Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wonders of Future Medicine

Miracles of modern medicine don't come along very often, and sometimes they come by complete serendipity. But, more often than not these leaps are built on the strong foundation of work that has come before. It is hard to tell what will lead to future innovation, however some discoveries just have the feel that they may have a place in the larger scheme of things.

A few nights ago I was watching an ESPN 30 for 30 on Bo Jackson. I don't really care that much about football or baseball, but it was really well made and I got kind of entranced. If anyone knows the history of Bo Jackson's life they know (spoiler alert) that after a short, but nearly superhuman, career Bo was sidelined by a horrible hip injury that ultimately led to a hip replacement. Bo was a shell of his former self even after this injury, not because of diminished will, but because of the limitations placed on him by his artificial hip. One of the main reasons an artificial hip is not as capable as a genuine one is that there is no structure better to do the job than human bone. This is a problem that researchers working under MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering Markus Buhler may have found a part of the answer to. This discovery is the molecular basis for the durable yet slightly flexible nature of bone. Buhler endeavors to explain how the brittle hydroxyapatite molecule and the soft, elastic collagen molecule come together in a 3d structure that allows the best features of both to come out. The answer that extensive calculations by MIT supercomputers have produced is that the hydroxyapatite is clustered in a large amount of thin, microscopic plates embedded in a collagen network. This allows the hydroxyapatite to stand strong while the collagen absorbs the forces that would break the brittle hydroxyapatite. This discovery could very well be the key in the synthesis of bone like materials that help millions around the world not be hindered by their injuries.

Recently there has been another discovery on a microscopic scale that could have a very far reaching influence. Researchers at Stanford and Case Western Reserve Schools of Medicine have, in similar papers, described how to turn fibroblast derived induced pluriopotent cells into oligodendrocyte precursor cells in mice. What all that means in laments terms is that they have found a way to create myelin, a necessary element in nerve signal conduction, from skin cells. Multiple sclerosis patients have their oligodendrocytes and myelin destroyed in an autoimmune reaction which causes symptoms ranging depression to problems with movement. Further research into this avenue could lead to the most effective treatment yet for MS which is a disease that can have a huge impact on your quality of life.

It is impossible to say whether either of these discoveries will play any role in the long run. Perhaps they will be forgotten or disproved in the near future. But, the fact that there is a chance they may lead to something that will greatly improve the quality of life of millions of people is a good enough reason for me to give them their moment in the sun.

Posted by: Hunter Alexander (1)


  1. I think that these examples of strong biomedical research that could potentially lead to large advances in future treatments illustrates the importance of doing basic scientific research. Your right, it is hard to tell what projects will actually lead to advances in medicine down the road, and many people could use this as an argument to cut down funding for various research projects that don't seem like they will have immediate benefits. However, often you just have to pursue research in a general area, because you never know what you will find. Viagra is in fact a common example of this. Researchers were trying to develop a blood pressure medication, and instead found a cure for ED. Hopefully, with enough time and effort many of the research projects you describe will produce beneficial therapuetics.

    Posted by Sean McDougall

    1. That is a good point, that people argue to cut funding for research on the basis that they can't see short term results. Even in terms of money making, Viagra is a pretty big cash cow. It probably makes more than a lot of blood pressure medications.

  2. It's cool to see the amazing research that is being done in the biomedical field. I hope that these breakthroughs in science can lead to actual help for patients suffering from MS and bone injuries. How did a civil engineer get the idea to try and create artificial bone? Did he create the material without a purpose and recognize the possibilities or did he start out with that as a goal? One of the problems with trying to replicate bone is that bone is so porous and strong. In your body, bone is constantly being reabsorbed and built. Buhler's organic material would probably not be able to match bone in terms of helping an athlete compete at a professional level, but it would have remarkable implications to many others.

    Kaitlin Jones (3)

    1. Yea, the athlete thing was more just an example of how someone can be held back by artificial bones. He did try to perform on the artificial hip, and perhaps if he had the new bone material he may have performed better. Probably not at the level he was before injury, but better.

      Hunter Alexander (1)