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Inexpensive 'Smell Test' Could Help Diagnose Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Diseases

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Diagnosing neurological illness is a lengthy, complex, and expensive process. But one surprising test might soon help to speed things up. A series of recent studies has found that checking patients' sense of smell could help identify Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

Doctors have known about the link between olfactory (smell-related) dysfunction and neurological diseases for a long time now. Their patients with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease often report losing some or all of their ability to smell.

Davangere Devanand is a neurology and psychiatry expert at Columbia University who has spent years investigating this poorly understood connection. In his latest paper on the subject, published last year in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Devanand found ample evidence to support doctors' and patients' stories. In many adults, he wrote, anosmia could be seen as a reliable predictor of Alzheimer's disease.

"It's important, not just because it's novel and interesting and simple but because the evidence is strong," Devanand told Scientific American. "In the past, most neurologists thought, 'Maybe there's something there statistically in a paper, but it's a bit flaky.'"

A paper published this month in the journal Lancet Neurology came to a similar conclusion, proposing a single, as-yet-undetermined root cause of anosmia in both illnesses.

Paper author Richard Doty is also the creator of the University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test (UPSIT), which asks patients to scratch and sniff 40 different odors. The results are instantaneous, and at $26.95, it's a far cheaper starting point than brain scans.

Neurologist G. Webster Ross of the Veterans Affairs Pacific Islands Health Care System says the test can be a strong negative predictor of neurological issues as well. "If a person scores very well on a smell identification test, then you can be pretty sure they're not going to have Parkinson's, at least within the next four years," he told Scientific American.

It's important to keep in mind that neurological disease is far from the only condition associated with anosmia. Our sense of smell naturally begins to grow duller as we age, and the most common cause of temporary or permanent anosmia is none other than the common cold. So if you can't smell your favorite perfume today, don't panic just yet.

[h/t Scientific American]

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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Medicine
New Peanut Allergy Patch Could Be Coming to Pharmacies This Year
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About 6 million people in the U.S. and Europe have severe peanut allergies, including more than 2 million children. Now, French biotechnology company DBV Technologies SA has secured an FDA review for its peanut allergy patch, Bloomberg reports.

If approved, the company aims to start selling the Viaskin patch to children afflicted with peanut allergies in the second half of 2018. The FDA's decision comes in spite of the patch's disappointing study results last year, which found the product to be less effective than DBV hoped (though it did receive high marks for safety). The FDA has also granted Viaskin breakthrough-therapy and fast-track designations, which means a faster review process.

DBV's potentially life-saving product is a small disc that is placed on the arm or between the shoulder blades. It works like a vaccine, exposing the wearer's immune system to micro-doses of peanut protein to increase tolerance. It's intended to reduce the chances of having a severe allergic reaction to accidental exposure.

The patch might have competition: Aimmune Therapeutics Inc., which specializes in food allergy treatments, and the drug company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. are working together to develop a cure for peanut allergies.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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