Posts Tagged ‘cancer’

From “The Ants Go Marching” song, via Kylie Van Dam.

When I was young, I remember being horrified and fascinated to learn that hospitals sometimes use live maggots in wound care because of their precision.

Maggots clear away gangrene and leave healthy tissue. The UK National Health Service says, “They also help fight infection by releasing substances that kill bacteria and stimulate the healing process.” It’s called biosurgery.

Now researchers are finding that ants also have medical uses. Dino Grandoni has the story at the Washington Post.

“The ant oncologist will see you now.

Ants live in a world of odor. Some species are completely blind. Others rely so heavily on scent that ones that lose track of a pheromone trail march in a circle, until dying of exhaustion.

“Ants have such a refined sense of smell, in fact, that researchers are now training them to detect the scent of human cancer cells.

“A study published []in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences highlights a keen ant sense and underscores how someday we may use sharp-nosed animals — or, in the case of ants, sharp-antennaed — to detect tumors quickly and cheaply. That’s important because the sooner that cancer is found, the better the chances of recovery.

“ ‘The results are very promising,’ said Baptiste Piqueret, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany who studies animal behavior and co-wrote the paper. He added, however: ‘It’s important to know that we are far from using them as a daily way to detect cancer.’

“Stretching out their pair of thin sensory appendages atop their heads, the insects detect and deploy chemical cues to do almost everything — find food, swarm prey, spot colony mates, protect young. This chemical communication helps ants construct complex societies of queens and workers that operate so in sync with scent that scientists dub some colonies ‘superorganisms.’

“For his study, Piqueret’s team grafted pieces of a human breast-cancer tumor onto mice and trained 35 ants to associate urine from the tumor-bearing rodents with sugar. Placed in a petri dish, the silky ants (Formica fusca) spent significantly more time near tubes with urine from the ‘sick’ mice compared with urine from healthy ones. …

“The way we diagnose cancer today — by drawing blood, taking biopsies and conducting colonoscopies — is often expensive and invasive. Animal behaviorists are imagining a world in which doctors one day tap species with keen senses to help spot tumors quickly and cheaply.

“Dogs can sniff out the presence of cancer in body odor, past research has shown. Mice can be trained to discriminate between healthy and tumor-bearing compatriots. Nematodes are attracted to certain organic compounds associated with cancer. Even the neurons of fruit flies fire in the presence of certain cancerous cells.

“But ants, Piqueret suggested, may have the edge over dogs and other animals that are time-consuming to train.

“Piqueret conducted the research while studying at the Université Sorbonne Paris Nord in France. During covid lockdowns, he brought silky ants into his apartment outside Paris to continue his experiments. He chose the species because it has a good memory, is easy to train and doesn’t bite (at least not hard). …

“Piqueret’s team plans to test ants’ ability to sniff out the markers of cancer in urine from actual patients. …

“If ants are ever used in cancer screening, Piqueret wants to make one thing clear: No, they will not need to crawl on you.

“ ‘There will be no direct contact between ants and patients,’ he said. ‘So even if people are afraid of insects, it’s fine.’ “

More at the Post, here. Interested in the wonders of ants? Follow this professor: @alexwild@mastodon.online.

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Photo: Dex Ezekiel/ Unsplash.
A physician in Japan realized that artificial intelligence [A.I.] that could differentiate pastries might also be helpful in medicine.

I love accidental discoveries. In today’s story, a Japanese doctor was amazed at how precisely artificial intelligence could distinguish one pastry from another — and he had a lightbulb moment.

James Somers reports at the New Yorker, “A.I. researchers used to think that, without some kind of model of how the world worked and all that was in it, a computer might never be able to distinguish the parts of complex scenes. The field of ‘computer vision’ was a zoo of algorithms that made do in the meantime. The prospect of seeing like a human was a distant dream.

“All this changed in 2012, when Alex Krizhevsky, a graduate student in computer science, released AlexNet, a program that approached image recognition using a technique called deep learning. AlexNet was a neural network, ‘deep’ because its simulated neurons were arranged in many layers. As the network was shown new images, it guessed what was in them; inevitably, it was wrong, but after each guess it was made to adjust the connections between its layers of neurons, until it learned to output a label matching the one that researchers provided.”

Somers recounts that on a visit to Japan, he saw a bakery scanner identify a pastry with extraordinary precision and wanted to learn more. His curiosity took him to Hisashi Kambe, who once “developed SUPER TEX-SIM, a program that allowed textile manufacturers to simulate the design process, with interactive yarn and color editors. … A series of breaks led to a distribution deal with Mitsubishi’s fabric division, [and in 1985] Kambe formally incorporated as BRAIN Co., Ltd.

“For twenty years, BRAIN took on projects that revolved, in various ways, around seeing. … Then, in 2007, BRAIN was approached by a restaurant chain that had decided to spin off a line of bakeries. …

“The checkout process was difficult and error-prone—the cashier would fumble at the register, handling each item individually—and also unsanitary and slow. Lines in pastry shops grew longer and longer. The restaurant chain turned to BRAIN for help. Could they automate the checkout process? …

“By 2013, they had built a device that could take a picture of pastries sitting on a backlight, analyze their visual features, and distinguish a ham corn from a carbonara sandwich. …

“In early 2017, a doctor at the Louis Pasteur Center for Medical Research, in Kyoto, saw a television segment about the BakeryScan. He realized that cancer cells, under a microscope, looked kind of like bread. He contacted BRAIN, and the company agreed to begin developing a version of BakeryScan for pathologists. …

BRAIN began adapting BakeryScan to other domains and calling the core technology AI-Scan. AI-Scan algorithms have since been used to distinguish pills in hospitals, to count the number of people in an eighteenth-century ukiyo-e woodblock print, and to label the charms and amulets for sale in shrines. One company has used it to automatically detect incorrectly wired bolts in jet-engine parts.”

More in the long article at the New Yorker, here.

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Photo: Shelby Sherritt.
Shelby Sherritt is relieved to be known on TikTok for something other than surviving cancer, writes the Guardian. She started off making pottery koalas, echidnas, possums. Now she grabs a random slip-casting mold, enjoying the surprise at the end.

People started following a young lady in Australia because of her rare cancer, but she’s much happier being followed for her cheery slip-cast pottery.

Matilda Boseley reports at the Guardian, “For years, Shelby Sherritt was known as the ‘cancer girl.’ …

“Sherritt had been featured in videos about young people going through cancer. … Now hundreds of thousands of people are following her online, but much to her surprise it has nothing to do with cancer. Instead, Sherritt has become internet famous for reviving the 70s craze of slip casting pottery.

‘It’s now become, “Oh she’s the artist,” it’s about my pottery, and I find that so empowering,’ she says with a laugh.

“Sherritt has gained half a million followers on TikTok by hosting a wildly successful series from her Ballarat art shed, where every week she makes a new piece from a giant pile of mystery slip-casting molds she got free from a man on Gumtree.

“In the one-minute videos, she walks to her giant pile of plaster molds, picks one, and pours in watery clay or ‘slip.’ Once it’s dried she reveals the model, usually a kitsch 70s mug or garden gnome. Sherritt then paints it. … Many are looking forward to these videos every week. …

“ ‘I think it’s about the mystery. The molds are so elusive on the outside, people are just like “oooh what could actually be in that?” ‘

“Her videos now regularly top a million views, something Sherritt says she could have never imagined when her life was focused solely on surviving.

“When Sherritt was 20 she came down with what felt like run-of-the-mill appendicitis.

“ ‘I was on holiday in Perth and I just could not get out of bed, I was in that much pain. And then we went to a doctor. … By the time I went into surgery, it had ruptured,’ she says.

“During the surgery her doctors discovered she was suffering from a rare form of appendiceal and bowel cancer. … The doctors spoke in a serious, quiet tone that filled Sherritt with fear. …

“ ‘I obviously had to put my life on pause,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t work, I couldn’t study, I had to just do the treatment.’ …

“In the deepest pits of her boredom, Sherritt says she gravitated towards her old art equipment that had been gathering dust, painting, drawing, and even sculpting from her bed. …

“ ‘My original work started off as Australiana pieces. So koalas, echidnas, possums, paying homage to the bushland.’

“As Sherritt’s treatments went on her pottery got better and better, and after the chemotherapy and more surgeries beat the cancerous cells back she started selling her work, and wondered if maybe this was her new path. At the start of 2020 Sherritt was able to make pottery her full-time job, and with her extra hours began uploading videos to TikTok to promote her business. …

“Her views rapidly grew when she began the slip-casting series, and the bump in sales meant she was well and truly making enough money to live off. …

“When Sherritt first went into remission the doctors told her if her cancer was going to come back, the chances are it would be in the first five years. But on 18 January this year, Sherritt finally completed that long and nerve-racking countdown, totally cancer-free. …

“ ‘The cancer definitely inspired me to grow, but now it’s the pottery itself that’s my narrative. … I feel really, really fulfilled now that I’m on this path.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

When I was in junior high, my parents were dismissive of the slip-cast dish I made for them because the school used molds (ie, not creative), but I was proud of it. Kids should be encouraged in whatever version of art interests them. You never know where an interest will take them — or what it will mean to them.

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Photo: Twitter via at Deadline

Years ago I read an article in which a dermatologist lamented how conflicted he felt when he saw a stranger on the street with an obvious skin cancer. Should he tell the person to see a doctor? Should he mind his own business? I was shocked that it was even a question. If you see a stranger with her coat on fire, are you going to say it’s not your problem and walk away?

Thank goodness there are Good Samaritans out there. One woman who failed to mind her own business probably saved the life a young television reporter recently.

Cathy Free writes at the Washington Post, “As a television news reporter in Tampa, Victoria Price is accustomed to finding her inbox full of emails from viewers offering story ideas, criticism and praise, along with the occasional fashion critique.

“When she opened an email in June that had a small message in the subject line but was otherwise empty, Price, 28, was tempted to dismiss it as a bad joke or spam. But then she impulsively decided to hand her phone to her boyfriend, Ryan Smith.

“ ‘I said, ‘”Look at this weird email I just got,” ‘ recalled Price, an investigative journalist for NBC affiliate WFLA. A woman from out of state had seen a report by Price on the evening news a few hours earlier and had spotted something that troubled her, she said.

‘Hi, just saw your news report,’ the viewer wrote. ‘What concerned me is the lump on your neck. Please have your thyroid checked. Reminds me of my neck. Mine turned out to be cancer. Take care of yourself.’

“Price, who had never noticed anything unusual about the appearance of her neck, said she didn’t think the message was worth taking seriously. Smith thought otherwise. …

“Several weeks later, after she had had an ultrasound and a blood panel screening, Price received startling news: She had papillary thyroid cancer that had started to spread to her lymph nodes. Her doctor recommended that she have surgery as soon as possible.

“ ‘It was explained to me that I had a large nodule growing right in the middle of my thyroid, and it was pushing my gland so that it bulged from the side of my neck,’ Price said. ‘That’s what the woman who emailed me had noticed. Fortunately for me, she reached out about it.’

“On July 27, Price underwent surgery at Tampa General Hospital to have her thyroid removed. Her surgeon also removed 19 cancerous lymph nodes, she said, and she was relieved to learn that she didn’t immediately need to do any follow-up treatment apart from daily hormone replacement medicine. …

“A few days before the surgery, in a post on Twitter, Price alerted WFLA viewers to her diagnosis and thanked the observant stranger who may have saved her life.

“ ‘As a journalist, it’s been full throttle since the pandemic began,’ she wrote. ‘Never-ending shifts in a never-ending news cycle. We were covering the most important health story in a century, but my own health was the farthest thing from my mind. Until a viewer emailed me last month. Turns out, I have cancer, [and] I owe it to one of our wonderful @WFLA viewers for bringing it to my attention.’ …

“Now back at work, Price said she hopes to launch a foundation before year’s end to promote thyroid cancer awareness for young adults.

“ ‘I’ve learned that for young people, particularly women between ages 20 and 35, this is the most commonly diagnosed cancer,’ she said, with about 53,000 people diagnosed every year. …

“If not for that alert viewer, Price said, she might have gone for months without knowing she had a problem. … ‘It’s very humbling to know that this person took the time to shoot me this little email. Your health is your wealth — without it, you don’t have anything. …

” ‘I’m so incredibly thankful for what she did. If she hadn’t sent that email, I may have never seen my doctor, and the cancer would have continued to grow. I just want to thank her from the bottom of my heart.’ ”

More at the Washington Post, here.

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Photo: Lucy’s Love Bus.
Transformation of an old VW bus into one bringing joy to seriously ill children.

July 1 was a sad day for friends of my former boss because despite some promising treatments, it turned out there really was no cure for the type of brain-stem cancer that his beautiful 8-year-old daughter mysteriously contracted.

But I want to tell you about two wonderful organizations that provided many happy moments for this little girl for more than a year. With the help of these nonprofits and the child’s friends and teachers, she was able to have normal, happy times as she became in 19 months — to use her mother’s words — “somehow, both more vulnerable and more amazing at the same time.”

Lucy’s Love Bus is described here. “Lucy Grogan founded Lucy’s Love Bus in 2006, from her hospital bed at Tufts Floating Hospital for Children in Boston. … Thanks to the financial support of folks in her hometown of Amesbury, MA, Lucy had consistent access to integrative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, horseback riding, art, and music therapy.

“Lucy learned that the integrative therapies that were so profoundly helpful to her during treatment were not covered by insurance, and therefore most children with cancer did not have access to them. She decided that when she was ‘done with cancer,’ she would make sure that all children had the same access to the helpful integrative therapies that she took advantage of during treatment.

“Lucy named her organization Lucy’s Love Bus, because she wanted to deliver love, comfort and quality of life to children with cancer. She felt that cure was very important, but recognized that no one was addressing the immediate suffering that she and her friends faced every day. Lucy’s primary concern was to deliver comfort … until a cure.” More.

The Hole in the Wall Gang is described here. “The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp is dedicated to providing ‘a different kind of healing’ to seriously ill children and their families, free of charge. We are a community that celebrates the spirit of childhood, the sound of laughter and the feeling of endless possibility.

“The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp was founded in 1988 by Paul Newman to give every child – no matter their illness – the chance to raise a little hell.’ Including our summer Camp in Ashford, Conn, we run 9 programs that serve more than 20,000 kids and family members throughout the Northeast each year.” More.

My former boss’s two wonderful daughters. So much love here.


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The Globe‘s Callum Borchers wrote recently about an organization called Seeding Labs, which presented at the IDEAS conference in Boston.

Founder Nina Dudnick, he says, “collects and ships used lab equipment to developing countries.

“Last year, Seeding Labs hosted six scientists and researchers from Kenya, one of whom was a chemist, Mildred Nawiri, who is studying how certain vegetables that are indigenous to West Africa might help prevent cancer.

“On Wednesday, Dudnick pointed to Nawiri’s research as an example of work that is unlikely to be done in the United States, because the vegetables she is studying do not grow here.

“And whatever benefits she might discover could go unrealized without modern equipment. Before Seeding Labs, Nawiri was using techniques Western scientists employed in the 1800s, Dudnick said.”

Dudnick points out that “this talent really is everywhere. The problems that face us, like cancer, don’t respect boundaries drawn on a map, so why should our scientific community?”

More at the Globe.

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No one needs to be told that art is healing. I find it can cheer me up when I’m just having a bad day. I even tell coworkers who are stressed out, “Go over to Fort Point and look at some art.”

But for those who care more about data than folk wisdom, there is research.

Genevra Pittman writes at Pacific Standard, “Music, art, and dance therapy may relieve anxiety and similar symptoms among people with cancer, according to a new analysis of past studies.

“Researchers who analyzed results from trials conducted between 1989 and 2011 said the benefits tied to creative arts therapies were small, but similar to those of other complementary techniques such as yoga and acupuncture. …

“The analysis included 27 studies of close to 1,600 people who were randomly assigned to receive some form of creative arts therapy or not, during or after cancer treatment. Patients with breast cancer or blood cancers—such as leukemia and lymphoma—made up the majority of study participants. Music, art, and dance therapy programs varied in how often sessions were conducted and over what time span. …

“On the whole, people with cancer who were assigned to creative arts treatments reported less depression, anxiety, and pain and a better quality of life during the programs than those who were put on a wait list or continued receiving usual care.” More.

I didn’t get into art therapy when I had cancer, but I’m sure I would have liked it. I did have a booklet created by past patients that contained daily readings, and more often than not the choices hit the spot. The patients named the booklet “No Other Way but Through.”

Photo: Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
Art therapy program

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In last week’s Boston Globe, Bella English had a sad-happy story about a nonprofit that reaches out to families impoverished by their children’s cancer, Family Reach Foundation.

English writes that Carla Tardif once promised a friend who died of cancer that she would help families who were struggling with a child’s treatment. In searching for the best way to do that, she ended up at Family Reach, which helps families get back on their feet. The stories she hears are heartbreaking.

“ ‘On top of watching your child suffer, people get threatening eviction notices, calls from collection agencies, or they can’t make a car payment so they lose the car and can’t get their child to treatment,’ says Tardif.

“Medical hardship is one of the leading causes of personal bankruptcy in the nation,” writes the Globe‘s English. “According to a Harvard University study, more than 62 percent of bankruptcies are caused by overwhelming medical expenses — and cancer is the most costly. ‘It’s because a parent needs to stop working to take care of the child,’ says Tardif. ‘The average cancer treatment without complications is two years.’ …

“ ‘What I’ve learned is that it’s about so much more than money,’ Tardif says [of her work]. ‘That someone cares and gets it, has a really profound effect on families.’

“Just ask Raquel Rohlfing, who at fund-raisers tells her story. Homeless, with a son [Mikalo] who had undergone a bone marrow transplant, she got a call from Tardif, who arranged payment for a year’s rent on a Winchester apartment, not far from her own house.”

In Rohlfing’s case, Tardif really went the extra mile.

English writes, “Tardif’s husband, a builder, put in a new kitchen and floors, and fixed the bathroom in the apartment. But Tardif wasn’t finished. She is also executive director of Music Drives Us, the nonprofit founded by car magnate Ernie Boch Jr. Rohlfing needed a job, and Tardif needed help, so she hired her at Boch’s foundation.”

Read more.

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Some years ago, the John Adams family biographer Paul Nagel introduced me to physician/poet Norbert Hirschhorn. Paul told me that Bert was on the team that helped save thousands of lives in Third World countries simply by distributing water to which sugar and electrolytes had been added. (A National Institutes of Health paper references Bert’s 1973 research on “oral glucose electrolyte solution for all children with acute gastroenteritis” here.)

A special NY Times science supplement on Sept. 27, 2011, “Small Fixes,” reminded me of Bert and the notion that small innovations can have a huge impact.

Among the great stories in the supplement. is this one about Thailand’s success fighting cervical cancer with vinegar.

It turns out that precancerous spots on the cervix turn white when brushed with vinegar. “They can then be immediately frozen off with a metal probe cooled by a tank of carbon dioxide, available from any Coca-Cola bottling plant.” The complete procedure, which can be handled by a nurse in one visit, has been used widely in Thailand, where there are a lot of nurses in rural areas.

In Brighton, Massachusetts, Harvard’s George Whitesides founded Diagnositcs for All to commercialize his inventions, including a tiny piece of paper that substitutes for a traditional blood test for liver damage. Costing less than a penny, “it requires a single drop of blood, takes 15 minutes and can be read by an untrained eye: If a round spot the size of a sesame seed on the paper changes to pink from purple, the patient is probably in danger.” Read the Times article.

Amy Smith at MIT is another one who thinks big by thinking small. Read about her Charcoal Project, which saves trees in poor countries by using vegetable waste to make briquettes for fuel.

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Of course, it wasn’t really called Cancer Dance Class. It was called “I Hope You’ll Dance,” and any woman who had ever had cancer was welcome to come to Emerson Hospital and join in. It wasn’t really dance either. I would call it dancelike movement to recordings. With props. Teacher Susan Osofsky-Ross was a cancer survivor herself and had a great collection of music from her many years in the dance world. Some pieces, like “You Raise Me Up,” had a spiritual vibe.  But in the same session we were just as likely to perform numbers like “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (with feather boas) or “Everything Old Is New Again” (with bowler hats). There was a lot of chat and laughter even though not all of us were in remission.

One of the women brought her mother in a wheelchair. The mother had a heart condition. She danced with her arms and often cracked us up with her quiet humor. One day we came to class and learned that she had had an attack and was now upstairs in the hospital. She was in a coma. Her daughter had been with her all night and decided to join us for class while her brother kept the vigil. At the end of the class, we asked the daughter whether she thought it would be a good idea if we took the boom box up to her mother’s room and did one of the dances for her. Bonny said, “Yes. Let’s try it.”

So up we traipsed, through the hospital corridors to the sick room, and quietly sang and “danced” one of our more uplifting numbers around the bed in the cramped room.

We still like to think Bonny’s mother heard us and was pleased.

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I think I have always cut articles out of the paper to give people or to post on my fridge. (At the office, I post work-related clippings on the wall of my cubicle.) Suzanne and her brother, John, often teased me about how often the stories were dire warnings in the news. Around this time every year, they would be deluged with clippings about sun screen and melanoma or deer ticks and Lyme disease.

Now that they have grown up and have their own homes, the fridge is rather empty of news articles. But since they are reading this blog, I’ll post a typical dire warning from today’s Boston Globe, something I’ve been harping on since the mid-1990s. (Oh, well. They laughed at Columbus.)

Hiawatha Bray’s column for June 2 is about protecting oneself from possible cancer-causing effects of mobile phones. He has several pieces of advice any mother would love: “make like a teenager, and text instead of talking. Sending SMS or e-mail messages keeps the phone well away from your skull. The farther your brain is from the phone, the lower the risk of brain tumors. If you must talk, most handsets have a speakerphone feature to let you converse at a distance. I often use it because I’m too lazy to hold the phone. Now I’ve got a better reason.”

And a study done in Sweden a few years ago suggests that it isn’t just brains we need to worry about. Cellphones left on in a pocket can affect reproductive function.

Bray says, “I carry the phone on my hip, in a holster which keeps it the required distance from my body. I’ve mocked my wife for losing her Android smartphone in her purse, but carrying it well away from the body is the safest way to go.”

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