Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sex-Crazed Bugs Unleashed in Israel

One of the great challenges of modern agriculture is how to use technology to mass produce crops while sparing consumers from the harmful chemicals and byproducts of the agricultural process. Though meant to kill harmful insects, pesticides carry a very serious risk to the environment.

While studies have shown that mankind is developing cancer and other diseases at a higher rate due to exposure to pesticides, the crop-killing vermin are only becoming more immune to its effects. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, researchers have discovered a way to safely eliminate insects without the need for harmful chemicals.

Professor Boaz Yuval at the university’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Food, Agriculture and the Environment believes that sex is the key.

If you can sterilize male insects before they copulate with females, these females will be unable to lay eggs. The problem, however, is that males who are sterilized also lose their sex drive, leaving the females to mate with male insects who are not sterilized.

Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have created a special, high protein, bacteria-enhanced “breakfast of champions” to sterilize males. By greatly increasing their sex drive and sexual performance, females spend all of their time with these Casanova sex-crazed males and never are able to lay eggs of their own.

While original applications of this research will be for plant and animal pests, many are looking to see how this work can be applied to stop the spread of organisms carrying human diseases.

Eye Spy Israeli Nanotechnology

The Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch website reports that Nano Retina, based in Herzliya, has developed a system of retinal implants to help people suffering from macular degeneration, complications of diabetes, and other diseases that affect vision.

Without getting all technical, the Bio-Retina would be implanted into the eye and actually glued over one’s natural but damaged retina. As light enters the eye, the Bio-Retina converts it into tiny electrical impulses and sends them off to the brain, essentially functioning just as a normal, healthy retina would. Best part? The procedure takes about half an hour. Heck, that’s faster than most dentist visits.

Unsurprisingly, Nano Retina’s innovative chief executive Ra’anan Gefen comes from a background of technology development in Israel’s military. Nano Retina isn’t a one-man show, though. The company is a joint venture of Rainbow Medical, also of Herzliya, and Zyvex Labs of Texas. (And, to be fair, we should mention that U.S.-based Second Sight Medical Products is also working on its own solution.)

Will bionic eyes become standard fare? Will macular degeneration become a thing of the past? Will the carrot industry survive? Only time will tell.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Truth About Urine

The Truth About Urine
What do urine color and odor changes mean? How often should you 'go'? Find out.
By Stephanie Watson
WebMD FeatureReviewed by Louise Chang, MD
March 11, 2010

Urine isn't something most people talk about. We barely give it more than a passing glance as it swirls out of sight down the toilet bowl. Yet changes in the urine – its color, odor, and consistency – can provide important clues about the status of your body. Your urine can reveal what you've been eating, how much you've been drinking, and what diseases you have.

"Urine and urinalysis have, for hundreds of years, been one of the ways physicians have looked at health," says Tomas Griebling, MD, MPH, vice chair of the urology department at the University of Kansas.

"From a historical view, urinalysis was one of the original windows into what's happening in the body," Griebling says. That's because many of the substances circulating in your body, including bacteria, yeast, excess protein and sugar, eventually make their way into the urine.

Urine is an important part of the body's disposal process. Its job is to remove the extra water and water-soluble wastes the kidneys filter out of the blood. "The urine is there primarily to get rid of toxins or things that would otherwise build up in the body that would be bad for the body," says Anthony Smith, MD, professor and chief of urology at the University of New Mexico.

When you notice that your urine has changed color, or there's a strange odor wafting up from the toilet, the cause might be something as harmless as what you had for dinner (which could have included beets or asparagus). It also might be a sign of a more serious condition, such as an infection or cancer.

Before you flush, here are a few urine changes to look out for, and what they might be saying about your health.

Color Changes
Urine gets its yellow color from a pigment called urochrome. That color normally varies from pale yellow to deep amber, depending on the concentration of the urine. Darker urine is usually a sign that you're not drinking enough fluid. "Your body needs a certain amount of fluid to function, so the body will hold on to fluid and the urine will become very strong and concentrated. When that happens, it will turn a darker color," Griebling says.

The opposite is also true. If your urine is very pale, it means that you're either drinking a lot of fluid, or you're taking a diuretic -- a drug that forces the body to get rid of excess water.

Urine can turn a rainbow of colors, and an unusual hue isn't necessarily cause for alarm. Certain medications can turn the urine fluorescent green or blue, carrots can tint it orange, vitamins can give it a yellow hue, and an inherited disease called porphyria can shade it the color of port wine.

Seeing red is typically a sign that there is blood in the urine, but before you panic, know that a little blood can produce a dramatic color change. "What I always tell patients is it takes one drop of blood to turn a toilet bowl red," Smith says.

That said, just a little blood in the urine can be a sign of something serious, like an infection or cancer, and it warrants a visit to your doctor or urologist. If you're seeing blood and your urine is also cloudy, there's a good chance you've picked up an infection, Smith says.

Odor Changes
Urine normally doesn't have a very strong smell. If you get a whiff of something particularly pungent, you could have an infection or urinary stones, which can create an ammonia-like odor. Diabetics might notice that their urine smells sweet, because of excess sugar. In the past, doctors would actually taste urine for this sweetness to diagnose diabetes.

Some foods can also change urine odor. Asparagus is among the most notorious. What people are smelling when they eat asparagus is the breakdown of a sulfur compound called methyl mercaptan (the same compound found in garlic and skunk secretions). If you catch a whiff of something after eating a plate of asparagus, it means that you've inherited the gene for the enzyme that breaks down mercaptan. Not everyone has this enzyme and, therefore, not everyone can smell it.

How Often Do You Need to Go?
How often you need to go can be as important an indicator of your health as the color or smell of your urine. Most people take bathroom breaks about six to eight times a day, but you might go more or less depending on how much fluid you drink. If you're constantly feeling the urge to go and it's not because you're not drinking extra fluid, causes can include:

Overactive bladder -- involuntary contractions of the bladder muscle
Urinary tract infection
Interstitial cystitis -- a condition that causes the bladder wall to become inflamed and irritated
Benign prostate enlargement -- growth of the prostate that causes it to squeeze the urethra and block the normal flow of urine out of the body
Neurological diseases, including stroke and Parkinson's disease
The opposite problem -- not going to the bathroom enough -- can occur when there is a blockage or infection. Or, it can be the result of bad bathroom habits. Some people -- especially teachers, surgeons, and anyone else who doesn't have time for regular bathroom breaks throughout the day -- tend to hold it in.
Delaying urination can be problematic, says Smith, who compares the bladder to a Slinky: It stretches and then contracts repeatedly, but eventually it can stretch too much to bounce back. "The bladder can develop a chronic overdistension…a chronic emptying problem," he says.

Developing Healthy Bathroom Habits
Take good care of your bladder, and it will thank you by helping you urinate regularly. To avoid having to make too many bathroom visits, stay hydrated, but not overhydrated. Drink whenever you're thirsty, but don't feel as though you have to adhere to the eight-glasses-a-day recommendation (unless you have kidney or bladder stones, in which case you'll need to increase your fluid intake).

If you're getting up during the night to use the bathroom, stop drinking three to four hours before bedtime. Limit caffeine, which can irritate the lining of the bladder. Also watch your intake of alcohol, which can have similar effects.

Finally, don't hold it in. As soon as you feel the urge to go, excuse yourself from whatever you're doing and find a bathroom.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Anti-melanoma drug seems to be miracle cure

Sunday, Feb. 28 2010
For the melanoma patients who signed on to try a drug known as PLX4032, the
clinical trial was a last resort. Their bodies were riddled with tumors,
leaving them almost certainly just months to live.

But a few weeks after taking their first dose, nearly all of them began to

Lee Reyes, 30, of Fresno, Calif., who had begun using a feeding tube because of
a growth pressing against his throat, bit into a cinnamon roll.

Nothing, he told his mother, had ever tasted as good.

Rita Quigley, who had been grateful just to find herself breathing each morning
since learning she had the virulent skin cancer, went shopping for new clothes
with her daughters at a mall in Huntsville, Ala.

Randy Williams, 46, who drove 600 miles from his home in Jonesboro, Ark., to
the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the nearest place he could get the
experimental drug, rolled out of bed. "Something's working," he thought,
"because nothing's hurting."

It was a sweet moment, in autumn 2008, for Dr. Keith Flaherty, the University
of Pennsylvania oncologist leading the drug's first clinical trial. A new kind
of cancer therapy, it was tailored to a particular genetic mutation that was
driving the disease, and after six years of disappointments, his faith in the
promise of such a "targeted" approach finally seemed borne out. His
collaborators at five other major cancer centers, melanoma clinicians who had
tested dozens of potential therapies for their patients with no success, were
equally elated.

In a kind of "pinch me" exercise, the six doctors sent each other "before and
after" CT scans of their patients.

One was of Mark Bunting, 52, an airline pilot in Sandy, Utah. His initial scan
in early October showed the cancer in his bones, an incursion considered
virtually impossible to reverse. After two months on the drug, it had all but

"Holy Cow!" Flaherty typed in reply to the slide from Dr. Toni Ribas at the
University of California-Los Angeles, that Dec. 17.

"Are you sure it is the same patient??" added Dr. Jeffrey A. Sosman at the
Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville.

From New York, Dr. Paul B. Chapman of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center,
perhaps the most determined skeptic of the group, acknowledged, "This looks


The trial of PLX4032 offers a glimpse at how doctors, patients and drug
developers navigate a medical frontier at a time when more drugs tailored to
the genetic profile of a cancer are being widely tested on humans for the first

Throughout the fall, the only two patients on the trial whose tumors continued
to grow were the ones who did not have the particular gene mutation for which
the drug had been designed. They were removed from the trial. By late December,
tumors in the 11 patients who did have the mutation had shrunk. Those involved
in the trial held their collective breath waiting to see how long the
remissions would last.

It was a far cry from where they had been a year earlier, when a previous
incarnation of the drug had no effect. Urged on by Flaherty and Chapman, the
companies that owned it had spent months devising a new formulation that could
be absorbed at higher doses.

But the new drug, still in the earliest phase of testing, had to pass several
more hurdles before federal regulators would determine whether it was safe and
effective enough for widespread use.

In December, as the doctors added more patients to the Phase 1 trial, looking
for the highest dose they could give without intolerable side effects, they
scrambled to prepare slides with graphs and statistics to convince the Food and
Drug Administration that the drug should be tested in a larger Phase 2 trial.
The agency required a summary of any and all side effects — there had been only
a few — and any deaths of patients on the study; thankfully, there had been
none since the drug was reformulated. In a matter of days they needed to submit
their findings for a prestigious meeting of clinical oncologists in June.

The side effects struck at the 1,120-milligram dose.

Many patients had been taking the reformulated drug for five months with no
signs of relapsing. The doctors had hoped that by pushing up the dose they
could shut down the cancer more effectively. Some patients were taking as many
as 28 pills a day.


Kerri Adams, in Oklahoma City, woke up one morning covered in a rash.
Frightened that she would be dropped from the trial, she tried to ignore it.
But at work, her boss was horrified and insisted that she call the doctor.
Another woman's hand swelled up, and she could not make a fist. A Philadelphia
patient had horrible nausea and diarrhea, and Bunting's joints grew so stiff
that he had to hand jars to his wife to remove the lids, even when they had
already been opened.

Maybe the drug, designed to turn off only the defective B-RAF protein, was, at
high doses, also affecting its role in healthy cells. Or perhaps it was
interfering with other proteins the body needed to function properly.

On their next conference call, the doctors agreed that they had to dial back
the dose.

As the side effects began to subside, many of the patients began to believe
they had beaten their cancer.

One evening, Bunting performed what had become his pill-taking ritual as his
wife puttered around the kitchen.

He liked the water to be room temperature, so he heated it in the microwave and
added cold from the tap. He burped, and some powder from the pills came out of
his mouth just as she turned to look.

They both laughed.


When Christopher Nelson strolled into the University of Pennsylvania for a
scheduled day of blood work and monitoring in mid-March, he was greeted as if
he had risen from the dead.

Gazing out the window of the clinic room, he spied a hot dog stand.

"Dirty water dogs," he exclaimed.

"Can you get me one?" he asked his wife's sister. "Actually, two?"

"Chris is feeling better," the nurse told Flaherty casually when she saw him.

"What do you mean?" he pressed.

"Well, he's off pain meds," she said.

Flaherty was not scheduled to see Nelson until three weeks later. But between
appointments that day, the doctor found time to visit his patient. In Nelson's
room, Flaherty broke into a wide smile, a tension he had not realized he was
holding seeping out of him.

He had never seen a melanoma patient who had been that sick improve that much.
He was not sure he had ever seen a melanoma patient that sick who improved at

Sharlene Nelson hugged him. In the weeks that followed, Christopher Nelson
gained 17 pounds. One morning a friend drove him to Atlantic City, where for a
$35 buy-in, they played his favorite game, Texas hold 'em, all day. The drug
had made him sensitive to the sun, and he burned his skin cleaning the pool one
afternoon, even with strong sunblock. Sharlene Nelson bought an umbrella, and
he spent much of the spring sitting underneath it.

"Today's a nice day," he said over the phone to a friend one day in early May.
"There's a cloud, and the sun is behind it."


In mid-May, right before he was to fly to Orlando, Fla., to present the trial's
data, Flaherty received a message on his BlackBerry as he was walking on

The first patient to respond in the trial, Elmer Bucksbaum, had been admitted
to the hospital. The cancer had spread to his brain.

Flaherty stopped walking.

The drug, Flaherty knew, was powerless in the brain. But had the drug held off
the cancer elsewhere in Bucksbaum's body? Or would other patients, too, begin
to relapse?

Bucksbaum died a few days later.

Flaherty called his family and offered his condolences. It had been not quite
eight months.