It goes without saying that the drugs you take for a headache, or high blood pressure, or even depression should work better than a Tic-Tac. That’s what drug trials are for: researchers give a group of subjects either the drug under investigation or a placebo to check that the medicine is significantly more effective than a sugar pill. Plus, the trials can reveal any potentially harmful side effects. In theory, this is a great way to weed out useless or actively harmful drugs. But it fails when drug manufacturers cherry-pick their data, publishing papers on the positive trials and sweeping the unsuccessful ones under the rug. And this behavior is completely legal.
Science writer and medical doctor Ben Goldacre wrote a book, with a long excerpt published at the Guardian, about how this process leads to approval for drugs that don’t actually work. And as he explains, when widely used drugs—such as the diabetes medication rosiglitazone—have harmful side effects, they sometimes remain in common use.
Although the spinal cord can recover from minor damage, severe injuries, like those that cause paralysis, are permanent…right? When deep cuts partially sever rats’ spinal cords, they isolate the lower part of the spine from the brain. Since that part of the spine is responsible for controlling the rats’ hind limbs, it leaves the legs paralyzed. A team of Swiss scientists tackled the challenge of restoring the brain-to-limb connection, successfully re-teaching paraplegic rats to walk, run, and climb stairs.
First, the researchers injected the isolated section of spinal cord with neuron-exciting chemicals called neurotransmitters. Then, they used electrodes on the outside of the spinal cord to send continuous electrical signals to those excited nerve cells. This chemical and electrical stimulation acted as a sort of molecular prosthesis for the signals that would normally come from the brain but that couldn’t get past the spinal injury.
What’s the News: Several days ago, a tasty tidbit hit the science blogosphere: writing in a journal of the American Chemical Society, scientists reported the successful production of gelatin from human proteins.
Understandably, the verdict of the crowd was, “Groooooosss!” The details of the experiment were dutifully reported—the human gene for collagen, the protein in skin and bones that makes up gelatin, was inserted into a yeast, which then cranked it out, along with the help of certain enzymes—but its purpose was sometimes glossed over in favor of giant images of quivering dessert. Like the one above. Yum.
So why use human genes to make gelatin?
If you talk smack on Yelp, it’s coming down.
What’s the News: Sign here, here, here, and here—that’s the first thing your doctor’s office asks you to do. Chances are, you’re not reading the forms too closely. But tucked in there might be a little clause that goes something like this: “all your online reviews are belong to us.” And if you refuse to sign it, they’ll refuse to see you.
Doctors and dentists have started including this language, provided by an organization called Medical Justice, in their releases in an effort to keep negative online reviews from going up on sites like Yelp. But, as Ars Technica found, there are about a million different ways that this is both silly and pointless.
What’s the News: In long space flights, such as a mission to Mars, astronauts will have more time during which they could get injured or sick. And the same apparently goes for the medicine aboard spaceships: According to a NASA-funded study, medicines degrade faster in space than they do on Earth. As the researchers conclude in their paper, “this information can facilitate research for the development of space-hardy pharmaceuticals and packaging technologies.”
What’s the News: Alzheimer’s is getting an update: for the first time in 27 years, the national criteria for diagnosing the disease have been revised. The new criteria are intended only for use by researchers studying the disease, but they are important because they acknowledge growing evidence for an early stage of Alzheimer’s that could be detectable with biological tests before cognitive impairment sets in. Read More
They may look simple, but our red blood cells are the sophisticated result of evolution. So to create new ways to study our bodies and perhaps even disperse drugs to different organs and body parts, scientists played copycat. A team of researchers announced this week that they have developed synthetic red blood cells that mimic our natural ones in both form and function. They describe their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To make red blood cells in the lab, study leader Samir Mitragotri and colleagues started with spheres of biodegradable polymer. They then exposed the spheres to isopropanol, which collapsed them into the discoid shape characteristic of red blood cells. The researchers then layered proteins — either albumin or hemoglobin — onto the doughnut-shaped disks, cross-linked the proteins to give them extra strength and stability, and finally dissolved away the PLGA template to leave only a strong but flexible shell [The Scientist].