A whole new world

Take a closer look at new medical findings and figure how they could be of interest to you.

Published: 27th October 2013 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th October 2013 04:19 PM   |  A+A-


In a playful attempt at using his father’s old computer, the differently-abled Rohit Mehra accidentally sends out signals to aliens his father had been trying to communicate with before his death. This leads to the aliens coming to Earth and mistakenly leaving one of them behind. This one alien befriends Rohit and gives him special powers before returning to his home planet.

The 2003 Indian science fiction film Koi Mil Gaya left many awed. Inspired by Satyajit Ray’s The Aliens, the film left movie buffs touched by alien Jadoo, and wondering if a similar relationship was possible in reality.

Now, scientists may have finally found the answer to this question—a connection between humans and an alien species. Unbelievable? Well, experts suggest otherwise. Vladimir I. shCherbak of al-Farabi Kazakh National University of Kazakhstan and Maxim A Makukov of the Fesenkov Astrophysical Institute have hypothesised that an intelligent signal embedded in our genetic code would be a mathematical and semantic message that cannot be accounted for by Darwinian evolution. In simple words, there may be proof of extra-terrestrial life in our genes, much to the joy of ET fans. In their report, the researchers state that the presence of alien life may be decoded through messages stored in the cells of our body and are calling it ‘biological SETI’. They argue that the scheme has much greater longevity and a chance of detecting ET than a transient extraterrestrial radio transmission.

Now if you thought that was interesting, then you ought to read a list of what are being touted as the most interesting medical findings in recent times. While one research suggests that being within 25 miles of an electrical storm can increase the occurrence of intense headaches by up to 28 per cent; the other points that strengthening bone to avoid fractures starts at a very young age. There are also other researches which suggest that Mercury, used in dental amalgam, has been linked to many health problems, but don’t worry, your fillings are probably safe; or that viral and bacterial infections could have lasting legacies on cognition; and how group-think is the latest trend in cancer research.

 The research industry

With huge investments in the field of medicine and healthcare, researchers are on an overdrive to explore everything possible about the human anatomy resulting in intriguing facts and findings. In India alone, the healthcare sector is estimated to reach $100 billion by 2015, growing 20 per cent year-on-year, according to rating agency Fitch. The industry is expected to touch $280 billion by 2020, with increasing demand for specialised and quality healthcare facilities.

Dr Biren Nadkarni, Senior Orthopaedic and Joint Replacement Surgeon at Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research, New Delhi, says, “Medical research is increasing, but let us not forget that most of the research comes from institutional bodies which have resources and funding. In medical practice, most clinical research is carried out to justify the use of new and novel treatment guidelines.”

 In a study by the European Commission, published on the Indian Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF) website, the largest overall increase in research and development (R&D) investments was reported by companies based in India with 35.1 per cent, followed by China at 28.1 per cent.

“There are various findings being undertaken even as we speak and it only reflects that we are progressing to a better understanding of ourselves and our surroundings,” says Dr Jatinder Bhatia, Chief of lab services and projects (North India), Metropolis Healthcare. Each day a new theory finds its way into papers highlighting the fact that there is more to it than meets the eye.

Recently a study on Vitamin D deficiency was conducted by NationWide Primary Healthcare Services Pvt. Ltd, Bangalore. Personal physician Dr Anand Philip, who was part of the team, says, “This is an important research, given the lack of knowledge on the subject. It is the latest lifestyle disease, spreading at epidemic proportions because large parts of the urban population have no exposure to sunlight.” He adds that the fallouts of the deficiency are poorly studied, and being linked to an increasing number of medical conditions, making it a topic that needs to be arrested and studied further.

Another interesting study which Dr Philip points at is on hypothyroidism. “It was earlier considered a woman’s illness, but now we are witnessing an increasing number of men who are hypothyroid. A lot of mild-moderate increase in cholesterol levels might also be linked to this,” he says.

Mp6.jpg Answering all questions

Some Indian researches are also shedding light on unresolved mysteries of science. For instance, according to a recent study, a new breakthrough research project, a collaborative effort between the University of Sheffield and LV Prasad Eye Institute (LVPEI), India, published in the journal Biomaterials, said a new synthetic biodegradable membrane has been developed that is both cost-effective and accessible. University of Sheffield has completed the development of this synthetic sterilised biodegradable membrane that can be stored at -20°C for at least a year before use, and this is to be tested in a pilot study in India within the next 12 months. Dr Virender Sangwan, Director of Clinical Research at LVPEI says, “This approach stems from LVPEI’s Tea Bag Approach, making synthetic membranes ready-to-use, a literally off-the-shelf approach by ophthalmologists which can be delivered at the point of need of the patient.” Dr Sheila MacNeil, Professor of Tissue Engineering at University of Sheffield, adds, “Our aim throughout was to work with LVPEI to simplify and make this process affordable and accessible for patients in India and hopefully worldwide.”  “The aim of this research project is to enable effective and affordable production of a scientific and medical technique,” says Dr Sangwan.

 Till recent times, diabetes was treated as an incurable disease, and all medical management was aimed towards keeping the blood sugar under control and preventing related complications. Dr Atul N C Peters, Director of Institute of Bariatric, Metabolic and Minimal Access Surgery, Fortis Hospital says, “The rate at which diabetes and obesity are increasing in India, we are going to be labelled as the Diabetic Capital of the World by 2025. Thus, metabolic surgery aims to cure diabetes and halt related complications, thereby giving new life to millions of Indians in all age groups.” He adds that similarly, people suffering from obstructive sleep apnoea associated with obesity can now look for permanent cure through bariatric surgery. He says, “The use of 3G and telemedicines now enables people to take expert opinion and share their medical problems with experts  all over the world.”

Did you know

 Bizzare connections

While numerous serious subjects are still under consideration, researchers around the world have found bizarre connections between the human anatomy and surrounding environment. For instance, one US professor believes that transplanting gut bacteria is the best way to combat gut infections; and he says anybody’s bacteria can be transplanted for the purpose. In another study, researchers stated that brain stimulation may treat cocaine addiction. During the process of the research, a team in the US trained rats to ‘self-administer’ cocaine by pressing two levers. After several weeks of training, the rats were given a mild foot shock whenever self-administering, causing 70 per cent of them to give up the drug. This study was published in the journal Nature.

Another interesting study suggests that stable breathprints from exhaled breath may have diagnostic applications. According to a research published in the open access journal PO by Renato Zenobi and colleagues from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and the University Hospital, Zurich, attributes like diet, health conditions or exposure to other chemicals may contribute to these individual signatures of breath.

 In another study, scientists have suggested that cell therapy may be the next ‘medicine’.  Synthetic Biology and one of the article’s co-authors in his review outlined his find as the ‘third pillar of medicine’ and said that drugs made from engineered proteins, antibodies and smaller chemicals make it clear that one day, treating patients with cells will become common. He says continued advances in cellular engineering could provide a framework for the development of cellular therapies that are safe and that act predictably.

 Mind, body and soul

While what you so far read was interesting yet very biological, gear up for the next one because it may surprise you. According to David H Rosmarin, PhD, McLean Hospital clinician and instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, belief in God helps improve psychiatric treatment outcomes. The study which looked at 159 patients over a one-year period says patients with “no” or only “slight” belief in God were twice as likely not to respond to treatment than patients with higher levels of belief. “Our work suggests that people with a moderate to high level of belief in a higher power do significantly better in short-term psychiatric treatment than those without, regardless of religious affiliation. Belief was associated with not only improved psychological well-being, but also a decrease in depression and intention to self-harm,” explained Rosmarin in his research re-published in MedIndia.

Another interesting study found that by simply balling up the right hand and squeezing it tightly could help memorise lists with ease. Recalling lists is also easy by clenching the left fist and squeezing it tightly. This movement is thought to stimulate the brain region in charge of memory.  Dr Bhatia says apart from understanding new medical findings, one must also look at the facts that form their basis. These, she says, could sometimes be more bizarre than the most interesting researches. “There are facts that the general public does not know. For instance, a small node in your underarm can be an indication of breast cancer, a careless dirty needle prick can lead to HIV or Hepatitis B&C, a mole on your body which increases with time and changes colour can be cancerous. Or the fact that dry fruits are a great source of zinc and increases immunity is not known to many,” she says.

 Interestingly, these studies are widely followed by urban patients before a health check-up or perhaps just ‘generally’. Ameena Toral, a 25-year-old Mumbai-based teacher, before visiting her dentist for her oral fillings, decided to browse the Net and what she found made her more than happy. “I came across this news about how the consumption of fluoride in drinking water could decrease risk of tooth decay. Given that I had recently purchased a toothpaste with fluoride in it, I think I am on the right track,” she says.  One of the many findings in the dental world has come as bad news for most modern diet lovers. Researchers from the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, the University of Aberdeen (Dept of Archaeology), Scotland, and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge, England, found that there were negative changes in oral bacteria as our diets altered when we moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers. More changes were observed when humans started manufacturing food during Industrial Revolution. The report appeared in Nature Genetics. 

 Commenting on these researches, Dr Peters says, “Such findings are bound to increase life expectancy, make us healthier, decrease morbidity and mortality of life-threatening diseases; making the society healthier, happier.”

 Wacked out

While many researches have been a staple for doctors for years, some are nothing short of wacky.  Researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, US, have made it easy for couch potatoes to say ‘Adios’ to exercise and hello to everything they were already busy not doing. They have discovered a hormone that mimics exercising by increasing the body’s ability to burn fat, theoretically allowing you to get in shape even as you watch Grey’s Anatomy marathons while choking down deep-fried samosas and chocolates. The newly identified hormone, called irisin, causes the body to transform white “bad” fat into brown “good” fat, which generates heat. The result is the same as exercise—burning calories, improving processing of insulin and fulfilling a fat guy’s greasy dream of an exercise pill.

The next pick is probably godsent, at least for most liquor lovers. Researchers have finally developed the ‘hangover cure’. Scientists at the University of California, US, have finally tested what was being used for over 500 years in China. Naming it dihydromyricetin, dubbed DHM, which is derived from the fruit of the oriental raisin tree, not only prevents hangovers but was also shown to be effective at preventing one from getting drunk in the first place. So if you’re planning your next vacation, Korea might be the best destination, given that the drug has already been approved by their Food and Drug Administration and sold since 2008.

 Healthcare and research

The swelling numbers of global medical researches also goes to show the increasing number of healthcare professionals being employed. There has also been a considerable rise in recruitment of healthcare research professionals. In a survey by MyHiringClub.com conducted last year on over 4,450 firms across 12 industry sectors, it was gauged that 2013 will offer 10 lakh-plus jobs in all sectors with healthcare account ing for 1.72 lakh jobs alone. 

 As for India, according to IBEF, it was ranked seventh globally in terms of research and development investments in 2012 and is expected to retain the position, with R&D investments expected to increase to $45.2 billion in 2013 from $38 billion in 2011. Also, Indian companies occupied topmost position globally in terms of growth in R&D investments. In terms of their absolute annual R&D investments, 14 Indian companies made it to the list of top 1,500 entities worldwide, as per a study by the European Commission. Interestingly, India is ranked the world’s sixth most ‘innovative’ country in multinational conglomerate GE’s Annual Global Innovation Barometer.

In all fairness, it seems as though new medical findings are not just laying the foundation of a better world but also reiterating the fact that there is lots to still discover and everyday could bring a new and more bizarre fact to the fore.

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