Man with hole in stomach revolutionized medicine

By Tia Ghose

Published April 24, 2013


  • St_Martin_Alexis

    Despite a gory gunshot wound to the stomach, Alexis St. Martin went on to have a long, healthy life. Here, St. Martin, looking “superb” at 81. (Jesse Shire Myer [Public domain] | Wikimedia Commons)

A man whose gunshot wound created a window into his stomach enabled scientists to understand digestion.

But the patient, a fur trapper named Alexis St. Martin, also transformed how physiologists studied the body, new research suggests.

People “realized this was a revolutionary approach to doing physiology and medicine. You collect data on the clinical patient and then come to your conclusions,” said study co-author Richard Rogers, a neuroscientist at the Pennington Biomedical Research Institute in Baton Rouge, La.

Prior to that, doctors typically decided what was wrong with a patient or how a bodily function worked often based on 1,600-year old medical ideas of Galen before ever setting eyes on them, Rogers said. [Image Gallery: The BioDigital Human Body]

The findings were presented Tuesday (April 23) at the Experimental Biology 2013 conference in Boston, Mass.

Gory wound

Physiologist William Beaumont, an army doctor, was stationed in Fort Mackinac in Mackinac Island, Mich., on June 6, 1822, when a fur trapper’s gun discharged and accidentally shot 19-year-old trapper Alexis St. Martin in the stomach.

The wound was gory and St. Martin wasn’t expected to live out the night.

“He had lung hanging out of his wound,” Rogers told LiveScience.

Yet amazingly, Beaumont performed several antiseptic- and anesthesia-free surgeries on St. Martin over several months, and St. Martin eventually recovered.

Window into digestion

St. Martin became fed up with surgery and was left with a fistula, a hole in his stomach through the abdominal wall, which left it open to view. (The strong stomach acid essentially disinfected the wound from the inside out, making it safe to not sew it up.)

Because St. Martin couldn’t work as a fur trapper anymore, Beaumont hired him as handyman. The daily task of cleaning the fistula gave Beaumont an idea: perhaps he could watch the process of digestion at work.

So for the next several years, Beaumont recorded everything that went into St. Martin’s stomach, then painstakingly described what went on inside. He also took samples of gastric secretions and sent them to chemists of the day for analysis an unheard of task at the time.

His precise observations led him to conclude that the stomach’s strong hydrochloric acid, along with a little movement, played key roles in digestion, rather than the stomach grinding food up as some physiologists of the day believed.

“He was the first one to observe digestive processes going on in real time,” Rogers said.

He was also the first to notice that St. Martin’s digestion slowed when he was feverish, making the first link between digestive processes and disease, Rogers said.

Revolutionary approach

The findings paved the way for modern physiology, where observations guided conclusions, not vice versa, Rogers said.

The study also ushered in some of the first controlled animal experiments by physiologists who realized they could make faster headway by performing fistula operations in animals.

For instance, Beaumont’s experiments inspired the famous Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov to conduct fistula operations in dogs. It was this window into digestion that spurred Pavlov to make his famous conclusions that classical conditioning could spur dogs to salivate on cue, Rogers said.

St. Martin, meanwhile, lived to the ripe old age of 83, going back to fur trapping for a while and eventually becoming a farmer.

“This guy was in superb condition,” Rogers said.


Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Cancer drugs to stop bioweapons


War Games

Published April 05, 2013



Dangerous Beauty: A Close Look at Deadly Diseases

Scientists get closer to most deadly diseases than you’d ever want to. Here’s the only safe view of anthrax, salmonella, and more: through the scientist’s microscope.


Two cancer-combating medicines show potential for protecting U.S. troops and civilians from biological weapon attacks from pathogens like monkeypox.

Just this week, monkeypox was involved in some of the eight cases of possible contact with dangerous biological agents at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., the Frederick News-Post reported. USAMRIID said last week there were 14 accidents in total involving personnel in full-body protective suits in 2012.

Part of the Department of Defense, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency counters weapons of mass destruction from chemical, biological and radiological through to nuclear and high yield explosive threats.  The agency is funding St Louis University’s Mark Buller, who will look at cancer-fighting drugs Gleevec and Tasigna for preventing and treating monkeypox exposure.

The Monkeypox threat

Monkeypox is similar to smallpox. First found in monkeys, the disease was reported in humans for the first time in 1970, but the first U.S. outbreak didn’t occur until ten years ago.

In that outbreak (which is believed to have been unintentional), Americans became sick from contact with infected prairie dogs.  The disease can also spread from person to person through face-to-face contact or by touching an infected person’s body fluids or their contaminated objects like clothing or bedding.

Once infected with the virus, symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, muscle aches, backache and lymph nodes may swell.

While this may sound like an average day with the flu, the telltale sign of monkeypox really is its brutal rash. Often the rash starts on the face and then can spread to the body, becoming raised fluid-filled bumps.

Currently, there is no specific treatment for monkeypox.

Lasting for about a month, monkeypox can be lethal and in some instances has killed about 10 percent of those infected.

The appeal of weaponizing monkeypox to a terrorist is self-evident. There are claims that the Soviet Union achieved weaponization and successful testing.

Are cancer-fighting drugs the solution?

Gleevac, also called imatinib mesylate, is approved by the FDA to treat some types of leukemia and other forms of cancer.  Tasigna, or Nilotinib, is also used to treat certain types of leukemia.

Buller’s research will examine key active compounds in these two medicines: Research suggests they could inhibit replication of at least three different viruses. Some believe they have the potential to be broad-spectrum “anti-infectives.”

“They can’t make unique anti-viral medications and vaccines for every potential weapon of mass destruction,” Buller said, instead focusing on “developing broad-spectrum anti-infectives that would be effective against many pathogens.”

Gleevec and Tasigna target the same enzyme that the smallpox and ebola viruses need. Ebola hemorrhagic fever is a highly lethal, severe disease that is also found in both monkeys and humans.

If an infection can be stopped or the spreading of a virus slowed, then it will give the immune system an opportunity to rally and respond with a strong defense.

Throughout the country, other research teams are looking at deploying the very same two cancer drugs against other viruses that could pose a biological warfare threat.

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Computers can ‘see’ people’s dreams

By Tia Ghose

Published April 05, 2013


  • brain power
A computer can predict what you’re dreaming about based on brain wave activity, new research suggests.

By measuring people’s brain activity during waking moments, researchers were able to pick out the signatures of specific dream imagery — such as keys or a bed — while the dreamer was asleep.

“We know almost nothing about the function of dreaming,” said study co-author Masako Tamaki, a neuroscientist at Brown University. “Using this method, we might be able to know more about the function of dreaming.”

The findings, which were published Thursday in the journal Science, could also help scientists understand what goes on in the brain when people have nightmares.

Sleepy mystery
Exactly why people dream is a mystery. Whereas the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud may have thought dreams were about wish fulfillment, others believe dreams are irrelevant byproducts of the sleep cycle. And yet another theory holds that dreams allow the mind to continue working on puzzles faced during the day. In general, most people believe their dreams have meaning.

Scientists have dreamt of being able to look inside the brain’s sleepy wonderland. Past studies had suggested that people’s brain activity can be decoded to reveal what they are thinking about: For instance, scientists have decoded movie clips from brain waves.

Dream reading
So why not try to read dreams?

Tamaki and her colleagues tracked brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of three people as they were sleeping; the researchers woke up the trio every few minutes to have them describe their dreams. In total, the scientists collected about 200 visual images. [7 Mind-Bending Facts About Dreams]

The researchers then tied the dream content that participants described in their waking moments to specific patterns in brain activity (as seen in the blood flow in fMRI scans) and had a computer model learn those signatures.

The computer model then analyzed each person’s dreams. The model was able to pick out the time when each person dreamed of specific objects based on their brain activity when they were awake.

Those findings showed the same brain regions are activated when people are awake as when they are actually having the associated dream.

“We were amazed,” Tamaki said.

Even though the team just tried to read dream imagery from one person’s waking brain activity, they found some common patterns for broad classes of imagery, such as scenery versus people, Tamaki told LiveScience.

“There is a similarity amongst the subjects, so from that result, we could pick up some basic dream content and then we can build a model from those base contents, and they may apply to other people,” Tamaki said.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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World’s only bionic eyes keep getting better


War Games

Published March 21, 2013

The world’s only bionic eyes — implants that can bring sight to the blind — keep getting better.

Created by Second Sight Medical Products and recently approved by the FDA, the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System uses an implanted camera and computer to convert the world at large into electronic signals, enabling the brain to see.

It’s the first implanted device that can provide sight to people 25 and older who have lost their vision from degenerative eye diseases like macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.

And results just published in the latest British Journal of Ophthalmology indicate they’re even better than previously thought: Argus II enabled the 21 blind patients in a new study to locate and identify objects and people — and even read.

About 75 percent of blind patients given these new bionic eyes were able to correctly identify single letters. More than half of those with Argus II were able to read four-letter words.

Approximately 1.5 million people around the world and about 100,000 Americans are affected by the inherited disease retinitis pigmentosa, which damages the eyes’ photoreceptors — cells at the back of the retina that perceive light patterns and pass them on to the brain in the form of nerve impulses.

The brain takes these impulses and interprets them as images. Retinitis pigmentosa causes gradual loss of these light-sensing cells and potentially blindness.

Breakthroughs like the Argus II are also critical in pushing innovation that may help those with visual impairment due to other causes. For example, in the military there were 182,525 ambulatory and another 4,030 hospitalized eye injuries reported between 2000 and 2010.

How does the Bionic Eye work?
In healthy eyes, the rods and cones in the retina, called photoreceptors, take light and turn it into tiny electrochemical impulses. These impulses are sent through the optic nerve to the brain for decoding into images.

When the photoreceptors stop working effectively, this initial conversion process fails and the brain can’t translate the light. The Argus II implant bypasses disease-damaged photoreceptors altogether.

The system has three parts: a small electronic implant, a tiny camera and a video processing unit.

A small electronic device is first implanted in and around the eye. The patient then wears glasses that have a built-in video camera; it captures the surroundings and sends video to a small computer the patient wears, called a video-processing unit (VPU).

The VPU processes the video into instructions that are sent back to the glasses via a cable and then wirelessly transmitted to the implant in the eye. Electrodes there emit small electrical pulses that stimulate the retina’s remaining cells, sending the visual information along the optic nerve to the brain.

The brain perceives light patterns from this data, which patients learn to interpret — giving them back their sight.

Beyond Bionic Eyes
There are several other promising ways to restore sight in a patient that has lost his or her vision.

According to results published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an Oxford University team has made progress in a technique that has the body rebuild the retina to restore sight.

They believe studies with mice show promise for treating people with degenerative eye disease.

In their approach, they inject “precursor” cells into the eye that create the building blocks of a retina. Within two weeks of the injections, a retina had formed.

Using this technique, totally blind mice had their sight restored and similar results had already been achieved with night-blind mice.

Meanwhile, research published in Nature by professor Robin Ali showed that transplanting cells could restore vision in night-blind mice and that the same technique worked in a range of mice with degenerated retinas.

It is hoped that eventually a doctor could put the cells in and reconstruct the entire light-sensitive layer of a human as well.

At Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, there are trials underway using human embryonic stem cells in patients with Stargardt’s disease.

Early results look safe and promising, but it will take several years for it to become available.

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 or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.

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Researchers publish full Neanderthal genome

Published March 19, 2013

Associated Press

  • neanderthal genome.jpg

    The Neandertal research group at the Max Planck Institute. (Frank Vinken / the Max Planck Institute)

  • neanderthal genome 4.jpg

    An international consortium of researchers has sequenced the 3 billion bases that make up the genome of our closest relative the Neandertal. (Frank Vinken / the Max Planck Institute)

  • neanderthal genome 3.jpg

    Researcher Martin Kircher checking Illumina GAII flow cell. (Frank Vinken / the Max Planck Institute)

  • neanderthal genome 5.jpg

    A flow cell used by the Illumina Genome Analyzer machine to study the Neanderthal genome. (Frank Vinken / the Max Planck Institute)

  • neanderthal genome 2.jpg

    Reconstruction of a Neanderthal group. (Johannes Krause / Atelier Daynes / Museum of the Krapina Neanderthals)

Researchers in Germany said Tuesday they have completed the first high-quality sequencing of a Neanderthal genome and are making it freely available online for other scientists to study.

The genome produced from remains of a toe bone found in a Siberian cave is far more detailed than a previous “draft” Neanderthal genome sequenced three years ago by the same team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

“This allows even the small differences between the copies of genes that this Neanderthal individual inherited from its mother and father to be distinguished,” the institute said in a statement.

The team led by geneticist Svante Paabo now hopes to compare the new genome sequence to that of other Neanderthals, as well as to that of a Denisovan — another extinct human species whose genome was previously extracted from remains found in the same Siberian cave.

“We will gain insights into many aspects of the history of both Neanderthals and Denisovans and refine our knowledge about the genetic changes that occurred in the genomes of modern humans after they parted ways with the ancestors of Neanderthals and Denisovans,” Paabo said. The group plans to publish a scientific paper on the issue later this year.

In the meantime, the genome sequence is being made freely available so scientists elsewhere can conduct research on it, he said.

The announcement was welcomed by other researchers.

Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who wasn’t involved in the Leipzig study, said it was “exciting times” for comparative studies of humans and our closest extinct relatives.

By combining findings from genetics with studies of early diets, technology and physical anthropology of different human species, scientists would likely yield new insights into our evolutionary past soon, he said.

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College student creates instant-healing gel to stop heavy bleeding

Published March 18, 2013

New York Post

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A New York University student has cooked up a magic gel, which he says can stop even heavy bleeding — an invention that could make routine bandages obsolete.

Joe Landolina, 20, a NYU junior, says his Veti-Gel almost instantly closes and begins healing even major wounds to internal organs and key arteries.

“There’s really no way to quickly stop bleeding except to hold lots of gauze on a wound,” Landolina told The Post. “I thought if you could pour this gel into a wound, it would solidify and stop the bleeding.”

Landolina created the substance with Isaac Miller, a 2013 NYU grad.

The lifesaving goo is an artificial version of something called the extracellular matrix, which makes up the connective tissue that helps hold animal bodies together.

“We use plant-derived versions of the polymers that make up your skin,” the whiz kid said. “If they go into a wound, they build on existing polymers. It’s like it tells your body to stop bleeding.”

The aspiring scientist says he tested the stuff on rats and was able to stop bleeding instantly after slicing the rodents’ livers and carotid arteries.

After his rat experiments, Landolina moved on — to a slab of fresh pork loin — to create a video demonstration.

Click here to watch the video.

On the video, he cuts a deep slice into the pork while it’s being injected with “real pigs blood,” he said.

The blood initially flows freely, but amazingly stops after Landolina applies the gel and a second liquid, which speeds coagulation, bringing the bloodshed to a sudden stop.

Landolina and Miller will next test the gel on larger living animals, like pigs and sheep, under the supervision of Dr. Herbert Dardik, a cardiovascular surgeon at Englewood (NJ) Hospital.

Click for more from The Post.

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New bionic hand may let amputees feel again

Published February 18, 2013

  • LIFEHAND bionic hand.jpg

    Feb. 18, 2013: A new invention is paving the way for smart prosthetics that connect directly to the nervous system. (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne)

  • LIFEHAND bionic hand 1.jpg

    Feb. 18, 2013: A new invention is paving the way for smart prosthetics that connect directly to the nervous system. (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne)

Thanks to wiring that connects it directly into the nervous system, a new bionic hand may one day return dexterity and the sensation of touch to an amputee.

The new prosthetic limb was unveiled by Silvestro Micera of Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston.

Micera and colleagues tested their system by implanting “intraneural electrodes” into the median and ulnar nerves of an amputee. The electrodes stimulated the sensory peripheral system, delivering different types of touch feelings. Then the researchers analyzed the motor neural signals recorded from the nerves and showed that information related to grasping could indeed be extracted.

That information was then used to control a hand prosthesis placed near the subject but not physically attached to the arm of the amputee.

“We could be on the cusp of providing new and more effective clinical solutions to amputees in the next years,” said Micera, who is Head of the Translational Neural Engineering Laboratory at EPFL.

A new clinical trial starting soon as part of the Italian Ministry of Health’s NEMESIS project will carry this research a step further, by connecting the prosthetic hand directly to the patient for the first real-time, bidirectional control using peripheral neural signals.

Though results are not yet available, the researchers hope to find still further improvement in the sensory feedback and overall control of the prosthetics with this new method.

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What evil lurks in the brain? German neurologist says he’s found a ‘dark patch’


Published February 07, 2013

  • brain power

After studying the brains of violent killers, rapists and robbers, German neurologist Gerhard Roth claims to have found a “dark patch” in the center of the brain — he calls it the evil spot, a genetic source of violent behavior.

Roth, a professor at the University of Bremen, told Germany news site that he had shown short films to criminals and measured their brain activity. A small section at the front of their brains showed no reaction to violent scenes; it remained “dark” when shown dark scenes.

“Whenever there were brutal and squalid scenes, the subjects showed no emotions. In the areas of the brain where we create compassion and sorrow, nothing happened,” Roth said.

BioEdge, a blog dedicated to bioethics news, translated Roth’s German into English: “This is definitely the region of the brain where evil is formed and where it lurks.”

Not so fast. Human behavior, affect and emotion is likely a far more intricate thing, explained Dr. Steven Galetta, chairman of the neurology department at the NYU School of Medicine.


‘It’s probably not as simple as X marks the spot for a particular behavior.’

– Dr. Steven Galetta, chairman of the neurology department at the NYU School of Medicine


“People look at the blood flow to one area and they say, ‘aha, this is the evil patch.’ It’s probably a lot more complex than that,” Galetta told

“Certain areas are likely important for certain behaviors, certain attitudes. But it’s probably not as simple as X marks the spot for a particular behavior.”

Roth’s study, according to, was conducted for the German government on violent convicted offenders. He said the dark mass that he has identified appears in all CT scans of people with such records — and taking it out ended their “evil” behavior.

Roth did not respond to requests for more details on his study.

Terre Constantine, executive director of the Brain Research Foundation and the former director of the Jack Miller Center for Peripheral Neuropathy, expressed skepticism at the report, but agreed that brain abnormalities such as tumors can affect behavior.

“It absolutely can affect the brain and your personality and how you communicate. And it can make you aggressive — not all tumors, of course: it depends where it is,” Constantine told

Her foundation, which funds research into neuroscience seeking to understand the brain’s workings, has aided research similar to Roth’s with more advanced imaging techniques.

One recent study from a University of Chicago researcher studied parenting behavior. It found activity in the amygdala — a portion of the brain connected to the limbic system — correlated to parenting style. It “lit up” in the brains of normal mothers, while “harsh parents” didn’t react to scenes of bad parenting.

“There’s clearly differences in the brain depending on what sort of disease or abnormality a person has,” she told And many things can cause abnormal behaviors. “They’re either wired differently or there might be some disease that’s causing the brain to atrophy.”

But Constantine agreed with Galetta: Complex topics and behaviors are likely linked to other areas of the brain, rather than concentrated in one “evil area.”

“I would argue it’s probably not the only “evil” spot,” she said. “There are other areas in the brain, there are lots of … empathy areas or violent areas or just social reaction areas within the brain.”

“This may be one of the spots, but I’d be surprised if it’s the spot.”

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