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Google Duo Update

Late this past Summer, Google entered into the video messaging space when they launched Duo. In an announcement on the company blog, they highlighted the 1-to-1 video app’s simple design and intuitive interface. One of its primary goals is to provide users with a seamless video chat. To do this, the app will actively adjust call quality depending on available bandwidth. It can also switch between wifi and cellular data so that calls won’t drop when a signal does. Duo can also be used with an Android device to place calls to an iOS device. This lets it compete with FaceTime which is only compatible with Apple products.

Aetna + Apple Watch

Aetna wants to make Apple Watches more accessible, reports CNET. The health insurance provider announced plans to launch a program that will allow partners to provide employees with the smartwatch for a reduced rate, and possibly for no cost at all. The brief report likens this decision to provide the technology to subsidizing gym memberships and activity trackers. The Apple Watch has already drawn some comparisons to popular fitness tracker fitbit, and it makes sense that an insurance provider would like to make it easier to access tools that can help monitor an individual’s health. At their most recent World Wide Developer’s Conference, Apple unveiled an improved HealthKit, a developer’s tool that stores health and wellness information across iOS and watchOS devices.

Cochlear Implants

This week, Science Friday covered a novel approach to cochlear implant optimization.In a healthy ear, sound enters the ear canal and vibrates the eardrum, which affects three small bones, called the middle ear ossicles. The ossicles are connected to the inner ear, which contains the cochlea. The cochlea is filled with conductive fluids and tiny hairs called auditory fibers. When the vibration of sound makes its way through the ear, these nerves are stimulated and send a signal to the brain. In many deaf patients, the auditory nerves are damaged. The signal never gets to the brain, resulting an absence of perception of sound.

Rene Gifford, an audiologist at Vanderbilt, heads a research team that is working to restore that sound with cochlear implants. The implants are inserted into the inner ear, and electrodes act as a substitute for the missing auditory nerves. But the team ran into an interesting problem: it worked too well. Because external stimulation fired all of the electrodes, the brain was overwhelmed in its perception of sound. When you hear things, all auditory fibers aren’t firing— only a select few. In order to “de-muddle” the sound perception, Giffords team deactivating certain electrodes to improve audio clarity. Sisler-Dinwiddie, a pediatric audiologist at Vanderbilt, was one of the first patients to undergo the deactivation, and her word recognition improved by 50%. Now, Gifford and her team are working to improve the auditory perception of children, who “are showing even greater promise than adult [patients]”. Watch the full video feature below.

Fighting Mosquitoes with Mosquitoes

Since 2015, Zika has been a public health concern in most of the Western Hemisphere. But biotech startup MosquitoMate is furthering prevention efforts by attempting to sterilize disease-carrying mosquito populations.

For the past year, researchers have worked on a way to prevent the spread of the virus. The mosquito that transmits the virus, Aedes Aegypti, is more aggressive than other mosquito species. They bite humans both during day and night, and need a minimal amount of water to lay their eggs.

Wired has profiled the MosquitoMate’s experiments with mosquitoes infected with the Wolbachia microbe. While scientists aren’t sure why,  Wolbachia disrupts the reproductive process. When the microbe is present in one or both mating mosquitoes, the resulting eggs are not able to hatch. MosquitoMate is basing their efforts on this research. The lab is infecting the eggs of Aedes Albopictus, a related mosquito that can mate with Aegyptius, with Wolbachia. The insects arethen released into Clovis California, a Zika hotspot. Hundreds of thousands are expected to be released by the end of summer to maximize potential mates for Aegypti females. Once the eggs are laid, they shouldn’t hatch. An upside to these efforts is that the males don’t bite; only females do, to lay their eggs.

The solution sounds straightforward but is still experimental. It’s also difficult to implement nationwide because different states have different processes for getting such a procedure approved. For example, the EPA oversees the procedure in California. The same procedure in Florida, on the other hand, involves more FDA oversight—  which can be slow to approve an experiment like this. The problem is compounded by the fact that Florida is one of the states with the highest Zika-transmission risk.

Bureaucratic hurdles aren’t the only issue MosquitoMate and similar labs face. The community needs to be on board too. Some are suspicious of the procedure, and others find the thousands of new mosquitoes— even though they don’t bite— to be a nuisance. Researchers are hopeful that Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes will reduce the disease-carrying agents, but it is suffering from a negative public perception. To combat this, the lab has been engaging in community education and outreach efforts.

The Biggest Loser?

Earilier this summer, a special report from The New York Times shared several findings published in the journal Obesity that provide insight into health, nutrition, and lifestyle changes. By following up with contestants from the hit NBC reality show The Biggest Loser, a team of researchers from the NIH, Towson University, and the Washington DC VA Medical Center found out why former “losers” struggled mightily to maintain the weight losses they achieved on the show.

One contestant weighed 444 pounds when he was first featured on the primetime program. By the season’s end, he had shed 155 pounds, bringing him to a weight of 289 pounds. Since then, however, he regained 159 pounds, bringing him up to 448 pounds— four pounds heavier than he was before the show began. The article is full of similar examples of weight loss followed by the contestants quickly regaining weight—in fact, 13 of 14 contestants regained weight, and four are now heavier than they were before.

The researchers found that the contestants had a precipitous drop in their Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). The BMR determines how many calories a person burns at rest. In people who lose weight the BMR goes down, and the hope is that it will eventually recover. However for the contestants on The Biggest Loser after the conclusion of the show, their BMR remained low. One contestant had to eat 800 calories less a day to maintain his weight.

However, the show’s doctor, Robert Huizenga, questioned the BMR measurements (which were taken six years later) and said it is difficult for most contestants to find or afford adequate ongoing support from specialists and the time to continue to maintain an active lifestyle. Furthermore, the small sample size and lack of controls limited the power of the findings.

Another reason for the failure of the candidates to maintain their weight loss could be related to levels of the hormone leptin, which is involved in regulating hunger and satiety. By the end of the show the leptin levels of most of the contestants had plummeted and failed to recover, allowing hunger and satiety levels to go unchecked, which could explain the subsequent weight gain.

While obesity is a multifaceted issue, the study points out the difficulty in maintaining one’s weight after dramatic weight loss. Most experts recommend losing no more than two pounds per week. It’s not just so that you can adjust to a healthier lifestyle; it’s so your body can learn how to react to the changes.

Where Do We Stand on GMOs?

A critical review in Biotech is the latest voice in the conversation about GMOs and their place in society. The authors, Alexander Y. Panchina and Alexander I. Tuzhikovab, reanalyzed several studies that claimed “technology-related health concerns” with respect to GMOs. Panchina and Tuzhikovab say the evidence for such a correlation was weak, and that the results have contributed to the public opinion’s misunderstanding of GMOs. Their review aims to place the original results of those studies into the right context.

Several weeks after the review was published online, over 100 Nobel laureates signed an open letter to Greenpeace, an environmental NGO. In their message, they requested that the organization cease its efforts to block the introduction of Golden rice, a GMO strain of rice that scientists believe can reduce vitamin-A deficiencies in developing countries.

Richard Roberts, one of the organizers of the letter campaign, told the Washington Post that Greenpeace took an anti-GMO stance to “scare people” and “to raise money for their cause”. However, he is supportive of some of their other projects.

Greenpeace has responded to the letter by reasserting their claim that Golden rice has not been proven to reduce vitamin-A deficiencies, and that the strain will “pave the way for global approval of other more profitable genetically engineered crops.” Other anti-GMO arguments include the fear that genetically modified crops can “pollute” natural gene pools, and that the health effects of GMO consumption are still largely unknown. In order to address malnutrition, critics of GMOs argue for more diverse diets.

AstraZeneca Building Human Genome Library of 2 Million Sequences

Biopharmaceutical titan AstraZeneca is planning to build a massive database of the human genome. With over two million entries, this genetic library would allow researchers to explore under-researched genes that may be linked to certain diseases. If the project is successful, the database would be the largest of its kind. By comparison, it was only a little more than half a year ago that the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute’s UK10K project was considered the largest human genome database and it only contains 10,000 sequences.

Such an ambitious project comes with an appropriate price to match. While the exact number has yet to be disclosed, reports say that the price reaches well into the nine-digit range. Two million complete human DNA sequences is nothing to scoff at, and the the company is getting them from a variety of sources. AstraZeneca itself is supplying the first quarter, which conveniently come from their own patient trials. Human Longevity Inc., the firm that is doing the sequencing, will be supplying another 26,000. University of Helsinki is also providing AstraZeneca it’s own unique database. Finland has a relatively isolated human population, and AstraZeneca is hoping that they will be able to discover genes present in Finnish people that are absent in others.

UK Study Finds Link Between Stroke and Fiber Intake

A recent study out of the UK has suggested an inverse relationship between dietary fiber consumption and stroke. Specifically, consuming between 18 and 25 grams of fiber will reduce the first instance of stroke by seven percent.

Researchers from the University of Leeds compiled data from a series of stroke-related studies that were published between 1990 and 2012. The find that increased fiber consumption reduced risk for stroke is particularly helpful for individuals who already suffer from risk factors for stroke. Those who are overweight, smokers, or suffering from high blood pressure may want to consider getting more dietary fiber into their diets.

The research news website Futurity suggests that in order to reap the benefits, you should be eating about seven more grams of fiber per day. They arrived at this number because the average amount of dietary fiber consumption in the UK (where the study was published) is about 14g, and the recommended is 18-25g. It goes without saying that how much more fiber you should be consuming is dependent on the individual. For example, if your average dietary fiber intake is only 3g, seven more puts you at 10g— far from where the research says you should be.

While the study is correlational and does not prove the linkage, the health benefits of fiber are well established in other disease processes such as colon cancer and Diabetes, and it seems plausible that there may be a relation here to stroke as well. Take a hard look at your nutrient sources, and seek out ways to boost your fiber intake.

Theranos Updates

The controversy surrounding Theranos has continued well into May, with the resignation of COO and President Sunny Balwani. His exit comes after the SEC and the US attorney in San Francisco opened an investigation into allegations that the laboratory continued to use their patented “Edison” device, despite its known inaccuracy . They were also under pressure to prove the efficacy of the presumably “game changing” technology used in their Edison equipment.

Balwani has been close to the company’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes, and was hired as a top executive despite an absence of experience in science or medicine.

The Wall Street Journal reports that when Theranos employees expressed concern over the legality of the procedure testing process, Balwani reprimanded them. When probed about the reliability (or lack thereof) of their proprietary Edison equipment, Balwani chalked up instances of quality control failure to “the growing pains” that any startup would normally experience.

As Balwani made his exit, Theranos expanded its board by bringing on individuals with more relevant industry background, but the investigation was well underway at that point. Under Federal law, if Holmes and Theranos are found responsible, the lab would be forced to close and Holmes barred from working in blood-testing for no less than two years. Whether or not Theranos will actually face sanctions depends on the outcome of a decision that could be months in the making.

Most recently, Theranos has voided two years’ worth of blood test results, prompting a new problem for the embattled lab— a class action lawsuit.

Also worth noting is Theranos’s deteriorating relationship with Walgreens. The Pharmaceutical company struck a deal with Theranos in 2013, agreeing to bring Edison equipment to 40 of its health centers. However, Walgreens never bothered testing the equipment itself, and now could be held liable for their missteps. However, if sanctions are imposed on Theranos and Walgreens can further distance itself, the pharmacy chain may find itself protected from upcoming legal threats.

Canon Wins Bid for Toshiba’s Medical Unit

Canon recently gained exclusive negotiating rights for Toshiba Corp’s medical equipment after winning a bidding war. Canon’s winning offer was more than $6 billion, an amount significantly higher than initially estimated. According to Nikkei Business Daily, Canon not only won because of its high offer, but also because there’s little overlap between the two companies’ medical equipment business, meaning there are fewer anti-trust issues to worry about. Canon has been attempting to penetrate the high-end medical equipment market ever since the decline of cameras and the respective rise of smartphones. Canon currently makes X-ray machines and eye examination devices and it recently took over Swedish network video surveillance leader Axis.