Boing Boing 

Strange Medicine, by Nathan Belofsky: exclusive excerpt

In Ancient Egypt, doctors applied electric eels to patients with migraines. In the medieval times dentists burned candles into patients’ mouths to kill off those pesky invisible worms gnawing at their teeth.

Read the rest

Abortions do happen in Catholic hospitals - they just aren't called that

The most dangerous time to be a woman in need of a life-saving abortion at a Catholic hospital is right after that hospital has been consolidated into a Catholic system, according the medical demographer Dr. Diana Foster. That's because doctors with more experience in the Catholic system are more likely to secretly offer therapeutic abortions under the table, and get away with it.

Scientific retraction leads millions of testicles to retract into ribcages

From Retraction Watch: The Indian Journal of Surgery has retracted a 2011 paper entitled "Penile Strangulation by Metallic Rings". The reason: The authors apparently self-plagiarized the report from an earlier 2005 paper. Please insert your own jokes here.

Why perform an autopsy on James Gandolfini?

Doctors know he died of a heart attack, right? And he's not actually Tony Soprano, so the chances of someone secretly killing him and making it look like a heart attack are small. So what's the point? Accuracy, says David Dobbs at Nautilus. Research shows that doctors make a lot of mistakes when it comes to assessing death. Fifteen-to-thirty percent of the time, diagnoses of death are incorrect. Five-to-ten percent of the time, that mistake contributed to the patient's death.

Vitamins are medicine, not magic

Just a reminder: Vitamins aren't inert. They actually do things in your body and we don't totally understand yet what all they do, how they do it, and how much extra vitamin supplementation is too much. Meanwhile, the vitamin and supplement industry remains largely unregulated. Most doctors probably wouldn't tell you to stop taking vitamins, but the concerns voiced by Dr. Paul Offit in a story at CNN aren't ridiculous and should help convince you to make sure that you're talking with your doctor about the supplements and vitamins you take, and to be leery of megadosing on any vitamin.

Wireless restoration of sight to the blind (rats)

Stanford researchers developed a retinal prosthesis that wirelessly transmits images from a video camera in a pair of glasses directly to a chip implanted inside the retina tissue. The innovations of lead scientist Daniel Palanker and his colleagues is that their system does away with any cable between the implant and the video eyeglasses, and buries the chip in the sub-retinal layers of the eye instead of on its surface to eliminate a kind of interference. They published their latest breakthroughs in the science journal Nature Communications. From Medical Daily:

In this study, Palanker's team from the Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory placed these second-generation implants into the retinas of rats with or without macular degeneration. The researchers found that the new bionic retinas could transmit images into the minds of rats, which was observed by measuring brain activity in the visual centers of the rodents' brains.
"Solar-Powered Bionic Eye Developed By Stanford Scientist" (Medical Daily)

Restoration of Sight to the Blind: Optoelectronic Retinal Prosthesis (Daniel Palanker)

Anatomical glass sculptures from MRI/CT scans

NewImage

Fine artist Angela Palmer takes CT/MRI scanner of people and animals, engraves the data onto thin glass sheets that are then combined into 3D sculptures. Recently, she's used the same technique to reproduce data from the Kepler telescope too.

"Angela Palmer: Life Lines"

"Kepler: Goldilocks" (NASA)

Why health insurance makes no sense

Two doctors have written a really fascinating analysis of the history and economics of health insurance that will make our current U.S. system seem even more ridonculous than it already did.

Paper anatomical model

Bodyyyy

Papercraft artist Horst Kiechle created an incredible anatomical model, complete with removable organs, and posted all the templates and instructions online for free. "Paper Torso"

How Bugs Bunny saved Mel Blanc's life

In 1961, Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Barney Rubble, and literally a thousand other cartoon characters (see vide above), was in a terrible car crash that put him in a coma. Nothing could rouse him until his surgeon addressed him as Bugs Bunny. Of course, Blanc's response was: "What's up, Doc?" Here's a 2012 short episode of Radiolab where they interview the surgeon, a neuroscientist, and Mel Blanc's son, Noel.

"What's Up, Doc?" (Radiolab)

Eel's glow as a test for human disease

Glowwww

NewImageThe biology behind the green glow of Japanese freshwater eels could lead to new tests for jaundice and liver problems. RIKEN research institute scientists determined that a substance found in bile, bilirubin, is what triggers a protein in the eel, called UnaG (after unagi), to glow. Turns out, the amount of bilirubin in humans is a good indicator of liver health. Using a synthetic version of UnaG, the scientists could measure the bilirubin in a blood sample based on its glow. A similar technique may also aid in the study of tumors. "An eel's glow could illuminate liver disease" (Science News)

Hospitals ignore regulations meant to keep medical costs lower

A new study finds that out-of-network medical bills aren't just high, they're often illegally high — with hospitals ignoring regulations meant to keep you out of debt when you get sick out of state.

When a patient says "no thanks" to surgery

The Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine has a really interesting essay they've published in full online. It's written by Anna Petroni, a 77-year-old California woman who recently decided against undergoing surgery on her ankles and knees to correct recurrent foot abscesses and arthritis. It's a short, simple piece — just Petroni recounting the story about why she made the decision she made — but serves as a jumping-off point, I think, for several different important discussions about the way we do medicine and the way we make medical decisions.

A couple of things particularly stood out to me. First is the relationships we have with doctors, especially specialists whom we see once or twice and who don't know us very well. Petroni's story suggests that bedside manner is about more than just making somebody feel nice — it can also affect their overall health if the doctor makes decisions related only to their specialty without taking into account the patient's whole story. The second thing I think is really important here is the idea of there often not really being one right answer when it comes to medical decisions. Doctors can say, "we can do this" or "we can fix that", but there's a responsibility on the patient (one we're not usually prepared for or coached through) to decide whether the trade-offs of intervention outweigh the side-effects. And those decisions can vary widely from patient to patient.

I guess I was so shocked when the orthopedist told me I needed to have 4 surgical procedures, I didn't even think about the fact that he did not ask about my cardiac history. But I sure did afterward. I only went in to have my tendons checked. He did not ask how I felt about anything. He just told me what needed to be done.

About a month later, I received a call from the receptionist who asked if I had decided on a date for surgery. I said that I had decided not to go ahead with it. When I feel I can no longer tolerate walking without tendon surgery, I will reconsider my options. Until then, I want to live the best I can with what mobility I have.

Read the rest

Image: 20090312 - Clint - foot x-ray - left ("good" foot), a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (2.0) image from clintjcl's photostream

Carl Zimmer's "The Girl Who Turned To Bone"

In The Atlantic, science writer extraordinaire Carl Zimmer wrote a fascinating long article about fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), a rare medical disorder in which the sufferer grows a second skeleton. (Above, the skeleton of FOP-sufferer Harry Raymond Eastlack, on display at the Mütter Museum.) Beyond a tale of medical curiosity, it's a genetic detective story that says a lot about the study of rare diseases. From The Atlantic:
A rare disease is defined as any condition affecting fewer than 200,000 patients in the United States. More than 7,000 such diseases exist, afflicting a total of 25 million to 30 million Americans.

The symptoms of these diseases may differ, but the people who suffer from them share many experiences. Rare diseases frequently go undiagnosed, or misdiagnosed, for years. Once people do find out that they suffer from a rare disease, many discover that medicine cannot help them. Not only is there no drug to prescribe, but in many cases, scientists have little idea of the underlying cause of the disease. And until recently, people with rare diseases had little reason to hope this would change. The medical-research establishment treated them as a lost cause, funneling resources to more-common ailments like cancer and heart disease.

"The Girl Who Turned to Bone"

Do science: The life you save may be your own

One of the people who developed the pacemaker is now 86. And he has a pacemaker.

Poop transplants meet FDA bureaucracy

The good news: Fecal transplants work well enough as a treatment for patients with Clostridium difficile infections that the Food and Drug Administration has decided to take them out of the grey area of legality in which they were previously being performed. Poop transplants for C. difficile will be legal, and the doctors doing the transplants will have to be approved by the FDA, to make sure they're getting the donor poop through safe means and not prescribing poop transplants for things that poop transplants don't help. The bad news: The approval process turns out to be ridiculously arcane and time-consuming — featuring a 30-day waiting period and requirements that are apparently secret.

Has your doctor taken money from drug companies?

Mine hasn't. At least, he hasn't taken money from any of the 15 companies that have been forced to disclose information about gifts and cash they give to doctors. Pro Publica has put that information into an easily searchable database. It's not total transparency — the drug companies whose payouts are included here only represent 47% of the total market — but it's a good place to start if you want to know whether your doctor has any conflicts of interest that could affect your health.

What happens when a drug works — but only for one person?

Really, really intriguing piece at Nature News by Heidi Ledford. It's all about a class of patients called "exceptional responders" — aka, the people who got a benefit (sometimes a big one) from a medication or treatment that otherwise failed the clinical trial process. When we do clinical trials, we're looking at group averages. We want to know whether a drug performed better than placebo when administered to lots of people. Sometimes, though, drugs that can't do that do seem to have a positive effect for a few lucky individuals. Now, scientists are trying to figure out why that is. What makes those people special? And how should this change the way we do research?

Stop homeopathic "vaccines" in Canada

The Canadian government has approved the sale of nosodes — homeopathic alternatives to vaccines. I probably don't have to explain to you all why giving children a sugar pill that works no better than placebo is a bad, bad, bad idea when the diseases you're trying to prevent are things like polio, measles, and rabies. Here's what you can do to help stop this racket.

Strange ways to contract rare diseases

The Body Horrors blog has a new recurring series called Microbial Misadventures — all about times when people met disease-causing microbes under less-than-normal circumstances. It starts with an interesting question: Given the fact that most anthrax infections come from eating tainted meat, how did a vegetarian end up with the disease in 2009? Two-word hint: Drum circle.

Not your great-great-grandfather's consumption

Tuberculosis — aka, the reason everybody in 19th century literature is always coughing up blood, escaping to the countryside for "better air", or dying tragically young — is back. And this time, it's evolved a resistance to antibiotics. In fact, in a handful of cases, tuberculosis has been resistant to every single antibiotic available to treat it. Tom Levenson explains what's happening and why it matters at The New Yorker.

Blog full of fantastic (and often NSFW) medieval illustrations

Here's a 15th century illustration of an English surgical procedure. Fun!

See the full blog — Discarded Image | Discarding Images.

The Lancet: You do, in fact, know something, John Snow

The editors of The Lancet (the long-running British journal of medicine) issued a correction this week for several rude statements and a rather terse obituary that it published in the 1850s. All of these relate to John Snow, the epidemiologist famous for figuring out that cholera was spread by contaminated water. The trouble with this: Snow's evidence-based arguments stepped on the toes of a former Lancet editor who believed strongly that such diseases were caused by bad air — and who had, as a consequence, led an initiative to ban tanners, soap makers, and other smelly professions from the city of London. Snow had testified before Parliament that bad air could not possibly cause disease. A feud ensued.

Snake Oil's secret ingredients

NewImageThere was no actual snake oil in old timey snake oil (except when there was, of course). Rather, most of the lotions and potions sold by early 20th century miracle medicine salesmen actually contained mercury and lead. Now, don't you feel better? University of Detroit Mercy chemists recently analyzed the ingredients of several dozen patent medicine samples from the Henry Ford Museum's collection. From Smithsonian:
Their findings, which they presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Atlanta, were that many of the pills, powders and ointments tested had beneficial ingredients like calcium and zinc—but that others had toxins such as lead, mercury and arsenic.

Back in the day, this was a very trial-and-error kind of field,” (chemist Mark) Benvenuto said in an interview. “The stuff that we think of as dangerous now, though it was dangerous, was as cutting-edge as they had at the time.”

"What’s in Century-Old ‘Snake Oil’ Medicines? Mercury and Lead"

Disease superspreaders and the new coronavirus

Coronavirus — characterized by the halo of protein spikes that surround each individual virus particle — is the family that gave birth to SARS. Today, there's a new coronavirus stalking humans, especially in the Middle East. Scientists have documented 16 infections, and 10 fatalities. The good news is that there are probably lots of non-serious infections that aren't being reported, meaning the fatality rate probably isn't as high as it looks. Also, this coronavirus seems to have trouble spreading from person to person. But, in regards to that last factor, it's important to pay attention to a detail from the SARS outbreak that we still don't totally understand. Turns out, a handful of people were responsible for most of those infections. The Canadian Press' Helen Branswell writes about superspreaders and the scientists trying to understand how individuals can alter the course of an outbreak. (BTW: If you don't follow Helen Branswell on Twitter, you're missing some of the best infectious disease reporting out there.)

The other problem with fake vaccine scares

It's not just that bad information on the "dangers" of vaccines is working to reduce the number of children getting vaccines — a fact that affects herd immunity. Now, there's evidence that the fake scares (and efforts to debunk them) are getting in the way of scientists publishing real evidence about actual problems with certain vaccines. These aren't the kind of broad "vaccines are poison" claims you're familiar with. Instead, we're talking about legitimate science documenting side effects that are usually very rare, but still have an impact on certain subsets of the population and need to be addressed.

Grapefruit + prescription drug = overdose

There are 44 prescription drugs on the market today that should never be combined with grapefruit. That's because the sour fruit (and some other, closely related, kinds of citrus) contain chemical compounds called furanocoumarins that prevent your body from metabolizing certain prescription drugs. Essentially, the grapefruit creates an artificial overdose where one tablet packs the power (and side effects) of 20. The CBC has a full list of the drugs, which includes cancer drugs, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and drugs to treat problems of the urinary tract. Wikipedia has more about why this interaction happens.

What ovarian cancer can teach us about medicine, as a whole

The New York Times has a story on problems with the treatment of ovarian cancer that holds lessons for many aspects of modern medicine. The big issue here: Local doctors, even local specialists, might not have the information necessary to properly treat patients who come in with problems those doctors don't have a lot of experience with. And those doctors don't always refer patients to people with more expertise. In a world with constantly changing information, how do you get that information to the people patients are most in contact with? In a world with more and more evidence available, how do you change traditions in the medical community that apply treatments based on "what my teachers did" and "what I've always done"? Big questions here, not a lot of answers.

From Seizure to Surgery: first-person account of what it's like to have a brain tumor

Jess Hill has published the second part of a three-part series on what it’s like to have a brain tumor diagnosed, then surgically removed. Read: Magical Realism: From Seizure to Surgery. The earlier installment is here.

The trial of a 14th century female doctor

In November 1322, Jakoba (or Jacoba) Felicie stood trial in her native Paris for the crime of practicing medicine without official sanction. Over the course of the trial, it became clear that her work as a doctor had been excellent. But Dr. Felicie was stuck in an unfortunate catch-22. She could not legally work as a doctor without first getting professional training. And she could not get professional training because she was a woman. The ScienceZest blog tells her story.