An Amphibian Plague Recovery Could Spell Good News for Animal Disease

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A decade ago, a deadly fungus ravaged amphibian populations around the world, pushing several species the extinction of several species.

It’s a sadly familiar story on a planet with no shortage of bad news for animals.

But recently researchers have discovered a croak of hope — some species may be able to adapt to this fungus and bounce back from its destruction.

Researchers working in Panama found that nine of 12 species that had been devastated by chytrid fungus had recovered, and that local frogs were less susceptible to the fungus than lab-raised animals. Because the fungus itself didn’t seem to be any different, the researchers suspected the amphibians had developed resistance to the disease, just as if they had been given a vaccine.

Ideally, amphibians everywhere would be able to adapt to the fungus — and do so sooner rather than later, since amphibian populations are rapidly declining and face unique threats from climate change.

Yet the discovery could also be a good sign in the larger scope of animal disease. Fungal diseases have become more prevalent and more deadly in wildlife in around the globe, for reasons that scientists still don’t fully understand. Unsurprisingly, humans — our affinity for global travel, insistence on trading exotic pets from continent to continent, and tendency to destroy habitats — are the number one suspect.

If multiple species were able to adapt to chytrid fungus, maybe they could develop resistance to other potent fungal diseases, such as the white nose fungus that has already wiped out up to 97 percent of some North American bat populations. In fact, this might be happening — there are early signs that some surviving bats are beginning to reproduce again, potentially passing along the genes that make them resistant.

Earth is rapidly becoming less biodiverse; some experts estimate that it’s already below “safe” levels for the planet, and extinction cascades are imminent. Animals have always found ways to adapt to disease and other population threats, but that’s become harder lately, thanks to humans. Indications that species may be able to survive to these new threats are rare, glimmering signs of hope.

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The WHO Is on the Lookout for the Disease That May Be the Next Global Pandemic

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A Mysterious Global Pandemic?

As far as the World Health Organization (WHO) is concerned, there’s a looming threat of an as-yet-unknown international epidemic — one that could potentially be deadly. In the WHO’s latest R&D Blueprint of priority diseases, the yet-to-be-identified culprit behind the next global pandemic is called simply “Disease X.” It might seem like little more than an empty guess, but Disease X represents much more than that.

At first, including an unidentified disease with the potential to wreak havoc on humanity feels kind of alarmist — but it isn’t meant to create panic. According to a statement explaining the R&D Blueprint, “Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.”

This placeholder of sorts is included in the WHO’s list of prioritized diseases (first made public in December 2015 and later reviewed in January 2017) in order to “enable cross-cutting R&D preparedness that is also relevant for an unknown ‘Disease X’ as far as possible.”

The list also includes several known diseases that have already reached epidemic levels in parts of the world; among them Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF), Ebola, Marburg, and Zika viruses.

Preparedness is Key

To be clear, we don’t yet know what Disease X is. It might not even exist yet. But the possibility of a life-threatening, global epidemic is not science fiction, and that’s why it’s important to be prepared.

“This is not some future nightmare scenario,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom told audiences at the 2018 World Government Summit in Dubai back in February. “This is what happened exactly 100 years ago during the Spanish flu epidemic.”

The inclusion of Disease X in the agency’s R&D Blueprint marks the first time the WHO has included an unknown pathogen. The decision is rooted in the belief that humanity has learned a thing or two from its past experiences with global pandemics, and that it’s crucial to anticipate what could be and prepare accordingly.

“History tells us that it is likely the next big outbreak will be something we have not seen before,” John-Arne Rottingen, Research Council of Norway CEO and WHO committee scientific adviser, told The Telegraph. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s less work to be done to combat existing diseases. If anything, the efforts go hand in hand.

“It may seem strange to be adding an ‘X’ but the point is to make sure we prepare and plan flexibly in terms of vaccines and diagnostic tests,” Rottingen explains. “We want to see ‘plug and play’ platforms developed which will work for any, or a wide number of diseases; systems that will allow us to create countermeasures at speed.”

So, how do we prepare for Disease X? To start, we’ll need research — and lots of it. Perhaps equally important will be addressing an issue that ails much of the world today: a lack of adequate health coverage. As he stood before audiences in Dubai earlier this year, WHO chief Tedros said that “Universal health coverage is the greatest threat to global health.”

Indeed, the lack of access to even the most basic health coverage is among the factors that could allow Disease X to morph from a mysterious possibility into a dreadful — and deadly — reality. Coupled with the habits of a globalized world, lack of healthcare would also make it easier for diseases to spread.

In adding Disease X to its list, this is perhaps the most important point the WHO wants to highlight. The agency also aims to raise awareness about how humanity’s choices can potentially pose a great threat to our species.

Marion Koopmans, another WHO adviser, told The Telegraph that as the world develops, the intensity of human and animal contact is increasing, which “makes it more likely new diseases will emerge, but also modern travel and trade make it much more likely they will spread.”

To that point, Rottingen pointed out in Dubai last month that as the world’s ecosystems change and our habitats evolve, diseases in animals making the leap to humans is “probably the greatest risk.” In fact, as far as viruses are concerned, that evolution is very much a natural process — one that we need to be aware of and prepare for.

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To Cure a Deadly Disease, 17 People Will Be Knowingly Infected With Worms

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Bring on the Worms

Seventeen volunteers from the Netherlands have agreed to host parasitic worms in their bodies for 12 weeks in a study that could lead to a vaccine for schistosomiasis, one of the most devastating parasitic diseases in the world.

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Also known as snail fever, schistosomiasis is a disease caused by schistosomes, a type of parasitic flatworm. After these worms enter the human body through the skin, they can cause a host of problems, including kidney failure, bladder cancer, and infertility.

They can also impact the physical growth and learning ability of infected children, and the condition is particularly common in sub-Saharan Africa and South America.

A vaccine could go a long way toward preventing infection, but setting up a study in the areas most affected would cost millions. Before a researcher could raise the money for such a test, they’d have to show some evidence that a vaccine works, which is where the 17 Dutch volunteers come into play.

No Risk, No Reward

Infectious disease physician Meta Roestenberg from the Leiden University Medical Center posited that if doctors could show that healthy young adults can withstand infection, they could prove there’s a quick and inexpensive way to test schistosomiasis vaccines in people.

To that end, they inserted 20 male larvae into each of their 17 participants. These larvae can’t reproduce, and at the end of the test, the doctors will administer a drug called Praziquantel to flush the infection and kill of any remaining parasites.

Whether the Praziquantel will rid participants of the parasites at the end of the study is a point of debate, though. Schistosomiasis researcher Daniel Colley told Science Magazine the treatment is “not terribly effective,” but according to a report from The New York Times, a Dutch ethics board signed off on the study, so officials must believe the participants are in no great danger.

So far, there have been no reports of volunteers having any stronger reaction to the parasites than a mild rash and a minor fever. Each is being paid $ 1,200 for their involvement, and if the study does lead to the creation of a vaccine, that small investment on the part of those funding this study will be well worth it.

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Susceptible to Heart Disease? Gene Editing Could Change That

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One in Four

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease causes one in every four deaths in the United States. In fact, it’s the nation’s leading cause of death, and every year, more than 700,000 people in the U.S. have a heart attack.

A person’s lifetime risk of developing heart disease depends on many factors. Several are related to lifestyle, so if a person is at a high-risk of developing heart disease, their doctor might recommend they get more exercise, improve their eating habits, or quit smoking. Other risk factors aren’t so easily altered – namely, a person’s genes – but as a new study has shown, that might change in the age of gene editing.

Some people have a naturally occurring mutation in a gene called ANGPTL3, which plays a role in the regulation of fats in our blood called triglycerides. Having too many triglycerides increases our risk of developing heart disease, so doctors usually recommend patients change their diets or take medications to lower these levels.

However, the ANGPTL3 mutation seems to lower the person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease without causing any harmful side effects. Now, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have tested a gene-editing technique inspired by these people who lucked out in the genetic lottery.

A First Step

For their study, which was published in the journal Circulation, the team used a CRISPR-like technique called base editing. First, they injected healthy mice with the base-editing treatment to modify the ANGPTL3 gene. Then, they compared the animals’ blood fat levels with those of untreated mice. The levels of the treated mice were up to 30 percent lower than those of the mice that hadn’t been treated.

Next, the researchers set out to determine if their treatment could help patients with a rare inherited disorder called homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia. These patients have very few effective options for treatments and carry a severe risk of heart disease as a result. If doctors could forcibly lower their triglyceride levels by “turning off” a gene, it could be life-saving.

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To test this possibility, the team created a mouse model of homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia. After two weeks, the mice given the base-editing treatment showed substantially reduced triglycerides – up to 56 percent – over the mice that weren’t treated. The modified gene appeared to help treat the rare condition.

For the time being, researchers have only tested the treatment in mice, but these initial results are encouraging. If researchers can find a way to make it work in humans, the technique could potentially help patients whose triglyceride levels aren’t responding to lifestyle changes and medication, as well as those with homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia.

The team is now preparing for the next step toward human trials, which will involve injecting human liver cells into mice in order to test the treatment’s effectiveness and safety on human ANGPTL3 genes. If all goes well, the team could move ahead with clinical trials. According to a press release statement by the study’s lead author, Kiran Musunuru, patients with homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia could be just five years away from “a one-time CRISPR ‘vaccination’.”

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A Company Wants to Put a Chip in Your Brain to Cure Disease

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Non-Invasive BCI

Technological innovations like Elon Musk’s Neuralink and other brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) could one day improve human intelligence, memory, and communication. While the tech is enticing, in practice, the thought of actually having a chip implanted into your brain is enough to make even the most dedicated science fiction fan a little squeamish.

An Israel-based neurotech startup called BrainQ is taking a less invasive approach to integrating the human brain with technology. Instead of using implants, BrainQ is making use of non-surgically embedding EEG machines, which record electrical activity in the brain. EEGs have been used this way by other groups working with patients who are paralyzed, and BrainQ hopes their technique could achieve similar goals for improving the lives of stroke and spinal cord injury patients.

Blending technology with the human brain could yield incredible results. Image Credit: BrainQ

The neurotech company has a few fairly significant hurdles to clear before their tech could be made available for medical use, though. First, it will need to successfully complete human clinical trials. Then, the tech will need to gain FDA approval in order to be commercially in the U.S. The final and potentially the most difficult challenge for BrainQ will be the ongoing task of competing with all the other companies trying to create similar EEG-based technology.

While companies like NeuroLutions and NeuroPace will be overall competitors in terms of the technology itself, BrainQ seems to be the leading the development of applications that are focused on stroke and spinal cord injury patients.

Changing Medicine

The company hopes the tech will be available in the U.S. market by 2020. After that, they’ll continue to work to set BrainQ apart from other companies by developing applications for a wider range of diseases. Assaf Lifshitz, a spokesperson for BrainQ, told TechCrunch that in the future, the company hopes to use the tech to collect data and improve outcomes for patients with Alzheimer’s, and several diseases specific to children.

BrainQ’s timetable may be reasonable: since it relies on less invasive tech than, say, a brain implant, it will likely have a much easier road than other BCIs in terms of gaining FDA approval. As the tech is rolled out, BrainQ hopes it will be able to collect a more in-depth and broad range of data on the electrical activity of the human brain. That data could one day potentially lead to more refined assessments of a patient’s condition and ultimately, more effective treatments.

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“Genetic Report Cards” Will Be the Future of Predicting Disease Risk

The at-home genetic testing boom of the last couple decades has provided us with remarkable insight into who we are, where we come from, and what the future holds for our health. It’s also provided science with invaluable data — and a lot of it.

Millions of people all over the world are swabbing the insides of their cheeks in their living rooms in hopes of improving their understanding of their familial health. Armed with the genetic profiles of these voluntary test subjects, researchers are beginning to glean a more nuanced understanding of conditions that have long defied medical insight, not to mention discovering new ones.

Researchers are also using that data to refine — or develop entirely new — treatments for diseases that science had since proclaimed untreatable. From there, the prospect of curing incurable conditions seems closer than its ever been.

The more such “direct-to-consumer” genetic testing becomes accessible to the general public (that is, the tests become more affordable and easy to use) the more data researchers will have to work with. With all that data is sure to come additional investment. With that investment is sure to come rapid progress towards combatting diseases — not just in what the tests can uncover, but when.

Disease Report Cards

We are closing in on an era when newborns could be sent home with more than a hospital blanket and a knitted cap: Parents could leave with a cost-effective and accurate genetic profile of their child. Amit Khera, a cardiologist and researcher at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts calls this a polygenic score, or more colloquially, a genetic report card of sorts.

“Where I see this going is that at a young age you’ll basically get a report card,” Khera told the MIT Technology Review. “And it will say for these 10 diseases, here’s your score. You are in the 90th percentile for heart disease, 50th for breast cancer, and the lowest 10 percent for diabetes.”

Just imagine: A roadmap of risk for your child’s health. Not only for the next few months, or the next few years — but the child’s entire life.

As we uncover more links between our selves and our genes — everything from earwax consistency to personality quirks to taste aversions — we may be able to predict a lot more about a child than just their lifetime risk of heart disease.

Genetic risk for a number of conditions can be mitigated by lifestyle, environment, and other factors over which we can exert some control. While the risk of a condition like Type II diabetes is certainly modifiable, we’re learning (as we are with many other diseases) that there are more than one or two genes we have to keep an eye on. The genetic culprits behind certain diseases number not in the dozens, but the hundreds.

Worth the Risk?

Humans have thousands of genes in varying positions in our genome. When it comes to assessing risk, the presence of genes we know are involved in certain conditions is balanced against the others — usually in percentages — and the risk is reported as an average. As more genes are identified as being linked to certain conditions, these predictions will become more accurate.

Improving risk assessments would matter not just for infants at birth (if not for fetuses when they’re still in the womb) — but the rest of us, too, who may be more at-risk for a condition like heart disease than we realized.

The question, then, becomes what, if anything, do we do with our knowledge of those disease predictions? What should medical professionals do with that information? If the risk is something that can be mitigated by changing one’s diet, starting a medication, quitting smoking, or even wearing a fitness tracker, the information would be actionable. If the condition is inevitable, then is being able to forecast one’s future medical hardships a blessing or a curse?

This debate is particular important in the realm of predicting neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. If a genetic test indicates someone is likely to develop Alzheimer’s — and even goes so far as to give that person an idea of when they will begin to develop symptoms — it could give them time to prepare. How would the timing of that information impact how a person lived their life?

If an adult was told they would develop the condition within the next decade, they would probably be grateful to have the time to make arrangements with their families and caregivers about certain wants and needs. But what if someone learned that information at age 25? At 15? Or if people had to live their entire lives with the knowledge of their inevitable cognitive decline because they were assigned an “Alzheimer’s score” the day they were born?

These questions will largely be informed by the rate at which effective treatments are developed for the diseases that genetic tests are screening for.

It may be that, by the time we receive a “genetic report card” in childhood, the options for treating (if not reversing) age-related diseases may mean our risk score hardly troubles us at all. But between now and that time, there will be a great deal of uncertainty — thanks to our knowledge of our health fates outpacing our ability to combat those fates.

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Google’s new AI algorithm can predict heart disease through retina scan

Google has announced its new AI algorithm that can detect heart diseases by retina scanning. Scientists from Google and its subsidiary health tech Verily claim that by deep scanning of a patient’s eye, the newly developed AI software is capable of accurately detecting data including age, blood pressure, and whether or not they smoke and more.  Furthermore, this can also detect the risk of a person suffering a major cardiac event with roughly more or less the same accuracy as current leading methods. the algorithm is said to make it simple for doctors to analyze a patient’s cardiovascular risk since it doesn’t require a blood test. However, even before this software is implemented, it needs to be tested for accuracy and perfected. Google says that using the deep learning algorithms trained on data from over 284,335 patients, it was able to predict CV risk factors from retinal images which also included eye scans as well as general medical data.The company claims that the algorithm was able to distinguish the retinal images of a smoker from that of a non-smoker 71% of the time. Neural networks were used to mine this information for patterns, learning to associate telltale signs in the eye scans with the metrics …
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An AI for an eye: DeepMind focuses on eye disease diagnosis

DeepMind eye diagnostics

Thanks to thousands of training images, DeepMind’s AI can now analyse retinal scans to detect eye disease.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has already demonstrated that it’s the ideal assistive tool in the world of medical diagnoses, from heart disease to breast cancer.

This stems from its ability to detect small anomalies in scans, and other details that even an experienced doctor might miss. Pattern recognition abilities such as this are built via thousands – in some cases millions – of training images.

Thanks to Google’s DeepMind, AI’s augmentation of human expertise now extends to eye health, too. In partnership with Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, DeepMind has developed an AI that analyses retinal scans to spot early-stage eye diseases.

Part of the Alphabet group, DeepMind is a world leader in AI, led by Dr Demis Hassabis. It first announced the partnership with Moorfields, one the world’s leading ophthalmology hospitals, in 2016. Since then, doctors have been training the DeepMind algorithm with thousands of 3D retinal scans of healthy and diseased eyes.

DeepMind Health’s vision

The research could have a massive beneficial impact.

Two million people live with sight loss in the UK – three percent of the population – of whom around 360,000 are registered as blind or partially sighted. Glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and macular degeneration are the three major diseases responsible.

Faster, more reliable detection could make a huge difference in detecting problems and preserving a patient’s vision.

“In specific areas like medical imaging, you can see we’re going to make really tremendous progress in the next couple of years with artificial intelligence,” Dominic King, clinical lead for DeepMind Health, told the Financial Times. “Machine learning could have a very important role in picking up things more sensitively and specifically than currently happens.”

By leveraging Deep Leaning, the AI can detect minute, pixel-level trends and signals in the 3D scans, at levels of detail that medical professionals can’t hope to match, enabling them to make more informed decisions in indeterminate cases.

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This isn’t DeepMind’s only foray into healthcare. The company is working with University College London Hospital to develop an algorithm that can identify cancerous tissue in the head and neck. However, the company faced controversy in 2016 when it signed a deal with the NHS to obtain patient data to test its Streams medical analytics app. The backlash led DeepMind to establish its own AI ethics board.

Nonetheless, its generalised AI has the potential to augment diagnostics across all fields of medical imaging, alongside the likes of Lunit and Ultromics. In the future, AI robotics and the IoT will all play vital roles in supporting ageing populations and stressed healthcare systems by making them more efficient and effective.

Keep up with the latest developments in our IoT in healthcare section.

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Advancing Biotechnology Could Lead to a Future Free of Disease

As biotechnology continues to advance, medical procedures and treatments could begin to address diseases and genetic conditions before they become issues.

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