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News and Views

December 5, 2008: "Big Chill Treatment (hypothermia)"

(Reported in the Associated Press; see also

        For years, doctors have tried cooling people to limit damage from head and spinal injuries, strokes, and even prematurity and birth trauma in newborns. This procedure is also used in cardiac arrest. Now, doctors will be testing a new and dramatically speedier way of  accomplishing hypothermia for a much more common problem: heart attacks, which strike a million Americans each year. The cooling system is non-invasive and can be used in an ordinary hospital room (reference: Dr. George Sopko of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, U.S. National Institutes of Health).              
        Heart attacks occur when an artery gets blocked, depriving the heart muscle of oxygen and blood, and causing part of it to die. But the damage does not happen all at once - cells die off slowly, sending chemical messages that make neighboring cells do the same. Cooling the body to around 90 degrees from its usual 98.6 degrees slows this process down. 

        Previously, cooling had been performed in a number of different ways: placing the naked patient in an inflatable cocoon-like pool that sprays the body with hundreds of icy cold jets of water; pumping frigid saline into the veins to reduce inflammation; tubes that go into the veins or the belly cavity, fancy ice bags and gel packs, blankets with cold saline inside, fans blowing cold air over patients, even a skullcap to cool the head.
        Surgeons use cooling now during open-heart surgery employing the so-called ThermoSuit (made by Life Recovery Systems in Waldwick, N.J., and designed by a former Air Force flight surgeon and cardiologist, Dr. Robert Freedman of Alexandria, LA). A pump rapidly inflates the pool-like suit until it puffs tightly around the patient as doctors fasten on a plastic topsheet. Tubes spray  naked patients with frigid water as other tubes drain it away. Dr. McMullan at the Ochsner Clinic, New Orleans, has used the suit on 12 cardiac arrest patients and cooled them to around 90 degrees in as little as 9 minutes, typically in about half an hour. 
        Advantages of the procedure are: reduced damage to the heart muscle and the brain. Potential risks of the procedure include: heart rythm problem, loss of fluids, blood pressure drop, imbalance of essential body salts, and even respiratory problems.


December 22, 2008: "Stem Cells for Safer Medicine"

        Speaking at a recent meeting of the British Pharmacological Society in Brighton, UK, Christine Mummery, Professor of Developmental Biology at Leiden University Medical Center in The Netherlands and a specialist in converting embryonic stem cells into cardiac and vascular cells, described how embryonic stem cells could be a viable and scientifically exciting alternative to animal testing. They may allow drugs that affect animal cells but have no effect on humans to be eliminated. They may also evidence better drugs to come through the first tests, and flag safety issues at an earlier stage.  

Drug development is an incredibly expensive and protracted process. It costs approximately US $1 billion to bring a new drug to market and the whole process usually takes about ten years. Before new drugs can go forward for clinical trials, it is necessary for the chemical compounds which make up a drug to undergo thousands of tests for toxicity before beginning trials on animals. It is here, at this critically sensitive stage, that stem cell research could transform drug development.

Stem cell drug-based testing is already being promoted in the UK with the public/private initiative "Stem Cells for Safer Medicine", which was set up in 2007. Drug companies' interest in stem cell drug testing was demonstrated in July 2008 when GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) entered into a US $25 million agreement with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. According to Professor Patrick Vallance, Head of Drug Discovery at GSK, "GSK believes stem cell science has great potential to aid the discovery of new medicines by improving the screening, identification, and development of new compounds".

        Drug testing is an emotive subject not least because of animal testing. According to Michelle Thew, CEO of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) "...animal testing is not very successful at getting drugs through the process because a lot of the tests are not very predictive in addition to being very expensive and time-consuming". 

        Even if stem cell drug testing does mark the beginning of the end for animal testing, the ethical vacuum is already being filled by another storm of controversy surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells. However, these objections may disappear if success continues in creating stem cells from skin cells.


February 18, 2008: "Lab on a Chip"

        Researchers from the Whiting School of Engineering and the School of Medicine at the John Hopkins University have created a chip that mimics the surroundings of nerve cells. It is made of a plastic-like substance with a glass lid and a system of channels and wells that provide a realistic  recreation of the environment of living animals wherein nerve cells decide in which direction to grow by sensing chemical cues that flow through their environment and are attached to the surfaces around them. Their laboratory experiments support the current theory that one cue can elicit different responses depending on the cells' surroundings.

December 2008: "Is Technology Changing Our Brains?"

        A new study by UCLA neuroscientist, Dr. Gary Small, adds to a growing body of research that technology is changing our brains. According to Small's new book "iBRAIN: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind", a dramatic shift in how we gather information and communicate with one another has touched off an era of rapid evolution that may ultimately change the human brain as we know it. "Perhaps not since man first discovered how to use a tool has the human brain been affected so quickly and so dramatically", he writes. "As the brain evolves and shifts its focus towards new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills". 
        The impact of technology on our circuitry should not come as a surprise. The brain's plasticity -- its ability to change in response to different stimuli -- is well known. So it makes sense that people who process a constant stream of digital information would have more neurons dedicated to filtering that information. Some of Small's findings suggest that Internet use enhances the brain's capacity to be stimulated, and that Internet reading activates more brain regions than printed words. The research adds to previous studies that have shown that the tech-savvy among us possess greater working memory (meaning they can store and retrieve more bits of information in the short term), are more adept at perceptual learning (that is, adjusting their perception of the world in response to changing information), and have better motor skills.


October 24, 2008: "X-Ray Production"

        Scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles have confirmed a theory published in Nature dating back to 1930 that the process of unwinding a scotch tape releases energy not only in the form of a flash of visible light (so-called "triboluminescence") but also, when the tape is in vacuo, an X-ray. However, whereas this process can produce nuclear fusion in the laboratory, it would be hard to obtain excess energy from nuclear fusion.

November 27, 2008: "Newer Computed Tomography Tests"


November 25, 2008: "Laser Wound Welding"
(reported in the Jerusalem Post; see also

        A team of applied physicists led by Prof. Abraham Katzir, Tel Aviv University, have developed an efficient and safe way to close skin  and deeper tissue incisions. This breakthrough medical technology called "laser welding" uses a biological glue - a special protein produced by the Israeli biomedical technology company Omrix, that is smeared on the two sides of the incision. A laser (a carbon dioxide laser equipped with special silver halide optical fibers) warms the glue to the correct temperature without overheating and burning. The glue thickens and creates a hard shell that protects the wound and allows it to heal speedily without allowing pathogens to infiltrate.The technology has potentially wide applications in all aspects of dermatology and surgery. It is undergoing clinical trial on gall-bladder surgery patients by Dr. Doron Kopelman, Emek Medical Center in Afula, and Dr. David Simhon, Tel Aviv University.
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