Medical news

NASA Grow Light Relieves Chemotherapy Side Effects

A light used to grow plants on the Space Shuttle and in other NASA experiments may now be useful for earth-bound cancer patients.  Treatments with a light system called a High Emissivity Aluminiferous Luminescent Substrate (HEALS) have been shown to be effective in helping cancer patients deal with a painful and difficult side effect of chemotherapy treatment known as oral mucositis.

Signs of oral mucositis are sores and ulcers inside the mouth.  Oral mucositis is often painful and can hinder a patient’s ability to eat, drink and speak.  The open sores that occur with oral mucositis can also become infected, which leads the patient to experience more pain and possible fever.  The condition often arises in patients undergoing high dosages of chemotherapy, especially in those patients under treatment for bone marrow and stem cell transplants.

The treatment with the HEALS device involved moving the glowing red light along a patient’s face for up to ninety seconds on each side, every day for up to two weeks.  The small light emitting diodes (LEDs) each give off twelve times more light than the sun, and the device contains nearly three hundred diodes, so the light is powerful enough to penetrate the patient’s skin.  Since the light from the diodes produces very little heat, doctors and patients need not worry about burns due to exposure.  The device is also small and lightweight, about the size of a paperback book.

Dr. Donna Salzman worked as the main clinical physician during the HEALS trials, which were conducted at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital.  She said that the effectiveness of the HEALS device was “phenomenal” and that patients showed “no adverse effects” from the treatment.  Overall, the trial data showed a 96 percent chance that the patients’ improvement could be attributed to treatment with the HEALS lights.

Robin Schumacher is a spokesperson for Quantum Devices, the manufacturers of the HEALS device.  Ms. Schumacher explained that the device works by sending light directly into the cells affected by oral mucositis, which increases the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a chemical responsible for cellular metabolism and waste management.  She said that the device allows the cells to start the healing process and “increases (their) ability to take out the garbage”.

In its original incarnation, the HEALS devices, then known as the WARP 75, was used in the development of plant growth experiments on various NASA Space Shuttle missions.  The device emits light in the near infrared/far red end of the visible light spectrum, which was found to be useful in growing plants in an environment with little space and little to no sunlight.

The technology was also found to be useful in healing troublesome wounds, such as severe burns and skin ulcers related to diabetes. The device is currently awaiting premarket approval from the US Food and Drug Administration.

Helen Stinson, a NASA staffer who oversees the agency’s involvement in the HEALS project, said that the potential applications for the device are “exciting”.  She also said that the agency is “proud to be a part of the HEALS technology medical advancements”.



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New Polymer Test Improves Lung Cancer Diagnosis, Says Experts

A new technique used for testing for the presence of lung cancer could potentially reduce diagnosis time from six months to four weeks, according to researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

This dramatic improvement in diagnosis time comes courtesy of a three-dimensional testing technique known as volumetrics. The procedure involves taking numerous CT scans from a variety of angles to produce a 3-D cross sectional image of the internal body. Through early research, the NIST team found that CT scan accuracy and amount of time needed to identify signs of lung cancer increased dramatically compared to current testing techniques.

To achieve these advancements, the research team used volumetrics to identify polymer-silicate ellipsoids present on the lungs. These polymer growths look similar in shape to a medical pill and range in diameter from four to 11 mm. As lead researcher Zachary Levine indicates, ” For diagnosis in the earliest stage of cancer, other studies have shown this is the size of nodule you want to be looking at.”

Presently, the most widely lung cancer diagnosis procedure is something known as RECIST. This process involves measuring the distance across suspect lung nodules as they are displayed in two-dimensional format. If a nodule is identified within a certain size range, then it may warrant additional tests to confirm lung cancer.

Through clever comparison tests, the team was able to show that volumetrics are capable of identifying signs of lung cancer that are ten time smaller than those visible via RECIST. According to Levine, “This implies that you could notice life-threatening changes from a follow-up scan performed only weeks after the first, instead of months.”

One potential downside of the new diagnosis technique is the fact that lung cancer does not always grow in the shape of elliptical pills. As such, diagnosis of certain cancer cases may remain more difficult.


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World’s First Cancer-Killing Pill May be Available Within the Decade

Thanks to advancement made possible through the Human Genome Project, British researchers believe the world’s first cancer-killing pill may be on the horizon. According to the team’s timeline, such a pill may be available in as few as ten years.

The success of this future pill will work by exploiting a specific gene flaw that is present in cancer’s DNA. In lab tests, the British team was able to show that a mutation of specific cancer cells effectively blocked the disease’s ability to repair damaged genetic material. As such, a pill or injection could potentially be made that switches on this mutation and shuts down important repair mechanisms that cause the illness to grow uncontrollably.

Since such a drug would not affect the health of normal human cells, it is believed that treatment will not only be more effective, but also result in far fewer side effects.

A research team led by Professor Ghulam Mufti at Kings College London announced the findings on October 24th. Mufti summed up the findings by saying, “The genetics of cancers are being rapidly unraveled. We are soon going to have a library of what genetic abnormalities lead to which cancers. If these are specific, we can target these abnormalities using new treatments.”

Many researchers not affiliated with the study agree that all cancers are moving towards a targeted treatment process. Thanks in large part to the Human Genome Project, various research teams are now identifying potential genetic markers that may eventually lead to a cure for cancer.

One of the first of such drugs is currently being tested at the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre in London. This drug works in exactly the same manner as described by Mulfti – by altering a tumor’s cells so they cannot successfully repair DNA properly.

In early trials, the research team was able to show that breast cancer cells are killed while healthy cells are largely unaffected. The team also notes a complete lack of noticeable side effects.

Similar methods are also currently in the works for curing such illnesses as cystic fibrosis. Current medical trials that utilize gene therapy could lead to an effective cystic fibrosis treatment in as little as five years.


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New Gene Set Discovery Improves Targeted Treatment for Lung Cancer

A specific genetic signature has been linked to a high risk for recurrence of non-small cell lung caner following surgery, according to a team of researchers led by pathologist Dr. Ming Tsao. The discovery provides an avenue for identifying high-risk patients who may benefit from chemotherapy treatments once surgical removal of the tumor has occurred.

Previous studies have shown that post-surgical chemotherapy does not necessarily improve a lung cancer patient’s survival rate. Thanks to the newly identified biomarker, Tsao and his colleagues believe doctors can now identify which patients are most likely to benefit from additional chemotherapy, while sparing low-risk candidates from “the potentially debilitating side effects of this treatment.”

The study builds on a previous research study (dubbed JBR.10) conducted by the National Cancer Institute of Canada (NCIC) that concluded non-small cell lung cancer patients enjoyed improved survival outcomes with the help of chemotherapy drugs such as vinorelbine and cisplatin following surgery.

To come to their conclusions, Tsao and team reviewed the genetic data of 133 patients who took part in the 2005 JBR.10 research study. Through this analysis, the team was able to identify 15 genes that correlated to a high recurrence of cancer in cases where chemotherapy was not administered following surgery.

A randomized review of the JBR.10 results also allowed researchers to effectively “predict” which patients eventually experienced the most benefit from chemotherapy following surgery. The research indicates that both stage-I and stage-II lung cancer patients may benefit from chemotherapy following surgery.

The study was funded in part by the NCIC and U.S. National Cancer Institute. Research was performed in conjunction with researchers from the Princess Margaret Hospital Cancer Program and Ontario Cancer Institute.



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Anemia Drugs May Decrease Survival Time Among Cancer Patients

Doctors need to exhibit extreme caution before prescribing a class of anemia drugs known as erythropoeisis-stimulating agents (ESAs) to cancer patients, according to an updated guideline endorsed by the American Society of Hematology (ASH) and American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

Anemia is a fairly common side effect of chemotherapy. As a result, ESAs such as Procrit, Epogen and Arenesp are frequently prescribed to stimulate the production of additional red blood cells. While such medications are typically preferred over the alternative of blood transfusions, experts warn that such drugs have been linked to reduced survival times of cancer patients. An increased risk of internal blood clotting has also been noted.

According to the new guidelines, physicians are urged not to recommend ESAs for any cancer patient who is currently not undergoing chemotherapy (with the exception of patients with myelodysplastic syndrome). For patients dealing with chemotherapy, new guidelines suggest physicians should discuss the many benefits and risks of ESAs directly with each patient. When discussing these risks, it is also important to discuss the alternative of blood transfusions and how this alternative may affect quality of life.

These updated recommendations are based on the analysis of a variety of information sources. These sources include analysis of published clinical trials, various medical literature and reviews of individual patient data.

Further recommendations for dosage levels, thresholds for initiation and modification of ESAs are also detailed in the new guidelines. According to ASH member Samuel Silver, MD, “These are issues that confront practicing hematologists and oncologists on a daily basis, and we hope that these evidence-based recommendations will influence practice standards and result in better care for patients.”

Complete data related to the revised guidelines can be found at the following website:

Complete guidelines will also be published in the November 18th issue of Blood and the November 20th issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.


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Blocking “Rogue Gene” May Prevent Cancer Spreading

Scientists at the University of East Anglia in England have reportedly discovered a “rogue gene” that can lead to the spread of cancer throughout the body.  The gene, labeled WWP2, attacks proteins in healthy cells that typically prevent the spread of cancer from one area of the body to another.  The researchers found that the WWP2 gene is often present in late-stage cancer patients as the disease moves to different organs, a process known as metastasis.

Metastasis often occurs in the late stages of the disease.  Cancer cells often spread through either the bloodstream or the lymph system and attack other organs.  In many cases, the metastasized tumors are the ones attributable for many fatalities, rather than the tumors at the original site.  The ability to prevent or forestall the metastatic process has long been considered an important factor in treating many forms of cancer.

Many types of cancer, including breast and colon cancers, are often aggressive and spread quickly throughout the body.  The research team also determined that the development of chemotherapy drugs that can target the WWP2 gene might interrupt the metastasis process.  The healthy cells, protected from the effects of WWP2, could fight off the cancerous mutations and prevent the spread of most types of cancers to other organs.

Dr. Andrew Chantry, one of the researchers who conducted the study, said that the work involved in creating such a drug “is a difficult but not impossible task”.  He also said that the biggest challenge would be to develop a drug that will attack the WWP2 gene within the cancer cells and stimulate the production of anti-cancer proteins.

Dr. Surinder Soond, another researcher on the study, said that the results showed “a novel and exciting approach” in the treatment of highly aggressive forms of cancer.  He also told reporters that the process “holds great potential” for preventing the spread of the disease.

Dr. Kat Arney, an official with the British agency Cancer Research UK, said that the WWP2 discovery “adds one more to this ever-growing list” of genes understood in the spread of cancer.  She said that the East Anglia study was helpful in learning more about the process behind how cancer spreads throughout the body, but that any potential applications of the discovery are ‘still at the laboratory stage”.

The discovery of the WWP2 gene has led to speculation that a new class of chemotherapy drugs could come about within the next ten years.  The anti-WWP2 drugs could prevent the spread of cancer to more susceptible organs, such as the heart or brain, while traditional chemotherapy routines or surgical procedures would still be used to attack the primary cancer site.