Nobel, schmobel: those stingy Swedes only give away $1.4 million with their award. The real prize in the academic world is the new Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which has a more boring name but a more exciting check: $3 million, the largest academic prize in the world. So congrats to Johns Hopkins professor of oncology and pathology Bert Vogelstein, who’s one of this year’s winners.
First off, some really thrilling news from the cancer research community at Johns Hopkins: scientists have developed a test that uses Pap test fluid (a routine sample from a normal GYN examination) to screen for ovarian and endometrial cancers with stunningly good results. All the normal caveats are there (we need larger studies, this isn’t absolute proof, etc.), but researchers also note that this test “has the potential to pioneer genomic-based cancer screening tests.” That would mean finding cancer earlier, and treating it earlier — and in a cost-effective way.
In this series, we look at the newest findings coming out of our area’s top research universities. We’ve got some great minds in Baltimore — let’s learn what they’re learning!
Okay, this one is less “research” and more “cool experiment”: what happens to a glass of water in space? Would it freeze? Would it boil? Would it kind of… float there creepily? Well, one cool thing about Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Lab is that they have all sorts of cool equipment with which to simulate space. So if that question is still bothering you (hint: it’s kind of a trick question), just watch the video above to find out what happens.
According to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, 69 percent of lung cancer patients and 81 percent of colorectal cancer patients didn’t understand that their chemotherapy wasn’t likely to cure their cancer. That’s because physicians aren’t forthright enough with their patients, says Johns Hopkins oncologist Thomas Smith. “We do a fair job of communicating to patients that their terminal illness is incurable, but only one-third of doctors tell patients their prognosis at any time during their care.” Smith, who’s also the director of palliative medicine at Hopkins, recommends the ask-tell-ask method: “asking patients what they want to know about their prognosis, telling them what they want to know, and then asking, ‘What do you now understand about your situation?’ ”
Although the central branch of al-Qaida may have been pummeled into submission by strategic assassinations/drone attacks/other methods — only one of the 5000 terrorist attacks in 2011 is attributed to the group — but that hardly means they’re not a danger. The real issue now, according to recent research out of the University of Maryland, is al-Qaida linked groups, like al-Shabaab in Somalia (which killed 70 and injured 42 last year) and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen (110 killed; 45 injured). More than a quarter of 2011’s terrorist attacks happened in Iraq, while the U.S.’s ten attacks amounted to less than .2 percent of global terror attacks.
Stephen Bogart, son of film legends Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, will be in Baltimore tomorrow to tape a movie trailer and public service announcement in partnership with the nonprofit Esophageal Cancer Action Network. Humphrey Bogart lost his life to Esophageal Cancer in 1957. His estate has partnered with Baltimore-based ECAN to increase public awareness about the link between heartburn and cancer.
Science: Sometimes it’s just amazing! After Sherrie Walter, a 42 year-old Bel Air woman suffering from an especially aggressive form of skin cancer, had to get one of her ears surgically removed to stop the spread of the disease, her Johns Hopkins docs figured they might as well build her a new one. Using her own tissue. And then “store” it under the skin on her forearm.
In these posts, we’re usually celebrating the work of scientists and academics at the major local research universities; this week, we’ve decided to shift our focus a bit and look at what’s going on in the world of high school research. Let me guess what you’re thinking: Um, is “high school research scene” even a real thing? As proof positive, we offer up Jack Andraka, a freshman at North County High School in Crownsville, who invented a new method for identifying pancreatic cancer — one that’s much cheaper, faster, and more accurate than the test that’s currently in use.
Andraka came up with the idea for his dip-sensor test last year, and emailed hundreds of local doctors and professors — most of whom completely ignored him, presumably because he was in ninth grade. But Johns Hopkins pathology professor Dr. Anirban Maitra decided to take a risk and let Andraka use his lab. After a few months of tweaking, Andraka perfected a dipstick sensor that tests levels of mesothelin, a pancreatic cancer biomarker, in blood or urine. The test is cheap (3 cents), quick (5 minutes), and effective; officials at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (which Andraka won, natch) said that his method resulted in over 90 percent accuracy. There may even be wider applications for the idea — perhaps detecting lung and ovarian cancer, or testing a person’s resistance to chemotherapy drugs.
Andraka walked away from the Intel competition with the top award and $75,000 worth of prize money. And it seems that brains run in the family — his brother, Luke, won $96,000 in prizes at the same competition two years ago for his project on acid mine drainage’s effects on the environment. “For some reason, we’re not a super-athletic family. We don’t go to much football or baseball,” said the boys’ mother, Jane Andraka (she’s an anesthetist; their father, Steve, is a civil engineer). “Instead we have a million [science] magazines so we sit around the table and talk about how people came up with their ideas and what we would do differently.”
Maitra, Andraka’s mentor, expects big things from him in the future: “Keep that last name in mind. You’re going to read about him a lot in the years to come. What I tell my lab is, ‘Think of Thomas Edison and the light bulb.’ This kid is the Edison of our times. There are going to be a lot of light bulbs coming from him.”
Tyler Bloom doesn’t necessarily have the physique you’d expect from a football player. He stands less than 4 feet tall and weighs less than 50 pounds. Also, he’s five years old.
Tyler’s involvement with the team begins in one of the scariest ways possible. After his parents noticed that Tyler was acting oddly clumsy and walking strangely, they took him to Johns Hopkins Hospital. A CAT scan showed that a tumor was encroaching on the right side of his brain. Bloom was rushed into surgery, where surgeons successfully removed the tumor — but a stroke during the surgery left Tyler paralyzed on the right side of his body. The travails didn’t end there; his particularly aggressive form of brain cancer required 33 doses of radiation in six weeks.
Tyler got involved with the Tigers through an organization called Friends of Jaclyn, which works to improve the lives of children with pediatric brain tumors. Through connecting children and their families with local teams, FOJ hopes to foster new support networks — and also help the team’s members to see the world with new eyes. Towson is one of 100 teams nationwide that’s adopted an honorary team member through the organization.
Even better news: Tyler’s cancer treatments concluded in August, 2011 — and all his scans have come back negative since then.
After a spirited brouhaha of a debate, the Maryland Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would make it illegal for a driver or passenger to smoke in a vehicle containing a child under age eight, according to a story by Michael Dresser in The Baltimore Sun. Senators voted 27 to 19 to send the bill to the House of Delegates, but not before arguing over the proven ills of secondhand smoke versus the rights of adults to be free of government meddling while riding (and lighting up stinkies) in their vehicles. If such a law comes to, well, pass, police officers will have the right to pull over drivers who are puffing away whilst toting tots — smokers who should have known better sworn to pay a $50 fine. Opponents argued in session that the bill’s passage represents a slippery slope toward an absurd Big-Brother-ish level of government control.
“Cheeseburgers are next,” warned Senate Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin, an Upper Shore Republican, according to Dresser’s brief story. “The cheeseburger police will be here and they’re going to be saying that some child shouldn’t be going to McDonald’s after school.”
What if we reprogrammed cancer cells to turn into germ cells? Or create target vaccines that prepare the body to fight against potential cancers? Or look at how cancer cells repair their own DNA, and use that against them?
All these ideas were floated by Johns Hopkins medical and graduate students in the competition for the first-ever John G. Rangos Medal of Honor in Creative Thinking, an award given to the early-stage student-scientist (read: undergrad, graduate or medical student, residents, and fellows) who comes up with the best and most creative way to combat cancer.
Forty-four students entered proposals, and five finalists got to present their ideas in front of a panel of faculty judges. The high-level of competition (and, presumably, stress) led Hopkins doc and cancer researcher Donald Coffey to call it the “Olympics” of research competitions at Hopkins.
…metastatic testicular cancer is largely curable in most patients because immune cells zero in on testicular cancer cells with far more accuracy than they do in other cancers. He proposes that testicular cells are essentially recognized as foreign to the immune system because the testes are protected by the so-called blood-testis barrier, much like the blood-brain barrier. Testicular cancer cells can spread to the rest of the body and may initially go undetected by immune system cells. However, he says he believes that chemotherapy given to patients causes testicular cancer cells to die, releasing many targets for the immune cells. At that time, the immune system kicks into high gear, generating large numbers of circulating immune cells, whose task is to seek the testicular cancer cells and destroy them. He also believes that after chemotherapy, testicular cancer cells essentially may be recognized as foreign by the immune cells because the blood-testis barrier had, until then, kept testicular cells hidden from the immune system.
He proposes further investigations of how the immune system responds to testicular cancer cells to identify specific immune system targets common to testicular cancer as well as other types of cancer. The research could lead to the development of vaccines that prime the body to defend against and fight cancers.