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Man bites back at killer dog bites with smart optics



Non-invasive diagnostics such as light scanners and swabs are increasingly used to diagnose illness in people. Now EU-backed scientists are trying to extend the techniques to the treatment of pets.

There are an estimated 90 million dogs living as pets in European households. Having a dog in the family can make people more physically active. It can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. It can also improve the lives of older individuals – petting a dog has been shown to help reduce blood pressure.  

But even though there is a dog living in almost 40% of European homes, there is one relatively small concern. Capnocytophaga canimorsus is a bacteria that lives in the saliva of dogs that can infect people and cause serious disease.

Although it lives in the mouths of dogs and cats harmlessly most of the time, on rare occasions, if a dog bites or licks a cut, some strains of the microbe can trigger a devastating disease in people. 

Rare condition

The condition is rare, with around four cases per million inhabitants per annum. As difficult to treat as it is to pronounce, Capnocytophaga canimorsus can travel from the saliva of the dog to the blood of the person when a dog licks a scratch or an abrasion. 

‘The name is canimorsus, which is Latin for dog bite,’ said Dr Francesco Renzi, microbiologist at the University of Namur, Belgium, ‘And that is clearly the main infection route.’ 

Capnocytophaga canimorsus almost never causes illnesses in young healthy people. However, it can cause severe illness in those with compromised immune systems, those with damaged or no spleens and people suffering from alcoholism.

‘People more than 60 years old are also more at risk, maybe because of their immune status,’ said Dr Renzi. 

The number of bacteria in the blood can spike, and cause high fever, flu-like symptoms and pain. ‘There are no specific symptoms, and the infection is quite rare,’ said Dr Renzi. This makes it less likely for a doctor to suspect infection with these bacteria.

Septic shock

Around 30% of cases result in death, and many who survive endure amputation due to gangrene. A patient may also suffer from sepsis and multi-organ failure.

While antibiotics, given early, kill the microbe, identifying Capnocytophaga canimorsus can be very difficult, even in hospital labs.

‘What is important is for physicians to talk to patients and ask if they have a dog, if they have been bitten recently,’ said Dr Renzi. A bite wound might not become infected, so it is not obvious that the infection entered this way. 

Dr Renzi’s Belgian lab collected saliva from 285 dogs and identified Capnocytophaga canimorsus in 83% of them using a PCR test they developed for the CANITEST project.

They also established that the most harmful bacteria that causes the majority of human illnesses is present in only around 10% of dogs.

Dr Renzi advises dog owners in the 88m European households where dogs live, to wash themselves after contact with their pet’s saliva and to not allow a dog to lick an open wound or cut.  

Dog diagnostics

Dr Blaž Cugmas is a young researcher whose big passion in life is to improve animal health. He is especially interested in how technology can be used by veterinarians to diagnose and treat pets.

After completing his PhD in his native Slovenia, Dr Cugmas moved to a lab in Riga, Latvia, which is renowned for biophotonics.

Biophotonics is a light-based method used in medicine, for example when smartphone cameras are used to analyse skin lesions for cancer.

‘Most of these technologies have been developed for humans,’ said Dr Cugmas, ‘And they cannot just be translated to animals.’

The challenge was how to use biophotonics to diagnose illness in pets.

Dr Cugmas set about developing technologies and prototypes that vets could use on animal patients as part of the dogSPEC project.

Blood sensor

Today, anyone can buy pulse oximeters, a device that shines light through a finger to a sensor on the other side. It detects blood colour and thereby computes blood oxygen levels. A dramatic fall in blood oxygen, for example, can indicate serious illness.

Dr Cugmas applied his prototype pet pulse oximeter to different locations around the body of cats and dogs to test the animals’ condition.

‘We showed that there are some locations where you can apply a pulse oximeter and get a strong signal,’ he said. This could be used by a vet to help diagnose an illness, to be validated with other tests. A speedier diagnosis will lead to better outcomes for our furry friends.

Pet thermometer

Another diagnostic device people use, but not normally pets, is an infrared thermometer. This is often used to measure body temperature of children when held close to their forehead. The devices have become widely familiar since they are used to check people’s temperature in Covid-19 pandemic conditions.

Such a device for pets would be incredibly useful, said Dr Cugmas, because normally a vet must apply a thermometer into the rectum of their patient.

‘As you can imagine, this is not very popular with the animal. Cats especially don’t tolerate this very well,’ he said. Dr Cugmas is trying to develop a handheld IR thermometer suitable for pets. He also has a license to practice as a veterinarian.

This is a very practical challenge. Ideally, measuring temperature would be the start of a clinical examination, yet many vets avoid it, ‘because you will irritate the animal so much that you lose their cooperation,’ said Dr Cugmas.

Skin redness

Dr Cugmas is also developing a mobile dermatoscope for pets. This device would use light to assess the redness, or erythema, of an animal’s skin.

In humans, a dermatoscope is used by medical specialists to scrutinise marks that could signal melanoma skin cancer.

While dogs and cats rarely get skin cancer, skin colour changes can be markers for a serious condition. For example, a dog’s skin might flare up as red and itchy if they have an allergic reaction.

‘We are trying to use smartphone cameras, which have a mobile dermatoscope attached, to try to measure skin erythema,’ said Dr Cugmas. He demonstrated its potential in a study of 43 dogs with skin dermatitis in January 2021.

Dog-proof devices

Work is ongoing to physically strengthen devices, since some excitable dogs have in the past knocked over the prototypes and damaged them. Also, given the nature of the patient, it’s important to make the devices chew-proof.

Professor Janis Spigulis is a physicist working in the same biophotonics lab in Riga. He praises the work of his colleague in transferring light-based diagnostic technology to pets.

‘Blaž is trying to stick to the same approaches and to make some devices that are specific for animals,’ he said.

‘Many optical technologies are unknown to veterinarians, so this interdisciplinary interaction is very positive and he has achieved good results.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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Health & Wellness

Boosting brain function in later life through singing



Ask anyone in a choir why they enjoy it, and they will tell you about the euphoric effects singing has on their mental health. A team of neuroscientists and clinical psychologists based at the University of Helsinki (Finland) believe these benefits could extend to improving brain function and treating aphasia.

Professor Teppo Särkämö is studying how ageing affects the way singing is processed by the brain, which could have important therapeutic applications. ‘We know a lot about speech processing, but not much about singing. We’re exploring how different singing related functions might be preserved in many neurological diseases,’ he explained.

For people with aphasia, a condition which severely impairs communication and is commonly caused by stroke, communication can be almost impossible as they struggle to sound out the right words. Yet, through a technique known as ‘melodic intonation therapy’ – whereby people are asked to sing an everyday sentence instead of speaking it – quite incredibly they often find a voice.

Coordinator of the PREMUS project, Prof Särkämö and his team are using similar methods, scaling-up the approach through specially-run ‘senior choirs’ that involve aphasic patients and their families. The scientists are exploring how singing could play an important rehabilitative role for cases of aphasia and might prevent cognitive decline too.

Hitting the right notes

The PREMUS study is coordinated with a local aphasia organisation in Helsinki and involves around 25 people per choir, both aphasia patients and their family caregivers. Results of the trial show encouraging results.

‘Ultimately, the aim through our work with persons with aphasia is to use singing as a tool to train speech production and eventually enable them to communicate without singing. But through the choirs we are beginning to see how this approach is translating to people’s daily life as an important communication tool,’ said Särkämö.

Alongside an aphasia choir, the team has also carried out extensive fMRI brain scans of young, middle aged and older adults who participate in choirs to understand why singing is so important at different life stages. Their results indicate that as we age, the brain networks involved in singing undergo fewer changes than those that process speech, suggesting that singing is more widespread in the brain and more resilient to ageing.

Their studies also suggest that being actively engaged in singing, as opposed to listening to choral music for example, is crucial. ‘When you’re singing, you are engaging in the frontal and parietal systems in the brain where you regulate your own behaviour, and you use more of your motor and cognitive resources in terms of vocal control and executive functions,’ said Särkämö.

Early results from a longitudinal study, which compared neurocognitive functioning between members of senior choirs and healthy older adults (who do not sing) showed the positive effects of singing on cognitive and auditory functioning and the importance of the social interaction it brings, which may help delay the onset of dementia.

Choir members performed better in neuropsychological tests, reported fewer cognitive difficulties, and had higher social integration. Electroencephalogram measurements of the same groups suggest that the choir singers had more advanced higher-level auditory processing abilities, especially for combining pitch and location information in frontotemporal brain regions, something Särkämö attributes to the complexity of the sound environment in choir singing.

The next step will be to replicate and expand this work with senior choirs for patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and to develop a large-scale clinical trial to test the effect. The challenge, however, is likely to be different with Alzheimer’s: whereas patients may remember songs from their past, Särkämö is unsure to what extent they can learn and retain new lyrics.

He is both optimistic and realistic about this work. ‘This is all about trying to stimulate the remaining networks in the brain. We believe singing could help to regain some of those functions, but of course with Alzheimer’s it’s a brutal, progressive disorder so it’s a matter of buying more time and trying to slow down the pattern of decline happening already.’

Same song sheet

Someone else firmly focused on responding to the challenges of an ageing population is Christian A. Drevon, Professor of medicine at the University of Oslo (Norway). Drevon is a specialist in biomarkers and is now using his expertise to understand the different factors affecting neurocognitive function in the EU-funded Lifebrain project.

’Most studies about Alzheimer’s are cross-sectional where you take a group of people, look at a certain time and associate certain things with those who have the disease and those who don’t,’ he explained. ‘However, this is often not causal; you can’t tell if it’s the reason for the disease or if it’s just a consequence of it.’

To really understand what’s happening with Alzheimer’s and dementia, data are needed for individuals spanning periods both when they are healthy and when they are not, to tease apart what has gone wrong. Unpicking this question is the primary aim of Lifebrain, coordinated by psychologists Professors Kristine Walhovd and Anders Fjell.

By pooling pre-existing MRI brain scan data from people right across Europe, the Lifebrain project has analysed the significance of a range of different factors on cognition when we age and how this might vary between individuals.

To analyse over 40 000 brain scans from more than 5 000 people aged 1880 across seven countries, the first challenge was to harmonise the data. Do MRI scans in Sweden and Spain produce the same results? To ensure they do, Lifebrain sent eight participants around Europe to be scanned and to adjust equipment accordingly.

All psychological tests (including cognitive tests) and other collected data (body weight; demographic; genetic; and lifestyle data, including sleep and diet) were harmonised.

Next, the team linked MRI data with additional databases which uncovered new insights about how where you live and what access you have to green space might help lower dementia risk. Conversely, it also helped to reveal how education and sleep may be less important for future risk of dementia than previously assumed.  

‘Lots of studies have claimed education is really important for reducing the risk of dementia. But if you follow people longitudinally through life there’s actually no association,’ said Drevon. ‘That doesn’t mean education isn’t important; it means it’s probably not true that education will prevent you from developing dementia. We have to search for other factors of importance.’

Given the expense of MRIs, Drevon suggests tiny blood samples (dried blood spots) could be taken by finger-prick without professional support to provide individual insights in the future. Analysed in an advanced laboratory like Vitas Ltd – Lifebrain partner – this could be a game-changer in providing tailored, online advice about individual risks.

‘If you really want to improve lifestyle, you probably have to personalise it. You have to measure several factors on an individual level across the life course,’ he said. ‘Our best chance of fighting cognitive decline and dementia will come from early preventative measures using this lifespan data approach.’

Work out songs

In time Prof Drevon hopes these personalised insights could help delay or potentially eradicate certain aspects of dementia. In the meantime, what about singing to stave off cognitive decline as proposed by Särkämö through the PREMUS project? Does he agree singing could be an important preventative step?

‘Well, the brain is like a muscle. If you train it, you make it fit, and if you use your brain for singing, it’s complicated, there are a lot of processes, it’s about remembering. Of course, there are other ways of training the brain, but singing is a very good example of how you can help to improve brain function.’  

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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Health & Wellness

The Benefits Of Feeding Your Baby Organic Formula



There are many benefits that come from feeding your baby formula milk, not to mention that it is much easier and allows for mothers to be more flexible with their schedule. There is no need for mom to worry about what she is and is not putting in her body and not breastfeeding means that dad can share the feeding duty as well.

However, when it comes to using formula milk, the last thing any parent wants is to be feeding their beloved child with one that contains lots of nasty and / or potentially harmful chemicals that impact on both their growth and their overall general health /wellbeing.

Organic baby formula is the perfect choice then in order to ensure that your baby gets everything that they need to grow up and develop into a happy and healthy child. There are many brands nowadays that produce organic baby formula milk and you can buy it online from MyOrganicCompany; learn more about the company and its products by clicking the link.

There are many different benefits to feeding your baby organic formula milk with some of the most significant ones listed below for you to read in detail.

It does not contain any synthetic ingredients

As opposed to conventional baby formula milk, the organic stuff is free from any ingredients that are synthetic. Synthetic ingredients should not be going anywhere near the insides of a delicate newborn baby. In addition to this, none organic baby formulas typically contain artificial sweeteners that can seriously damage a young child’s health.

When consumed regularly, many babies build up an intolerance to the synthetic and artificial ingredients found in conventional baby formula. Over time, they may experience certain gastrointestinal health issues as a result. This includes things like constipation and / or diarrhea. By feeding your baby a formula milk that is free of synthetic ingredients, you do not have to worry about it happening to them.

It contains lots of nutrients

While a formula milk tasting nice can encourage a baby to feed, the main goal here is to get all of the required nutrients and minerals into them so that they can grow into a strong and healthy child. With organic baby formula, being dense in nutrients is the main priority and so typically it is jam packed full of the correct blend of vitamins, such as Vitamin E, that are necessary for the healthy functioning of the red blood cells, immune system, and organs of your baby. The great thing about Vitamin E is that it is also an antioxidant and so it works to protect your child’s body from being attacked by free radicals.

This is why you should feed your baby organic formula milk rather than the none organic stuff. The most nutrient rich organic baby formulas are in fact those from European countries as they pay extra close attention to what good stuff goes into the formula milk.

It is advantageous to mental development

Organic baby formula milk is also much better for the mental development of your baby. As well as having way more nutrients, this type of formula milk also contains the perfect amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids, including Omega 3 fatty acids. These nutrients are particularly beneficial to your baby’s health as they help significantly in mental development (as well as physical development).

Mental issues, such as depression and anxiety, are often things that affect people for the whole of their life and so it is, of course advisable to dry and avoid these things from happening in the very first place. Getting a good amount of both Omega 3 fatty acids and all other types of polyunsaturated fatty acids is therefore essential for preventing mental development issues from occurring.

Getting these nutrients can also go some way to making your child more communicative and more intelligent. Additionally, they can prevent certain behavioral issues from arising also. Finally, if your baby has lots of these types of nutrients in them, it makes them more protected from conditions, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and even cerebral palsy.

It does not contain any GMOs

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are in a large proportion of the foods that we eat nowadays. These organisms are not good for adults to consume and so are even worse for developing babies to feed on. It has been estimated that in the United States, almost as much as 75 percent of all food items available in grocery stores have some amount of GMO ingredients in them. By using organic baby formula milk, you can ensure that your little bundle of joy is not consuming any of these harmful GMOs or any synthetic ingredients at all.

When it comes to what we put into our bodies and that of our offspring, natural is always the best option to go with. Nowaday cows are constantly being pumped full of various different pesticides, antibiotics, and so much more and this will eventually end up coming out in the milk they produce. If you feed this milk to your baby then no doubt they will be consuming some of these harmful chemicals.

Rather than having this worry, it is good to know that the organic baby formula milk that you are bringing your child up on is free from all of these harmful things, whilst at the same time being full of all of the good stuff that they need to thrive.

It comes with lots of choice

It may be the case that your baby has specific dietary requirements that need to be met in order for them to get all of the nutrients and goodness that they need. They may even be suffering from certain health conditions, such as constipation and / or gas and organic baby formula milk can help to alleviate some of the symptoms associated with these things.

There also exist a wide range of organic formulas to treat common infant / childhood allergies.

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Health & Wellness

Health Leaders Stress Need for Coordinated Global Response to Tackle Pandemics



Improved global coordination and regional capacity building will help ensure the world is better prepared for the next pandemic, said leading health experts at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2022.

“We must not lose this moment of potential transformative change in building preparedness,” said Helen E. Clark, Board Chair, Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health, World Health Organization (WHO). “Unfortunately, political resolve to solve COVID is beginning to fade.”

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging in many countries. “To date, the African continent has fully vaccinated just 18% of its adult population.” This is mostly due to the lack of virus testing and vaccine administration capacity, he said.

“Investing in health systems and regional bodies like Africa CDC and African Medicines Agency must be a key priority. We have to act in the full expectation that there will be another pandemic.”

Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said it was critical to identify and isolate viral outbreaks early. “Infectious disease is an exponential phenomenon and less than 2% of overall deaths occur in the first 100 days.”

“Unfortunately, much of the world’s pandemic risk resides in countries which don’t have the capacity to respond quickly and effectively,” he said. “You have to have global capacity if you are serious about pandemics.”

Peter Sands, Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, argued for the need for “multi-pathogen infrastructure and capacity”. That is, to ensure that broad public health surveillance and infrastructure are available across the infectious disease spectrum.

“We need to finish the job – and we can do that by investing intelligently in infrastructure like lab networks, community health workers, supply chains and simultaneously help countries defeat HIV, TB and malaria as well as make them safer against future pathogens,” he said.

Francis deSouza, President and CEO of Illumina, predicted that the pandemic will launch the world into what he describes as the “Era of Biology” in which human health, longevity and biology will underpin the 21st century.

“The amount of breakthrough innovations that have occurred during the pandemic period is unprecedented,” he said. On the sequencing front, for example, the price has dropped 99% over the past few years. This has enabled us to deploy sequencing around the world to over 190 countries”.

He added: “However, we are only as strong as the weakest among us, hence we need to build a global infrastructure and have a coordinated global response to the next outbreak.”

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