Cancer drugs are, to be honest, a club being used where a scalpel is needed. Most modern chemotherapy treatments hinge on the principle that certain drugs will kill the cancer quicker than the patient as their indiscriminate nature makes no distinction between fast growing cancer cells and regular ones. Thus any form of treatment that can either reduce the amount of drugs used or get them to target cancer cells specifically is keenly researched as they can drastically improve the quality of life of the patient whilst increasing overall effectiveness. Such improvements are few and far between and rarely come hand in hand. A new development, coming off the back of the “unboiled” egg research announced earlier this year, however may improve both fronts for current cancer treatments.
The initial research, which I refrained from writing on at the time, is pretty interesting even if the headlines don’t exactly match the reality. Essentially the researchers, based out of University of California (Irvine Campus) and chemists within Australia, have developed a process to take cooked egg protein and revert part of it back to its original form. The process they do this with is rather interesting and begins with them liquefying the egg using an urea based substance. This now liquid cooked egg, which at a protein level is still all tangled up, is then put into a machine called a vortex fluidic device (VFD) which applies an incredible amount of shear force to those proteins. This forces the proteins to untangle themselves and return to their original form. While this might sound like a whole lot of nothing it essentially allows for the mass manufacture of proteins that aren’t jumbled or misfolded which are invaluable to many areas of research.
More recent research however has employed the use of this device in conjunction with a widely used cancer drug, carboplatin. Carboplatin was introduced some 30 years ago and is favoured due to its reduced and more manageable side effects when compared to drugs that use a similar method of action. However that reduced effectiveness means that a higher dosage is required to achieve the same level of treatment, on the order of 4 times or so. Carboplatin is also a stable drug which doesn’t break down as rapidly as other drugs do, however this also means that it can readily pass through the body with up to 90% of the dosage being recoverable from a patient’s urine. Using the VFD however has the potential to change that dramatically.
The same researchers behind the original discovery have used the VFD to embed carboplatin in molecules that are called lipid mimics which are powerful antioxidants. This has done through previous methods however the use of the VFD has increased the rate at which the drug was embedded in the mimics, from 17% to 75%. This means that the drug will be about 4 times as effective in delivering its payload, allowing doctors to significantly reduce the amount used to achieve the same results. This will dramatically improve patient’s quality of life through better outcomes and significantly reduce side effects. Such a process could also be applied to other treatments as the lipid mimics are capable of storing water soluble active agents as well.
It might not be the most headline grabbing title however it has the potential to significantly increase the effectiveness of current cancer treatments whilst keeping the patient’s quality of life high. Like all improvements it’s likely going to be specific to certain treatments and types of cancer however it will likely lead onto further research that will hopefully improve all areas of cancer research.
Medicine has long known about the potential causes of Alzheimer’s however finding a safe and reliable treatment has proven to be far more elusive. Current treatments centre on alleviating the symptoms of the disease, combating things like memory loss and cognitive function. However whilst these may provide some relief and quality of life improvement they do nothing to treat the underlying cause which is a combination of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Current research has heavily focused on the former which blocks communications between neurons in the brain and, so the theory goes, removing them will restore cognitive function. Recently two treatments have shown some incredibly positive results with one of them not too far off seeing widespread trials.
A drug company called Biogen has developed a drug called Aducanumab which has shown a significant effect in reducing the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s patients. It’s an antibody that helps trigger an immune system response and was created by investigating the antibodies present in healthy aged donors, with the reasoning going that they had successfully resisted Alzheimer’s related symptoms. The recent large clinical study showed an effect far beyond what the researchers were expecting, including a dose dependent effect. The drug is not yet available for widespread distribution, there’s still one more late stage trial to go, however it could see a wide market release as soon as 2018. It’s still far from a cure but the drug is capable of significantly slowing the progress of the disease, opening up the opportunity for other treatments to be far more effective.
New research from the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland investigated using focused ultrasound to help break up amyloid plaques. Essentially this treatment disrupts the blood-brain barrier temporarily, allowing microglial cells (which are essentially clean up cells) to enter the particular region of the brain and remove the plaques. After a short period of time, the research shows a couple hours or so, the blood-brain barrier is fully restored ensuring that there are no on-going complications. This allows the body to remove the plaques naturally, hopefully facilitating the restoration of cognitive function.
In the mouse model used the researchers found that they could fully restore the memories of 75% of the subjects affected, an incredibly promising result. Of course the limitations of a mouse model mean that further research is required to find out if it would work as well in humans but there’s already precedent for using this kind of technology for treatment of other brain related conditions. Considering that the mechanism of action is similar to that of Aducanumab (removal of amyloid plaques) the side effects and limitations are likely to be similar, so it will be interesting to see how this develops.
It’s great to see conditions and diseases like this, ones that used to be a long and undignified death sentence, slowly meeting their end at the hands of science. Treatments like this have the potential to vastly improve the quality of life of our later years, meaning we can still be active members of society for much longer. I’m confident that one day we’ll have these conditions pinned down to the point where they’re no more of a worry than any other chronic, but controlled condition.
Modern in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatments are a boon to couples who might otherwise not be able to conceive naturally. They’re also the only guaranteed method by which couples who have inherited conditions or diseases can avoid passing them on to their offspring through a process called preimplantation genetic diagnosis. However current methods are limited to selection only, being able to differentiate between a set of potential embryos and selecting the most viable ones. New techniques have been developed that can go further than this, replacing damaged genetic material from one parent with that of another individual, creating a child that essentially has three parents but none of the genetic defects. Up until today such a process wasn’t strictly legal however the UK has now approved this method, opening the treatment up to all those affected.
The process is relatively straightforward involving the standard IVF procedure initially with the more radical steps following later. For this particular condition, where the mitochondria (which are essentially the engines of our cells) are damaged, the nucleus of a fertilized (but non-viable) embryo can be transplanted into a healthy donor egg which can then be implanted. Alternatively the egg itself can be repaired in much the same fashion before fertilization occurs. The resulting embryo then doesn’t suffer from the mitochondrial defect and will be far more likely to result in a successful pregnancy, much to the joy of numerous people seeking such treatment.
Of course when things like this come up inevitably the conversation tends towards designer babies, genetic modifications and all the other “playing god” malarkey that seems to plague embryo related treatments. For starters this treatment, whilst it does give the child three parents doesn’t fool around with the embryo’s core genetic material. Instead it’s simply replacing the damaged/non-functional mitochondria from one person with that of another individual. This will have no more influence on any of their characteristics than the environment they grew up in. Although, to perfectly honest, I wouldn’t see any issue with people going down to a deeper level anyway, for multiple reasons.
We’re already playing fast and loose with the natural way of doing things with the numerous treatments we have at our disposal that have rapidly increased life expectancy across the globe. If you indulge in such treatments then you’re already playing god as you’re interfering with the world’s natural way things get killed off. Extending such treatments to our ability to procreate isn’t much of a stretch honestly and should we be able to create the genetic best of ourselves through science then I really can’t see a problem with it. Sure there needs to be some ethical bounds put on it, just like there are for any kind of medical treatment, but I don’t see being able to choose your baby’s hair or eye colour being that far removed from the treatments we currently use to select the best embryos for IVF.
That’s the transhumanist in me talking however and I know not everyone shares my rather liberal views of the subject. Regardless this treatment is no where near that and simply provides an opportunity to those who didn’t have it before. Hopefully the approval of this method will extend to other treatments as well, ensuring that the the option to procreate is available to everyone, not just those of us who were born with genetic capability to.