By Emily Mullin, The Wired
Doctors put a pig heart in a human, and it might revolutionize the future of organ transplants. Human donation does not match the needs of more than 100,000 people who require organ transplants. So, for the past few decades, researchers have been exploring alternative solutions. Pig organs, which are approximately the same size as those in humans, can be genetically modified to make them compatible with the human body and to reduce the risk of fatal immune responses. While the first man to receive a pig heart transplant died eight weeks later from sudden heart failure, 18 months later, doctors at the University of Maryland School of Medicine are trying again using the lessons learned from that first attempt. There is still a lot of work to do before the option of pig-to-human transplants becomes safe and effective. Yet, the possibility of receiving a pig organ might be coming sooner rather than later.
— by Cora Bainum
By Philip Anloague, Slate
When future hall-of-famer Aaron Rodgers was traded to the Jets this offseason, hopes were high for the historically woeful franchise’s future. However, after just four snaps, the legendary quarterback endured a season-ending torn Achilles injury, leaving Jets fans devastated and NFL players and coaches angry. While injuries are known to be part of the game of football, many felt that his injury, along with many others, could have been avoided had the game not been played on artificial turf. Not only did many players voice their frustration about the artificial turf’s role in Rodger’s injury on Twitter, but two days after the injury, the NFL Players Association publically requested that all NFL fields be switched to natural grass to protect player safety. Although many players and coaches around the league are convinced that turf increases a player’s risk of injury, claiming that “the surface [doesn’t] have the same give as grass” and leads to a disproportionate amount of injuries, the science does not entirely align with this claim. Supporters of synthetic turf claim that in addition to requiring less maintenance and costs than grass fields, the surface’s “shock-absorbing technology and glass-like fibers essentially that mimic natural grass” make the field safer for players. Studies have demonstrated mixed results. The lack of conclusive evidence has revealed that while synthetic fields have a noteworthy connection to higher rates of injuries, the type of field should not bear the entire blame. Instead, a myriad of factors must be considered, such as the player’s strength, injury history, stiffness, and flexibility. Nevertheless, the current turf technology is a point of frustration for players and must continue to be thoroughly assessed by the NFL to ensure that player safety is the utmost priority.
— by Gillian Feinglass
By Dominique Mosbergen, The Wall Street Journal
More than 35,000 people in the U.S. die annually from drug-resistant bacterial or fungal infections – a continually rising statistic. Since 2017, six startups have won Food and Drug Administration approval for new antibiotics that could be given to patients with superbugs. However, all have filed for bankruptcy and have been acquired or are shutting down. The companies say they cannot sell their products because the drug system that relies on companies selling the drugs at a high price so investors can make a profit does not work for antibiotics. New antibiotics are meant to be used rarely so bacteria do not develop further resistance.
Additionally, the cost of new antibiotics is 100 times more than general antibiotics. For these reasons, the new potentially life-saving antibiotics have sold poorly. One of the few startup companies that struggled with staying in business is Achaogen. Achaogen spent almost $200 million on manufacturing, marketing, and other costs related to their new antibiotic, Zemedri. However, they were only able to develop $800,000 in sales. Most large pharmaceutical companies are not developing antibiotics because “there’s no profitability,” said Dr. David Hyun, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Project at Pew Charitable Trusts. With the current state of antibiotic development and sales, the future of defeating superbugs is uncertain.
— by Lexy Campbell
By Berkeley Lovelace Jr., NBC News
Pediatric oncologists are sounding the alarms regarding shortages of five drugs used to help treat pediatric cancer. Doctors began noticing these shortages in February and March 2023, and little has been done until recently. The Biden administration is currently taking steps to address this emergency. Earlier this month, the administration announced that the supply of chemotherapy drugs carboplatin and cisplatin were back to pre-shortage levels; however, both drugs remain on the White House’s list of drugs in shortage. In addition to carboplatin and cisplatin, the drugs vinblastine, dacarbazine, and methotrexate remain in shortage. Vinblastine and dacarbazine are two chemotherapy meds commonly used to treat pediatric cancer. Methotrexate is a “backbone medication” and standard treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In the absence of these medications, doctors are having to turn to using alternative drugs to treat pediatric cancer, many of which are less effective and come with a host of side effects. Several doctors have reported having to delay their patients’ treatment until these chemotherapy drugs are more readily available. This only amplifies the sense of helplessness and hopelessness faced by not only patients and their families but their doctors as well. The American Society of Clinical Oncology is pushing the Food and Drug Administration to implement an early-warning system for drug shortages to prevent this crisis from happening again in the future because the effects of these drug shortages are devastating.
— by Harleigh Markowitz
By Amanda Morris, The Washington Post
NIH has consistently left those with disabilities out of research surrounding health disparities. Now they are deemed a “health disparity population”, meaning they experience preventable differences in health. Disability advocates state that this reflects a shift towards holistic medicine, instead of only cure-focused treatments. While the NIH decision garnered the support of the Disability and Rehabilitation Research Coalition there was pushback. The National Advisory Council on Minority and Health Disparities says the lack of a standard definition of disability and the broadness of the population will overwhelm the “health disparities population” budget. However, other disparity populations also are large and complicated to define (such as race and gender), and that should not prevent support or acknowledgment of the disparities occurring.
This shift is important since many disability advocates say that there is a limited amount of research about the challenges for disabled people to receive healthcare, despite data showing that those with disabilities have worse health outcomes. The NIH decision is part of a larger effort to shift how disability is medicalized. Now, NIH is amending its mission statement so it no longer states its goal as “reduce illness and disability”. The change from the NIH is important since disability is inevitable. Whether congenital or age-related, disability will always exist, so focusing on a cure and eliminating disability is pointless. Instead, focusing on creating ways to increase accessibility to healthcare and closing the socioeconomic disparities are beneficial, so disabled people are living a fulfilling life.
— by Caroline Hansen
By Stephanie Nolen and Eleanor Lutz, The New York Times
A mosquito factory in Medellín, Colombia may hold the key to mitigating, if not eradicating, vector-borne diseases. Here, scientists use tiny needles to inject the parasitic bacteria Wolbachia into Aedes aegypti mosquito eggs. They found that infecting these eggs does not harm the mosquito host; rather, it blocks the transmission of vector-borne viruses.
Female mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia pass down the infection to all of their offspring. Scientists believed that releasing infected females to cross-breed with wild males would eventually result in every mosquito in a given area being infected with Wolbachia. This was tested out in several Vietnamese towns and an Indonesian city by Dr. Scott O’Neill. After three years, areas that received Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes reported a 77% drop in cases of dengue fever and an 86% drop in hospitalizations. In 2017, Dr. O’Neill and his group, known as the World Mosquito Program, undertook their biggest project by releasing two million mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia. After three months, two-thirds of all mosquitoes in the area contained Wolbachia RNA. In 2021, expected to be a peak year of dengue outbreak, Medellín saw the lowest number of dengue infections in over two decades. Another research group has recently found some success in using the same bacteria to block the transmission of malaria.
Vector-borne infections have increased in frequency as a result of climate change expanding mosquito habitats further from the equator. Dengue has had notable outbreaks in France and Brazil and is currently being reported in Florida and Texas. Wolbachia presents an opportunity to reduce mosquitoes from a dangerous pestilence to an annoying nuisance, protecting the health of countless individuals in the process.
— by Saif Hossain
By Brian Gormley, The Wall Street Journal
Scientists are looking up to space for research that will help patients on Earth.
For years, technologies developed for the purposes of galactic exploration have contributed to medical products that save lives. Notably, infrared thermometers, used to detect high temperatures, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, come from infrared sensor technology which allows researchers to measure the temperatures of distant stars and planets. Today, the microgravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS) has created groundbreaking opportunities for research that will advance human health.
Removing gravity changes biological systems, as evidenced by astronauts suffering from radiation, muscular atrophy, osteoporosis, and other health effects while in space. This environment simulates aging at a cellular level, enabling experiments to be done that can’t occur on Earth. Targeting heart disease, cancer, neurological disorders, and even blindness, scientists gain similar insights from studies in just months that would normally take years.
Major pharmaceutical companies see space research as an opportunity to improve existing treatments, as is the case with Merck, maker of the blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda which generated $20.9b in revenue in 2022. Since 2017, Merck has been leveraging microgravity on the ISS to develop a crystalline form of their cancer therapeutic. Currently, Keytruda is administered through 30-minute intravenous infusions. A crystalline form would allow the drug to be administered through a simple injection, which would lower the cost and expand access to cancer care for those who would otherwise be unable to afford treatment.
The ISS has also been home to an almost decade-long research program focused on restoring sight in those who became blind from retinal disease. LambdaVision, a space and biotechnology company, has been sending supplies to the ISS since 2016, to produce artificial retinas. Microgravity enables better protein folding and packing for the artificial retinas, so if approved following clinical trials, LambdaVision would need to manufacture their sight-restoring product on the ISS.
Though space research will continue focusing on helping astronauts endure space travel and sustained illnesses and medical emergencies, scientists remain optimistic that the next transformational medical discovery will happen 250+ miles from Earth.
— by Nolan Shah
Items summarized by: Cora Bainum, Gillian Feinglass, Lexy Campbell, Harleigh Markowitz, Caroline Hansen, Saif Hossain, Nolan Shah