Skepticism, Medicine and Science News

Back From The Dead

Ok, so it has been a while since I last posted, but there was the Christmas holiday, and the beginning of a new term etc. But never mind that, the important thing is that the blog is back! Or rather, I’m back! 

Since I last posted there has been some cool news items, so I thought I should start this years blogging by bringing up a few of them.

Well, first of all, the voting for this years Weblog Awards just closed, and I am appalled by who won in the science category. There were some great nominees there, like Bad Astronomy, Pharyngula and Neurologica. These are all fantastic science blogs, but do you think any of them won? Oh no, the winner this year was this horrible, horrible global warming denial blog. That is just sad… 

Just today I read about a cool study in the Journal of Proteome Research. Some scientists in Italy have found abnormal proteins in the saliva of autistic patients, and the hope is that this will eventually give us some clue about the pathological biochemical processes of autism. Also, it could potentially be used as a biomarker in saliva-based autism tests. 

Now, this next one is a sad story, but it is a good example of why evidence-based medicine really should be the only kind of medicine. Russel Jenkins is, or rather was, a healer in Australia. One day, he stepped on an electrical plug in his house, and the small resulting wound later became infected. Even worse, the infection then turned gangrenous. Gangrene is a horrible condition of necrosis of body tissue. It looks really bad, and smells even worse. Instead of seeking medical help, Russel, being a healer, decided he would treat his condition by applying honey to the affected area. Naturally, this did not work out so well, and he later died from the gangrenous infection. 

This is of course an extremely sad story, but I think it is important to emphasize the importance of evidence-based medicine. I really don’t care much for the term Complementary and Alternative Modalities (CAM), because then it sounds like it is a scientific alternative to conventional medicine, which it isn’t. I can not stress this fact enough, that alternative medicine really is just a collection of inadequately tested and unproven drugs. And calling it complementary? A lot of people fail to tell their doctors that they are using these alternative remedies, and a result of that could be that they interfere with their conventional treatments. Because, as I said, they are drugs. Calling them natural is just a sales pitch. 

Ok, so the first post of 2009 turned out to be somewhat of a downer. But the next one will be positive! Promise.


January 13, 2009 Posted by | General Science, General Skepticism, Medicine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fine Polish

Scientists have developed a new method of protecting teeth from bacterial attacks. By using technology from the semiconductor industry, Igor Sokolov  and hh from the Clarkson University Center for Advanced Materials Processing used  silica nanoparticles to polish teeth down to nanoscale roughness. When polished this finely, the bacteria had difficulties sticking to the dental enamel, and could thus be removed fairly easily. Polishing teeth is in itself not new, but no one has thought to use nanoparticles to do it before Sokolov and Gaikwad.  The study was published in the Journal of Dental Research

To the left, the unpolished surface of a tooth. To the right, the surface of a tooth after nanoparticle polishing. 

December 22, 2008 Posted by | Medicine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Perception of Pain

A recent study shows that pain hurts more of the person hurting you really means it (or rather, if the person being hurt believes the person really means it). The study was led by Kurt Gray along with Daniel Wegner, and published in Psychological Science

In the study, they paired up 48 participants with a partner who could either choose to give the other an electric shock or just play a audible tone for them. In the first set-up, the subjects received a shock when their partner chose this option (and to eliminate the factor of surprise, they were told in advance which option the partner picked). In the second set-up, the subjects were given a shock when the partner chose the tone, and vice versa. The resulting data showed that the subjects rated the pain from the intentional shocks significantly higher then that of the unintentional ones. This suggests that the perception of pain is closely tied with emotion, and that the latter can influence the first.

December 21, 2008 Posted by | General Science, Medicine, Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thinking Clearly

A new study published by researchers at North Carolina State University shows a correlation between high blood pressure and decreased cognitive abilities in seniors. This could indicate that stressful situations may make it more difficult for seniors to think clearly. In the study, the researchers looked at persons with a systolic blood pressure of >130 mmHg. When their blood pressure spiked, it was accompanied by a decrease in cognitive function. The study was published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

December 17, 2008 Posted by | Medicine | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Filming The Immune System

Scientists at Sydney’s Centenary Institute recently managed to film an immune cell in the process of being invaded by the parasite Leishmania. The study was published in PLoS Pathogens

This is the first time this process has been filmed, and it was made possible by using high powered multi-photon microscopy which allowed the cells to be viewed in real time. Using this technique, head researcher Wolfgang Weninger and his team were able to study dendritic cells in the skin after the introduction of Leishmania parasites. This ability to track pathogens in the immune system is likely to benefit vaccine research and other studies of the immune system in general. 

This image shows an immune cell absorbing the parasite via pseudopods. The parasite is shown in red, and the blue circles are vacuoles containing parasites.   

The full study can be found here, and there are some really cool videos included in “Supporting Information” part the article. I recommend taking a look at them.

December 7, 2008 Posted by | Biology, Medicine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Medical Firearm

A US-based company,  Constitution Arms, claims to have received federal approval to market their most recent handgun as a medical device. It is a 9mm gun that cost about $300, and contrary to the company’s claims, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say they have not made any such approval. 

They call it the Palm Pistol, and it is intended for people who have trouble operating a normal handgun, like the elderly. As of yet the Palm Pistol is just a prototype, but the company president says they hope to start the manufacturing process soon. 

Now, I think it is perfectly fine to make a handgun that is easy for people with dexterity problems to use. There is certainly a market for it. However, to claim this is a medical device is just insane. Here is what the company president, Matthew Carmel, had to say about it:

It’s something that they need to assist them in daily living

Daily living? That is just absurd. I can see how it may give elderly people a bit more confidence when walking to the store for example, but I really don’t think it would help them much if they were to be robbed. If you cannot operate a normal handgun, what are the odds of you managing to fish this thing out of your bag in time to deter a would-be robber? Also, if the robber is armed, he/she will certainly be quicker on the draw than you, and trying to threaten him/her with this thing would most likely only get you shot. 

As mentioned, the company seems to have jumped the gun, no pun intended, a bit when it came to the FDA approval for selling the gun as a medical device. They actually claimed the FDA approved this as a “Daily Activity Assist Device”. You cannot help but wonder what exactly the elderly are supposed to be doing if their daily activities require the use of handguns.

December 5, 2008 Posted by | General Science, Medicine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Placebo Gene

Most people are familiar with the placebo effect, and in general terms it is the therapeutic effect of an inert/ineffective treatment. People tend to get better just because they believe they will, and placebos are therefore used in double-blind trials as a way of eliminating the placebo effect from the final results. 

It is not really surprising that the effect is as substantial as it has been shown to be. Of course, a placebo will do you no good when treating a bacterial infection for example, but for non-specific, general symptoms such as pain, they tend to do very well. The perception of pain is highly regulated in the brain, and I’m sure everybody has experienced that the amount of pain felt varies greatly according to whether you know something painful is about to happen or not. 

Even though the placebo effect is well known and widely used in clinical medicine and research, it is not thoroughly understood. In a recent article though, scientists have managed to link a specific gene to increased susceptibility to the placebo effect. The research was done by researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden, and published in the Journal of Neuroscience. The study looked at 25 patients with social anxiety disorder, and over an 8-week period they recieved a placebo that they were told would help improve their condtition (of course, neither the patients nor the doctors knew the drug was a placebo). At the end of the period, a positron emission tomography (PET) scan was done and compared with one done 8 weeks prior. 10 of the patients responded to the placebo treatment, and 8 of these varied genetically from the others. The researchers found that these 8 had two copies of a particular G-variant of the gene that codes for tryptophan hydroxylase-2, an enzyme involved in the process of synthesizing the neurotransmitter serotonin. None of the other participants had two G-copies of the gene, and Tomas Furmark, lead scientist, believe the effect of this gene may extend to other phenomena associated with the amygdala, such as depression and pain disorders. 

The sample size of the study was not, however, very impressive, and the results would have to be externally replicated before any real conclusions could be made. Also, the general consensus is that there is no single placebo effect, but a lot of different mechanisms that together make up the whole, including genetic factors. Still, a nice advance in placebo research. Full paper can be found here.

December 3, 2008 Posted by | Medicine, Neuroscience, Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Like A Surgeon

Robotics have become a huge help when it comes to medical procedures, and are commonly, to a certain extent, used for example in procedures that require absolute precision. Swallowing mechanical devices are also not uncommon, generally in the form of a small camera that takes pictures of the gastrointestinal tract to help doctors locate ulcers/tumors and so on. One problem, or maybe disadvantage is more correct, with these cameras has up until now been that they are passive, ie they take pictures of what’s in front of them, and that’s about it. In a new publication by the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems (IRIS) of ETH Zurich, researchers describe how we might design and engineer microrobots that would be able to play an active role in the body, maneuvering themselves to specific regions to take pictures and even tissue samples. 

One of their ideas is to fit a small robot with insect-like legs to help it navigate the gastrointestinal tract. This would enable doctors to actively control or preset the movement of the robot, and thus guide it to specific regions where they suspect the problem is. Another idea is to also fit the robot with equipment to obtain a tissue sample, something that would otherwise require an invasive procedure.

One of the major problems with this kind of application of robotics is naturally the size aspect. You can’t make the robot to big, or the patient will not be able to swallow it. One possible solution to this problem is to design the robot in a way that would enable self-assembly in the gut. This would mean that the patient could swallow three or four smaller pieces that would then assemble to form the complete robot in the stomach. Zoltan Nagy, a researcher with the IRIS, designed a system that used magnets to accomplish this self-assembly. The individual parts where polarized in a way that made them organize into a predictable structure once in the gut, and when tested, in an artificial stomach, this had about a 75% success rate. 

Another major problem is the power supply. Batteries make up about 60% of the size of today’s pill-cameras, and a lot more power would be needed to supply a robot capable of taking biopsies. Another problem is patient safety. No damage to the wall of the gastrointestinal tract should be done by the robot, and there would also have to be some mechanism of disassembling the robot at any time if something were to go wrong. 

Still, maybe some years from now this will be a reality. Full paper can be found here.

December 1, 2008 Posted by | Medicine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fast Food Advertising

A new study finds that banning fast food advertising during children’s TV-shows could reduce obesity in children ages 3-11 by 18%. In children ages 12-18 the effect would be less, about 14% according to the study. 

The study was published in the Journal of Law and Economics, and conducted by researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) with funding from the National Institutes of Health. The researchers used data from the 1979 Child-Young Adult National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, enabling them to assess the viewing habits of over 13,000 children.

The researchers pointed out that implementing a ban on advertising might not be the most practical thing to do. The only countries having this kind of ban against commercial sponsorship of children’s TV-shows are currently Norway, Sweden and Finland, and these countries have a much more of a tradition for government involvement in these kinds of matters than the US. Another solution might be to eliminate the tax deductibility that comes with advertising. Since advertising is considered an expense it reduces the company’s income and thus the amount of tax. Eliminating the deductibility would in effect mean that advertising would become about 54% more expensive, and even though it would be less effective than an advertising ban, it would still reduce by about 5-7%.

November 30, 2008 Posted by | Economics, Medicine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Insight Into Familial Early-Onset Parkinson

A new study that will appear in the December 1, 2008 print issue of the Journal of Cell Biology provides new insight into the mechanisms of how mutations in the Parkin gene (PARK2) are linked to Parkinson’s Disease (PD). Specific genetic mutations have been known to correlate with early-onset PD, with Parkin, LRRK2 and PINK1 being the most studied. PINK1 have even been found to cause a type of PD indistinguishable from late onset idiopathic PD, and this suggest that genetic mutations may play a role in sporadic PD. 

The study, by Narendra et al., explains that E3 ubiquitin ligase (Parkin) is linked to mitochondrial damage in that the protein may help trigger the removal of damaged mitochondria. Mitochondrial damage have been investigated as a possible candidate for the pathological process of PD through mitochondria-induced apoptosis (although other theories currently have more general support for the cause of iPD, such as proteolytic stress, inflammation and oxidative stress), and the researchers found that in cells that had mitochondrial damage, Parkin had translocated from the cytoplasma to the mitochondria. This translocation was shown to trigger phagosomes to degrade the mitochondria, and thus prevent a possible mitochondria-induced apoptosis.

November 26, 2008 Posted by | Medicine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment