10 deadly foods you probably have in your kitchen

Humans are one of the few creatures on this planet who have the capability of ignoring our basic survival instinct. We jump out of perfectly good airplanes — something that still sets off alarms in the most veteran skydivers — and we push ourselves to the edge of death and back with physical demands on our bodies that defy reason with activities like ultra-marathons in the desert, living in microgravity, and setting the world record for holding one’s breath under water.

Yet as contradictory as it sounds, testing these limits is probably what makes us feel the most human or the most attuned to nature and our own potential — particularly when it comes to soaring above the skies, jumping eight feet in the air… and eating the most bizarre, even dangerous, dishes set in front of us on the dinner table.

What are some of the deadliest foods the world has ever seen? Poisonous or harmful by design, not accident, and something that has us questioning our sanity when we choose to take a bite?

  • 1Fruit Seeds


    Like apples, cherry pits contain a type of hydrogen cyanide called prussic acid. Don’t go eating a cup of ground pits, or peach and apricot pits for that matter.

  • 2Rhubarb


    Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid, which causes kidney stones. It’ll take 11 pounds of leaves to be fatal, but much less to make you seriously ill.

  • 3Nutmeg


    Nutmeg is actually a hallucinogenic. Yes, you can trip on it, but it’s said that eating just 0.2 oz of nutmeg could lead to convulsions, and 0.3 oz could lead to seizures. Eating one whole will supposedly lead to a type of “nutmeg psychosis,” which includes a sense of impending doom.

  • 4Potatoes


    Glycoalkaloids, also found in nightshade, can be found in the leaves, stems, and sprouts of potatoes. It can also build up in the potato if it’s left too long, especially in the light. Eating glycoalkaloids will lead to cramping, diarrhea, confused headaches, or even coma and death. It’s said that just 3 to 6 mg per kilogram of body weight could be fatal. Avoid potatoes with a greenish tinge.

  • 5Almonds


    There are two variations of almonds, sweet almonds and bitter almonds. The bitter ones supposedly contain relatively large amounts of hydrogen cyanide. It’s said that even eating just 7 – 10 raw bitter almonds can cause problems for adults, and could be fatal for children.

  • 6Raw Honey

    Flickr/tesKing-Italy/Daily Meal

    Because it doesn’t go through the pasteurization process in which harmful toxins are killed, unpasteurized honey often contains grayanotoxin. That can lead to dizziness, weakness, excessive sweating, nausea, and vomiting that last for 24 hours. Typically just one tablespoon of concentrated grayanotoxin can cause the symptoms above. Consuming multiple tablespoons would be a bad idea.

  • 7Tomatoes


    The stems and leaves of tomatoes contain alkali poisons that can cause stomach agitation. Unripe green tomatoes have been said to have the same effect. You would need to consume vast quantities for it to be fatal. Not exactly high-risk, but you might avoid eating tomato leaves.

  • 8Tuna


    The danger in tuna is the mercury that the fish absorbs. Once in your body, mercury will either pass through your kidneys, or travel to your brain and supposedly drive you insane. The FDA recommends children and pregnant women do not consume tuna at all. While it’s unlikely that eating a massive amount of tuna in one sitting will kill you, it’s a good idea to monitor your weekly intake. Click here to visit the Environmental Working Group’s tuna calculator to see how much is recommended.

  • 9Cassava


    The leaves and roots of cassava are surprisingly rich in cyanide. By this point, we may as well wish cyanide were the most delicious, sumptuous substance on the planet if we had to die to enjoy a bite… there is not much in the way of flavor, though. Cassava is a tropical vegetable originally from South America, but has gained popularity in Africa, particularly for its juice, which can be fermented to produce a drink called piwarry.

  • 10Cashews


    Raw cashews you might find in a supermarket are not actually raw, as they’ve been steamed to remove the urushiol, a chemical also found in poison ivy. This chemical can cause the same effect as poison ivy, or poison oak. High levels of urushiol can supposedly prove fatal. People who are allergic to poison ivy are likely to have a fatal allergic reaction to eating actual raw cashews.

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How much Neanderthal DNA do you have? Lots

Associated Press
  • A reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton

    A reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton, right, and a modern human version of a skeleton, left, on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York. (AP PHOTO/FRANK FRANKLIN II)

  • A replica of a Neanderthal man

    A replica of a Neanderthal man at the Neanderthal museum in Mettmann, western Germany. (AP PHOTO/HEINZ DUCKLAU)

WASHINGTON –  Next time you call someone a Neanderthal, better look in a mirror.

Many of the genes that help determine most people’s skin and hair are more Neanderthal than not, according to two new studies that look at the DNA fossils hidden in the modern human genome.

About 50,000 years ago, modern day humans migrated out of Africa north to Europe and East Asia and met up with furrow-browed Neanderthals that had been in the colder climates for more than 100,000 years. Some of the two species mated. And then the Neanderthals died off as a species — except for what’s left inside of us.

Scientists isolated the parts of the non-African modern human genetic blueprint that still contain Neanderthal remnants. Overall, it’s barely more than 1 percent, said two studies released Wednesday in the journals Nature and Science.

However, in some places, such as the DNA related to the skin, the genetic instructions are as much as 70 percent Neanderthal and in other places there’s virtually nothing from the species that’s often portrayed as brutish cavemen.

‘We’re more Neanderthal than not in [some] genes.’

– University of Washington genome scientist Joshua Akey

The difference between where Neanderthal DNA is plentiful and where it’s absent may help scientists understand what in our genome “makes humans human,” said University of Washington genome scientist Joshua Akey, lead author of the paper in Science.

Harvard researcher Sriram Sankararaman, the lead author of the Nature study, said the place where Neanderthal DNA seemed to have the most influence in the modern human genome has to do with skin and hair. Akey said those instructions are as much as 70 percent Neanderthal.

“We’re more Neanderthal than not in those genes,” Akey said.

However, Sankararaman cautions that scientists don’t yet know just what the Neanderthal DNA dictates in our skin and hair.

Sarah Tishkoff, a professor of genetics and biology at the University of Pennsylvania who was not part of either study, theorized that the Neanderthal DNA probably helped the darker humans out of Africa cope with the cooler less bright north. Living in the cooler Europe means less ultraviolet light and less vitamin D from the sun. Darker skin blocks more of those needed rays, so lighter skin is more advantageous in the north and it seems that humans adopted that Neanderthal adaptation, she said.

Another area where we have more Neanderthal DNA is parts of genetic codes that have to do with certain immune system functions, Sankararaman said. Again, scientists can’t say more than that these Neanderthal genes seem connected to certain diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and Crohn’s disease and lupus, but they are there.

Tiskhoff and Akey said one of the most interesting parts in comparing human and Neanderthal genomes is where we don’t see any caveman influence. That, Tiskhoff said, is “what makes us uniquely human” and those regions of genetic code “you just can’t mess with.”

One of those areas has been heavily connected to genes that determine speech and communication and there’s nothing Neanderthal there, Akey said. This fits with theories that lack of communication skills hurt Neanderthal and speech ability was a distinctly human advantage, he said.

And the study in Nature found something that may help explain why the brutish and virile cavemen haven’t influenced humans much: They may have made babies, but the male hybrids of Neanderthals and humans weren’t very fertile. Scientists figured that out because the genes associated with the testicles in humans and the X chromosome were unusually empty of Neanderthal influence.

While Neanderthal males themselves were likely good at breeding, their half-human sons weren’t and “they must have been disappointed in their sons,” said Nature co-author Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

The Nature paper found that people of more East Asian descent had slightly more Neanderthal than Europeans, indicating that there may have been a second wave of interbreeding in Asia, researchers said.

Three outside scientists praised the two studies, which used different techniques to reach similar conclusions. And those conclusions were so close to each other and standard evolution theory that it all fits together in a scary way for scientists used to findings that surprise, said New York University anthropology professor Todd Disotell.

Disotell recently had his genome tested by a private company and found he’s got more Neanderthal DNA than most people, about 2.9 percent: “I’m quite proud of that.”



Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature

Science: http://www.sciencemag.org


Seth Borenstein can be followed at http://twitter.com/borenbears

Synthetic organ technology moving forward

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    A synthetic trachea in a bioreactor after it was infused with stem cells. Image courtesy of Harvard Apparatus Regenerative Technology.

Since 2008, eight patients have successfully undergone procedures in which their badly-damaged tracheas were replaced with manmade windpipes.

Now, a Boston-area company is preparing to manufacture the scaffolds used to grow these synthetic organs on a large scale, MIT Technology Review reported.

Harvard Apparatus Regenerative Technology (HART) makes synthetic windpipes by growing a patient’s own stem cells on a lab-made scaffold. The company is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to test the system and is currently conducting trials in Russia.

Researchers hope that in the future, this scaffolding technique could be used to grow other organs as well, such as an esophagus, heart valve or kidney. If successful, the technology could help provide a solution to the country’s organ transplant shortage.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates there are 120,000 people on waiting lists for an organ and this number underestimates the actual need, Joseph Vacanti, a surgeon-scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a leader in tissue-engineering research, told MIT Technology Review.

“The only way we are going to meet that real need is to manufacture living organs,” Vacanti, who is not affiliated with HART, said.

Click for more from MIT Technology Review.

Ancient Europeans: dark skinned, blue eyed?

  • hunter-gatherer

    An illustration of what the ancient hunter-gatherer may have looked like (CSIC)

An ancient European hunter-gatherer man had dark skin and blue eyes, a new genetic analysis has revealed.

The analysis of the man, who lived in modern-day Spain only about 7,000 years ago, shows light-skin genes in Europeansevolved much more recently than previously thought.

The findings, which were detailed Sunday in the journal Nature,also hint that light skin evolved not to adjust to the lower-light conditions in Europe compared with Africa, but instead to the new diet that emerged after the agricultural revolution, said study co-author Carles Lalueza-Fox, a paleogenomics researcher at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain.

Sunlight changes
Many scientists have believed that lighter skin gradually arose in Europeans starting around 40,000 years ago, soon after people left tropical Africa for Europe’s higher latitudes. The hunter-gatherer’s dark skin pushes this date forward to only 7,000 years ago, suggesting that at least some humans lived considerably longer than thought in Europe before losing the dark pigmentation that evolved under Africa’s sun.

‘For most of their evolutionary history, Europeans were not what many people today would call Caucasian.’

“It was assumed that the lighter skin was something needed in high latitudes, to synthesize vitamin D in places where UV light is lower than in the tropics,” Lalueza-Fox told LiveScience.

Scientists had assumed this was true because people need vitamin D for healthy bones, and can synthesize it in the skin with energy from the sun’s UV rays, but darker skin, like that of the hunter-gatherer man, prevents UV-ray absorption.

But the new discovery shows that latitude alone didn’t drive the evolution of Europeans’ light skin. If it had, light skin would have become widespread in Europeans millennia earlier, Lalueza-Fox said.

Mysterious find
In 2006, hikers discovered two male skeletons buried in a labyrinthine cave known as La Braa-Arintero, in the Cantabrian Mountains of Spain. [Images of the Ancient Skeletons]

At first, officials thought the skeletons may have been recent murder victims. But then, an analysis revealed the skeletons were about 7,000 years old, and had no signs of trauma. The bodies were covered with red soil, characteristic of Paleolithic burial sites, Lalueza-Fox said.

At the time of the discovery, genetic techniques weren’t advanced enough to analyze the skeletons. Several years later, the team revisited the skeletons and extracted DNA from a molar tooth in one skeleton. (The other skeleton had been sitting in water for millennia, so his DNA was more degraded, Lalueza-Fox said.)

Blue eyes, dark skin
The new analysis of that DNA now shows the man had the gene mutation for blue eyes, but not the European mutations for lighter skin.

The DNA also shows that the man was more closely related to modern-day northern Europeans than to southern Europeans.

The discovery may explain why baby blues are more common in Scandinavia. It’s been thought that poor conditions in northern Europe delayed the agricultural revolution there, so Scandinavians may have more genetic traces of their hunter-gatherer past including a random blue-eye mutation that emerged in the small population of ancient hunter-gatherers, Lalueza-Fox said.

Skin changes
The finding implies that for most of their evolutionary history, Europeans were not what many people today would call ‘Caucasian’, said Guido Barbujani, president of the Associazione Genetica Italiana in Ferrara, Italy, who was not involved in the study.

Instead, “what seems likely, then, is that the dietary changes accompanying the so-called Neolithic revolution, or the transition from food collection to food production, might have caused, or contributed to cause, this change,” Barbujani said.

In the food-production theory, the cereal-rich diet of Neolithic farmers lacked vitamin D, so Europeans rapidly lost their dark-skin pigmentation only once they switched to agriculture, because it was only at that point that they had to synthesize vitamin D from the sun more readily.

Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Morton’s Neuroma: Treatment options for foot pain


Did you know you have 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles in your foot? With such a complex structure, it’s no wonder foot pain is so common.

We recently got this question from a viewer in Texas:

Hello Dr. Manny,
I’ve just been diagnosed with Morton’s Neuroma in my left foot, and it’s very painful. What are my treatment options?

Morton’s Neuroma is caused by a thickening of the tissue around one of the nerves that leads out to your toes. It usually happens between the third and fourth toes, and can sometimes feel like a pebble stuck in your sock.

Risk factors for the condition include:

  • Having foot abnormalities like bunions, hammertoes or arch problems
  • Wearing high heels, which can put extra pressure on your toes
  • Participating in high-impact sports like running, which can cause repetitive trauma to your feet

Treatment options for Morton’s Neuroma depend on the severity of your symptoms, but here are some options your doctor may suggest:

  • Wearing shoes with wider toe boxes
  • Using over-the-counter arch supports and foot pads
  • Physical therapy
  • A prescription for custom-made orthotics
  • Anti-inflammatory medications taken orally or injected into the area
  • Nerve-blocking injections
  • Decompression surgery that relieves pressure by cutting nearby strictures
  • Surgery to remove the nerve causing pain

Talk to your doctor to decide on the best treatment option for you.

Do you have a health question for Dr. Manny? Please send it to DrManny@foxnews.com

Family-centered cesarean: The future of C-sections

Healthy Mama

  • Newborn Baby Boy.jpg

A cesarean section can make even the most calm of pregnant women to feel nervous, anxious, and straight up terrified, whether it’s scheduled or not. What’s more, women who have C-sections sometimes feel cheated and disappointed and may miss out on early bonding with their babies.

Some hospitals in the U.S., however, are realizing that a new approach—family centered C-sections—can make the experience easier and more beneficial for moms, their babies, and even their partners.

A calm environment
A C-section is major surgery, albeit one you’re usually awake for, but “there are ways that you can make it less medicalized,” according to Dr. William Camann, director of obstetric anesthesia at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass, one of just a handful of hospitals he estimates who offer family-centered C-sections.

One of the major differences is a change in the operating room, which is typically loud and busy. “Everybody has a job to do in there and nobody is really communicating to the couple what is going on,” according to Tara Poulin, a doula and founder of Birthing Gently.

With the family-centered approach, the physicians and hospital staff have a quiet demeanor and pay more attention to the patient. The mother can also request music in the operating room to calm her nerves. At Brigham and Women’s Hospital, mothers are even encouraged to bring their own iPods.

Early skin-to-skin contact
During a typical C-section, babies are immediately whisked away to be weighed, examined, and get ID bands, which could keep mom and baby apart for an hour or more. Yet early skin-to-skin contact has been shown to stabilize baby’s heartbeat and breathing, decrease crying, help baby sleep, increase weight gain, and help with breastfeeding.

In fact, a recent American Academy of Pediatrics study found that skin-to-skin contact in the delivery room in combination with a mother’s intent to breastfeed, increased the chances that she would exclusively breastfeed.

With the family-centered approach, the monitors can be adjusted so mom has a free arm to hold the baby. Plus, baby can be placed on the mother or the father within minutes.

Poulin said babies who are delivered with the family-centered approach are usually more calm and cry less. “They’re feeding better and they’re feeding longer,” she said.

At Brigham and Women’s, women are also given the option to have a clear drape so they can see the baby being born. The baby can also be placed immediately on the mom’s chest, although briefly and through the clear drape, because the baby is still part of the sterile surgical field, Camann said.

Doulas in the OR
Women can have an additional support person or a doula in the operating room, another change that’s happening as “most people realize that it can be done, it can be done safely, and it’s good for the patient,” Camann said.

Pre-operatively, the doula may talk to the mom about what to expect during surgery or massage her. During surgery, the doula is a familiar voice among strangers who can talk about what’s happening,  or re-assure the mom that the sounds she hears, for example, are normal. Moms with doulas in the OR have strong vital signs, are usually calm and less likely to need anxiety medication, Poulin said.

The partners are usually more relaxed, too, and feel more involved, empowered, and supported, according to Poulin. “Families are really able to have a better birth experience even though it’s a surgical delivery,” she said.

Not always a sure-thing
The family-centered approach isn’t appropriate for emergency C-sections or if there are complications. Also, moms who planned to have a vaginal birth may not be as welcoming to the approach, Camann said.

For moms who are open-minded about the family-centered approach, however, they’re able to make it their own, even if it wasn’t their choice, and have the childbirth experience that every woman deserves: to feel supported, in control, and calm. “They really enjoy their birth and they’re not fearful,” Poulin said. “There’s higher satisfaction overall with their birth experience.”


Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women’s issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie atrevelantwriting.com.

Robohand: DARPA’s bionic arm can be controlled by your brain

War Games

  • DARPA Prosthetic Limb.jpg

    Modular Prosthetic Limb courtesy of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. (DARPA)

A tragic cost of war is that many service members are missing limbs when they come home from combat. The U.S. military is working harder than ever to replace them with prosthetics that work just like the real thing.

The high-tech whizzes at DARPA, the military research arm of the Defense Department, displayed some breakthrough technology for space, ocean, robotics and ground war at a Congressional Tech Showcase in Washington earlier this month.

But the most inspiring tech was an innovation underway for America’s veterans who return home with upper limb loss. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab Modular Prosthetic artificial limb, part of DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program, is among the most sophisticated arms ever made.

The artificial limb moves like the real thing, and it can do just about everything. Built over the course of five years, it makes it possible to play the piano, toss a ball, pick up a cup and sip some coffee from it.

The ultimate goal is to give back natural hand movement.

The prosthetic weighs about as much as a human arm and looks pretty close to the real thing – except this arm is made of metal.

And just like a human arm, it’s directed by the brain.

How does it work?
Prosthetics currently in use can be disappointing to their wearers. Existing motorized arms offer some range of motion, but they can be hard to control, and sometimes they malfunction.

In 2006, DARPA launched the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program to accelerate advances in arms with two state-of-the-art programs: the Gen-3 Arm System and the Modular Prosthetic Limb.

The goal is to give users much greater control over the hand and arm than currently available devices provide. Thanks to sensors that send signals to the brain, wearers will be able to activate individual fingers, work through a full range of motion and feel whatever they grasp or move.

Simple movements like opening a hand or picking up a baseball involve complex work in the brain. The DARPA / Johns Hopkins approach takes the complicated work behind these movements and reduces it to simple thoughts.

Approaches to control artificial limbs can vary. Some patients use a surgical process called re-innervation that uses sensors implanted in their shoulders, pectoral muscles and residual limbs to direct their arms. Others use non-surgical methods, and they can still pick up something the size of a button.

To achieve the goal of a “natural” arm and hand, this hand has five dexterous fingers that will be capable of many tasks. It will also have a bendable and twistable wrist, an elbow that can both bend and lift weight, and a flexible shoulder that can reach behind the back.

Ultimately, its designers hope it will have a “skin” covering that looks like skin – it will even wrinkle — and will be weather- and tear-resistant. And it will “feel.”

The other big challenge is to harness the patient’s central nervous system to control the arm – and this work is proving that it’s possible to give patients back the sense of touch.

Beyond DARPA, other programs are making strides.

For example, the Alfred E. Mann Foundation announced this week that a U.S. Marine, Staff Sgt. James Sides, received a prosthetic arm with an implantable myoelectric sensor system.

Other programs are also underway in Europe; researchers in Sweden have looked into a bone-anchored mechanical arm with implanted neuromuscular electrodes.

All of these advancements offer hope to those who need it most.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at wargames@foxnews.com or follow her on Twitter@Allison_Barrie.

Researchers find brain mechanism that leads to cocaine addiction

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Researchers have identified a new molecular mechanism that alters the brain’s reward circuits after an individual has consumed cocaine.

Detailed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the discovery could provide a potential drug target for anti-addiction medications.

When administering chronic cocaine to lab mice, the research team from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai saw increased levels of an enzyme called PARP-1, which led to an increase in its RAR marks at genes in the nucleus accumbens.  These epigenetic changes altered the activity of the nucleus accumbens, ultimately contributing to long-term addiction to cocaine.

According to Kimberly Scobie, lead investigator and postdoctoral fellow, inhibiting PARP-1 could help to mediate the brain’s reward center.

“It is striking that changing the level of PARP-1 alone is sufficient to influence the rewarding effects of cocaine,” Scobie said.

The researchers also found that the epigenetic changes induced by PARP-1 changed the expression of sidekick-1, a cell adhesion molecule found on the brain’s synapses.  Overexpression of sidekick-1 both increased the rewarding effects of cocaine and caused changes in synaptic connections of neurons in the brain reward region.

Google announces ‘smart’ contact lenses that monitor glucose levels

  • glucose11614.jpg

    This undated photo released by Google shows a contact lens Google is testing to explore tear glucose. (AP)

Google has announced that it is testing a prototype for a contact lens that would help people with diabetes manage their disease.

In a press release distributed Thursday, the company said that the lens it is designing would measure glucose in tears continuously using a wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor. Google says that using the lenses would be a less invasive method of measuring glucose levels than finger-pricking.

It also claims that the more frequent testing would consequently reduce the risks associated with infrequent glucose testing such as kidney failure and blindness.

The contact lenses were developed during the past 18 months in the clandestine Google X lab that also came up with a driverless car, Google’s Web-surfing eyeglasses and Project Loon, a network of large balloons designed to beam the Internet to unwired places.

“We wondered if miniaturized electronics — think chips and sensors so small they look like bits of glitter, and an antenna thinner than a human hair — might be a way to crack the mystery of tear glucose and measure it with greater accuracy,” Google said in its press release.

“We hope a tiny, super sensitive glucose sensor embedded in a contact lens could be the first step in showing how to measure glucose through tears, which in the past has only been theoretically possible.”

The chip and sensor would be embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material, while a pinhole in the lens would allow fluid from the surface of the eye to seep into the sensor.

Palo Alto Medical Foundation endocrinologist Dr. Larry Levin said it was remarkable and important that a tech firm like Google is getting into the medical field, and that he’d like to be able to offer his patients a pain-free alternative from either pricking their fingers or living with a thick needle embedded in their stomach for constant monitoring.

“Google, they’re innovative, they are up on new technologies, and also we have to be honest here, the driving force is money,” he told The Associated Press.

Worldwide, the glucose monitoring devices market is expected to be more than $16 billion by the end of this year, according to analysts at Renub Research.

The Google team built the wireless chips in clean rooms, and used advanced engineering to get integrated circuits and a glucose sensor into such a small space.

Researchers also had to build in a system to pull energy from incoming radio frequency waves to power the device enough to collect and transmit one glucose reading per second. The embedded electronics in the lens don’t obscure vision because they lie outside the eye’s pupil and iris.

Google is now looking for partners with experience bringing similar products to market. Google officials declined to say how many people worked on the project, or how much the firm has invested in it.

An early, outsourced clinical research study with real patients was encouraging, but there are many potential pitfalls yet to come, said University of North Carolina diabetes researcher Dr. John Buse, who was briefed by Google on the lens last week.

“This has the potential to be a real game changer,” he said, “but the devil is in the details.”

While excited about their prototype, Google warned that there is still a lot more work that needs to be done before it could be turned into a useable product.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Gene therapy improves vision in patients with form of incurable blindness

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For patients with choroideremia – a rare form of progressive blindness – there are no current treatment options that can help stop their visual degeneration.  But now a new innovative procedure may be the key.

In a new study published in The Lancet, researchers used a novel gene therapy technique on choroideremia patients, which helped restore some of the sight they had already lost over the years.  Gene therapy involves injecting patients with a vital gene that is either missing or defective in their genetic code.

“Gene therapy is exciting; it’s a new type of medicine,” lead author Robert MacLaren, a professor at the University of Oxford, told FoxNews.com.  “And what we’re doing is it on a very small scale, because we’re looking at a very straightforward gene to replace.”

Caused by a mutation in the CHM gene on the X chromosome, choroideremia causes progressive blindness due to degeneration of the choroid, retinal pigment epithelium and retina.  Patients with this disease can start their lives with perfect vision, but eventually start to experience problems with light sensitivity and peripheral vision as they age.

The condition, which affects 1 in every 50,000 people, ultimately leads to the death of the photoreceptor cells in the retina – causing complete blindness in middle age.

“It’s like looking down through a telescope at a small central island of vision,” MacLaren explained of the disorder.  “And by the time they’re in their 40s and 50s, they lose vision completely.”

Because choroideremia is caused by a defect in a single gene, MacLaren believed that gene therapy could hold promise for patients with this form of progressive blindness.  Additionally, because the cellular degeneration occurs so slowly, the researchers had a large window of opportunity in which they could test their treatment – before complete visual loss occurred.

In order to “fix” the mutation found in choroideremia patients, MacLaren and his colleagues genetically altered an adeno-associated virus (AAV), so that it carried a corrective copy of the CHM gene.

“The virus is a small biological organism, and it’s very good at getting into cells,” MacLaren said.  “…But rather than deliver the virus’s DNA, we’ve taken out most of the viral DNA and instead put in the missing gene.  So it releases the DNA into the nucleus – it’s a single stranded DNA with the missing [CHM] gene.”

The researchers injected their engineered virus into the retinas of six patients between the ages of 35 and 63, all of whom were experiencing different stages of choroideremia.  Four of the patients still had good eyesight, though they had almost no peripheral vision, and the other two patients had already started to experience vision loss.

Six months after the gene had been delivered, all of the patients recovered their visual acuity from before the procedure and developed increased sensitivity to light.  Additionally, the two patients who had begun to suffer vision loss showed substantial improvements in their sight – with one able to read three additional lines on an eye chart.

MacLaren said the study’s results are significant, as it is the first time gene therapy has been used to treat patients with mostly normal vision – before they suffered significant thinning of the retina.  He and his team intend to continue studying their technique, as they are hopeful it might be able to stop vision loss in choroideremia patients altogether.

“Now that we know the virus is doing what it should do, we need to follow the patients up and see if the improvement is correlated with the stopping of degeneration,” MacLaren said.  “…We’re hoping to help more people with this disease, because it’s a terrible diagnosis to have.”

MacLaren noted that their study’s success could also pave the way for the use of gene therapy on other conditions that cause vision loss – as long as they are caused by mutations in a single gene.

“Any type of retinitis pigmentosa potentially could be helped by gene therapy,” MacLaren said. “…For those patients, we don’t yet know what genes to use, but the concept of this gene therapy can be applied before the onset of vision loss.  So in this case, genetic modification is a good thing, not necessarily a bad thing.”