Alternative Medicine I – The Ultimate Dilute: Homeopathy

Homeopathy. One of the most popular alternative medicines in the Western world, and perhaps the most widely misunderstood. The science against homeopathy, like the skeptics, is unequivocal. The British Homeopathic association list homeopathy as a possible treatment for long-term chronic problems such as eczema, chronic fatigue syndrome, asthma, migraine, IBS and depression, but numerous healthcare bodies agree there is no evidence that homeopathy is effective in treating any health condition.

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The Truth and Lies Behind Alternative Medicine

Alternative medicine: a phrase that is heavy with connotations, emotions and frankly, a great deal of confusion. Whichever side of the debate you find yourself on, the opinions are usually strong, stubbornly held, and generally backed up with too few facts for any kind of meaningful discussion. It is for these reasons that I usually try to avoid the topic entirely. But avoiding the issue gets us nowhere. So lets do it properly, if we’re going to do it at all. Over the last year I have read no less than 144 scientific papers on seven different so-called “alternative medicines”, in search of the truth behind the hype. From acupuncture to homeopathy, from reiki to hypnotism, I’ve searched high and low to find out what really works, what doesn’t work, what is helpful and what is potentially harmful. This series will explain what I’ve found in a fair and scientific way. It is not meant to offend anybody, merely to arm us all with the facts, so that we can make our own informed decisions.
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Turning Blood into Brains

When you think crayfish, you probably think of food rather than groundbreaking medical research, but a paper published last month in Developmental Cell reports an incredible neurological feature of the humble lobster. Stem cells, blueprint cells that produce new cells, are vital for repairing wear-and-tear. Research from the US revealed a remarkable talent in Crayfish – they can grow new brain stem cells from their blood.

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One Phage Cocktail, Please

Increasing antibiotic resistance is hitting the headlines at the moment, and a genuine concern is growing, amongst the public and scientists alike, over the concept of a future without antibiotics. Research attention is beginning to focus on possible solutions, but some may be old, rather than new.

In the second half of the 20th Century, patients suffering from bacterial infections behind the Iron Curtain were denied access to the antibiotics that were saving lives in the west. Instead, many of these people were treated with phage therapy, which makes use of viral bacteriophages which kill bacteria. Phage therapy never really caught on, however, at least in part because bacteriophages are highly specific (meaning you need to know exactly what has infected your patient to be able to treat effectively) and because people are inherently uneasy about treating an ailment using a virus. Interest has renewed recently however, in light of major concerns over antibiotic resistance, and the European Commission has just invested €3.8 million into a large-scale clinical trial of phage therapy.

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All the small things:
DNA Origami, Nanotechnology and Nanomedicine

Believe it or not, out there somewhere, in a brightly lit laboratory, is a person in a lab coat, folding DNA, proteins and other biological compounds to provide innovative new medicines, tackle microengineering problems and create intriguing art. Welcome to the world of nantechnology.

The structure of DNA

Nanotechnology is the study of materials and devices smaller than 100 nanometers (10-5 or 0.000001 cm), and it is being applied to a diverse set of problems including drug delivery, nanorobotics, gene therapy, microelectronics and molecular computing. DNA nanotechnology involves the construction of self-assembling minute artificial structures from nucleic acids (the building blocks of DNA). DNA can be used to form a functional nanostructure itself, or it can be used as a scaffold to direct the assembly of other molecules (e.g. carbon, protein, peptides) into a functional structure. This is possible because of the strict base pairing rules of DNA, which means that strands will only bind together if they share complementary sequences. Base sequences can be therefore designed that will form specific structures. This is a major advantage over other materials used in nanotechnology such as proteins and nanoparticles. Dynamic DNA nanostructures can also be designed that react to certain chemical or physical stimuli, and DNA engineering is allowing scientists to design sequences that catalyse reactions, influence gene expression and modify the properties of natural DNA. Even more amazingly, DNA ‘printers’ have now been developed which can produce DNA strands with specific sequences, and bind them to a surface.

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The Magic of Medicine: Gene Therapy

In the 60 years since Watson and Crick’s landmark discovery of the structure of DNA, our understanding of how genes influence disease has increased exponentially. For some conditions, an exciting therapeutic prospect exists: gene therapy. Gene therapy attempts to repair faulty genes instead of simply treating symptoms.

For many conditions, the exact genetic mechanisms underlying them have now been elucidated. While a lot of diseases are the result of a complex interaction between multiple genes and environmental factors, others are the result of a single mutation, resulting in the failure to produce an essential functional protein. For such conditions, an exciting therapeutic prospect exists: gene therapy. In principle, the idea behind gene therapy is very simple. Whereas conventional medicine generally attempts to replace the missing gene product or repair the damage caused by its absence, gene therapy attempts to repair the faulty gene itself. Why treat symptoms when you can treat the cause?

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What Else Makes Us Human?
Drug Use in the Animal Kingdom

Whilst writing the series on “What Makes Us Human?”, I started thinking about less obvious, less traditional ideas of what traits are truly human, and human alone. One characteristic occurred to me that seemed obviously to be unique to humans: recreational drug use. It seemed implausible that animals in the wild were indulging in drug abuse purely for their own entertainment, and I wondered if this could give some perspective on what it means to be human. But, as it turns out, I was wrong.

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How to Read a Mind

Mind reading no longer exclusively belongs to the domain of science fiction writers and mediums. Over the last 50 years, researchers around the world have been working on a system known as the brain-computer interface (BCI) which allows direct communication between the brain and an external device such a computer or a robotic limb. The main goal of this research is to develop technology capable of restoring sensory function to the blind or deaf, and restoring movement to patients suffering from paralysis. Major strides have been made in this endeavour over the last decade, and BCI technology is now even being adapted to commercial purposes such as gaming.

BCI technology is possible because of the way in which the brain transmits messages within itself and to other areas of the body. The brain is composed of around 100 billion cells called neurons. Messages are sent from neuron to neuron as an electrical impulse, created by ion imbalances in neuronal membranes. Neurons are insulated by a coating known as the myelin sheath, which prevents most, but not all, of these electrical impulses from escaping. The tiny portion of the electricity which escapes from the myelin sheath can be detected and this signal can be interpreted by computers. A second feature of the brain is also key to the success of BCI: neural plasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt to new situations. Patients suffering with brain damage illustrate neural plasticity; in many cases patients are able to, over time, adapt other areas of their brain to perform the tasks of damaged regions. Neural plasticity also enables the brain to adapt to interpret new input, such as that provided by the brain-computer interface.

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