All posts by Barbara Payne

Reducing falls in elders via treadmill training plus virtual reality

Omnidirectional treadmill immersive simulator
Omnidirectional treadmill immersive simulator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over a period of two-plus years researchers tested two groups of older people (60-90 years) who’d experienced at least two falls prior to the start of the study, according to a recent Lancet article. One group received treadmill training only, three times each week. The other group received the same treadmill training but with an added component of virtual reality (VR) – audio/visual presentation of winding pathways, obstacles and other challenges that required the participant to pay careful attention.

Results showed dramatic improvement in the rate of falls in the months after the experimental training among those in the treadmill-plus-VR as opposed to a virtually unchanged rate of falls among those who had treadmill-only training.

So, it appears that having to navigate trails and overcome obstacles makes the mind-body unit more responsive to its surroundings – thus providing greater stability and protection for future ventures.

Who pays for medical breakthroughs?

So cool the discoveries/breakthroughs that are being made in medicine today. Who knows how many of us will die just before they invent the drug or procedure or protocol that will save the life of someone with the same condition ten years later? But how do we finance these breakthroughs?
Besides the issue of getting new treatments through the R&D and approval process, there’s always the question of who will be willing to pick up the tab for them. As the U.S. moves to significantly reduce healthcare costs, everyone is worried that “the scientific trajectory towards more personalized treatments will be squelched by the countervailing pressure to pay only for treatments deemed most effective in large populations of patients.” How do insurance coverage decisions affect changes in the R&D and investment process? What influence can patient groups have on setting priorities in the research that may pit comparative treatment effectiveness against personalized medicine?
Video: Plenary – Who will pay for tomorrow’s medical breakthroughs?  If you haven’t got a whole hour to listen, the segment from marker 30:00 to 51:16 covers a good amount of information.


Nanotechnology helps visualize how cancer cells spread

Golden silk spider Photo credit: Wikipedia
Golden silk spider Photo credit: Wikipedia

Cancer cells are incredibly flexible about promoting their own movement and growth in the body. They can travel through blood vessels as thin as spider silk. They even change their shape to do so, yet are still able to divide and cluster into colonies in those very skinny spaces. That spreading through the body is called metastasis, and it’s what makes cancer turn deadly.

Researchers are now putting nanotechnology to work to help decipher exactly how cancer cells perform this extraordinary feat. An article in Nanotechnology Now reports:

The researchers trapped live cancer cells in the tubular membranes and, with optical high- and super-resolution microscopy, could see how the cells adapted to the confined environment. Cell structures significantly changed in the nanomembranes, but it appeared that membrane blebbing — the formation of bulges — at the cells’ tips helped keep genetic material stable, an important requirement for healthy cell division.

For more details, check out this one-minute video on how scientists used microtubular membranes to study how cancer cells divide in capillaries.


Making organs clear to track nanoparticle meds

Molecular imaging for cancer cells
Molecular imaging for cancer cells

One of the biggest promises of nanomedicine is that doctors will be able to deliver needed medications directly to a site within your body without negatively affecting other tissues. That’s still a moving target, though.

One of the most challenging obstacles is the density and opaqueness of human tissue such as blood vessel walls and organs. A recent study reported in ACS nano (American Chemical Society Nano) has revealed a way to more accurately track where nanoparticles go once inside the body by allowing visibility a little deeper into living tissue. A gel, injected into tissues removed from mice, linked all the molecules of the tissue together except for lipids – the substances responsible for making tissue opaque. Lipids washed easily away and “left the tissues clear but otherwise intact.”

Lest you picture a big chunk of clear material, the actual depth to which researchers could image nanoparticles was only 1 millimeter, but that’s 25 times deeper than with existing methods. The hope is that in addition to helping track nanoparticles, this approach will assist researchers with tissue engineering, implant and biosensor applications.

Slowly, we peel away one tiny layer at a time from the mysteries of nature.

More biomarkers making diagnostics better

The first time you learn about a biomarker being able to diagnose a condition, you hope it’s not you, getting diagnosed with congestive heart failure. If your doctor finds elevated levels of B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP) in a blood test, she knows immediately to suspect heart failure.

Researchers are now discovering more biomarkers to help diagnose and manage a variety of conditions. Mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) or concussion, for instance, can be easily confused with potentially passing phenomena such as intoxication or delirium, according to an article online in MedPage Today. But mTBI and concussion require urgent and decisive care. A new study has found that two biomarkers can be measured in order to differentiate mTBI or concussion from other conditions and thus signal doctors to institute appropriate treatment.

In a study of patients treated at a level 1 trauma center, glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) beat out ubiquitin C-terminal hydrolase L1 (UCH-L1) for detecting TBI, CT lesions, and neurosurgical intervention…reported online in JAMA Neurology.

Now they’re studying how quickly a marker can be detected and over how long a period it can be used so they can tell how accurately these biomarkers will allow doctors to gauge an injury.

Non-invasive. Always good news.

Save the date – Biotech & law conference May 5-7, 2016

The first annual Biotech & the Law Global Conference, May 5-7, 2016, takes place this year at the Monona Terrace Conference Center in Madison, Wisconsin. The conference constitutes an international gathering of biotech researchers, lawyers, and business leaders coming together to network across disciplines and make new professional connections.

Wisconsin, claiming a history of biotech innovation that reaches back more than a century, offers a unique culture of public-private tech transfer that supports over 1600 businesses and earns the state the moniker, “Biotech’s Third Coast.”

The conference presents a unique opportunity for professionals to earn continuing education and take advantage of the resources of Madison’s academic and business communities, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Morgridge Institute for Discovery, and a host of private and public interests in the health care, agriculture, and environmental science fields.

Registration is now open for Biotech & the Law on the conference website.

Related articles

Marker in cells mutated back to stem-cell-state may be able to predict cancer

English: Pathway of stem cell differentiation
English: Pathway of stem cell differentiation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

News of a marker that may serve as a way to predict which cells will become cancer comes out of a recent study by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital. Scientists were able to isolate a substance that appeared in a cell that had reverted to its stem-cell-state and then became cancerous in zebrafish that subsequently developed melanoma.

“The spark for that change was in the crestin gene, which should only be active in embryonic tissue but became inappropriately activated again, resulting in melanoma,” according to the article online at One of the authors of the study said “the beginning of cancer occurs after activation of an oncogene or loss of a tumor suppressor, and involves a change that takes a single cell back to a stem cell state.”

Now a fish is not a human being, so this information is a long way from having practical application in your doctor’s office. But the principle behind this discovery will guide further research and additional hoped-for developments.

Non-depressed heart failure patients have 80% lower risk of early death

Millions of Americans suffer from heart failure, and it’s the leading cause of hospitalization for people over 65. It comes in four stages, from mild to severe, and is a progressive and always eventually fatal disease. But the course of the disease can be profoundly affected by other factors.

In an ongoing study of heart failure patients, after adjusting for factors such as sex, age, hypertension, severity of heart failure, and comorbidities, moderate to severe depression remained a predicting factor for all-cause mortality for heart failure patients. In other words, if you’re depressed and have heart failure, you’re five times more likely to die an early death than a similar patient who isn’t depressed.

Now, add that fact to this one: heart failure patients who exercise more have fewer hospitalizations and better outcomes on all scores. Another recent study examined how levels of social support and barriers to exercise affected heart failure patients’ willingness to keep up with exercise programs. Not surprisingly, when patients completed surveys about the types of support they received and their barriers to exercise, those who had worse situations in regard to finances, weather, transportation, and/or childcare had less success in adhering to exercise regimens. And those with reduced barriers did, in fact, exercise more and have better outcomes.

Medical experts can only surmise why exercise helps depression, but there’s clear evidence that it does. So, what is the cost of having millions of heart failure patients regularly re-hospitalized versus helping reduce those social barriers and giving them the chance to experience longer and better-quality lives?

Transgenic salmon: Is the FDA qualified to say it’s safe?

EPA headquarters in Washington, DC Photo credit: Wikipedia
EPA headquarters in Washington, DC – Photo credit: Wikipedia

U.S. Federal regulators have approved a fast-growing transgenic salmon as the first genetically engineered animal raised for human consumption. But like so many dramatic advances in science, is it a historic breakthrough, or might we be putting the environment at risk because the approval process for the technology isn’t stringent enough?

Auburn University’s Conner Bailey thinks it’s open to debate, according to a press release from Routledge of Taylor and Francis. In a recent policy review in Society & Natural Resources, Bailey suggests the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may not be the appropriate agency to approve genetically engineered animals.

The article states the FDA was designated regulator for genetically engineered products in the U.S. only because of a Federal decision made in 1986 (updated in 1992) that established the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology. This framework was supposed to divide responsibilities over such products among the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the FDA.

While Bailey’s article was working its way through the peer review process, the Obama Administration ordered the agencies to reconsider how transgenic animals and plans are reviewed and subsequently approved, and gave them one year to do it. Despite this order, the FDA’s Nov. 19 decision to approve production and consumption of a transgenic salmon will stand.

Bailey contends the FDA should not be making such determinations alone. “The FDA is ill-equipped, on its own, to make a science-based decision on ecological impacts,” Bailey said. While their staff are experts on questions of food safety, they’re unqualified on issues associated with aquatic ecology and aquaculture. “The risk of releasing what is essentially an exotic species into the wild is real and potentially significant.” The agency’s recent action is precedent setting, said Bailey, and likely will lead to the adoption of genetic engineering in other fish species and possibly other animals as well.

Read a free copy of the review from Society & Natural Resources, Volume 28, Issue 11, 2015, Pages 1249-1260. Transgenic Salmon: Science, Politics and Flawed Policy. A link to a key resource used in preparation of this policy review can be found here.




Sausages made with berries

English: Schwartz's smoked meat medium fat Mon...
English: Schwartz’s smoked meat medium fat Montreal Quebec 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember when scientists first discovered “antioxidants” back in the 1990s? These molecules began to be touted as miracle-workers, and food and drink purveyors took off in hot pursuit of profits. But since then, further sober consideration has heated up the debate as to how beneficial they are. Read this from Harvard Health about the true value of antioxidants for good health.

Meanwhile, researchers at Lund University in Sweden, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and four other European research institutions have launched a joint project to create a way to produce sausages and smoked meats made with antioxidants extracted from berries. The ultimate aim is to reduce the risk of colon cancer, one of the most common cancers in Sweden.

World Health Organisation (WHO) recently classified smoked and processed meat products as Group 1 carcinogens, the same group that includes tobacco products and alcohol. Hmmm. So, are all those Italian eating the Mediterranean diet—which includes generous portions of sausages and smoked “salumi“—quaking in their boots? Unlikely, since their way or eating has long been considered the gold standard of diets for long life.

Simply explained, the project involves extracting antioxidants from plants and berries, and then prepare [sic] meat products with these antioxidants. Animal testing will afterwards show whether this reduces the occurrence of cancer or not.

The question is, can extracted isolated antioxidants have the same effects as the complete “package of antioxidants, minerals, fiber, and other substances found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains” that are known to help prevent a variety of chronic diseases? Research in this area has generally come up empty. It’ll be interesting to see where this one goes.