Health Scan: Buckyballs may score a goal against MS

Also in this issue: Wait before drinking hot drinks.

health scan 88 (photo credit: )
health scan 88
(photo credit: )
Fullerenes - molecules of pure carbon named after architect Buckminster Fuller and the spherical geodesic domes he invented - are being exploited by Tel Aviv University and Harvard Medical School researchers for the treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS). In partnership with a group including Prof. Howard Weiner from Brigham and Women's Hospital at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Michael Gozin from TAU's school of chemistry is attempting to create the next-generation MS drug based on a delivery platform of fullerenes (also known as buckyballs). They believe these tiny structures can function as "invigorating antioxidants" to keep neurons in the brain alive. In MS, which usually attacks by the age of 40, the immune system mistakenly considers the myelin sheath around nerves as a "stranger" and attacks it, causing weakness, paralysis and lack of function. There are an estimated 350,000 Americans with MS and a few thousand Israelis with the disease. The researchers believe that fullerenes (and related carbon nanotubes) can be used in sensors and electronic applications for making much smaller and faster processors. The TAU and Harvard teams hope they can resolve problems related to this nanomaterial development, and are seeking to commercialize their invention. If successful, the TAU-Harvard collaboration could provide new hope to millions of MS sufferers. They are the first in the world to have synthesized a brain-targeted antioxidant to treat affected neurons in the brain. Pre-clinical trials, the researchers report, have proven successful in animal models but not yet in patients. They are also attempting to apply the same technology to the treatment of Alzheimers, but an effective treatment for MS is their primary goal. Israel is already prominent in developing drugs to minimize attacks of MS with drugs such as Copaxone. But Gozin, whose wide-ranging research has included work on classified projects for the US Department of Defense, says he "had a dream, an idea for a new kind of drug." He took it to Weiner, and the two began a collaboration. "I wanted to target with antioxidants specific receptors in the brain that are involved in the disease progress, and thus stall the deterioration of motor function in MS sufferers," Gozin says. "We've created a molecule based on the C60 fullerene, a soccer-ball-shape with great biomedical potential," says Gozin. The TAU team, including graduate student Amnon Bar-Shir, was the first to synthesize and patent this application, which is "programmed" to target specific receptors in the brain. "We are presently working on the next generation of this type of molecules, containing less exotic and more natural building blocks," Gozin concludes. WAIT TO DRINK HOT BEVERAGES Downing very hot drinks such as tea (or coffee or even soup) can increase the risk of esophageal cancer, according to a new study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). The research, carried out in northern Iran, was accompanied by a journal editorial that advised people to wait a few minutes before drinking a cup of freshly-boiled tea, because drinking a liquid at 70°C or more can harm the tube (which is coated with epithelial tissue) that runs from the throat to the stomach. Large amounts of hot tea are drunk every day in Iran. Esophageal cancer kills more than 500,000 people annually around the world; esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC) is the commonest type. In Europe and America, it is mainly caused by tobacco and alcohol use, and is more common in men than in women, but drinking hot beverages is also thought to be a risk factor. Golestan Province in northern Iran has one of the highest rates of ESCC in the world, but rates of smoking and alcohol consumption are low. Tea drinking, however, is widespread, so researchers set out to investigate a possible link between tea-drinking habits and ESCC. They studied tea-drinking habits among 300 Iranians diagnosed with the cancer and compared them to a group of 571 healthy controls from the same area. Nearly all participants drank an average of one liter of hot black tea a day. Compared with drinking warm or lukewarm tea (65ºC or less), drinking hot tea (65-69º) was associated with twice the risk of esophageal cancer, and drinking very hot tea (over 70º) was associated with an eight-fold increased risk. There was no connection between the amount of tea consumed and the cancer risk. UK residents, by comparison, prefer to drink their tea at 56-60ºC. Dr. David Whiteman from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Australia editorialized that the study supports the idea that thermal injury may be a cause of epithelial cancers, though he notes that the way in which heat promotes tumor development is not clear. But Whiteman stresses that these findings are not cause for alarm, and people should not reduce their tea intake, which is generally considered beneficial. Instead he suggests waiting at least four minutes before drinking a cup of freshly boiled tea and allowing foods and beverages to cool from "scalding" to "tolerable" before swallowing.