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6 Medical Theories From 1900 That Didn't Pan Out

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The early years of the 20th century were a crucial time in the history of medicine, as breakthroughs in surgical techniques, sanitation, and scientific rigor helped doctors become far more effective at saving and improving lives. Not every theory these pioneers had panned out, though. Here are six that missed the mark.

1. Bicycles Distort Women’s Faces

Throughout the 1890s an increasing number of women began riding bicycles, which gave them the freedom to travel and explore under their own power. Some members of the male medical establishment felt threatened by these women’s newfound independence and began warning of “bicycle face,” a permanent distortion of the features brought on by the strain of bike riding. These quacks’ ominous pronouncements appeared in medical journals and mainstream newspapers alike throughout the late 1890s before giving way in the early 20th century to the related non-illnesses “automobile face” and, in 1908, “aeroplane face.”

2. Electrified Jockstraps Can Cure Erectile Dysfunction 

Women weren’t alone in being targeted by questionable science. In the early 20th century, some of the country’s largest mail-order catalogues offered men the chance to cure everything from kidney disease to impotence to back issues by wearing an “electric belt,” which was basically an expensive jockstrap wired to give wearers small electrical shocks. While they might have sold well, these devices certainly didn’t solve any of the conditions they claimed to cure.

3. Heroin Is a Great Tool for Kicking Your Drug Habit 

When heroin first appeared on pharmacists’ shelves in 1898, doctors hailed it as a miracle drug. Heroin acted as both an effective cough suppressant and a less addictive painkilling alternative to morphine. At the time, morphine addiction was an international crisis, and doctors were willing to try any solution to wean addicts off of the drug. (Over a decade earlier, Sigmund Freud had dabbled in using cocaine to treat morphine addiction before realizing it was a disastrous idea.)

Heroin initially seemed like such a promising solution that one charitable society even proposed mailing morphine addicts free doses of heroin as a crutch on their road to sobriety. However, the truth soon emerged, and by 1902 doctors worried that the new wonder drug was just as addictive as morphine. By 1919, it was illegal to prescribe heroin to morphine addicts.

4. Tainted Meat Causes Scurvy

Scurvy has long been a plague of sailors and soldiers who had no ready supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. Although doctors have known that scurvy can be treated with fresh fruit for centuries, they weren’t certain what actually caused the disease or why fresh fruit was an effective remedy. One prominent theory was that tainted meat – which often found its way into soldiers' and sailors’ diets as they ventured away from supplies of fresh produce – caused scurvy. It wasn’t until British researcher Frederick Hopkins discovered vitamins in 1906 that scientists learned diseases like scurvy were caused not by the presence of germs, but by the absence of the crucial vitamin C.

5. Pregnant Women Pass Their Emotions to Their Babies

Until the early 20th century, some doctors mistakenly believed that if a pregnant mother experienced a great shock, period of sadness, or other strong emotion, her child would be born with inherited personality traits like nervousness or depression.

More extreme versions of this theory of “maternal impression” stretched to the baby’s physical characteristics – a mother who saw a man lose his right hand in an accident would give birth to a baby with no right hand. (That example appears in a pediatrics journal from 1900.) As doctors improved their understanding of genetics in the first decade of the 20th century, the theory of maternal impression became less prevalent.

6. X-Rays Are Great For Your Skin

German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, and it didn’t take long for doctors to find uses for this incredible radiation. By 1900 specialists were using X-rays for tasks like removing female patients’ unwanted hair and treating their acne. While the X-rays were certainly effective at cosmetic hair removal, the risks associated with these doses of radiation far outweighed their aesthetic benefits. Despite the popularity of X-rays for acne treatment, the practice’s efficacy was never clearly demonstrated, and by the second half of the 20th century doctors abandoned the risky path.

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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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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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