Healthcare, medicine & pharmaceuticals

Get your child off the phone

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to decide whether mobile phones – or even cordless phones – are safe for your children. A recent Swedish study of 1,200 people diagnosed with malignant brain tumours in 1997-2003 analysed their mobile and cordless phone use. People who started using mobiles as teenagers, and continued to use them for ten years, were 4.9 times more likely to get malignant brain tumours. For cordless phone users over 10 years, the risk was 3.9 times. Sobering figures for people of any age.

Yet mobiles have been called the “new cuddly toys” for kids. Some countries take the risks seriously. In France, it is illegal to market mobiles to children under 12 and they can’t use them in primary schools. South Africa is going to debate a ban on children under 16 using mobile phones. Other countries, like UK, Israel and Germany, merely discourage it. Meanwhile, a new book, Disconnect, by Dr Devra Davis, claims children are more susceptible to radiation because their skulls are thinner and their brains are still developing.

This leaves parents in a difficult position. Nobody is saying for sure that mobile phones cause cancer in children. But there is enough evidence gathering to make them nervous. This then begs the question how much mobile phone use is safe for adults, given that mobiles are fast becoming the must-have accessory for just about everything – computing, banking, payments – let alone talking. The new tobacco?

Ref: The Weekend Australian Magazine (AUS), 23-24 April 2011, 'Mobile phones and children'. Anon., The Daily Telegraph (UK), 30 June 2011, 'Teenage mobile phone use linked to five-fold cancer risk', by S. Adams.
Search words: World Health Organisation, France, South Africa, International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety, Disconnect by Dr Devra Davis, radiation, brain cancer, cordless phones, mobile phones, children, young people.
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The Chinese go for plastic

There is a fast-growing industry in China, the fourth most popular area of spending behind housing, cars and travel. It’s plastic surgery. More than 2 million operations take place each year in China, only third in the world behind the US and Brazil. This number is doubling annually. Chinese women with money want facelifts and wrinkle removal, like everyone else. But the number one operation is making the eyes look bigger by adding a crease in the eyelid to create a “double eyelid”. The second most popular is raising the bridge of the nose to make it more prominent. The third is reshaping the jaw to make it narrower and longer.

It’s disturbing, but 40% of customers of Evercare, a chain of cosmetic surgery hospitals, are only in their 20s. These are not women looking to stave off the effects of middle age. No wonder it’s a booming industry, already worth about $US2.3 billion. But more regulation is needed in China - many people claiming to do these operations are not properly trained and there are frequent accidents.

It sounds as if Chinese women are trying to make their faces more Western in appearance. Unfortunately, it is always the women who provide such handsome profits to companies claiming to make them more beautiful. They will continue to be the guinea pigs for such procedures until plastic surgery is properly regulated in China. This is the price of beauty, in any language.

Ref: The New York Times (US), 1 May 2011, 'China’s wealthy, buying a new look' by S. LaFraniere.
Search words: plastic surgery, International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, facelifts, Evercare, double eyelid, standards, accidents, beauty salon, cheekbone.
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Cells on chips make testing easier

Researchers have found a way to watch how cells in different parts of the body respond, outside the body. They take a few cells from, say, a mouse brain, and place them between two layers of plastic in a nutrient rich fluid. Using a microscope, they can study how the brain responds to injury. This is only one form of miniature organ: scientists are using beating hearts, breathing lungs and fallopian tubes to watch how cells respond.

It’s an amazing breakthrough for pharmaceutical companies, which must undergo a very expensive testing procedure before they release a drug. Drugs for, say, heart failure, could be tested on a few beating heart cells while the researcher watches to see if the cells are contracting as they should. Other organs that are critical in drug metabolism and excretion are the kidney, gut and liver. Each can be applied to a chip.

This method has many advantages. It will reduce the need for animal testing, which is not always representative of human testing. It can be used to see how organs respond to drugs and even personalised to see how one person responds to drugs. For example, a doctor could send tissue samples to a lab to test whether a drug is suitable for your type of condition. The method might also be used to speed up clinical trials by using cells from different human populations. Ultimately, the cells for each organ-on-a-chip could be joined up to make a human-on-a-chip. What that means for us is rather overwhelming.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 25 June 2011, 'Bodies recreated in chip form' by� J. Hamzelou.
Search words: miniature organ, “body-on-a-chip”, micro-organ, animal testing, clinical trials, Society of Toxicology, drug testing, research.
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The drug war is just a waste

It’s sobering to read that a recent report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy says the global war on drugs has failed. In fact, in the decade up to 2008, use of cocaine rose 27%, opiates 34.5% and cannabis 8.5%. At the same time, the US prison population increased from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million today (1 in 130 US adults). Other forms of “collateral damage” are the spread of avoidable diseases, huge waste of public resources, corruption, and cross-border networks of organised crime. Prohibition didn’t work.

The report suggests that drugs should be treated as a public health problem, not a crime. Many users come from abusive or marginalised backgrounds and, while African Americans are only 14% of users, they make up 37% of drug arrests in America. In some countries, small drug dealers can even be executed. It is moral panic and the urge to punish gone mad.

Some countries have taken a more wholesome route. The Swiss heroin substitution approach has reduced consumption and the number of new addicts, with a 90% reduction in property crimes. The UK, Switzerland and Australia have needle-exchange programs that keep HIV prevalence only a fifth of US figures. Meanwhile, in 2001, Portugal became the first European company to decriminalise use and possession (not supply) of illegal drugs. There was a subsequent decline in the use of heroin.

If there were to be a change of approach to drugs, the police would have to dramatically change their focus. Interestingly, alcohol is still considered more harmful than many illegal drugs, including cannabis. Many public hospitals experience huge strain at weekends, when the majority of alcohol-affected emergencies occur. It is time to openly share information between countries about managing illegal drug taking more effectively – and to put our focus where the real problems are.

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 3 June 2011, 'We should declare an end to our disastrous war on drugs' by M. Wolf.
Search words: drugs, prohibition, Independent Global Commission on Drug Policy, collateral damage, opiates, cocaine, cannabis, crime, dealers, prison, needle-exchange, abuse, black market.
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Vaccines for drug abuse

Here’s a new example of the medication approach to drug abuse – vaccination. The idea is that, if drug users can’t control themselves, then the vaccine can. Vaccines work by showing the immune system a new target so it learns to react next time that shape appears. Usually antibodies react to large molecules, such as proteins, but drug molecules are small and can sneak past. A researcher in San Diego has now found a way to vaccinate against metamphetamines by building the vaccine cleverly.

A vaccine is made up of a large carrier protein that provides the platform for the target, smaller molecules called haptens that attach to the carrier, and an adjuvant, which helps the immune system notice it. Previous work on a nicotine vaccine found nicotine is a very flexible molecule that is difficult for the immune system to recognise. Researchers used computer modelling to work out how to rearrange the molecules of the haptens so they wouldn’t spring, twist or jump around. They then built 6 methamphetamine-like haptens, attached them to a carrier protein and adjuvant and injected them into mice. Three of the haptens created antibodies in the mice.

Considering how many drugs some mice have to take, it’s probably worth creating a vaccine to stop them becoming addicted! Seriously though, isn’t this just another pointless form of medication for a problem not properly addressed? See: The drug war is just a waste, above.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 21 May 2011, 'Can a vaccine stop drug abuse?' Anon.
Search words: vaccines, drug addict, immunity, metamphetamine, carrier protein, hapten, adjuvant, computer model.
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