Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Childhood Tumors: How PET/CT Scans Can Help

When patients are evaluated for a possible tumor, the types of scans they hear about most often are CT (computerized tomography) scans and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans. CT scanning is an advanced imaging technique that uses x-rays and computer technology to produce more clear and detailed pictures than a traditional x-ray. MRI scans produce extremely detailed pictures of the inside of the body by using very powerful magnets and computer technology.

CT scans and MRI scans are known as structural scans because they provide important information about the structure of the body. However, these scans do not provide information about how the area that is pictured actually functions.

There are other types of scans known as functional imaging scans which do provide this important information about function. One such imaging technique is known as a PET scan. A PET scan involves injecting the patient with a small radioactive chemical and being placed in a machine that detects and records energy given off by the substance. The computer translates the energy into 3D pictures which provides information about how cells in the body are functioning because normal cells react differently to the chemical than healthy cells. One type of chemical injected is known as FDG (fluorodeoxyglucose), which is a type of radioactive glucose. When a PET scan uses this substance, it is known as FDG PET.

One problem with functional imaging scans is that they do not provide good information about structure. This problem is solved by combining PET scan data with CT scan data, so that functional imaging data can be superimposed on structural imaging scans. When PET and CT scan data are combined, this is known as PET/CT and can be used to scan the entire body.

In the current issue of the American Journal of Roentgenology, researchers in Toronto, Canada, examined whether FDG PET/CT could reliably differentiate malignant (cancerous) tumors from benign (non-cancerous) tumors in 21 children (13 girls, 8 boys). Tumors are abnormal masses of tissue that form when cells in a certain area of the body reproduce at an increased rate.

The question of whether FDG PET/CT can do this is important because by itself, FDG accumulation can occur in benign masses as well as malignant masses during PET scans. To solve this problem, measuring cell uptake of FDG at two time points (instead of one) is performed, which is known as dual-time imaging. The reason this is done is because FDG is absorbed differently over time in benign and malignant processes. Essentially, malignant lesions will show an increase in FDG uptake (absorption) over time whereas benign areas will remain stable. The uptake of FDG glucose is known as the standardized uptake value (SUV).

In the study reference above, scan 1 was performed 60 minutes after FDG injection. Scan 2 was performed about 2 hours after the first scan. In children with malignant disease, the results showed that the average SUV increased from 7.3 to 10.9 between the two time points. In children with benign masses, the average SUV changed from 4.5 to 4.2 between the two time points. The researchers concluded that dual time point FDG/PET CT is useful in distinguishing malignant disease from benign processes in pediatric patients.

Suggested reading: Happily Hungry: Smart Recipes for Kids with Cancer

Related blog entry: Ovarian Tumors in Children: They Happen

Reference: Costantini DL, Vali R, Chan J, McQuattie S, Charron M. (2013). Dual-Time-Point FDG PET/CT for the Evaluation of Pediatric Tumors. AJR Am J Roentgenol. Feb;200(2):408-13

Monday, February 04, 2013

Chronic Pain: Know the Causes and Risks

All of us have experienced pain of some form in our lives; whether it was the slight bruises of childhood or a stomach ache, we know the feeling. But chronic pain is a slow eater that most of us are unaware of. Unlike the temporary/acute form of pain, chronic pain can be devastating and life changing.

Chronic pain does not attack anyone in a certain age group or in a specific medical condition. It can become a liability on anyone. Untreated pain (and other untreated symptoms) can grow into a fierce form of chronic pain that can put a lot to risk.

Any physical trauma ranging from an injury to an illness can become a chronic nuisance if not treated on time. Chronic pain is any pain that lasts for months or years, and does not necessarily remind one of an untreated medical condition. The pain can be experienced in two situations: after treating an injury e.g. arm pain after treatment of an arm fracture, or due to some uncured (or probably unidentified) illness. The latter form is rather alarming and beckons for immediate attention.

Chronic pain must be probed immediately for its cause, as it can be associated to serious conditions like arthritis or cancer. In some cases, the pain might not have any origin at all; it could be a chronic muscular pain.

The most common cause is an injury that took place in an accident or even something like carpal tunnel. No matter what the case, the pain can be excruciating and majorly affect the person’s lifestyle.

In all instances, the pain must never go untreated. Immediately consult a medical facility to get advice from pain management doctors and chronic pain experts. You will be given advice on how to control the chronic pain, and eliminate it completely. Just how the pain takes months to become a permanent pest in your body, it will take some time to go away.

Treatment of chronic pain is not very effortless; apart from pain-relieving medication you will need to alter your lifestyle to make it healthier. Doctors suggest exercises, yoga, meditation, balanced diets and even acupuncture for pain treatments. A healthy lifestyle will help the body stay in shape, and combat the causes of pain more efficiently.

Those suffering from chronic pain also suffer from emotional distress, anxiety, insomnia, and even immobility. The pain can greatly affect a person’s quality of life and morale, causing long-term depression to seep in and create further problems. In more severe cases, patients might need to consult an emotional therapist in order to come back to normal life.

Untreated pain can have severe physical and emotional consequences. Never leave a pain treatment for tomorrow; you never know what might be causing the pain in the first place. In most cases, it is the non-drug treatments and lifestyle improvement that make the most difference. Treat pain before it becomes chronic and almost invincible; the sooner the better!

The above post is a guest blog post.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

A New Technique to Treat Foot Infections in Diabetes

Diabetes mellitus is a complex, chronic disorder in which the body is not able to effectively use a natural chemical called insulin. Insulin's main job is to quickly absorb glucose (a type of sugar) from the blood into cells for their energy needs and into the fat and liver cells for storage.

Because of this, high sugar levels can occur in people with diabetes which can damage the body. For example, people with diabetes are more prone to infections because high levels of sugar in the blood make it more difficult for the body to fight against infections.

One common area where infections are likely to occur in diabetes is the feet. This is because the accumulation of sugar can damage nerve fibers in the feet, causes decreased sensation, and poor blood circulation. This makes the feet more prone to ulcers (open sores), infection, and eventually gangrene (tissue death due to poor blood supply or infection of a wound). In the worst case scenario, this can lead to amputation of the foot or feet to prevent a more widespread and potentially deadly bodily infection.

When diabetic foot complications arise, they can be difficult to manage and treat because people with diabetes often have other medical diagnoses (e.g., kidney problems, heart problems) that make it more difficult to maintain adequate levels of antibiotic medication at the site of infection without causing harmful effects (e.g., organ damage) on the body as a whole. This can lead to ineffective treatment.

As a result of this problem, new methods are needed to deliver targeted antibiotics to the infected limb for extended periods while limiting harmful effects on the rest of the body. In the current issue of the American Journal of Translational Research, researchers reported success for the first time with a new non-surgical technique designed to accomplish exactly that and the hope is that this can be applied to humans, particularly those with diabetic foot infections.

In the study, the hind limb of 11 sheep was treated with an antibiotic named Gentamicin using one of two methods. The first method was standard intravenous administration to 6 sheep, as would typically occur in a hospital. The second method was a technique known as a percutaneous recirculation circuit. As the name implies, this technique involves establishing a circuit of blood supply by inserting a catheter (flexible plastic tube) in the femoral vein (large vein in the leg) and femoral artery (large artery in the leg). An artery carries blood away from the heart, whereas a vein carries blood to the heart.

The system caught the venous return of blood via the catheter, re-oxygenated it with a special device known as a membrane oxygenator, and returned it to the femoral artery with a special pump called a roller pump. In this way, when medication was administered via this system, it was kept more localized to the hind limb.

To test how much Gentamicin was in the hind limb, tissue samples of the back limb were taken, which included bone, skeletal muscle, and synovial (joint) fluid 30 to 60 minutes after the medication was administered. After the 60-minute point, the animals were euthanized and samples of the liver, kidney, and lung were taken to determine how much Gentamicin was present.

The results of the study showed that there was a significantly greater amount of Gentamicin in the bone, skeletal muscle, and joint fluid of those receiving Gentamicin via the circuit method versus compared to the standard intravenous method.  In fact, there was 10 times the amount of Gentamicin found in the joint fluid, which the authors stated could serve as a reservoir for longer effectiveness. With the circuit system, there was a non-significant amount of Gentamicin found in the liver, lung, and kidney. The difference in antibiotic levels in these organs was not significantly different between the two groups but there was a trend for less antibiotic levels in these organs with the circuit method.

The authors concluded that the circuit method is a safe and effective non-surgical method to deliver a greater amount of antibiotic to the affected limb without causing greater harm to the rest of the body. The authors stated that this method may be directly useful for patients with diabetes who are at high risk of tissue or limb loss due to infections that are otherwise non-responsive to treatment.

Suggested reading: The End of Diabetes: The Eat to Live Plan to Prevent and Reverse Diabetes

Reference: Byrne, M., Idrizi, R., Power, J., Kaye, D. (2013). Percutaneous re-circulating isolated limb perfusion of gentamicin in a large animal model: targeted delivery of gentamicin to limb. Am J Transl Res, 5(1):47-52

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Is Your Drinking Water Contaminated by Utility Poles?

These days, many people purchase bottled spring water, bottled filtered water, and/or have their own water filtration system attached to their faucet. This is partly due to improved taste perceptions but is also often due to fears of water contamination. While public water is usually safe to drink there are always exceptions. The risks are increased with private well water.

In the most recent issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers described two scenarios of private drinking water being contaminated from utility poles treated with pentachlorophenol (PCP). PCP is a chemical that is used as a wood preservative to coat utility poles in the U.S. This helps utility poles last for 35 years as opposed to 7 years when untreated. PCP is also used as a pesticide and disinfectant and is also used as a wood coating for railroad ties.

PCP is known to be highly toxic and can degrade slowly in the environment (taking up to 5 years depending on the bacteria present in the soil). It can cause harm to the body by short-term exposure to high levels or from long-term exposure to low levels. PCP can damage multiple organs and body systems such as the brain, kidneys, and liver. It can also poison the blood and is known to be carcinogenic (cancer causing).

In the U.S., PCP levels in the water supply must be measured by water companies and disclosed to the public if it exceeds a certain level (0.001 milligrams per liter). A milligram is one thousandth of a gram so only a very small amount of PCP is allowed in water.

In the study in the American Journal of Public Health, two scenarios in Vermont were described in which private drinking water was contaminated by PCP from utility poles. Specifically, two people called the Vermont Health Department due to chemical-like (e.g., gasoline smell) smell in their drinking water, one from a shallow dug well and another from a private spring. In the first case, the cause was determined to be a utility pole coated with PCP that was likely in contact with the water table. In the second case, the cause was three new utility poles placed by a private spring. Both people were advised to avoid contact with the water.

When the water was tested, the PCP level was 2.06 milligrams per liter in the first case (2000 times the accepted level) and 0.007 milligrams per liter in the second case. In both cases, the utility company replaced the PCP poles with non-treated cedar poles. In the first case, a new well was dug. In the second case, a filtration system was put in place. The water then tested negative for PCP in each case.

Interestingly, the authors note that environmental regulations do not apply to PCP treated poles. For example, while the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate the sale and use of pesticides, there is an exemption if pesticides are used as a protective treatment. The authors recommended better utility pole placement guidelines (e.g., not near wells), using non-treated poles, cement/metal poles, or less toxic wood treatments, and removing legal exemptions for utility poles.

Suggested reading: The Drinking Water Book: How to Eliminate Harmful Toxins from Your Water

Reference: Karlsson L, Cragin L, Center G, Giguere C, Comstock J, Boccuzzo L, Sumner A. Am J Public Health. (2013). Pentachlorophenol Contamination of Private Drinking Water From Treated Utility Poles. 103(2):276-277.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Preventing Post-Partum Depression in Adolescent Mothers

Post-partum depression (PPD) is a type of depressive disorder that occurs in a parent after childbirth, although it usually occurs in the mother. It is a fairly common problem, with prevalence rates estimated to be as high as 25%.

Signs and symptoms include but are not limited to frequent crying, sadness, irritability, anxiety, social avoidance, tiredness, sleep disturbance, appetite changes, disinterest in the infant, and fear of being left alone with the infant.

PPD onset occurs within 4 weeks after childbirth but usually begins about two weeks after childbirth. The depression typically lasts between several months and 12 months.The cause of PPD is not well understood, although several possible causes in mothers include hormonal changes, vitamin deficiency, lifestyle changes, or a response to inadequate social support. However, there are contradictory studies supporting and refuting some of these hypotheses.

There are numerous treatments available for PPD which include medication, psychological counseling (individual and/or group), dietary changes, and behavioral changes (e.g., improved sleep routine). However, the ideal situation is to prevent PPD from occurring in the first place. Presently, methods of preventing PPD include educating pregnant women about the risks of PPD, proper exercise, and a nutritious diet.

In an upcoming study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, researchers in Rhode Island reported on the results of a randomized controlled trial to study the effectiveness of a psychological intervention to prevent postpartum depression in adolescent mothers (13 to 17 years old at time of conception) who were pregnant for the first time.

There were 106 mothers in the study. Subjects were not included if they had prior treatment for a mental health disorder or current evidence of an emotional disorder, substance abuse, or psychosis (disengagement from reality). In terms of race, 53% of mothers were Hispanic, 17% were black, and 16% were white.

Of the 106 mothers, 54 were randomly assigned to a new intervention program and 52 (the control group) were assigned to a standard educational program. The new intervention program was known as REACH (Relaxation, Encouragement, Appreciation, Communication, and Helpfulness) and is specifically geared towards adolescents.

REACH is based in a type of therapy known as interpersonal therapy. As such, the program teaches communication strategies to better manage conflicts before and after delivery, how to manage stress, education about motherhood and depression, how to develop a healthy social support system and relationships, how to set realistic goals, and educating the mother about psychosocial resources. All mothers (in the REACH group) and the control group, were provided with the book Baby Basics: Your Month By Month Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy. However, the control group was not provided with access to the material from the REACH program.

The programs took place before delivery of the infant. Each program took place once a week for five weeks with the session length being 30 to 60 minutes. The mothers were monitored at 6 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months after delivery to monitor for depression. The overall results showed that mothers receiving the REACH intervention had half the rate of depression (12.5%) than mothers receiving the non-REACH control program (25%), supporting the usefulness of the REACH intervention.

Suggested reading: Postpartum Depression For Dummies

Related blog entries: Anti-depressants in Pregnancy: What are the Risks?

Reference: Phipps MG, Raker CA, Ware CF, Zlotnick C. (2013, in press). Randomized controlled trial to prevent postpartum depression in adolescent mothers. Am J Obstet Gynecol.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Klinefelter Syndrome: An Underdiagnosed Genetic Disorder

Each person has 23 pairs of chromosomes (46 in total). One of each pair of chromosomes is inherited from the mother and one of each pair is inherited from the father. The 23rd pair of chromosomes is involved in determining gender. The 23rd pair of chromosomes consist of X and/or Y chromosomes.

As the names imply, an X chromosome is shaped like an X, whereas a Y chromosome is shaped like a Y. If a person has two X chromosomes, the person will develop as a female. If a person has an X and a Y chromosome, the person will develop as a male.

In Klinefelter syndrome, the male has at least one extra X chromosome which is why it is known as XXY syndrome or 47,XXY (since there are 47 chromosomes). Because of the extra X chromosome, Klinefelter patients can present with more feminine features such as less hair on the face, armpits, and groin and less masculine features such as small testes which makes it the most common genetic cause of infertility. Many Klinefelter patients tend to be tall with abnormal body proportions. The more X chromosomes present, the more of these abnormal bodily features for males tend to be present.

Klinefelter syndrome is believed to be present in 1 out of every 500 to 1000 male births. While some patients with Klinefelter syndrome show some of signs noted above, the only way to definitely diagnose the condition is by genetic testing.

Klinefelter syndrome is incurable. It is treated with testosterone supplementation at birth (if identified then), which can help normalize body proportions and yield more body hair but it does not treat infertility. Psychological counseling is sometimes used to treat depression and anxiety that results from feeling different. Early identification of Klinefelter syndrome can also help better understand the learning difficulties known to occur in the condition, which typically involves decreased verbal abilities.

In a recent article published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics Part C (Seminars in Medical Genetics), researchers in Denmark published age specific recommendations for medical management in four ranges: ages 0-2, ages 3-10, puberty, and adulthood summarized in a helpful and easy to use table. It is particularly important for health care providers to be more aware of Klinefelter syndrome and these age specific treatment recommendations because as the researchers note, the condition is highly undiagnosed (75% undetected) with only 10% of cases diagnosed before puberty. Typically, Klinefelter syndrome is diagnosed in adulthood during evaluations for infertility. This is troubling because as noted previously, early detection and treatment can improve the lives of these patients.

Suggested reading: Living with Klinefelter Syndrome
Reference: Aksglaede L, Link K, Giwercman A, Jørgensen N, Skakkebaek NE, Juul A.(2013). 47,XXY Klinefelter syndrome: Clinical characteristics and age-specific recommendations for medical management. Am J Med Genet C Semin Med Genet.163(1):55-63

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Not? The Shocking Results

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a broad term which refers to birth defects in the fetus caused by high maternal levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. A fetus is a developing human that is inside the mother from the end of the 8th week to birth. There are numerous FASD subtypes, the most common of which is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

FAS, which was first described in 1968, is a pattern of mental and physical deficits that involves specific facial abnormalities (e.g., small eye openings, thin upper lip), growth failure, and is the leading cause of mental retardation in the Western world. For patients who do not meet full criteria for FAS (e.g., have slight facial abnormalities, normal growth) a diagnosis of partial FAS can be given. Some use the terms fetal alcohol effects, alcohol-related birth defects, and alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder but each have been sources of controversy.

Diagnosis of FASD relies on clinical coding system criteria but there are no objective biomarkers (e.g., blood test results, imaging findings) to confirm the diagnosis. As a result, the condition can be over-diagnosed.
Children presenting with signs of FASD are sometimes referred for genetic testing during the course of a diagnostic evaluation to determine is there may be another explanation for the patient’s presentation although this is not routinely done. In a recent article in the American Journal of Medical Genetics: Part A, researchers from The Netherlands evaluated 27 children referred to a genetics department between 2005 and 2010 who were suspected of having FASD. The results may surprise you.

First, when the researchers applied the most widely used coding systems for FASD based on clinical criteria (e.g., facial abnormalities, growth abnormalities), they found that more than half of the children did not meet criteria for FASD. Even more interesting is that 30% of the children appeared not to have confirmed prenatal alcohol exposure. Two of these children were found to have abnormal microstructural rearrangements of chromosomes (structures that contain genes). Genetic testing also found that in 92% of children had factors other than prenatal alcohol exposure that could have affected their intellectual functioning, such as social deprivation and intellectual disabilities inherited from family members.

The lesson from this study is that things are not always as they seem and that clinicians need to think critically when evaluated cases of suspected FASD. This includes referral for genetic testing.

Suggested reading: A Mother's Story of Raising a Child with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Reference: Abdelmalik N, van Haelst M, Mancini G, Schrander-Stumpel C, Marcus-Soekarman D, Hennekam R, Cobben JM. (2013). Diagnostic outcomes of 27 children referred by pediatricians to a genetics clinic in the Netherlands with suspicion of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Am J Med Genet A. 161(2):254-60.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Uses and Applications for Stem Cell Research

Stem cell research and development has been around for a little while now, but it is still surrounded with controversies. In spite of these battles however, research has managed to make a number of advancements and discoveries that can benefit people like nothing else available.

Although the controversy may never completely go away, it is helpful for people to know more about and understand how stem cell research is done, and what it can do for people and the medical community.

What Is a Stem Cell and How Can It Be Used?

According to the Mayo Clinic stem cells are the “raw material” or cells our bodies are made of and they are where all other “cells with specialized functions are generated.” So much of what makes these cells valuable and controversial is that they can be divided to make more cells. This can help people with certain diseases or injuries by creating new and healthy cells for someone’s blood, brain, heart muscle, and bones.

Traditional Stem Cell Harvesting

Typically the stem cells are harvested from the inner cell mass of a growing embryo. When this inner mass is removed, the embryo is no longer viable and is destroyed. The traditional harvesting method is commonly referred to as somatic cell nuclear transfer. In this process a nucleus is removed from a somatic cell and placed into a donor egg that has had its center removed leaving it to act like a fertilized egg that divides into new cells. One of the ethical dilemmas in this procedure is that this egg could potentially grow and form into a human being.

What is Going on with Research Right Now?

A lot of the controversy over stem cell research is how the scientists harvest or recover the cells because the ones that are most valuable are embryonic cells that have to come from newly formed embryos that are less than a week old. Recently however there is new technology developing to help called Altered Nuclear Transfer which is supposed to allow for stem cells to be removed without having to destroy the embryo. In ANT an embryo is not actually created but instead the nucleus of the somatic cell is altered through genetic reprogramming so that the cell DNA produces stem cells but no embryo.

Benefits from Stem Cell Research

As researchers have been diligent in their stem cell research and used applications like custom antibody production to identify, separate, and examine proteins as well as sorting and classifying cells they have been able to find a number of huge benefits in using stem cells. Just a few conditions that healthy stems cells can help with are:

•         Transplant needs
•         Parkinson’s
•         Type I diabetes
•         Arthritis
•         Burn victims
•         Cardiovascular diseases
•         Alzheimer’s
•         Birth defects
•         Spinal cord injuries
•         Help fight cancer
•         Stroke victims

The healthy stem cells help to replace or repair damaged cells that are causing the patients’ health problems and can allow for restorative treatments and cures.

The Future of Stem Cells

Susan Solomon, the co-founder of the New York Stem Cell Foundation refers to stem cells as the “black boxes for diseases”. Aware of the controversy over embryonic cells, she is excited about pluripotent stem cells now being created. These are skin cells altered for use, which could cut down on or even eliminate the need for embryonic stem cells.

Stem cell research and application has come a long way. But it is clear that with all of the good it has done, there is still a long road ahead.

The above post is a guest blog entry.

Suggested reading:  The Stem Cell Hope: How Stem Cell Medicine Can Change Our Lives

Monday, January 28, 2013

Understand Prescriptions and Their Costs

Living in the decade you do, you are lucky to be able to utilize the science and technology around you. One of the areas where science has greatly advanced is in prescription medications.

Because of these advancements individuals can take medication for things that years ago could have done serious harm or even killed them. Now there are medications that can help your heart, your love life, pain and inflammation, and even medicine that has helped change people’s outlook for diseases like AIDS and HIV.

Moldy Bread Saved the World

Antibiotics were one of the biggest game changers in modern medicine. Since Alexander Flemming’s discovery bacterial infections like the mumps, measles, and common cold that were once killers throughout society, are all but history. Zithromax has become a top antibiotic to give to people for respiratory infections, skin infections, STD’s and so much more. It is a popular antibiotic to give because it has convenient and easy dosing, and it has relatively little side effects. The average cost for this medication is $44.

Helping High Cholesterol

Lipitor has been a leading drug in the fight against high cholesterol for a number of years now. It was ranked number 7 on Forbes’ The Most Popular Prescription Drugs, and totals around 51.5 million prescribed users. However it also cost people an average of $136 a month and can be a reason why scientists need to continue to look for more options in battling cholesterol.

Treating Anxiety

Alprazolam, or sometimes known as Xanax, is one of the more common drugs to help people who suffer from anxiety. This mood stabilizer has been popular since the late 1980s and is regularly prescribed to about 44.4 million people a month. The average cost a user pays is about $70.

Expensive Prescriptions

A struggle people have today with prescription medication is that although science has given us amazing medicines, there can be big price tags to go with them. A few are:

•  Folotyn- Cancer drug: $320,000 a year.

•  Elaprase- Fights Hunter syndrome: $375,000 a year.

•  Soliris- Treats paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria: $400,000 a year.

Why High Drug Costs?

One reason why prescription costs are so high is because of expensive pharmaceuticals. There are people who have rare diseases that need medication that can run up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. There are even more people who need drugs to fight conditions like cancer and multiple sclerosis that can cost $50,000-100,000 per person a year. Also, there is no regulation is the US for prescription drug prices.

How Can People Afford Medication?

It is imperative that doctors and scientists continue to do research and look for cures. Just like with the discovery of antibiotics there may be serious diseases around today that can be eradicated tomorrow. In the meantime people can participate in money saving prescription plans like the Big Apple Rx, which is free and available to anyone who lives in New York City. You simply print out the card and use it for discounts when you go to purchase your medication. According to news sources this program alone save Brooklyn residents $295,000 and overall city residents overall $3 million.

Modern medicine is certainly something to be thankful for, but we’re not ready to rest yet. There is still plenty of work to do on cures, advancements, and more cost effective treatments. However, cities and independent businesses are helping with prescription savings plans and people are finding ways to get their medication safely and affordably. Knowing your options can help you as a consumer too.

The above entry is a guest blog entry.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Autism and Schizophrenia: Shared Genetics?

Autism (autistic disorder) is a type of neurodevelopmental disorder that causes impairments in social interaction, impairments in communication, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.

The onset of autism is always prior to three years of age. Schizophrenia is a neurologically based mental disorder in which one loses contact with reality, experiences abnormal thinking, and has poor emotional responsiveness. The onset of schizophrenia is typically in the late teens to mid 30s.

Unlike autism, schizophrenia does not have an onset prior to age three. In fact, even onset of schizophrenia during adolescence is rare. If schizophrenia does present in childhood/adolescence, it presents after years of normal or near normal development (assuming no other condition is present). It is possible for someone with autism to later develop schizophrenia and some studies (not all) have shown that autism increases the risk for schizophrenia.

Unlike schizophrenia, autism does not present with prominent delusions of hallucinations. A hallucination is a strong sensory perception that one has of an object or event while awake, when no such object or event exists. A delusion is a persistent false belief that is strongly held despite clear evidence that the belief is actually false.

Despite their obvious differences, autism and schizophrenia share some common features. This includes disturbances in language, affect (the outward way a person shows feelings/emotions), and problems relating socially to others. Both conditions are also known to be associated with rare structural genetic abnormalities. These abnormalities are usually copy number variations (CNVs) which mean that a cell has an abnormal number of copies of one or more section of DNA (an abbreviation for deoxyribonucleic acid). DNA is a chain of many connected genes. Genes contain coded instructions for how proteins should be constructed and how certain bodily characteristics should develop. There are many different forms of genes. Each form is known as an allele. Some alleles are normal and others are abnormal. Abnormal alleles can cause diseases.

The above commonalities have led some to question whether autism and schizophrenia have shared genetic abnormalities. Researchers in the American Journal of Medical Genetics: Neuropsychiatric Genetics recently published a study that examined this issue. The study involved analyzing the genes of 2,737 people with autism spectrum disorders (autism and closely related conditions) and 3,332 Europeans with schizophrenia. The authors examined whether autism and schizophrenia shared alleles in common (known as common risk alleles). The results of the study showed that there was no important sharing of common risk alleles between autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia.

Suggested Reading: Autism: A Practical Guide for Parents

Reference: Vorstman JA, Anney RJ, Derks EM, Gallagher L, Gill M, de Jonge MV, van Engeland H, Kahn RS, Ophoff RA; the Autism Genome Project, the International Schizophrenia Consortium. (2013). No evidence that common genetic risk variation is shared between schizophrenia and autism. Am J Med Genet B Neuropsychiatr Genet. 162(1):55-60.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Colonoscopy Prep Made Easy: A New Cleanser

Many people who have gone through a colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer will tell you that the worst part is not the procedure itself (since you are asleep during it) but the preparation. The colon is the major part of the large intestine. In a colonoscopy, a flexible viewing scope is placed inside of the colon to examine for abnormalities, some of which can be removed with other devices during the procedure.

For colonoscopy to be effective, the colon must be properly cleansed of feces. The standard way that this is done is by not eating the day before, consuming clear liquids, and drinking a large amount (2 to 4 liters) of an intestinal cleanser which causes diarrhea throughout the day. The worst part of the cleanser is often described as the consistency and the taste because it is quite salty and somewhat thick. These cleansers typically contain a chemical substance known as polyethylene glycol (PEG) that forms the basis of a laxative.

Many people simply cannot stomach these cleansers, vomit or gag while drinking it, and thus do not comply with its use. This can result in the procedure being cancelled or a less thorough exam. Worst of all, hearing stories about this can result in people deciding not to go for a colonoscopy at all (or not to return for one in the future) and thus not detecting and removing pre-cancerous masses. This is a problem, considering that 50,000 people died from colorectal cancer in the U.S. in 2011. Thus, a better option for intestinal cleansing is needed.

In a recent development, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved a newer and alternative intestinal cleaning solution for colonoscopy preparation known as Prepopik. In scientific literature, it is sometimes referred to as P/MC because it contains sodium picosulfate and magnesium citrate, both of which work as laxatives, the former by stimulating intestine movement (peristalsis) and the latter by causing water absorption. This is why P/MC is referred to as a dual action cleanser. It is fascinating that it took so long for this to be approved in the U.S. since similar cleansers have been used for about 40 years throughout the world with established safety, effectiveness, and tolerability.

In an upcoming article in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers summarized the results of a head to head comparison between the new intestinal cleanser (P/MC) and the standard cleanser (2 liters of PEG-3350, natural orange flavor) combined with two 5 milligram bisacodyl tablets (another type of laxative). The study involved randomly assigning 603 adults (ages 18 to 80) to one type of intestinal cleanser or the other. The results of the study showed that the new cleaner (P/MC) was just as effective as a cleanser and that patients rated it as significantly more tolerable and acceptable.

These results are great news because no longer will people need to drink 2 liters (67 ounces) of PEG-based cleansers. With Prepopik, you consume only 10 ounces of prep followed by 64 ounces of an approved clear liquid on a more flexible timing schedule. If you are going for a colonoscopy in the future, you can ask your doctor about Prepopik.

Suggested reading:  American Cancer Society's Complete Guide to Colorectal Cancer

Related blog entry: Liver Transplants Increase Survival Rate for Non-Resectable Colorectal Metastases

Reference: Katz PO, Rex DK, Epstein M, Grandhi NK, Vanner S, Hookey LC, Alderfer V, Joseph RE. (2013, in press). Am J Gastroenterol. A Dual-Action, Low-Volume Bowel Cleanser Administered the Day Before Colonoscopy: Results From the SEE CLEAR II Study.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Non-Fried Fish Reduces Risk of Pancreatic Cancer

Cancer of the pancreas (aka pancreatic cancer) is the fourth most common type of cancer in the U.S. Cancer is any of a large group of malignant diseases characterized by an abnormal, uncontrolled growth of new cells in one of the body organs or tissues. The pancreas is a long organ behind the stomach that produces several types of hormones and helps digest food with pancreatic juices that contains enzymes.

Unlike some type of cancers (e.g., lung cancer) there are no established guidelines for how to specifically prevent pancreatic cancer. This is unfortunate given the poor prognosis that this disease typically has. There is some evidence that vitamin B can reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer when consumed in food, but not when consumed in vitamin tablet form. Some fish, such as tuna and trout, are high in B vitamins. Fish is also high in a type of “good fat” known as long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs). LC-PUFAs are types of “good fat” because they have many positive health benefits such as supporting normal growth, supporting the immune system, and improving brain and heart health. They may also be beneficial against cancer due to their anti-inflammatory properties (inflammation plays an important role in cancer development).

While fish intake has never been associated with decreased or increased pancreatic cancer risk, the association between types of fish and fish preparation methods and pancreatic cancer is unknown. In an upcoming research article published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers from Indiana University presented the results of a study that analyzed this topic in more detail. It was a very large study, involving 66,616 adults ages 50-76 years. Subjects were followed-up for an average of 6.8 years and during that time, 151 people developed pancreatic cancer.

The researchers found (via questionnaire) that a lower incidence of pancreatic cancer was associated with non-fried (e.g., broiled, baked) fish and LC-PUFAs. Of note, frying fish significantly reduced LC-PUFAs. There are different types of LC-PUFAs and the researchers found that the association between lower pancreatic cancer and LC-PUFAs was greater for docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) than for eicosapentaenoic acid. The authors noted that this may be because DHA is better at reducing inflammation because it is more readily incorporated into tissues.

Consumption of fried fish and shellfish (e.g., shrimp, lobster, crab, oysters) was not shown to help decrease pancreatic cancer. The authors noted that chemical byproducts from frying foods may contribute to the development of pancreatic cancer and that combining non-fried fish with fried fish or shellfish would likely decrease the benefits of eating non-fried fish regarding pancreatic cancer incidence.

Suggested reading: 100 Questions & Answers About Pancreatic Cancer, 2nd ed

Reference: He K, Xun P, Brasky TM, Gammon MD, Stevens J, White E. (2013). Types of Fish Consumed and Fish Preparation Methods in Relation to Pancreatic Cancer Incidence: The VITAL Cohort Study. Am J Epidemiol. 177(2):152-60.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Are You Prepared For Your Child's Potential Health Emergency?

If you think you are protecting your child by simply knowing the 911 digits and having 24/7 access to a phone, then you are not doing enough. Helping your child in a potential health emergency requires you to take immediate action as well; so are you prepared to face a bad day without waiting for the emergency team to arrive?

If you answered no for the above question, it is time for you to learn some important first aid techniques. Our children are our most prized assets, and anything coming in the way of their health is unwelcomed.

You never know when your child would knock over a boiling teapot on themselves, cut their hand, or even have an unforeseen seizure. Be equipped with the essential information needed in such a situation; here are some pointers to remember:

Call the Health Helpline

It is not good to rely solely on the emergency medical teams, but you cannot help your child without professional consultation either. In case of an emergency, your first step should be to call a medical agency like Md Aligne Telehealth Services. If you are busy looking after your child, instruct someone else to do so. Always keep phone numbers of unswerving emergency teams handy, you might never know when the need to dial them arises.

Help Reduce Fear

Calm everyone down in the house, including the child. Panic is your worst enemy in such a situation. Relax, and think what needs to be done foremost. If you are in a state of alarm, you might give your child incorrect medical aid. For example, some burns require you to hold them under running water, whereas others need to be covered under a blanket (depending on the degree and nature of the burn); you might give the wrong treatment under panic.

Know How to Handle Most Situations

This is very important; you must know how to deal with multiple emergency situations including seizures, broken limbs, burns, head injuries, and fainting. Your child might start choking during dinner, or get hurt during playtime. Every parent must know how to handle such emergencies.

Stock your First Aid kits with all the necessary items. Antiseptic ointments, wiping medical towels, bandages, sterilized cotton, instant cold packs, disposable gloves, and aspirin are the basics every household must have. Keep a stock of medicines that are anti-diarrhea, anti-histamines, anti-allergic, anti-burn, and even strong instant pain relievers. Have a first aid manual that tells you about the correct dosages of these medicines.

Note that most First Aid items are for limiting the spread of infection; it is important not to trigger any further infections while you are helping the child. When you are treating wounds, clean them with antiseptic first.

Millions of children receive medical aid every day; you never know when it is your child’s turn. Having someone at home with sound knowledge of first aid emergencies is crucial. The actions taken during the first few minutes of an emergency are most important; ensure that these actions are in your favor!

The above entry is a guest blog entry.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Who Uses the Emergency Room Most? The Answers May Surprise You

There is a stereotype that the most frequent users of emergency rooms (ERs) are those who do not have health insurance and/or who present for non-urgent reasons. While the uninsured do use the ER often, the best way to determine who uses it the most and why is to do a formal research study on the topic.

In an upcoming article in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, researchers presented the results of such a study.

In the study, frequent use of the ER was defined as 9 or more visits in a one year period. This represented the top 1% of ER use. The researchers administered questionnaires to adults in this group. Of note, patients excluded were those who presented to the ER intoxicated, with altered mental status, or acute (sudden) psychosis (detachment from reality).

Over a one year period from 2009 to 2010, the researchers identified 115 frequent ER users. Twenty three percent had a psychiatric condition (usually presenting for suicidal thoughts). The average patient presented to the ER 22 times. The average age was 44. Regarding gender, 57% were male and 47% were female. Regarding education, 44% had a high school education or GED, 43% had less than a high school education, and 11% had a college education. Lower educational level was not correlated with higher ER use. Regarding race, 92% were black, 11% were white, and 1% were Hispanic.

In terms of annual income, 69% earned less than $10,000 a year. Only 5% earned more than $40,000 a year. Patients used the ER more frequently if they had lower income, transportation problems, problems with shelter, and high prescription costs (32% could not afford prescriptions). Twenty-seven percent reported being unable to afford a clinic visit. Seventy-eight percent reported having adequate health insurance whereas 22% did not. The number of ER visits between insured and uninsured patients was comparable.

Seventy-five percent of patients had one or more chronic medical conditions and identified the ER as the primary place they went for health care. Of the ER users, 63% were admitted to the hospital and 50% were admitted more than once. The most frequent reason for admission was end stage renal disease. Four hundred and sixty hospital admissions were for medical reasons and 22 were for psychiatric reasons.

In terms of the most frequent medical diagnoses, 59% had high blood pressure, 19% had congestive heart failure, 19% had diabetes mellitus, 16% had end stage renal (kidney disease), 12% had coronary artery disease, and 9% had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Congestive heart failure is an imbalance in the pumping action of the heart that causes inadequate blood circulation. In diabetes mellitus, the body is not able to effectively use a natural chemical called insulin, which quickly absorbs glucose (a type of sugar) from the blood into cells for their energy needs and into the fat and liver cells for storage. Coronary artery disease is a narrowing of coronary arteries, which are blood vessels that supply the heart with blood. COPD is a general term for diseases that are characterized by long-term or permanent narrowing of small airways (known as bronchi) connected to the lungs.

The authors noted that their findings echoed prior studies that found that the most frequent ER users have some form of health insurance and access to a primary care provider, but used the ER as their primary source of health care despite such access. The authors noted that it is plausible that the primary health care providers may not be able to meet the needs of these patients which is why they go to the ER. The authors noted that future studies should examine if a medical home may be a better place for these patients to meet their needs to ease the strain on the ER. A medical home (or patient-centered medical home) is a team-centered health care system led by a medical doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant to provide comprehensive and continuous health care. At present, there are not many medical homes in the U.S.

Suggested reading: Confessions of Emergency Room Doctors

Related blog entry: Decreased Child ER Visits after LA Lakers Title Games

Reference: Miller JB, Brauer E, Rao H, Wickenheiser K, Dev S, Omino R, Stokes-Buzzelli S. (2013). The most frequent ED patients carry insurance and a significant burden of disease. Am J Emerg Med. 31(1):16-9.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Endometriosis 101: A Primer

Endometriosis is a condition in which the tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus (endometrium) is found outside the uterus. This condition, which affects up to 10% of reproductive-age women, is described in detail on MedFriendly.com, which you can access by clicking the previous link. An updated review on endometriosis was recently published in the journal, American Family Physician. In the review, the authors noted that endometriosis occurs in 25 to 40% of women with pelvic pain and 70 to 90% of women who are infertile (not able to reproduce).

While some women with endometriosis do not have symptoms, it can be associated with symptoms such as severe pelvic pain, painful menstruation, and pain during intercourse. While patients with endometriosis may initially present to their family practitioner, a referral to a gynecologist typically occurs, especially if the woman remains infertile and has persisting symptoms.

Diagnosis of endometriosis is based on a medical doctor evaluating the patient’s signs and symptoms and can be aided by a biopsy, in which a tissue sample is removed and analyzed under a microscope.

Initial treatment often included medications to reduce inflammation. Birth control medications are also used that effect levels of progestins and/or estrogen levels. These are both types of hormones. Estrogen is believed to promote endometriosis, which is why use of medications that lower estrogen levels can be used to manage the condition. Progestins thin the uterine lining and suppress the natural cycle of the ovary, the latter of which interferes with the menstrual cycle. The authors of the review article noted that there is some evidence that these medications can be helpful and have few side effects.

There are other treatments for endometriosis such as gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists (GnRH). These medications produce a massive increase in GnRH which overwhelms the body and causes the ovaries it to shut down estrogen production. Another treatment is Danazol, which also reduces estrogen levels and shuts down the estrogen cycle. Surgery is another option, which involves removal of the endometrial tissue. The authors of the review noted that these interventions may control symptoms better than initial treatments but that they can have significant side effects and limits on how long the therapy can last.

For more detailed information on endometriosis discussed in this blog entry, please see the MedFriendly entry on endometrosis and/or the article below. Also, feel free to leave your comments regarding personal experiences with endometriosis in the comment section below.

Suggested reading: 100 Questions & Answers About Endometriosis

Reference: Schrager S, Falleroni J, Edgoose J. (2013). Evaluation and treatment of endometriosis. Am Fam Physician. 87(2):107-13.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Aquariums for the Treatment of Dementia (Alzheimer’s) in Nursing Homes

Dementia is a disorder characterized by a significant loss of intellectual and cognitive abilities without impairment of perception or consciousness. There are many different cause of dementia such as severe traumatic brain injury, stroke, and progressive neurological disorders.

Of the progressive types of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in the elderly. Dementia is very common (>50% prevalence) in people living in nursing homes.

There are many signs of symptoms of dementia such as memory loss, language impairment, emotional blunting, decreased energy, and weight loss due to poor nutritional intake. Weight loss leads to many problems in patients with dementia, particularly those with advanced forms of the disease. For example, because the person has less muscle mass, they are more prone to falls and injuries that can result for this such as bone breaks. Due to decreased mobility, weight loss can also increase the risk for pressure sores (skin ulcers), pneumonia, and other health problems. Decreased food intake also results in costly waste of food for uneaten prepared meals.

As a result, interventions are needed to help increase weight in people with dementia. While there are medications designed to increase appetite, they have had mixed results and can lead to numerous side effects including sedation, blood clots, and edema (swelling). Encouraging eating by staff has also produced mixed results and is a costly intervention in nursing homes due to the one on one attention it requires.

To address this issue, researchers from Purdue University studied whether individuals with dementia who observed aquariums increased food intake and maintained body weight. The study involved 70 residents in three extended care facilities in two states. A large aquarium (30 x 20 inch viewing area) was placed in the common dining area of both facilities. Each aquarium had 8 large colorful fish that were quick swimmers. The study found that aquarium placement was associated with a 25% increase in food intake over the 10-week study period. This amounted to an average 2.2 pound weight gain during the study. Eight of the 70 residents (11%) experienced weight loss during the study. A benefit of this intervention is that there are no side effects.

The authors stated that attraction to the natural environment (especially animals) is so innate that it survives dementia. Watching aquariums has been associated with decreased stress, less blood pressure, and increased satisfaction in other studies. It is possible that increased satisfaction and mental stimulation from observing the aquariums leads to increased food intake.

Suggested reading: The 36-Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for People Who Have Alzheimer Disease, Related Dementias, and Memory Loss

Reference: Edwards NE, Beck AM. (2013). The Influence of Aquariums on Weight in Individuals With Dementia. Alzheimer Dis Assoc Disord, in press.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

CPAP for Sleep Apnea: Is it Worth It?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a disorder in which a person does not breathe for periods of time while sleeping due to the presence of an upper airway obstruction. It is believed that one in five American adults have at least a mild sleep apnea. It is common in people who are obese. There are numerous treatment options for OSA, one of the most common of which is CPAP.

CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. It involves placing a mask over the face that blows pressurized air into the airway to keep it open. The mask is attached to a tube and machine.

Typically, sleep studies can provide objective evidence that CPAP is beneficial to the individual by studying them on certain parameters (e.g., oxygen saturation levels) with and without CPAP. Although CPAP can be beneficial, there can be many disadvantages to using the device as described below.

Recently, researchers conducted a study to evaluate the experiences of 15 obese CPAP users via semi-structured interview. The researchers found three common experiences. One theme was being restricted in everyday life. This included consequences on social life (e.g., disruption of bed partners, embarrassment when traveling, difficulty bringing it when travelling, and marks on the face that remained the next day (also causing embarrassment). There were also difficulties noted maintaining some bed routines (e.g., reading in bed before falling asleep).

A second them was coming to terms with wearing CPAP. This was largely due to physical discomfort such as difficulty fitting the mask on, a dry nose sometimes leading to nose bleeds, difficulty using it during a cold, discomfort from the mask or straps, and air leakage. Coming to terms with using CPAP also had to do with difficulties caring for the equipment, getting used to using it, learning how to use it, dealing with the noise of the machine, adhering to use of it each night, and spousal disruption/acceptance. Only 1 of the 15 people interviewed got used to using the machine quickly. However, despite the initial difficulties, participants eventually integrated CPAP into their lives and felt it was worth the trouble.

A third theme was that despite the problems noted above, using CPAP helped the participants get a new life. Specifically, they reported sleeping better, feeling more alert, and having more energy to do things, improved social life, and an improved sense of well-being. The authors noted that incentives were important to support the use of CPAP due to the many disadvantages in brings.

Suggested reading: Sleep Apnea and CPAP - A User's Manual By a User
Reference: Willman, M., et al. (2012). Experiences with CPAP treatment in patients with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome and obesity. Advances in Physiotherapy, 14: 166–174

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Diabetes Treatment and Management

Despite extensive research, numerous medications that have come to market, and continued scientific advances, a cure for diabetes has yet to be found. However, there are numerous medications and forms of management equipment for diabetes and the future brings great hope for continued progress in the search for a cure.

Bringing new medications and disease managing equipment to market can be slowed by barriers within the pharmaceutical company industry. In addition, the FDA has a whole host of rules, regulations and legal barriers that slow down the research, creation and commercialization of cures. However, the American Diabetes Association is hoping to encourage research with their “Pathway to Stop Diabetes” program.

There has been research done that speculates that type 1 diabetes may be reversed by a tuberculosis vaccine. The vaccine is called bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) and it stimulates production of a protein that kills insulin-attacking cells, according to a study published in PLOS One Journal. The study showed that 2 out of 3 patients given the BCG injection had signs of renewed insulin production. They are now planning on a larger study pending on funding.

No one knows what cures the future will bring. In the meantime, sufferers of diabetes type 1 and type 2 should continue maintenance treatments. The difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes is how the body produces insulin. In type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin. In type 2 diabetes, the body produces insulin, but it either does not produce enough or it does not utilize it properly. Untreated diabetes can lead to serious conditions such as heart disease, stroke, loss of limbs, and damage to the nerves, eyes or kidneys. A cure for this serious condition would help so many sufferers.

Blood sugar is monitored usually by a finger stick and a portable machine which you can learn more about at http://www.dexcom.com. Such a device will read your glucose levels, indicating how much—if any—insulin is required. Patients should monitor their blood sugar levels at the same time every day for consistency.
Medication treatments include insulin injections or pumps and prescription medications. Common prescriptions include Metformin, Glipizide and Glimepiride.

Lifestyle and knowledge are important factors in treating and maintaining diabetes. Do your research. Be committed to maintaining your diabetes in hopes of a cure someday. Many suffers are overweight. Losing weight helps your body in many facets, including utilizing blood sugar. Eat a diet full of fruits, veggies, whole grains and limit bad fats such as saturated and trans fats. Some professionals recommend the Glycemic Index (GI) diet, which monitors carbohydrate-rich foods by how fast the body turns them into blood sugar versus the “no sugar” diet. Regular exercise is also extremely important. Aim for 30 minutes a day of aerobic exercise. 

You also want to keep up to date with eye and foot examinations, as these can be problem areas for diabetes sufferers. The sooner a problem is detected, the better.

The above entry is a guest blog entry.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Stomach Bug/Flu in Children: What Works & What Doesn’t

You know of it as the stomach bug or the stomach flu (even though it is technically not related to the actual flu). Medical doctors refer to it as gastroenteritis because it involves inflammation (which is what “itis” means in Greek) of the stomach (gastro) and small intestines (entero). The small intestine is the part of the intestine that takes in all of the nutrients the body needs.

Regardless of what you call this condition, it is not something you want to have. Common signs and symptoms include diarrhea, stomach pain, stomach cramps, and vomiting.  It is a common reason for visits to the doctor, urgent care centers, and emergency rooms.

The stomach bug can occur in adults but it is very common in children. When it occurs in children, it is usually caused by a virus known as rotavirus.  By age five, nearly every child in the world has been infected by rotavirus at least once.

In a new review study published in Europe, researchers presented a summary of the best evidence for treatment of acute gastroenteritis in children. The authors found that oral rehydration (drinking fluids by mouth) is central to treatment.  Specific hypotonic solutions (composed of salt, sugar, and water) are used for this rehydration.  Although effective, oral rehydration is not always used because it does not decrease the amount of bowel movements, does not decrease the length of the illness, and the liquid is not something children enjoy due to the strong salty taste. There are continuing efforts to improve the taste and effectiveness of these liquids for children.

The authors found that the anti-diarrhea medication, Racecadotril  (acetorphan) can be an effective additional treatment along with oral rehydration. The authors also noted that a natural clay known as smectite can be an effective additional treatment to oral rehydration. However, neither smectite nor Racecadotril are available for use in the U.S.

When oral rehydration is not feasible, another option is nasogastric rehydration. In this technique, fluid is directed to the stomach through a tube placed in the nose that connects it to the stomach. This technique is sometimes used over a 24 hour period but newer evidence shows that doing this rapidly over 4 hours is also effective. The authors found that nasogastric hydration can be an effective or better than intravenous hydration, which is when a needle is inserted through the vein and liquid enters the body.  For cases of intravenous hydration, evidence on the amount of fluid to administer was not consistent. The authors considered 20 ml/kg to be appropriate, which is standard intravenous rehydration.

Medications used to stop vomiting are known as anti-emetics. A common medicine used for this purpose is Ondansetron (Zofran). The authors noted that this medication does reduce vomiting in young children with the stomach bug but that there was no evidence that other medications were useful for this purpose. It was noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends heart monitoring in patients receiving Zofran who have potential electrolyte abnormalities (which someone with the stomach bug would) because it can lead to abnormal and potentially deadly heart rhythms. Electrolytes are chemical substances that are able to conduct electricity after they are melted or dissolved in water.

The authors reported on one European study that did not show that the element, zinc, was useful in treating gastroenteritis. Lastly, the authors found that some probiotics are helpful in managing diarrhea gastroenteritis. Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide health benefits to the host. Specific probiotics found to be helpful were Lactobacillus GG and S. boulardii but that others may prove helpful in the future as well as synbiotics. Synbiotics are combinations of probiotics and prebiotics. Prebiotics are undigestible food ingredients that promote growth and/or activity in the digestive system in ways claimed to be beneficial to health.

Suggested reading: Viral Gastroenteritis

Related blog entry: Preventing Rotavirus with Vaccines: Do They Work?

Reference: Pieścik-Lech M, Shamir R, Guarino A, Szajewska H. (2013). Review article: the management of acute gastroenteritis in children. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 37(3): 289-303.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ovarian Cancer: Treatment with Avastin

Ovarian cancer is a serious disease diagnosed in over 20,000 women a year in the U.S. alone. Cancer is any of a large group of malignant diseases characterized by an abnormal, uncontrolled growth of new cells in one of the body organs or tissues. As the name suggests, ovarian cancer is cancer of the ovaries. The ovaries are a pair of glands that contain the eggs (female reproductive cells) and produce female hormones. Hormones are natural chemicals produced by the body and released into the blood that have a specific effect on tissues in the body.

Signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer are usually absent or subtle in the early stages of the disease, which is why it often goes undetected initially. Signs and symptoms typically include bloating, increased fluid in the abdomen area, pain in the abdomen, pelvis, or back, a mass in the abdomen, difficulty eating, weight loss, urinary difficulties, constipation, fatigue, and abnormal bleeding from the female reproductive area. Because the condition can go undiagnosed for so long, when the disease is detected in later stages, the prognosis is usually poor.

Treatment of ovarian cancer usually involves chemotherapy medication after surgery. There are many different chemotherapy options and combinations for women with ovarian cancer, which largely depends on the tumor type (when analyzed microscopically). One such chemotherapy medication is Bevacizumab (trade name Avastin). Avastin is known as an angiogenesis inhibitor, which means that it slows the growth of new blood vessels. This is important because tumors (cancerous masses) are highly dependent on blood vessel formation.

Avastin was first made commercially available for the treatment of colorectal cancer in 2004. At the time of this writing, Avastin is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat additional cancers but is not yet approved to treat ovarian cancer in the U.S. However, Avastin is approved for ovarian cancer treatment in Europe.

Several clinical trials have been conducted in the U.S. to explore the role of Avastin in ovarian cancer treatment. This research was recently summarized by researchers in the medical journal, Advances in Therapy. The authors noted that adding Avastin as part of a first line treatment in advanced ovarian cancer and as maintenance therapy improves progression-free survival (PFS). PFS is the length of time during and after medication or treatment during which the disease being treated (e.g., cancer) does not worsen. Avalide has also shown benefit with respect to PFS in relapsed ovarian cancer that is sensitive to or resistant to platinum-containing chemotherapy.

While benefit to using Avastin in ovarian cancer treatment has been demonstrated, the authors noted that the medication is not without its side effects. Nevertheless, the authors concluded that Avastin represents a new option in treatment for ovarian cancer.

Suggested reading: Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer

Related blog entry: Ovarian Tumors in Children: They Happen

Reference: Heitz F, Harter P, Barinoff J, Beutel B, Kannisto P, Grabowski JP, Heitz J, Kurzeder C, du Bois A. (2012). Bevacizumab in the treatment of ovarian cancer. Adv Ther. 29(9):723-35.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Anti-depressants in Pregnancy: What are the Risks?

Women with major depressive disorder often become pregnant and women who are pregnant often develop major depressive disorder (referred to as depression going forwards). While the safest form of treatment for depression is counseling (usually with a psychologist) another common form of treatment is anti-depressant medication.

Anti-depressant medications, like all medications, have side effects and there is controversy about whether these medications should be used during pregnancy.

Researchers recently published a critical review of the scientific literature on anti-depressant medication use in pregnancy in the journal, Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. The authors found that no single type of birth defect has been consistently observed across research studies with any anti-depressant medication that is commonly used.  Some studies suggested associations between some specific birth defects and anti-depressant use in pregnancy but the findings were not consistent. 

These specific medications in which such inconsistent association were noted was in a class known as selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIS work to block the re-uptake of a chemical messenger in the brain known as serotonin. This makes more serotonin available, which improves mood. SSRIs are among the most commonly prescribed anti-depressant medications and are the most studied anti-depressant medications in pregnancy. Since all SSRIs cross the placenta, they can transport increased levels of serotonin to the fetus. The placenta is an organ in the uterus (a hollow organ in which a baby develops) that links the blood supply of the mother to the developing fetus and by which the fetus can release wastes.

Another finding was that postnatal adaptation syndrome (PNAS) occurs in up to 30% of neonates exposed to antidepressants in late pregnancy. PNAS is a cluster of signs and symptoms in infants that includes irritability, lack of energy, decreased activity, decreased feeding,  abnormal rapid breathing, abnormal crying, tremor, and difficulty breathing. PNAS usually lasts for days to weeks (up to 6 weeks) after delivery.  Some studies suggested a small association between persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN) but others did not (the evidence is inconclusive). Pulmonary hypertension is when more blood than necessary is pumped to the lungs.

The authors cautioned that when evaluating research studies on this topic it is important to consider whether researchers took into account diagnoses of the mother or other factors that can confound the study outcome, whether they used adequate control groups (e.g., infants exposed to no medications or another class of medications), whether the infants were systematically  assessed, and whether those rating the infants knew if they were exposed to anti-depressant medications.

The authors suggested that doctors should have individually-tailored discussions with each pregnant woman about these issues who are considering anti-depressant use during pregnancy. They noted that past medication trials, previous success with symptom remission, and women’s preferences should guide treatment decisions.

Suggested Reading: Taking Antidepressants: Your Comprehensive Guide to Starting, Staying On, and Safely Quitting

Related Blog Entry: Preventing Post-partum Depression in Adolescent Mothers

Reference: Byatt N, Deligiannidis KM, Freeman MP. (2013). Acta Psychiatr Scand. 127(2):94-114. Antidepressant use in pregnancy: a critical review focused on risks and controversies.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Breast Cancer Staging: PET Scans, Ultrasounds, and Biopsies

Breast cancer continues to be a major health problem throughout the world and requires accurate staging to determine the most appropriate treatment and to estimate prognosis. Cancer staging describes the extent or severity of the disease. One way that cancer staging is determined is to assess if the cancer has metastasized (spread) to the lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small egg shaped structures in the body that help fight against infection. The first lymph node (or group of nodes) that cancer spreads to is known as the sentinel lymph node.

There are multiple ways to assess for lymph node metastasis. The most definitive way is to perform a biopsy of the lymph node(s) where cancer spread is the most likely. A biopsy is the process of removing living tissue or cells from organs or other body parts of patients for examination under a microscope or in a culture to help make a diagnosis, follow the course of a disease, or estimate a prognosis. In breast cancer, the lymph node(s) biopsied are one or more (usually one to three) of the axillary lymph nodes, which are located under the arm pits. A more intensive surgical process is an axillary lymph node dissection, which involves removing at least six of the lymph nodes and having them analyzed at a laboratory to be tested for cancer. In most cases, if the sentinel lymph node biopsy shows metastasis, then a lymph node dissection follows.

Due to the invasiveness of these surgical procedures, there has been increased interest in developing non-invasive ways to detect breast cancer spread to the lymph nodes. One method is to use ultrasound scanning. Ultrasound scanning is a procedure that uses high-frequency sound waves to produce images of internal body structures. Another technique is a positron emission tomography (PET) scan combined with computed tomography (CT). When combined, this is known as PET/CT and can be used to scan the entire body. A PET scan involves injecting the patient with a small radioactive chemical and being placed in a machine that detects and records energy given off by the substance. The computer translates the energy into 3D pictures which provides information about how cells in the body are functioning because normal cells react differently to the chemical than healthy cells. CT scanning is an advanced imaging technique that uses x-rays and computer technology to produce more clear and detailed pictures than a traditional x-ray.

In a recent study published in the medical journal, Acta Radiologica, researchers compared the diagnostic utility of PET/CT scans to ultrasound scanning in detecting axillary lymph node metastases. The authors found that PET/CT scans were more accurate than ultrasounds in evaluating axillary lymph node metastases. The PET/CT scan also detected lymph node metastases in seven out of 91 patients (8%) that had not been detected by another imaging modality. However, because the PET/CT scan still has a low sensitivity (54%) for detecting axillary lymph node metastasis, it was noted that it cannot serve as a substitute for sentinel lymph node biopsy.

Suggested reading: The Mayo Clinic Breast Cancer Book

Reference: Riegger C, Koeninger A, Hartung V, Otterbach F, Kimmig R, Forsting M, Bockisch A, Antoch G, Heusner TA. Acta Radiol. (2012) Comparison of the diagnostic value of FDG-PET/CT and axillary ultrasound for the detection of lymph node metastases in breast cancer patients. Acta Radiologica, 53(10): 1092-8.