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One Gene Mutation Links Three Mysterious, Debilitating Diseases

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On a good day, my shoulders, knees, and hips will dislocate two to five times apiece. The slightest bump into a table or door will bloom new bruises on my arms and legs or tear a gash in the thin skin on my hands. My blood pressure will plummet each time I stand, making me feel woozy, nauseated, and weak. I’ll have trouble focusing and remembering words. I’ll run my errands from underneath an umbrella to prevent an allergic reaction to the Sun.

I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS)—a trifecta of weird diseases. POTS, EDS, and MCAS are so obscure that many doctors have never even heard of them. But a study published in Nature Genetics might help change that: Researchers have found a genetic mutation that links all three conditions.

There are at least six types of EDS, all caused by defective connective tissue. I’ve got the most common form, Hypermobility Type (EDS-HT), also known as EDS-III. EDS-HT is considered the most “benign” form—that is, it’s generally not fatal—but the chronic pain, injuries, and other symptoms it causes can easily take over a person’s life.

POTS is a form of dysautonomia, or dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS manages all the things your body does without thinking, from breathing and pumping blood to digesting food. My POTS is pretty mild; at the moment, the hardest parts are the fatigue and the cognitive issues caused by decreased blood flow to my brain. Other people are not so lucky and may need feeding tubes or constant bed rest.

MCAS, also called Mast Cell Activation Disease, is the newest and potentially the trickiest of the three. Mast cells are generally heroes in the body, helping keep the immune system alert and responsive. But some people have paranoid mast cells that can perceive just about anything (foods, medications, temperatures, deep breathing) as a threat. And when they go off, there’s no telling what will happen; researchers have implicated mast cell activation issues in dozens of symptoms and conditions, from anaphylactic shock to irritable bowel syndrome as well as dysautonomia and connective tissue problems.

People who have EDS-HT often also have POTS or MCAS or both, yet the relationships between the three remain murky. Some scientists think EDS causes POTS. Others think MCAS causes POTS and EDS. But we don’t really know, because there’s been barely any research on any of them. It’s hard to study conditions that look different in every patient (I've never met anyone else with one of these conditions who has a sunlight allergy) and have few, if any, quantifiable symptoms. Another reason for the lack of scientific interest? All three conditions are far more common in women, a trait long associated with meager research funding and minimal medical concern.

Consequently, there are no FDA-approved tests for these diseases, and there are certainly no cures. People with EDS-HT wear joint braces to reduce dislocations and are taught to manage their pain. People with POTS are prescribed beta blockers, high-sodium diets, and compression gear to keep up their blood pressure. People with MCAS are given antihistamines.

EDS-HT is typically passed from parent to child, and scientists have found genetic markers for other types of EDS, so it’s not unreasonable to think that it could be caused by mutated DNA.

Fortunately, the cost of DNA sequencing has continued to drop, and clusters of researchers around the world are beginning to take a look. The latest study, led by Joshua Milner at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, involved 96 people with EDS-HT and mast cell issues. POTS symptoms were common, especially gut problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

The study participants had another thing in common: higher-than-normal levels of a protein called tryptase in their blood. Tryptase is part of the immune system’s reaction and has been linked to a handful of core EDS-HT and POTS symptoms, Milner says.

"Tryptase can contribute to pain sensitivity," he told me. "It can contribute to blood vessels doing funny things, and it can contribute to how your connective tissue, your bones and joints, are made."

Most people with mast cell issues actually have normal levels of tryptase, so the group Milner and his colleagues tested represented just a small subset of mast cell patients. But that subset did seem to have a unique genetic signature: an extra copy of a gene called TPSAB1. Under normal circumstances, TPSAB1 makes a form of tryptase called alpha-tryptase. People with a double dose of the gene are getting a double dose of the protein, too.

Armed with this clue, the researchers then went back through thousands of patient records for healthy people. When they looked at the DNA results of people with high tryptase levels, they found that all of them also had the TPSAB1 mutation. The scientists then interviewed a number of these supposedly hearty specimens and found that all of them were living with symptoms that sounded suspiciously similar to those of EDS-HT, POTS, and MCAS. They'd just never been diagnosed. (This is unsurprising—the average time to diagnosis for a person with EDS-HT is 10 years.)

In short, Milner and his team had discovered a genetic biomarker for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Now, EDS-HT is a very variable condition, and the few experts that do exist suspect it's actually a bunch of different diseases called by the same name. Still, this finding represents one possible clinical test for what has been an un-testable illness.

Alpha-tryptase is a funny thing. About 30 percent of people don't make it at all, and they seem just fine without it, which means that a potential treatment pathway for the EDS-HT/MCAS/POTS hat trick could involve simply shutting down the alpha-tryptase factory.

It’s "interesting work," says Lawrence Afrin, a hematologist at the University of Minnesota. He told me the study represents "early progress toward further unraveling these illnesses." And Afrin should know: he's one of the leading MCAS experts in the country.

He agrees that alpha-tryptase could be a promising avenue for treatment. "But if I've learned anything about [MCAS]," he says, "it's that it's incredibly complex. Hopefully, with another 10,000 studies, we'll make 10,000 more bits of progress."

In the meantime, people with EDS, POTS, and MCAS have found other ways to cope. Communities of patients have popped up in cities across the globe and all over Twitter, Tumblr, and elsewhere on the web. These illnesses can be incredibly isolating and lonely—but, as I've learned, none of us are alone.

If you recognize yourself or your symptoms in this story, read up on the basics of EDS, MCAS, and POTS, and brace yourself for an uphill battle.

"Find a local physician who’s willing to learn," Afrin advises.

"And try to be patient," Milner says. "I know it's hard, but stick with it. We're all figuring this out together."

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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