Meet The Senior Dogs Trying The Latest Anti-Aging Pill

About a year ago, Sherman, a 13-year-old Pomeranian often mistaken for a teddy bear, had a stroke. The right side of his body went slack, and he couldn’t hear or move his tongue. His owners, Paola Anderson and Sarah Godfrey, had to feed him by hand and carry him outside. We took him to many different pet checkers and ultimately ended up taking him to a vet.

After spending several weeks and thousands of dollars on veterinarians and tests, they discovered the culprit: a tumor in an adrenal gland. Vets said Sherman probably had less than a month to live unless he had a tricky surgery. But Anderson and Godfrey didn’t want to put him through that. Even before the stroke he was a sick dog — with ligament problems, a collapsing trachea, and chronic bronchitis.

They asked a local herbalist who had treated them for years for advice. “He said, whatever you need to do to put your dog on rapamycin, do it,” Anderson told BuzzFeed News.

They had never heard of rapamycin, and started reading everything they could find about this supposed wonder pill. Turns out it’s an old drug, first isolated in the 1970s from dirt samples collected on Easter Island. In large doses, it can be a dangerous drug: Today, it’s usually prescribed to suppress a person’s immune system during an organ transplant.

Rapamycin stops tumor growth in lab experiments, and similar drugs have been tested in people with a variety of cancers. More recently, it’s made headlines for a tantalizing link to longevity: In studies of yeast, worms, flies, and mice, rapamycin has extended lifespan by 15 to 30%.

Most exciting for Anderson and Godfrey, scientists in Seattle had just launched a study to see if rapamycin would also extend the life of older dogs. Sherman couldn’t get into the study because he wasn’t a healthy dog. But he could still try rapamycin — if they could find a vet willing to prescribe it.

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BuzzFeed News, June 2016.

Is This Doctors App A Digital Classroom — Or Medical Porn?

A few years ago, when Joshua Landy and two colleagues wanted to create an app for doctors to share photos of their patients, their first step was hiring a lawyer.

They were right to be concerned. In the United States, strict so-called HIPAA lawsmake it illegal for doctors, hospitals, or insurance companies to divulge anyone’s personal medical information without consent. Similar laws exist in Canada and other countries.

But these privacy rules do not extend to photos of unidentifiable people. So Landy’s team created tools within their app to help doctors remove any personal details, such as faces or tattoos.

Today the app, called Figure 1, is perhaps better known as the “Instagram for doctors.” It has hundreds of thousands of users in nearly 100 countries. Doctors post photos — such as graphic shots of rashes, gallstones, oozing infections, and an arm that had been caught in a tortilla slicer, just to name a few — with short captions sometimes noting the patient’s age and sex. And they make comments on others’ photos, ranging from quick-and-dirty diagnoses to off-color jokes. The images are viewed more than 3 million times a day.

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BuzzFeed News, April 2015.

A New Facebook App Wants To Test Your DNA

A medical research study launched Tuesday aims to screen the genes of at least 20,000 people. Part of a surging tide of genetic research, this project would be unremarkable if not for the place it’s recruiting and communicating with volunteers: Facebook.

The scientists behind the project, Genes for Good, hope that Facebook users will send a tube of their spit to a laboratory at the University of Michigan and use a free Facebook app to fill out periodic surveys about their health, habits, and moods.

The scientists will screen the volunteers’ DNA to try to discover new links between certain genetic variants, health, and disease. To rigorously establish these links, the researchers will need to enlist tens of thousands of volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“We’re really hoping that the main reason people will join is to say, ‘Hey, my health and genetic information is valuable. I would like to share it and put it to good use,’” Gonçalo Abecasis, professor of biostatistics at the University of Michigan and one of the leaders of the project, told BuzzFeed News. “Hopefully that will be the major motivator.”

Abecasis and his colleagues stress that the Facebook app is a digital portal, and that Facebook will not have access to volunteers’ personal information. From the scientists’ perspective, Facebook is simply a communication service: a smart way to recruit the massive number of volunteers needed to carry out complex genetic studies. “The standard ways of collecting information on people don’t really scale,” Abecasis said.

Genes for Good could go viral if it taps into the public’s altruistic streak — as did Facebook’s organ donation status field, get out the vote campaigns, and the Ice Bucket Challenge.

On the other hand, some people are growing wary of Facebook’s reach into seemingly every aspect of life, and all of the privacy and security concerns that come with that. What’s more, the new app comes at a time when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is beginning to crack down on genetic tests of all sorts.

“Some people are going to freak out about this,” Michelle Meyer, an assistant professor at the Union Graduate College-Mt. Sinai Bioethics Program, told BuzzFeed News. “DNA and Facebook are two words that most people do not want to hear in the same sentence.”

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BuzzFeed News, March 2015.

Pregnant Women Are Finding Out They Have Cancer From A Genetic Test Of Their Babies

Last May, when she was 10 weeks pregnant, Eunice Lee took a blood test to screen for diseases in her baby.

The test, called MaterniT21 PLUS, promised clear answers about the sex of her fetus as well an array of disorders, including Down syndrome. At 40 years old, Lee knew her baby had an elevated risk of genetic disease, and so she wanted this information as soon as possible.

Two weeks later Lee went to her obstetrician’s office to get the results. But instead of hearing about her baby’s genome, she got a shock about her own health.

“My OB walked into my room and was holding the sheet of paper in her hand,” Lee, an anesthesiologist in Santa Barbara, California, told BuzzFeed News. The doctor had just hung up the phone with Sequenom Laboratories, the San Diego company that performs the test.

“The director of the laboratory called my obstetrician and told her I needed to be worked up for cancer,” Lee said, “which was just alarming, to her and also to myself, because I had no idea I had cancer.”

MaterniT21 PLUS was the first noninvasive prenatal test (NIPT) to hit the market, in October 2011, and Sequenom has sold more than 400,000 of them. Five other companies — three in California and two in China — sell similar tests, and demand is rising sharply.

“There’s been about 800,000 women in the past year in the U.S. who have had an NIPT,” Eric Topol, a professor of genomics at the Scripps Research Institute, told BuzzFeed News. That’s a lot — about 20% of the 4 million total babies born each year. “It’s the hottest molecular test ever in the history of medicine.”

As the numbers tick upward, these tests — which only require a blood draw — are turning up rare genetic glitches not only in the DNA of the fetus, but the mother.

Today at the Future of Genomic Medicine conference in La Jolla, California, scientists from Sequenom said they have seen more than 40 cases in which the test revealed an abnormal genetic profile suggestive of cancer in the mother. At least 26 of these women were subsequently confirmed to have cancer, including Eunice Lee.

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BuzzFeed News, March 2015.

Wake No More

For most teenagers, getting out of bed in the morning is a drag. But when Lloyd Johnson was 13 years old, he suddenly found waking up not just irritating, but agonizing and confusing. Sometimes he would open his eyes and already be in the car on the way to school — with no memory of showering or getting dressed. Other days, his family would drag him outside and pour water over his head to stir him, but still he’d remain asleep. His toughest mornings began when he woke up in an empty house, realizing that his family had simply given up on waking him.

Things started not long after a failed surgery. He’d been having intense pains in his right leg for six months, which the doctors attributed to what they thought was a hip disorder. But the procedure was a flop. Lloyd, always a tall kid with a shock of blonde hair, left the hospital with the same old ache in his step — and this bizarre new sleeping habit.

Still, Lloyd and his parents didn’t pay as much attention to his sleeping patterns as they did to the constant pains in his leg. He socialized as much as he could — the movies, church, sports — but pain caused him to skip out frequently, which in turn led to bullying. “Lloyd’s a faker,” the kids would tease. It hurt. By 14, Lloyd was spending more and more days at home, often dozing on the couch or in his bed. Eventually he dropped out of school altogether.

Over the next two years, though, Lloyd’s pain inexplicably got better, and his sleeping went back to normal. He got his driver’s license, started running, and completed his high school requirements. At 18, he enrolled in Murdoch University in his hometown of Perth, Australia, studied computer science, and graduated in the top 2 percent of his class.

It was a complete turnaround. Now, full of energy and enthusiasm, he launched a successful business as a life coach, traveling the world to give weeklong hypnotherapy seminars that sometimes made him $40,000 or more a week. He’d turned into a fitness enthusiast, completing a triathlon, a half marathon, and a 4K with his girlfriend on Sydney’s Bondi Beach. There’s a photo of the two of them mid-stride, beaming, the epitome of carefree, healthy youth. Lloyd had made an extraordinary transition, turning from an immobile, sickly kid into an athletic, confident leader.

But in the spring of 2012, when he was 25, Lloyd’s spark went out again. This time it wasn’t the pain that stole his life: It was the sleep.

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Matter, January 2015.

Social Storm

Last July, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) organized a live webinar to discuss its two new draft guidelines for social media. The guidelines had been in the works for more than five years and the biopharma industry was eager to hear the agency’s presentation. Unfortunately, the online event suffered from technical difficulties—log-in problems, blank screens, sound glitches—leading to some joshing from the industry press. “The audio was intermittent and unintelligible,” quipped BioWorld, “similar, some would say, to the FDA’s message on social media as a whole.”

Nearly three-quarters of adults who use the internet are active on social media, according to The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, and these interactions are transforming the business world. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube—they all allow companies to communicate with customers faster and more frequently than ever before. This has obvious potential for improving public relations, advertising and brand building. That may be particularly true for the health sector, with 59% of US citizens turning to the internet for medical information, according to the Pew data.

But for the biotech and pharma industry, social media also poses major challenges. If someone leaves a comment on a company’s YouTube video complaining of a rash, should that be reported as an adverse event? Is it possible to fully explain a drug’s risks and benefits in a 140-character tweet? Should clinical trial participants be prevented from using online forums to share information about a drug’s effectiveness and side effects, which poses the risk of unblinding trials? Meanwhile, many advocacy organizations traditionally at odds with the biotech industry—groups against animal testing, vaccines and genetically modified organisms, to name a few—are pulling off successful social media campaigns to influence public opinion.

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Nature Biotechnology, January 2015.

Are Video Games the Future of Brain Medicine?

On October 6th, I find myself in the gleaming office of a Boston biotech. I’ve been seated in a clear plastic chair, where I am about to try an experimental medicine for a brain disorder I don’t have.

The space is home to PureTech Ventures, the parent company of Akili Interactive Labs, which makes the new medicine. Since December, children in Florida and North Carolina have also tried the treatment as part of a formal clinical trial for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The medicine is unusual because of its delivery system: an iPad or iPhone. That’s because the medication is a video game called Project: EVO.

Until now, I haven’t touched a video game since about 1991. What if I fumble the mechanics, or worse — what if the game deems me cognitively deficient? One of Akili’s founders, 32-year-old Eddie Martucci, hands me an iPad and I see my avatar: a yellow humanoid, floating on a jet-fueled raft down a crooked, icy river. My task seems simple: I tap on blue fish that zoom overhead, but avoid the red and green fish, as well as blue birds. Of course, I’m also steering the raft to avoid frozen spikes along the riverbank.

It’s hard. It feels like I’m constantly missing my targets and smashing into the sides. Most frustrating — and addictive — of all: as I get better, the game instantly gets harder.

If Akili’s clinical studies are successful, doctors will one day prescribe EVO for ADHD as well as a variety of other disorders affecting so-called executive function — the ability to plan, inhibit actions, and quickly switch between tasks. The game has been part of a dozen clinical trials to date, involving people with ADHD, Alzheimer’s, autism, and depression.

The plan is realistic enough that Big Pharma wants in: Akili has already struck deals with two traditional drug companies, Pfizer and Shire. Within the industry, Martucci says, “there’s definitely a growing receptivity to digital technology.” Here are some gaming accessories reviews that can help people who can’t hear very well or need a better mouse or controller.

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The Verge, October 2014.

Mental Leaps Cued by Memory’s Ripples

Over the past few decades, researchers have worked to uncover the details of how the brain organizes memories. Much remains a mystery, but scientists have identified a key event: the formation of an intense brain wave called a “sharp-wave ripple” (SWR). This process is the brain’s version of an instant replay — a sped-up version of the neural activity that occurred during a recent experience. These ripples are a strikingly synchronous neural symphony, the product of tens of thousands of cells firing over just 100 milliseconds. Any more activity than that could trigger a seizure.

Now researchers have begun to realize that SWRs may be involved in much more than memory formation. Recently, a slew of high-profile rodent studies have suggested that the brain uses SWRs to anticipate future events. A recent experiment, for example, finds that SWRs connect to activity in the prefrontal cortex, a region at the front of the brain that is involved in planning for the future.

Studies such as this one have begun to illuminate the complex relationship between memory and the decision-making process. Until a few years ago, most studies on SWRs focused only on their role in creating and consolidating memories, said Loren Frank, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. “None of them really dealt with this issue of: How does the animal actually pull [the memory] back up again? How does it actually use this to figure out what to do?”

The new results are also prompting a broad shift in our understanding of the hippocampus, a C-shaped nub of brain tissue behind each ear. Since the late 1950s, when the region was famously tied to memory loss in the patient known as H.M., researchers have focused on its role in creating and storing memories. But newer studies have shown that the hippocampus is active when people imagine performing a task in the future. Similarly, people who have damaged hippocampi cannot imagine new experiences. The hippocampus doesn’t just allow instant replays — a kind of mental time travel into the past — it also helps us mentally leap forward.

In fact, complex planning may be the true benefit of the hippocampus. “That’s the point of having a memory, right?” Frank said. “To go back to the experiences you’ve had, extract general principles from them, and then use those principles to figure out what to do next.”

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Quanta, October 2014 (and syndicated by Scientific American).

Why Police Lineups Will Never Be Perfect

For three decades psychology researchers have been searching for ways to make eyewitness identifications more reliable. Many studies have shown, for example, the value of “double-blind” lineups, meaning that neither the cop administering the lineup nor the witness knows which of the photos, if any, is the suspect.

But injecting science into the justice system is tricky. For one thing, most criminal investigations happen at a local level. The U.S. has roughly 16,000 law enforcement agencies and few nationally mandated standards. The other big problem is the nature of science itself: Evidence for a given idea builds gradually, as scientists try to replicate others’ work. It can take years or even decades for a clear picture to emerge, and in the meantime scientists may vigorously disagree. While they argue, cases are opened and closed, and people, sometimes the wrong people, go to prison.

Some helpful guidance came today from the National Academy of Sciences. Last year the Academy asked a panel of top scientists to review technical reports and expert testimony about eyewitness identifications and make some solid recommendations. The resulting 160 page report offers many concrete suggestions for carrying out eyewitness identifications. For example, the Academy recommends using double-blind lineups and standardized witness instructions, and training law enforcement officials on the fallibility of eyewitness memory.

On one question, though, the Academy offers no clear answer: What’s the best way to present a photo lineup to a witness? This fuzziness reflects a hot debate bubbling in the scientific literature.

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The Atlantic, October 2014.

A Gut-Wrenching Question

Every week, about 20 people visit the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pennsylvania to be evaluated for weight-loss surgery. They tell a nurse their medical history and have a routine physical examination. Then they sit down with a surgeon to discuss their options.

Anita Courcoulas, head of minimally invasive bariatric and general surgery at the centre, has had thousands of these conversations in the past 25 years. During that time, the information she shares with her patients has changed dramatically. Thanks to clinical trials, she can now tell them with some confidence that surgery not only spurs remarkable weight loss in most people, but also significantly lowers the risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer and death. And with the most popular procedure — Roux-en-Y gastric bypass, which shrinks the stomach to the size of an egg — up to 60% of patients with diabetes go into remission for at least several years after the operation.

There are drawbacks for her to discuss, too: the cost (around US$25,000); the small risk of surgical complications (on a par with that of gall-bladder removal); and the chance of developing nutritional deficiencies or an intolerance to certain foods. But perhaps the toughest issue for patients is the uncertainty. Surgery does not work for everybody, and weight loss can be transient.

Doctors are not sure why gastric bypass and similar procedures curb diabetes and other diseases. The conventional view has been that the benefits stem mostly from the weight that patients shed — typically one-quarter of their body mass. But in the 1980s, some patients were found to show rapid changes in their metabolism after surgery, suggesting that other factors are at play. Now, a slew of high-profile animal studies is identifying potential mechanisms in how the gut adapts to its strange new configuration: with sweeping changes in bacterial populations, bile acids, hormone secretions and tissue growth. The hope is that more research on what happens after bariatric surgery will enable physicians to identify who will respond best — and even lead to ways of altering metabolism without resorting to the knife.

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Nature, July 2014.