research

Robot Therapy: Can a Software Program Treat Depression?

Although traditional talk-therapy sessions are conducted face-to-face, advances in smartphone technology and video-calling have significantly altered the age old “therapy couch” model and brought talk therapy into the lives of people who aren’t able to visit a therapist regularly. Further advances in artificial intelligence may mean that someday patients might not need a therapist at all – just a computer program. Image: The Doctor Is In Your Pocket by Juhan Sonin /CC by 2.0 Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston have developed and tested a computer program that directly interacts with patients, in between their regular therapy sessions, that helps to reinforce outcomes from the group therapy and teach techniques to manage stress. Advances in conversational artificial intelligence have enabled computer scientists to develop software programs that interact with patients, either through voice or text, in such a natural way that some patients’ brains respond to these programs the same way they would when talking to a human. These programs are known as “conversational agents,” and they have been particularly successful at psychological evaluations, as studies have shown that patients may be more likely to give open and honest responses when they believe they are speaking to a computer program rather than a human. The researchers at Northeastern found that, when combined with group therapy visits, patients who used the conversational agent along with their group sessions had significantly better...

How One Woman Pioneered Breast Cancer Research

The BRCA1 protein is a caretaker of the cell. When DNA becomes damaged, BRCA1 helps restore the DNA to its proper form or initiates program cell death if it is beyond repair. This ensures that cells maintain their intended function. However, if BRCA1 itself becomes damaged, it can no longer perform its essential role. Its importance is highlighted by the finding that when this occurs, there is a greater risk for developing cancer. Discovery of BRCA1’s relevance to cancer in 1990 was groundbreaking because it established that there is a genetic component to cancer, not just viral as commonly thought at the time. More so, it has allowed for screening for mutations in BRCA1 and the related BRCA2 gene that can identify at-risk women so they can receive life-saving treatments. These mutations are thought to be responsible for approximately 3-8% of breast cancer cases in the U.S. and up to 25% of inherited breast cancer. What may be even more remarkable than this discovery is the woman who discovered it, Mary-Claire King. Dr. King identified the BRCA1-cancer connection at a time when the idea of genes playing a role in cancer was radical. As a self-described “stubborn person”, she persisted and continued to push the idea forward. At the same time, she took on a leadership role as a scientist, despite training at a time when independent female scientists...

Pig DNA is Considered Identical to Human DNA

Scientists at Recombinetics are conducting research on pigs in an effort to accelerate cancer cure development and potentially create a sustainable source of genetically-matched human organs for transplantation. While experiments involving farm animals are nothing new in the world of medical research, the pigs at Recombinetics farm in Minnesota are unique because they have been modified to express human traits using TALENs technology. Cancer has been cured in mice models many times, but the same techniques do not seem to translate well in humans. The company believes the 98% similarity between the human genome and the pig genome may help close the gap between successful cures in animal models and resulting efficacious treatments and/or cures for humans. Click here to read more about this company’s research on CNBC. Earlier this year, researchers were able to identify that DNA Bacteria can store information, like hard drives: Researchers at Harvard Medical School have used the CRISPR gene-editing tool to encode five frames of a vintage motion picture into the DNA Bacteria of E. coli bacteria. By reducing each frame into a series of single-color pixels and matching each color to a DNA code, the scientists were able to string together DNA strands that represented the video frames. Non-biological information has been encoded into DNA before, going back as far as 2003. However, this is the first time living organisms have been used as the message’s vessel. Living...

How Should I Pursue Research Opportunities?

I just started my junior year of college and have met many new students that express interest in pursuing a career in medicine. It is so exciting to see new first and second year students ambitiously seeking out new opportunities to explore. I feel like I have learned quite a lot over the past two years in college, especially from those older than me. The mentorship I received from junior and senior students when I was a freshman guided me strongly along the path towards medicine. Likewise, I hope to be that person for other students because mentorship and sharing advice and opportunities is a vibrant and important aspect of medical (and pre-medical) training. One thing I, specifically, love to talk to new students about is research opportunities and how/if they should seek them out. My freshman year, I walked into our university pre-medical advisor’s office and told him I’d really like to become involved in biomedical research, even if that meant that I had to sweep the floors or wash beakers. He thankfully told me I wouldn’t have to do any of that but could join his team. This opportunity was one of the best decisions I made as an undergraduate because it allowed me to see if research was something I was interested in. I eventually used this experience as robust aspect of my resume when applying...

We’re One Step Closer To Identifying Parkinson’s Disease

Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia have devised a diagnostic tool for identifying Parkinson’s disease (PD) in patients who may not yet display any motor symptoms. The importance of such a tool lies in the fact that by the time motor symptoms appear, there is usually already irreversible damage to brain tissues. Dinesh Kumar, PhD, the chief investigator on the study, says “many treatment options for Parkinson’s only prove effective when the disease was diagnosed early.“ The team at RMIT built custom software that analyzes a patient’s spiral-drawing style via pen, paper, and a digital drawing tablet. Although the team admits to some limitations within their initial studies, the 93% accuracy rate of early PD diagnosis is spurring additional research and hope for achieving a reliable diagnostic method for identifying PD early. We’ve come a long way to identifying Parkinson’s disease. Earlier this year, researchers have developed an instrument that can identify seventeen diseases, including Parkinson’s. A new instrument has recently been developed to diagnose disease in a non-invasive, cost effective manner. Based on the idea of the breathalyzers used to identify and quantify alcohol consumption, this device would allow for specific programmable disease detection in still healthy individuals. Volatile organic compounds are chemicals that are expressed by the body when pathologic processes occur. Currently, seventeen diseases can be identified with breath analysis with an accuracy of eighty-six percent. Researchers were able to...

What You Know About Blood Pressure May Be Wrong

Blood pressure measurement is a routine part of nearly every medical examination. Hypertension is one of the biggest cardiovascular risk factors for heart disease, stroke and death. Around 85 million people in the United States have it, which may show no symptoms and go undetected until it is too late. While blood pressure varies throughout the day, a reading of 180 over 110 mmHG or higher could be a sign of hypertensive crisis. Image: Source The most common method for measuring blood pressure around the world is the “brachial cuff method,” which was invented over a century ago. Before 1855, physicians had to puncture an artery and calculated the pressure if the flowing blood using a mercury sphygmomanometer. The first non-invasive technique was invented by Samuel Siegfried Karl Ritter von Basch around 1881, when he came up with the idea to use water, and later air, to restrict blood flow through the arm.  It was further refined by Scipione Riva-Rocci who published “Un nuovo sfigmomanometro” in 1896, which re-incorporated the mercury manometer to von Basch’s technique. Finally, Russian surgeon Nikolai Korotkov added the stethoscope in 1905. The same general technique is used today, either manually or with a digital cuff. However, recent research published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology has found that the cuff method may not accurately measure blood pressure in the mid-range. This study included...

Cancer Immunotherapies: Changing Lives and Science

Sometimes, trying to learn all the different cancer therapies out there can feel a bit like drowning in a sea of big, complicated names. There are seemingly infinite number of “-inib”s and “-umab”s used to treat cancer. My work in the division of cardiovascular medicine at Vanderbilt is focused on understanding the mechanisms of how cancer therapies cause heart and vascular disease. As I am knee-deep in experiments and projects, I find it important to step back and remember the awe I have for some of these cancer therapies. One project in the lab is assessing the immune-related adverse effects of cancer immunotherapies. A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine highlights an adverse cardiovascular effect of immune checkpoint-inhibitors that initiated a cascade of questions on the safety of these drugs. While we are still trying to profile the safety of immune checkpoint inhibitors, it is undeniable that these cancer immunotherapies are amazing from a scientific, medical, and patient perspective. To marvel at the nature of immunotherapies, it helps to have a basic understanding of how they work. As an undergraduate student, I have developed a valuable skill at taking concepts that are very complicated and breaking them down by asking, “What is most important for me to know?” I apply this approach to understanding cancer immunotherapies as well. There are many visuals out there for understanding...