New Zika Research Has Made Finding Treatment A Whole Lot Harder

The Zika Virus is most prevalent in South America and central African regions, the virus can be spread across a human population via sexual intercourse or bites from a mosquito. The symptoms of the Zika virus are quite often mild in people, however an infection of Zika in the womb of a pregnant woman is known to cause microcephaly in children. Microcephaly is a congenital condition that is responsible for an abnormal smallness of the head that is associated with the incomplete development of a child’s brain. Scientists have also made links between the Zika virus and Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) in adults. GBS is a weakness in the muscles that can occur rapidly after the immune system begins to attack the persons peripheral nervous system.

Recent research by scientists has found that not only can the Zika virus circulate in a persons bloodstream, but it can also hide in unsuspected locations that were previously unknown to researchers such as lymph nodes and cerebrospinal fluids. Cerebrospinal fluid is a colourless fluid that can be found around the brain and spinal regions. The fact that the virus can remain in these hidden regions is a possible explanation for why the Zika virus can have such a great effect on the brain and equally on the persons central nervous system.

From the scientists investigation, they gathered some very interesting results. They found that the Zika virus can remain in lymph nodes for as long as 72 days and in cerebrospinal fluid for as long as 42 days. When compared to the fact that the virus only circulates in the bloodstream for 10 days, this is a very significant period of time. The results from the experiments may prove invaluable to scientists in the near future as they prepare to improve treatments towards the virus. However, the conclusions drawn from the investigation suggest that the Zika virus may have the potential to cause disorders to nerves and the nervous system that have yet to have been witnessed by researchers. This fact alone means that discovering a treatment for the Zika virus has been made much more difficult for scientists.

Thanks, Will


Are Mobile Phones The New Cigarette?

Around 60 years ago, smoking was considered the norm by many people who did not yet understand the damage smoking cigarettes can cause to their health. It wasn’t until many years later that scientists started to make links and conclusions between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. The way in which smoking can cause lung cancer is that it can damage some of the cells that can be found lining the lungs. Cigarettes contain numerous carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) that have an almost immediate effect on the tissues in and around the lungs and so they are a large health risk.

Recently in Italy, the Italian Court have decided that constant usage of a mobile phone was the reason behind one mans benign tumour. The man in question worked for a telecommunications company for approximately 15 years of his life and found himself talking on the phone to customers and colleagues for as long as three hours each day. He has now been diagnosed by doctors as having an acoustic neuroma in his right ear, resulting in a loss of hearing in his right ear once the tumour was removed. An acoustic neuroma is a type of brain tumour that is benign, they grow on the nerve that is used for helping balance and hearing. This is one of the reasons why once the tumour was removed the man suffered a loss of hearing.

Back in 2011, the World Health Organisation’s IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) placed mobile phones on their “possibly carcinogenic” list. There have been a few studies that have found there to be a very small increase in the number of a few specific cancers such as acoustic neuromas since the arrival of mobile phones, however many believe that this is due to the fact that the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans have been such a success in allowing doctors to diagnose more people than they were previously able to.

Should you be worried after all this? Absolutely not. There is still no finalising evidence that suggests that mobile phone usage can cause cancer. One of the largest pieces of evidence we have against this theory is that if mobile phones did have the ability to cause cancers, we should have seen a large increase in the number of tumours in areas of the brain that are known to absorb large amounts of radio waves, however this is still yet to be seen. Another fact to ease your fears is that even if mobile phone usage did double the risk of developing cancers, the overall risk associated is still fairly low.

Thanks, Will


Is The Cure For Parkinson’s Disease On The Horizon?

Parkinson’s disease is a condition that many people live with and it occurs when parts of the brain are damaged and so the brain deteriorates over time. A cause of Parkinson’s disease is when the cells in the brain responsible for producing dopamine become damaged and so don’t perform their usual function. Dopamine is released by nerve cells (neurons) and it acts as a neurotransmitter, meaning it helps to send signals to other neurons. Due to the fact that people with Parkinson’s have a lack of dopamine producing cells, this is the reason responsible for Parkinson’s patients to find it difficult to sometimes control their movements.

Currently, there are studies being carried out by scientists testing if transplanting foetal cells in to people living with Parkinson’s to see if the transplanted cells can help act as a substitute for the dying neurons in the brain of the patients. One problem with this study however is the way in which the foetal cells are gathered as they may pose an ethical problem for some because they are extracted from aborted pregnancies. A newly developed method of treating Parkinson’s is going to be trialled and it sounds more extreme than more orthodox methods. The new method involves injecting a virus in to the brain of the patient in the hope to amend some of the damaged brain cells.

Precautions have been taken with this treatment and so the virus that will be  injected in to patients has been carefully manufactured to hold four genes that plan to amend the star shaped glial cells that surround neurons (astrocytes) in to cells that can begin to produce dopamine. The tests will be firstly carried out on mice which have damaged dopamine producing neurons in the hope to see improvements to their movement control and overall wellbeing. The virus will be confined to one specific region of the mice brain to reduce the risk of any possible infections or the worsening of any existing health conditions.

Although this is exciting, the testing must be thoroughly trialled and be safe on the mice before it can even be considered for human use.

Thanks, Will



Could Genes Be Responsible For Long-Term Unhappiness?

Many researchers over the years have suggested a strong link between people having mood disorders and people living with long-term (chronic) pains, however researchers still have no hard evidence to show why this is the case. Approximately 40% of people who are currently living with a chronic illness will experience depression in their life.

A recent study conducted on mice has found that chronic illnesses in mice can cause changes in the genetic make-up of parts of their brains that are known to be linked to mental issues such as anxiety and depression. The researchers investigated mice with damaged peripheral nervous systems to simulate chronic pain and what the researchers found was that the mice acted in ways very similar to humans with the same condition; they took extra measures to avoid anything that may cause them pain and they reacted very strongly to even the lightest of touches.

The group of researchers next looked at the activity of the genes in three specific areas of the mice brains that are known to be associated with anxiety and depression. The way that these areas are known to be related with those illnesses is via brain imaging. The three regions are: periaqueductal gray, its function is to act as a site of pain transmission; medial prefrontal cortex, its function is to mediate decision making and it is involved  in the retrieval of remote long-term memories; nucleus accumbens, its function is to play a role in the reward circuit of an individual. After analysing these three areas, the team found approximately 40 genes that were acting vastly different to the same genes in a healthy mouse.

Before this investigation, the reason there may not have been a breakthrough is because these types of studies were only conducted for a week at a time. The successful study tested the mice for 10 weeks and this had an impact as at the start of their investigation they only witnessed small observations and a few symptoms, whereas nearing the end of their investigation they recorded much different behaviours.

If humans could comprehend the factors that are causing these changes to occur, it could lead to improved drugs for patients and us becoming less reliant on current anti-depressants which can take many weeks to effectively ease stress. The information gathered from this study is promising and provides a platform for people wanting to carry out further studies to stand on.

Thanks, Will


Is Cancer Inevitable?

Cancer is a malignant tumour that occurs as a result of uncontrolled cell division in an area of the body. The most common types of cancer for men and women are prostate cancer and breast cancer respectively, statistics have shown that 1 in every 39 men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime and 1 in every 8 women will get breast cancer in their lifetime.  Mutations occur randomly and most cancers are the result of many mutations over a long period of time, this helps to explain why cancers tend to appear more often in older people.

There have been three known factors that are the cause of all cancers, these include: hereditary factors (inherited an increased chance of developing a certain cancer), environmental factors (increased chance of developing a certain cancer due to the actions you take or the lifestyle you live) and finally randomly developing cancers which I will talk about in more detail later. There are 10 cancers that are hereditary including bowel cancer, kidney cancer and breast cancer; people can inherit faulty genes from their parents that put them in a position of increased risk to certain cancers. Some of the gene faults can be tested for, but not all of them, so if you are worried be sure to look in to possible gene testing. Some environmental factors are chemicals that are found in smoke from tobacco, ultra-violet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds and obesity caused by an unhealthy diet.

Approximately 5% of cancers are inherited, 29% of cancers are caused by environmental factors and a recent study has suggested that 66% of cancers occur randomly and are unavoidable. A hypothesis that many researchers believe is that random mutations are the reason behind some organs being more/less susceptible to cancers than other organs. An example of this is that in the brain, cell division is fairly uncommon and so because there isn’t much cell division occurring there is a decreased probability of a cancer in the brain. If we compare this to the lining of the large intestine which is constantly having to be replaced and so cell division is occurring much more frequently, this helps to explain why there is more cases of bowel cancer than there are cases of brain cancer.

There is one minor flaw with the research conducted as it did not include prostate cancer and breast cancer which, as we know, are the most common types of cancers found in men and women respectively and so this may have some effect on the overall pattern of results. Another piece of information that can be concluded from the results is that some organs may have the ability to put an end to cancers at an early stage before they develop into larger cancers. Researchers believe that if they can identify what gives these organs this ability, they may be able to prevent certain cancers from arising in the future as well as to give them more time to identify cancers early on in the process to maximise survival rates.

Thanks, Will


Is Consuming Alcohol Beneficial To The Heart?

A recent study conducted by scientists has provided evidence that supports the statement that moderate drinking has its benefits for the heart. In the UK, a study that consisted of 1,930,000 people had shown a pattern that those who drink moderately yet consume less than 14 units a week are less likely to suffer from specific illnesses related to the heart, ranging from congestive heart failure (CHF) to Angina. Researchers also concluded that the same people tend to have fewer circulatory problems in their body, so less people would be diagnosed with illnesses such as ischemic stroke or aortic aneurysms.

However, I find these conclusions to be very perplexing as alcohol has been related to seven different types of cancers in the human body. These include: bowel cancer, liver cancer, laryngeal cancer, pharyngeal cancer, oesophageal cancer, mouth cancer and breast cancer (in women). In the UK, more than 33% of men and more than 25% of women go beyond the recommended intake of alcohol. Many researchers that have investigated the effect of alcohol believe that there is absolutely no benefit to cardiovascular health from drinking alcohol.

Furthermore, in the UK alone, alcohol is costing society unbelievable amounts of money per annum, the cost for all alcohol related incidents in the UK each year is approximately £21 billion. This total cost can be broken down in to three major categories: £11 billion is spent each year on dealing with crime related to alcohol consumption, £7.3 billion is spent each year due to a lack of productivity in the work place and lost work days due to alcohol, and finally £3.5 billion is spent each year on the NHS treating alcohol related illnesses.

Sorry for the later (and shorter) post this week, I was on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition.

Thanks, Will


New Test Can Identify Blood Type In 30 Seconds

A new blood test that is being developed by researchers has the possibility to revolutionise medicine in areas where it is difficult for health services to get to and areas where the traditional methods of blood typing may not be possible. If a blood transfusion occurs and the blood type of the donor does not match that of the recipient, it can be life-threatening as you could have a reaction meaning your immune system will begin to attack and destroy the blood of the donor. One problem that usually arises is that not everyone knows what type their blood is unless they have it tested, the four different types of blood for humans (A, B, AB and O) are categorised by the different antibodies and antigens found in the blood.

The more traditional methods for blood typing that are generally used involves a trained member of staff in a lab using a centrifuge to separate the blood in to different layers, this isn’t always possible in some places due to lack of equipment and can often take a long time. The new method being developed involves a special paper, Bromocresol Green dye and drops of blood from the person wishing to be tested. The use of Bromocresol Green dye is perfect as it fixes the problem of requiring specialist equipment and trained staff.

In the new test, the paper changes colour in the presence of different combinations of antibodies and antigens from the blood and the test works as follows. The test requires a piece of equipment with two ends, on the left side of the equipment the person must put a solution containing antibody A and for the right side, the person must do exactly the same except this time use a solution containing only Antibody B. A drop of blood must be added to the centre of the equipment, followed by a drop of the Bromocresol Green dye. The mix of dye and blood will travel down the piece of equipment until it comes in to contact with the antibody solutions on either side. Then blood type be determined in the following ways:

For type A, the left solution containing Antibody A would turn brown in colouration and the right solution containing Antibody B would turn teal in colouration. For type B, the left solution containing Antibody A would turn teal in colouration and the right solution containing Antibody B would turn brown in colouration. For type AB, both the right and left solutions would turn teal in colouration. For type O, both the left and right solutions would turn brown in colouration. Traditional methods can take as long as several hours however this new method can produce a result in 30 seconds. This reduction in time can sometimes be the difference between life and death.

Of the 3,550 samples that scientists tested on, they had an accuracy of 99.9%. However, although it seems as though this test is ready to be released, more testing is required to provide users insurance that the test will work under different conditions in different environments. As the test purely relies on colour change, as long as users understand what the change in colour means, almost anyone can use it and it could revolutionise point of care medicine.

Thanks, Will


Could Bioengineered Blood Vessels Revolutionise Treatment For Children With Congenital Heart Disease?

A new treatment that is being developed by researchers will hopefully grant surgeons the ability to treat the heart defects of children, without the heart having to be replaced. So far, the studies have only been completed on lambs, however if the scientists can translate the information they have discovered from the tests completed on lambs to humans, it could revolutionise treatments for children who suffer with congenital heart disease as they would no longer have to undergo many open-heart surgeries. A congenital heart disease occurs when there is an abnormality in the structure of the heart, this normally occurs at birth.

The researchers first step in achieving what they did was to create a framework from skin cells called fibroblasts and proteins called fibrin. Fibroblasts are cells found in connective tissue and the function of fibroblasts is that they play a role in the healing of wounds around the body. Fibrin is a non-globular protein and it can be found in areas of the body where blood clotting is occurring. For many weeks the group of researchers nurtured the skin cells of the sheep so that the cells could produce collagen. Collagen is the main protein that can be found in skin, connective tissue and bone, and its function is to provide the skin its structure and strength. The material that the researchers had harvested was not strong enough for implantation, however what they had was a graft that would not trigger an immune response from the lambs immune system (a graft is a piece of living tissue that can be surgically transplanted).

From their studies, they concluded that the lambs who had the artificial tubes had naturally put on the correct amount of weight as they were growing. Also the implanted vessels had grown in size and taken up a shape that naturally occurs in pulmonary arteries. The mechanical properties of the implanted vessels had almost no difference from that of a regular, natural pulmonary artery which is really promising news for the future of this treatment.

As a traditional method of treatment, surgeons have relied on materials that are synthetic as well as transplants from the recently deceased. Although this new method is more expensive than traditional methods, the risks associated are far lower than open-heart operations and so I believe that this is a justified expense. In the near future, the research team hope to complete this testing in more animals and eventually in humans.

Thanks, Will

Are We Prepared For The Next Wave Of The Zika Virus?

In the early stages of 2015, the Zika Virus became a major health concern in South American countries. Since then, the virus has been quieter over the colder seasons but as the mosquito season approaches, it is believed that the virus could be more deadly and spread further than previously anticipated by health authorities.

Current studies conducted on the Zika Virus are investigating how the virus is transmitted most effectively between people. Data collected shows that of all the bodily fluids, the Zika Virus can survive in semen the longest. 55 men infected with the Zika Virus were tested and 3 showed traces of the virus in their semen as long as 3 months after initial infection. The Zika Virus is known to cause microcephaly in unborn babies of infected mothers. Microcephaly is a congenital condition (a condition that is present from birth) that is associated with an incomplete brain development. The condition causes the babies to have abnormally small heads as well as other disorders regarding the nervous system.

The Zika Virus is most commonly spread by the mosquito called Aedes Aegypti which are found in tropical and subtropical climates in the Americas. The virus can also be spread by another mosquito called Aedes Albopictus which can be found in more Northern regions of the Americas. One fear among researchers is that more species of mosquito may be able to carry the virus and the effect of this is that as the weather becomes warmer in the United States, there could be many more cases of the Zika Virus around the country.

The Zika Virus also poses a threat to adults as the virus is being linked to a disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), GBS is a rare disorder and is diagnosed when the immune system of a person begins to attack their peripheral nervous system. Research conducted on mice has suggested that the virus can effect the growth of neurones in the brains of adults and possibly cause testicles to shrink in size by as much as 90% causing permanent fertility damage.

There are a lot of protective measures currently to prevent the spread of the Zika Virus such as using genetically modified insects and destroying the habitats of the mosquitos carrying the virus. At the moment, there is no treatment or cure for the Zika Virus but people in some of the previously infected countries have started to develop some immunity to the virus. However, due to the nature of the virus, this may not be a long term solution as the virus could easily mutate so their current immunity becomes ineffective. There are currently 3 vaccines in place for the Zika Virus and all 3 are showing promising results in protecting vulnerable populations.

Thanks, Will

Are Chemicals Used in Plastic Bottles Doing Serious Harm To Your Body?

A chemical compound called BPA (Bisphenol A) has been used in plastic packaging for years, however in more recent times, it is being used less frequently due to fears that the chemical compound may disrupt the hormones in our body. The way in which the chemical enters the body is that small amounts can be dissolved by the foods and drinks that the chemical comes into contact with. Food and drink containers rarely reveal information about what they are made from, but containers known to contain BPA include sports bottles, baby sippy cups and canned food packaging.

Recent studies have shown that when BPA enters the body, it acts a lot like the hormone oestrogen as it can bind to the same receptors as the oestrogen hormone. Oestrogen is usually involved in the development of female secondary sexual characteristics. From previous work, animals who have been exposed to BPA have shown signs of developing reproductive systems that are abnormal to what they should be.

Many governments have had to take action on the situation and so there have been bans implemented in many countries over the use of BPA in packaging, and a demand for a substitute to be used instead. The substitute which has been implemented is called BHPF (Fluorene-9-bisphenol), however after some tests on this substitute it has been found that BHPF is just as bad as BPA for the human body, if not worse!

Similarly to BPA, BHPF binds to oestrogen receptors in the body, however unlike BPA, it does this without stimulating the receptors and so can cause the receptors to be blocked so they can’t perform their normal function. Scientists have investigated the effect that BHPF has on female mice and from their investigation they found that the mice exposed had smaller wombs, smaller pups and in very few instances miscarriages. Although from current knowledge it is still uncertain if the same results will translate from animals to humans, there is still a fear in many people who continue to raise questions over the chemicals safety.

Thanks, Will