The Unofficial Top Medical Stories of 2004

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen January 05, 2005

I thought it might be fun and interesting to present some of the medical stories of 2004 that did not make the front page, yet illustrate an undercurrent of fantastic potential.

Indeed, they reflect the exciting future of merging medical therapies and technologies. I believe they capture the essence of human imagination and the practical applications to improve human health.

  • Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science have developed biological computers made up of DNA manipulating enzymes that use DNA as the software or instruction set. Trillions of these computers can exist in a drop of water. In test tube (in vitro) experiments, the computer was able to identify a prostate cancer cell and release short DNA strands. These strands incorporated themselves into the cancer cell’s DNA, shutting it down and killing it. In another experiment, they were able to detect lung cancer cells.

Successful development of these computers could lead to early detection and treatment of cancers and destroy them on a cell-by-cell basis, leaving healthy tissue alone.

  • Scientists at the Shared Tissue Engineering Laboratory at the Medical University of South Carolina have modified old Hewlett-Packard and Canon inkjet printers to print human skin.

This idea was developed by Thomas Boland, an assistant bioengineering professor at Clemson University, when he observed that the time-consuming manual process of micro-patent printing of skin cells to create tissue was akin to how inkjet printers work. He filled the inkjet cartridges with animal cells or bio-ink. The printer was able to lay out a pattern of cells on a special layer of gel instead of paper.

Boland has already produced beating heart tissue and recreated bone tissue in mice. This leading edge of research may result in a new method of skin reconstruction and repair after burns or injuries. Normal skin taken from the burn victim can be prepared, cultivated and put into the bio-ink to reduce the risk of tissue rejection. The hope is that once this technology is perfected, they can move on to creating other organ tissue to be used in transplants and drug testing among other applications.

  • People are more aware of malaria lately. More than 500 million people contract the disease, and one million children die each year. Resistance to conventional medications is a growing problem. A new discovery may lead to a new means of treating this parasitic infection.

Teams from Northwestern University in the U.S. and Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, have identified a protein called PfEMP1 that helps the parasite stick to red blood cells. It is thought that this and other proteins unique to the malaria parasite could be targeted with a vaccine, effectively immunizing against the disease.

  • Another protein uncovered by researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center may provide a breakthrough in the treatment of psoriasis. The protein STAT3 is involved in wound healing and in the development of skin cancer. STAT3 becomes activated to repair damaged skin and shuts down once the healing process is complete. However, in the case of psoriasis, activated levels of STAT3 were high; the skin cells do not stop reproducing. Indeed, a special mouse bred to produce activated STAT3 always developed psoriasis.

Researchers injected a drug containing a small piece of DNA designed to shut off STAT3 in these mice; the psoriasis cleared. This has the potential to provide relief to millions of people.

  • A new phase 2 study released by ConjuChem, a Montreal-based pharmaceutical company, shows promise for the treatment of type 2 diabetes. They have created a technology that prevents the rapid breakdown of protein-based (peptide) hormones by the digestive system. By creating a carrier molecule called DAC(TM), they can link this to known hormones, enhancing their effectiveness.

In the study, they used such a hormone called GLP-1. This naturally occurring peptide normalizes blood sugar levels in five ways: It stimulates insulin secretion; it delays the stomach from emptying food into the intestine; it stimulates the pancreas to create more insulin-producing Beta cells; increases the Beta cell’s sensitivity to glucose; and it reduces insulin resistance so each molecule of insulin has a greater effect than before. Without the benefit of DAC(TM) Technology, GLP-1 lasts only about five minutes.

We continue to see the integration of imagination and science creating possibilities once considered science fiction. Undoubtedly we will be reading more of these stories. The wonder never ceases: marvellous.

All the best in the new year.

© Dr. Barry Dworkin 2005

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