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Medicine and Health

Patent submitted for inexpensive DNA-based tests





When it comes to diagnosing most diseases, there usually exists a delay between the patients first contact with the doctor and the starting of the necessary treatment. That delay is caused by diagnostic tests which need complex procedures done in laboratories. Depending on the test it might take days or weeks for the results to come so that the patients could receive their proper treatment.

“The blood sample has to be transported to a centralized lab, its content analyzed by trained personnel, and the results sent back to the doctor’s office. If we can move testing to the point of care, or even at home, it would eliminates the lag time between testing and treatment, which would enhance the effectiveness of medical interventions” said Professor Alexis Vallée-Bélisle from the Departament of Chemistry of the University of Montreal, the lead researcher of the DNA-based tests.

Basically, the chemists designed DNA-based tests that are able to detect protein markers from blood samples, in less then 10 minutes. Every virus, bacteria and even cancers have their own DNA that produces a certain type of protein which travels through the bloodstream. What the scientist accidentally found out was that proteins create a steric effect, which is an effect seen in molecules.

When atoms are put close to each other, their electrons tend to stay away from each other producing a continuous movement which changes the way the molecule reacts to its medium. This effect was used to reduce the signals of DNA-based tests, but Vallée-Bélisle’s team decided to create a new signaling mechanism which could detect the steric effect.

They made it possible by using inexpensive electronics and were able to identify low concentrated protein markers. These DNA-based tests would revolutionize the diagnosing process, because they can be used as soon as you reach the doctor’s office or even at home. Virus or bacterial based diseases, cancer, autoimmune diseases, allergies, STDs and many more, could be diagnosed and treated faster, sometimes before even showing any symptoms.

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Medicine and Health

How will the global disease landscape appear in 2050?





If you are curious about the potential state of health and disease in the next 30 years, including the prevailing conditions and their impact on our lives, your curiosity ends here. Based on the most recent findings from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD), it is projected that by 2050, there will be a significant rise in life expectancy and a shift towards non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

The GBD study is a comprehensive endeavor to measure the extent of health decline worldwide over a period of time. Since 1991, it has enhanced our comprehension of the evolving health challenges confronting individuals worldwide and provided valuable insights to healthcare professionals, researchers, and policymakers operating in the field of health.

In the 2021 edition of the GBD, it was found that neurological conditions have surpassed cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of ill health globally. The Lancet has recently published additional findings from the 2021 study in a series of six articles.

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 became the main focus. According to Professor Christopher Murray, Director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the most recent GBD findings show that there has been the greatest decline in life expectancy globally in the previous 71 years. According to Murray, global life expectancy experienced a decline of 1.6 years from 2019 to 2021. Peru witnessed the most significant decrease, with a decline of 6.5 years.

Moreover, the GBD also emphasized additional health patterns that have persisted during the global pandemic, with articles centering on fertility, mortality causes, disability-adjusted life-years, and risk factors to underscore the intricacies of disease burden worldwide, extending beyond COVID-19. It has also anticipated the future to forecast the potential state of diseases in the upcoming decades.

“Our article on projections for GBD […] emphasizes that future patterns may deviate significantly from past patterns due to factors such as the widespread occurrence of obesity, the rise in substance-use disorders, and climate change. It also emphasizes the immense possibilities to change the course of health for the upcoming generation,” Murray adds.

The study examined 204 countries and territories, projecting the anticipated disease burden until 2050. It also considered alternative scenarios by eliminating specific risk factors.

Undoubtedly, the researchers lacked the ability to predict the future of global health over the next three decades. Instead, they utilized projections of significant determinants of health, such as climate models and anticipated levels of particulate matter pollution (PM2.5), to inform their predictions.

Life expectancy is projected to increase, with males expected to gain an additional 4.9 years and females expected to gain an additional 4.2 years. However, this increase is slower compared to the three decades prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The largest increases are anticipated in countries with a lower life expectancy.

“Although climate change, BMI, high fasting plasma glucose, drug use, and, in certain areas, PM2.5 are becoming increasingly problematic, Murray predicts that life expectancy and healthy life expectancy will continue to rise until 2050,” states Murray. Nevertheless, he warns that the anticipated advancement is delicate and susceptible to being disrupted by various challenges, including but not limited to food insecurity, antimicrobial resistance, the escalation of conflicts involving nuclear weapons, and the rise in cases of diabetes, obesity, addiction, and aging.

Projections also indicated that “health will improve in the upcoming decades,”  but there will be a change in the prevalence of diseases. The burden of communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional diseases (CMNNs) will decrease, while non-communicable diseases (NCDs) will become more prominent. NCDs are diseases that cannot be transmitted directly from person to person, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.

In addition, there will be a rise in the number of years lived with disability (YLDs), suggesting a transition from early mortality to morbidity. This means that people will have longer lifespans but will experience more years of ill health.

Furthermore, it is anticipated that disparities in life expectancy based on geographical location will diminish. “Although health disparities between the most affluent and least affluent regions will persist, they are gradually narrowing, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa,” Murray stated.

Considering different possible futures that focused on lowering environmental risks, CMNN risks, and NCD risks, as well as the combined effects of these scenarios, showed that getting rid of certain risks can greatly improve future health outcomes, especially when big NCD risks are targeted.

“Murray concluded that there is a significant opportunity for us to shape the future of global health by proactively addressing the increasing metabolic and dietary risk factors. These risk factors are primarily linked to behavioral and lifestyle factors such as elevated blood sugar levels, high body mass index, and hypertension.”

The research findings are published in the prestigious scientific journal, The Lancet.

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Medicine and Health

Neurological implant aids paralyzed individual in regaining speech abilities in two distinct languages





A solitary cerebral implant has been employed to facilitate the restoration of speech in a paralyzed individual, encompassing both his mother tongue, Spanish, and the English language. Despite acquiring English at a later stage in life, the brain-computer interface (BCI) successfully detected the language he attempted to speak without requiring pre-programming. It is plausible that this capability could be even more effective for individuals who have been bilingual for a significant portion of their lives.

The individual, who was 36 years old, experienced quadriplegia as a result of a stroke that impacted a section of the brainstem. Remarkably, it was at the age of 30, following the stroke, that he attained a high level of proficiency in English, which was his second language. This is in spite of receiving a diagnosis of anarthria from a speech-language pathologist. Although his cognitive functions remained intact, his ability to control his vocal tract was limited, allowing him to only produce grunts and moaning sounds rather than coherent words.

The man had been utilizing an interface that allowed him to form words by making slight movements with his head, but the implementation of a brain-computer interface (BCI) had the capacity to significantly enhance this.

Prior research has demonstrated the profound and revolutionary effects that this technology can bring about. Recently, researchers presented preliminary findings on a system designed to restore speech to individuals who lack physical control over their vocal abilities. Alternative systems exist that assist individuals in computer typing by simulating the act of handwriting. Neuralink, a company led by Elon Musk, has recently implanted its inaugural brain-computer interface (BCI) device, which is purported to function akin to “telepathy.”.

The bilingualism of the participants in this trial introduced an additional level of intrigue.

The authors state in their paper that it is still uncertain to what degree bilingual speech production depends on distinct or overlapping cortical activity between languages. Consequently, it was uncertain whether a solitary device could accurately interpret neural signals when the individual was attempting to communicate in both English and Spanish.

The successful surgical procedure for implantation occurred more than three years ago. The device comprises a grid of 128 electrodes and was affixed to the surface of the patient’s left hemisphere, specifically targeting regions that play a crucial role in speech production. The device can be connected to a computer system through a connector that is implanted in the skull.

The implant functions by interpreting the neural signals that typically indicate the intention to articulate a specific word, which would normally be transmitted to the facial muscles and vocal tract. There is evidence suggesting that when acquiring a second language, the brain integrates it with the existing speech patterns of the native language. The authors of the study hypothesized that the similarities between English and Spanish in the man’s brain could enable the implant to generate either language.

However, the act of implanting the hardware is merely one component of this process. The software required training as well. Initially, they possessed a restricted lexicon consisting of 51 English words, 50 Spanish words, and three words that were shared between both languages, such as the man’s moniker, Pancho. During the training session, the participant will be presented with words individually on a screen. Subsequently, the participant will be required to verbally articulate the words in order for the system to accurately interpret their brain activity.

In order to facilitate progress, the researchers utilized the advancements observed in large language models by inputting the system’s output into GPT2. This contributed to a decrease in the error rate.

Following extensive training, the ultimate assessment was to determine whether the participant could effectively utilize the system to engage in a conversation utilizing the pre-established vocabulary. It was demonstrated to be feasible by the authors in Supplementary Video 3, and the individual was capable of effortlessly transitioning between languages.

Although the system has a limited vocabulary and requires regular recalibration through ongoing training, it has lasted longer than some other systems, reaching a duration of 48 days. This provides an exciting glimpse into the potential achievements of this developing technology. Furthermore, it contributes to our understanding of the mechanisms underlying bilingualism in the brain.

An ideal system would possess enhanced versatility, enabling users to seamlessly transition between languages, even within a single sentence. The authors express a positive outlook regarding their technology, stating that it has the capability to enhance communication for bilingual individuals with paralysis, who may find it advantageous.

The research findings have been published in the esteemed scientific journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

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Medicine and Health

By getting COVID vaccines on a regular basis, you protect your immune system against new viruses and variants





A new study suggests that getting your COVID shots on a regular basis might have benefits beyond just protecting you against the newest strains that are going around. The Washington University School of Medicine led a group of researchers who found that the vaccine makes antibodies that are effective against a wide range of variants. These antibodies might even help us build our defenses against future coronaviruses.

This is why immune imprinting is bad:
In the past four years, we’ve heard a lot about how COVID-19 is similar to and different from influenza, which is another very dangerous respiratory virus.

Since the flu is a seasonal disease (unlike COVID, as far as we know), scientists have to make changes to the flu vaccine every year based on their best guesses about which strains of the virus will be causing the most trouble. But there’s a catch. The immune system makes memory cells in response to a vaccine one year, but they don’t always make room for new cells that make antibodies the next year. This makes the immune response weaker. It’s called imprinting when this happens.

There was no information on whether imprinting could hurt the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine like it could with the flu shot. Even though it doesn’t happen every year like the flu, we all know how easily this virus can change into new types, so the vaccines have been updated several times.

What the research showed
To find out more, the researchers looked at antibodies from people and mice that had been vaccinated with mRNA COVID-19. The vaccines were designed to target two different types of COVID-19: the older OG variant from the time of social distance and running out of toilet paper, and the newer Omicron variants. At some point during the pandemic, some of the people who took part had also gotten antibodies from a natural COVID infection.

There was evidence of imprinting from the first vaccine, but it didn’t seem to be having the bad effects that it can have with flu shots. Not many of the antibodies that were found were specific to either original COVID or Omicron. Instead, most of them were cross-reactive, which means they recognized both types of the virus.

The antibodies were then put to the test against a group of different coronaviruses. Two types of SARS-CoV-2 came from different Omicron lineages. These included a pangolin coronavirus, the SARS virus from the 2002–2003 epidemic, and the virus that caused Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The antibodies were able to stop all of these viruses except for MERS, which is more different from the others in terms of how it evolved.

The combination of the different vaccines was what the scientists found to be the key to this cross-reactivity. When people were only vaccinated against the original COVID variant and not given an Omicron booster, they did not make the same range of antibodies. This means that staying up-to-date on the newest variants and regularly immunizing more people against them could have even bigger benefits than just keeping COVID away.

When COVID hit, we had to start over. Most people had never seen or heard of a virus like this before, so there wasn’t a level of immunity in the population to help protect us. If people keep getting vaccinated against COVID, this study raises the interesting possibility that things would be very different if a new coronavirus showed up.

“We don’t know for sure if getting a new COVID-19 vaccine every year would protect people against new coronaviruses, but it seems likely,” said Michael Diamond, a senior study author. “Based on these results, it looks like these cross-reactive antibodies may help protect against a pandemic caused by a related coronavirus if they don’t go away quickly. To be sure, we would have to keep an eye on their levels over time.”

What’s new with vaccines and the different types of FLiRT?
That all sounds pretty good, though. Just recently, there was news about a whole new set of COVID variants. How are our efforts to vaccinate people right now?

The FLiRT variants are the most recent ones to receive a lot of calls around the world. One in particular, KP.2, has recently passed JN.1 as the most common virus in the US, causing the second most infections.

Some people believe that KP.2’s mutations may have protected it from infections and vaccines in the past. However, this new research backs up what many health experts have already said: all the antibodies you’ve made in the past will still be helping to protect you.

Staying healthy is important, though, so if you can get an up-to-date shot where you live (especially if it’s been a while since your last one), you might want to think about it, or you could wait until the next round of updates. Not long ago, epidemiologist Adrian Esterman told Newsweek, “There will be a new vaccine available around September that will give much better protection. It will be based on either JN.1 or one of the FLiRT subvariants.”

The AstraZeneca vaccine was taken off the global market not long ago, which also changed the vaccine landscape. When new types of viruses came out, AstraZeneca did not change the formula for their vaccine, Vaxzevria. This is different from some other companies that make mRNA vaccines, for example.

Without these updates, Vaxzevria probably isn’t working as well as it used to, and because of a drop in demand, AstraZeneca is said to have decided to stop making it for business reasons. When it was first made, it was an important part of the global pandemic response. But now that there are so many other options—something we could only dream of in the darkest days of 2020—it seems like it’s done its job.

But if you were one of the millions of people who got this vaccine, this new antibody research should give you confidence that the good effects could last for a long time after the vaccine is no longer available. This is because of any booster shots you have had or will continue to get.

The study was written up in Nature.

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