Brain Imaging Breakthrough

In recent news, researchers at the Cardiff University Brain Imaging Centre have produced new scanning equipment to show the workings of the brain. One user has stated that the research was akin to using the Hubble telescope after years of using binoculars.

The scan shows the wiring of the human brain. White areas/matter make up the inner part of the brain and are made of dense fibres packed in a tight arrangement. Siemens engineers used the latest computer tools to create 3D images mapping the brain and the nerve impulses and signals of a patient. The scanner uses colour coding to highlight the direction of travel of the impulses and density of fibres to produce a more refined image and a new way of viewing brain mappings. This technology can be used to learn more about and possibly aid the treatment of dementia, MS and epilepsy along with numerous other neurological conditions.



Trigeminal Neuralgia

The trigeminal nerve or fifth cranial nerve is the nerve that sends pain impulses to the brain. When the nerve malfunctions, impulses can be sent at the wrong time, when there is no real pain. However, the sufferer will still feel sharp pain of great intensity. It usually occurs when the protective coating around the trigeminal nerve, the myelin sheath is damaged. High blood pressure, tumours and multiple sclerosis can cause this damage. Rarely, a tangle of arteries and veins called an arteriovenous malformation can also lead to the attack. The attacks can span from a few seconds or to a few minutes, the pain is often unbearable It often only affects one side of the face, usually the right hand side.

The attacks are often brought about by light touching of the face, this can be due to light intensity, wind, air conditioning, eating, washing and even breathing. This means that it is incredibly difficult to control. It usually occurs in those who are over 40 and is more frequent in women than in men.

Treatment can vary but usually:

  1. Anticonvulsant Drugs

Carbamazepine is often used in treatment in order to prevent nerve firing. It slows down nerve impulses, reducing the ability to transmit pain messages. It has to be taken in large doses in order to be effective.

2.  Surgery

Surgery such as nerve replacement therapy can be used in treatment. Through cutting part of the nerve, numbness occurs and the pain is dulled or ceases. However, the nerve may regrow which results in further pain and the need for more surgery and medications.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) is researching the disease. Mice can be used to understand the relationship between the nervous system and the vascular system. Researchers are looking at the role estrogens may play in affecting nerve pain activity, due to the disease being more prevalent in women compared to men.



Regeneration of the Pancreas

US researchers have discovered that the pancreas can be stimulated to regenerate if a fasting diet is taken up. The diet mimics periods of feast and famine. It was tested on mice and highlighted that beta cells were regenerated through the fasting. The beta cells detect the blood glucose level and stimulate the release of insulin which is used to control blood sugar along with glycogen and glucagon.

However this diet did lead to low blood sugar and a decrease in a hormone called IGF-1. Doctors have discouraged people from attempting to start a crash diet as it is important to see a physician first to ensure that the body is able to cope with such a varied diet.

Those who took part lost up to 4kg but put this back on in the feasting period of the diet.

This type of treatment reduces the need for drugs and can be seen to have fewer side effects than the traditional medication used in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.


The Development of Three Person Babies

In recent news, the UK Government just approved the making of babies from 3 people rather than the conventional and biological 2. The move has been met with an abundance of controversy and debate. The production is an advanced form of IVF and was developed by medics from Nottingham.

Research suggests that the first of these babies may be born as early as late 2017. The technique was initially developed in the 1990s in order to combat infant mortality as a result of mitochondrial defects inherited from the mother. Leigh Syndrome was rife amongst women who were predisposed to the genes’ children. Symptoms began to appear in the first year of life and many families suffered through the heart ache of multiple infant deaths, some whilst still in the womb. Leigh Syndrome affects the mitochondria as a result of a genetic mutation in the DNA of the fetus, which eventually leads to a loss of mobility and death within three years of life. 1/5 of the mutations is as a result of a mitochondrial defect whereas the others as a result of DNA mutation.

The method involves the extraction of all viable and useful DNA from the mother’s egg and the healthy mitocondria from the donor egg to produce a new egg. The new egg contains around 0.1% donor DNA. The process is called pronuclear transfer and was first tested using mice in 1983, since then the process has een refined and redevelopped for safe use in humans.

In January 2017 a baby girl was born in Ukraine using pronuclear transfer and another couple is expecting a male child in the following months.

Last year, a baby boy was born using a process known as spindle transfer. Spindle fibres and chromosomes are removed from a donor egg and replaced by those of the mother. The egg is then fertilsied by the fathers’ sperm. This method posseses a higher risk as chromosomes are suceptible to falling off the spindles when they are implanted so this can lead to a child being born, lacking vital chromosomes or too many. The boy who was born last April appeared to be in perfect health, however in many diseases, symptoms become visible in their first few years of life, so he is being monitored carefully.

Despite the UK passing laws condoning the use of this method in cases where the mother is affected by the mitochondrial disease, the doctors involved and parents have received a large backlash of criticism, regarding the ethics of the process. Proffessor Murdoch from the Newcastle team stated that: “The translation of mitochondrial donation to a clinical procedure is not a race but a goal to be achieved with caution to ensure both safety and reproducibility.” At the moment the method is almost exclusively used for parents where the mother has a mitochondrial defect so many argue that is not a violation of ethics but rather a preventitive measure against the mitochondrial disease, whereas others argue that it is simply fertility treatment. In many cases, arguments suggest that whilst these procedures increase life expectancy to over 3 years of age, they may lead to more problems as the child ages and can lead to a very poor quality of life.

In these cases, it is important to understand that there is a very fine line within medical ethics and what can be seen as a preventitive measure can cause more harm in the future. Despite this it is important to acknowledge that 3 healthy infants have been born and only time will tell how these procedures will affect this children and others like them, in the future.




Vitamin D Pills in Flu Prevention

A recent study published by the British Medical Journal stated that food should be fortified with vitamin D in order to strengthen the immune system. The study was aimed at the prevention of acute respiratory tract infections but some think that this can be broadened to many other infections.

However,  Public Health England, argues that there is not enough evidence and data to prove these conclusions.

The immune system uses vitamin D to produce white blood cells, one type of white blood cell is the T cell and cytotoxic T cells are used to perforate the cell membrane of bacteria and pathogens using a substance known as perforin. This means the cell membrane is freely open to substances which leads to cell death.

The study suggested that one in every 33 people would be spared from infection if they took vitamin D supplements. Lead researcher, Professor Martineau stated that 3.25 million fewer people would get at least one acute respiratory infection a year.  However, this could be due to other factors, hence the PHE stating that the study is inconclusive.  Around 11, 321 people participated in the trial and vitamin D supplementation reduced the risk of acute respiratory tract infection among all participants.

More research is needed to prove the extent of the benefits of vitamin D, however it can not be denied that an increase in vitamin D intake is beneficial in all accounts as long as it is not taken in excess, as in these cases, it would lead to kidney and heart diseases.



Prostate Cancer and MRI Scanning

One of the biggest advances in cancer diagnosis occurred this week, in regards to the detection of prostate cancer using MRI scanning techniques, which eliminates the need for a biopsy. Prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer in men and affects millions of families each year.

The Prostate MRI Imaging Study (Promis), led by researchers at University College London (UCL), also showed that more than a quarter (27%) of all men with suspected cancer could avoid a biopsy altogether.

After the trial on 576 men, results showed that more than a quarter of them could be spared from invasive biopsies that often lead to side effects.  The trial, showed 27% of the men did not need a biopsy at all. 11 British hospitals took part in the trial. 93% of aggressive cancer’s were detected using an MRI compared to only 48% using biopsies.

However overall 40% of results could be interpreted as incorrect as in some cases the MRI shows up and gives an all clear when in fact there is a cancerous element to the prostate.

More extensive testing needs to be done until this type of treatment is used on a wider scale worldwide.


The use of stem cells in modern medicine

The use of embryonic stem cells in research and in medical application is a controversial area. Despite the benefits of research using embryonic stem cells, there are a variety of ethical issues surrounding this area of medicine.

Embryonic stem cells are from embryos that have been donated for research purposes or embryos that were otherwise going to be destroyed from an in vitro fertilisation clinic. They are an important area of medicine to research, as these cells have not differentiated, in other words, they are not specialised so have the potential to differentiate into a wide variety of cells, including skin cells for skin grafts as well as many other types of cells.

There are many diseases that may be treated efficiently via the use of embryonic stem cells, including: muscular dystrophy, heart disease even diabetes.

However despite these benefits, many people believe that the use of embryonic stem cells is unethical, as it is harming a living human child. This is controversial as the exact point of consciousness is debatable, many believe that this point is straight after conception, yet others debate that this is when significant organs have developed.

This is why some people believe that research in adult stem cells is both more successful and more ethical. The origin of adult stem cells in the human body is still under investigation, although a large majority can be found in bone marrow. Scientists now have evidence that stem cells exist in the brain and the heart. If the differentiation of these adult stem cells is able to be controlled, then it is likely that they will play a predominant role in future transplants of organs.

In the 1950s, researchers discovered that the bone marrow contains at least two kinds of stem cells: hematopoietic stem cells which form all of the types of blood in the body and the more commonly known, bone marrow stromal stem cells. However despite the research surrounding adult stem cells, they are found in short supply and “once removed from the body, their capacity to divide is limited, making generation of large quantities of stem cells difficult.”

Furthermore, there are a large variety of similarities and differences between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells can become all cell types of the body because they are pluripotent. Adult stem cells are thought to be limited to differentiating into different cell types of their tissue of origin.

Embryonic stem cells are also easier to grow in laboratories, yet adult stem cells are described as rare in mature cells as there are a relatively small proportion of them. Moreover, in order to be useful, a large number of cells is needed in order to grow organs for use in transplants.

Adult stem cells are less likely to face rejection as they can be made using the patients own cells, so rejection after transplantation is reduced significantly. This is important as it means that there is a minimal need for immunosuppressant drugs to be used, which themselves, can have detrimental effects on a patient as they weaken the immune system in order to reduce the likelihood of rejection. This means that the patient will be more at risk and more susceptible to common illnesses and more ta risk in general of being unable to fight invading pathogens.