Thursday, April 20, 2017




“Whoomp! (There it is)---Gibson & Glenn


When we were kids, things moved slowly.  The elementary school term lasted forever and so did the baseball season.  Once baseball was over, it was an eternity until it started up again.  Same thing for Christmas.  The only thing which did not take forever was the three month Summer break from classes, which flew by in what seemed like a couple of weeks.  Nobody worried about getting old since it took an unimaginable amount of time to get there.

Things didn’t change much when we were kids, and that was okay by us.  We knew what depressing subjects we’d be learning the next year in school and we’d been amply warned by the older kids what horrors awaited from the new nun.   The President was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been Chief Executive forever and probably always would be.  The trains ran on time and so did the buses.  Meat and potatoes were on the menu every night, except for fish on Fridays.  In the Summer, our parents would occasionally drive to Glennie’s ice cream stand.  On weekends, there were visits to Canobie Lake or Salisbury Beach, or to visit the relatives in Gloucester or Connecticut.  If we went to the former, Mary Tetoni would be making spaghetti.  They didn’t know about other foods in Gloucester.

When we were kids, everyone got chicken pox and measles and maybe mumps, if you weren’t lucky.  I used to wonder about these disease names.  Where the hell did “chicken pox” come from?  And what the heck is a mump?  The mothers would warn us about whooping cough, another odd one, but nobody ever caught it.  We didn’t worry much about getting all these things because it happened to everyone and nobody died.  We did worry about one thing because our parents never let us forget it, equating the disease with near-death, and advising us of hundreds of ways we might get it: the bone-chilling, body-mangling, life-threatening monster called POLIO.  It even nailed the President.  If Polio could catch up with FDR, everybody was fair game.

Advice, good and silly, was rampant.  “Don’t go in the Spicket River or you’ll get Polio.  Stay out of crowds.  Don’t let flies land on you.  Don’t eat carbohydrates or red licorice.”  Infantile Paralysis—Polio’s respectable monicker---was on the prowl.  And when it struck, you were doomed to permanent paralysis of the limbs, usually the lower ones, and perhaps even the respiratory muscles, resulting in death.  Truth be told, 95% of persons infected with Polio showed no symptoms, up to 8% suffered only fever, fatigue, nausea, headaches, flu-like symptoms, stiffness in the neck and back and pain in the limbs, which usually resolved completely.  But nobody told us about those people.  We just heard about the disasters, of which there were plenty.  And then one day in 1955, out of nowhere, a man named Jonas Salk showed up with a vaccine which wiped Polio right off the map.  It seemed impossible.  It was like the Red Sox had won the pennant.  We were suddenly introduced to a completely new concept.  The Breakthrough.  Fortunately for us, these miracles kept on coming.  Here’s what happened in 2016:




1.  Somewhere, Chubby Checker Is Smiling

Stroke victims who expected to be paralized or wheelchair-bound for the rest of their lives are happily motivatin’ around, thanks to a groundbreaking event at a California university hospital.  Doctors at Stanford found 18 optimistic patients who let them drill holes in their skulls, the better to inject stem cells into the damaged parts of their brains.  All of them, patients whose strokes had occurred between six months and three years previously, made remarkable recoveries.  They’re twisting again, like they did last Summer, or perhaps the Summer before that.  Historically, doctors have believed that the brain will no longer regenerate after six months.


2.  We’ve Got The Fever!  We’re Hot!  We Can’t Be Stopped!

At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, a middle-aged quadriplegic agreed to let doctors place two silicon recording implants in his brain.  Smaller than a postage stamp, they bristle with a hundred hair-sized metal probes that can “listen” as neurons fire off commands.  The Case team, led by Robert Kirsch and Bolu Ajiboye, also slid more than 16 fine electrodes into the muscles of the volunteer’s arm and hand.  In videos of the experiment, the man can be seen slowly raising his arm with the aid of a spring-loaded arm rest and willing his hand to open and close.  He even raises a cup with a straw to his lip.  The Case results, pending publication in a medical journal, are part of a broader effort to use implanted electronics to restore various senses and abilities.  Besides treating paralysis, scientists hope to use so-called neural prosthetics to reverse blindness with chips placed in the eye and maybe restore memories lost to Alzheimer’s disease. 


3.  Meet M&M---The World’s First Artificial Pancreas

Here’s some great news: 29.1 million people in the United States have diabetes.  That’s 9.3% of the population, pardner.  And potato chip sales are up.  It looks like a long and a dusty road ahead.  But since a large number of U.S. citizens are determined to eat their way to oblivion, help from the medical community is on the way.  In September of 2016, the finicky old Food and Drug Administration approved the world’s first artificial pancreas for people with type 1 diabetes.  His name is MiniMed 670G and he was created by Medtronic.  You might want to buy some stock.  The device, which was approved for candidates 14 and up, measures a patient’s blood glucose every five minutes using a sensor with a protruding needle which is slipped under the skin to measure insulin levels, while a pump worn on the abdomen delivers insulin as needed.  This setup could dramatically reduce instances of hypoglycemia and greatly improve the quality of life of type 1 diabetics, relieving the need to constantly check blood sugar throughout the day.

Friends and families of pancreatic cancer victims wondered if there might be some good news for them in the bargain.  In a word, no.  Here’s a tip for you: don’t get pancreatic cancer.  The one-year survival rate is 20% and the five-year rate is 7%.  That 7% must be hiding in an oxygen bar in Montana because we haven’t seen any of them.  All of our pancreatic cancer friends die and they don’t take long doing it.  You’d be better off getting blown up by a land mine, they have spare parts for arms, legs and ears.  Nobody’s coming down the street with a boxful of replacement pancreata.  In this case, the term “artificial pancreas” is a little misleading.  However, things may be improving a bit on the pancreatic cancer front.  The folks at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital are revolutionizing some cancer treatments by making localized drug delivery a reality.  Powerful new drugs are available to treat pancreatic cancer but until now nothing has been done to change the antiquated way they were delivered to patients.  The Massachusetts alliance is embedding drugs into devices that are flexible enough that they can be folded and fit into a catheter, enabling doctors to implant them directly on top of the tumors with minimally invasive surgery.  They are solid enough that once they are positioned atop the tumors, they will act as a cage, physically preventing the tumors from entering other organs and controlling metastasis.  Sounds like a plan.  Next time you see a cancer researcher marching through your local airport, give him a pat on the back and thank him for his service.



Chaitanya (Butch) Karamchedu saving the world, one problem at a time


4.  Highschool Kid Ditches Phys Ed, Converts Seawater Into Drinkable Water 

At Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon, the teachers require that students submit a science project.  Some kids think this is a good opportunity to teach their peers how to construct a still.  Fella named Chaitanya Karamchedu took his seriously.  He decided to come up with an innovative way to convert salt water into the drinkable stuff using polymer.  The basis of this new method contains two observations: (a) 100% of seawater is not fully saturated with salt, ergo there are water bodies within seas and oceans which are very close to being drinkable, and (b) traditional desalination involves understanding of bonding with water molecules, but the key is just the opposite—understanding chemical bonding with salt instead of water.

Jesuit High School biology teacher Dr. Lara Shamieh said “People have been looking at the problem from one viewpoint---how do we break the bonds between salt and water?  Chai came in and thought about it from a completely different angle.”  He focused on the 90% of seawater which is not bonded with salt and introduced a new approach to solving the water crisis.  The process is allegedly cheap and accessible to everyone.  Karamchedu won himself a $10,000 award from the U.S. Agency for International Global Development and another financial prize at MIT’s TechCon Conference, presumably to continue his research.  But Chai the Kid is already branching out into other areas.  “These days he’s thinking about ways of killing cancer cells from the inside out,” reports Shamieh.  “I keep telling him to remember his high school biology teacher when he wins the Nobel Prize.” 


5.  Is There An Alzheimer’s Answer?  Give Us A Moment To Think About It.

Oh, that’s right.  Scientists have come up with an antibody drug called---are you ready?---Aducanumab.  We’re not sure but we think it may be named for Dave Aducanumab, who used to play first for the Phillies.  Anyway, the A-drug looks like the real deal.  Patients treated with Aducanumab experienced an almost complete clearance of the amyloid plaques that prevent brain cells from communicating, thus leading to irreversible memory loss and cognitive decline.  After six months of the treatment, patients ceased deteriorating.  If shown to be as effective in larger trials, the first drug to prevent dementia could be available in just a few years.

“The results of this clinical study make us optimistic that we can potentially make a great step forward in treating the disease,” said Professor Roger Nitsch at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Zurich.  “In the high dose group, the amyloid has almost completely disappeared.  The effect size of this drug is unprecedented.”

Not only does the new study suggest a treatment for the disease, but it clearly illustrates that the buildup of amyloid plaque is almost certainly the cause.  Aducanumab is a treatment made up of antibodies, tiny y-shaped proteins that latch on to dangerous substances in the body, acting like flags, showing the immune system what to clear away.  Scientists tested various human immune cells with amyloid in a lab until they found one which produced an antibody which broke up the plaques.  They then cloned it in large numbers for the new therapy, which is given intravenously just once a month.

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s move on to the really important stuff:


6.  Is There Hair Yet?

Almost.  Those wily Japanese are cooking up something to relieve the heartbreak of alopecia as we speak.  About time, too.  There are currently 54 million baldies in the United States, men outnumbering women two to one.  If you haven’t noticed any of these 18 million bald women, that’s because their wigs are so much better than ours.

Anyway, the scientists at RIKEN, Japan’s largest research organization, have teamed up with two Japanese companies, Kyocera and Organ Technologies, to develop a cure based on regenerative medicine.  Racing to catch up are the hair scientists at the Sanford-Burham Medical Research Institute in California and Replicel Life Sciences in Canada.  The latter promises hair to one and all by 2018 for a piffling cost of $1000.  Where do I go to get in line?

Hair follicles are the sheaths of cells and tissues that surround the roots of our hair, providing it with nourishment.  With the exception of our skin, hair follicles are the only organ that regenerates repeatedly after birth, thanks to the work of the stem cells associated with them.  Hair will continue to grow out of a follicle for between 3 and 7 years.  The follicle then goes into hibernation and sheds the hair.  After several months, it awakens and the cycle begins again.  Hormones can impact the cycle, as can the immune system and aging.  Until now, if a follicle suffered damage, that was the ball game; no new follicles are produced after birth.

Follicular regenerative medicine, however, works by removing a small patch of skin and hair follicles from the patient’s scalp.  The stem cells active in the follicles are isolated and extracted and then cultivated to increase their number by many orders of magnitude.  These cells are subsequently processed and turned into follicles using RIKEN researcher Takashi Tsuji’s primordium method and then injected or autografted onto the patient’s scalp.  And voila!  Happy days are here again.  Does anyone know if they still sell Wildroot Cream Oil?  Charley?  It’s made with soothing lan-o-lin.



One last lap.  Barbara & Bruce stomping through Iceland, Summer of 2016


Requiem For A Heavyweight

Some of you may remember Barbara Reissfelder, who traveled to Iceland last Summer with her husband, Bruce, and brought back pictures.  Barbara is travelling in sunnier climes these days, the unfortunate thing being all of us are now deprived of her company.  Barb passed away Monday night from the complications of acute leukemia, leaving Bruce and the rest of us a shattered mess.  We knew she had a fight on her hands, but a fighter she was and nobody expected an early knockout.  There are people who die, and you shed a tear.  There are other people who die and you feel like you were smacked in the gut by a wrecking ball.  Barbara is one of the latter.

A nicer human being was never created.  Barb had a smile and a kind word for everyone and never had much interest in critiquing people.  She was a regular at our gym, took great care of herself and, until last Summer, looked to be in the peak of health.  I can still see her doing circles around the modest Lifetime Fitness outside track on cool mornings when everyone else was working inside.

Barbara, without being asked, became a dependable Flying Pie copy reader.  She religiously emailed in her corrections and never missed a trick, even if it was just an extra space between words.  She almost apologized for noticing.  “It’s no big thing, but…” she would relate.  Recently, she wrote to tell me I was not making sufficient mistakes and she felt like her job was at risk.  I wish I had made a few extra errors so I could have heard from her more often.

Barbara was a horse enthusiast, emanating from her youth.  She didn’t own any of the critters herself these days, but she followed the careers of all of ours, even once visiting the training center where the yearlings were converted to race horses.  She got excited every year at this time because the Triple Crown races were on the way.  I used to send her video replays of the significant untelevised stakes and she knew all the major contenders.  It wasn’t just the horses, however.  Barbara was an animal lover, even keeping a close watch on Siobhan’s caprines via the Goatcam and commenting on their wellbeing.

When people die, elegists often remark, “The world suffered a great loss today.”  Which is usually bullshit.  Well, the world really did suffer a great loss today and there’s no bullshit about it.  There aren’t enough Barbara Reissfelders around that we won’t greatly miss the departure of a single one.  

Chemo is a bitch.  But despite all her pain, Barbara was determined to hang around, never accepting the possibility of alternate outcomes.  She couldn’t leave Bruce, after all, and what would her friends do without her?  I guess we’ll find out.  Somehow, the world is less fun today, as if someone put a dimmer on the sun.  With all the available sewer rats available, the Cosmic Interrupter had to go and lasso a skylark.

Not that Barbara may not be better off, after all.  Months of agony past and months more to come is not a happy fate.  With a Life Upgrade, the best of risen mortals are rewarded with sunny skies, open fields, new possibilities.  There are no neighborhood restrictions now, Barbara, those colts running wild on the horizon are available to one and all.  Go over and introduce yourself.  They won’t be able to resist you.  After all, nobody else could.


That’s all, folks….