Cancer Diagnosed in a Blood Test

Most people, when asked which disease they’d eradicate if they could would probably say cancer. It is responsible for about 500 deaths every day in the UK alone. This equates to more than one in four of all deaths in the UK. It is often difficult to diagnose but if caught early enough can be relatively easily treated.

I read an article yesterday proposing a new technique for diagnosing cancer that also allows medical experts to identify where in the body the cancerous tumour is located. At the University of South California, researchers have developed a new technology named CancerLocator. It works by analysing a sample of a patient’s blood-specifically the DNA-from the tumour circulating freely in the blood. When cells die, pieces of DNA are released into the bloodstream.

Certain genes are expressed to different extents in cells depending on the tissue they are located. Using methylation profiling (looking at the methyl groups attached to the tumour DNA) we can see to what extent genes in the cells were expressed. Through the same method, CancerLocator can distinguish between genes affected by cancerous cells and those that have not. Statistical analysis of the methylation profiles can give specific ‘signatures’ of different cancers.

A methylation profile central database is then used to match up the signatures with the location of the cancerous tissue. Statistical models can be made up to deduce the type and severity of the tumour.

CancerLocator has shown that it can detect early-stage cancers with a success rate of 80% compared to about 40% of two other techniques that have previously been used. It was tested on patients with liver, lung and breast cancer.

CancerLocator, in years to come, could hopefully facilitate quicker diagnoses and help medical professionals in treating the disease. Another step forward has seemingly been taken in our fight against cancer.

New Diagnosis For Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection caused by the inhalation of tiny droplets, typically from coughs or sneezes. It primarily affects the lungs and the respiratory system but it can spread to other areas of the body. It is a disease that can be cured with a substantial quantity of antibiotics.

The problem with tuberculosis is trying to work out which drugs will be most effective against different strains of the disease. This means that often the bacteria, mycobacterium tuberculosis, are resistant to the drugs prescribed.

However, it is thought that different strains of the disease can be isolated using genome sequencing (looking at the DNA of the bacteria). By identifying the particular strain of the disease, drugs can be matched up straight away. This therefore means that instead of waiting weeks, maybe even months for the correct drugs, the individual can be diagnosed in about a week. Chances of recovery will thus be much higher. This breakthrough has the potential to ‘save lives’ thanks to researchers in Oxford and Birmingham.

The quicker treatment can begin, the less chance there is of the tuberculosis spreading to other parts of the body and becoming much more dangerous. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is confident that this breakthrough can lead us in the right direction towards eradicating TB from our country.

Is Gluten Free All That It Claims To Be?

You probably all know someone who is on the gluten free diet, whether they are intolerant or whether it is by choice. Personally, I’ve never really known much about it, other than it’s supposedly the healthier option. However, it was reported this week that this may be untrue.

Gluten is a protein found in certain foods such as wheat, rye and barley. Coeliac disease is the condition whereby individuals are intolerant to this specific protein, and thus is the only situation when a gluten-free diet is essential. It is a condition that only 1% of the population have. Having said this, a lot of non-coeliac disease sufferers go for a gluten-free diet; this is mainly as a result from the media claiming that there are significant long-term health benefits.

Scientists from the US have claimed that a gluten-free diet can increase your risk of suffering from type 2 diabetes by 13% compared to those who have a ‘normal’ intake of gluten. The evidence of this was based on medical records of 200,000 patients over a course of 30 years. As with most claims, though, much more research would have to be completed for this claim to become set in stone.

New Multiple Sclerosis Treatment?

Multiple Sclerosis is an incurable disease of the central nervous system (CNS) and is more prevalent in women than in men. If effects more than 100,000 people here in the UK and people who are in their 20s and 30s are the most likely to develop symptoms. In MS, the myelin around nerve fibres is mistaken as foreign and so the body attacks the myelin layer around these fibres stripping it sometimes completely off the nerves. This clearly disrupts nerve impulses by slowing them down as the myelin provides electrical insulation for the electrical impulses carried by nerves. Some don’t get through at all! This can cause someone problems with their eyesight, balance and thus simple activities such as walking.

However, this week it was reported that there is a treatment available for patients that could ‘halt’ their MS. Some doctors have said that the treatment could stop the disease for up to five years. Not all patients are eligible though; it is a high risk treatment and so not all people are suitable; some people may be at too high a risk. 281 people underwent the treatment and of those, almost 50% benefited from it, but unfortunately eight patients died shortly afterwards.

The treatment is known as autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (AHSCT). It involves ‘resetting’ the patient’s immune system to stop it attacking its own myelin. The high risk element of the process is this ‘resetting’ as it requires toxic drugs to remove the cells in the patient’s bone marrow, which is dangerous. After the stage of the treatment, the patient must undergo a stem cell transplant in order to provide them with a new immune system that does not continue to attack the myelin around nerve fibres.

The trial on 281 people has allowed doctors to predict what type of people would be best suited for this treatment in the future. The results suggest that younger patients with relapsing MS, and who aren’t responding to other available treatments will be the best suited for the riskier treatment, should they decide that it is the best option for them. Although this treatment is not currently available on the NHS, it soon could be if more and more people show positive results from further trials.

Volunteering in a Dementia Day Care Centre

I think I mentioned before that every week, on a Friday morning, I go and volunteer in a day care centre for elderly people with dementia, for about two hours. It is probably the highlight of my week, to get out of school and speak to new people for a change.

The main reason I like it so much is the difference I can make to a person’s day just by being there. As well as for me, it gives them a chance to see and speak to new people, they love me being there to chat with them. We talk about all sorts of things and it’s interesting to hear some of the stories they have to share about growing up, working and living sixty years prior to our generation. We play games, do quizzes, read the newspaper among other things and I love the fact that what usually could be someone who’d just sit in a chair all day, will actually interact with you; they will join in with games and activities that they wouldn’t otherwise do.

It also gives their carers a bit of a break, to grab a drink and get some paperwork done while I spend time with the women there. They like having me there because it means that they can do something a bit different and that the elderly women have something a bit different to do likewise.

However, there are always challenges with anything like this any of you decide to do. It is wonderful, but sometimes it can be hard to get some people to join in with activities you are doing so thats when you have to put across your enthusiasm and help them to accomplish what seems to us as simple tasks. By the time it comes round to be their go again, they will have forgotten what to do, which means you require patience and a maintained level of enthusiasm. This kind of thing would be pointless if it presented no challenges at all, and dealing with these has helped educate me into how to deal with similar things I may encounter in the future.

To me, the greatest satisfaction I can get is to brighten up someone’s day, even just a little. Volunteering at a day care centre or residential home, I have found to be extremely rewarding because you can change people’s days, just being present. Anyone interested in healthcare or wanting to choose a career heavily people-based, you should try and get some experience like this because you will make a lot of people’s days better, as well as your own. 🙂

My Own Experimental Project

At the start of the academic year, I decided that I wanted to work on my own science project. It took me probably six weeks to think of what I wanted to do, and as a result, I haven’t actually done a great deal of practical work. There is a huge range of projects that some of my friends are doing, including experimenting with bath bombs, hydrogen peroxide and even horse blood. My project is probably less appealing to many than those, but I decided to focus my project on probiotic drinks.

Many probiotic drink companies make big claims about their products that are sometimes questionable. I’ve always wondered whether that, the bacteria that are in the drinks, can actually survive after passing through the stomach acid, and then grow and multiply when they reach the intestines. I would carry out  a number of experiments, to test these claims, as well as a few others.

The first practical element of my project was an experiment to find out whether there was as many bacteria in the bottle as the website claimed there were. I had to dilute the drink six times adding one part to nine of distilled water. This was so that I would be able to count the amount of bacterial colonies I had cultured on the agar plates. If I hadn’t diluted first, I would be faced with millions of colonies on one plate of agar.

Nothing is conclusive as of yet, but the results I have got already suggest that the actual number of bacteria in the bottle is significantly more than the number the website claim.

In the next few weeks, I hope to look at the effects of stomach acid on the bacteria and if they will still grow after coming into contact with strong acid. I will be posting more about this project when I produce some conclusive results in different sections of my experimental work.

Do Certain Foods Lead to a Higher Risk of Cancer?

We seem to hear a lot nowadays about different things leading to an increased risk of cancer. The media seem to change their mind about whether certain foods are good or bad for us. Therefore, when I saw a particular news story this week, I thought it deserved a blog post. The story spoke about how foods can be better or worse for us depending on how we cook them.

According to government scientists, foods can become more dangerous the longer we cook them. Acrylamide is the substance with supposed carcinogenic properties, and it is produced when starchy foods are fried, grilled or roasted for too long at high temperatures. To avoid too much acrylamide building up, you should stop foods you cook from going brown or black.

The link between acrylamide and cancer has not yet been found in humans but there is a proven link in mice. David Spiegelhalter from Cambridge University says that adults with the highest acrylamide intake would have to have 160 times as much as they already do to reach a level that would cause problems in mice, let alone humans. It seems as though this claim is not particularly convincing.

However, there are stronger claims when it comes to food-related cancers. For example, 50 grams of processed meat per day increases your risk of bowel cancer by 18%. To put it in perspective, processed meats are responsible for a lot less cases of cancer than smoking- just over 20% of bowel cancers are caused by processed/red meat compared with 86% of lung cancers being caused by smoking.  As I mentioned my blog post about dementia, smoking is much more influential on one’s health than most other factors. One million deaths per year are alcohol-related but only 34000 are caused by these foods.

It is evident that processed meats have negative effects on our health, but for now, it seems that some overcooked roast potatoes won’t hurt you to any mildly significant extent.

Robotic Sleeve Developed for Heart Failure

Heart failure affects over half a million people in the UK alone, and it gets worse over time.  The heart becomes unable to pump blood around the body properly, usually as a result of the cardiac muscle being damaged from a heart attack, for example. There are not enough hearts available for this number of transplants and so there are treatments in place. They are mechanical devices that are implanted directly into the heart tissue; they aid with pumping blood around the body. However, the body can react to these devices creating a risk of dangerous blood clots. Therefore, scientists have been trying to come up with something else to treat heart failure with fewer risks.

Recently, a new device has been developed that helps the heart pump blood when it is deteriorating. It is made of silicon, a similar material to the heart muscle; it stiffens and relaxes when inflated with air. Instead of being implanted into the heart tissue, this device is fitted around the heart so it ‘hugs’ the heart instead, meaning that the body is much less likely to have a reaction to it. It squeezes the outside of the heart, just like the cardiac muscle to aid the pumping of the heart.

It was fitted around six pig hearts and the device was able to be synchronised with the shapes and movements of the heart. It was seen to boost the amount of blood being pumped around the body; when the heart stopped beating, the robotic sleeve helped to restore blood flow.

Though promising, many more animal trials must be done before this device is tested on any humans. There is nothing so far, to suggest that this device won’t be used to help thousands of people in the upcoming years with heart failure.

Work Experience in a Residential Home

Towards the end f summer last year, I got the opportunity to volunteer in a residential home for the elderly, for just over a week. This meant that I could experience a different style of healthcare that I hadn’t particularly seen much of before. I also now volunteer weekly in a dementia day-care centre on a Friday morning, as a result of the week I did at the end of summer.

During this week in the summer, I spent most of my time there sitting, speaking to some of the residents. I also made cups of tea and coffee and played games with a few of them. I got the chance to go to the local hospital and meet a potential resident for the home to speak to them about potentially coming into the home. I got to go to another hospital as well to speak with a current resident who had become ill and wasn’t well enough to stay in the home.

During this week, the main thing that was clearly evident was the level of communicational skills required to work or volunteer in a place such as a residential home. I thought that being there helped me develop different ways to talk with elderly people who maybe could not always hear what I was saying. Conversations often meant I had to show patience as they would probably repeat the same story numerous times. I felt that it was important that I was enthusiastic with them when playing games or completing activities as it meant they would be more likely to enjoy what we were doing. Spending a week experiencing this high level of healthcare showed me how much some elderly community rely on other people, as well as the importance of patient confidentiality. This is why I later decided to volunteer weekly in a day-care centre, to maintain my involvement within a healthcare environment.

A care home is an excellent place to get some first hand experience of a healthcare environment; it will probably be a level of care and support that you haven’t experienced before. If you are considering medicine as a course for university, then it is important you can gain an insight to a healthcare environment like this beforehand. Speaking with people with dementia can be a challenging task at first, but I’ve found that the more I have been exposed to it, the better I’ve become at knowing what to say and how to deal with uncomfortable situations.

Higher Risks of Dementia Near Busy Roads?

Dementia is a group of symptoms such as struggling to remember things or finding it hard to work things out. It is most commonly caused by Alzheimer’s disease- 62% of of all those diagnosed. There are around 850,000 people with dementia in the UK and it is thought that, on average, one person will develop dementia every three minutes.

It was in the news this week that supposedly, living in close proximity to a busy road will increase the likelihood of an individual developing dementia. It is thought to be linked with the road pollution and the traffic noise. In a study conducted on 243,611 cases in Canada, compared to people that lived 300m away from a main road, people who lived within 50m were 7% more likely to develop dementia.

Clearly, it is clear that more research must be done in order to prove that there is a correlation; there could also be some unknown factors that the study didn’t take into consideration. It looked at where people lived; it cannot prove that the increase in dementia cases is purely down to the busy roads. There are many other factors that increase your risk of dementia by much more than 7%, such as smoking; it would be far more beneficial to quit smoking than moving into the countryside.

Having said that, however, we know already, living near busy roads has other health problems, such as increased risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory diseases. So, deciding to move away from busy roads may have its benefits, even if one of them isn’t a decreased risk of dementia.