Friday, October 29, 2010

A Different Kind of Eyeglasses


For many people past the age of 40, focusing on close objects—restaurant menus, for instance—just gets harder and harder.

Most people with this condition, called presbyopia, eventually give in and get reading glasses, bifocals or glasses with progressive lenses.

But what if there were another alternative that didn't require people to carry an extra set of glasses or have only part of their field of vision in focus at any one time?

Zoom Focus Eyewear LLC, of Van Nuys, Calif., has just such an option, and with it won this year's Silver Innovation Award. The solution: eyeglasses, called TruFocals, that the wearer can manually adjust to give clear, undistorted vision whether reading a book, working on a computer or looking into the distance.

The judges praised the potential large-scale benefit of TruFocals. Richard S. Lang, one of the judges and a physician at the Cleveland Clinic, called the technology a paradigm shift in the way it addresses a problem "that has been handled the same way for many years."
Mimicking the Eye

For more than 100 years, researchers have tried to come up with adjustable eyeglasses; a Baltimore inventor filed a patent on the idea in 1866. But a workable product that's easy to adjust, thin, lightweight and accurate proved elusive.

For the Wall Street Journal's 10th annual Tech Innovation Awards, Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute received the Gold award for its technology to make paper-thin computer screens with a twist. The company beat out nearly 600 entries for its top ranking, along with Silver-award-winner Zoom Focus and Bronze-winner Counsyl of Silicon Valley.

Stephen Kurtin, a California inventor who previously devised one of the first word-processing programs, turned to the problem in the early 1990s. His solution, TruFocal eyeglasses, mimic the way that the lens of the human eye stretches and contracts to adjust focus.

Each TruFocal lens is actually a set of two lenses: an outer lens, and an inner lens made of a flat glass plate attached to a flexible membrane that contains a clear, silicone-based liquid. A manual slider on the bridge of the eyeglasses adjusts the focus by changing the shape of the membrane. The outer lens can be custom made to correct other vision problems besides presbyopia, including nearsightedness and astigmatism.

Once the TruFocal lenses are adjusted, the entire field of vision is in focus, unlike bifocals and progressive lenses, which keep only a limited area in sharp focus. So a user can adjust the glasses to focus only on the book he's reading, then look up and readjust them to focus solely on the TV across the room.
One Shape, Several Colors

There were some false starts along the way. Mr. Kurtin considered using liquid-crystal electronics to adjust the focus, but the batteries proved problematic. The first model weighed seven pounds. But after nearly 20 years of refinements, the first TruFocal glasses were introduced in 2009.

There's a downside for the fashion conscious: The glasses come in one shape—round—and have been compared to the spectacles worn by Harry Potter. (They are sold in several colors, though.) The circular lenses are necessary to the workings of the technology; with any other shape, the flexible membrane couldn't keep a spherical shape when compressed.

TruFocals aren't the only glasses with adjustable lenses. But other products are mainly designed for users in the developing world, where optometrists aren't widely available; they are meant to be adjusted once by the user to correct the focus at a given distance and then set that way. The Zoom Focus product is aimed at wearers who want to make constant adjustments in their vision.

Next month, TruFocals will be rebranded as Superfocus glasses. The company will also change its name, to Superfocus LLC.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Targeting tumors without the pain of radiation

Israeli scientists have developed an innovative new nano-particle treatment for cancerous tumors that could replace traditional radiation therapy.

Traditional radiation treatment has a range of damaging side effects, but Prof. Israel Gannot believes he can provide an alternative.

Scientists from Israel are developing a new way to destroy cancerous tumors that will have fewer side effects than traditional radiation therapy, and cause minimal damage to surrounding tissue.

The innovative method developed by a professor at Tel Aviv University uses heat to kill the tumor cells, while leaving the surrounding healthy tissue intact.

Today, radiation therapy is one of the most important weapons against cancerous tumors, but the therapy can have a significant impact on the health of a patient as it harms healthy tissue as well as malignant cells.

Patients often experience anything from nausea to hair loss, fatigue, skin irritation, and a lowered white blood cell count.

Prof. Israel Gannot, whose method is soon to be published in the journal Nanomedicine, uses a special mixture of nano-particles - already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) - and antibodies to locate individual tumors and bind directly to them.

A targeted rise in temperature

The specialized cocktail is administered safely and simply, through topical local injection or injection into the blood stream.

"Once the nano-particles bind to the tumor, we excite them with an external magnetic field, and they begin to heat very specifically and locally," Gannot explains. The magnetic field is manipulated to create a targeted rise in temperature, and it is this directed heat elevation that kills the tumors, he says.

Once the treatment is completed, the nano-particles are washed out of the body naturally without leaving a trace, minimizing side effects.

So far, the treatment has been proven effective against epithelial cancers, which can develop in almost any area of the body, such as the breast or lung. By using a special feedback process, also developed in his laboratory, the process can be optimized for individual treatment.

Gannot claims the method is effective against almost any type of tumor, as long as its specific markers and its antibodies can be identified.

Recuperation at home

Aside from being minimally invasive, Gannot says that the treatment is also fast and efficient. The entire treatment lasts only six hours, and can be administered during an out-patient procedure, enabling patients to recuperate in the comfort of their own homes.

It's early days yet, however. Gannot is currently applying his technique to cell lines and to ex vivo tissues and tissue-like substitutes in his lab, and plans to start in vivo experiments by next year.

If long-term clinical trials are successful, however, Gannot believes the technique could become a mainstay of patient care.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In Israel, Growing Tobacco to Save Lives

By John Bernard

In a greenhouse in northern Israel, a company is growing tobacco plants yielding a surprising product that is vastly different from cigarettes. These plants produce genetically-engineered human collagen, a protein vital for tissue repair that is used by surgeons to fill bone voids in cancer patients, fix heart valves and heal severe wounds.

The genetic engineering technology that allows the tobacco plants to generate the collagen was developed by CollPlant based in Rehovot in central Israel. This novel use of the tobacco plant answers a major unmet medical need.

A scientific achievement with commercial potential

“Collagen is used in about a thousand important medical products, but until now manufacturers have had to derive it from pigs, cows or human corpses,” says CollPlant CEO Yehiel Tal, noting that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other international health regulatory agencies have expressed serious safety concerns with respect to the use of both animal and human corpse tissues.

CollPlant’s plant-derived collagen poses no safety risks and can be considered a green technology, eliminating the industrial waste and ecological damage associated with the raising of livestock. In addition, the company is providing tobacco farmers with a healthier and more lucrative use for their crops.

“The leaves of a single tobacco plant can yield about 100 grams of tobacco (for cigarettes) or about a gram of genetically-engineered human collagen,” says Prof. Oded Shoseyov, CollPlant’s co-founder and the inventor of the technology. “And from a single gram of collagen it is possible to produce, for example, about three injections of highly-valuable wound healing gel for patients suffering from diabetic ulcers.”

In developing CollPlant’s innovative technology, Shoseyov had to overcome a formidable scientific challenge. “Most proteins in the body are the result of a single gene but there are five different genes responsible for the production of collagen.”

Shoseyov’s success in transferring all five genes into a transgenic plant that could produce collagen was acknowledged earlier this year when he was awarded the prestigious Hebrew University Kaye Innovation Award for “scientific excellence with commercial potential.”

Good news from the FDA

CollPlant is well on the way to leveraging the commercial potential of Shoseyov’s invention. The company has begun to market collagen as a raw material to Japanese manufacturers and in August received good news from the FDA about its first product.
“The FDA informed us that they have agreed to classify our Vergenix wound dressing as a medical device, rather than as a drug or biologic product,” says Tal. “This is a breakthrough because the medical device regulatory review process is much simpler and quicker than that used for products defined as drugs or biologics.”

Vergenix is just the first of several regenerative tissue products in the CollPlant pipeline that target the multi-billion dollar wound management market. These products include gel formulations for deep-tunneled wounds associated with diabetic ulcers, as well as wound dressings for acute and chronic wounds.

Other CollPlant products will attempt to meet the growing demand for collagen-based orthopedic products. In the US alone, each year there are about 800,000 ligament and tendon repair procedures, 400,000 shoulder operations and more than 500,000 bone graft procedures, all of which require collagen.

CollPlant has received strong support from leading investors since its inception. Investment funds headed by two prominent healthcare industrialists, former Teva Pharmaceuticals CEO Eli Hurvitz and Perrigo founder Mory Arkin, were among the founding investors. Earlier this year the company began to trade publicly on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Invasive shrub increases risk of human disease

There are many ways of fighting disease, but Brian Allan from Washington University has suggested a most unusual one – a spot of weeding. Allan’s research shows that getting rid of a plant called the Amur honeysuckle might be one of the best ways of controlling an emerging human disease called ehrlichiosis. The plant, however, doesn’t cause the disease. The connection between the two is far more complicated than that.

The Amur honeysuckle is an Asian plant that’s naturally alien to American shores. But, like many species that are brought to new habitats, it has become an invader. It forms thick growths that deprive native plants of light, causing local diversity to plummet in the face of an expanding blanket of honeysuckle. This story has been repeated all over the world with different species cast as invasive villains, and different communities cast as suffering victims. But the true consequences of these invasions often go unnoticed.

The honeysuckle doesn’t just crowd out local plants; Allan has found that it also attracts white-tailed deer. Where the deer go, so do their parasites, and these include the lone star tick, the animal that spreads ehrlichiosis. Through their blood-sucking bites, the ticks spread five species of bacteria that infect and kill white blood cells. This weakens the immune systems of their hosts and causing the flu-like symptoms that accompany a bout of ehrlichiosis.

More honeysuckle means more deer, which means more ticks, which means more bacteria, which means more potentially infected humans. This invasive shrub might help to explain why cases of ehrlichiosis have gone up by around 6 times in the early part of the 21st century. In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded just 100 or so cases of ehrlichiosis in the United States. By 2006, that number had risen to just under 600.

Allan discovered this remarkable chain of events by carrying out a series of field surveys in the Missouri woodlands. He found that compared to honeysuckle-free areas, invaded zones had 18 times as much plant matter and around five times as many deer (which presumably are drawn to areas with more shelter and potential food). As a result, they also had 10 times as many ticks that were infected by ehrlichiosis-causing bacteria. Clearly, the risk of catching the disease is higher in areas that contain honeysuckle.

To test his hypothesis, Allan removed the honeysuckle from selected patches of woodland. The result: far fewer signs of deer and far fewer infected ticks. Allan also found that the presence of honeysuckle didn’t affect the odds of a tick being infected with the problematic bacteria, or their odds of survival. This suggests that the removal of the honeysuckle was indeed lowering the numbers of ticks by driving away the deer, rather than simply creating conditions that are more hostile towards ticks.

This is a good example of an invasive species increasing the burden of human disease and it’s unlikely to be the only one. Other studies have found that in the northeastern United States, the honeysuckle and the Japanese barberry (another invasive shrub) might increase the risk of Lyme disease, another tick-borne bacterial disease.

To Allan, these domino effects mean that removing invasive species isn’t just an environmental cause – it’s a public health issue too. Honeysuckle might repress local plants but through a convoluted chain of events, it could end up repressing the immune systems of local people. That should provide even more incentive to deal with these invaders. As Allan himself writes,

“Our finding that removal of the invader mitigates disease risk, coupled with the benefits of invasive plant removal to wildlife communities, suggests a potential “win-win” scenario for biodiversity conservation and human health.”