FBI busts Phantom Secure CEO for selling secured BlackBerry phones to drug cartels

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There are several companies that offer encrypted and untraceable phones for use by the more private figures among us, and Canada-based Phantom Secure is one of them. However, its founder and CEO, Vincent Ramos, has been arrested by the FBI on several charges, all of which are related to selling locked-down BlackBerry phones to members of illegal organizations such as the Sinaloa drug cartel and the Hells Angels.

Phantom Secure takes what appear to be BlackBerry 9720s and removes the microphones, camera, GPS, Internet capabilities, and normal messenger services.

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An Osteoarthritis Drug May Be the Answer to America’s Opioid Crisis

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A drug developed to treat osteoarthritis pain has shown promise as a method of preventing opioid tolerance and physical dependence. With the opioid epidemic still in full effect in the U.S., there’s a dire need for this kind of drug in opioid addiction treatment.

The compound was tested on mice to determine its ability to treat pain and combat addiction. As a control, mice suffering from neuropathic pain were given morphine, which was effective – but they quickly developed a tolerance, much like humans, who tend to require larger doses over time. However, when given a low dose of the experimental compound alongside the morphine, the mice didn’t develop a tolerance. At higher doses, the drug was also able to offer pain relief in its own right.

Another experiment saw mice treated with either morphine alone, or morphine and the experimental drug, before being given naloxone – a medication that blocks the effects of opioids and causes withdrawal symptoms. The osteoarthritis compound was able to make those symptoms less severe.

There are hopes that the experimental drug could be administered alongside opioids to ensure that patients don’t develop an unhealthy tolerance, and provide pain relief with fewer side effects. It could also play a role in helping people who have already grown tolerant to opioids to wean themselves off the drugs.

The compound was found to be ineffective in its in its original implementation as a treatment for osteoarthritis, but during the course of those initial tests, it was deemed safe for people to use. This means that there should be fewer regulatory hurdles to pass ahead of human trials, which will determine whether the drug would actually work in practice for opioid addiction treatment.

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Colorado police turned to Snapchat to solve a drug murder

Newly unsealed documents show that Snapchat played an unexpected role in the investigation of an apparent drug murder in Colorado in 2016. Devon Smeltz disappeared in August 2016, shortly after a late-night disturbance was captured on surveillance video near his home in Fort Collins. Eight days after the incident, Smeltz’s body was discovered in a rural county one hour east of the city, launching an investigation by Fort Collins police.

The prime suspects in the disappearance were a group of five associates from Cincinnati. Shortly after Smeltz’s disappearance, the group was stopped by Illinois highway police driving a white Mercedes sedan registered to Smeltz. A subsequent search of the car turned up a loaded firearm, traces of blood,…

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We’re Getting Closer to Vaccines to Combat Drug Addiction

In the United States, 115 people die as the result of an opioid drug overdose every day. This statistic, gathered as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) work to understand and combat the current epidemic of opioid drug abuse in America is even more startling when you compare it to figures from the last twenty years or so. In 2016, the number of deaths attributed to an overdose of a drug like heroin or prescription opioid painkillers was five times what it was in 1999.

One of the driving forces behind this epidemic has already been determined: medical professionals over-prescribing opioid painkillers, such as oxycodone, to patients, a practice that is not only completely legal but increasingly common. Many people begin taking the drug legally but become dependent on it. When the prescription runs out and they are no longer able to get it filled, they may try to obtain it illegally. They may be motivated to buy or steal medication to help combat their pain. Some patients end up taking illegal street drugs, like heroin, in an attempt to treat the withdrawals from the opioid medications they were initially prescribed.

Drug addiction is extremely difficult to treat. Addictions that begin as the result of taking legally-prescribed medication, often as a treatment for severe or chronic pain, are even more so. That’s one reason that researchers have been trying to find entirely new avenues for treating drug addiction.

A team of researchers at The Scripps Research Institute recently published their work on the development of a potential vaccine to treat heroin addiction. The idea behind it is fairly intuitive, and in fact, the basic concept has been known to researchers since at least the 1970s.

Like any immunization, an “antiheroin” vaccine would cause a person’s body to create the antibodies that bind to heroin in the blood. Then, it would prevent the drug from crossing the blood-brain barrier, which is what gives the user a high. The theory being that if the drug user no longer felt the effect of the drug, it would be far less likely that they’d relapse.

Other research teams are working on similar vaccines that could be used to treat people addicted to cocaine, or even as a potential treatment for cigarette smokers who are addicted to nicotine. Whether prescription opioid painkillers, heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, nicotine, or even alcohol, the need for new, innovative, ways to address addiction is severe. Given the sheer number of people addicted and dying each year as a result and the distressing lack of available options for treatment, the need for drastic intervention is clear.

“We’re looking for everything and anything,” R. Corey Waller, a practicing addiction specialist and chair of the legislative advocacy committee of the American Society of Addiction Medicine told Chemical and Engineering News “We don’t care if it’s voodoo, unicorns, or rainbows; we’ll take it.”

At present, the biggest challenge is finding the scientific magic that would allow these treatments to work in humans. While they have proven effective in lab animals, the results of the few human clinical trials to date have been disappointing. That was over a decade ago, though, and the failure of those trials gave researchers valuable insight into what needed to be revamped.

It’s only a matter of time before they’ll be able to try again, but those who specialize in substance abuse treatment remain cautiously optimistic. They know, perhaps better than anyone else other than the addicts themselves, just how hard it is to treat drug addiction. “The vaccines seem very promising, and they’re novel, providing a different mechanism to prevent substance abuse,” Kelly E. Dunn, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavior Science at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine told Chemical and Engineering News. “But there is still a lot of work to do.”

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Oh, Brother: People Might Not Take This Potential Malaria Drug Just Because it Turns Their Urine Blue

Among the things human beings are desperately attached to, the color of their urine probably was…never one you ever would’ve considered. And yet: Some people are, in fact, so attached to the color of their urine that they’d rather get malaria than see the color of their pee change.

Background: You know mosquitoes, because mosquitoes are awful. Their bites itch, and some of them even come with malaria, an infectious disease that (per the World Health Organization) caused 445,000 deaths in 2016 alone. Which isn’t to say we don’t already have antimalarial drugs—we do. But they famously have some pretty terrible side effects (like everything from incredibly intense nightmares to bouts of psychosis). And people, naturally, don’t want to take those drugs, because of those side effects. And even when people do take them, the drugs might not work, since the parasite that causes malaria is becoming resistant to them.

So! Scientists have been grinding away trying to develop effective treatments that aren’t so potentially problematic for patients. And recently, they’ve maybe found a promising candidate. Earlier this month, we reported that researchers had discovered that methylene blue — a blue dye harmless to people — was surprisingly effective at killing malaria parasites. Patients treated with a combination of the blue dye, along with an existing antimalarial drug called artemisinin, were cured of malaria in just two days.

That’s the good news — the treatment was effective. The bad news? It turned patients’ urine blue.

You might think: Who cares? As it turns out: People. Who might care enough to the point where they don’t actually take the medication, according to Teun Bousema, a microbiologist at Radboud University Medical Center and an author of the recent study. 25 percent of the “mild adverse events” causing reluctance to take the medication were because of the blue urine — so, yeah, people notice it. “Development of blue urine could affect compliance,” the study authors wrote.

Methylene blue’s bold tint has been its biggest hurdle to acceptance since it was first discovered in the 19th Century. A 1892 study on the drug noted that its unappealing, dramatic hue means it’s “it is not very likely that methylene blue will be much used outside of hospitals,” NPR noted.

“Because of the color, it never really took off,” study author Ingrid Chen told NPR. “The knee-jerk reaction is, ‘my body’s full of this chemical,’… It looks worse than it is.”

The blue urine might look unappealing, but it really isn’t that big a deal. It has no effect on health, and according to research published to The Journal of Anesthesiology, Pain Management, Intensive Care & Resuscitation, the blue color only lasts several hours. And in the study, when people were warned of the side effect, they didn’t seem to mind it much, Bousema said (though they seemed to learn to skip the clean tighty-whities that day, since the blue urine does stains clothing, according to The New York Times). 

You’d think that, in comparison, antimalarials currently on the market don’t stand a chance. But, unfortunately, people have long been freaked out by the color of their own pee as an indicator of their health. And, well, that blue color might just be too much for some people to get used to.

Bousema told the New York Times that this side effect is one that “we need to solve.” As Bousema and his team continue to evaluate the treatment, hopefully they’ll figure out a way to counteract the side effect to ensure that everyone who should be taking the drug does so—without having to worry about staining their clothes blue.

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Robot “Scientist” Helps Discover New Ingredient for Antimalarial Drug

Robot Researcher

An artificially intelligent “robot scientist” developed at the University of Cambridge aided researchers in discovering that a compound commonly found in soap and toothpaste could be a new weapon in the fight against drug-resistant malaria.

The compound, triclosan, is used to inhibit the build-up of plaque-causing bacteria in toothpaste. It had previously been discovered to inhibit malarial growth in culture, but researchers incorrectly attributed its effectiveness to the compound’s targeting of a specific enzyme, known as enoyl reductase (ENR). Yet when the researchers attempted to improve triclosan’s ability to target ENR, they found it did not inhibit parasite growth.

With the help of a robot scientist dubbed “Eve,” researchers were able to discover that the compound actually targets another enzyme, called DHFR, already a common target of antimalarial drugs. The team’s research can be found published in the journal Scientific Reports.

There is an antimalarial drug that also targets DHFR already on the market, but resistance to the drug is rising. This leaves medical professionals with fewer options to effectively treat this disease, which infects up to 600 million people and kills over one million each year, according to UNICEF.

“Drug-resistant malaria is becoming an increasingly significant threat in Africa and south-east Asia, and our medicine chest of effective treatments is slowly depleting,” said Steve Oliver, professor at the Cambridge Systems Biology Center and the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, in a press release. “The search for new medicines is becoming increasingly urgent.”

Eve was able to speed up the discovery process by autonomously developing and testing hypotheses to explain observations that the system was making. Eve was then able to run her own experiments using laboratory equipment, interpret the results of her efforts, and then adjust her hypothesis and repeat the process until something meaningful was found.

“Artificial intelligence and machine learning enables us to create automated scientists that do not just take a ‘brute force’ approach, but rather take an intelligent approach to science,” said Ross King, the professor from the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology in charge of Eve’s development, in the press release. “This could greatly speed up the drug discovery progress and potentially reap huge rewards.”

Man and Machine

Systems such as Eve and her older iteration, Adam, enable researchers to significantly hasten new drug discoveries. In turn, these intelligent systems can reduce the cost of new drug discovery by cutting down on required personnel and the number of hours staff have to work toward making breakthroughs.

This could be especially useful in developing treatments for diseases that primarily effect developing countries; traditionally, profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies might be less likely to explore these treatments, for fear of an inability to make a profit. 

Types of AI: From Reactive to Self-Aware [INFOGRAPHIC]
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Often the rise of such a new technology is sold to the public as adversarial, focusing on how much better a system is at a task than its human counterpart. However, this innovation and others like it, such as the AI that can diagnose heart disease and lung cancer, are much more interesting in how they will allow new collaboration between humans and machines.

We already see this kind of collaboration becoming common in medicine as AI tech continues to rapidly develop. Soon, robots may have a hand in many aspects of clinical care, from diagnosis to treatment, while also developing better treatments for those patients they helped diagnose.

Looking to the future of AI development isn’t about the fear of machines overtaking humanity; it’s looking forward to the enhanced capabilities that will be afforded to both, based on synergistic collaboration.

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Scientists find darknet drug markets have little influence on global trafficking

The darknet, cyberspace’s filthy flea-market for forbidden goods, isn’t the global drug network it’s been made out to be. According to Oxford’s new darknet drug map it’s more like your local pusher’s Etsy page than Amazon’s marketplace. The researchers used darknet web crawlers to scrape the marketplaces of several top underground markets including Alphabay, Hansa, Traderoute, and Valhalla. Data gleaned from the search was then organized geographically to provide insights into what effect darknet markets have on the global illicit drug-trade. According to their white paper, the team tracked and classified data pertaining to nearly 1.5 million trades occurring on…

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Immunotherapy Drug Proven Remarkably Successful Against Serious Stem Cell Transplant Complication

Breakthrough Immunotherapy

Graft-versus-host disease (GvHD) is a condition that can develop in response to an allogeneic stem cell transplant or a reduced-intensity allogeneic transplant. It can be both acute and severe, and has the potential to be life-threatening. This condition has been a major stumbling block in advancing stem cell research, as life-threatening consequences of transplants are not exactly ideal. But this all could change with a phase-2 clinical trial, presented by Seattle Children’s Research Institute at the 59th American Society of Hematology (ASH) Annual Meeting, that shows how an immunotherapy drug can almost entirely eliminate severe acute GvHD.

Dr. Leslie Kean, the trial’s principal investigator and associate director of the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at Seattle Children’s, said that “Given the serious threat of graft-versus-host disease, new approaches to make stem cell transplants safer for patients remain a critical unmet need. To see such striking results in patients at extremely high risk for graft-versus-disease is incredibly encouraging.”

This trial tested the drug abatacept (orencia) in patients who developed GvHD from hematopoietic stem cell transplants. When the drug was used in addition to standard GvHD treatment, it reduced the occurrence of acute, grade III-IV GvHD from 32 to 3 percent. These incredible results were for both adults and children. The group who received abatacept alongside their normal treatment experienced increased survival and recovery.

Advancing Stem Cell Research

Kean stated that “As a transplant physician, it’s beyond heartbreaking to witness a patient develop severe acute graft-versus-host disease after having their leukemia cured through bone marrow transplant. To have a therapy at our disposal that safely targets just the T cells causing graft-versus-host disease would represent a major step forward in stem cell transplantation. It not only offers new hope that we can prevent graft-versus-host disease upfront, but that we can also significantly improve outcomes for patients requiring high-risk transplants.”

Bioprinting: How 3D Printing is Changing Medicine
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After these successful results, the second cohort finished enrollment in November, with 140 total patients. Data from this next step in this study will likely be available within the next six months.

This continuing study will not only provide necessary improved treatment for those battling life-threatening complications through this condition — it will also advance stem cell research. Blindness, non-healing wounds, HIV, and even aging are among the seemingly countless conditions that stem cell treatments could alleviate. But, among the many roadblocks in this type of research is this very serious disease. Until now, it was something that was a clear and life-threatening reality of stem cell transplants. But thanks to this study, there is better treatment and there could be better prevention of this heartbreaking disease.

This could allow research to push forward without patients having to risk their lives. So, while it could save lives through treatment with the immunotherapy drug, it could also save lives by allowing advanced medical research using stem cells to move forward. This development is a win-win for the future of medicine, the future of stem cell research and its life-saving potential.

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