followed ethical guidelines when performing the work and getting consent from the parents. And, more generally, nobody is sure why He chose to ignore a strong consensus that the procedure wasn't yet ready for use in humans. In response to the outcry, the Chinese government has shut down all further research by He, even as it was revealed that a third gene-edited baby may be on the way.

While the US already has rules in place that are intended to keep research like He's from happening, a legal scholar Ars spoke with suggested there may be a loophole that could allow something similar here. In light of that, it's important to understand the big picture He has potentially altered. What exactly happened in China and why does it concern so many in the scientific community?

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Posted in Biology, CRISPR, ethics, Features, gene editing, medicine, science, stem cells | Comments (0)

US life expectancy continues to move in reverse

November 29th, 2018
Cemetry in Craftsbur in Autumn Season, Common, Vermont, New England

Enlarge / Cemetry in Craftsbur in Autumn Season, Common, Vermont, New England (credit: Enn Li Photography | Getty Images)

In 1900, the average person in the US could expect to live just 47.3 years. Throughout the 20th century, that figure climbed rapidly, topping 70 years for the first time in 1961 and reaching 78.9 years in 2014, suggesting 80 was only a matter of time.

Then in 2015, there was a downturn—a small one, to 78.8 years. A single year might be a blip, but the reasons for the increase in death rate (including obesity and drug overdoses) suggested that might not be the case. Data released today by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics points to a continuing downward trend: life expectancy in 2017 was 78.6 years, down from 78.7 years in 2016.

That dip of 0.1 years, every year for the last three years, is not a huge trend when taken on its own. But it suggests that the decrease in 2015 was more than a blip—and it points to unfolding stories about health and death in the United States. Those small-seeming numbers also translate to meaningful real-world figures: there were 69,255 additional deaths in 2017 compared to 2016.

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Posted in Health, life expectancy, medicine, science | Comments (0)

Plot twist: Mitochondrial DNA can come from both parents

November 28th, 2018
Mitochondria (red) and cell nucleus (blue) of two connective tissue cells prepared from mouse embryo.

Enlarge / Mitochondria (red) and cell nucleus (blue) of two connective tissue cells prepared from mouse embryo. (credit: Institute of Molecular Medicine I, University of Düsseldorf)

The vast majority of our DNA—the chromosomes in the nucleus of each cell—is just what you’d expect: a mix of genetic material from both mother and father. But mitochondria are an exception. They contain a relatively tiny amount of DNA, and in nearly all mammals and even unicellular organisms, that DNA comes strictly from the mother. We've even used that fact to trace the spread of humanity around the globe.

But in 2002, researchers in Copenhagen reported a jaw-dropping finding. In an effort to work out why one of their patients had extreme fatigue during exercise despite seeming healthy in many respects, they started examining his mitochondria—the energy-generating power stations living in each cell. What they found floored them: the man had mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) that matched both his father's and his mother's.

Since 2002, no other cases of paternally inherited mtDNA have been reported in humans, despite several research groups actively looking. But a paper in this week’s PNAS reports mtDNA inherited from both parents in 17 different people from three families. This kind of inheritance is still extremely rare and seems potentially linked to mitochondrial disease, but the robust confirmation of it in humans is huge news for biology and medicine.

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Posted in Genetics, Health, medicine, science | Comments (0)

Six people swallowed LEGOs and pored through their own poo for science

November 24th, 2018
The horror: it took between 1.14 days to 3.04 days for the swallowed LEGO heads to reappear in subjects' excrement, for an average of 1.71 days.

Enlarge / The horror: it took between 1.14 days to 3.04 days for the swallowed LEGO heads to reappear in subjects' excrement, for an average of 1.71 days. (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Here's some good news for worried parents whose small children have ingested a LEGO (or two). A new study by pediatric researchers has concluded that the toy should re-emerge in their poo within a couple of days. They know this because their test subjects voluntarily swallowed LEGO figurine heads and monitored how long it took to retrieve them.

Yes, this is an actual scientific paper, published in the reputable Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health with the title, "Everything is Awesome: Don't Forget the LEGOs." It's by the same group of pediatricians behind the popular blog Don't Forget the Bubbles. "We've finally answered the burning question: how long does it take for an ingested LEGO head to pass?" DFTB co-founder and paper co-author Tessa Davis tweeted. "This is dedication to pediatrics. But it was worth it to advance science and pediatric emergency care."

We jest, but this really is addressing a valid concern. As Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, pointed out at Forbes, small children love to swallow things, particularly coins. There have been prior studies examining the passage of coins through the digestive tract, notably a 1971 paper that found most coins passed through harmlessly within three to six days.

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Posted in digestion, gastrointestinal distress, Legos, medicine, pediatrics, science | Comments (0)

Some promising news for kids with peanut allergies

November 23rd, 2018
Each half-peanut kernel contains around 150 mg of peanut protein.

Enlarge / Each half-peanut kernel contains around 150 mg of peanut protein. (credit: flickr user: Andrew Sweeney)

Peanut allergies are among the most fatal of food allergies. An accidental exposure to even a tiny quantity of peanut protein is capable of provoking severe reactions. For kids with these allergies, the killer might also be the cure—as long as it comes in even tinier doses. The results of a clinical trial, published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, show excellent results for a careful desensitization program. The treatment doesn’t cure the allergy, and comes with substantial risks, but it could help kids to live their lives without the fear of a peanut-flavored trigger in everything they eat.

The principle behind desensitization, or allergen immunotherapy (AIT), is to give the body exposure to the allergen in tiny and gradually increasing doses, teaching it to react less when it recognizes something it considers an invader. In 2015, the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology published a paper detailing the “international consensus” on the treatment, stating that while the technique is uncontroversial for hayfever, there wasn’t enough understanding of its uses in treating food allergy.

Research on AIT for peanut allergies has been trundling along, but hasn’t provided enough high-quality evidence for it to become an approved treatment. That’s why the publication of this phase 3 trial is big news: that’s the last stage that drug trials need to go through before the company can apply for the drug to be licensed by regulatory bodies like the FDA. However, that doesn't mean the science on this is done and everyone can go home—there are plenty more questions to be answered, and often more than one trial is needed before approval.

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Posted in allergy, life sciences, medicine, science | Comments (0)

Trash your romaine lettuce and don’t eat any in restaurants, says the CDC

November 21st, 2018
Romaine lettuce, looking innocuous.

Enlarge / Romaine lettuce, looking innocuous. (credit: Chimpr / Flickr)

Step away from the salad, advises the CDC. Specifically, you should stay away from romaine lettuce in every possible form: baby romaine, spring mix, whole heads, precut, the works. An outbreak of pathogenic E. coli across 11 states and Canada has been traced to romaine lettuce, an echo of a similar outbreak that happened at the same time last year.

The warning extends to lettuce in restaurants, shops, and your home, and the CDC recommends taking no risks: if you think you bought the lettuce before the current outbreak, trash it anyway. If you’re not sure it’s romaine, trash it anyway. If you had romaine in your fridge, they recommend washing down the entire fridge with warm, soapy water; and, if you're inclined to be extra cautious, a bit of diluted liquid bleach to follow.

Why the high level of alarm? The outbreak is caused by a particularly nasty strain of E. coli that can, in some cases, lead to a type of kidney failure; it’s not to be trifled with. So far, 32 people in the US got sick between October 8 and 31, of whom 13 have been hospitalized. In Canada, six people have been hospitalized out of a reported 18 cases. So far, no deaths have been reported. Because of how long it can take before the CDC gets wind of a case, the agency thinks it won’t yet know about cases happening since the first few weeks of November, so those numbers will probably change.

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Posted in food poisoning, Health, medicine, science | Comments (0)