Episode 13: Medical Diagnostics & Delivery

Drug and disease

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Adam's Weekly Blog

Medical innovations

Medical innovations

We are used to hearing about medical breakthroughs: new science; new...
We are used to hearing about medical breakthroughs: new science; new medicines; new treatments. But the healthcare most people receive most often is remarkably old fashioned.

Injections and fixing broken bones seems to be brutally unchanged by time. The first reference to an injection was thought to be 2,000 years ago in Rome. The modern use of injections is thought to have started in Berlin in the 1660s and a modern patient might easily recognise the process as similar to their experience today.

To be honest, I am sure a modern injection is both less painful, more hygienic and effective than anything they tried in hundreds of years ago – but the process is the same. It is therefore very exciting to see a genuinely new approach being developed for inoculation injections at the University of Pennsylvania. Researchers there are throwing away the needle and turning to the lettuce leaf.

This isn’t just about trying to help those who are squeamish about needles. It is about extending the availability of vaccines to billions of people around the world who can’t access vaccines because they don’t live near medical centres which can keep the vaccines cold and sterile.

Professor Henry Daniell and his team are pioneering a process in which vaccines are imbedded in edible plants. They are working on vaccines and treatments for Malaria, Cholera, The Plague and Polio.

The proteins that are used in these vaccines are introduced into the plant with a gene gun. The plant leaves are then freeze-dried and the medicines are then made into capsules that can be taken orally, that way the dosage is homogenized and regulated.

The natural makeup of the plants means they’re not broken down by acid in the stomach but instead delivered straight to the gut.

The American Food and Drug Administration is now starting to work with Henry’s team. A major pharmaceutical company is on board to develop new medicines, however, they’re not ready to go public with all the details yet. Human trails should begin within the next two years. And Henry hopes that if all goes plan they’ll be ready for the market place within five years.

In another part of the University of Pennsylvania, the normal sterile environment of the medical researcher’s work place has a distinctly doggy whiff about it.

In a lab just a stone’s throw from Henry’s Daniell’s lettuce revolution, Charlie Johnson is working on an equally important project. But this time instead of looking at the delivery of medicine, he’s looking at shaking up the world of diagnosis.

Since 2004, research has begun to accumulate suggesting that dogs may be able to smell the subtle chemical differences between healthy and cancerous tissue.

Diseases can subtly alter people’s fragrance and because of that, cancer cells might make a person smell subtly different. Electronic noses have the potential to detect even very small amounts of molecules.

There has been anecdotal evidence that dogs seemed to be able to sense these subtle changes of smell and now scientists like Charlie Johnson are investigating whether or not they can build machines which can also sniff out cancer.

Constructed of nano-sized carbon tubes coated with strands of DNA, the tiny sensors can be bioengineered to recognize a wide variety of targets, including specific odour molecules. The nano-sensor was able to distinguish differences in VOCs from normal and several different types of Melanoma cells.

Johnson says: “We are excited to see that the DNA-carbon nanotube vapour sensor concept has potential for use as a diagnostic. Our plan is to move forward with research into skin cancer and other diseases.”

While in the US they are inventing edible injections and artificial dog noses, over in Korea they are building dissolving screws.

In South Korea I met Dr. Seok whose team is working on a less intrusive way of mending broken bones. Often a patient has to have two parts of their bones screwed together. Sometimes they then have to have a second operation to have the screws removed.

So the team are developing screws which dissolve after they have done their work of knitting together the once broken bones.

These new screws aren’t quite as strong as the traditional titanium ones but can be used for broken bones in fingers or fractures in the face.

These new screws are more expensive than the original metal ones - but if they negate the need for further surgery, which means the patients don’t need to go under anesthetic for a second time, savings are made there.

Around the world researchers are not just looking ahead but looking backward at the technologies that we use most often and trying to improve those as a way of improving the global health.
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