China

China, Unhampered by Rules, Races Ahead in Gene-Editing Trials (wsj.com) 144

U.S. scientists helped devise the Crispr biotechnology tool. First to test it in humans are Chinese doctors (Editor's note: the link may be paywalled; alternative link). WSJ reports: In a hospital west of Shanghai, Wu Shixiu since March has been trying to treat cancer patients using a promising new gene-editing tool. U.S. scientists helped devise the tool, known as Crispr-Cas9, which has captured global attention since a 2012 report said it can be used to edit DNA. Doctors haven't been allowed to use it in human trials in America. That isn't the case for Dr. Wu and others in China. In a quirk of the globalized technology arena, Dr. Wu can forge ahead with the tool because he faces few regulatory hurdles to testing it on humans. [...] There is little doubt China was first out of the block testing Crispr on humans. Nine trials in China are listed in a U.S. National Library of Medicine database. The Wall Street Journal found at least two other hospital trials, including one beginning in 2015 -- a year earlier than previously reported. Journal reporting found at least 86 Chinese patients have had their genes edited.
Medicine

New Antifungal Provides Hope in the Fight Against Superbugs (sciencedaily.com) 33

dryriver shares news about the ongoing war against drug-resistant fungus. ScienceDaily reports: Microscopic yeast have been wreaking havoc in hospitals around the world -- creeping into catheters, ventilator tubes, and IV lines -- and causing deadly invasive infection. C. auris is particularly problematic because it loves hospitals, has developed resistance to a wide range of antifungals, and once it infects a patient doctors have limited treatment options.

But in a recent Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy study, researchers confirmed a new drug compound kills drug-resistant C. auris, both in the laboratory and in a mouse model that mimics human infection. The drug works through a novel mechanism. Unlike other antifungals that poke holes in yeast cell membranes or inhibit sterol synthesis, the new drug blocks how necessary proteins attach to the yeast cell wall. This means C. auris yeast can't grow properly and have a harder time forming drug-resistant communities that are a stubborn source of hospital outbreaks... The drug is first in a new class of antifungals, which could help stave off drug resistance.

Medicine

A Cheap and Easy Blood Test Could Catch Cancer Early (technologyreview.com) 55

A simple-to-take test that tells if you have a tumor lurking, and even where it is in your body, is a lot closer to reality -- and may cost only $500. From a report: The new test, developed at Johns Hopkins University, looks for signs of eight common types of cancer. It requires only a blood sample and may prove inexpensive enough for doctors to give during a routine physical. "The idea is this test would make its way into the public and we could set up screening centers," says Nickolas Papadopoulos, one of the Johns Hopkins researchers behind the test. "That's why it has to be cheap and noninvasive." Although the test isn't commercially available yet, it will be used to screen 50,000 retirement-age women with no history of cancer as part of a $50 million, five-year study with the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, a spokesperson with the insurer said. The test, detailed today in the journal Science, could be a major advance for "liquid biopsy" technology, which aims to detect cancer in the blood before a person feels sick or notices a lump. That's useful because early-stage cancer that hasn't spread can often be cured.
Printer

You Could Soon Be Manufacturing Your Own Drugs -- Thanks To 3D Printing (sciencemag.org) 97

sciencehabit shares a report from Science Magazine: Forget those long lines at the pharmacy: Someday soon, you might be making your own medicines at home. That's because researchers have tailored a 3D printer to synthesize pharmaceuticals and other chemicals from simple, widely available starting compounds fed into a series of water bottle -- size reactors. The work, they say, could digitize chemistry, allowing users to synthesize almost any compound anywhere in the world.

In today's issue of Science, Leroy Cronin, a chemist at the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom, and his colleagues report printing a series of interconnected reaction vessels that carry out four different chemical reactions involving 12 separate steps, from filtering to evaporating different solutions. By adding different reagents and solvents at the right times and in a precise order, they were able to convert simple, widely available starting compounds into a muscle relaxant called baclofen. And by designing reactionware to carry out different chemical reactions with different reagents, they produced other medicines, including an anticonvulsant and a drug to fight ulcers and acid reflux. So why not just buy a reactionware kit and scrap the printing? "This approach will allow the on-demand production of chemicals and drugs that are in short supply, hard to make at big facilities, and allow customization to tailor them to the application," Cronin says.

Medicine

Why You Shouldn't Stifle Your Sneeze (theguardian.com) 179

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: In a season where colds are rife, holding your nose and closing your mouth might seem like a considerate alternative to an explosive "Achoo!" But doctors have warned of the dangers of such a move after a man was found to have ruptured the back of his throat when attempting to stifle a sneeze. Medics say the incident, which they detail in the British Medical Journal Case Reports, came to light when a 34-year old man arrived in A&E with a change to his voice, a swollen neck, pain when swallowing and a popping sensation in his neck after he pinched his nose to contain an expulsion. The team took scans of the man's neck to investigate and discovered bubbles of air in the tissues at the back of the throat, and in the neck from the base of the skull to halfway down the man's back. That, they say, suggested a tear had occurred at the back of the throat as a result of increased pressure from the stifled sneeze, leading to air collecting in his soft tissues. The authors warn that blocking the nostrils and mouth when sneezing is dangerous, noting that while tearing of the throat tissue is rare, it could result in a ruptured eardrum or even a brain aneurysm.
Medicine

FDA Approves First Drug Aimed at Women With Inherited Breast Cancer (statnews.com) 33

U.S. regulators have approved the first drug aimed at women with advanced breast cancer caused by an inherited flawed gene. From a report: The Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved AstraZeneca PLC's Lynparza for patients with inherited BRCA gene mutations who have undergone chemotherapy. The drug has been on the market since 2014 for ovarian cancer, and is the first in a new class of medicines called PARP inhibitors to be approved for breast cancer. PARP inhibitors prevent cancer cells from fixing problems in their DNA. Lynparza will cost $13,886 per month without insurance, according to AstraZeneca. The company is offering patients financial assistance.
Medicine

Scientists Change Our Understanding of How Anaesthesia Messes With the Brain (sciencealert.com) 92

schwit1 shares a report from ScienceAlert: It's crazy to think that we still don't quite understand the mechanism behind one of the most common medical interventions -- general anaesthetic. But researchers in Australia just got a step closer by discovering that one of the most commonly used anesthetic drugs doesn't just put us to sleep; it also disrupts communication between brain cells. The team investigated the drug propofol, a super-popular option for surgeries worldwide. A potent sedative, the drug is thought to put us to sleep through its effect on the GABA neurotransmitter system, the main regulator of our sleep-and-wake cycles in the brain. But anyone who's been "put under" will know that waking up from a general anesthetic feels rather different from your usual morning grogginess. On top of that, some people can experience serious side-effects, so scientists have been trying to figure out what else the drugs might be doing in the brain.

Using live neuron cell samples from rats and fruit flies, the researchers were able to track neurotransmitter activity thanks to a super-resolution microscope, and discovered that propofol messes with a key protein that nerve cells use to communicate with each other. This protein, called syntaxin1A, isn't just found in animal models - people have it, too. And it looks like the anesthetic drug puts the brakes on this protein, making otherwise normal brain cell connections sluggish, at least for a while. The researchers think this disruption could be key to how propofol allows for pain-free surgery to take place - first it knocks us out as a normal sleeping pill would, and then takes things up a notch by disrupting brain connectivity.
The research has been published in Cell Reports.
Medicine

Ibuprofen Linked To Male Infertility, Study Says (theguardian.com) 131

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: Men who take high doses of ibuprofen for months at a time may be at greater risk of fertility issues and also other health problems, such as muscle wastage, erectile dysfunction and fatigue, scientists have found. Research on healthy young men who took the common painkiller for up to six weeks showed that the drug disrupted the production of male sex hormones and led to a condition normally seen in older men and smokers. The 18 to 35-year-olds who took part in the study developed a disorder called "compensated hypogonadism" within two weeks of having 600mg of ibuprofen twice a day. The condition arises when the body has to boost levels of testosterone because normal production in the testes has fallen. Doctors in Copenhagen who led the study said that while the disorder was mild and temporary in the volunteers, they feared it could become permanent in long-term ibuprofen users. This would lead to continuously low levels of testosterone, because the body could no longer compensate for the fall. Details of the study are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Medicine

A Popular Sugar Additive May Have Fueled the Spread of Two Superbugs (latimes.com) 125

Zorro (Slashdot reader #15,797) quotes the Los Angeles Times: Two bacterial strains that have plagued hospitals around the country may have been at least partly fueled by a sugar additive in our food products, scientists say. Trehalose, a sugar that is added to a wide range of food products, could have allowed certain strains of Clostridium difficile to become far more virulent than they were before, a new study finds. The results, described in the journal Nature, highlight the unintended consequences of introducing otherwise harmless additives to the food supply.
Nearly half a million people were sickened by C. difficile in 2011, when it was directly linked to 15,000 deaths. "The misuse and overuse of antibiotics has long been thought to be responsible for the rise of many kinds of antibiotic-resistant 'superbug'," notes the article, before citing a researcher who now believes "the circumstantial and experimental evidence points to trehalose as an unexpected culprit."
Medicine

Price Tag On Gene Therapy For Rare Form of Blindness: $850K (apnews.com) 218

A first-of-its kind genetic treatment for blindness will cost $850,000, less than the $1 million price tag that had been expected, but still among the most expensive medicines in the world. Several readers have shared an Associated Press report: Spark Therapeutics said Wednesday it decided on the lower price for Luxturna (Lux-turn-a) after hearing concerns from health insurers about their ability to cover the injectable treatment. Consternation over skyrocketing drug prices, especially in the U.S., has led to intense scrutiny from patients, Congress, insurers and hospitals. "We wanted to balance the value and the affordability concerns with a responsible price that would ensure access to patients," said CEO Jeffrey Marrazzo, in an interview with The Associated Press. Luxturna is still significantly more expensive than nearly every other medicine on the global market, including two other gene therapies approved earlier last year in the U.S. Approved last month, Luxturna, is the nation's first gene therapy for an inherited disease. It can improve the vision of those with a rare form of blindness that is estimated to affect just a few thousand people in the U.S. Luxturna is an injection -- one for each eye -- that replaces a defective gene in the retina, tissue at the back of the eye that converts light into electric signals that produce vision. The therapy will cost $425,000 per injection.
Medicine

Scientists Get Closer To Replicating Human Sperm (engadget.com) 224

Rachel England reports via Engadget: Scientists have taken an important step forward in recreating the way the human body makes sperm, which could one day mean creating artificial sperm and eggs for infertility treatment. The researchers, from the University of Cambridge's Gurdon Institute, are thought to be the first team to have reached the "halfway point" -- a significant milestone -- on the path between stem cells and immature sperm. This pathway -- which the team are attempting to track and understand -- involves embryonic cells turning into immature sperm via a series of complex steps known as meiosis. Cells follow the same journey for around eight weeks, before taking different directions depending on whether they're to be sperm or eggs. Previously, the team had managed to track this pathway to the four-week mark. Now, using new technology in the form of miniature artificial testicles (called "gonadal organoids"), it's on track to pass this point and gain new, deep insight into the process of sperm creation. Further reading: The Guardian
Medicine

Some Hopeful Predictions for 2018 (nbcnews.com) 75

NBC asked 15 "top science and tech leaders" for their predictions for 2018. Despite arguments that technology has "created a monster," one anonymous reader sees their answers as a reason for hope: NBC notes the detection of gravitational waves in 2017 (predicted almost a century ago by Einstein) and the creation of genetically modified human embryos. And a professor of molecular medicine at The Scripps Research Institute points out that in 2018, more than 10 different medical conditions are now also moving forward in gene-editing clinical trials, including rare eye diseases, hemophilia, and sickle cell anemia. He predicts that in 2018, deep machine learning "will start to take hold in the clinic, first in ways to improve diagnostic accuracy and efficiency of doctors' workflow."

Former ICANN head Esther Dyson predicts we'll also begin using big data not only to reduce healthcare costs, but also social problems like unemployment, depression, and crime. "With big data, and more data available through everything from health records and fitness apps to public data such as high school graduation rates and population demographics, we are increasingly able to compare what happens with what would have happened without a particular intervention...with luck, some communities will lead by example, and policy-makers will take note."

The head of the atmospheric science program at the University of Georgia notes that already, "We now have technology in place to provide significant lead time for landfalling hurricanes, potentially tornadic storms, and multi-day flood events." And Dr. Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, predicts that in 2018 "it's possible that a replacement for Pluto will be found," while an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History adds that in 2018 the European Space Agency's Gaia Mission will determine "distances to over a billion stars and velocities for several million," creating "an exquisitely detailed 3D map of our home galaxy."

Medicine

America's Doctors Are Performing Expensive Procedures That Don't Work (vox.com) 233

"The proportion of medical procedures unsupported by evidence may be nearly half," writes a professor of public policy at Brown University. An anonymous reader quotes his article in Vox: The recent news that stents inserted in patients with heart disease to keep arteries open work no better than a placebo ought to be shocking. Each year, hundreds of thousands of American patients receive stents for the relief of chest pain, and the cost of the procedure ranges from $11,000 to $41,000 in US hospitals. But in fact, American doctors routinely prescribe medical treatments that are not based on sound science.

The stent controversy serves as a reminder that the United States struggles when it comes to winnowing evidence-based treatments from the ineffective chaff. As surgeon and health care researcher Atul Gawande observes, "Millions of people are receiving drugs that aren't helping them, operations that aren't going to make them better, and scans and tests that do nothing beneficial for them, and often cause harm"... Estimates vary about what fraction of the treatments provided to patients is supported by adequate evidence, but some reviews place the figure at under half.

Biotech

How Big Tech is Getting Involved in Your Health Care (bendbulletin.com) 50

Apple's financing a study to see whether irregular heart rhythms can be detected with an Apple Watch. But that's just the beginning, according to a New York Times article shared by Templer421: As consumers, medical centers and insurers increasingly embrace health-tracking apps, tech companies want a bigger share of the more than $3 trillion spent annually on health care in the United States, too... The companies are accelerating their efforts to remake health care by developing or collaborating on new tools for consumers, patients, doctors, insurers and medical researchers. And they are increasingly investing in health startups. In the first 11 months of this year, 10 of the largest tech companies in the United States were involved in health care equity deals worth $2.7 billion, up from just $277 million for all of 2012, according to data from CB Insights, a research firm that tracks venture capital and startups.

Each tech company is taking its own approach, betting that its core business strengths could ultimately improve people's health -- or at least make health care more efficient. Apple, for example, has focused on its consumer products, Microsoft on online storage and analytics services and Alphabet, Google's parent company, on data... Physicians and researchers caution that it is too soon to tell whether novel continuous-monitoring tools, like apps for watches and smartphones, will help reduce disease and prolong lives -- or just send more people to doctors for unnecessary tests. There's no shortage of hype," said Dr. Eric Topol, a digital medicine expert who directs the Scripps Translational Science Institute in San Diego. "We're in the early stages of learning these tools: Who do they help? Who do they not help? Who do they provide just angst, anxiety, false positives?"

The article notes Amazon's investment in cancer-detection startup Grail, Apple's investment in the Beddit sleep monitor, and Alphabet's acquistion of Senosis Health, "a developer of apps that use smartphone sensors to monitor certain health signals."

Alphabet also has a research unit developing tools to collect health data, and it's already financed "Project Baseline," in which 10,000 volunteers have agreed to testing of their blood, mental health, and DNA, as well as monitoring of their skin temperature, heart rate, and sleep patterns.
Science

Leaving the House Linked To Longevity in Older Adults (yahoo.com) 54

Researchers in Israel have found that leaving the house regularly can "contribute to a longer life" for elderly people. From a report: For study participants in their 70s, 80s and 90s, the frequency with which they left the house predicted how likely they were to make it to the next age milestone, researchers report in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. "The simple act of getting out of the house every day propels people into engagement with the world," said lead author Dr. Jeremy Jacobs of Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem in a phone interview. "We saw similar benefits that you'd expect from treating blood pressure or cholesterol with medicine," Jacobs said. "Social factors are important in the process of aging." Jacobs and colleagues analyzed data on 3,375 adults at ages 70, 78, 85 and 90 who were participating in the Jerusalem Longitudinal Study.
AI

Human Go Champion Backtracks On Vow To Never Face An AI Opponent Again (engadget.com) 31

Back in May, Google's AlphaGo AI defeated the human world champion Ke Jie in a three-part match. After it was over, Jie vowed never to play a computer again. But apparently something has changed his mind because Chinese news sources report that Jie will once again play an artificial intelligence at an AI tournament to be held in China in April 2018. Engadget reports: Ke Jie is one of the tournament's ambassadors, and he will play against the AI Tianrang. Normally, a human representative places pieces on behalf of the AI, but in this case, a robotic arm developed by Fuzhou University will fulfill that role. Tianrang previously ascended to the semi-finals of Japan's AI Go tournament, called AI Ryusei, earlier this month. Tencent's AI was the ultimate winner of that tournament. The complement of AI competitors for the Chinese tournament are Tianrang (Shanghai), DeepZenGo (Japan), CGI (Taipai) and more. Google DeepMind's AlphaGo has since retired from competition, so it will not be playing in the tournament.
Medicine

If Dogs Can Smell Cancer, Why Don't They Screen People? (scientificamerican.com) 106

An anonymous reader shares an excerpt from a Scientific American report: Dogs can be trained to be cancer-sniffing wizards, using their sensitive noses to detect cancerous fumes wafting from diseased cells. This sniffing is noninvasive and could help diagnose countless people, which begs the question: If these pups are so olfactorily astute, why aren't they screening people for cancer right now? Here's the short answer: Dogs do well in engaging situations, such as helping law enforcement track scents or guiding search-and-rescue teams in disaster areas. But sniffing thousands of samples in which only a handful may be cancerous is challenging work with little positive reinforcement. Moreover, it takes time and energy to train these pups, who, despite extensive preparation, still might miss a diagnosis if they're having a bad day, experts told Live Science.
Businesses

US Drugmaker Raises Price of Vitamins By More Than 800% (ft.com) 275

David Crow, reporting for the Financial Times: A US drugmaker is charging almost $300 for a bottle of prescription vitamins that can be bought online for less than $5, in the latest attempt at price gouging in the world's largest healthcare market. Avondale Pharmaceuticals raised the price of Niacor, a prescription-only version of niacin, by 809 per cent last month, taking a bottle of 100 tablets from $32.46 to $295 (Editor's note: the link may be paywalled; alternative source), according to figures seen by the Financial Times. Although niacin, a type of vitamin B3, is available in over-the-counter forms for less than $5 per 100 tablets, some doctors still prefer to use the version approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat high cholesterol. Avondale, a secretive Alabama-based company, put the price of Niacor up shortly after acquiring the rights to the medicine in a so-called "buy-and-raise" deal -- a strategy made famous by Martin Shkreli, the disgraced biotech entrepreneur.
Medicine

A Federal Ban On Making Lethal Viruses Is Lifted (nytimes.com) 156

schwit1 shares a report from The New York Times (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source): Federal officials on Tuesday ended a moratorium imposed three years ago on funding research that alters germs to make them more lethal. Such work can now proceed, said Dr. Francis S. Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, but only if a scientific panel decides that the benefits justify the risks. Some scientists are eager to pursue these studies because they may show, for example, how a bird flu could mutate to more easily infect humans, or could yield clues to making a better vaccine.

Critics say these researchers risk creating a monster germ that could escape the lab and seed a pandemic. Now, a government panel will require that researchers show that their studies in this area are scientifically sound and that they will be done in a high-security lab. The pathogen to be modified must pose a serious health threat, and the work must produce knowledge -- such as a vaccine -- that would benefit humans. Finally, there must be no safer way to do the research. "We see this as a rigorous policy," Dr. Collins said. "We want to be sure we're doing this right."
"Now where are those twelve monkeys?" adds schwit1.
Medicine

Contact Lens Startup Hubble Sold Lenses With a Fake Prescription From a Made-up Doctor (qz.com) 325

Alison Griswold, reporting for Quartz: The Hubble contacts sitting in front of me are everything the ads promised: two weeks' worth of soft, daily lenses in robin's-egg-blue packaging. They arrived promptly, one week after I placed an order on Hubble's website, and three days after the company notified me the contacts had shipped. The lenses were packed in cream-colored boxes and came with a five-step guide, illustrated in different shades of pastel. There's only one problem: I don't wear contacts, and I ordered these using a fake prescription from a made-up doctor. Hubble was founded in May 2016 as a direct-to-consumer contact lens brand -- the Warby Parker of contacts, if you will. The company aims to make buying contact lenses as cheap and easy as shopping on Amazon. It has fast become a star of New York's startup scene, raising more than $30 million from investors that include Founders Fund and Greycroft Partners. Its valuation tops $200 million. Since the service officially launched in November 2016, Hubble claims to have sold $20 million worth of lens subscriptions, and says it's growing 20% month over month. Hubble expanded to Canada in August and plans to be in the UK as early as January. Quick service, cheap contacts, and whimsical branding have made Hubble a speedy success. But in its rush to disrupt the consumer experience, Hubble also appears to be playing fast and loose with some basic consumer protections.

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