Paralysis Cured By A Nose

Paralysis is a terrible condition suffered by over 3 million people, but can actually affect anyone and has very few solutions. In an almost miraculous turn of events, this has now changed thanks to scientists, doctors, and curiously enough, a chef.

David Nicholls is a world-known, Michelin Starred-chef whose son Daniel became paralysed in an accident in 2003. Since then, he has tried everything possible to help his son, including creating the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation (NSIF) which aims to raise awareness of paralysis and fund any promising cure projects.

Spinal surgery breakthrough

Darek Fidyka, showing the extent of his recovery

One of these donations was used by a team of researchers at UCL to pioneer a mechanism for nerve regeneration in spines. They were lead by Professor Geoffrey Raisman, a scientist with a long history in nerve cell innovations. He was the discoverer of ‘plasticity’, a quality our bodies possess by which damaged nerve cells can regenerate. Although this idea was controversial at first, it eventually opened the door for possible repair treatments.

His newest brilliance involves implanting cells from the nose to the damaged area in the spinal cord. But this doesn’t work with any nose cells. It specifically requires OECs, which stands for olfactory ensheathing cells, and their role is to repair broken nerve cells in the nose so that communication between these and the brain is restored, and our sense of smell works correctly.

This idea was applied by a group of doctors in Poland, lead by spinal repair expert Dr Pawel Tobakow, with surprising results. The patient they treated was Darek Fidyka, a man who was stabbed in the back so his spinal cord was cut in two, leaving a gap with severed nerve cells. The operation consisted of implanting Fidyka’s OECs into the gap where these, instead of healing nose nerve cells, would bridge the separated spinal nerve cells so given time and the appropriate rehabilitation, the spine would no longer be divided into two.

And so it happened. Two years later, the nerve cells on either side of the cut have regenerated and the connection between these has been re-established, effectively ‘curing’ the paralysis. The changes to Fidyka’s life have been enormous. Weeks ago, he wasn’t even able to feel his legs. Now, not only is he regaining some feeling, but can also walk and is even capable of driving a car! More patients are waiting to be treated with this method in hopes of recovering from this horrendous condition and to prove this treatment effective enough so even more injured people can be cured and the fullness of their lives restored.



We are constantly making new memories, at the same rate as we live them. But most of these will be lost, since they contain information we don’t really care about, like a boring bus trip or walking down the street. But some memories are more important and so remain in our mind, like those of family and friends, and it is a really heartbreaking when due to illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease they disappear.


The hippocampus controls memory formation

This new invention is therefore something to hope for. Scientists from Northwestern Univeristy, Chicago, discovered that when they applied a magnetic field on a patient’s brain their memory performance would be boosted. This was investigated in a trial, where two sets of patients were given either this treatment, called TMS for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or a placebo. After, they were provided with images of people’s faces, and when a picture was shown, some words were read aloud. Once this was done, the patients were given a couple of minutes, and then tested to see if they could relate the images to the words they had heard. Those that had been given TMS scored better in the test than those without it.

But how does TMS actually work? Well, it has been known for quite a while that the nervous system works by a series of impulses of electricity. The brain is no different, so if you want to stimulate the brain, you want to apply an electric current to it. This can be done with drugs or surgery, but what makes TMS special is that it is non-invasive, so it doesn’t enter the patient’s body, making the whole procedure easier and somewhat safer. The magnetic field that flows through the brain creates an electric field, which stimulates the brain. If this is done in the right area, it can enhance certain abilities.

To improve memory, the immediate assumption would be to treat the hippocampus with TMS, since this is the area were most of the brain’s work on memory happens. But the hippocampus is too deep in our brains, so the magnetic radiation wouldn’t reach it well enough. Therefore, the researchers decided to work on a more superficial part of the brain that indirectly stimulates the hippocampus. The new electric current flowing through the brain caused memories to last longer, specifically the associative memories (those that link something to something else). However, the effects seemed to last for 24 hours only.

Still, with enough research, TMS could develop into an efficient treatment for memory-loss diseases, but care has to be taken since the brain is very delicate and even the slightest of changes can cause a chain reaction.

Cancer’s Gene Struggles

It’s been a very productive week for cancer research. There’s been a new protein discovered which almost tricked everyone into thinking it was helpful against cancer, and scientists found that just by cancelling some genes tumour growth can occur. Seeing as interesting these discoveries are, let’s delve into them.

First and foremost, let’s talk about the p35 gene. This section of the DNA produces a protein, called p35 protein (who knows why), that can detect abnormal cells, and then start to kill them to prevent them from reproducing, therefore preventing a tumour from forming. This has been known for more than 30 years, and by now we thought we knew all there was to know about it. But the discovery of a variant of this gene hit the news this week. Said gene is called the p35-psi gene, which produces another protein, chemically similar to the p35 protein, which also caused an inflammatory reaction in mutated cells, just like p35 does. But after further study, scientists discovered it does the complete opposite of its cousin: it encourages the growth of cancerous cells. The mechanism works by p35-psi teaming up with another protein, cyclophilin D, which together change the mitochondria organelle so the whole cell itself transforms into a new type, similar-looking to a muscle cell, which usually precedes a cancer.

This opens up a door of possibilities for cancer treatments. New drugs could target cyclophilin D, to stop the transforming process from occurring. Or they could suppress the p35-psi gene to stop it from producing the harmful protein in the first place


Cancer Cells

Cancer cells divide uncontrollably, even if they have a mutation which would normally be eliminated

Now moving on to the second piece of news.

We all know how mutations can lead to cancers, but the novelty here was that inactivating genes also caused the disease. This can be done through a process called epigenetic methylation, because a methyl group is added to a gene and so prevents it from being transcribed.

Epigenetic methylation occurs naturally in our cells, and actually helps them repair their DNA. But when this process occurs over and over by continuously exposing the same genes to methyl groups, they might just end up permanently attached, effectively cancelling the gene.

The problem, however, is that it is not known for certain whether epigenetic methylation is a cause of cancer or if cancer causes this methylation. In the study carried out, scientists added a new gene into mice cells, a gene that specifically attracted methyl groups and caused methylation in nearby genes. And speaking of tumour suppressing genes, the team in this investigation concentrated on the effects of methylating gene p16, which also prevents the growth of tumours. Over the course of the experiment, those mice with the injected gene had an increased chance of developing cancer, especially in areas like the spleen or the liver.

Although this information does seem to indicate methylation causes cancer, some researchers argue that maybe when they added the new methylating-prone gene, they messed with the already existing genome so it mutated and turned the cell cancerous.

However, since methylation definitely has an effect on cancer, the group of researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, where the experiment was carried out, will now focus on investigating a way of reversing this process in cancer cells.

It is interesting to note that methylation occurrence can be linked to our diet, since methyl groups come from the food we consume. Some products like green tea and broccoli help decrease methylation rate, so it might be time you had a sip of some delicious tea just in case.

Unruly HIV

HIV is still fighting back. After famous claims of having rid a baby of the HIV virus and therefore ‘curing’ it, a few months later the child seems to be affected again.

The news an 18 months old baby had been ‘cured’ from HIV spread like wildfire in the scientific community. This promising medical feat was accomplished by treating a newly-born baby, daughter of an HIV-sufferer, with three antiretroviral drugs (those drugs used to treat HIV). But after a period of 18 months, the treatment was stopped, and the baby left, and nothing more was known of her. Or at least that was the case until March this year, when during blood analysis, after almost a year with no drugs, the girl was found to have no HIV virus circulating in her blood.

This was praised by many scientists as being the solution to the HIV problem- providing the drug in the very early stages of the disease, a tactic which was already known to help treat more effectively the disease. But their hopes were crushed this week when in another check up the patient had plenty of the viruses in her body. This, together with high levels of the antibodies for this virus and a decrease in white blood cells, concluded she was no longer ‘cured’ from the disease.

A possible reason for this reappearance is the fact that HIV virus, although mostly found in the blood, can sometimes hide in other tissues, so when a person is treated with antiretroviral drugs, it only kills those virus cells in the blood. The effect the medicine had on the infant was of wiping out the virus in her blood, so that there were so few virus cells hidden in the rest of her body that her own immune system was capable of handling the rest. Obviously though, this balance was unstable and it was interrupted, setting off an increase in the virus population so the disease was in effect again.

hiv virus

This is an example of an HIV virus, which causes HIV and can lead to AIDS. Its cure has been sought after for a long time, and it seems we still have to work towards it

Researchers have concluded that there are other factors that control the limitations of the virus in the body, not only numbers, so it is their goal to find these and exploit them to increase the effect of antiretroviral drugs. This could ultimately lead to more effective drugs which could be taken less regularly but still maintain the virus at bay. Another objective is to develop a new treatment that targets the hidden virus cells too, so that the numbers can be reduced even further and maybe someday the virus can be completely wiped out from the body.

Superviruses: Worth the Risk?

We can all recall the swine flu pandemic in 2009 which managed to kill over 500,000 people in just a year. Fortunately, most of us are now partially immune to said virus, and can now be treated as the normal winter flu. But this isn’t the end of the story.

Professor Kawaoka is the lead researcher at the Wisconsin University’s Institute for Influenza Virus Research, and is also known for previously re-creating the Spanish flu virus. For the last 4 years, he has been working the H1N1 virus to modify it so it can completely evade the human immune system. His mechanism was to isolate those strands of the original influenza virus that weren’t affected by our antibodies and allow them to reproduce, to create a group that, due to its viral protein content, doesn’t cause any immune response.

Now, the reason for this study is that it could have real applications, because a model of how viruses can mutate to evade our system could be used to design new and more efficient vaccines, or other methods to prevent mass infection.

The original H1N1 virus, which Professor Kawaoka has modified to make it even more dangerous

The original H1N1 virus, which Professor Kawaoka has modified to make it even more dangerous

The biosafety committee responsible of approving such studies is mostly in favour of Kawaoka’s investigation, but other scientists are not as happy. Through this experiment, the researcher has effectively created a virus strain that if released, could infect most of the population who would also be unarmoured to defend themselves from it. It is the first time someone has allowed a dangerous virus to be mutated over and over again to change its characteristics, so the consequences could be very grave. However, Kawaoka argues that viruses with special proteomes that can escape immune system detection already exist in nature, so the investigation is relevant to possible dangers we face by the natural world.

Another criticism is the laboratory where this research is being conducted. It now has a level-3 biosafety rating, which is still one lower than the maximum rating, reserved only for the most dangerous pathogens. Even worse, the bulk of the experiment, where the virus was handled, was carried out in a level-2 lab, increasing the risk of an accidental release of the virus.

The results haven’t been published yet, but are written and ready to go. This is another danger, because all this information could also be used for research in the fabrication of new weapons in biological warfare.

In my opinion, it is clear that scientists need more information in the viral field. We need to prepare for the unknown dangers and this can only be achieved through research, which many times involves some sort of danger. But to minimise these, we should not only focus on investigating the viruses, but also in improving the safety in our laboratories, making sure the risk of a leak is virtually zero. Furthermore, the information obtained from said research should be carefully dealt with to prevent any danger of a deliberate release to cause a pandemic.

The Heroine of Tanning

It’s summer: the time for ice cream, spending the day in the beach, and therefore, sun bathing. But apparently this relaxing activity is not as simple as you may think.

When people are exposed to ultra violet radiation, like that coming from the sun, it causes melanocyte cells in the skin to produce melanin, a pigment which absorbs radiation to protect the skin. So when people sun bathe, they produce more melanin which darkens their skin. It also increases Vitamin D production, but can lead to skin cancer and faster ageing skin.


An endorphin, a substance which gives pleasure, and can be released due to exercise, food and now sunlight!

Up until know, doctors had tried to raise awareness of the dangers of this practice, but it seems things are getting worse. A new study published in ‘Cell’ suggests that constant and prolonged exposure to UV light can be addictive. This theory had already been proposed, with some known cases, but it has now been explained and backed up with an experiment on mice. These were shaved to expose their skin and were then subjected to UV light exposure for a controlled period of time a day, similar to the amount a human would get when sun bathing on the beach. After weeks of this practice, it turned out the mice had produced more beta-endorphin, a substance similar to morphine and heroine, which results in a positive feeling when detected by the sensors in the brain. The pleasant nature of this is what makes the mice crave it more, causing an addictive response, where the mice seek out the stimulus that is causing the endorphins to be released.

It was also found out that the mice showed tolerance to the UV radiation, just as an addicted person does to a drug after using it for a while. Scientists found that over time, they needed to increase the amount of UV light they shone for the mice to produce as much endorphins as before.

It is definitely an interesting study, which adds up to the dangers of being exposed to too much sunlight. That’s why we should be careful with the light exposure we go through everyday, taking care of using sunscreens and trying to reduce as much as possible the time we spend directly under the sun.

Embracing New Organs

There is a wide variety of diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, kidney failure… that can be treated or even cured with an organ transplant. However, a disadvantage of this otherwise great cure is the fact that since the new organ doesn’t really come from you, your immune system might attack it. The current solution to this problem is a mixture of immunosuppressant drugs, which although work in making the body accept foreign organs, they can cause very uncomfortable and serious side effects.

This problem is what lead Allan Kirk, scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, to look for possible alternatives. His team and himself eventually managed to create a small group of drugs, only three, to substitute the previous cocktails of medicines. What’s even better is that his drugs can even reset the immune system so that the patient must only take one drug every month instead of daily, as they do now.

Well then let’s meet his three drugs and learn how they work. The first one is alemtuzumab, and has to be given at the same time the organ transplant is happening. What it does is it completely destroys all white blood cells in the patient’s body that might attack the organ. It’s like making the immune system and its army of defenders start from 0.
The following drug is belatacept, and is given to the patient when new white blood cells start to appear. This drug acts in a way that makes the new cells accept the new organ as part of the patient and leave it in peace.
Lastly, a dose of sirolimus is administered. It is a normal, immunosuppressant drug whose function is to prevent any of the white blood cells that survived the original massacre from the alemtuzumab from damaging the organ.
Altogether, most patients would only have to take the initial drugs, and after those, only one injection a month, which is considerably more comfortable than the current treatment.


This cocktail of drugs has been replaced by only 3 drugs

Kirk has been carrying his experiments in a group of 13 people, and a year after they started the treatment none of them have shown signs of rejection. But Kirk has had to ask them if they wanted to stop taking the sirolimus and most did. The ones who chose to keep with it are perfectly fine, and those who got off of it are also fine, but now have to take monthly belatacept injections.

The implications of this revolutionary treatment are incredible. Up until now it has only been tested on a small sample of people, and all with kidney transplants, but Kirk and his team plan on doing larger groups with other organ transplants.

Robot Yeast

A milestone in biology was reached this month when scientists in USA were able to create an entirely synthetic chromosome from a Saccharomyces cerevisiae, commonly known as yeast, in the lab.


A chromosome has been created for the first time in the lab, step by step

To start this process they identified the full genetic sequence of yeast’s chromosome III, chosen because it’s one of the smallest chromosomes and can therefore be replicated more easily.
But it was still too big, so they took out a few less than 45,000 nucleotides, all of those thought to be ‘junk’ DNA, that is, DNA that doesn’t seem to have any function. This left 270,000, all of which had to be joined together to make up the chromosome, starting from scratch.
This is an enormous amount of work, so they ended up working with a team of 60 undergraduates, each team building a part of the chromosome until they were all joined together to form the final masterpiece.
Once the chromosome was ready, they inserted it into the yeast cell, and fortunately it seemed to work just as fine as the natural one would. They are now working on repeating this task on the whole of the yeast’s genome, instead of only one chromosome.

There have been some experiments in the past which managed to recreate the genome of organisms, especially bacteria, but no one up until now had managed to change it so much and still have it work. It is an outstanding feat in science that could teach biologists a lot more on how genes work and interact with each other.

However, this achievement is not only good in the way of creating artificial life, but it could also show some improvements in the chemical industry world.
When they decided which nucleotides to take out, they also haad to chose some changes to be made to the genome, so as to learn something from the genes changed. One of these tweaks was to change the stop codon, TAG, to TAA. This meant that TAG now doesn’t code for anything, but scientists could change this so it codes for a new amino acid, not found in the cell before. This could give rise to new substances and biopolymers, whose properties could prove to be very useful. If this worked, we could eventually have cells become factories, all with changed genetic sequences, so they produced new chemicals for many possible functions.

Humans Are Suprisingly Nosy

There have been plenty of studies on the human vision and hearing senses, but there is rarely one on our smelling sense. But this time, a group of researchers at Rockefeller University in NYC decided to break the rule and have arrived to a fascinating conclusion.


A rose’s smell is composed of many odorant molecules that combine to give off that particular scent

Normally, a smell is a mixture of hundreds of different odorant molecules, and particular combinations of these give rise to a variety of smells, such as chocolate and flowers.
Based on this idea, these scientists produced three types of mixtures out of 128 odours, having 10, 20 or 30 of them in each mixture with different combinations. These were then given to a group of inexperienced volunteers, in the form of three samples: two of the same mixture and a different one.

Results were collected, and using mathematics such as the probability theory, they reached the verdict that there were more than a trillion combinations of those odours, which is also quite an underestimate since there are many more existing odours.
These results differ drastically from previous experiments, like the last one, made in the 1927, which said that humans were able to tell only 10,000 smells apart.
Not only that, but it also makes the olfactory sense defeat the visual sense since it can distinguish far more stimuli. In fact, the human eye can differentiate 10 million colours (which is still pretty good), but means that our sense of smell is 100,000 times more varied than the sense of vision.

The obvious conclusion was that the more common odorants two substances shared, the harder it was to distinguish them. However, volunteers proved to be quite good at distinguishing smells, but not as good at naming them. A possible reason is that although we have more than 400 receptors in our nose, the olfactory nerves are not connected to the area in the brain where language is used.
It is still very remarkable that humans have the capability of setting apart such a great number of smells, and scientists are already working on expanding their knowledge on the smelling sense using this investigation and its consequences.

Autism Hates Males

Autism is a genetic condition that affects both males and females, but a recent study suggests that women have a special protection against this disorder that men lack.

For a person to become autistic there must be a genetic mutation. Sometimes it only takes a mutation in one gene, but normally it is a group of mutations that end up causing autism. In fact, throughout the years, there’s been hundreds of mutations discovered that have the ability of causing it. But now we know that the number of genes that cause autism in humans can be different depending on gender.

This difference because of sex was found out by a group of scientists in the University Hospital of Lausanne in Switzerland, where more than 700 families with a child with autism were tested, and their genome analysed.

They were looking for two different types of mutations: copy number variations (where large parts of the genetic material is destroyed or duplicated) and single gene mutations. The conclusion was females were three times more likely to have more of these mutations than males.autism

The fact that girls have to have more mutations to contract this condition means they are more protected than men, which explains why there are 4 times as many male autistic people as there are females. So their brains can work better with mutations than men’s with the same mutations.

To back these results, there’s been another investigation, from the Autism Genome Project, with 2400 patients, which shows similar results. The aim of this foundation is to map the genome of as many autistic people as possible, so as to find a trend they could understand and translate it into a treatment for autism. Although there is still no conclusion, there is progress in this field, demonstrated by this discovery. If we were able to decipher the way in which females are protected, we could be closer to creating a cure for this condition suffered by more than tens of millions of people worldwide.