February 20, 2018
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Our eyeballs apparently contain information that could revolutionize cardiovascular medicine.

Artificial intelligence software developed by Google in conjunction with its biotech subsidiary company Verily can scan retinal images to predict heart disease at nearly the same accuracy rate as a traditional blood test, United Press International reports. The findings, published Monday in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, explain that Google's AI makes its predictions by examining images of the back of a patient's eye in order to develop a profile of the patient, including several characteristics that could determine cardiovascular risk.

From the retinal images, Google's AI can determine within impressive degrees of accuracy a patient's age, gender, blood pressure, and smoking status, as well as even the past occurrence of major cardiovascular events, The Verge explains. The program taught itself how to analyze eyeballs after using machine learning techniques to pore over more than 284,000 retinal images; while studying, the AI used what UPI describes as a visual "heatmap" to learn which parts of the eye's anatomy contained certain predictive factors. The AI eventually learned, for example, that to analyze a patient's blood pressure, it was prudent to examine the blood vessels in the eye.

To test its capabilities, researchers sicced the AI on two patient pools, totaling more than 13,000 patients. The AI made correct predictions on the future risk of heart disease in 70 percent of cases — nearly the same accuracy rate as the blood-test method doctors traditionally use, which has a 72 percent accuracy rate.

Harlan M. Krumholz, the director of Yale's Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation, predicted that the findings of Google's AI show that machine learning and artificial intelligence will "more precisely hone our understanding of disease and individuals," helping physicians "understand these processes and diagnoses in ways that we haven't been able to before." Read the full study here. Kelly O'Meara Morales

February 15, 2018
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The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved the Banyan Brain Trauma Indicator, the first-ever blood test to detect signs of a traumatic brain injury.

The test identifies two proteins that appear in the blood within 12 hours of a serious brain injury, the Los Angeles Times reports. The levels of those proteins can then predict which patients may have brain lesions that can be seen on a CT scan and which won't. Test results come back about four hours later, but Banyan Biomarkers Chairman and CEO Henry Nordhoff told the Times they are working on creating a test with a turn-around of less than an hour.

CT scans are done in order to locate and monitor bruising, swelling, and bleeding in the brain, and many people undergo the scans to ensure they don't have a serious brain injury; these scans cost on average $1,200 and exposes a patient to the radiation equivalent of 100 to 200 chest X-rays. The military wants to use the Banyan Brain Trauma Indicator out in the battlefield, and Nordhoff said he's hoping that within two years, there will be a faster and smaller test that can be used in ambulances and athletic facilities. Catherine Garcia

February 1, 2018

Laser-toting archaeologists have discovered an entire new city in the Central American jungle.

National Geographic reported Thursday that researchers have uncovered proof that Mayan civilization was far more advanced than previously thought. Using laser-created scans of the jungles in northern Guatemala, researchers "digitally removed the tree canopy" from images of the area, National Geographic explained. The editing — made possible by a technology called LiDAR, which scans pictures taken at a birds'-eye view — allowed researchers to peer beneath the dense fauna.

The result was the discovery that the jungles were concealing a Mayan "megalopolis" in their shadows. Underneath the leaves, researchers found more than 60,000 structures that were previously unknown, including "houses, palaces, [and] elevated highways," National Geographic reported. The structures likely created a series of connected cities.

The new discovery prompted the researchers to revise up previous calculations of the Mayan population. Scientists have long estimated that Mayan civilization had about 5 million inhabitants, but one archaeologist said the LiDAR findings indicate that number is way too low: "With this new data it's no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million people there," he said.

The LiDAR initiative is being led by the PACUNAM Foundation, a Guatemalan nonprofit that seeks to further research and preservation efforts in the region. And the search for Mayan ruins is far from over: Scientists leading the charge only scanned roughly 800 square miles of jungle in this initial sweep, and apparently still have more than 5,000 square miles to go. Read more at National Geographic. Kelly O'Meara Morales

January 26, 2018

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has a novel idea for fighting poverty among farmers: breeding better cows.

BBC reported Friday that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will invest millions of dollars to promote "the health and productivity of livestock" through research by Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicines. "For over a billion people living in the world's poorest countries, agriculture and livestock are a lifeline out of poverty," Gates said Friday. "You can sell the output, and that's money for school fees. You can keep the output, and that's diet diversification."

Through their charitable organization, the Gateses are pumping $40 million into research to create more efficient and more resilient cows. The financial injection will help "make vaccines, medicines, and diagnostics accessible to millions of the world's poorest smallholder farmers," BBC explained. The Times of London added that some efforts will be made to crossbreed existing breeds of cows in an attempt to capitalize on the best traits of each one. "We [need] animals with the ability to have a high rate of feed conversion, and others that tolerate extreme variations of temperatures," a professor involved in the research said.

For example, The Times explained, there is a huge difference in the milk output between different breeds of cows. British cows can pump out as much as 30 daily liters of milk, while some African cows can only make 2 liters — but the African cows are better adapted to the heat. If those two traits could be combined in one animal, the benefits would be great.

Gates is optimistic that his investment will go a long way: "The impact per dollar we spend is super-high in [Africa]," he said. "You can have a cow that is four times as productive." Read more at BBC. Kelly O'Meara Morales

January 25, 2018

The commonly accepted history of humans is that our ancestors left Africa some 120,000 years ago. But a recent discovery in Israel may prove that idea wrong.

A study published in the journal Science reveals that archaeologists in northern Israel have found what they believe to be a nearly 200,000-year-old fossil belonging to an early Homo sapiens. The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that the fossil was discovered just a few miles south of the Israeli city Haifa, in a cave that "probably served as a shelter for these hominids." The fossil is only a partial fragment of a mouth, but one scientist who snuck a peek at it told the paper that some of the relic's traits "clearly indicated it was Homo sapiens."

The discovery is significant because previously, no Homo sapiens remnants had been discovered outside of Africa that were more than roughly 120,000 years old, the study authors wrote. If the Haifa finding is in fact a fragment of a Homo sapiens skeleton, it would indicate that early humans left Africa much earlier than was previously thought. A paleontologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History explained that the discovery "leaves open the possibility that Homo sapiens ventured long distances but were not successful in taking up permanent residence in western or eastern Asia."

"This changes the whole concept of modern human evolution," said Israel Hershkovitz, the anthropology professor at Tel Aviv University who led the excavation. Read more at the Los Angeles Times. Kelly O'Meara Morales

November 8, 2017
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A team of doctors in Germany and scientists in Italy were able to help a boy from Syria with a genetic disorder that left him with untreatable wounds covering 80 percent of his body.

The 7-year-old fled with his family from Syria to Germany in 2013, and by the time he started to receive treatment at Ruhr University Bochum, he was running out of time. He has a disease called junctional epidermolysis bullosa, caused by a mutation of the LAMB3 gene, which produces the protein that makes the top layer of skin connect to deeper layers underneath. The condition made his skin fragile and quick to blister, and his epidermis was still intact only on his head and a patch of his left leg. With all options exhausted, doctors reached out to scientists in Italy, asking if they could grow replacement skin for their young patient.

The scientists had regenerated healthy skin in a lab before, but never for as tall an order as this. They took epidermal cells from an area of his skin that did not have blisters, and genetically modified it in the lab, using a virus to correct the LAMB3 defect. The scientists then grew colonies of cells with corrected genes into sheets of genetically modified skin, and over two months, they grafted the skin to the patient. The grafts grew together and self-renewed, to the delight of the boy's medical team.

Once the epidermis has regenerated, the stem cells take over as in a healthy person, Michele De Luca at the University of Modena told The Guardian. Two years after the surgeries, the boy is doing well, does not take any medication, attends school and plays sports, and when he has a cut, his skin heals. Catherine Garcia

October 9, 2017

Children whose vision improved following gene therapy, plus their parents, doctors, and scientists, will speak in front of a Food and Drug Administration panel on Thursday, as the committee decides whether it will recommend approving the therapy.

The FDA has until Jan. 18 to decide if it wants to approve Luxturna, which would be the first gene therapy available in the United States for an inherited disease and the first where a corrective gene is directly given to a patient, The Associated Press reports. Luxturna has been tested on people with Leber congenital amaurosis, who are unable to make a protein needed for the retina due to flaws in the RPE65 gene. They typically are only able to see blurred shapes and bright lights, until they lose their sight all together.

A study, funded by Luxturna's manufacturer, Spark Therapeutics, found that while it does not give patients 20/20 vision, it did improve the vision of nearly everyone who participated in the trials. The company hopes patients would only need one treatment, which involves injecting a modified virus with the corrective gene into the retina. It's not known yet how long the benefits last, but it usually only takes about a month for sight to start to improve. Thanks to the therapy, children have been moved from Braille classrooms to sighted classrooms, and adults who have never held jobs before due to limited sight can now work, Dr. Katherine High, president of Sparks Therapeutics, told AP. Catherine Garcia

April 24, 2017

Put away the masks, creams, cleansers, and serums — a University of California, San Diego, professor says he has developed an acne vaccine that can take care of the disease.

"This is the first vaccine for human beauty," Prof. Eric Huang of the Department of Dermatology told NBC 7. "I think this vaccine has a huge market in the whole world." Huang said acne is caused by an overgrowth of the p. acnes bacteria inside a lesion, and when the bacteria releases a toxin called Christie-Atkins-Munch-Peterson (CAMP) factor, it causes inflammation. The human body can't neutralize this factor on its own, but the vaccine can. "It does not kill the bacteria," he said. "The vaccine neutralizes the bacteria, which everybody has."

After five years of work, there are two types of vaccines — therapeutic and preventative — which will be given to children in elementary school. The vaccine has been tested on mice and worked well, Huang said, and now, he needs to team up with a pharmaceutical company for large-scale clinical trials; if that happens soon, after FDA approval, the vaccine could be available within three to five years. Catherine Garcia

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