Scientists find a new mechanism that causes cancer cells to self-destruct

Cancer is the single name assigned to more than 100 diseases. It is the result of abnormal cells that multiply and spread out of control, damaging healthy cells along the way. Most cancers result in tumors but those that affect the blood do not. Many cancer patients struggle with the adverse effects of chemotherapy, still the most prescribed cancer treatment. These effects include hair loss, vomiting, fatigue and anaemia. However, in some ways, this is an improvement to patients with cancers that can’t be treated.

A newly-discovered mechanism involves the modification of specific proteins that affect the construction and stability of the spindle, the microtubular structure that prepares duplicated chromosomes for segregation into “daughter” cells during cell division.

The researchers found that certain compounds called Phenanthridine derivatives were able to diminish the activity of these proteins, which can distort the spindle structure and prevent the segregation of chromosomes. Once the proteins were modified, the cell was prevented from splitting, and this induced the cell’s rapid self-destruction.

“The mechanism we identified during the mitosis of cancer cells is specifically targeted by the Phenanthridine derivatives we tested,” Prof. Cohen-Armon stated. “However, a variety of additional drugs that also modify these specific proteins may now be developed for cancer cell self-destruction during cell division. The faster the cancer cells proliferate, the more quickly they are expected to die.”

Research was conducted using both cancer cell cultures and mice transplanted with human cancer cells. Furthermore, mice transplanted with triple negative treat cancer cells, currently resistant to available therapies, revealed the arrest of tumor growth.

“Identifying the mechanism and showing its relevance in treating developed tumors opens new avenues for the eradication of rapidly developing aggressive cancers without damaging healthy tissues,” said Prof. Cohen-Armon.

Current research is being carried out with Phenanthridine to see if it has any effect against two forms of aggressive cancer.

This research holds a lot of promise in looking for an alternative method to treating cancer, which is far less damaging than chemotherapy.

Prof. Cohen-Armon has said that “the discovery of an exclusive mechanism that kills cancer cells without impairing healthy cells, and the fact that this mechanism works on a variety of rapidly proliferating human cancer cells, is very exciting,”

He further states “According to the mechanism we discovered, the faster cancer cells proliferate, the faster and more efficiently they will be eradicated. The mechanism unleashed during mitosis may be suitable for treating aggressive cancers that are unaffected by traditional chemotherapy.”

*Note: Phenanthridine is a nitrogen heterocyclic compound that is the basis of DNA-binding fluorescent dyesthrough intercalation.*

My experience of vasectomies

Last Tuesday I was lucky enough to gain some valuable work experience by shadowing a local GP at their vasectomy clinic. I therefore saw it very fitting to make a post about vasectomies and what I saw.

First of all, what is a vasectomy? A vasectomy is a surgical operation intended to sterilise a man. This is achieved by cutting the tubes which carry the sperm to the sex fluid to make semen. This prevents the sperm reaching the female’s egg cells during intercourse and therefore prevents fertilisation.


The vasectomies I witnessed did not involve the use of scalpels, which I was not aware were available. Instead of the use of the scalpel, an instrument it is used which essentially burns its way through the skin. In doing so it also cauterises any small blood vessels and prevents any bleeding.

The patient is initially administered a local anaesthetic into the operation area, which as I was told is the only painful part of the operation but I’m sure a couple of the patients will disagree with me.

During a no-scalpel vasectomy, the doctor will feel the vas deferens underneath the skin of your scrotum and then hold them in place using a small clamp.

The scalpel alternative is then used to make a tiny puncture hole in the skin of the scrotum. A small pair of forceps is used to open up the hole, allowing the surgeon to access the vas deferens without needing to cut the skin with a scalpel. The tubes are then closed in the same way as in a conventional vasectomy, either by being tied or sealed.

What also surprised me during the operation was the fact that no stitches were needed and once the vas deferent were cut and cauterised the operation was pretty much over. Further to this, what really struck me was how calm the theatre was and how the doctor was able to maintain a flowing conversation with the patient. This taught me the importance of communication with the patient, not only to inform them of what happens but also in order to keep their mind off what is happening.

Overall, this was a very interesting operation to watch and I am very grateful for the opportunity to watch it. On the other hand, I did find myself grimacing at some points when, being male myself, I thought about how it was in the patient’s shoes.

If you would like to learn more then the link below is a good place to start.

Alzheimer’s and stem cells.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. The initial effects of Alzheimer’s often include lapses in memory or the inability to say the right words. Over time, symptoms such as confusion, mood swings or memory loss develop and become increasingly severe.

The cause of the disease is still very cloudy, but researchers have found that people affected by Alzheimer’s have an abnormal build-up of certain proteins in the brain. One of these proteins, called amyloid beta, clumps together to form ‘plaques’.

Below you can see an image that I copied from . Although it may be hard to read, I am sure you will be able to make out some of the key facts and figures.


Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, however, there are a range of medicines available that can prevent the progress of Alzheimer’s through the body. Most of these drugs belong to a class called cholinesterase inhibitors. They can help prevent the breakdown of a natural substance in the brain called acetylcholine, which carries signals between neurones.

A lot of money is being invested into the research of Alzheimer’s and the next big step towards its treatment lies in the use of stem cells. The hope is that neural stem cells will be able to be transplanted into the brain of Alzheimer’s sufferers, in an attempt to replenish the neurones in the brain. Although many remain speculative, recent research has shown that the human brain may be more malleable than previously thought.

Another possible approach to stem cell therapies might be to use certain types of stem cells to deliver proteins called neurotrophins to the brain. Neutrophin levels are normally low within Alzheimer’s patients and this does not encourage the growth and survival of healthy neurones.

At present, research is using a certain type of stem cells called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells (more can be found about these by clicking the hyperlink). These are created by using already specialised cells and almost ‘reprogramming’ them into other, more useful, cells. This ultimately has the potential to act as a source of cells that are otherwise difficult to obtain, such as the neurons found in the brain. 

So far, scientists have managed to use iPS technology to take skin cells from an Alzheimer’s patient and use them to grow neurones. The lab-grown neurons release the beta amyloid protein that forms plaques in patients’ brains. Furthermore, scientists have used iPS neurones to study the build up of tau protein, which forms the tangles in patients’ brains in Alzheimer’s Disease. Overall, this provides scientists to study and conduct tests on the neurones and gain a greater understanding of how to treat Alzheimer’s.

To conclude, the use if iPS stem cells holds great promise for the future development of preventative treatment of Alzheimer’s. Although there may be no treatment available using stem cells for Alzheimer’s, their use has already provided invaluable information and continues to be a useful resource.

Daily consumption of tea may protect the elderly from cognitive decline

Being from the UK, I am very used to coming home from school and almost instinctively putting the kettle on for a cup of tea. Tea, at least in the UK it is, is used as a means of relaxation and is one of, if not the most, renowned symbol of Britain. But now, it seems that tea is not just a great tasting beverage but also something that has further medical properties.

A cup of tea a day can keep dementia away, and this is especially so for those who are genetically predisposed to the debilitating disease, according to a recent study led by Assistant Professor Feng Lei from the Department of Psychological Medicine at National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.


A study on 957 Chinese seniors has shown that the regular consumption of tea can decrease the chances of cognitive decline by 50%. Arguably ever better than this, APOE e4 (class of apolipoprotein) gene carriers who are genetically at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease may experience a reduction in cognitive impairment risk by as much as 86 per cent.

Now you may be thinking that this is only the case for specific tea but research has shown that it is true for any tea that is brewed from tea leaves.

The conductor of the study, Asst Prof Feng stated that, “while the study was conducted on Chinese elderly, the results could apply to other races as well. Our findings have important implications for dementia prevention. Despite high quality drug trials, effective pharmacological therapy for neurocognitive disorders such as dementia remains elusive and current prevention strategies are far from satisfactory. Tea is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world. The data from our study suggests that a simple and inexpensive lifestyle measure such as daily tea drinking can reduce a person’s risk of developing neurocognitive disorders in late life,”.

He added, “Based on current knowledge, this long term benefit of tea consumption is due to the bioactive compounds in tea leaves, such as catechins, theaflavins, thearubigins and L-theanine. These compounds exhibit anti-inflammatory and antioxidant potential and other bioactive properties that may protect the brain from vascular damage and neurodegeneration. Our understanding of the detailed biological mechanisms is still very limited so we do need more research to find out definitive answers.”

This research provides very promising information on how lifestyle may be able to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

So, next time someone asks if you want a ‘cuppa’, just remember that every sip may be preventing cognitive decline.

Ultrasound used to measure fluid within the lungs.

Normally, ultrasound is not the go-to way of getting quantitative information about the lungs, which is due to the properties of ultrasound waves. The problem with these waves is that ultrasound waves don’t get great results when travelling through air and, funnily enough, the lungs are full of air. Ultrasound waves do, however, have a reflective nature when meeting pockets of air and this is what is used to calculate the amount of fluid in the lungs.

When ultrasound waves travel through the body, the vast majority of the waves is absorbed by tissue but some returns to the transmitter as reflected waves (echoes). The time taken for the wave to return and also monitoring the waves that do return can be a helpful insight into the tissues of our body and how far they are under the surface.

When ultrasound hits air, unlike with tissue, it is completely reflected and that is why ultrasound is not useful for imaging the lungs. This was the case until a team of scientists lead by Marie Muller found a way to use the waves effectively (in respect to the lungs).

When ultrasound waves hit pockets of air in the lungs, or the alveoli, they scatter. These scattered waves are likely to further hit more air pockets, further scattering them. This cumulatively means that the ultrasound echo takes much longer to return that normally observed. No two ultrasound waves take the same path, some may reflect in one direction and another may do quite the opposite. By looking at the echoes, and how they change, Muller and her team were able to get quantitative data as to what extent the air spaces were filled with fluid.


The above shows how ultrasound is normally used.

The technique makes use of conventional ultrasound scanning equipment, though the algorithm used by the researchers would need to be incorporated into the ultrasound software. Regardless of that, this method would be relatively simple to implement into the conventional ultrasound departments of hospitals.

The technique, overall, offers a non-invasive way to track progress in treating pulmonary edema (i.e. fluid in the lungs), which often occurs in patients with congestive heart failure. The approach, which has been demonstrated in rats, also holds promise for diagnosing scarring, or fibrosis, in the lung.

Korsakoff’s syndrome – ‘Alcohol induced brain damage’

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

Recently I have been reading the book titled above, which has sparked a lot of interest and provoked a lot of thought for me. The book provides detailed accounts of patients with bazaar and often rare neurological disorders. Neurology and the disorders of the brain have always been of great interest to me, inspiring me to research into conditions affecting the brain. What attracts me to conditions of the brain is the fact that often they remain almost hidden within a person and are almost impossible to diagnose by just looking at a patient. In order to treat a patient with a neurological disease you must first, very closely, observe their behaviour and listen to every single word they say as it may provide a little hint towards what they are suffering from. This truly interests me and the process of application of knowledge to form an overall conclusion to help a person is one of the main reasons that I would love to go into medicine.

In the second chapter of this book Sacks speaks of a patient who at first seems perfectly normal but had a very sinister underlying neurological condition. When speaking to the patient it soon became very apparent that they were suffering with very severe memory loss as within minutes the patient would forget who were they were talking to and why they were there. What amazed me was that even with the short term memory loss, the patient’s general kind and happy demeanour was perfectly preserved from when they first began to suffer, as though nothing with them had changed. This leads on to the next part of the story. When questioned, the patient knew nothing of where they were and how they had come to be there, their last known memory being that of sailing with the navy during the war. However, this patient had not been in the war for many years and was now of age and physically very different to the person who had been on that ship. Although there were many attempts to try and convince the patient that it was no longer 1943 as he believed, nothing  would sway him away from what his mind told him. If they were told anything different then they would become very disorientated and the questioning would have to stop.

So what caused this patient to be trapped perpetually in the year of 1943? The answer lies in his habit of drinking and having a good time during his time in the navy. Sack’s diagnosed the patient with Korsakoff’s syndrome, which I decided to research to find out more about the condition.

What is Korsakoff’s syndrome (KS) and what is it caused by?

Korsakoff’s syndrome is a syndrome often seen within alcoholics and only about 20% of people with the syndrome are diagnosed with it before their death. It is caused by the central nervous system being exhausted of vitamin B1. Thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, is an essential nutrient required by all tissues, including the brain. The human body itself cannot produce thiamine but must ingest it with the diet. Lack of it causes vision changes, uncontrollable muscle movements (ataxia) and memory impairment, which our patient, mentioned previously, suffered from.  As a result of so many not being diagnosed with KS, many with the syndrome suffer long term brain damage.


Our patient developed Korsakoff’s syndrome as a result of his alcoholism, leading to a deficiency of thiamine. The thiamine is usually used for certain chemicals in the brain that mean the brain can no longer function properly, resulting in KS and his perculiar case of his mind being  encapsulated in the past.


What can be done to treat it?

The memory loss component of KS is unfortunately untreatable and no medicine can help. However, injection of thiamine into the veins of a suffer can help to reduce the symptoms of confusion, restricted eye movement and reduced muscle co-ordination.

Overall I am finding this book highly interesting and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in neurology. For those interested you can get a copy below:

Motor Neurone Disease

As I’m sure many of you who sat down to watch the Six Nations rugby tournament this weekend will be aware of the untimely passing of Joost van Der Westhuizen. In short Joost was a South African number 9, who played 89 test matches over his career. Unfortunately, on Monday, at the age of just 45 he lost his battle against Motor Neurone Disease. This inspired me to create a post on the horrible disease which he suffered from.

First of all, what are motor neurones? A motor neurone is a nerve cell, which is located in the spinal cord of humans. These cells are essentially the cells that allow our brain to control muscle contraction and relaxation. Without them, we would be completely immobile. There are three types of motor neurone: alpha, beta and gamma.


Motor Neurone Disease (MND) is a rare condition that progressively damages the motor neurones in the body, causing a slow deterioration in a person’s ability to carry out everyday physical activities. Motor neurone disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which causes neurodegeneration and affects 2 in 100,000 people in the UK a year. The most widely known symptoms of MND are a: weakened grip of objects; inability/struggle to raise arms above the shoulders; struggle to speak, resulting in slurred speech.

As damage progresses, symptoms spread to other parts of the body and the condition becomes more debilitating.

Eventually, a person with motor neurone disease may be unable to move. Communicating, swallowing and breathing may also become very difficult. This can be seen in the case of Stephen Hawking who is completely reliant on technology.

In up to 15% of cases, motor neurone disease is associated with a type of dementia that can affect personality and behaviour. This is called frontotemporal dementia, and is often an early feature when it occurs in motor neurone disease. The affected person may not realise that their personality or behaviour is different.

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for this disease but there is a lot of research into understanding how the disease can be combatted. Overall the disease is extremely life-shortening and most patients die within 3 years of being diagnosed with some living up to years after diagnosis.

Hopefully this helps you understand what patients with MND and the family around them have to deal with. This is a horrible disease that ultimately leaves a person mentally stable but physically unable to move.


The physics behind MRI scanners.

I am currently reading Jim Al-Khalili’s Life on the Edge, which describes many of the phenomena within nature using quantum physics. This may sound very boring to some, but in actual fact is very interesting. Within the first few pages Al talks about how quantum physics, as we know it, has impacted the world we live in. In this case: the MRI scanner.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a scanning technique used within medicine in order to map out, in detail, the soft tissue throughout the body. Our soft tissue contains a lot of fat and water molecules which all possess atoms of hydrogen. These hydrogen atoms have a nucleus which consists of a single proton. Those familiar with quantum physics will know that these protons possess a very strange property called spin, which I will not talk about today. The MRI scanner uses very strong magnets which cause the protons to be within a magnetic field and therefore all the protons align to the magnetic field lines produced. This process of movement is called precession.

Now, according to quantum mechanics these protons can only have one of two orientations due to the magnetic field, each with slightly different energies. Now comes the complicated part! These protons are then ‘zapped’ with radio waves which causes them to exist in a strange quantum state where they are spinning in both directions at once. This is known as quantum superposition. These protons then relax and return to their original states, releasing energy in the process. This energy is detected by large electronic detectors surrounding your body, which can tell which energies correspond to hydrogen in fat and hydrogen in water. Altogether this creates a complex map of the soft tissue within your body, which an x – ray can’t show you.

So now if you ever find yourself lying in an MRI scanner, you can take a moment to ponder the counter intuitive quantum behaviour of subatomic particles that help make this technology possible.