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Scientists May Be Able to Recycle Used Organs

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A pancreas is a terrible thing to waste, yet hundreds of the donated organs are thrown out each year. That may change: Scientists now say they've found a way to recycle the used organs into new pancreases.

A healthy pancreas helps its owner digest his or her food, and releases the chemicals that help regulate blood sugar. Unfortunately, many people don’t have healthy pancreases. More than a million Americans have been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a disease caused by a dysfunctional pancreas. But only a few of those people will get a new pancreas: only three out of every 10,000 people with type 1 diabetes will ever get a pancreas or pancreas cell transplant.

There are a few reasons for this. First, pancreases (or “pancreata,” to use the plural preferred by scientists) don’t grow on trees. The pool of donated pancreata is pretty small to begin with. Then there’s the fact that about 25 percent of these organs will be deemed defective and discarded. Lastly, organ transplant is currently a grueling and risky process. There’s a very real possibility that a person’s body will reject the new organ. To make matters worse, the drugs used to prevent that rejection are really hard on the body, and they have to be taken for the rest of a person’s life.

Two of these challenges—wasting donated organs and a lifetime of unpleasant drugs—may be close to solutions. Scientists from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and elsewhere believe they’ve found a way to recycle donated pancreata that may also cut down on the need for rejection-prevention medication. Their findings were recently published in the Annals of Surgery.

The recycling begins with a process called decellularization, which literally removes an organ’s cells. The organs are washed with special mild detergents that strip out the cells while leaving the organ’s framework, or extracellular matrix, intact. Into this scaffolding, the researchers say, they can insert cells from the transplant patient. The result is a brand-new pancreas made largely from the patient’s own body, which eliminates the risk that the transplant will be rejected, thereby eliminating the need for anti-rejection drugs.

At this point, it’s all fairly theoretical. The researchers started with 25 real human pancreases, but the finished products were not implanted into people. The researchers did, however, run tests on the new pancreas structures to find out how they would affect a live immune system. Unlike organs taken directly from donors, the recycled pancreata cells seemed to have a calming effect on the immune system, which made it far more likely that they wouldn’t be rejected. 

Decellularization itself is not a new concept, but these researchers are among the first to show the process could be used to create whole human organs.

"The early results are encouraging," lead author Giuseppe Orlando said in a press release. "We believe this research represents the first critical step toward a fully human-derived artificial pancreas."

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Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
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Medicine
Bill and Melinda Gates Will Repay Nigeria's $76 Million Polio-Fighting Loan
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

Not long after announcing a $100 million donation to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease, Bill and Melinda Gates have agreed to pay off Japan's $76 million loan to Nigeria to stamp out polio, Quartz reports.

Polio has been eradicated in most countries around the world, but it's still present in Nigeria, as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2008, according to The Conversation, Nigeria accounted for 86 percent of all polio cases in Africa. This high number was thanks in part to low immunization rates and calls from extremists to boycott polio vaccinations out of fear that they were tainted with anti-fertility steroids.

National and international campaigns were launched to lower polio rates in Nigeria, and in 2014 the nation received the loan from Japan to boost disease-fighting efforts. Progress has been made since then, with no new cases of polio reported in Nigeria in 2017. Two children had contracted polio in 2016, two years after Nigeria's last known case.

Nigeria's loan repayments to Japan were slated to begin in 2018. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to cover the costs after Nigeria met its goal of "achieving more than 80 percent vaccination coverage in at least one round each year in very high risk areas across 80 percent of the country's local government areas," Quartz reports. The loan will be repaid over the next 20 years.

While the Gates Foundation is lending a hand to Nigeria, the Associated Press reports that health officials in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province recently launched a new chapter in the nation's ongoing struggle against the disease. Health workers will engage in a week-long, door-to-door vaccination campaign, though efforts like this are risky due to threats from the Taliban and other militant groups, who view vaccinations as a Western conspiracy and believe they sterilize children. Anti-polio efforts in Pakistan also suffered after the CIA used vaccinations as a cover to get DNA samples from the Bin Laden compound.

[h/t Quartz]

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George Mayerle, U.S. National Library of Medicine // Public Domain
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Design
This 1907 Vision Test Was Designed for People of All Nationalities
George Mayerle, U.S. National Library of Medicine // Public Domain
George Mayerle, U.S. National Library of Medicine // Public Domain

At the turn of the 20th century, San Francisco was a diverse place. In fact, Angel Island Immigration Station, located on an island in the San Francisco Bay, was known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” processing some 300,000 people coming to the U.S. in the early 1900s. George Mayerle, a German optometrist working in the city at the time, encountered this diversity of languages and cultures every day in his practice. So in the 1890s, Mayerle created what was billed as “the only [eye] chart published that can be used by people of any nationality,” as The Public Domain Review alerts us.

Anticipating the difficulty immigrants, like those from China or Russia, would face when trying to read a vision test made solely with Roman letters for English-speaking readers, he designed a test that included multiple scripts. For his patients that were illiterate, he included symbols. It features two different styles of Roman scripts for English-speaking and European readers, and characters in Cyrillic, Hebrew, Japanese, and Chinese scripts as well as drawings of dogs, cats, and eyes designed to test the vision of children and others who couldn't read.

The chart, published in 1907 and measuring 22 inches by 28 inches, was double-sided, featuring black text on a white background on one side and white text on a black background on the other. According to Stephen P. Rice, an American studies professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey, there are other facets of the chart designed to test for a wide range of vision issues, including astigmatism and color vision.

As he explains in the 2012 history of the National Library of Medicine’s collections, Hidden Treasure [PDF], the worldly angle was partly a marketing strategy on Mayerle’s part. (He told fellow optometrists that the design “makes a good impression and convinces the patient of your professional expertness.”)

But that doesn’t make it a less valuable historical object. As Rice writes, “the ‘international’ chart is an artifact of an immigrant nation—produced by a German optician in a polyglot city where West met East (and which was then undergoing massive rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake)—and of a globalizing economy.”

These days, you probably won’t find a doctor who still uses Mayerle’s chart. But some century-old vision tests are still in use today. Shinobu Ishihara’s design for a visual test for colorblindness—those familiar circles filled with colored dots that form numbers in the center—were first sold internationally in 1917, and they remain the most popular way to identify deficiencies in color vision.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]

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