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Our Unexpected Ally in the Fight against Zika: Mosquitoes

By: Nicholas Persaud

 

Zika is my no means a novel development. In fact, the virus that causes Zika was first identified in a monkey living in the Zika forest in 1947. One year later a specific species of mosquito called Aedes africanus was determined to be the mosquito that carries the virus. The first time a human contracted the Zika virus was actually in 1952, but it was not until 2007 that the first major outbreak occurred. The symptoms of the Zika virus, while potentially serious, are by no means out-of-the-ordinary and include pain in various parts of the body, rashes, and fever.

However, one of the main reasons why Zika has gained so much attention is because of the negative health effects it has on newborns. Zika has been shown to cause microcephaly in infants, a devastating condition that leads to abnormal brain development. Because it’s spread by mosquitoes, often an unavoidable reality in tropical regions, it has become of the most frightening health crises in our modern world.

The Zika virus has been spreading across the globe and has managed to find its way to the United States. In order to combat the rapid growth of Zika researchers have been desperately searching for a method to combat Zika. It just so happens that the people of Florida are considering fighting fire with fire. A British biotech company called Oxitec has genetically modified the Aedes aegypti mosquito in order to prevent the spread of Zika. The scientists of Oxitec have modified the mosquitoes so that they will not be able to produce viable offspring upon mating. Essentially, the purpose of these mosquitoes is to significantly reduce mosquito populations by being sterile.

Oxitec released their genetically modified mosquitoes in other countries and the results were favorable. The next place that Oxitec wants to release its mosquitoes in is Florida. Florida has had multiple reported cases of Zika and Oxitec believes that its mosquitoes will offer a solution. The FDA has approved the the genetically modified mosquitoes and deem it safe to be tested in Florida. However, before releasing the mosquitoes government officials want the consent of the residents and not everyone is willing to give it.

Many residents in Florida are against the release of the mosquitoes because they fear that it will have drastic effects on the environment. Oxitec attempted to alleviate the fears of the residents by making a statement that the mosquitoes will “not have a significant impact on the environment”. Despite this, people are still against the idea of releasing the mosquitoes in Florida. Government officials are asking residents to vote in order to express their opinion on the matter. While the vote will reflect the public opinion it may have little impact on the decision to release the mosquitoes because the officials can choose to ignore the results. The majority of government officials say that they will take into account the results of the election when making the final decision. The vote will take place on November 8, which coincidentally is the same day America makes its decision on who the next president will be. Even with the negative feedback from the public the possibility that the mosquitoes will be released is very high, marking a potential first step in the fight against a dangerous contagion. 

Is Acupuncture a Placebo?

By: Barbara Gruszka

You may have seen the Grey’s Anatomy episode where Dr. Meredith Grey ruins Dr. Dereck Shepard’s Alzheimer disease trial with the placebo drugs by interfering with the randomization of the placebo and the experimental drugs.[1] These “placebo trials” are not at all a Hollywood dramatization of the real world- the placebo effect is used to test various kinds of medications and surgical operations to see how patients react psychologically to the treatment.

What is the Placebo Effect?

A placebo is an inactive treatment, much like a “sugar pill”, that does not contain any active substance or ingredient.[2] In simpler terms, a placebo is not a medication. A placebo can be administered in many forms: pill, injection, or surgical procedure.

The placebo effect, on the other hand, is the psychological belief that the “treatment” administered is working for the greater good of the patient. The subject of the treatment feels that the placebo is working, and the medical condition is resolved even upon application of an inactive, or fake, treatment. Some medical studies require a double-blind control placebo, where the patient does not know whether they are receiving an active or inactive treatment, and the doctor does not know which is administered. This way, the results are reported without any bias and the full effect of the placebo versus that of the drug being tested can be measured.

As always, there may be a negative result that can be experienced even when receiving the inactive treatment. In this case, the placebo is a nocebo, and the patient experiences negative symptoms.[3]

Acupuncture and Theoretical Placebo

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese practice of inserting needles in specific points around the body called “acupoints”.[4] These points are believed to influence certain parts of the body through a natural flow of energy, known as chi.[5]

While there have been many studies conducted to test the effectiveness of acupuncture, there have been no real conclusive results. In fact, some studies run by Harvard professor Ted Kaptchuk have examined the placebo effect in the context of acupuncture, where retractable needles are “inserted” into the test subject and the patient is observed for any medical changes or symptoms.[6] Ironically enough, the test subjects of the placebo experiment noted negative results after the placebo acupuncture.

With this in mind, could the idea of receiving  acupuncture treatment trick the mind into believing that certain parts of the body are healing? “Tricking” the mind through acupuncture, to many a well-accepted medical practice, could deliver an effect similar to a placebo treatment and lead one to believe that he or she is healed. Researchers looking to find more about the placebo effect, like Ted Kaptchuk, look to find how the stimulation of placebo treatments affects the brain and how the brain can control our body’s mechanisms, as if to allow the brain to function as its own treatment. [7] Scientists like Kaptchuk hope to uncover the specific neural pathways and encoding that produce the placebo effect: in other words, is “feeling better” after a treatment linked with specific activity in a brain region?

[1] “Grey’s Anatomy” (April 28, 2011). ABC Episode: “It’s a Long Way Back”

[2] http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/placebo-effect

[3] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-is-the-nocebo-effect-5451823/?no-ist

[4] www.evidencebasedacupuncutre.org

[5] http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/acupuncture/basics/definition/prc-20020778

[6] http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/01/the-placebo-phenomenon

[7] http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/01/the-placebo-phenomenon

Medical Metamorphosis: Modifications to Mortal Makeup

By: Tiffany Pham

 

Replacing members and changing parts naturally seems to be a practice in maintaining robots or marionettes. However, recent medical advancements have markedly demonstrated the potential in replacing and altering not robots, but the human body. From external body parts such as eyes to the skeletal structure of the human to the intricate configuration that is DNA, no part of the body is inaccessible to medical modification.

 

Artificial Retinas

Retinal degeneration can stem from disease or simply old age. Nonetheless, its effect is life-altering. As such, scientists are developing an ample range of medical devices designed to assist in visual impairment, namely artificial retinas.

Recent studies have demonstrated the utility of optogenetics in helping to restore damaged retinas. Researchers have combined semiconductor nanorods and carbon nanotube films to create a platform for light-induced neurostimulation. A plasma polymerized acrylic acid midlayer is intermingled between the nanorods and the nanotube films, encouraging covalent bonding between the two surfaces. The final product is a thin, wireless prosthesis which can potentially act in place of a damaged retina.

In conducted studies, some patients were able to use their artificial retinas for simple tasks, such as reading large letters and seeing-slow moving cars; however, other patients experienced no benefit. There is currently a large variation in the success of artificial retinas in individual subjects, presumably due to distinct neural connections and networking in each individual’s eye.

Despite the flaws in ongoing treatment, researchers still remain optimistic, continuing to tweak current systems and experimenting in different methods in retinal stimulation. One of the key challenges is being able to provide “images” with enough clarity the brain can identify what the patient is seeing.

 

3-D Printed Bone Replacement

Year after year, birth defects, injuries, and surgeries leave thousands of people in need of replacement bones in the head or face. Traditionally, treatment involves removing bone from one part of the body, carving it to the shape needed, and transferring it to the necessary region of anatomy. However, the drawbacks of this treatment are considerable; it is difficult to carve bones accurately and the removal of bone may create trauma in that region of the body.

In an attempt to combat the shortfalls of current treatment, biomedical engineer Warren Grayson and his team of researchers look to 3-D printing. Grayson took a material already used heavily in bone scaffolding research, the polyester PCL, and mixed it with pulverized cow bone or bone mixture; Grayson hypothesized that the bone powder would contain key structural proteins and growth factors that would render the composite more effective than PCL alone. The mixture was injected into a 3-D printer, which created a precise scaffold, or frame, of the needed bone, and coated with a healthy dose of stem cells, thrombin, and beta-glycerophosphate nutritional broth, designed to improve calcium deposition onto the scaffolds. The scaffolds were then transplanted into the part of the body with damaged bone and after about three weeks, new bone has grown atop the scaffold. The composite mixture used by Dr. Grayson and his fellow scientists led to significantly more bone growth in mice models then traditional PCL scaffolds.

In future studies, scientists hope to improve the composition of scaffold material to effect stronger and faster bone formation. They also want test composite materials made with powdered human bone, as well as experiment with additives that will allow scaffold implants to better acclimatize to the body.

 

Genome Editing

While human cells possess a volume as little as 30 micrometers cubed, each cell contains the entirety of its host’s genetic code. This code is established from birth and normally will not change. However, recent medical advancements have proved otherwise.

A genome editing tool by the name of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) was co-discovered by biologists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. The system uses a key protein called Cas9 to lock on to certain parts of DNA and delete or edit them. Already an extremely widely-used gene-editing technique used in the laboratory to modify mammalian and bacterial genomes, some scientists are now looking further to adopt it for therapeutic purposes.While further research is needed to incorporate CRISPR into human therapeutics, the potential applications of genome editing are vast. CRISPR has already been used to correct the sickle-cell mutation in human cells grown in a petri dish.

Despite CRISPR’s current limits, the creation of the genome editing system has revolutionized pathways in modern gene therapy. As for what is planned for the progression of CRISPR, scientists have ambitions to apply CRISPR to more complex genetic diseases as well as the engineering of embryos during in vitro fertilization.

While the majority of this research has a long way to go before it is implemented outside of the lab, its applications possess great potential for the progression of the human body. Current medical studies are not only pushing the boundaries of past precedent, but provide a firm foundation for future advancement.

Measuring up a Vaccine: The Meningitis B Immune Response Study

This past November, students from Princeton University’s incoming freshman class lined up atop Icahn Laboratory’s Oval Lounge to participate in an immune response study to the meningitis B vaccine. That clinic was the second round of a large-scale public health study being conducted by Professor Nicole Basta, an infectious disease epidemiologist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

After nine cases of meningitis B broke out at Princeton in 2013, University Health Services (UHS) worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to approve an emergency vaccination campaign. Continue reading Measuring up a Vaccine: The Meningitis B Immune Response Study