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Physicists Discuss New Ideas On Fighting Illness

Physicists Discuss New Ideas On Fighting Illness

Today, in Baltimore, physicists presented several insights on fighting diseases.

Monday, March 18, 2013 - 20:45

Ben P. Stein, Contributor


(Inside Science) -- At the American Physical Society's March Meeting, the largest annual gathering of physicists in the world, researchers present their newest results on a variety of fields, including physics insights on fighting diseases. This was the topic of the first news conference at this year's meeting, which is taking place in Baltimore.

Roland Allen of Texas A&M University began with an observation that a form of stomach-reduction surgery known as the Roux-en-Y gastric bypass appears to eliminate symptoms of type 2 diabetes in an estimated 80 percent of patients and improves symptoms in 95 percent, long before any weight loss occurs. Working with colleagues at Texas A&M and the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute, he has developed a model that hypothesizes a complex interplay of processes after the surgery. According to his model, the surgery may trigger the increased secretion of a compound called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), which is known to increase insulin secretion. His model indicates there may be an additional insulin-independent pathway for facilitating glucose transport into cells. Recent studies have suggested that such an independent-insulin pathway may also occur after exercise. Diabetes complications typically occur when glucose builds up in the blood instead of moving into the cells. Asked about the next steps for testing this hypothesis, Allen said that he hopes his biomedical collaborators will begin experimental studies to perform careful analysis of blood samples after surgery in order to further refine the model.

Thomas Risler of the Institut Curie in France explored the possible role of mechanical pressure on tumor growth, particularly skin cancer. Modeling the interface between the top layer of skin known as the epidermis and the underlying layer known as the stroma, he indicated that there may be a sensitive regime of pressure at the boundary between the epidermis and stroma.  Variations in these pressures, which are normally regulated by cellular processes, may create mechanical instabilities at the boundary that can create an opportunity for cancer cells to enter. Once a tumor is present, the balance of mechanical forces can further change, leading to additional mechanisms that may trigger the spread and additional growth of tumor cells. As imbalanced mechanical forces may play a role in tumor invasion and proliferation, such insights, further tested, could lead to new treatment ideas.  

Finally, Ira Schwartz of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory suggested that adding a bit of randomness in the administration of vaccines can increase their chances of fully eradicating a disease. Currently, vaccines that address disease outbreaks, such as dengue fever and measles, are usually administered to a population roughly at the same time. Such traditional vaccination strategies, Schwartz said, might push down the incidence of a disease for a brief period of time, but may not maximize the chances of fully eradicating a disease. Administering a vaccine randomly throughout the year, he said, might create a series of successive reductions in disease cases. This, in turn, could provide a greater chance to reach zero cases, or full eradication, of a disease. While many familiar vaccination campaigns are traditionally offered to everyone at the same time during a year, he commented on the fact that vaccinations of young children, required to enter school systems, are done over much larger windows of time, and come closer to this idea of random administration, and to Schwartz's mind, is a more effective approach. Schwartz said that he and his colleagues have submitted a paper on this hypothesis, and hopes to explore this approach further.

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Ben P. Stein is a former director of Inside Science and currently the managing editor in the public affairs office at National Institute of Standards and Technology.