Category Archives: Medicine

Low-cost origami 3D-printing technique could improve bone implants

Scientists at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands have created a new way to print flat structures which self-fold into complex shapes according to a pre-planned sequence. The research has many applications, including the potential to improve bone transplants, the university said.


Essentially a combination of the Japanese paper-folding art of origami and 3D printing, the technique created by Amir Zadpoor and his team of researchers is means of creating shape-shifting constructs without the high costs or manual labour usually associated with this process.

Zadpoor’s team used an Ultimaker, one of the most popular 3D printers, and PLA, the most common printing material available. “At about 17 Euro’s per kilo, it’s dirt cheap”, said Zadpoor. “Nevertheless, we created some of the most complex shape-shifting ever reported with it.” The process is also fully automated and requires no manual labour whatsoever.

Zadpoor’s team achieved this by creating a technique in which they simultaneously printed and stretched the material in certain spots. “The stretching is stored inside the material as a memory”, PhD researcher Teunis van Manen explained. “When heated up, the memory is released and the material wants to go back to its original state.”

The researchers also alternated the thickness and the alignment of the filaments in the material.

“What makes the team’s shape-shifting objects so advanced is the fact that they self-fold according to a pre-planned sequence,” TU Delft wrote about the project.

“If the goal is to create complex shapes, and it is, some parts should fold sooner than others”, Zadpoor explained. “Therefore, we needed to program time delays into the material. This is called sequential shape-shifting.”

This approach marks an important step in the development of better bone implants for two reasons, the researchers explained. Firstly, it makes it possible to create prosthetics with a porous interior which allows a patient’s own stem cells to move into the structure of the implant and attach themselves to the interior surface area, instead of just coating the exterior. This will result in a stronger, more durable implant.

Secondly, with this technique, nanopatterns that guide cell growth can be crafted on the surface of the implant, TU Delft explained.

“We call these ‘instructive surfaces’, because they apply certain forces to the stem cells, prompting them to develop into the cells we want them to be”’, said PhD researcher Shahram Janbaz. “A pillar shape, for instance, may encourage stem cells to become bone cells.”

It is impossible to create such instructive surfaces on the inside of a 3D structure. “This is why we decided we needed to start from a flat surface,” said Zadpoor.

Other applications for the research include printed electronics (“by using this technique, it may be possible to incorporate printed, 2D-electronics into a 3D shape,” Zadpoor said) and flat-pack furniture. “Shape-shifting could definitely turn many of our existing 2D worlds into 3D worlds’, he said. “We are already being contacted by people who are interested in working with it.”


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First party in Japan to back use of medical marijuana



According to a recent Reuters’ article, a minor political party has become the first in Japan to endorse research into and use of medical marijuana.

The party in question is the New Renaissance Party (Shintō Kaikaku), which is headed by defectors from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

“We are proposing lifting the ban on research to see what the truth is,” said Saya Takagi, who will be representing the party in the upcoming upper house parliamentary elections.

“I wish for the earliest possible start of research and the introduction of medical marijuana.”

The medical use of cannabis is already legal in various parts of the world, including Austria, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Finland, Spain, the UK and some US states.

In Japan, however, there are some of the strictest anti-cannabis laws in the world, and this development seems a long way off.

One anonymous health minister said, “Given marijuana is already abused, we need to be truly careful,” adding that, “The World Health Organisation has not acknowledged there are scientific grounds.”

Yet the tides may be turning, given the support that can be found among Japan’s large population of senior citizens, who account for over a quarter of the population.

“Nothing would be better for patients, if it is put to good use,” one 78 year-old cancer sufferer is quoted as saying by Reuters.

“It would be great if pain were eased, even temporarily.””

Another more prominent voice of support has been that of Akie Abe, wife of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, who on several occasions has spoken in favour not only of research into medical marijuana, but also into the use of hemp more generally.

“Hemp is a plant of which all of its parts can be used effectively.” she said in an interview given to Spa magazine in 2015.

“While it is not yet permitted in Japan, I think it can be put into great practical use for medical purposes as well.”

It has been reported that the First Lady’s support for hemp even lead her to buy hemp oil for her husband, who has famously suffered from various health issues.

In 2012, Abe resigned as Prime Minister due to the bowel disease ulcerative colitis.


Source: Reuters


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Japanese scientists discover breakthrough method of creating stem cells in only 30 mins

Hailed a “game changer”, and an “incredible discovery”, the process of transforming blood cells back into their embryonic “stem cell” state merely by bathing them in acidic solution for up to thirty minutes, is so simple that even Haruko Obokata, who made the breakthrough, could not at first believe her own results… 

A stem cell is an undifferentiated cell with the potential to transform into any of the highly specialised cells in the human body. Their potential uses range from cancer treatment to “personalised medicine” where a patient’s own healthy skin or blood cells can be used to repair damaged tissues, such as heart disease or brain injury.

However, until now, stem cells brought about several dilemmas. The traditional method of extracting stem cells from embryos for use in regenerative medicine resulted in the destruction of human embryos and thus, a plethora of ethical concerns.  In 2012, Cambridge University scientist Sir John Gurdon and Japanese colleague Shinya Yamanaka circumvented this problem by working out how to genetically reprogram mature cells to become induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs): a feat which won them the Nobel Prize. However, their work involved introducing four genes that are normally found in pluripotent cells using a harmless virus, which raised questions about the dangers of genetic manipulation and the possibility of genetic mutation potentially causing the formation of cancerous cells.

But now Japanese scientists in collaboration with Charles Vacanti of Harvard Medical School, have found a cheaper, simpler and more effective way to rewind adult cells – without manipulating the DNA and without destroying any living embryo. Simply bathe the cells in a weak acidic solution – stronger than milk and weaker than juice – for up to 30 mins and voila! – they revert to their embroyonic, pluripotent form – free from conditioning, and thus able to be inserted into the body anywhere needed.

Professor Austin Smith of Cambridge University, writing in the journal Nature, where the results were published on Wednesday, said the the new cells could be seen as a ‘blank slate’ from which any cell could emerge depending on its environment.

They have called the technique “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” or STAP. It is so simple it could be done in any lab without the need for special equipment, dramatically reducing expense and opening doors to all kinds of personalised cell regeneration therapies, which could be developed into effective treatments for cancer, as well as many other diseases.

Haruko Obokata began work on the procedure 5 years ago when studying at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. She decided to study the effects of different types of stress upon cells after noticing that, when squeezed through a small tube, they shrank to the size of stem cells.

The breakthrough discovery took place when she and colleagues at the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan  cultivated a gene that glows green in the presence of Oct-4, a protein that is only found in pluripotent cells, within a groups of mice. They then isolated white blood cells called lymphocytes which carried this gene, and exposed them to various strong but fleeting physical and chemical stresses.

One batch of cells was exposed to a “sub-lethal” acidic environment, with a pH of 5.7, for 30 minutes. The team then tried to grow the cells in the lab. Despite having no results on day 1, on day 2, a number of cells began to glow green, meaning they were producing Oct-4. By day 7, two-thirds of the surviving cells showed this pluripotent marker, together with other genetic markers of pluripotency – many of which are also seen in embryonic stem cells.

To make sure these STAP cells were pluripotent, they subjected them to a number of tests, including injecting them into a mouse embryo. Once inserted, the STAP cells seemed to integrate themselves into the structure, and the embryo went on to form the three “germ layers” that eventually give rise to all cell types in the body. The embryos developed into pups that incorporated STAP cells into every tissue in their body. These pups subsequently gave birth to offspring that also contained STAP cells – showing that the cells incorporated themselves into the animal’s sperm or eggs, and were inherited. When inserted into an adult mouse, the cells demonstrated their pluripotency by forming into an embryonic but benign tumour called a teratoma.

Haruko Obokata has said she was “really surprised” at the way the cells reacted to the acid and had a hard time convincing other scientists her results were not a mistake.

Indeed, as the New Scientist reports “the method is striking for its simplicity”. The scientists cannot yet be sure whether the reprogramming is initiated by the low pH or by some other type of stress, such as chemical changes happening further down the line. But they think they are tapping into a fundamental body-repair process and believe other types of “stressful scenarios” would produce similar results.

This could happen in all tissues throughout the body, Vacanti says. “Perhaps injuries like a bump on the arm or a burn cause mature cells to revert back to stem cells.”

With the right environmental cues, these stem cells then specialise into healthy new cells to repair the damage. “We think that the more significant the injury, the further back down the tree these cells revert,” says Vacanti. “It’s mother nature’s repair process.”

The acid-bath process has also been enacted on brain, skin, bone marrow, fat, muscle, lung and liver tissue to varying degrees of success, but success none the less. The same technique is now being tried with human blood cells.

“If it works in man, this could be the game changer that ultimately makes a wide range of cell therapies available using the patient’s own cells as starting material – the age of personalised medicine would have finally arrived,” Professor Chris Mason, an expert in regenerative medicine at University College London said.

While the results are undeniably staggering, there may still be some glitches. Why did a mouse fetus formed of these cells ceased to develop normally half-way through? Indeed, Prof Lovell-Badge of the Medical Research Council  said: “It is going to be a while before the nature of these cells are understood, and whether they might prove to be useful for developing therapies, but the really intriguing thing to discover will be the mechanism underlying how a low pH shock triggers reprogramming – and why it does not happen when we eat lemon or vinegar or drink cola?”

Why not watch  Haruko Obokata talk about her project here:

Sources include: The Independent; New Scientist; BBC News; The Telegraph

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IVF extended to unmarried couples in Japan

The Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology will officially allow common-law couples to undergo in vitro fertilisation treatment, it was announced on Monday.

The JSOG, a nationwide organisation with a membership of approximately 16,000, wrote it’s original voluntary rule on IVF in 1983 when the first in vitro baby was born in Japan. This rule stated that in vitro fertilisation can be carried out on “married husbands and wives who strongly desire to bear children”. This will be changed, according to JSOG official Hideo Aono, by removing the word ‘married’ from the rule.
This change comes on the back of several landmark rulings by Japan’s Supreme Court. Last September a clause in the Civic Code denying inheritance rights to children born to unmarried parents was deemed unconstitutional. More recently in December, although the decision was far from unanimous, for the first time the Supreme Court ruled that a male transsexual should be legally recognised as the father of his child, regardless of the fact that his wife’s IVF treatment had been performed with sperm from another person.

IVF treatment is not currently covered by medical insurance, but there are currently subsidies available to married couples who have a combined income of less than ¥7.3 million (approx. $70,000 or over £40,000). Some have speculated that the change to the JSOG rule may prompt the health minister to consider extending these subsidies for treatment to common-law couples.

Yet common-law couples seeking IVF treatment are not the only ones who will benefit from the change to the JSOG rule. The change will also help physicians. Under the previous voluntary rule, privacy issues made it difficult for doctors to verify the marital status of couples, as it has not been mandatory for applicants to submit their family registers. It is thought that the new wording of the voluntary rule will ease this situation.


Sources include: The Japan Times

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Angelina Jolie and the Supreme Court: can genes be patented?

On Thursday, the US Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling regarding the ability of private companies to patent and own DNA. The Supreme Court held that DNA was “inherently naturally occurring” and therefore fell outside the parameters of US patent laws. Yet the applicant, Myriad Genetic Inc, did have a partial victory. The Supreme Court, led in this case by the Conservative Justice Scalia, held that synthetically created DNA so-called “cDNA” can be subject to patent applications. The logic of this legal distinction is difficult to follow. We know that most patent applications come from major pharmaceutical corporations seeking to patent a particular prescriptive medication for general use. The elements in these medications are, in the main, what Justice Scalia would call “naturally occurring” as they are, for the most part, natural chemical compounds found in our natural environment. So should they, if we follow Justice Scalia’s supposed logic, be subject to patent laws? Arguably not.

Yet many refuse to believe that the reasoning in this case is by any means the real motive for this decision, nor is it the motive for allowing circumspect patent laws in the first place. For example: most industrialised nations permit major pharmaceutical corporations to patent medication for a limited period of time. Why is this? The motive is very simple. Pharmaceutical companies plough vast sums of money into research and development; indeed many medications never even reach the open market. So in order to encourage this cycle we allow companies to patent their designs for limited periods of time. But why limit the patent period at all? In effect it is simple pragmatism. While we wish to reward companies who have successfully developed a product we do not wish to grant them a monopoly over a particular discovery or indeed over an emerging medical industry. Hence, after a certain period of time, generic manufactures will be permitted to manufacture the medication previously under patent.

This same logic underlines the Supreme Court’s decision in this case. Myriad Genetics, a Utah based medical research and screening company, attempted to patent two genes linked to a higher likelihood of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad carries out tests for BRCA genes, recently brought into the public eye when actor Angelina Jolie revealed she had a double mastectomy after learning she tested positive for one of the genes.

If the patent over the DNA itself had been successful, it would have given Myriad an effective monopoly upon ovarian and breast cancer screening in the United States. Why? Because the patents allowed Myriad, which sells the only BRCA gene test, to set the cost and other parameters of tests, making it very difficult for women to access alternate tests or get a comprehensive second opinion about their results.

Yet the decision to permit Myriad to patent certain ancillary methods of screening via so-called “cDNA” gives the company some hope for the future.  As Dr Penny Gilbert, a partner at UK law firm PowellGilbert and expert in life sciences, explains: “It was by all accounts a pragmatic, compromise decision.” “It’s not as bad as had been anticipated by the biotech industry, because it is clear you can have patents for cloned genes in certain circumstances” Gilbert said. “Modern methods of cloning genes will still be patentable.”

Yet the Supreme Court’s decision should be welcomed by ordinary women as it has made the cost of screening much less prohibitive. Myriad, at the outset of the case, sold the only BRCA gene test in the United States, costing just over $3,000. Not long after the ruling, DNA Traits, a clinical laboratory of Gene By Gene Ltd., said it would offer the same BRCA gene test for $995 – less than one-third of Myriad’s price.

The Supreme Court ruling, coupled with Angelina Jolie’s decision to go public with her own screening and her subsequent double mastectomy, is good news for cancer suffers and activists in the United States.

Sources include Japan Times and the Guardian.


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Nursing home robots to be debuted in Japan for care of the elderly

The Japanese government has unveiled plans to provide substantial financial assistance to certain companies in Japan which develop robots for nursing homes at low cost. The government is seeking to combat the important challenges posed by Japan’s large population of elderly people, as well as boosting the country’s economic growth, and is looking to support the development of robots with specific functions that will allow them to assist with specific nursing care tasks, assisting the elderly in their day-to-day activities and relieving the workload for busy nursing home workers.

According to the government, the development plan will focus initially on four main types of robots, each designed to carry out a specific care function. The first care robot is equipped with a motor which allows it to aid in lifting and moving wheelchair- or bed-bound patients, saving nurses and carers valuable physical strength. The second is a robot which will assist elderly patients, or other patients who have difficulty walking, to walk independently. The third robot is a portable, self-cleaning toilet, the introduction of which will make it easier for the elderly to use the toilet, as it can be relocated to wherever it is needed. The fourth and final care robot will be a robot which monitors the location of patients with Alzheimers and dementia, a kind of ‘tracking system’ for patients at risk of getting lost.

The Japanese government is hoping to revise nursing care insurance to include the use of these four robots. From the start of this fiscal year, the government is expected to provide a substantial amount of funding to firms which would develop these nursing care robots, contributing up to 50-60 per cent of the research and development costs involved. These robots will be a far cry from the human-esque, high-tech nursing robots which can cost an average of £130,000 (20 million yen), and indeed the robots envisaged by the Japanese government will lie around the £700 mark, so as to be able to mass-produce the robots for commercial use.

The need for robotic assistance in nursing and care homes is further highlighted by startling statistics provided by the Japanese Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry. A recent report claimed that Japan is in dire need of care workers, falling some 700,000 short of the target number of workers in 2010, with an expected shortage of 4 million workers by 2025. With low-cost robotic assistance introduced into care homes, it is hoped that this deficit may be levelled somewhat, by reducing the burden borne by current care workers.

Sources include The Japan Daily Press, Tokyo Times


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Japanese pharmaceutical companies form partnership to combat infectious diseases in developing countries

Five Japan-based pharmaceutical companies have announced that they will be forming a partnership programme which will target the treatment of infectious diseases in developing countries.

The public-private partnership will be comprised of Takeda, Astellas, Daiichi-Sankyo, Eisai and Shionogi, along with support from the Japanese government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and will be dedicated to the development of vaccines, medicines and diagnostic tools for lesser economically developed countries.

Known as the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund scheme (GHIT), the partnership, which is a first in Japanese healthcare, follows in the same vein as other public-private healthcare models that have been established across Europe. Such models include the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), which supports research into specific high-priority areas in the global medicine research industry, such as resistance to antibiotics. GHIT will see collaboration between drugmakers, universities and research institutions, as they focus their research into HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) such as hookworm infection, schistosomiasis, and trachoma.

The GHIT Fund chair and science adviser to the Japanese government, Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, said that GHIT’s priority is to provide fast and impactful research with the spirit of collaboration, and “make tangible the kinds of contribution in innovation” that they feel Japan should be known for. GHIT’s work forms part of Japan’s growth strategies for the country, and hopes to leverage the individual strengths of each pharmaceutical company involved in order to make the most progressive advancements for developing countries.

Eisai, one of the five Japanese pharmaceutical participating organisations, issued a statement, which said that the company believes the scheme will “lead to further global public-private partnerships focused on the development of new drugs and contribute to global health through advances made in new health technologies in Japan.”

Sources include The Japan Daily Press,


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