Midline Glioma – research fundraiser

UPDATE: December 2021 – Fast approaching 100k! Research has already been funded from your donations, so thank you!

UPDATE: Emily was hoping to reach her target by Xmas Day, she went storming past that number on the 23rd December – £50615 raised from just over 1700 donors, which is fantastic. She originally set 10k as a target, then moved it up to 25k, passed that and moved it to 50k, which is when I first mentioned the cause here, on Twitter, and on Facebook. She was at the half way to the 50k at that point just over a week ago. Hopefully, we can draw in more donations from a few of my followers. Thank you! Keep those donations coming in.

Diffuse Midline Glioma, H3 K27M Mutation is not a phrase you want to hear from a doctor. It’s a type of tumour that most commonly affects people under about the age of 25 years but over 3 years. It’s very rare – 100 people in the UK annually – but always lethal, sadly. The tumour grows rapidly within the Central Nervous System and has a devastating effect on the spinal cord or the brain depending on precisely where it grows.

I must admit I’d heard of spinal tumours, but don’t think I’d heard this full phrase until a friend posted about it on social media as their daughter had started a fundraiser to raise funds for research. Emily passed her initial fundraising target quite quickly and has upped the ante, now aiming for £50000. She’s more than halfway there with well over 1000 donations so far. Sciencebase is happy to give this worthy cause a mention in the hope that a few readers take her plea to heart.

I’ve written generally about rare diseases several times over the years and how they are often neglected by mainstream medical research and the pharma industry because by definition they each only affect a small number of people. Of course, there are many, many rare diseases and the total numbers of people that are affected are large. At the other end of the scale though, is often a terrible tale of someone afflicted by something rare and untreatable, which is precisely why we need to raise funds for the individual cases. So, here’s the link to Emily’s JustGiving page. Please dig deep, as they say.

Printing a 3D ovary to treat infertility

Scientists have used a 3D printer to make a scaffold of a soft plastic type material known as a hydrogel. The researchers then loaded this scaffold with the egg sacs known as ovarian follicles from a female mouse and implanted it. The follicles began maturing and released eggs, which were fertilised by natural mating and the mice then went on to give birth to live young. [Laronda et al, Nature Commun, 2017, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms15261].

A similar synthetic ovary might one day be used to treat infertility in women who have had cancer chemotherapy. Chemotherapy causes ovarian failure, essentially destroying a woman’s eggs of which they have a limited supply. Men, of course make sperm all their lives, but women are born with all the eggs they will ever have in immature form in their ovaries. Chemotherapy at any point in their lives will destroy their eggs, some women and girls choose to have eggs harvested and cryogenically stored before they start treatment to improve their chances of an IVF baby later in life.

The picture is quite complicated concerning what the anticancer drugs actually do to the ovary. Quoting from this research paper:

“[Premature ovarian failure and thus female infertility] results from the loss of primordial follicles but this is not necessarily a direct effect of the chemotherapeutic agents. Instead, the disappearance of primordial follicles could be due to an increased rate of growth initiation to replace damaged developing follicles.”

The current research itself is all about testing egg follicle survival and showing how they can be viable on the porous scaffold of the synthetic ovary. Moreover, the team has shown that follicles on the scaffold release appropriate hormones as they would in a living ovary and release maturing egg cells. It all looks very promising for mice. Human follicles grow much larger than mouse follicles and would bring different challenges in terms of keeping them alive in an artificial ovary, but this is a step closer.

The obvious question though is what was the source of the implanted follicles. The team describes how “follicles were mechanically isolated” from an excised mouse ovary for implantation. But, if a women has premature ovarian failure induced by chemotherapy, then there are presumably no follicles with which the fertility team could work unless they have been “harvested” prior to her treatment, which would be an additional (surgical) procedure the patient would have to face and a difficult choice made regardless of whether the patient is a baby, small child, teenager or adult.

Tea and crumpets and prostate cancer risk

Earlier this week I criticised the endless studies reporting that tea, sex, coffee can raise and/or lower prostate cancer risk. Well, NHS Choices has waded in with its usual balanced assessment of the work and come to a sensible conclusion:

Men who are tea drinkers should not be alarmed by the results of this study as it has many limitations that cast doubt on the reliability of the findings. However, men should remain alert to the signs and symptoms of prostate and other forms of cancer, regardless of their tea habits.

via 'Tea raises prostate cancer risk' – Health News – NHS Choices.

The site points out that it might just be that men who drink more tea tend to be healthier in other ways and so live longer. Longevity is definitely a risk factor for prostate cancer, certainly you cannot get the disease in your 60s if you died of a heart attack in your 50s…to put it bluntly.

Lycopene and cancer prevention

Over the years there has been a lot of tomato talk, about how lycopene, the red pigment found in this fruit (yes, it’s definitely a fruit, it’s got seeds), could ward off cancer, specifically prostate cancer. It has also been linked to protecting us from cardiovascular disease, per the common discussions about the so-called Mediterranean diet. It is not a panacea and tests and trials have been small-scale. Nevertheless, as with the likes of that other infamous compound, resveratrol found in red wine, researchers are keen to demonstrate a link with their particular natural chemical and disease prevention.

In the first June issue of SpectroscopyNOW I discuss tests on lycopene extracted from tomatoes that seem to show it offers a certain level of protection against liver cancer triggered by nitrosamines, in lab mice at least. Ashwani Koul and his colleagues at Panjab University in Chandigarh, India, have been doing the research with interesting results. I asked Koul about the impetus:

“Since time immemorial, the tomato has formed an integral component of food, both traditional and western form,” he told Sciencebase. “It is used widely as a vegetable and is abundantly used in the preparation of sauces, curry, soup etc. throughout the world. Epidemiological studies indicate that populations consuming high amounts of vegetables including tomato, in their diet have a reduced incidence of several types of cancer.” So that’s the start of it…

“Over the years, lycopene, a nutrient found in tomatoes, has drawn much attraction for its ability to combat several chronic diseases including cancer,” he adds. “Moreover, lycopene being a component of major dietary source (tomato) finds acceptance with the population and its use is also not restricted as is the case with synthetic chemopreventive agents.” Indeed, lycopene is already marketed as a supplement, although specific health claims are not permitted under FDA rules for supplements without additional regulatory approval.

“With the studies planned and in progress we intend to determine the optimum levels of lycopene as a cancer chemopreventive agent, so as to tap its maximum potential,” Koul told me. “Further, we aim to investigate the detailed underlying mechanism of its cancer chemopreventive potential. Such studies would scientifically validate the anticancer abilities of phytonutrients present in vegetables including lycopene.”

You can read the full story on SpectroscopyNOW.

Tomato photo via CC on flickr.

Ultrasound blasts prostate cancer

Today, the BBC is reporting another medical “breakthrough” – high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) for treating prostate cancer as an adjunct or even alternative to radiotherapy, chemo, and invasive surgery. Ultrasound can be highly focused, essentially boiling the diseased tissue rather than damaging surrounding tissues with the risk of incontinence and impotence associated with invasive surgery.

It’s good news for prostate cancer sufferers, but as far as I am aware HIFU has been used to treat prostate cancer since at least 1989. The technique was first developed in France by Inserm scientists and others and the Ablatherm HIFU was first marketed for the disease in 2000. The first “commercial” treatments were in 1993 and there have been tens of thousands since.

NHS Choices reported on HIFU back in 2009 when there was a flurry of interest from the media in this “new” technique for treating prostate cancer. It says:

“Current NICE guidance advises that the evidence supports…HIFU for prostate cancer, provided that monitoring, audit and clinical governance of any procedures are carried out. It advises that longer-term effects on survival and quality of life are unknown, and that doctors should therefore ensure that patients understand these uncertainties.”

The BBC itself has reported on HIFU for prostate cancer before, there was a report in February 2011 hailing the benefits of the “new” treatment. As an aside, they refer to the urethra as the “water pipe” in that report, how quaint. So, why is this news on the BBC Radio 4 Today program today, could it be that the editors and journalists on the show simply hadn’t heard of HIFU before and so assumed it was new when a press release came from Lancet Oncology touting the benefits over surgery (in a 41-patient trial)? You can almost bet your gland on it.

Regardless, it is all positive stuff, but it does beggar the question as to why the technique, more than two decades in the development, is only now reaching public ears…

What are the main cancer risks?

NHS Choices recently summarised and analysed the findings of a UK study into cancer risk. It reports that for many people several factors are involved. Moreover, one’s personal risk also depends on genetics, family history and aging. According to the study in 2010, around 43% of UK cancer cases were blamed on lifestyle and environmental factors, equating to about 134,000 cancers. The research showed the following percentages for 34% of cancers in 2010 for which four key lifestyle factors were invoked:

Tobacco: 19.4%
Diet: 9.2%
Being overweight or obese: 5.5%
Alcohol: 4%

Smoking was commonly associated with lung, mouth, throat, trachea and oesophagal cancers.

Other risk factors included: occupation (3.7%), UV radiation (sun or sunbed) (3.5%), infection (3.1%), excess intake of red and processed meat (2.7%), lack of physical exercise (1%), breastfeeding for less than six months (0.5%), use of post-menopausal hormones (0.5%). Smoking was the single biggest risk factor for both men and women.

After smoking, the three biggest risk factors were: lack of fruit and vegetables (6.1%), occupation (4.9%)
and alcohol (4.6%). For women they were: overweight/obesity (6.9% link to breast cancer), infection (3.7%), UV radiation (3.6%), alcohol (3.3%), lack of fruit and vegetables (3.4%).

Your iPhone won’t give you brain cancer…

…nor will your Blackberry, Android handset and presumably not your iPad either.

Despite the hopes and dreams of millions of technophobes and pseudoscientists, the biggest ever study of mobile phone use shows that the devices do not increase the risk of brain tumours. The European study looked at more than a third of a million mobile phone users over an 18-year period, according to the BBC.

Researchers at the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology, Danish Cancer Society and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in France assessed all Danes aged over 30 years born in Denmark after 1925 and subdivided into mobile phone subscribers and non-subscribers who had used the devices since before 1995. Writing in the British Medical Journal, the team describes how there were just 356 cases of the brain cancer, glioma, and 846 cancers of the CNS, which is about the same incidence rate as seen in people who did not use a mobile phone during that period. Even those who used mobiles for more than 13 years, there was no difference in risk, the researchers conclude.

So, will this be the end of the tabloid mobile phone cancer scaremongering? Of course, not! The tabloid media and the conspiracy theorists will claim the study is spurious, there will be another study (undoubtedly much smaller) that will show the opposite and that mobile phones do cause brain tumours. But, as it stands: “These results are the strongest evidence yet that using a mobile phone does not seem to increase the risk of cancers of the brain or central nervous system in adults,” Hazel Nunn, head of evidence and health information at Cancer Research UK, told the BBC.

So, is it time that the World Health Organisation abandoned its application of the precautionary principle and re-classified mobile phones as non-carcinogenic? There are always those people who are over-cautious and there always those who throw caution to the wind. But, like coffee, smoking, alcohol, crossing the road, and living in general, there are risks and precautions to be taken. It is unlikely that anyone will stop doing the things they want to do simply because there is some perceived risk associated with the activity. However, this latest study shows that mobile phone use really does not cause brain cancer. There has been no indication that anyone was seriously worried, as mobile phone use simply goes up and up. Time to stop worrying.

Research Blogging IconFrei, P., Poulsen, A., Johansen, C., Olsen, J., Steding-Jessen, M., & Schuz, J. (2011). Use of mobile phones and risk of brain tumours: update of Danish cohort study BMJ, 343 (oct19 4) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.d6387

UK cancer trends

UK cancer trends – The media has been all over the Cancer Research UK announcements on cancer rates. Specifically, the focus was on middle-aged people and the increases seen between 1979 and 2008.

NHS Choices, as ever, provides some rational words following the media frenzy and cites a few of the stats to which I’ve added percentages of diagnoses for comparison):

The highest rate of new diagnoses is among people aged 75 and over; the rate of new diagnoses in over-75s increased from 1,808 per 100,000 to 2,319 per 100,000. (That’s 1.8% in 1979; 2.3% in 2008).

In people aged 60 to 74, new diagnoses rose from 1075.9 per 100,000 to 1,370 per 100,000. (1.1% in 1979; 1.4% in 2008).

In people aged 40 to 59, new diagnoses rose from 329.1 per 100,000 in 1979 and 388.1 per 100,000 in 2008 (an 18% rise). (0.33% in 1979; 0.39% in 2008)

The lowest rate of new diagnoses is among people under 40; the rate in this age group increased from 29.5 per 100,000 in 1979 and 41.2 per 100,000 in 2008. (0.03% in 1979; 0.04% in 2008).

When looking at the rates of new diagnoses of specific cancers among people aged 40 to 59 years old, CRUK reports that: the rate of new cases of breast cancer in women has increased from 134 per 100,000 women in 1979 to 215 per 100,000 in 2008. The rates of new cases of prostate cancer among men has increased from 8 per 100,000 in 1979 to 51 per 100,000 in 2008. The rates of new cases of lung cancer in men dropped from 93 per 100,000 in 1979 to 35 per 100,000 in 2008. Moreover, despite the increases in diagnoses (actually, partly because of the increases in diagnoses), the number of people surviving cancer [for a reasonable time after diagnosis] has doubled since the 1970s. There were 2152 deaths from cancer per 1,000,000 people in GB in 1979, which fell to 1754 deaths from cancer per 1,000,000 people in 2008. I’m not sure what statistics the tabloids were focusing on with their scaremongering claims about cancer incidence, but they don’t mesh with what CRUK actually said.

NHS Choices points out that the causes of the increases were not directly investigated. However, CRUK say that one factor contributing to these increases is likely to be higher rates of detection due to the NHS breast cancer screening programme and the PSA test for prostate cancer. As opposed to chemicals, radiation, GM crops, sunspots, crop circles, or any other spurious causes. Of course, none of this should detract from the human pain and suffering of cancer, indeed it should be seen as a positive that although incidence is reportedly increasing this seems to be due to better diagnosis and life expectancy has improved because of better treatments because of the efforts of CRUK, other charities and the medical scientists they help support.


Brain tumours and mobile phones

UPDATE: 8 July 2011 This update isn’t anything new, but something I should’ve pointed out and that is always ignored/overlookd in popular and sensationalist discussions about the health risks of electromagnetic radiation is that everything beyond the violet end of the spectrum – UV, X-rays, gamma rays – are high-energy and “ionising” forms of radiation. Everything below the red end of the spectrum – infrared, microwaves, radio waves – are much lower in energy and do not ionise molecules or atoms. They can heat things up (infra-red makes molecules vibrate, which heats them up, microwaves make polar molecules spin, the energy of which is transferred to other molecules as vibrations (heat).

The WHO’s verdict is one based on the precautionary principle. They’re scared, but they don’t know what they are scared of other than public and political pressure, they have reclassified mobile phone (cell phone) use as a “possible carcinogen”, but as far as I can see with absolutely no evidence whatsoever and with no new data or explanation as to how the emissions from a mobile phone could possible be carcinogenic. Even if they were heating up your ear, through some odd microwave effect that is not causing the kind of damage to DNA that would lead to tumour growth. A far greater risk is exposure to ionising radiation – UV etc…

Brain tumours and mobile phones – It’s interesting that the WHO has adopted what is essentially a non-scientific stance regarding the safety, or putative lack thereof, of mobile phones when it comes to effects on the human brain, and specifically the development of tumours.

The precautionary principle suggested by is unlikely to have any impact on the vast majority of users, most of whom seem either to have gone hands-free these days or use their phones mainly for smart apps and texting rather than actually having “old-school” verbal conversations with anyone. Moreover, mobile phone use has not been widespread for more than a few years, perhaps fewer than the length of time it takes for putative brain tumours triggered by those nasty electromagnetic waves to appear.

A review reported in NHS Choices and by the BBC and others, suggests there really is no link anyway. However, the review is non-systematic and lacks a lot by way of science, Choices seems to suggest.

According to Choices, the authors of the review suggest that if there is no increase in brain tumour rates in the next few years after almost universal exposure to mobile phones in Western countries, it is unlikely that there is a link between mobile phone usage and brain cancer in adults. The methodological weaknesses of underlying studies and the trend in brain tumour incidence shown here suggest that any risk of brain tumours resulting from mobile phone use is likely to be very small, and possibly even non-existent.

We are constantly bathed in electromagnetic radiation from countless sources, it is very unlikely that we will ever be able to unravel the source of any carcinogenicity in the future either, especially given the advent of countless other wireless technologies.

Cancer, Gulliver, cat and mouse

Forget fruit and veg. Lose weight and cut the booze to reduce cancer risk
People should be warned that cancer is linked to obesity and alcohol, rather than urged to eat more fruit and vegetables to protect against the disease.

UK trialling testing sugar-coated salt on roads
Although they’ve been using molasses for years in Nebraska and other places to help salt stick to the roads, it’s only just occurred to us Brits to give it a try now that we’re entering a period of severe cold weather (again). Add salt to water and it lowers its freezing point so that it has to be that bit colder for the roads to stay frozen. However, salt kicks up too easily, add molasses and the salt gets more of a purchase on the icy roads and helps defrost them (ever so slightly) producing a nice brown slush.

Stuart Little does a Benjamin Button
Researchers have identified targets (related to the enzyme telomerase) that could help produce old-age-defying drugs and a fountain of youth for the baby boomer population… but haven’t we heard this all before? Of course, we have. It’s unlikely ever to come to anything more than next-generation Botox.

Gulliver Turtle is looking for candidates for BioMed Central’s 5th Annual Research Awards
BioMed Central’s Research Awards are now in their fifth year and apparently growing in popularity. The awards were set up to recognize excellence in research that has been made universally accessible by open access publication, so get your nominations in and see if Gulliver picks you.

Cat and mouse
No sooner do the US authorities begin stealing web domains illegally (actually just taking out the domain from DNS servers), than users find a way to fight back using a DNS system that cannot be touched by any governmental institution and works a P2P network. The problem being that an innocent party might have their domain blocked by the US before due process has taken place and on spurious grounds (and all this before the legislation even comes into effect).