All posts by Jessica Wilk

About Jessica Wilk

Jessica Wilk has a BS in nursing from New York University and currently practices as an RN in New York.

Bempedoic Acid

Bempedoic Acid: Statin’s Younger Sibling for Hypercholesteremia

High cholesterol levels in blood vessels has been a hot topic in the media for several years now, ever since its link to heart attacks and strokes have been preached by physicians over the course of fifty-odd years. For nearly 30 years, statins have been the drug of choice to combat high cholesterol and low-density lipoproteins (LDL)—aka “bad cholesterol”—which increase the risk of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease. The most severe side effect of statins is myotoxicity that can range from myopathy and myalgia (muscle pain and weakness) to myositis and rhabdomyolysis, which can lead to kidney failure, clotting/bleeding disorders (disseminated intravascular coagulation), and ultimately death. Though the latter rarely occurs, muscle pain and weakness that statins can invoke have drudged up reluctance to comply with the daily intake of the medication. Bempedoic acid is a potentially new cholesterol-lowering drug that’s almost as effective as statins but without the muscle achiness.

Cholesterol is synthesized by the liver, and despite its bad reputation, is vital to most cellular processes that keep humans alive. In excess, mostly contributed by high-fat and high-carb diets, along with genetic predisposition in some cases, LDL sticks to the walls of blood vessels, causing plaque buildup, and in turn obstruct blood flow. The fallout: heart disease, hardened blood vessels, heart attacks, and strokes.

Statins work by inhibiting an enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase, which is responsible for creating mevalonate which is then converted into cholesterol. Bempedoic acid, on the other hand, targets a different enzyme—adenosine triphosphate citrate lyase (ACL)—to decrease cholesterol production in the liver. This alternate pathway does not utilize any enzymes that are present in skeletal muscle, eliminating any potential muscle ache and soreness as a possible side effect.

A clinical trial led by Imperial College London tested the drug 2,200 participants over the course of a year as a once-daily oral medication. The trial results indicated bempedoic acid as a safe, well-tolerated medication without the muscle weakness. However, cholesterol and LDL-lowering efficacy fell behind statins at 18 percent versus 50 percent with statins.

If compliance to cholesterol-lowering medication is dictated by a single factor—muscle ache—then bempedoic acid may, in the long run, prove to be a better option to prevent fatal cardiac conditions.

Full-Body Scanner

Faster, Clearer Diagnostic Imaging with 3D Full-Body Scanner Arriving Soon

EXPLORER is a full-body scanner that combines x-ray computed tomography (CT) with positron emission tomography (PET) that produces the world’s first head-to-toe medical scans. With this new technology, imaging studies are generated 40 times faster than existing PET scans. The scanner was produced after years of exhaustive research, combining the efforts of scientists at UC Davis and world-class engineers from Shanghai-based United Imaging Healthcare (UIH).

EXPLORER can produce a full-body scan in as little as 30 seconds, whereas in the past, less capable scans required as much as 40 minutes to produce images which weren’t nearly as detailed or sensitive. EXPLORER is approximately 40 times more sensitive than even the best current commercial system used for medical scans, with the added benefit of much lower radiation emission from the full-body scanner as it catches radiation more readily than current imaging machines.

Total body PET scans are currently performed in segments, or slices, which take a minimum of 30-40 minutes to develop and then combined to reveal a 3D image of the body. EXPLORER captures the image of the entire body as little as one second as radiotracers are detected and followed from the outside as they circulate within the body.

Applications of the full-body scanner include studying the metabolism of drugs and observing cellular respiration in real time for research purposes. Cancer progression can be tracked in actual time, not to mention the efficacy of a new therapy on multi-drug resistant tumors. Due to the efficient absorption of radiation by the machine, use in pediatric populations shows great promise, who generally have far less tolerance to radiation emission than adults.

Projected use of EXPLORER on a large scale is June 2019 in Sacramento, California. Initially, the first subjects of the full-body scanner will be research participants, though efforts are underway to expedite human trials so it can be available for commercial use.

Chemotherapy Paste

Treating Melanoma with a “Chemotherapy Paste” for Better Tolerance

 According to the American Skin Cancer Foundation, melanoma is the most lethal form of cancer due to its capability of spreading from the skin to almost anywhere else in the body. For that reason, it has traditionally been necessary to take a very aggressive stance when treating skin cancers, using intravenous chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. For better tolerance and less crippling systemic side effects, scientists have developed a “chemotherapy paste” that can be applied directly to the skin to bypass the systemic treatment modality, and treat melanoma without the patient experiencing nausea and vomiting often associated with intravenous chemotherapy.

The culprits behind skin cancer are squamous cells, basal cells, and melanocytes. Melanocytes are the cells which are subject to becoming melanoma. They manufacture a brownish pigment called melanin, which imparts a tan or brown color to the skin, and protect deeper skin layers from harmful rays of the sun. When skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes produce more melanin, which causes the skin to become darker.

Melanoma is a skin cancer which develops from melanocytes, and although it can develop anywhere on the skin surfaces, melanoma develops most commonly on the chest and on the back for men, whereas for women it most frequently develops on the legs. For both men and women, it can also develop on the face and neck. Melanoma occurs less frequently than either squamous cell cancers or basal cell cancers, but all three cells can be targets for skin cancer.

The skin is normally the first line of defense against any kind of harmful microbe or material, which would otherwise penetrate the body and wreak havoc. Unfortunately, this brilliant barrier also prevents useful drugs from being directly admitted onto the skin to treat skin diseases until recently.

A group of researchers developed a “chemotherapy paste” that incorporates nanoparticles called transfersomes to aid drug delivery through the skin to directly treat skin cancer. These transfersomes encase chemotherapy—in this case, paclitaxel—in a phospholipid bilayer-based surfactant that render the drug malleable to help penetrate the skin’s epidermal layers. A peptide was added to the transfersome complex to enhance its ability to infiltrate the skin and cancer cells and deliver paclitaxel directly to the tumor. To prolong the skin-penetrating effects, the “chemotherapy paste” was encased in a hydrogel medium to cover the “painted-on” site of the paste.

When the transfersome paste was applied to mice with melanoma, tumor sizes were reduced by half after 12 days compared to the set of mice that were receiving chemotherapy injections alone. However, it is still too early to see if the same results will transfer to humans, though a non-systemic “chemotherapy paste” approach to treating cancer will be a breakthrough that can vastly improve quality of life for cancer patients.

C. difficile Treatment

Utilizing Fecal Microbiota Treatment Modalities for C. difficile Treatment

An infection with Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile, is an unpleasant matter resulting in severe diarrhea and ultimately dehydration with its sequelae of electrolyte imbalances that has profound impacts on the heart and the nervous system. Most cases occur in hospitals, though it has been known to occur in the community within people who are typically immunocompromised.

A powerful new C. difficile treatment method has been pioneered by the University of Alberta, Canada, in which capsules containing bacteria from the fecal material of a healthy donor have been developed, intended for ingestion by a C. difficile patient, so as to help restore balance to the gut. The fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) procedure consists of feces from a healthy donor which have been filtered and processed until it contains only bacteria, and this filtered material is then encapsulated within a gel that breaks down easily in the recipient’s gut.

The human digestive and immune systems are host to literally hundreds of different kinds of gut bacteria, whose combined purpose is to assist with digestion and the body’s immune system. When someone becomes infected with any kind of harmful agent that requires the use of antibiotics, the normal healthy balance in the gut can be severely disrupted. This creates a window of opportunity for microorganisms such as Clostridium difficile to enter the picture and create havoc in the gut.

Patients who participated in the study declared that there was no unpleasant odor or taste associated with the capsules, because the transferred stool bacteria are encased in a gel included within the capsule. Not only are the capsules close to 100 percent effective, but they are far less invasive compared to a colonoscopy.

In addition to the less invasive nature of the treatment, the capsules are inexpensive, and does not involve any form of sedation for the person being treated. The capsules can also be administered in a doctor’s office, with no preparation necessary.

As a large percentage of people who have contracted C. difficile have been bothered by the recurrent nature of the disease, the recurrence factor seems to have been eliminated in participants who ingested FMT capsules as a form of C. difficile treatment. Once the gut of an FMT recipient has been restored to its normal healthy balance by the bacteria included in the capsules, recurrence is no longer an issue, and repeat treatments have not been necessary.

Many of the participants in the study experienced significant relief within just a few days of undergoing treatment. Since only a single treatment is needed to achieve success, with no ongoing treatments being necessary, there could hardly be a faster, more effective solution to the problem. To this point, no adverse reactions have been reported by patients and have been well tolerated thus far.

However, to achieve effective C. difficile treatment results, a fairly large number of capsules have to be ingested all within the space of an hour. In order for the desired effects to be achieved, it is necessary to deliver a high volume of healthy donor fecal material, and this must be accomplished by ingesting as many as 40 of the prepared capsules in a relatively short period of time—a small price to pay for relief.

Apart from transforming the way C. difficile treatments will be administered, it is expected that the capsule delivery method will entirely revolutionize the way FMT will be administered in the future, because of its ease of use, low cost, low impact on recipients, and extremely high rate of success.

Dipstick Technology

Dipstick Technology Allows for Fast Disease Detection Without Sophisticated Equipment

Scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia (UQ) have developed a simple and effective method for diagnosing diseases in living organisms, which has implications for use on isolated regions where advanced technology has not yet populated. Dubbed ‘dipstick technology,’ the process can purify and analyze ribonucleic acid (RNA) and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) from microorganic samples in less than a minute—without the need for special equipment or personnel requiring a particular skill set.

Pathogens can consist of viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that may trigger diseases in plants, animals, and humans. Being capable of analyzing biologic samples quickly will make devising of treatment plans easier and faster, which can prove enormously beneficial when time is critical.

 The dipstick has already been used on isolated plantations in Papua New Guinea with great success, allowing for the exposure of pathogens in trees, humans, livestock, and water sources for drinking. Even in low-tech settings, disease can quickly be isolated and evaluated, allowing for time to develop a useful solution.

The findings on the field encourages researchers to believe that it might be especially effective in underdeveloped nations where health equipment and facilities are in short supply. In such locations, dipstick technology has the potential to tackle agricultural problems, health issues, and environmental disasters that plague nations and communities.

The UQ team of scientists maintain that nucleic acid purification is a powerful tool in molecular biology but too cumbersome to use for most field operations, as the process is time-consuming and requires the expertise of trained and specialized workers. Extracting genetic material from biological samples has always been done in a laboratory setting and usually involves complex machinery and time to process the information.

The researchers had a breakthrough when they discovered a proprietary medium that could capture and isolate nucleic acids while preventing the degradation of the genetic sample during the process of washing away contaminants. Dipstick technology was born, which passed preliminary testing on a narrow range of biological samples only to discover later that a much broader range of samples could also be captured and analyzed effectively.

UniQuest, the commercial arm of UQ, has filed a patent for their dipstick technology, but they are also seeking commercial partners who are willing to finance large-scale production for the purpose of distributing the tech to less developed countries. Regardless of the logistics of who uses the dipstick, its application and role in modern medicine is tantamount to advancing the science of medicine.

Smart Wound Dressing

Smart Wound Dressing Emits Light When Dressing Needs to Come Off

The human skin provides a natural barrier to pathogens and serves as the first line of defense against harmful microbes. When the skin’s integrity is broken via cuts, sores, or other wounds, the site of broken skin potentially becomes an entryway for a systemic infection. Hence, good wound care is crucial from developing sepsis, or widespread infection that can lead to multi-organ failure, particularly in people with chronic diseases, e.g. diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, or those who are immunocompromised, e.g. receiving chemotherapy, immunotherapy, battling active HIV infection.

Good wound care technique is largely dependent on the specific characteristics of the wound: nature of wound, size, amount of exudate, illness that can exacerbate wound, etc. However, one thing clinicians agree on is that the wound should be kept covered until a temporary barrier, like a scab, forms to prevent infection. Checking on status of wound healing may require frequent dressing changes, which can be detrimental to proper healing. As a result, Swiss scientists collectively from University Hospital Zurich, Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique (CSEM), EMPA, and ETH Zurich developed a type of smart wound dressing called Flusitex—short for fluorescence sensing integrated into medical textiles.

Flusitex works by monitoring the pH (acidity or alkalinity) of the wound. When normal healing is progressing well, pH jumps to 8 before resting around 5 or 6. If the wound’s healing trajectory deviates from standard healing protocols, or the wound becomes chronic, pH may oscillate between 7 and 8. Integrated into the smart wound dressing are pyranine and benzalkonium chloride molecules. Pyranine is a pH-sensitive fluorescent dye, which enable the dressing to fluoresce when a UV light is shined on the bandage at an internal pH of 7.5—an indication the chronic wound is on the verge of healing—which alerts clinicians to leave the dressing alone. Benzalkonium chloride, an antiseptic, is particularly known for killing Staphylococus aureas bacteria, which are commensal on the human skin and may cause opportunistic infections if allowed to enter the wound bed.

To make Flusitex more accessible and user-friendly, scientists are exploring ways to allow an app and camera from a smartphone to interpret fluorescing pH changes on the smart wound dressing so that users can monitor wound healing progress from home.

Life of Biomedical Gadgets

Prolonging Life of Biomedical Gadgets by Improving Adhesion with Electrografting

Modern-age humans have found a way to coexist with technology to the point where they have become crucial to life, as in the case of pacemakers, or otherwise made life easier, e.g. artificial limbs, cochlear implants, and smart technology-based wearables. To help ensure longevity of implanted biomedical devices, a scientist from University of Delaware (UD), along with a team of engineers, have developed an electrografting surface modification method that improves adhesion between biological neural tissue and inorganic surfaces.

In order for implanted devices to function properly within the body, successful interface, or communication, between nervous system components (largely directed by the brain) and the mechanical object has to occur. Scientists have been exploring a conjugated polymer called PEDOT, or poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene), for its potential role as the interface. However, in experiments PEDOT was found to have limited adhesive properties to solid substrates, or mechanical devices. As a result, harmful residue can deposit into surrounding tissue, thereby shortening the lifespan of the device.

Adhesion by electrografting surface modification is the solution concocted by the UD scientists. Electrograft is an electrochemical oxidation-reduction reaction by which organic molecules attach to solid conducting substrates by forming a metallorganic bond at the substrate-polymer interface. The conventional process usually takes several steps, but the scientists have created a two-step method that produces a strong PEDOT film that tightly bonds organic tissue to metal objects, while maintaining electrical activity, or communication, between the two components. Another advantage of using electrografts is that a wide variety of materials can be used as the conducting substrate, including gold, platinum, nickel, stainless steel, silicon, metal oxides, and glassy carbon.

With increasing dependence on biotechnology to keep humans alive, extending the life of biomedical gadgets becomes increasingly vital. With enhanced adhesive properties of PEDOT via electrografting, both staying alive and staying alive longer can be achievable.

Soy Air Filter

Biodegradable Soy Air Filter Works Better than Standard Filters

An inexpensive, environment-friendly, biodegradable soy air filter was created by scientists at Washington State University, collaborating with the University of Science and Technology in Beijing, that can filter out gases, like carbon monoxide, that conventional air filters cannot. Poor air quality impacts the inhabitants of several industrialized cities worldwide, of which repeated exposure to toxins can lead to health issues, such as asthma, lung cancer, and heart disease.

The research teams developed the soy-based air filter using natural purified soy protein and bacterial cellulose (polysaccharide that give cell wall of plants and microbes their strength). Soy has 18 functional chemical groups that can be exploited to capture toxic air pollutants on a molecular scale. An acrylic acid treatment was used to expose, or unwind, the amino acid groups that enable the soy-based filter to trap both small particulate air matter and chemical pollutants that people living in severely polluted regions inhale on a regular basis.

Currently available air filters are made of plastic, and in some cases glass and petroleum, with micron-sized fibers that can filter small particles found in smoke, soot, and vehicle exhaust. However, gaseous air pollutants, like carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide, and other organic volatile compounds (VOCs) escape typical filters—not to mention synthetic materials used to create standard air filters can also contribute to air pollution.

Cellulose used to engineer the soy air filters is a natural structure that’s already used in several biomedical applications, such as adhesives, wound dressings, plastics, and scaffolds for tissue regeneration, and is an inexpensive and earth-friendly material. Gelatin and cellulose-based filters have also been developed by the scientists, which are being applied to disposable paper towels to increase its strength and absorbency so less waste is created.

With the goal of maintaining a sustainable Earth, the researchers hope to improve the health and welfare of the public utilizing cheap, biodegradable materials to improve overall quality of life and balance out new emerging technology that may not be as green-friendly.

Rapid HIV Test

Viral Load Can Be Detected with New Rapid HIV Test

Scientists at Imperial College London, together with DNA Electronics, have developed a rapid HIV test using a USB drive that can detect HIV viral load in 20 minutes. Only a drop of blood is needed for the USB stick—similar to diabetics checking glucose levels with a fingerstick—which is then inserted into a desktop or portable notebook, where it communicates with an app, feeding data to the software, and the user can read the results in less than 30 minutes. The viral load, if any, is detected through the presence of the virus genetic material, RNA; if present, amount is also indicated in the results. Using blood samples of 991 participants, results were 95 percent accurate compared with the traditional method, which takes at least a couple of days to process results.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 37 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS, of which 2 million are children. Majority of the population infected with the virus reside in sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, 18.2 million are on antiretroviral therapy (ART) to keep viral count down. With the rapid HIV test, HIV levels can be easily tracked at home for ART recipients to determine medication efficacy. If drug resistance occurs, regular home monitoring can detect it sooner than later and a new treatment regimen can be implemented. Also, in developing regions where access to technology is limited, the USB stick technique can easily test for HIV using a portable device, and implement treatment to help staunch transmission, as in the case of mother to child via birth or breastfeeding.

The rapid HIV test using a USB drive with a litmus medium that detects change in pH as evidence of RNA material of the virus is still in its beginning phase and will be a long time before we see it used in homes. However, scientists have high hopes for its use and are concomitantly developing the device to detect hepatitis virus as well.

Portable Vaccine Kit

Portable Vaccine Kits Can Be Transported to High-Risk Areas Without Power to Create On-the-Spot Vaccines by Just Adding Water

For vaccines to be effective, a continual chain of refrigeration is important to keep them viable. In areas where power sources are limited or nonexistent, such as developing nations, or in areas where elaborate medical equipment isn’t found for miles around, a portable vaccine kit could be the turning key to keeping an epidemic in check, thus saving many lives.

A team of researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute sought out to create a practical and mobile method to create medical treatments anywhere. A portable system was developed that enables the technician to produce an essential biomolecule as needed without requiring the aid of a refrigerator or a laboratory—instead, simply add water.

At the core of the scientists’ “portable biomolecular manufacturing kit” are two freeze-dried pellets that can be mixed and matched to create different compounds that cater to specific treatment modalities. Water is the only component needed to rehydrate and mix the ingredients. The pellets have a shelf life of at least a year, potentially longer.

The pellets come in two forms: reaction pellets and instruction pellets. The former contains no cells and genetic material and acts as the base that can be used to generate different drugs, whereas the instruction pellets contain DNA instructions to direct the reaction pellet and thus specifies the type of medication to produce. By combining the two pellets with water, a vast array of vaccines, antibacterial peptides, and antibody conjugates can be manufactured on the spot. Therapy from the rehydrated pellets can be administered orally, topically, or as injections to treat food poisoning, prevent wounds from getting infected, and dispense vaccines during a viral outbreak, such as influenza.

The portable vaccine kit is also an inexpensive biomolecular manufacturing kit at approximately three cents per microliter. Apart from its clinical use, researchers and students can use the kits for study purposes when state-of-the-art facilities and appliances are inaccessible.