Category: Health & Medicine

Taming the New Frontiers in Gene Editing

By Sarah Scoles | November 17, 2015 1:10 pm


The world’s most powerful gene-editing tool, CRISPR-Cas9, gives humans the ability to swap out sections of the genome with less money and time than ever before. That’s a lot of power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

But right now, most of the world doesn’t have regulations about what scientists — and someday, hobbyists — can and can’t do to the double helix. In China, scientists have used CRISPR-Cas9 to modify human embryos. And that has left the rest of the world a little nervous. Read More

Getting ‘High’ On Your Own Supply

By Ben Thomas | October 19, 2015 3:58 pm


Earlier this month, researchers discovered that at least part of the euphoria that comes after a strenuous workout — runner’s high — is due to endocannabinoids, the body’s self-produced counterparts to some of marijuana’s mood-enhancing chemicals.

The finding overturned decades of conventional wisdom claiming that natural highs come from endorphins, the chemicals that became famous in the 1980s for their euphoric effects. While endorphins seem to help numb our muscles during a workout, their molecules are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier and trigger a “high” like endocannabinoids can. Read More

Dad’s Experiences Affected You, Even Before You Were Born

By Paul Haggarty, University of Aberdeen | October 13, 2015 11:37 am

The lifestyle and environment of men can have implications on their children before they decide to become fathers. (Credit: Volt Collection/Shutterstock)

It might not just be expectant mothers who have to pay attention to their lifestyle. Now a new study published in Science could be relevant to a growing body of research looking at ways in which the lifestyle and environment of men before they become fathers could influence the lives of their children and grandchildren.

We know that many human traits, such as weight, height, susceptibility to disease, longevity or intelligence, can be partly inherited, but researchers have so far struggled to identify the precise genetic basis for this. This may partly be due to limitations in our understanding of how genetics works, but now there is growing interest in the potential for something called “epigenetics” to explain this heritability. Read More

I Sent a Sample of My Poop to uBiome

By Sarah Scoles | October 7, 2015 11:59 am

(Credit: VGstockstudio/Shutterstock)

My sample kit from uBiome stared at me from the kitchen table. Inside its sleek black cover, latched with Velcro, a single high-tech Q-tip awaited. On some morning of my choosing, I was to dab that Q-tip on a piece of used toilet paper, seal it up, and send tiny particles of my excrement back to the uBiome headquarters in downtown San Francisco. There, researchers would parse it and let me know what organisms squirmed around my intestines.

uBiome, a biotech startup, exists to help people explore their microbiomes — the population of tiny organisms that live inside you, outnumbering your own cells 10(ish) to 1(ish). I wanted to know how my own microbiome compared to other people like me: youngish people who run a lot who are generally healthy but sometimes eat large cheeseburgers.

But like other genetic test providers, including 23andMe and, the company has a second and less visible objective. Users participate out of curiosity, health concerns — or, in the case of the still-nascent science of the microbiome, sheer novelty. But their data is the ultimate prize, which those companies, with participant permission, can study, share, and sell.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Is the Five-Second Rule About Dropped Food True?

By Paul Dawson, Clemson University | September 10, 2015 10:46 am

food on floor

When you drop a piece of food on the floor, is it really OK to eat if you pick up within five seconds? This urban food myth contends that if food spends just a few seconds on the floor, dirt and germs won’t have much of a chance to contaminate it. Research in my lab has focused on how food and food contact surfaces become contaminated, and we’ve done some work on this particular piece of wisdom.

While the “five-second rule” might not seem like the most pressing issue for food scientists to get to the bottom of, it’s still worth investigating food myths like this one because they shape our beliefs about when food is safe to eat.

So is five seconds on the floor the critical threshold that separates an edible morsel from a case of food poisoning? It’s a bit a more complicated than that. It depends on just how much bacteria can make it from floor to food in a few seconds and just how dirty the floor is.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

The Progress and Pitfalls of Medical Marijuana

By Katharine Quarmby | August 18, 2015 12:37 pm

medical marijuana

“Cannabis is like a medicine cabinet,” says Roger Pertwee, who was instrumental in some of the early cannabis trials for multiple sclerosis. “It has a lot of compounds in it that are novel and unique to cannabis. We have discovered 104 so far, but there are others. There are many potential uses that we have to investigate.”

Pertwee is Professor of Neuropharmacology at the University of Aberdeen and also GW’s Director of Pharmacology (some of his research at the university is funded by the company). His work, alongside that of other researchers including Raphael Mechoulam and Vincenzo Di Marzo, is instrumental in our understanding of the endocannabinoid system, a network of lipids and receptors involved in a wide array of bodily processes, including appetite, memory, pain and mood.

We have two types of cannabinoid receptor: CB1, which is mostly found in the brain and spinal cord, and CB2, which is found mainly on cells in the immune system. These receptors are activated by cannabinoids made by the body (endocannabinoids) as well as synthetic cannabinoids and those present in plants.

Where should medical research focus its efforts exploring medical cannabis? Many prominent researchers, including Pertwee, believe that the individual components of cannabis are more effective than using the whole plant. Focusing on components would also obviate the need for a patient to smoke.

Areas of interest to researchers across the world include the possible therapeutic use of THC (the main psychoactive component of cannabis), CBD and other cannabinoids to treat autoimmune diseases, diabetes, cancer, inflammation, seizures and even psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

The Needle-Free Future of Medicine

By Kiona Smith-Strickland | July 13, 2015 3:45 pm

doctor with needle

If you’re afraid of needles, here’s some good news: you may not always be stuck with getting shots.

At present, injections are the best way to deliver certain kinds of drugs. For example, vaccines and drugs like insulin are made of large molecules that you can’t take orally because they would break down in your digestive tract. Some antibiotic and antiviral medications are also given as injections for this reason.

But needles suck. About 10 percent of patients who need regular injections don’t comply with their doctors’ instructions, according to 3M, partly because self-administering injections is difficult and painful. And injectable drugs are a hassle, too: they have to be stored at cold temperatures and have a limited shelf life.

That’s why biotech companies around the world are working on needle-free ways to deliver these drugs, with everything from high-tech pills to simple do-it-yourself patches.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: medical technology

The Sixth Sense You Didn’t Know You Had

By Juliette McGregor, University of Leicester | July 1, 2015 12:59 pm


Ever fancied having a superpower? Something you can call upon when you need it, to hand you extra information about the world? OK, it’s not X-ray vision, but your eyes do have abilities that you might not be aware of.

We are all familiar with color and brightness, but there is a third property of light: “polarization,” which tells us the orientation in which light waves are oscillating. Animals, like bees and ants, use the polarization patterns in the sky as a navigation aid. But few people, even in the scientific community, are aware that humans can sense the polarization of light with the naked eye.

In research we’ve just published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, we used an experiment that was originally designed to test the visual abilities of octopuses and cuttlefish to investigate our human ability to perceive this polarized light.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: senses

Grown Adults, Stop Drinking Breast Milk. Seriously.

By Sarah Steele and Andreas Freitag | June 22, 2015 4:05 pm

man drinking milk

“Breast is best”. So goes the message from the international and clinical guidance on what milk mothers should feed their babies. But it’s also more worryingly been adopted by a growing online community of adults wanting to buy and consume expressed breast milk for its perceived health benefits – or due to sexual fetishes.

Some online forums suggest cancer patients should drink breast milk because it is supposedly easier to digest, better tolerated, and full of immune benefits, including immunoglobulin (a protein used by the immune system). Meanwhile, fitness and diet forums preach the nutritional, energy or recovery benefits of such milk, suggesting it can work as a supplement to workout or bulking regimes.

A number of websites and online forums cater to those wishing to buy, sell and trade breast milk, alongside the use of more general social media platforms. This online marketplace allows women who are expressing milk to advertise with text and images, communicating details such as cost per ounce and a description of mother, milk and baby. Buyers can also advertise on such forums, detailing their own needs and volume requirements.

Individuals can then contact each other either to meet or arrange transport for the milk, which is often frozen or packed in dry ice, and shipped by express post or courier. Notably, the quality of packaging greatly varies, and studies have shown high levels of damage in transit.

The popularity of these sites varies by country depending on the availability of government-subsidized milk banks. But in the US, where regulated milk banks are costly, and the UK, where adult buyers are not catered for, online selling communities have been growing. New country-specific websites are now being launched, including using addresses. Such growth has led commentators to label online breast milk sale a “booming market” around the world.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: nutrition

Why Hospitals Aren’t Always the Best Place to Give Birth

By Neel Shah, Harvard Medical School | June 4, 2015 11:38 am

baby birth

There is a good chance that your grandparents were born at home. I am going to go ahead and assume they turned out fine, or at least fine enough, since you were eventually born too and are now reading this.

But since the late 1960s, very few babies in the United States or the UK have been born outside of hospitals. As a result, you may find the new guidelines from the UK’s National Institutes for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) just as surprising as I did. For many healthy women, the NICE guidelines authors believe, there may be significant benefits to going back to the way things were.

Shortly after the NICE guidelines were issued, the New England Journal of Medicine invited me to write a response. The idea that any pregnant patient might be safer giving birth outside the hospital seemed heretical, at least to an American obstetrician like me. Knowing that no study or guideline is foolproof, I began my task by looking for holes to form a rebuttal.

I soon realized that this rebuttal largely hinged on flaws in the American system, not the British one. While we take excellent care of sick patients, we do less well for healthy patients with routine pregnancies – largely in the form of turning to medical interventions more than strictly necessary.

As the guidelines suggest, some women in the UK with low-risk pregnancies may be better off staying out of the hospital. Why? Because the significant risks of over-intervention in hospitals, such as unnecessary C-sections, may be far more likely (and therefore more dangerous) for patients than the risks of under-intervention at home or in birth centers. But women in the UK have access to greater range of settings where they can give birth. For women in much of the US, the choice is often the hospital or nothing.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: sex & reproduction

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