Jellyfish DNA May Help Diagnose Ebola, Other Diseases

What a weird and wonderful world:

Discs of souped-up filter paper could change how we diagnose infections. To demonstrate the power of the approach, which involves embedding DNA from jellyfish and other organisms into paper, its developers have successfully used it to identify two strains of Ebola.dn26451-1_300

Although far from being ready for testing in west Africa, paper discs that detect the virus are being developed for potential use as a cheap, simple method to identify infected people.

The key to the technology is the ability to print sequences of DNA on paper, then freeze-dry and store the discs at room temperature. The DNA is reactivated by adding water. Once active, it enables the paper to change colour if a chosen target – such as a segment of Ebola viral RNA – is present in the water.

The target fragment binds to a gene switch in the DNA, which triggers the production of a colourful substance such as the protein that gives jellyfish a green glow under ultraviolet light, or proteins from bacteria that produce colour changes visible to the naked eye. The colour the paper changes to indicates which of the target pathogens has been detected.

H/T: The Wife

New Techniques Detect Consciousness in Vegetative Patients

People in a “vegetative state” may have far more brain activity than previously thought, LiveScience reports:

…researchers looked at 32 comatose patients and 26 healthy people. Some of the comatose patients were diagnosed as “minimally conscious,” meaning there was some evidence that they may have retained some awareness of their surroundings (for example, the patient could follow simple commands, such as squeezing a finger). But others were diagnosed as “vegetative,” which means they were thought to have lost all conscious awareness, even though they could breathe on their own or open their eyes.

The researchers examined participants’ brain waves using electroencephalography (EEG) and applied mathematical tools to the EEG data to find patterns of communication across brain regions. The researchers then compared these patterns in the comatose patients’ brains with those of healthy people.

As expected, the brain-activity patterns in the comatose patients’ brains differed from those of the healthy participants. Healthy, conscious brains showed “rich and diversely connected networks,” which were lacking in the comatose patients’ brains, the researchers said. [Top 10 Mysteries of the Mind]

However, some comatose patients who were thought to be completely vegetative actually showed some patterns similar to those of healthy people. These were the patients who, despite being diagnosed as vegetative, had been suggested to have some level of awareness in previous brain imaging experiments. For example, although the patients did not perform any physical movements in response to commands, brain imaging showed that when they were told to imagine doing a physical activity, such as playing tennis, the area of the brain responsible for controlling movement, lit up.

Some vegetative patients who show signs of hidden awareness have remarkably well-preserved networks similar to healthy adults,” the researchers wrote.

It’s a little late to help Terri Schiavo and other victims of medical homicide, but any progress is welcome.

“Medical Journal” Hoax Links Aspergers & Murder

A “humor” website (I’m not linking and please don’t give them traffic by searching) has headlined an article “New Study Shows 92% Of Convicted Murderers Suffer From Aspergers Syndrome,” citing a nonexistent “study” set to appear in The American Journal of Medicine (AJM). They claimed the results of new research concluded “that roughly 92 percent of murderers fell somewhere within the high-functioning autism spectrum.”

The story, of course, is false, but nothing indicated it was a spoof. It even concluded by soliciting media interviews for the “doctor” behind the “research.” It is already being circulated as fact.

The journal reacted with outrage, saying no such article existed, and they were already being contacted by real media outlets asking about the study:

We felt the need to quickly clarify that this story was false, since the journal’s editorial office had been contacted about the fake research by news media and Asperger’s supporters, and the hoax article has been quoted on the Internet as factual. No such article was ever submitted to the journal, and as far we know, the blog post is meant to be a spoof. To get the word out, AJM posted a story on the journal’s blog, tweeted the blog post, and alerted the journal’s Facebook fans.

This is a complete hoax and fraudulent,” said AJM Editor-in-Chief Dr. Joseph S. Alpert. “In the first place, this topic has nothing to do with internal medicine, and we would never publish something on this topic.”

This hits home on two fronts: I have a child with ASD, and my wife was editor of both The American Journal of Medicine and The American Journal of Surgery many years ago. She alerted me to the story when it came across her Elsevier feed this morning.

The kind of hit-trolling, low-intellect sadist who thinks it’s funny to demonize an already misunderstood population, while also dragging a revered journal’s name through the mud, is all too common on the internet. This isn’t humor. This is wicked little people pulling the wings off flies for their own amusement.

Paralyzed Man Moves Hand With Aid From An Implanted Chip

Ian Burkhart, paralyzed in a swimming accident, became the first person to move his own body with help from a microchip implanted in the brain. Dubbed “Neurobridge,” the technology allows the chip to read rudimentary thoughts in the patient’s brain and then trigger electrodes to stimulate muscles in the hand, causing directed motion.

From The Telegraph:

At just 0.15 inch wide, the chip has 96 electrodes which ‘read’ what he is thinking and is housed in a port inside his skull.

After weeks of practice sessions, when Mr Burkhart focused intently on wiggling his fingers while the chip responded by moving an animated hand on a computer screen, the first proper test took place last week.

The port was connected to a computer which decoded the messages sent by his brain and beamed them to a sleeve containing electrodes which was placed around his forearm.

One journalist said that when he was “plugged in” Mr Burkhart resembled Neo, the Keanu Reeves character from “The Matrix” film series.

Mr Burkhart’s first attempt at using his thoughts to move his hand exceeded all his doctors’ expectations. While they had hoped he would be able to move one finger, he was able to curl his seemingly dead hand into a fist, open it out flat and pick up a spoon.

The signals sent by the computer had triggered electrodes in the sleeve which stimulated the muscles in his hand, causing them to move in the same way they would if a message had been sent directly by the brain.

Afterwards, he told CBS: “Today was great. To be able to open and close my hand and do those complex movements that I haven’t been able to do for four years was great.

“Physically, it was a foreign feeling. Emotionally it was definitely a sense of hope and excitement to know that it’s possible.”

Dr Ali Rezai, Mr Burkhart’s surgeon, said: “I do believe there will be a day coming soon when somebody who’s got a disability – being a quadriplegic or somebody with a stroke, somebody with any kind of brain injury – can use the power of their mind and by thinking, be able to move their arms or legs.”


Three-Parent Babies Now Only Two Years Away

Let’s start with the money quote, and then get down to the details:

“Are these techniques safe in humans? We won’t know that until it’s actually done in humans. Until a healthy baby is born we cannot say 100% that these techniques are safe, if you think back to when IVF was a new technology all of these questions were asked before IVF.” Andy Greenfield, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)

It takes the breath away, doesn’t it? They are playing with the most powerful force in the universe–the creation of new life–as if they’re diddling around with tinker-toys, fully aware they have no clue what this could do to the human person.

The procedure in question, which combines elements of two embryos, is being pursued for a noble goal: the elimination of mitochondrial disease. The disease causes “muscle weakness, blindness, heart failure and even death,” and is passed along by the mother.

The new technique removes and destroys the nucleus from a donor embryo and transplants the nucleus from the mother’s embryo into the donor embryo.

Of course, this means one embryo is destroyed in the process and something new is created: a human being with the genetic material of three parents.

Setting aside the horror of embryo destruction and bioethical nightmare of a three-parent child, what will introducing multi-DNA people into the human family do to both the people in question and humanity?

They haven’t got a clue. Not one single solitary clue. But they’re doing it anyway, and giving themselves a whole two years of testing (no doubt destroying many embryos in the process) to figure out how to do it.

Right now, they’re working with a procedure that many would see as a potential good: eliminating a terrible disease. That was always going to be the first step. The final, inevitable step should this go forward is designer babies and eugenics.

It’s almost inevitable now. A dark future of DNA tinkering and hybrid humans is a matter of when not if. Humanity had a good run, but we’re impatient with suffering. That was, of course, the lesson of the cross: a lesson too many in the world seem to have forgotten.

It’s not the we should go on blithely accepting suffering and death without applying human genius and imagination to making life better. It’s that there is a bright line separating what can be done from what should be done. We go so far, and no further. And messing about with the very source of human life is on the wrong side of that bright line.

Child’s Heart Surgery Aided By 3D-Printed Model

Michael Clevenger/The Courier-Journal

Kentucky heart surgeon Erle Austin knew that fixing 14-month-old Roland Lian Cung Bawi’s heart would be a delicate process, and he wanted as much information as possible before going in. He went to the engineering school at University of Louisville help with a computer model of the boy’s heart, and they were able to use a 3D printer to make a larger version of the heart to help the team better understand the challenge:

“Once I had a model, I knew exactly what I needed to do and how I could do it,” said Austin, who was able to reduce exploratory incisions, cut operating time and ensure that Roland wouldn’t need follow-up operations. “It was a tremendous benefit.”

The successful Feb. 10 surgery at Kosair marked what hospital officials say was the first use of 3-D printing for a pediatric heart patient in Kentucky.

“We’re still learning about this technology, but it has exciting applications,” said Philip Dydynski, chief of radiology at Kosair, who was part of the medical team.


When Archaeology and Epidemiology Meet

The past is always present. A group of scientists has managed to extract DNA from the teeth of two people who died during the Justinian Plague in the 6th century, and tests have confirmed that the same pathogen was at the root of the Black Plague of the 14th century, with mutations that are still alive today. The strain that caused the Justinian Plague died out, but a different strain emerged 800 years later to cause the Black Death.

A 1400-year-old tooth containing plague DNA

By some estimates, the Justinian Plague led to the deaths of almost half of all human life on the planet. The Black Plague claimed an estimated 50 million lives.

And mutations of Yersinia Pestis can still be a problem:

“We know the bacterium Y. pestis has jumped from rodents into humans throughout history and rodent reservoirs of plague still exist today in many parts of the world. If the Justinian plague could erupt in the human population, cause a massive pandemic, and then die out, it suggest it could happen again. Fortunately we now have antibiotics that could be used to effectively treat plague, which lessens the chances of another large scale human pandemic” says Dave Wagner, an associate professor in the Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics at Northern Arizona University.

The samples used in the latest research were taken from two victims of the Justinian plague, buried in a gravesite in a small cemetery in the German town of Aschheim. Scientists believe the victims died in the latter stages of the epidemic when it had reached southern Bavaria, likely sometime between 541 and 543.The skeletal remains yielded important clues and raised more questions.

Researchers now believe the Justinian Y. pestis strain originated in Asia, not in Africa as originally thought. But they could not establish a ‘molecular clock’ so its evolutionary time-scale remains elusive. This suggests that earlier epidemics, such as the Plague of Athens (430 BC) and the Antonine Plague (165 -180 AD), could also be separate, independent emergences of related Y. pestis strains into humans.

“The tick of the plague bacteria molecular clock is highly erratic. Determining why is an important goal for future research” says Edward Holmes, an NHMRC Australia Fellow at the University of Sydney.

Our response to modern infectious diseases is a direct outcome of lessons learned from ancestral pandemics, say the researchers.

“This study raises intriguing questions about why a pathogen that was both so successful and so deadly died out. One testable possibility is that human populations evolved to become less susceptible,” says Holmes.

Eye Cells From an Inkjet Printer

Promising news from the world of biotech:

Using an inkjet printer, researchers have succeeded in printing adult eye cells for the first time. The demonstration is a step toward producing tissue implants that could cure some types of blindness.

Scientists have previously printed embryonic stem cells and other immature cells. But scientists had thought adult cells might be too fragile to print. Now, researchers have printed cells from the optic nerves of rats, finding the cells not only survived, but also retained the ability to grow and develop.

Martin and his colleagues separated retinal ganglion cells (which transmit signals from the eye to the brain) and glial cells (which provide support and protection for neurons) from the retinal tissue of adult rats. They used a piezoelectric inkjet printer to print both types of cells into a vial at a rate of about 30 mph, or about 100 cells per second, recording the process with high-speed video. Then they performed tests to see how well the printed cells survived and grew.

Despite the shearing forces the cells experienced during printing, the printed retinal ganglion cells (also called optic nerve cells) and the glial cells appeared to survive as well as nonprinted cells. In addition, the optic nerve cells retained the ability to sprout neurites, the fingerlike filaments that form connections with other nerve cells.

Read the whole thing.

How Many People Does It Take to Crash Obamacare?

No, that’s not a setup for a joke, like “How many Libertarians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” (“None, the market will provide correction.”)

Really, how many do you think?

The administration is saying that is non-functional because millions and millions of people are trying to access it.

In other words, it’s only failing ’cause it’s so gosh-darned popular.

One would think that a massive, high-profile website rollout would have been thoroughly load-tested long before it was set to go online, and corrected in order to handle millions of potential customers, or even tens of thousands.

A single server for a massively multiplayer online game should be able to handle anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 or more players, and a successful MMO may have millions of subscribers in a graphically rich, live environment. And, of course, there are many, many servers in locations all around the world. I think one World of Warcraft player requires something like 10 kilobytes per second, which is like an eyelash in an ocean of data. One of the producers of Star Wars: The Old Republic game said their servers can handle 100,000 people and were tested with 200,000 bots (artificial players). That’s really high, but I see no reason to doubt him since BioWare spent $150-$200 million making and testing their game: one-fourth the amount spent on the Obamacare data processing.

So, if a company making a game spends months tuning servers so people can chop up wookiees with light sabers, you’d expect the flagship initiative of the current administration of the most powerful and wealthy nation in the history of the world would at least spend as much time testing theirs, right?


Nope. One week. They load tested for a week.

And failed.

What was their failure threshold? How many people did it take to crash a system that was merely collecting simple data fields?

A few hundred.

What’s that, Tom? you say. You mean, a few hundred thousand, right?

Nope. A few hundred simulated logins took down the system on a test “days” before the launch.

I know what you’re thinking: “But they found the problem and fixed it, right? They got it to the point where it could handle hundreds of thousands of users, and it was only the demands of millions that brought it to its knees. Please tell me they got somewhere closer to being able to handle more people than God and the Machine has readers in a single day.”

Ah … no.

On launch day, it was able to handle two thousand logins before the servers packed their bags and headed for Tahiti with that hot backup drive from accounting.

Two. Thousand. People. 

In a nation of 300,000,000.

And now Secretary Sebelius, testing out what she’ll wear for her appointment under the bus, says Obama never knew, and Obama is sounding as surprised as anyone about the failings.

“No one is madder about the Web site than I am,” he said. “which means it’s going to get fixed.”



Wasn’t he engaged before this? How does his anger translate into a solution to technological, administrative, financial, and managerial incompetence? When the Republicans were begging for a one-year delay in implementation, why didn’t he, in the spirit of bipartisanship and covering-his-own-ass-ship, agree and give everyone time to work things out? And why is a nation of laws and democratically elected leaders–a Republic in the purest and most classical sense of the word–being driven into ruin by the whims and vanity of this one man?

See also: in Three Images

Dick Cheney’s Unhackable Heart

Let’s take the cheap “Dick Cheney has a heart?” jokes as read and move on to the story at hand, viz: Dick Cheney had the software for his implanted defibrillator altered to prevent remote hacking.

In an interview with 60 Minutes, Cheney admits to asking for wireless features to be disabled:

Cheney says that he and his doctor, cardiologist Jonathan Reiner, turned off the device’s wireless function in case a terrorist tried to send his heart a fatal shock.

Years later, Cheney watched an episode of the Showtime series “Homeland” in which such a scenario was part of the plot.

“I found it credible,” Cheney tells “60 Minutes” in a segment to be aired Sunday. “I know from the experience we had, and the necessity for adjusting my own device, that it was an accurate portrayal of what was possible.”

The security of radio communications in medical devices is not just the stuff of TV episodes or paranoia: it’s been a real concern for several years.

Wireless features allow implanted devices to communicate with medical professions in order to stream data, alert them to serious issues, and make changes without surgery. Any wireless signal, however, is potentially hackable. This a particularly grave concern with aerial drones, but political and military leaders with implanted devices may also be vulnerable to terrorist attack.

Last summer, ICS-CERT (the Industrial Control Systems–Cyber Emergency Readiness Team, part of the Department of Homeland Security ) sounded an alarm about the issue, specifying the following devices as vulnerable to hacking:

  • Surgical and anesthesia devices
  • Ventilators
  • Drug infusion pumps
  • External defibrillators
  • Patient monitors
  • Laboratory and analysis equipment

Back in 2008, programmers from Harvard’s Medical Device Security Center hacked an implanted defibrillator using a PC and some radio hardware. The device, obviously, was not in a patient at the time.