Good News Blog

Science & Technology

Tuesday, Sep. 4, 2007

Small study shows hope for Alzheimer’s therapy

However far off a cure may be for Alzheimer’s disease, Baxter International Inc.’s announcement last week that a small-scale study showed progress in improving memory function in elderly patients.

Just as momentum built in the 1990s in the fight against AIDS, researchers have identified several potential avenues to follow in the search to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.

There is neither a cure nor is there an approved treatment that will change the course of the disease; there are only some pills that slow the worsening of symptoms for about half of those who take them, experts say.

It is hoped the use of Baxter’s drug Gammagard and other drugs that work similarly to bolster immune systems would slow or even stop Alzheimer’s.

The 24-patient study represents a preliminary step forward, and a small one since hundreds of patients can be needed for some drugs to win approval. But researchers believe Baxter’s drug has an advantage in that it already is established as safe. It has been used for years to treat patients with immune disorders.

“This is really the beginning of a new era,” said Dr. David Bennett, professor of neurological sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

The idea behind the Baxter drug is the body’s own immune system potentially can clear the brain of a protein fragment known as beta-amyloid is deemed a key player in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease affects nearly 5 million Americans, and the number is rapidly rising.

Specific results of Baxter’s 24-patient trial were not released. They are expected to be published in medical journals, perhaps by the end of the year.

Friday, Aug. 31, 2007

A cancer ‘cure’ from frogs

A new study has it that a synthetic molecule derived from the egg cells of frogs, could be of potential benefit in treating brain tumours, the BBC reported on Sunday.

Amphinase is a version of a molecule isolated from the egg cells of the Northern Leopard frog (Rana pipiens).
UK and US scientists found it recognises the sugary coating found on a tumour cell, and latches on to it before invading and killing it. The Journal of Molecular Biology paper suggests the molecule could potentially treat many cancers.

However, the researchers, from the University of Bath and the Alfacell Corporation, believe it shows the greatest potential in treating brain tumours, for which complex surgery and chemotherapy are the only current treatments. Researcher Professor Ravi Acharya said: “This is a very exciting molecule. It is rather like Mother Nature’s very own magic bullet for recognising and destroying cancer cells. It is highly specific at hunting and destroying tumour cells, is easily synthesised in the laboratory and offers great hope as a therapeutic treatment of the future.”

Amphinase is a version of a ribonuclease enzyme, which is found in all organisms and plays a role in mopping up genetic material called RNA.

In mammals the enzyme is kept in close check, so that it does not cause damage. But because Amphinase comes from an amphibian, and not a mammal, it is able to evade the usual defences of cancer cells, and attack them. It will have no effect on other cells because it is only capable of recognising and binding to the sugar coating of tumour cells.

However, it is still in the early stages of development, and a treatment is not likely for several years.
Amphinase is the second anti-tumour ribonuclease to be isolated by Alfacell Corporation from Rana pipiens egg cells.

The other, ranpirnase, is in late-stage clinical trials as a treatment for unresectable malignant mesothelioma, a rare and fatal form of lung cancer. It is also being assessed as a treatment for non-small cell lung cancer and other solid tumours.

Emma Knight, science information manager at Cancer Research United Kingdom, said: “Cancer is such a complicated
disease that researchers need to explore all potential avenues. A similar drug to Amphinase is currently being tested against cancer in human clinical trials. But it’s far too early to comment on whether Amphinase could ever be helpful for people with cancer.”

Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2007

Miracle man walks again

He survived against all the odds; now Peng Shulin has astounded doctors by learning to walk again.

When his body was cut in two by a lorry in 1995, it was little short of a medical miracle that he lived.

It took a team of more than 20 doctors to save his life.

Skin was grafted from his head to seal his torso – but the legless Mr Peng was left only 78cm (2ft 6in) tall.

Bedridden for years, doctors in China had little hope that he would ever be able to live anything like a normal life again.

But recently, he began exercising his arms, building up the strength to carry out everyday chores such as washing his face and brushing his teeth.

Doctors at the China Rehabilitation Research Centre in Beijing found out about Mr Peng’s plight late last year and devised a plan to get him up walking again.

They came up with an ingenious way to allow him to walk on his own, creating a sophisticated egg cup-like casing to hold his body with two bionic legs attached to it.

He has been taking his first steps around the centre with the aid of his specially adapted legs and a resized walking frame.

Mr Peng, who has to learn how to walk again, is said to be delighted with the device.

Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007

Wine ‘could be used to cure a sore throat’

Wine could make a good antibacterial mouth wash to fight tooth decay and a sore throat, according to Italian researchers.

Both red and white wine may have previously unrecognised health benefits at the very start of their journey into the body, according to a study that confirms something that has been known since antiquity, when wine was used to treat wounds.

Prof Gabriella Gazzani and colleagues at the University of Pavia in Italy point out in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that previous studies suggested that moderate wine consumption has health benefits after reaching the stomach and digestion – in protecting against heart disease and cancer. But relatively little has been done to study its antibacterial activity, which was exploited in ancient times, and noone had studied whether wine could combat harmful oral bacteria.

The team showed that red and white wine were effective in inhibiting the growth of several strains of streptococci bacteria that are involved in tooth decay, and some cases of sore throat.

The compounds responsible for the antimicrobial activity were wine acids, notably succinic, malic, lactic, tartaric, citric, and acetic acids. “Overall, our findings seem to indicate that wine can act as an effective antimicrobial agent against the tested pathogenic oral streptococci and might be active in caries and upper respiratory tract pathologies prevention,” the study states.

“Red wine resulted to be more active as an antibacterial agent then white wine”, said Prof Gazzani, who is now investigating about the mechanisms by which wine can interfere with tooth decay and the possibility it offers advantages over standard mouthwashes.

Monday, Aug. 20, 2007

Mini Hummers Used in Hospital to Cure Children’s Nerve Before Surgery

Surgery can be nerve wracking especially for young kids.

A hospital on Oahu has found a way to cure their anxiety and it’s not a drug. It’s not a pill, it’s not an injection. It’s a mini hummer.

Patients got to test drive the battery operated cars for the first time Thursday. Staff transformed the pediatric floor into a race track for them.

From here on out, kids who are admitted to Kapiolani Medical Center can drive themselves to their hospital room top surgery or to recovery. The whole point of this is to fuel their spirits and put brakes on any stress they are suffering during their medical treatment.

“It makes me forget that I am doing one of the treatments and the chemo,” said Kassian Neal, a bone cancer patient.

Neal’s grandfather Phillip Neal said “You see all the childrens’ face light up, I know that other boy that rode with him, he did not like this hospital when he first came he looks real good now.”

This is all part of hummers program called Creative Kids. A spokesperson says, Hawaii is only the second state to join this program.

Pluegger Auto Group, a local hummer dealership donated the little hummers. The president of Pflueger Auto Group says they’re priceless.

Thursday, Aug. 16, 2007

Prosthetic limb breakthrough offers a leg up in Beverly

At 51, Steve Cornell now prefers golf to track. He’ll be competing in a national tournament in Chicago next weekend. He’ll have to fit the tournament in between his jobs as a warehouse manager and an assistant lacrosse coach.

However, his hectic schedule won’t likely be the biggest challenge he faces.

Rather it’s this: Cornell stands on one leg and presses down and forward hard. The leg of titanium, aluminum and graphite collapses and Cornell has to grab onto a padded examination table in the Cummings Center offices of Cornell Orthotics & Prosthetics to keep from tumbling onto his face.

And that’s the threat Cornell faces — every step of his life.

Teresa Arnold, 45, climbs a set of three steps in the Cornell (no relation to Steve) offices. She uses a cane. She takes each step, one at a time. Step. Pause. Step. She grasps the rail, as if half expecting her prosthetic leg to collapse — as Cornell’s leg had done — sending her crumpling down the stairs in a heap.

Arnold, too, faces the threat — every step of her life.

Then a technician from Otto Bock, a German maker of prosthetic limbs, pulls out a new leg that would eliminate that threat permanently for both Cornell and Arnold.

Unfortunately, the new leg costs about $20,000 more than the old one, anywhere from $33,000 to $45,000, depending on individual needs.

The cost creates a barrier between patient need and insurance coverage.

The smart leg, equipped with computer sensors in the thigh and ankle, heel and toe, senses the terrain and automatically adjusts the hydraulic knee, controlling the fluid entering the mechanical joint, so it’s impossible to overload and can’t collapse.

Cornell tried. And tried. And tried. Using the same technique he used on his purely mechanical leg. Every time he lunged for the table. Every time the leg held and the move was unnecessary.

Trusting the computerized leg was also an issue for Arnold. Walking the length of an exercise room, between two parallel bars, she tentatively stepped, leaning on her cane, half expecting the leg to fold or be as inflexible as her old, mechanical leg.

Arnold lost her natural leg to a vascular birth defect that stills causes swelling in her thigh and saps some of the strength she needs to engage the mechanical hydraulic knee.

Cornell, who lost his natural leg at 12 while trying to hop a freight train, has no such issue.

“I’m hoping the new leg will have an ease of flexibility and need less force,” said Arnold. “That would be helpful. It would be less exhausting to use.”

Arnold didn’t quite break into a trot when fitted with the new leg. She wanted to use the cane, but there were moments, two or three steps in a row as she paced up and down the room’s length, when she forgot and the computerized knee flexed and Arnold almost lost her limp.

“The more she would use it the more she would learn to trust it, the less energy she would expend,” said Keith D. Cornell, owner of Cornell Orthotics & Prosthetics, who fits and constructs prosthetics from his office/factory. “I was hoping she could put the cane down, but she would need more time to do that. She got a taste of it and saw it’s possible to walk much better.”

For Arnold, the leg met her basic hopes.

“It’s exciting to have a component that will stand up and not use up so much physical effort with every step I take,” she said.

For Keith Cornell it’s such glimpses that he hopes will capture the medical community’s attention and, just as importantly, insurance companies who would pay for the computerized leg.

The Otto Bock, C-leg, so named for the computer language that drives it, uses technology that’s about 5 years old.

Newer Bluetooth computer technology makes it easier to program the C-leg. A few years ago, Jeff Honma, a clinical specialist with Otto Bock, would have had to connect his laptop to the C-leg with multiple wires in order to program the leg’s computer chips to adjust for the user’s individual gait. Now he now simply taps on a wireless keyboard.

“It’s a lot less cumbersome and faster,” said Honma.

Still, the basic technology remains the same.

“It’s proven technology, but still not widely available to patients. It’s not experimental,” said Keith Cornell who can see a way to improve his patients’ lives, but often can’t get past the glass wall of insurance coverage.

“Companies hesitate to cover newer prostheses because of cost or because medical necessity,” said Keith Cornell. “Both arguments are weak. Our field is a very small field and it is behind where it should be for getting the high-quality medical studies to show the efficacy of these devices. We are making progress.”
Hence the demonstrations in his office.

Just last year, Massachusetts passed a law that required prostheses to be covered at the same rate as all other medical expenses. So the policy coverage is uniform. Prior to the law, insurance companies covered prostheses at a lower rate when compared to other medical needs.

Still, the insurance companies decide what is medically necessary, deciding whether the newer technology makes enough of an improvement in patients’ lives to deserve coverage.

“It’s important to increase awareness,” said Kevin Cornell. “To let people know that these wonderful devices are out there and there’s still a lack of understanding of how they work. The demonstration showcases this technology and shows it’s tried and true and works very well.”
Steve Cornell needs no further convincing.

After taking the C-leg for a trial run —almost literally — around the Cummings Center grounds, he returned with an ear-to-ear grin.

Normally, he walks looking down at the ground to make sure his leg strikes properly and avoids uneven ground, potholes and other obstacles the would cause the knee to buckle and pitch him to the ground.

“I feel like a little kid in a toy store,” said Steve Cornell. “Trusting the knee not to buckle and then just walking step to step is so different. I can keep my eyes forward now and see the world around me.”

And with his insurance company picking up 80 percent of the cost, Steve Cornell figures he can afford the new leg.

Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2007

Miniature robot that travels through the bloodstream

Reality can be stranger than the fiction of Fantastic Voyage. Scientists at the Technion University have developed a miniature robot that can move within the bloodstream.

The breakthrough was made in partnership with a researcher from the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel.

Researchers the world wide have been trying to develop miniature, remote-controlled robots for minimally invasive medical treatments within the body.

“For the first time a miniature robot has been planned and constructed, that has the unique ability to crawl within the human body’s veins and arteries,” said Dr. Nir Shvalb of the College of Judea and Samaria yesterday.

“The robot will be able to crawl against the bloodstream with a force typical of blood vessels within the body without any problem, which has not been possible before.”

Oded Salomon, researcher at the medical robotics lab in the Technion’s engineering faculty, added that the miniaturization achievement is unprecedented, as is the ability to control the robot’s activity for unlimited periods of time, for any medical procedure.

For comparison, the diameter of a similar robot which researchers at Kyoto University developed is one centimeter. The Israeli robot’s diameter is one millimeter.

The new robot consists of a hub from which tiny arms stretch out, allowing the robot to strongly grip the vessel walls. The operators can manipulate the robot to move in increments, and its special structure allows it to crawl within a variety of vessels with differing diameters.

Blood vessels differ from each other in diameter, making it extremely important for the robot to possess the ability to be able to adjust accordingly.

Friday, Aug. 10, 2007

Remote controlled robot helicopter to the rescue

A pioneering unmanned aircraft has been unveiled as the latest addition to a UK fire brigade’s resources.

The state-of-the-art unmanned flying craft is the first in the UK.

The new aerial technology has been named the Incident Support Imaging System, or ISIS. ISIS is a miniature remote-controlled helicopter fitted with video and stills cameras, which can hover above fire incidents and provide crews with live images.

It will be used to provide live video footage from above an incident scene, gathering vital information to aid the emergency response.

Deputy Chief Fire Officer Vij Randeniya said: “This is fantastic new technology that will provide real benefits when we are tackling a range of emergency situations.

“Being able to look down on the scene will allow us to get a full picture of the incident and the surrounding environment, which will aid incident commanders to make vital, potentially life-saving decisions.”

The four-rotor craft, which weighs just 900g (2lb), can take off and land vertically, and can be fitted with daylight or low-light digital camera.

Scientists harness power of dry air

Could it be a marvelous breakthrough, or just hot air? Chinese scientists claim to have discovered a new clean energy source – simply by using dry air.

The discovery could have positive implications for parts of northern and western China, which have dry climate conditions, according to scientists at Tsinghua University.

“The breakthrough makes it possible to use dry air, instead of electricity, to cool down the water and the indoor air, and be applied at least to power large-scale air-conditioning equipment in office buildings,” Jiang Yi, director of the university’s architecture science department, who leads the research project, told China Daily.

For decades the world’s scientists have been eyeing the potential of turning dry air into a useable energy.

The premise sounds simple enough: dry air absorbs moisture, and in doing so causes the air’s temperature to drop.

Jiang said he was confidant the energy could be widely applied, and that his team at Tsinghua were cooperating with a company in Xinjiang to produce air-powered air-conditioning equipment.

So far trials in some large buildings had been successful.

“Believe me, the air looks tranquil but it is imbalanced thermodynamically when it is dry,” said Jiang, who is also an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

The process does not produce electricity, but provides a means to allow less reliance on electricity.

The technology could be compared to a solar hot water heater, whereby water is continuously heated as long as there is sunlight.

Currently the air-powered air conditioners can keep room temperature between 25 and 28 C, and scientists are still working to expand the range.

Zhang Fulin, the director of the science and technology office under the Ministry of Construction, said the breakthrough could have great implications for emission reductions.

Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2007

Possible cure for HIV infection discovered

IN a breakthrough that could potentially lead to a cure for HIV infection, scientists have discovered a way to remove the virus from infected cells, a study released today said.

The scientists engineered an enzyme which attacks the DNA of the HIV virus and cuts it out of the infected cell, according to the study published in Science magazine.

The enzyme is still far from being ready to use as a treatment, the authors warned, but it offers a glimmer of hope for the more than 40 million people infected worldwide.

“A customised enzyme that effectively excises integrated HIV-1 from infected cells in vitro might one day help to eradicate (the) virus from AIDS patients,” Alan Engelman, of Harvard University’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, wrote in an article accompanying the study.

Current treatments focus on suppressing the HIV virus in order to delay the onset of AIDS and dramatically extend the life of infected patients.

What makes HIV so deadly, however, is its ability to insert itself into the body’s cells and force those cells to produce new infection.

“Consequently the virus becomes inextricably linked to the host, making it virtually impossible to ‘cure’ AIDS patients of their HIV-1 infection,” Mr Engelman explained.

That could change if the enzyme developed by a group of German scientists can be made safe to use on people.

That enzyme was able to eliminate the HIV virus from infected human cells in about three months in the laboratory.

The researchers engineered an enzyme called Tre which removes the virus from the genome of infected cells by recognising and then recombining the structure of the virus’s DNA.

This ability to recognise HIV’s DNA might one day help overcome one of the biggest obstacles to finding a cure: the ability of the HIV virus to avoid detection by reverting to a resting state within infected cells which then cease to produce the virus for months or even years.

“Numerous attempts have been made to activate these cells, with the hope that such strategies would sensitise the accompanying viruses to antiviral drugs, leading to virus eradication,” Mr Engelman wrote.

“Advances with such approaches in patients have been slow to materialise.”

New experiments must be designed to see if the Tre enzyme can be used to recognise these dormant infected cells, he wrote.

“Although favourable results would represent perhaps only a baby step toward eventual use in patients, the discovery of the Tre recombinase proves that enzymatic removal of integrated HIV-1 from human chromosomes is a current-day reality,” he said.

The researchers who developed the enzyme were optimistic about their ability to design additional enzymes which would target other parts of the virus’s DNA.

However they warned that there were significant barriers to overcome before the enzyme could be used to help cure patients.

“The most important, and likely most difficult, among these is that the enzyme would need efficient and safe means of delivery and would have to be able to function without adverse side effects,” wrote lead author Indrani Sarkar of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden.

“Nevertheless the results we present offer an early proof of principal for this type of approach, which we speculate might form a useful basis for the development of future HIV therapies,” Sarkar concluded.

Tuesday, Jul. 31, 2007

Drinking Coffee And Working Out May Help To Cure Skin Cancer

A team of researchers at Rutgers University, New Jersey have found a new cure to fighting skin cancer by the unique combination of exercise and caffeine.

The study, which has been conducted successfully on mice, suggests that the combination of coffee and exercise can increase destruction of precancerous cells that had been damaged by the sun’s ultraviolet-B radiation.

Scientists are now hoping that the new study would be successful on human beings but added that people should continue to use sunscreen.

The results, which appeared in Tuesday’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that exposing the mice to ultraviolet-B light causes some skin cells to become precancerous.

In a process called apoptosis, the cells with damaged DNA are programmed to self-destruct. However, not all the cells can do so thus they can become cancerous.

Though the scientists are still not very clear as to why the combination of caffeine and exercise can reduce cancer cell but they believe that mice drinking caffeine were more active, leading them to do more exercise.

Both caffeine and exercise helped eliminate damaged skin cells and the combination worked better together than individually.

However, researchers also added that there is a need for this concept of systemic caffeine to be addressed further.

Tuesday, Jul. 10, 2007

Million dollar miracle

It’s a day LaKisha Joseph and Alastair Thomas have ached for since the day their 16-month-old baby Alyssa was nearly taken from them.

“She was vomiting, and we took her to the emergency room and did all kinds of tests, and still nothing,” Joseph said from a conference room at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg Monday.

“Eventually, her heart just stopped, and that’s when things just went downhill.”

For the next 52 minutes, emergency crews immediately performed CPR on Alyssa’s lifeless body.

Finally, she came back.

Doctors realized Alyssa didn’t have time to wait to for a new heart. Instead, they decided to outfit Alyssa with an experimental device called the Berlin Heart.

The Berlin Heart is manufactured in Germany, and it’s designed to help people with failed hearts survive while they wait for donors.

“For youngsters who are waiting for a pediatric heart transplant, it’s a very difficult proposition. They may have to wait a while for those heart transplants, and there’s not a whole lot that we can do to help them make it through to the time [when] the donor heart becomes available,” said Ann Miller of All Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Jeff Jacobs, Alyssa’s surgeon, describes how the Berlin Heart works.

“It pumps the blood for the ventricle, and then it’s pumped back into the heart. So it goes out of the heart, gets pumped and then goes right back into heart.”

Since the Berlin Heart hasn’t been approved by the FDA, doctors at All Children’s had to put in an application with the hospital and the Food and Drug Administration to be able to implant it.

A day later, their request was granted.

“[The FDA] understood the reason you need it so badly, so they fast-tracked it, and we got approval within 24 hours,” said Alyssa’s pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Alfred Asante-Korang.

The next step was getting in contact with Berlin Heart’s maker in Germany. The device arrived in St. Petersburg four days later, complete with its own staff.

Gary Carnes, President and CEO of All Children’s Health System, said the Berlin Heart itself cost more than $100,000.

The whole process, including the transplant operation and Alyssa’s recovery, will run well over $1 million.

Alyssa had the Berlin Heart for 75 days, until February 12, when she received a heart transplant.

Monday, she was released from All Children’s Hospital. She now heads to Tampa General Hospital for rehab.

Alyssa’s doctors expect her to able to return home to Orlando in a few weeks.

Monday, Jul. 9, 2007

Miracle cure for Hepatitis

A WONDER cure for killer liver disease Hepatitis C was revealed yesterday — giving hope to millions of sufferers.

Scientists made the breakthrough by combining two drugs that keep the condition under control in its early stages.

The double therapy was tested on more than 1,000 patients — and 99 per cent were free of the disease after just SIX MONTHS.

Hepatitis C is transmitted through blood and destroys the liver. It affects 200,000 in Britain — many hit by infected blood transfusions in the Eighties.

Body Shop founder Anita Roddick this year revealed she had contracted the disease in 1971 via a transfusion after giving birth. Other sufferers catch it from contaminated tattooing and piercing equipment, or drug use.

Until now the only long-term treatment has been a liver transplant.

But the researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in America said their 1,000 patients were still free of the disease, even seven years after the tests started. Study leader Professor Mitchell Shiffman said the results meant the combined drugs could be called a “cure”.

He added: “It is rare in the treatment of life-threatening viral diseases that we can tell patients they may be cured.

“Today we are able to help some patients effectively put their disease behind them.”

His team will now expand the trials on a wider range of patients.

Electrodes in brain may be breakthrough to restore sight

Electrodes inserted in the brain may point the way to restoring sight lost to eye disease or trauma.

The research in monkeys is in very early stages but has shown some promise, Harvard Medical School researchers reported in a recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While researchers have worked on developing implants for the eye’s retina, John S. Pezaris and R. Clay Reid turned their attention to a portion of the thalamus that relays signals from the retina to the brain’s visual cortex.

They were able to get the brains of the monkeys to register a point of light by sending a signal down the electrodes – even though no actual light was visible, Pezaris said.

“We don’t know what it looked like because we can’t really ask them,” he said. “But there definitely was something.”

A single point of light may not sound like much, but Pezaris says the next step is to try to get eight points to register, which would allow the researchers to begin forming shapes such as vertical or horizontal lines.

“If that works we will try more and more and more,” he said. “At some point we hope to move into humans, and once we can do that, even on an experimental basis, the amount we will be able to learn will grow.”

That is a few years away, he said, but if all goes well it might lead to treatments for people who have lost their vision to accidents, cancer or diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration.

This technique hadn’t been tried because of the hard-to-reach location of the thalamus, but Pezaris said the advent of deep brain stimulation for treating Parkinson’s disease suggested that technique might be adapted.

Tuesday, Jul. 3, 2007

Miracle drug could treat bird, human flu

A new anti-viral drug to treat both bird and human flu, developed by United States-based BioCryst Pharmaceuticals, will be tested across Asia next month, the pharmacist involved in the trial in Hong Kong said on Monday.

In an earlier animal trial, the drug, peramivir, boosted the survival rates of mice and ferrets infected with the H5N1 bird flu virus. Some experts say it could be the next-line drug to fight all types of influenza, including H5N1.

The trial will involve people seeking treatment for seasonal influenza in Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia. Half of them will be given peramivir, and the other half a conventional, orally-administered flu drug.

Peramivir is a parenteral, or intravenous, anti-viral drug.

“They (BioCryst) will compare which (drug) is better, parenteral or oral, to see which one cures faster, which (type of administration) brings viral loads down faster,” said William Chui of the University of Hong Kong’s Clinical Trials Centre.

Roche Holding AG’s Tamiflu is considered the first line of defence against bird flu, although early treatment – within 48 hours of the first signs of symptoms – is pivotal.

A death rate of up to 60 percent has spurred the search for other drugs and vaccines to fight the H5N1 strain, which experts fear could cause a pandemic if it ever becomes easily transmittable among people.

“In a pandemic, having an oral treatment may not be enough because intravenous treatment is more efficacious,” said Chui.

“Having the drug injected means it goes straight to the bloodstream … so if you administer at the 48th hour, the body can still benefit, but an oral dose will take time to get into the blood. There will be a time lag,” Chui explained.

“You have to be fast if you want to curb viral replication. Once after 48 hours, the viral load will be very high, and it will be very tough (to get rid of them).”

The development of peramivir may be an answer to experts who want to have several antivirals to choose from in fighting all types of flu because the viruses mutate quickly.

“We have seen resistance against Tamiflu in Japan where doctors dispense the drug (to fight seasonal human flu) very freely. It is time to find new treatments,” Chui said.

Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline is an inhaled drug regarded as capable of treating both bird and human flu.

Breakthrough for toddler cancer treatment

Medical experts at Edinburgh University believe they may have made a breakthrough discovery in the quest to find a cure for a rare cancer which primarily affects children aged under three.

Wilms’ tumour affects the kidneys of toddlers and babies and previous research has led scientists to believe that the tumour starts growing at the foetal stage. The new developments by Edinburgh University’s researchers hope to be able to prevent the tumour forming.

Dr Jamie Davies explained that his team was looking at blocking a gene known as WT1 which is thought to trigger the disease.

“It may be possible to reactive this gene to stop the tumour developing further,” he said.

“Or maybe we could develop a drug that will perform the function of the gene, even when the gene has stopped working.”

The research was funded with a 140,000 grant from the Association for International Cancer Research, based in nearby St Andrews.

Dr Mark Matfield, the charity’s scientific consultant, told The Scotsman that he hoped the cash would “open up new avenues of research which may well lead on to new therapeutic developments”.

Thursday, Jun. 28, 2007

Malaria-infected mice cured by one dose of new drug

Johns Hopkins University researchers have cured malaria-infected mice with single shots of a new series of potent, long lasting synthetic drugs modeled on an ancient Chinese herbal folk remedy.

The team also has developed several other compounds which defeated the febrile disease in rodents after three oral doses.

These peroxide compounds, containing a crucial oxygen-oxygen unit, promise not only to be more effective than today’s best malaria remedies, but also potentially safer and more efficient, said research team leader Gary Posner, Scowe Professor of Chemistry in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins.

An article about the team’s work is slated to appear on the Web on April 17, 2007 in the ASAP section of The Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. (Go to this page.)

“We are disclosing, for the first time, the curative activity of a new generation of compounds that are long- lasting and therapeutic, even when used by themselves,” Posner said. “Older drugs in this family of peroxide antimalarials also are known to be fast-acting, but they are unfortunately short-lived and not curative when used by themselves.”

Though they say their results are very promising, the researchers caution that the new compounds must be thoroughly tested for safety and for how they are absorbed, distributed and metabolized in, and eliminated from, rodents’ bodies before human tests begin.

Malaria afflicts between 300 million and 500 million people a year, killing between 1.5 million and 3 million, mostly children and mostly in developing nations. The parasite that causes the disease is spread by female mosquitoes feeding on human blood. The most commonly fatal species of the malaria parasite now shows strong resistance to most current treatments, making the development of effective new drugs a worldwide priority.

Since 1992, Posner and his team, which includes collaborator Theresa Shapiro, professor and chair of clinical pharmacology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, have been tackling that challenge by designing a series of peroxide compounds, called trioxanes.

“As a class, these compounds have proven to be unusually valuable in several ways, from their brisk and potent antimalarial activity to their lack of resistance and cross-resistance with other antimalarial agents,” Shapiro said.

The Johns Hopkins trioxanes mimic artemisinin, the active agent in a Chinese herbal drug used to treat malaria and other fevers for thousands of years. Artemisinin comes from the Artemisia annua plant, an herb also known by a variety of names including sweet wormwood.

The oxygen-oxygen unit in the peroxides causes malaria parasites essentially to self-destruct. The parasites digest hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying pigment of red blood cells, and, in the process, release a substance called heme, a deep-red iron-containing blood pigment. When the heme encounters peroxides, a powerful chemical reaction occurs, releasing carbon-free radicals and oxidizing agents that eventually kill the parasites.

But the first generation of trioxane drugs also had a number of shortcomings, including a half-life of less than one hour. (A drug’s half-life is the amount of time it takes for half of it to be metabolized.) Posner and team believe that their new compounds address those disadvantages.

“Our semi-synthetic artemisinin-derived compounds successfully overcome the disadvantages of their first- generation predecessors,” he said. “Most important is their curative activity after a single, low dose, which is distinctly unusual. But based on our intentional design, they may also have a longer half-life in animals. We also designed them to be more lipophilic, meaning they have an enhanced ability to dissolve in fats and thus to arrive inside malaria-infected red blood cells.” In addition, the new compounds are far less likely to break down into toxic substances when they are metabolized in the test animals’ bodies, making them potentially safer than their predecessors.

Although inexpensive by Western standards, the widespread use of artemisinins in the developing world remains limited, in part by availability and the cost of separating the active ingredient from the Artemisia annua plant. Posner and his team contend that the potency and curative activity of their compounds provide “a substantially more efficient and economical use of the price-setting natural product.”

The team’s research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Johns Hopkins University Malaria Research Institute.

Monday, Jun. 18, 2007

Pupils lead the way with blogging

Pupils from a primary school in East Dunbartonshire are at the forefront of a new digital learning phenomenon.

Children in the pilot group at Woodhill Primary School in Bishopbriggs are using blogs to communicate with schools across the UK and Europe and making podcasts on a range of subjects, including French language.

Recordings of their voices can be heard on MP3 files, speaking French with accents which have astounded experts across all educational sectors.

The children can download the audio files at home and listen again to their work.

They also download worksheets at home and use these to write out answers as homework.

Their writing in French is confident and structured, and the pupils are easily able to explain their work to visiting adults.

This is a long way from the days of rote learning.

As members of the only school in Scotland currently involved in blogging for language learning, the pupils have become accustomed to demonstrating to visiting adults the ways that they use their blogs.

No wonder that the the staff and pupils at the school were nominated for two awards at a Learning and Teaching Scotland ceremony in Glasgow’s City Halls.

As winners of the International Schools award, Woodhill Primary School fulfilled selection criteria which demanded that they prepared their pupils for ‘international citizenship’.

Other innovative uses of blogging in the school are the ‘healthy passport’ blogs in which the children write about ideas for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Depute head teacher Aileen Spence explained that the project would not have been possible without the financial support of the British Council.

Permission from the local education authority has allowed the teachers to innovate in their use of electronic communication methods.

Ms Spence said that East Dunbartonshire Council have been responsive to her requests for solutions to problems such as the monitoring of posts to the blogs.

She praised the education authority’s flexible responses to the school’s demands for permissions and their help in creating solutions to the security problems posed by blogging for minors.

Ms Spence said: “We are trail-blazing and we come up with ideas to which the authority responds with permissions and solutions.”

She added: “We are finding new ways of working all the time. Video blogging would open up so many more doors and although there are currently many barriers to this, we will do it!”

The enabling of password-protection for blog entries has been one solution, as has the design of a system of moderation of posts.

Teaching and support staff have the ability to publish entries which have been written by pupils in the classroom or emailed from home computers.

The children create sound files using MP3 players, and staff upload the files onto the website.

This has created extra demands on staff time, but seeing the positive results for the children has been a motivation to all involved.

Dorothy Rae, one of three teachers of French at Woodhill Primary, said: “I have overheard pupils saying that they “cheated” before sitting class tests by going online and looking at the French vocabulary at home.

“The children look forward to the project time, they enjoy being out of the classroom environment.

She added: “It is extremely effective way of teaching and we are starting to introduce these methods into our normal language lessons.”

Both teachers and parents say they have seen a huge improvement in their vocabulary, confidence in speaking and their accents since they started the blogs in January.

The depute head teacher said that the children are a credit to the school: “We have people from the private sector singing the praises of their work.”

Links with several schools are being fostered, and staff exchanges are helping sort out technical problems which hinder some of the other schools in their communications.

Emails have been exchanged with classes in Trinidad and Tobago as well as in China, swapping experiences of life in the childrens’ home countries.

The ability to answer questions and communicate with teachers and pupils in France and in Coventry is a motivation for pupils to log on regularly.

They enjoy reading emails from their international friends in the ‘e-twinning’ link with a school in Nancy.

Primary seven pupils on a trip to Paris updated their blog from hotel rooms, adding pictures and sending electronic postcards to classmates at home.

Local secondary schools have been working with Woodhill Primary, learning from their innovation and preparing for an influx of pupils who are confident in communicating at a level well beyond their peer group.

Tuesday, Jun. 12, 2007

Israeli researcher wins prize for epilepsy breakthrough

For Prof. Alon Friedman research begins and ends at the bedside. The Ben-Gurion University (BGU) professor, who just won the prestigious 2007 Michael prize for epilepsy research from the Michael Foundation of Germany, first began exploring the field after a clinical observation that the only thing patients suffering from epilepsy after a trauma or an illness had in common was a breakdown in the brain-blood barrier.

“We went back to the lab and asked what does this breakdown mean to the brain?” says Friedman. Over the next 10 years, he and fellow researchers at the Faculty of Health Sciences at BGU, together with Professor Uwe Heinemann from the Charite Medical University in Berlin and Professor Daniela Kaufer from Berkeley University, worked on this question and today they believe they have found not just the answer, but also a potential cure that they might one day be able to take back to patient bedsides.

Traditionally it was thought that the way to treat brain diseases was through the nerve cells. Now doctors take a more holistic approach and look at the nerves and supporting cells of the brain as a complete functional unit. This approach is supported by the US medical research organization, the National Institute of Health. “Most brain diseases originate in blood vessels,” explains Friedman.

Friedman focused on the delicate blood-brain barrier, a barricade in the brain that separates the bloodstream from the neural connections of the brain. Through his work with patients, Friedman discovered that many patients who are at risk of developing epilepsy suffer leaks and tears in the blood-brain barrier. These leaks can be the result of a head trauma, a stroke, diabetes, or even in some cases epilepsy itself.

Friedman, who carries out his research at the Soroka University Medical Center and is today one of the leading figures in this field, found that when the blood-brain barrier was disrupted, albumin, the most common protein in the bloodstream, leaks through these tears in the barrier into the brain.

When the albumin comes into contact with specific brain cells it interacts harmfully with them. This leads to a chain of molecular events (changes in the levels of specific brain proteins) that cause abnormal cell activity. This abnormal activity often takes the form of an epileptic seizure, and later causes brain cell degeneration. Epilepsy can occur many years after the trauma, so a trauma in birth or early childhood might only trigger fits much later in life.

“This signal only normally happens once in the development of the brain, when the brain is still developing in uteri and in the first few months after birth,” Friedman tells ISRAEL21c. “We discovered that it happens again after a brain injury. The brain “feels” something terrible has happened and in some ways goes back into development mode. It seems as if the brain is trying to cure itself, but for an adult brain to go back into the same kind of development he experienced as an embryo is very dangerous. The disadvantages are much greater than the advantages.”

Over two and half million Americans are epileptics, and according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, in the US alone, more than five million people suffer from traumatic brain injury. Friedman estimates that of this figure, some 20 percent go on to develop epilepsy, while 20% also develop cognitive impairment.

While epilepsy has many causes, including kidney disease and genetic inheritance, for elderly people stroke is a common cause of epilepsy, while in younger patients, head trauma is a more likely cause.

By identifying the harmful interactions between serum albumin and brain cells that trigger epilepsy, Friedman believes that he can block the signal to prevent this disease from developing. “If we try to block this signal we prevent the changes from occurring,” he says.

So far, Friedman and his researchers have carried out animal tests and have proven that they can successfully prevent the development of epilepsy in most animals.

Friedman’s research in experimental animals has led him and Dr. Ilan Shelef, the head of the MR Unit in Soroka Medical Center to a series of observations in human patients confirming the importance of the blood-brain barrier in causing neurological disorders.

In the future Friedman hopes to follow up these observations with clinical tests. “At this stage we are looking to carry out more animal and clinical studies. We need to follow patients to see if our hypothesis is correct, then we have to find the right drugs to make this possible. It will take a few more years before a clinical treatment is ready,” he says.

Friedman believes the strength of his research lies in the fact that he works closely with patients. “This is unique,” he explains. “We go from the bedside of the patient, to the bench in the lab, and back to the bedside again. Most researchers work at university institutions and don’t spend much time with patients, we are lucky enough to work within Soroka Medical Center itself.

“In the past most medical research was clinical but since privatization and economization, research has moved out of the hospitals. Today’s hospital directors are under pressure to make a profit, they don’t have the money to care about research because in the short term it’s not profitable,” he adds.

Friedman first became interested in the working of the blood-brain barrier while he served his compulsory military service as a field doctor in the Israel Defense Force. During this time he noticed that severe stress in soldiers can also lead to leakages in the blood-brain barrier with accompanying problems. He continues to research this area.

“Over the years, thousands of different drugs have been developed for stroke and trauma patients, but most of them have failed, because the problem is that people have regarded the mechanisms of these diseases as the same,” explains Friedman.

“We have to get away from the idea that there is one disease and one problem,” he continues. “Not all stroke or trauma patients are the same. In 30 percent of these patients there are tears in the blood-brain barrier – our treatment would be aimed at them specifically. It doesn’t matter if the problem occurred because of trauma, infection, bacteria or stroke, if we have this problem of a tear, then we may have a way to prevent the brain damage.”

The Michael Prize is awarded biennially, and is specially designed to attract scientists under the age of 45.

New gene discovery raises hope for childhood blindness cure

An international research team has identified a gene that, when mutated, causes one of the most universal forms of inherited blindness in babies.

Scientists at the University of Leeds, working in alliance with experts from other centres around the world, discovered the gene, which is vital to photoreceptors in the eye, the cells that “see” light.

The finding, the thirteenth gene to be linked to Leber’s congenital amaurosis (LCA), comes at a time of hope for the people born with the disorder. Scientists at Moorfields Eye Hospital, London, recently announced the start of clinical trials for a gene therapy involving injecting genes into the eye of patients with LCA to bring back their sight. The finding of the new LCA gene, based on work funded by the Wellcome Trust and local charity Yorkshire Eye Research, appears in this month’s edition of the journal Nature Genetics.

The newly-discovered gene, LCA5, is involved in the manufacture of lebercilin, a crucial constituent of photoreceptors in the retina. Lebercilin is found in other tissues as part of the cilia, finger-like projections from the surface of cells capable of moving molecules around. However, mutations in the LCA5 gene only appear to cause defects in the retina.

“We already know of a dozen genes which, when mutated, cause LCA. This new gene is the thirteenth and adds a substantial new piece to a growing body of evidence that defects of the cilia are a major cause of inherited blindness. In that sense, we can consider this a ‘lucky thirteenth’ as we are building a much clearer picture of what causes the disorder,” says Professor Chris Inglehearn from the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine at St James’s Hospital, Leeds.

Professor Inglehearn believes that lebercilin may be involved in moving proteins from the inner to outer sections of photoreceptors in the retina. Protein transport is necessary within retinal photoreceptor cells as they are long, thin cells with a highly evolved structure on one end (the outer segment) which perceives light and sends signals to the brain, a function requiring a large amount of energy.

“LCA is usually a disease where protein function has been lost completely, but carriers of just one copy of the mutation, who will almost certainly have reduced protein levels, nevertheless function perfectly normally,” explains Professor Inglehearn. “This being the case, restoration of even a tenth of the missing protein may be enough to restore vision. So our findings, together with the recently announced clinical trials, hold great promise.”

Mutations in LCA5 are comparatively rare. As it is a recessive gene, a child would need to be carrying two copies of the gene to develop LCA, one from each parent. However, the disorder is more widespread within populations where marriage to first or second cousins is common, such as the Pakistani community.

“If a parent is found to carry a mutation in the LCA5 gene, the risk of blindness in their children and grandchildren is still virtually zero as long as the other parent does not carry it,” says Professor Inglehearn. “The odds of two parents both carrying the same or different mutations in the LCA5 gene is very low, but this increases where the parents are related.”

Professor Inglehearn hopes that the findings will be useful to enlighten and advise the families most at risk, principally within the Pakistani communities both in the UK and Northern Pakistan.

The findings have been welcomed by Bruce Noble from Yorkshire Eye Research, which part-funded the research.

“Obviously we have to be careful how we interpret these results, as finding the genes doesn’t automatically lead to a cure,” says Mr Noble. “Nevertheless, this new result tells us something very important about what the eye is doing normally and about a new and common way in which it can go wrong. Given some exciting recent developments on testing possible cures for inherited blindness, its becoming very important for everybody to know exactly which mutation they’ve got, because the treatments being tested are specific for different kinds of retinal degeneration. All in all its an exciting time for eye research and a very promising one for people with these conditions.

This new result is another important step in the right direction and Yorkshire Eye Research is very proud to have supported it.”

The research was also welcomed by Professor John Marshall, Chairman of the Medical Advisory Board at the British Retinitis Pigmentosa Society.

“This dramatic discovery provides further information enabling us to combat blindness within the Retinitis Pigmentosa group,” says Professor Marshall. “The more genes we discover the better we are placed to treat the diseases by methods such as that recently announced at Moorfields Eye Hospital – also supported by the BRPS.”

Friday, Jun. 8, 2007

Doctor performs breakthrough surgery in Australia

A team of surgeons led by an Indian has performed a ground-breaking corneal transplant in Australia that may help people with corneal blindness regain their sight faster and better.

Rasik Vajpayee, head of Corneal and Cataract Surgery and Professor of Ophthalmology at the Centre for Eye Research Australia and University of Melbourne, successfully sliced the tissue of a cornea into three parts, to replace diseased areas of three patients, including a five-year old.

In the new procedure which was performed last month, surgeons only made a small incision and removed and replaced the diseased layer of the cornea. Benefits of this procedure include fewer rejections, reduced chances of infection and just one month of healing.

All the surgical procedures were performed successfully on a single day, using the cornea of a 44-year-old who had died following a cardiac arrest, ethnic Indian magazine Indian Link reported.

“This technique allows effective optimisation of donor corneal tissue and complements well the current procedures of customised component corneal transplantation surgery involving selective replacement of only the diseased corneal layer with a corresponding layer of healthy donor corneal tissue. We have already started one such technique of suture-less corneal transplant surgery called DSAEK (Descemet stripping automated endothelial keratoplasty) technique at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital,” Vajpayee said.

If this medical technique becomes standard surgical procedure then it will mean that the wait for a donor’s cornea will go down significantly for the visually impaired.

Vajpayee received his medical degree from Gandhi Medical College, Bhopal, in 1981 and trained in ophthalmology from the same medical school. He has completed clinical fellowship in cornea and refractive surgery at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, Melbourne, and at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, USA.

Before moving to Australia he worked at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi as the head of cornea and refractive surgery.

“In India, we have already adopted this procedure. For many years corneal surgeons at AIIMS have been using one donor tissue for two patients quite often. I am sure this technology of using one cornea for multiple recipients is going to be practised all over the world, particularly in countries where there is a shortage of donor corneal tissue,” Vajpayee said.

The professor received a World Health Organisation (WHO) fellowship at Harvard Medical School in 2000. His innovations in the field of corneal transplantation surgery have won ‘Best of Show Award’ at the annual meetings of American Academy of Ophthalmology in 2003 and 2004.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology honoured Vajpayee in 2005 with an achievement award at its annual meeting in Chicago. In recognition of his clinical and academic contributions, he was also honoured with the fellowship by the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, UK.

Researchers make wireless electricity breakthrough

Scientists in the United States have successfully transmitted electricity between two devices without the use of a connecting cable.

The technology, known as ‘WiTricity’, could spell the end for wires and plugs in the home.

The researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology succeeded in transmitting electricity from a power source to a 60 watt light bulb more than two metres away using magnetic resonators.

This involves two copper coils, one at the power source and one at the application – in this instance the light bulb.

The transmitting coil sends out a magnetic field with the receiving coil specifically designed to resonate with that field.

Once those two copper coils have successfully coupled, power can flow between them and the bulb lights up.

Swedes make talking paper breakthrough

A BUNCH of Swedish boffins has worked out a way of putting touch sensors and speakers onto paper.

Boring billboards can be turned into interactive displays by using conductive inks to print touch sensors and speakers onto paper, say Swedish researchers.

“The first generation of paper was for display, like books,” says Mikael Gulliksson, a researcher at Mid Sweden University, Sundsvall, Sweden, “the second for packaging, and the third for hygiene – we are investigating what the fourth might be.”

Gulliksson and colleagues think “paper four”, as they call it, will be interactive. Prototype billboards currently on display at the university show how that might be possible.

The paper surfaces of the 2 meter high billboards respond to users’ touch by playing clips from music albums, or spoken dialogue from a comedian.

See the talking paper in action below:

[flv: 425 350]

Cheap and recyclable

The billboards are made almost entirely from paper materials, making them cheap to assemble, and easy to recycle, says Gulliksson. “We’ve used the roll-to-roll methods used by industry to process paper materials.”

To make the paper surfaces interactive, the team screen prints patterns using conductive inks containing particles of silver that overlap, allowing a current to flow.

The interactive billboard is made in layers with a 3 centimetres thick back layer of Wellboard – a kind of extra-strong cardboard – forming the base. A sheet of paper screen-printed with conductive ink is placed on the base, with a second sheet carrying the billboard’s design placed on top.

The middle conductive layer is connected to a power supply and simple microelectronics that play, pause and rewind sounds when the correct sensors are triggered.

Touch sensors are made using a fine pattern of conductive lines in which the current flow is altered when a hand touches it. Laptop computer touchpads use the same principal.

Speakers are made by printing electromagnets out of conductive ink and stretching the paper over a cavity like a speaker cone behind the billboard. The electromagnets vibrate in response to a current, creating a sound.

Packaging next?

“The result looks and feels like paper but has electronic, interactive features,” says Gulliksson. Changing a display is as simple as removing the two outer paper layers, and adding new ones that also connect to the power supply and electronics.

In future, it may be possible to integrate all the electronics onto the paper surface by printing on semiconducting polymers “Those technologies are a long way off,” says Gulliksson, who is more interested in what can be done with paper right now.

Having successfully demonstrated the billboard prototypes, they are moving onto investigating how the technology could be used on a smaller scale. “We are interested in scaling the technology down to produce interactive packaging for products like chocolates,” he told New Scientist.

Thursday, Jun. 7, 2007

How caffeine could be a miracle cure for cellulite

Skin creams made with caffeine could banish cellulite, according to new research.

Scientists who tested the creams found rubbing them on every day for a month had a significant impact on a woman’s skin.

Eight out of ten had tighter skin and lost up to two centimetres off their thighs, one of the main areas on the body for cellulite.

Two out of three volunteers also lost weight off their hips as the fat under the skin that causes the complaint dissolved.

Cellulite affects up to 90 per cent of women at some point in their lives.

Although losing weight can help, even slim women can develop the ‘orange peel’ appearance on thighs and buttocks.

It develops when fat builds up between the connective fibres that link the skin to tissue deep inside the body.

In many women these fibres become shorter, producing the characteristic dimpled effect of cellulite.

Caffeine has been used in creams for many years but there has been little evidence the support its use.

The theory is that it is absorbed into the skin, where it speeds up the rate at which the body disposes of fat.

Some companies have even started selling so-called coffee tights, at around £9 a pair, to get rid of unwanted fat and cellulite.

The latest study, published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, suggests a cream containing just seven per cent caffeine can have a significant effect.

Doctors at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil tested 130 women with cellulite on their hips and thighs.

The women rubbed the cream on to one thigh and hip twice daily for 30 days. The other thigh and hip were left untreated to measure the difference.

At the end of the experiment, 80 per cent of the patients had lost up to three-quarters of an inch off the upper part of their thighs, with skin ‘dimpling’ reduced.

On the lower part of the thigh, the average reduction in circumference was about two-thirds of an inch.

Professor Omar Lupi, who led the study, said in a report on the findings: “A 30-day treatment with a caffeine solution showed significant reduction in the circumference of thighs that were treated.

“But diet and exercise should always be encouraged as an initial step for the treatment of cellulite.”

Robot to be soldiers’ rescue hero

A remote-controlled robot could soon become the new battlefield hero.

US researchers are working to develop the robot so that injured or abducted soldiers could be rescued from dangerous situations without comrades’ lives being put at risk.

The 1.8-metre tall Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (Bear) will be able to travel across different terrains and squeeze through doorways while carrying the solider in his arms, the New Scientist reports.

Its developer, Vecna Technologies of College Park, said that recent tests showed how the robot, which can carry weights of up to 135kg, can climb up and down stairs with a human-size dummy in its arms.

Unlike human soldiers, Bear is able to carry heavy loads over long distances without tiring and can also hold an injured soldier while kneeling or lying down, enabling it to move unspotted through tall grass or behind walls.

To keep Bear upright, scientists have fitted it with equipment which monitors the movement of its torso and detects any rotation of its body that might indicate it is about to lose its balance.

It even has a humanoid body and teddy bear-style head to give it a friendly appearance, which, Gary Gilbert of the US army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Centre told the New Scientist, is a “really important thing” when dealing with casualties as it maintains the human touch.

Bear will not just be a useful tool in rescue situation as it will also be able to perform more mundane tasks such as carrying and lifting heavy equipment for soldiers.

“The robot will be an integral part of a military team,” said Vecna’s president Daniel Theobald.

Bear is expected to be ready for tests in the field within five years.

Tuesday, Jun. 5, 2007

Help save the rainforest – buy it

Sir David Attenborough, Sir Nicholas Stern and Michael Howard are among the supporters of a new charity that aims to let people “buy” parts of the rainforest to protect them.

The charity is the idea of the Labour MP, Frank Field, normally known for concern about social services and pensions, and a Swedish businessman, Johan Eliasch, who already owns 400,000 acres of rainforest.

Fifty million acres of rainforest, an area the size of Britain, are cut down every year, and through burning, decay and eventual destruction of the timber this emits more carbon dioxide than the total annual emissions of the United States.

So protecting rainforests is “the number one priority in tackling climate change,” according to Mr Field, who hopes his new initiative will become a “mass movement.”

He said: “Churchill’s strategy to win World War II was to prioritise those actions that had to be taken that day. Today we fight a different war but equally important – the war against global warming.”

The launch of Cool Earth coincides with the German Chancellor proposing “avoided deforestation” as a tool for tackling climate change but the idea of paying owners something for nothing has proved controversial, as has the issue of foreigners invading national sovereignty for countries such as Brazil.

Mr Field’s solution, backed by the major charity, Fauna and Flora International, is based on previous successful initiatives in Brazil and Ecuador. He said: “This is to enable people to do something today to protect forests that also provides local employment.”

The new charity aims to hold land in trust with local people, such as rubber tappers, who would farm the forest for its natural produce. Deforestation would be prohibited under covenants or management agreements.

Donors pay £70 an acre to protect forest from logging and £90 an acre to protect forest from cattle ranching.

Mr Field says Cool Earth intends to use some of the stakeholders’ money to build up schools and health services.

The forests that the charity intends to protect are at the frontier of development and most at risk, often from being logged illegally or burned for ranches by local people who have no other source of income.

In the past, there have been justifiable suspicions of rainforest purchase schemes, after Sting, for example, raised money for the purchase of forest which was eroded by inflation in a Brazilian bank account.

In this case the backers of the project include some of the impeccable names in rainforest conservation, including Dr John Hemming, director of the Royal Geographical Society, and Adrian Cowell, producer of the film, Decade of Destruction, as well as the president of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson and Mark Ellingham, founder of the Rough Guides.

The project has one more backer who may no longer have the public’s total confidence, Tony Blair.

Mr Blair said: “Governments have a key role to play in tackling global warming, but alone, they are not enough. Only with people and Governments working together can we save the planet from catastrophe.”

Mark Rose, chief executive of Fauna and Flora International, said “This is a good initiative and has emerged at a crucial time. We’re very happy to work in partnership with Cool Earth. They have selected two of our projects which can really make a difference. It is now down to the general public to turn their ideas into action.”

Study: Liver Cancer Breakthrough Found

For the first time, doctors say they have found a pill that improves survival for people with liver cancer, a notoriously hard to treat disease diagnosed in more than half a million people globally each year.

The results in a multinational study of 602 patients with advanced liver cancer are impressive and likely will change the way patients are treated, cancer specialists including the study authors say.

Patients got either two tablets daily of a drug called sorafenib or dummy pills in the study, which started in March 2005. Some patients are still alive, although on average, sorafenib patients survived 10.7 months versus almost 8 months for those on dummy pills.

That type of survival advantage “has never happened” with liver cancer “and is a major breakthrough in the management of the disease,” said Dr. Josep Llovet, the lead author.

“That may not sound like a lot of time,” but for liver cancer, “this is actually a quite impressive gain,” said Dr. Nancy Davidson of Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It is the first effective systemic treatment for liver cancer, which is such a huge problem internationally.”

Sorafenib attacks cancer with a targeted double-barreled approach. It zeros in on malignant cells themselves and cuts off the blood supply feeding the tumor. It is believed to work on tumors within the liver and those that have spread elsewhere.

In the study, tumors didn’t shrink or disappear but in many cases they also didn’t grow.

“You are not curing the disease but you are delaying the progression of the disease significantly and strikingly,” said Llovet, of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and Hospital Clinic of Barcelona, Spain.

The study was halted early, in February, because of the good results, and patients on dummy pills were switched to sorafenib.

“This is a very good step forward in this disease,” said Dr. Emily Chan of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tenn.

Results were prepared for release Monday in Chicago at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting.

The drug, sold under the brand name Nexavar, is approved in the United States and dozens of other countries to treat advanced kidney cancer. It is marketed by Bayer Pharmaceuticals Corp. and Onyx Pharmaceuticals Inc., which funded the liver cancer study. They hope to receive approval for liver cancer use from U.S. and foreign regulators.

Llovet has done consulting for the sponsors.

Liver cancer is diagnosed in about 19,000 Americans annually but is much more common elsewhere and is the fifth most common cancer globally. Risk factors include chronic liver infections and some forms of hepatitis. The disease is common in China and countries without widespread use of the hepatitis B vaccine, which is routinely given to U.S. infants.

Liver cancer doesn’t respond well to conventional chemotherapy and is often diagnosed too late for surgery to be an option. Many patients die within a year of diagnosis.

Robert Throckmorton, a 73-year-old attorney in Orange County, Calif., said his doctor told him “You better get your affairs in order” after he was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer last August.

But then the doctor offered sorafenib off-label, and Throckmorton readily agreed. He did not take part in the study.

After nine months on the drug, Throckmorton said his cancer shows no sign of progression and he has no significant side effects. He said he walks three miles six days a week to stay active and feels fine.

Instead of thinking about wills and funerals, Throckmorton is looking forward to get-togethers with his eight children and 18 grandchildren, and even a possible church trip to Uruguay with his wife.

“I have good energy,” Throckmorton said. “We are optimistic.”

Friday, Jun. 1, 2007

Plant breakthrough could feed the world

The workings of a vital switch for controlling crop productivity have been identified following a 70-year search.

The ability to produce more food in the same area is crucial to feeding an increasing world population while curbing deforestation and dedicating more land to biofuels.

Scientists at the John Innes Centre have identified how the signal that controls flowering is delivered to the shoot apex (the bud). Flowering is the process that produces food from crops.

“Flowering produces fruit, as well as seeds that are the raw ingredient for all cereal based foods,” said Dr Philip Wigge, lead author on the paper.

“Controlling flowering means that we have the fundamental understanding needed to increase the productivity of rice, maize, wheat or any other crop by increasing the number of flowering cycles in a year.

“We can also switch off the signal to prevent flowering and therefore increase biomass for fuel production.”

In the horticultural industry, the findings could be used to keep gardens in bloom for longer.

It has been known for more than 70 years that leaves exposed to light can trigger flowering in a darkened shoot.

Research published by John Innes Centre scientists and a Swedish team in 2005 revealed the gene Flowering Locus T (FT) as essential to the process.

Flowering movement

But how the signal – dubbed ‘florigen’ – travels from leaf to apex has remained a mystery.

One lab suggested messenger RNA was responsible, but that research was retracted last month.

Other recent papers published in the journal Science from the Max Planck Institute identified the signal as FT protein, the protein encoded by the FT gene, and Japan’s Nara Institute of Science and Technology have shown the same system exists in rice.

This latest research confirms that FT protein is responsible, but also shows that it is able to move between cells from the leaf to the apex.

Experiments with an immobile FT protein showed that the movement of the protein is crucial for flower development.

“Plants may be rooted to the spot,” said Dr Wigge. “But for the first time we have shown that long range communication within plants is essential for their development and reproduction.

“These findings provide the tools to prolong or change flowering time. The full potential of that discovery can now be realised by the agricultural and horticultural industries.”

The study was published today in the journal Current Biology.

Monday, May. 28, 2007

Researchers make breast cancer breakthrough

SCIENTISTS have made a massive leap towards identifying the roots of hereditary breast cancer after a groundbreaking study picked up new genes which can increase the risk of the disease.

Until now, it was not known which genes cause 75 per cent of inherited breast cancer, which affects thousands of British women every year.

But the Cambridge-based study, published online in the Nature journal, found four genes that can increase a woman’s chances of developing the disease.

They have never previously been linked to inherited breast cancer and are responsible for another four per cent of inherited cases, equating to between 88 and 176 women a year.

Scientists believe the discovery is the first step towards finding many more breast cancer genes, and the same research method is already being applied to several other cancers.

Professor Douglas Easton, director of Cancer Research UK’s genetic epidemiology unit in Cambridge, said:

“This opens the door to new research directions.”

Rescue workers can save lives with breathing tubes

Giving rescue workers training to administer drugs and insert a tube down the throat of someone with life-threatening breathing problems can save lives, Canadian researchers reported.

The small but significant reduction in the risk of death is important because 2 million people with respiratory distress – often from asthma, pneumonia or congestive heart failure – are taken to U.S. hospitals each year.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers said the death rate went from 14.3 percent before intubation and drugs became available to rescue workers, to 12.4 percent after it was.

The difference was less than 2 percentage points, but that could translate into 20,000 lives saved each year in the U.S. and Canada, said the team led by Dr. Ian Stiell of the University of Ottawa.

Inside Good News Blog