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New A.I. Tool Diagnoses Brain Tumors on the Operating Table

By Benjamin Mueller, The New York Times

New A.I. technology is helping brain surgeons make cutting decisions in real time. Scientists in the Netherlands have used Sturgeon, the aptly named A.I. tool, in 25 live brain surgeries. At the start of the surgery, Sturgeon scans segments of the tumor’s DNA to diagnose the type and even subtype of the tumor. In 18 surgeries, Sturgeon correctly diagnosed the tumor in under 90 minutes. The standard tumor identification process that involves sampling and microscopic examination usually takes several weeks to obtain results. Yet, Sturgeon’s rapid rate of diagnosis allows surgeons to determine how aggressively to operate while still in the first surgery. There is still work to be done before this A.I. tool can be implemented broadly, but technology like Sturgeon will enable less invasive and less damaging surgeries.

by Cora Bainum

A Simple Solution for Keeping Microplastics Out of the Water Supply

By Chris Baraniuk, The Atlantic

Microplastics have become pervasive, threatening all living organisms’ environment and health. A recent study in China created specially made synthetic sponges that, when placed in various liquids, whether seawater, tap water, or even soup, can effectively trap up to 90% of the microplastics and smaller non-plastics in the sponge and remove them from the liquid. While this intervention is promising, more work must be done to improve the sponge’s composition and efficacy for researchers to prove that it can be a cost-effective mechanism to remove microplastics at a large scale. The effectiveness of these synthetic sponges depends on the saltiness, acidity, and concentration of the plastic in the liquid. In addition, the sponges’ ingredients make it difficult for them to be produced at the grand scale needed to impact the environment, as researchers hope.

Moreover, not only are the sponges composed of highly sought-after starch, gelatin, and chitosan (a material made from crustacean shells), potentially spurring even greater competition for these ingredients in the future, but the highly toxic compound, formaldehyde, is used in the sponges manufacturing process. As a result, traces of formaldehyde were found in the sponge, undermining its eco-friendliness. Researchers are working to create more environmentally responsible sponges, with fever constraints imposed by their ingredients. Researchers are most concerned that efforts to remove microplastics in the ocean are impractical due to the sheer size of Earth’s oceans and the amount of microplastics already present. Instead, researchers are hopeful that the sponges can be leveraged to prevent further microplastic pollution from entering the ocean in the first place by removing microplastics found in food-production facilities, contaminated water, washing machines, and waste-water-treatment plants.

by Gillian Feinglass

Anti-obesity drugs’ side effects: what we know so far

By Mariana Lenharo, Nature

New anti-obesity drugs, semaglutide and tirzepatide, are currently in clinical trials with human participants. Researchers are finding that these medications lead to substantial weight loss – as much as 21% of participants’ body weight. However, researchers are unsure if there are any adverse side effects, such as gastrointestinal problems or loss of muscle mass. Anti-obesity drugs mimic an appetite regulation hormone called glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1). Anti-obesity drugs that mimic GLP-1 have been found to have gastrointestinal side effects, including nausea, constipation, and, in rare cases, pancreatitis and gastroparesis. Unlike the adverse gastrointestinal side effects, researchers have concluded that anti-obesity drugs do not cause the loss of lean muscle mass more than regular weight loss. After examining the risks, researchers concluded that the benefits of weight loss outweigh the risks of the new anti-obesity drugs. However, more research is needed.

by Lexy Campbell

Insurers Often Shortchange Mental Health Care Coverage, Despite a Federal Law

By Nada Hassanein, USA Today

Michelle Romero’s daughter was only 10 years old the first time she attempted suicide. Desperate to help her daughter, Romero searched tirelessly to find a psychiatrist and psychotherapist covered by insurance — only to discover that there were no practitioners in-network in her area. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was founded in 2008, requiring mental health care benefits to be equal to coverage for other physical health conditions. The problem, however, is that many insurance companies are able to find loopholes within this act, charging higher copays and imposing more restrictive prior authorization policies. As mental health problems and overdose deaths rise, the Biden administration has just proposed a new rule to strengthen parity and close many loopholes in the 2008 Parity Act. Additionally, some states have passed their own parity rules. Mental health care is health care and needs to be treated as such by physicians and insurance companies alike. Help is on the way. 

by Harleigh Markowitz

Kaiser Permanente Reaches Tentative Deal With Health Care Workers

By  Reed Abelson and Emily Baumgaertner, The New York Times

Kaiser Permanente, a health plan with over 13 million members, its own hospital and physician group, reached a tentative settlement after a three-day labor strike the largest healthcare worker strike in recent U.S. history. After, three days of healthcare workers striking due to burnout, frustration, and short staffing, The settlement states that in California (where the majority of Kaiser Permanente members reside) the minimum pay for healthcare workers will be raised to $25, which will also contribute to an incentive to increase staffing. 

The strike itself spanned over three days and put a lot of pressure on the Kaiser Permanente facilities to bring in contingency workers to fill in for the thousands of healthcare workers, receptionists, and sanitation workers on the picket line. Even with the efforts of contingency workers, appointments were pushed back, care was deferred, and entire labs were closed. 

Kaiser Permanente’s settlement with the unions is critical in the health labor market due to staff shortages across the country post-pandemic. However, these shortages have left a bargaining tool for healthcare workers to demand improved pay. While Kaiser Permanente’s strike was large, it was not the only healthcare strike occurring, with healthcare workers in Michigan, Illinois, California, and New York on the picket line as well. 

Kaiser Permanente’s strike, along with the other strikes happening simultaneously, is important because it sets a standard for other healthcare companies to improve their work settings to improve staff well-being. With increased pay for staff, this will improve their quality of life, especially with the cost of living increasing. Without staff burnout, improved quality of life, and hopefully diminishing staffing shortages, Kaiser Permanente’s quality of care provided to all 13 million members covered will improve drastically. The healthcare giant also stated that increased pay should not increase rates for members.

by Caroline Hansen

Scientists Use CRISPR to Make Chickens More Resistant to Bird Flu

By Emily Anthes, The New York Times

Scientists have used CRISPR gene editing to successfully engineer chickens to be partially resistant to avian influenza. This is a virus that poses serious health risks for both animals (especially poultry) and humans. The modification prevents the virus from binding to a specific protein necessary for replication. There were no observed health consequences for the chickens or their eggs. Upon spraying a low bird flu dose into the modified chickens’ nasal cavity, only 1 out of 10 chickens became infected, compared to the infection of all chickens used as controls. Furthermore, the infected chickens did not spread the flu to the rest of the flock. A stronger dose resulted in a 50% infection rate, but the modified chickens were still less contagious than the controls given the same dose. 

There were a number of key takeaways from the experiment. Although some chickens were partially resistant to the virus, breakthrough infections still occurred, especially when exposed to high viral loads. Furthermore, the virus quickly adapted to the CRISPR modifications when only one gene was edited, indicating that multiple genes must be edited to create fully resistant chickens. Scientists observed mutations that allowed the virus to replicate using the modified protein. Different mutations let avian flu use other proteins to replicate instead.  It also highlighted potential risks in furthering the evolution of bird flu for the sake of experiments. This discovery comes at a time when a deadly variant of bird flu, H5N1, has been propagating for the past several years, spreading extensively in both poultry and wild birds. Scientists are now working on creating healthy, safely consumable chickens with multiple gene edits in an effort to protect the food supply and public health. 

by Saif Hossain

Items summarized by: Cora Bainum, Gillian Feinglass, Lexy Campbell, Harleigh Markowitz, Caroline Hansen, Saif Hossain