How to cure blindness, concussions and baldness

What seems like science fiction is now becoming reality

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Mauro Fermariello/Science Photo Library

Mauro Fermariello/Science Photo Library

Ouch, be gone

Doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto have identified two proteins that could form the basis of a test to diagnose male infertility by identifying whether sperm is present in seminal fluid. This would be a drastic improvement over current methods: expensive genetic tests or sperm retrieval procedures and biopsies that require inserting needles into the testicles, which can be uncomfortable and unsuccessful. The new test could be available within two years.

The Arugs II (Second Sight Medical Products, Inc.)

Bionic eyes

Retinitis pigmentosa is a genetic eye disorder that compromises a person’s ability to respond to light, and leads to blindness. For years, researchers have failed to find a cure for the one in 4,000 people affected. But a new device called the Argus II has been approved by the FDA for use in adults, and promises to improve vision. Patients receive a retinal implant that contains 60 electrodes. They wear eyeglasses that have a miniature video camera inside. The camera captures what the patient views, and sends that information wirelessly to the retinal implant. The electrodes stimulate the retina, which moves visual information along the optic nerve to the brain. The result: patterns of light are perceived by the patient. In fact, Argus II allowed people with retinitis pigmentosa to see outlined objects with 41.4 per cent accuracy compared to just 9.4 per cent without it.

Understanding concussions

Among the most frustrating aspects of concussion is the fact that there’s no way of knowing how long symptoms will last. They can range in type and intensity, and some patients, unbeknownst to them, wind up more vulnerable to future concussions. Up to 30 per cent of patients have long-term difficulty with processing information, memory and multi-tasking. Now, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the University of Pittsburgh believe a blood test could identify whether certain individuals have a greater chance of persistent cognitive problems and other brain damage once they resume risky activities such as playing sports or conducting particular military work. They have found that the blood levels of a protein called SNTF were twice as high in some concussion patients on the day they were injured. High levels of SNTF correlated to “significant white matter damage” that showed up on brain scans.

The use of blood tests to determine the severity of a concussion would be an objective measure—currently, doctors rely on a patient’s description of symptoms, as well as neuropsychological and cognitive tests. This can be most challenging when it comes to children, who may not be able to accurately communicate their symptoms, and for whom the long-term consequences of concussion can be especially devastating, socially and academically. That’s why the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and other organizations have invested $7.5 million to help fund 19 research projects on concussions, especially those involving youth.

A better HPV vaccine

For years the efficacy and usefulness of HPV immunization has been debated, in part because the two brands of vaccines on the market each guard against only a few strains of the sexually transmitted virus. But Merck, which makes Gardasil, may launch a new version as early as next year that covers an additional five types, which the company says will account for almost 90 per cent of cases of cervical cancer worldwide. The current vaccine protects against 75 per cent.

Gene therapy for heart failure

A new type of gene therapy for advanced heart failure patients has resulted in lower rates of “clinical events” or medical emergencies, and no negative side effects in a three-year follow-up. A single dose of healthy SERCA2a genes is injected into a patient’s coronary arteries using a catheter. Typically, calcium stays too long in the cells of heart failure patients, and can lead to dangerous effects, including an enlarged heart. This therapy allows the patient to produce SERCA2a enzymes, which enable the heart cells to properly use calcium. The researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, who developed this new gene therapy, say it “blocks the downward spiral of patients with severe heart failure.”

Hair transplant surgery

Hair-raising experience

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center in New York have discovered how to create new hair follicles, which will transform the treatment options available to men and women battling baldness. Until now, patients could only have hairs transplanted, or use medication to slow hair loss or to stimulate existing follicles to grow hair. None of this helped people to achieve more fullness, especially those with naturally sparse hair follicles, or those who couldn’t grow hair because of burn scars. Recently, scientists managed to grow new human hair on mice through a process they hope to replicate in humans soon. They cloned donated human “dermal papilla cells”—which produce hair follicles—in a tissue culture, then transplanted the cells onto a human skin swatch, which was grafted onto mice. Within days, the mice had grown human hair.