In 1951, a woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks was suffering from cervical cancer. Without her consent, the doctor treating her took some of the cancerous cells for laboratory use, serving as the defining action that lead to a medical research breakthrough.
Human cell lines used in laboratories for experiments would die very quickly and it was a great labour for scientists to keep the cells alive in order then to do experimentation on them. Henrietta’s cells – on the other hand – were considered ‘immortal’ because they did not die after a certain number of cell divisions (known as ‘cellular senescence’).
These god-like cells were given the not so anonymous name ‘HeLa cells’ taking the first two letters of Henrietta’s forename and surname. The HeLa cells had a major part to play in 20th century medical advancement. For example, a researcher at the University of Minnesota used the cells to create the vaccine for polio.
Over the years, the HeLa cells lead to breakthroughs in the development of gene mapping, disease research and testing the effects of radiation. It hasn’t been plain sailing though for the HeLa cells. The cells are able to float on dust particles which lead to some serious contamination. Furthermore, for many years Henrietta’s family were kept in the dark about her cells being used in this way, which later lead to outrage and the family demanded a financial stake in the cells that were taken from Henrietta without her consent.
There’s so much more to this incredible episode of medical history that goes beyond the scope of a KYC, and we encourage scientists, historians and lawyers all to look into the intricacies that make sense to each respective discipline.
Recent developments in neural science have shone a ray of optimism on individuals suffering with high levels of depression. The latest technology on the horizon involves implanting sensors under the skull which release tiny electrode pulses that target specific parts of the brain.
Patients who undergo the electrode therapy report feeling more alert and poised after treatment, and the technology is also being used for patients who have epilepsy.
In a recent edition of Current Biology, researchers are moving full steam ahead with the ambition of being able to implant a sensor that will detect the on-coming of a depressive episode and will react accordingly, zapping the brain out of its negative associative patterns.
This new kind of treatment has entered the realms of possibility as scientists are starting to fully map out the brain and thus are getting closer to identifying where exactly depression ‘occurs’ in the brain.
In the past, depression was seen more as a “chemical imbalance” where adding more of what was ‘missing’ would restore a patient to better mental health. Now, researchers have switched to a circuit-inspired framework and argue that when different parts of the brain change the way they interact with each other, this can lead a person into a state of depression.
Medics and Psychologists would be wise to explore the science surrounding depression and the various treatments on offer to patients. Being able to talk about state-of-the-art medical practices will show your research skills and make your personal statement or interview really stand out!
The maternal bond between mother and child is like no other. Incredibly, research is now suggesting that part of a mother’s off spring stays with her forever as foetal cells will enter the mother’s body and find themselves a home in the mother’s tissue.
Over many millions of years, the mechanics at play between baby and mother have allowed for optimal development for her baby to grow. What is most intruiging is that some of the foetal cells will enter the mother’s body and due to their malleable nature, are able to develop into tissue by receiving information from surrounding cells in their ultimate landing spot.
Researchers are referring to this as ‘microchimerism’ after the creature called ‘Chimera’ in Greek mythology which is depicted as having a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a snake tail.
Researchers are now attempting to put this phenomenon into an evolutionary perspective and to work out why this transferal of cells from foetus to mother has come to be. Although our understanding is in its primitive stages, there is speculation that these cells may influence the mother’s ability to get pregnant again.
There are, however, theories that these cells that enter the mother’s body behave like cancer cells and put the mother at greater risk of certain cancers.
Biologists and Medics could use this fascinating topic of microchimerism to make a super memorable personal statement!
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Responses (ASMR) are tingly feelings often elicited by certain experiences and sounds, such as stroking, chiming or rustling. A study into the phenomenon in 2015 showed that the most common ASMR stimulus was whispering, closely followed touch (especially on the face), sharp clear sounds, and then repetitive motions.
Videos showcasing these kinds of noises receive hundreds of millions of views on YouTube, however not everyone can experience these pleasurable sensations and they are often felt in different ways. Recent findings, as part of a small study in Canada, suggest that those with ASMR may have more cross-communication between the networks in their brains, but the mechanism is still very much a mystery as the stimuli and physical reactions vary so much. Preliminary results from a second study into the response in Virginia show that 95% of respondents experienced their ASMR sensation in the head or brain, and 71% felt the sensation in their spinal cord. Only 35% described the feeling as ‘euphoric’, but 60% labelled it as ‘relaxing’.
The benefits of ASMR have been claimed include stress relief and inducing better quality sleep, but the evidence so far has been limited to findings of lower heart rates. Students applying to Medicine may like to examine the physiological side of ASMR, whether it does actually have any positive effect on the body, and if there could be any detrimental effects of patients with serious depression attempting to use it to treat themselves. For those applying for Psychology, the state of blissful relaxation and the other mental impacts of ASMR could be of interest.
Fasting has a long history and is central to many of the world’s religions: Yom Kippur is a fast day in Judaism, Ramadan is a fast month in Islam, and Lent is a 40-day fast in Christianity for Roman Catholics.
Uses of fasting can similarly be traced as far back as our primitive cultures, with examples as far ranging as: coming-of-age rites, appeasing violent deities, rituals to avoid catastrophes, and as a preparation tool for war. Fasting has even been used as a form of political protest, with the Suffragettes, the Irish Republicans and Gandhi all using hunger strikes to convey their message.
Described by Paracelsus as the ‘physican within’, the health benefits of fasting, as well as the spiritual benefits, have also be long extolled. The ‘nature cure’ became popular in the 1920s with fasting being used to treat everything from heart disease to headaches. In recent years, the rise of the 5:2 diet (where only 500 of calories are consumed on two days a week) and the 16:8 (where eating is restricted to an 8-hour window) have refreshed the concept of fasting in the public’s eye.
Students applying for History could investigate further into past beliefs around fasting and how charlatans have used extreme restrictive diets as a con in the past. Those applying for Theology might like to investigate other examples of abstinence in religion.
Seb Oliver and Peter Hurley are professors of astrophysics at the University of Sussex. Peter Hurley suffers from cystic fibrosis. Together they had the idea of applying a technique used to distinguish and match galaxies captured on different telescopes to the data collected about patients with cystic fibrosis (CF).
CF is a genetic disease and the gene is carried by one in 25 Europeans. In the UK around 10,400 people have the condition and it radically reduces life expectancy. It is currently incurable and treatment to most successfully impede its effects depends largely upon being put on the right medication, of which there are many different options. Improving patient prognosis relies upon greater understanding of the long-term impact of the medication on different patients. This is made more challenging due to the long time frame of CF treatment and that it is a rare disease. The main problem though lies in the necessary anonymisation of patient data and the resultant break in threads of individual patient’s data, due to clerical errors and changes in data such as body mass index (BMI) not being identified.
What the two professors have done is to apply a computational framework that calculates the probability that a pair of celestial objects in two images are the same and parallel this with an alternate theory that they might be two different objects that just happen to be adjacent.
The analogous comparison with CF patient data is clear factors such as age and gender. But often this is not sufficient as information that is likely to fluctuate, such as BMI, can lead to broken links in individual patient data. The key factor in their framework is the inclusion on an analogous model taken from the fact that galaxies will appear to have different brightness levels when viewed through different telescopes, due to the wavelengths of light that they are reading.
Physics applicants can further research the mathematical models used in astrophysics to differentiate objects. Medicine applicants can consider the importance of patient anonymity when their data is analysed as well as how maintaining the threads of data will help in their analysis.
Millions of people across the world are regularly taking ‘low dose’ (typically 81 milligrams) aspirin in an attempt to ward off heart attacks, strokes and other generally heart related illness. Yet a trio of studies recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggest that this over the counter consumption will not improve the chance of ‘disability-free survival’ and side-effects will increase the risk of other illnesses related to internal bleeding.
The primary study was a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial where half of the 19,114 participants took 100mg of aspirin a day and the other half were administered a placebo. The trial, run by the University of Monash Australia, used Australian and US citizens with a median age of 74 and all participants were deemed healthy at the time of enrolment.
After an average of 4.7 years observation, there was observed to be little difference between the two groups in the contraction of cardiovascular events – with 448 events in the aspirin group compared to 474 in the placebo group.
In-line with the known side-effects, chances of internal bleeding increased with 3.8% of those on the drug having a serious medical condition, such as stroke and gastrointestinal bleeding, compared to 2.7% on placebo.
The second study went further to suggest that aspirin will significantly increase the chance of a major haemorrhage, mainly in the form of upper gastrointestinal and intracranial bleeding, whilst a third study showed a mild increase in the chance of death, with 5.9% chance in the aspirin group compared to 5.2% in the placebo. This finding, however, is considered surprising and is likely to undergo further review.
The method used in this trial should be of interest to Biomedical Science applicants and can lead to questions about ways to improve or modify future research. Medicine applicants can consider the impact this study would have on patient advice and what, if any, influence doctors can have on over the counter use of medication.
Can you picture yourself as a cyborg? Do you yearn to transcend the limitations of feeble flesh? Then you might want to join the transhumanist movement. In his award-winning book To Be a Machine, Mark O’Connell describes the core transhumanist beliefs: “that we can and should eradicate ageing as a cause of death; that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should merge with machines, remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals.”
Of course, we do already in some sense “augment” our natural bodies with the use of such things as contact lenses and hearing aids. As technology progresses, more and more people are being fitted with bionic limbs. But so far, these are used as a plan B—an attempt at a replacement for the loss of a natural limb, and certainly not preferable to it. Those who advocate for transhumanism, on the other hand, dream of a deliberate merging of man and machine, and see these artificial body parts as superior. By embracing technology and applying it to our own bodies, they hope to create humans with increased senses, intelligence, strength, and life expectancy.
If this all strikes you as rather dystopian, you’re not alone; many scientists have raised ethical concerns. Blay Whitby, artificial intelligence expert at Sussex University, uses the example of athletes without legs who run on carbon-fibre blades. It is not unlikely, he says, that such athletes will be able to outperform able-bodied runners; would it then be ethical for athletes to deliberately have their legs removed and replace them with such artificial legs in order to beat world records? For Whitby, the idea is repulsive. But others do not see the issue. Cybernetics expert Kevin Warwick protests, “what is wrong with replacing imperfect bits of your body with artificial parts that will allow you to perform better?” Warwick himself has already put his money where his mouth is and implanted electronic devises into his own body. It doesn’t take an expert to jump on the trend, however; several people have had the chip from their contactless card inserted under the skin of their hand in order to go about their day unburdened by a wallet.
Others still are putting their hopes on the future by handing over their bodies to be cryogenically preserved in liquid nitrogen after death, in the hopes of being thawed and awakened at some point in the future when technology has advanced enough to resurrect and enhance them.
Applicants for Philosophy or Theology might like to consider the ethics of this movement; what would be the implications of this new race of superhumans? Is it right to tamper with the natural world (or ‘creation’) in this way? Medics may also want to think about it from the standpoint of medical ethics. Does the natural body have an inherent value, such that it is always wrong to remove a healthy body part?