JoNova

A science presenter, writer, speaker & former TV host; author of The Skeptic's Handbook (over 200,000 copies distributed & available in 15 languages).


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The good news medicinal revolution — this week’s cancer breakthroughs

The word revolution is overused and done to death. But in the case of medicine, we are in the midst of one. Here are three stories just out this week. It’s possibly none of these will end up being useful clinically, but the sheer volume of results like these mean that sooner or later getting a diagnoses of cancer will mean something very different. It’s time for good news stories. Let’s redirect the gravy train of pointless climate and renewables research. (Sell the ABC and use the money to double our medical research budget. How many lives might we change?*)

These are not instant miracles, but potential ones. The bladder cancer drug ultimately helped about a quarter of all patients. It was a small trial. Two patients of 68 appeared to reach the holy grail: to be tested free of cancer (though it doesn’t mean they are).  The second news report talks about a small study targeting a similar mechanism to stop melanoma that only helps about 30% of patients — the study successfully predicted which ones. In both cases the idea is to stop the cancer from hiding from the immune system. Some cancer cells produce molecules called PD-1 [...]

The Ebola Wars: The best article I’ve seen yet

The New Yorker has the best article I have read yet on the Ebola outbreak. Finally we get human story and details of how this outbreak started and spread, along with the outstanding heroic efforts of those on the front line. The article has details on everything, the genetics, the virology, the story of escalating fear as health workers started to get infected, and the hard decisions.

Who would get doses of ZMAPP, and which other experimental therapies would be tried?  ZMAPP is the genetically engineered copy of antibodies against Ebola, and it does appear to be useful, even though it has not been properly tested. Kent Brantly, the US doctor who contracted Ebola, improved within hours of receiving ZMAPP. His recovery was so fast his medical staff wondered if it were possible, but his colleague Nancy Writebol did not show the same progress.

Know thy enemy: only six proteins and one line of code, yet so incredibly deadly. The virus is not one virus, but a swarm of particles — an evolving population.

Since Ebola makes errors as it replicates, each genome was like a hand-copied text, and detectable differences would emerge among the genomes; there isn’t [...]

A good news moment – paralyzed man walks again with stem cell transplant

In case you’ve missed this — stem cells have been used to partially restore movement in a 38 year old man who had his spinal cord completely severed by a knife attack in 2010. The cells came  from his nose, and are technically olfactory ensheathing cells (OEC). They are unique cells — the only nerve fibres we know of that grow and make connections with the central nervous system. It’s no magic instant bullet, but a first step. It’s taken 19 months of intensive rehab after the transplant, but he is now able to drive. It’s not known if this procedure can help with paralysis caused by other, more messy causes of spinal breaks. The stab wound was a very clean cut.

It is almost 30 years since Prof. Geoffrey Raisman first identified the potential of OEC’s to repair nerve damage in mice. In November 2012 researchers in Edinburgh were able to restore a dogs ability to move hind legs.

Speaking earlier today Geoffrey Raisman described the results as “more impressive than man walking on the moon”. — speakingofresearch

There are at least three different methods of possibly curing paralysis which have all made announcements this year. In May [...]

Nigeria declared free of Ebola, but do the maths

I am glad that Nigeria is officially free of Ebola now. The story is reassuring. New outbreaks of Ebola are stoppable. But the numbers are sobering. They show how far gone the situation is in West Africa.

The index patient (as the source of the outbreak is known) arrived in Lagos, a megacity of 21 million people, on July 20th — a recipe for disaster. Over the next six weeks 19 further people were diagnosed with Ebola. The death toll was eight people, many of them health workers. Those infected generated 989 contacts, and it took 18,500 in-person, follow up visits to make sure that the virus did not spread further.

Translate those ratios to West Africa, where the latest WHO situation report shows there were 2,638 new cases between September 26 and October 17. In Nigeria, each infected person on average generated 50 contacts, and each contact generated 18 follow-up visits. This is only the roughest of ballpark estimates, but if the ratios were similar, it means that solving the spread in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea would generate 130,000 contacts and require 2.4 million follow-ups in the next three weeks. By mid November that will double. Obviously things [...]

Company stops Ebola, Bureaucracy puts it on a plane

Compare the response of The Firestone Rubber Plantation in Liberia to the Hospital in Dallas, Texas.

The rubber plantation has 8,000 workers with 71,000 dependents. It  is an hour north-east of Monrovia, surrounded by Ebola outbreaks. The virus arrived on the plantation in March. Knowing that the UN and the Liberian government were not going to save them, the managers sat around a rubber tree and googled “Ebola” and learned on the run instead. They turned shipping containers into isolation units, trucks into ambulances, and chemical cleaning suits into “haz-mat” gear. They trained cleaners, and teachers, they blocked visitors, and over the next five months dealt with 71 infections, but by early October were clear of the virus. There were only 17 survivors (the same 70% mortality rate as elsewhere). But without good management, there could have been so many more deaths.

In contrast, the nanny-state takes a good brain and stops it thinking. In Texas,  trained health professionals were caught unprepared, following inadequate protocols they assumed were good enough, and even risking their own lives. A  nurse who cared for a dying Ebola patient — and knew how bad Ebola could be — still needed to phone someone to [...]

Ebola: a relentless tide we have to stop while we still can

The bad news -Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said the disease was still out of control. Thanks to the mistake with a plane, a few US schools have closed, and whole neighborhoods are being roped off. How fast does a 19Kb string of information spread? Outside Africa, Norway has one case, Germany has had one death, one survivor, and one case. Spain has lost two, and is treating one. France and the UK have a survivor each. Today, at least, Senegal has been declared free of Ebola.

The WHO organization has admitted it botched the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

“In a draft internal document obtained by The Associated Press, the agency says “nearly everyone” involved in the response failed to notice the potential for Ebola’s explosive spread.

The agency acknowledged that its own bureaucracy was a problem, pointing out that the heads of WHO country offices in Africa are “politically motivated appointments” made by the WHO regional director for Africa.”

The good news – CSL have said they will develop a plasma product from survivor’s blood. At the moment this is the most pragmatic possible treatment. There are 3000+ survivors who have antibodies, which [...]

Ebola is potentially airborne

I’ve been watching Ebola with concern. I hoped we’d have more time. We can still gain control but every week matters. What we do now will be so much easier than what we have to do if we leave it to run.

The summary: The WHO warns that there may be 10,000 new cases a week in West Africa by early December. Can you imagine trying to set up new beds to cope with that each week? Meanwhile the Centre for Infectious Disease Research has advised the CDC that the evidence suggests some airborne spread of Ebola is occurring, which may explain the toll on health workers. Sadly a second health-worker has also been infected with Ebola in Texas (and she was on flight 1143 from Cleveland to Dallas the day before – the CDC wants passengers to call.).  Sixteen members of Doctors without Borders have been afflicted, and nine have died. That team deserves medals more help.

There are different versions of airborne infections, hopefully this is in the “only just airborne” category. Just being barely airborne is not the same as, say, being spread like measles. Nonetheless, the game has changed. Healthworkers need even more serious, much [...]

Very small trial appears to reverse Alzheimers symptoms

I like to keep an eye on research on keeping our brains intact (even if it’s not far past the leeches-and-arsenic stage). Here is a tiny trial showing a bit of promise. After years of testing drugs on Alzheimer plaques without much luck, as far as I can tell, this study had the radical idea of doing a bit of everything that had seemed to delay Alzheimers — like exercise, dumping the carbs, mini-fasts, fish oil, meditation and things like that. Unlike the drug trials, this one actually seemed to work and surprisingly for as many as 9 out of 10 patients (there were only ten patients, that’s not a ratio). It’s quite neat that it did work. It has lots of potential (though not much in the way of profits for big-pharma). However it was only six months long. It may not be slowing the plaques, but then if it restores functional memory, that’s  rather the point (though I worry those plaques are coming back later).

Nonetheless, if you like the idea of saving  your brain. Worth reading the list below, just so you know and pass it on to those with an interest. Anything that helps, especially when [...]

Ebola — time for action

I trained in microbiology so I’ve watched the Ebola situation unfold with quiet dread.  When my favourite lecturer was asked what was worst of the worst infectious epidemics he could imagine, he responded that the sum of all fears would be a cross between Ebola and Newcastle’s disease. It would be a highly fatal hemorrhagic disease, combined with a highly contagious virus spread by birds. It’s time to talk of the dark dark possibility that one mutation could bring — the aerosolization of Ebola.

As long as this Filovirus stays in its current form, spread only through direct contact with an infected and obviously ill person, we have a chance to limit the spread. Quarantine is effective. If it goes airborne, the task becomes like preventing the flu, but without clinically tested vaccines, in a totally unprotected population, and with a 60% fatality rate. This is the nuclear option.

The Ebola virus has several different forms, and at least in animal studies, it has “gone airborne” before. Theoretically, it’s an odds game. The more times the virus is copied — the better the odds are that the right mutation will occur. To be brutally blunt, every infected person is another [...]

Remarkable boost for immune systems after fasting

There’s a fascinating study out this week suggesting that if we fast for three or four days a couple of times a year we can regenerate white blood stem cells. Fasting cuts down the number of white blood cells during the fast, but afterwards they recover, and then some.

This new result comes from both mice and phase I clinical human trials.  Probably in paleolithic times, famine or at least hungry days were a part of nearly everyone’s life. Many different philosophies and religions have fasting traditions. Apparently our genes are selected to deal with that, and being short of food makes the immune system do a kind of efficiency sweep. Perhaps access to unnaturally continuous food stops our stem cells from reactivating?  Something to think about from Killjoy Jo. Yes, fasting is not exactly fun, but nor is cancer. For what it’s worth, the hard part of a fast is usually the start.

Obviously, consult your doc, do your own research, etc.

The NZ Herald

Fasting for three days can regenerate the entire immune system, even in the elderly, scientists have found in a breakthrough described as remarkable.

University of Southern California

Fasting triggers stem cell regeneration [...]