A paralysed woman who controlled a robotic arm using just her thoughts has taken another step towards restoring her natural movements by controlling the arm with a range of complex hand movements.
Thanks to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, Jan Scheuermann, who has longstanding quadriplegia and has been taking part in the study for over two years, has gone from giving "high fives" to the "thumbs-up" after increasing the manoeuvrability of the robotic arm from seven dimensions (7D) to 10 dimensions (10D).
The extra dimensions come from four hand movements--finger abduction, a scoop, thumb extension and a pinch--and have enabled Jan to pick up, grasp and move a range of objects much more precisely than with the previous 7D control.
It is hoped that these latest results, which have been published today, 17 December, in IOP Publishing's Journal of Neural Engineering, can build on previous demonstrations and eventually allow robotic arms to restore natural arm and hand movements in people with upper limb paralysis.
Jan Scheuermann, 55, from Pittsburgh, PA had been paralysed from the neck down since 2003 due to a neurodegenerative condition. After her eligibility for a research study was confirmed in 2012, Jan underwent surgery to be fitted with two quarter-inch electrode grids, each fitted with 96 tiny contact points, in the regions of Jan's brain that were responsible for right arm and hand movements.
After the electrode grids in Jan's brain were connected to a computer, creating a brain-machine interface (BMI), the 96 individual contact points picked up pulses of electricity that were fired between the neurons in Jan's brain.
Computer algorithms were used to decode these firing signals and identify the patterns associated with a particular arm movement, such as raising the arm or turning the wrist.
By simply thinking of controlling her arm movements, Jan was then able to make the robotic arm reach out to objects, as well as move it in a number of directions and flex and rotate the wrist. It also enabled Jan to "high five" the researchers and feed herself dark chocolate.
Two years on from the initial results, the researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have now shown that Jan can successfully manoeuvre the robotic arm in a further four dimensions through a number of hand movements, allowing for more detailed interaction with objects.
The researchers used a virtual reality computer program to calibrate Jan's control over the robotic arm, and discovered that it is crucial to include virtual objects in this training period in order to allow reliable, real-time interaction with objects.
Co-author of the study Dr Jennifer Collinger said: "10D control allowed Jan to interact with objects in different ways, just as people use their hands to pick up objects depending on their shapes and what they intend to do with them. We hope to repeat this level of control with additional participants and to make the system more robust, so that people who might benefit from it will one day be able to use brain-machine interfaces in daily life.
"We also plan to study whether the incorporation of sensory feedback, such as the touch and feel of an object, can improve neuroprosthetic control."
Commenting on the latest results, Jan Scheuermann said: ""This has been a fantastic, thrilling, wild ride, and I am so glad I've done this."
"This study has enriched my life, given me new friends and co-workers, helped me contribute to research and taken my breath away. For the rest of my life, I will thank God every day for getting to be part of this team."
At birth, a newborn baby is still attached to its mother through the umbilical cord, which is either cut very early - within the first 60 seconds - or later, with some women opting to wait until after the cord has stopped pulsating. Though the right timing for cutting the cord - also referred to as clamping - is widely debated, a new study suggests delaying cord clamping by 2 minutes results in better development for the newborn during the first days of life.
What do you think about it? Do you think the 2 minutes makes a difference? Perhaps you can share a personal and/or professional experience about this.
The research, carried out by scientists from the University of Granada and the San Cecilio Clinical Hospital in Spain, is published in the journal Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the reason that cord clamping timing is so controversial is that a previous series of studies into blood volume changes after birth concluded that in healthy term infants, more than 90% of blood volume was attained within the first few breaths he or she took after birth.
As a result of these findings, as well as a lack of other recommendations regarding optimal timing, the amount of time between birth and umbilical cord clamping was widely shortened; in most cases, cord clamping occurs within 15-20 seconds after birth.
However, before these studies, in the mid-1950s, cord clamping within 1 minute of birth was defined as "early clamping," and "late clamping" was defined as more than 5 minutes after birth. And the ACOG have stated that "the ideal timing for umbilical cord clamping has yet to be established."
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) advocate for late cord clamping (between 1-3 minutes after birth), as it "allows blood flow between the placenta and neonate to continue, which may improve iron status in the infant for up to 6 months after birth."
Waiting 2 minutes increased antioxidant capacity
To provide further evidence in the debate of early versus late cord clamping, the researchers from this latest study, led by Prof. Julio José Ochoa Herrera of the University of Granada, assessed newborn outcomes for infants born to 64 healthy pregnant women to determine the impact of clamping timing on oxidative stress and the inflammatory signal produced during delivery.
All of these women had a normal pregnancy and spontaneous vaginal delivery. However, half of the women's newborns had their umbilical cord cut 10 seconds after delivery and half had it cut after 2 minutes.
Results revealed beneficial effects of late cord clamping; there was an increase in antioxidant capacity and moderation of inflammatory effects in the newborns.
Commenting further, Prof. Ochoa says:
"Our study demonstrates that late clamping of the umbilical cord has a beneficial effect upon the antioxidant capacity and reduces the inflammatory signal induced during labor, which could improve the development of the newborn during his or her first days of life."
He adds that umbilical cord clamping is one of the most frequent surgical interventions practiced in humans, with proof of the practice dating back centuries.
Early clamping 'not advised unless newborn needs resuscitation'
With evidence of benefits for delayed cord clamping, however, why are most newborns separated from the placenta within 15-20 seconds after birth? According to the ACOG, there are concerns over universally adopting delayed clamping because it could "jeopardize timely resuscitation efforts, if needed, especially in preterm infants."
"However," the organization states, "because the placenta continues to perform gas exchange after delivery, sick and preterm infants are likely to benefit most from additional blood volume derived from a delay in umbilical cord clamping."
There are also other concerns regarding delayed cord clamping, including an increased potential for "excessive placental transfusion, which can lead to neonatal polycythemia" - an abnormally high level of red blood cells. This is especially of concern in the presence of risk factors including maternal diabetes, intrauterine grown restriction and high altitude.
Another concern stated by the ACOG is that delayed umbilical cord clamping "may be technically difficult in some circumstances."
Still, the WHO say late cord clamping is recommended for all births, and the improved iron status associated with it "may be particularly relevant for infants living in low-resource settings with reduced access to iron-rich foods."
The organization clearly states that early cord clamping - less than 1 minute after birth - is not advised unless the newborn is asphyxiated and needs to be moved for resuscitation.
By SYDNEY LUPKIN
What does a 9-year-old want after being struck by lightning and forced to spend three months in the hospital? He wants to cuddle his dog and set up his family's Christmas tree.
"He made me do it the first day I was home on Friday," the boy's father, Roger Hermann, told ABC News. "He can't move his legs, but he was directing some of the ornament placement."
Alex Hermann was on a soccer field in Austin, Texas, on Aug. 26, when a bolt of lightning struck him and stopped his heart. He suffered burn wounds and hypoxia, which is when the brain can't get enough oxygen.
Over the next three months, Alex underwent skin-grafting and wound-closure surgeries, as well as cardiac ablation, which corrects heart arrhythmias, at Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas. He still has a "number of issues" to address over time, but he's improving.
Although the hospital staff was great, Hermann said, Alex became homesick. Hermann added that he and Alex's mother promised that if he worked hard in therapy, they would try to get him home for Christmas.
Alex was also reunited with his beloved dog, a Catahoula Australian shepherd named Spice, who seemed pleased to have her buddy back.
"She sleeps on the bed with him," Hermann said. "She’s been guarding him."
By Meera Senthilingam
Its name means "bending over in pain." It has no treatment or vaccine. Its symptoms resemble Dengue fever. And it has infected more than 1 million people -- 155 of them fatally -- since spreading to the Americas one year ago.
The mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus has long been diagnosed in travelers returning from countries in Asia and Africa, where the disease is widespread. But in December 2013, the first people infected by mosquitoes local to the region were reported on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin.
This was the first outbreak of the debilitating disease in the Western hemisphere, health officials said.
All countries in Central America have now reported local transmission of Chikungunya [pronounced chik-un-GOON-ya], and the United States had 11 confirmed cases of local infection this year as of December 12, all in the state of Florida. There also have been 1,900 imported cases across the U.S. in returning travelers.
"It wasn't until 2013 that unfortunately a traveler resulted in local transmission of Chikungunya," said Erin Staples of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), referring to the people infected in Saint Martin.
Those infected carry the virus in their bloodstream; it can then be picked up by mosquitoes as they bite, making them carriers. The virus has since spread rapidly and shows no signs of leaving, as ecological conditions are perfect for the disease to flourish.
"We knew it would spread," said Staples, a medical epidemiologist.
The big question perplexing officials: Why now?
Two mosquito species primed to the temperatures of Central and South America carry Chikungunya. The species -- Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus -- also carry the virus behind Dengue fever.
"Given the level of Dengue in the region, we knew there could be the same levels of Chikungunya," Staples said. Both diseases can cause joint pain and inflammation, headaches, rashes and fever, and can lead to death in rare cases.
But this tropical disease with an exotic name (which originates from the African Makonde dialect) causes more intense joint pain and inflammation. For some people the pain can last for months or years, resulting in additional psychological strain.
The lack of immunity among people living in the Americas provided a blank canvas for Chikungunya to spread throughout the population this year. As of December 12, more than 1.03 million people have been infected, in addition to the 155 who died, according to the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO). Almost all of the fatalities occurred in the Caribbean island countries of Guadaloupe and Martinique.
"Where we saw the biggest jump was after it reached the Spanish-speaking countries in the region," said Staples, referring to the weakened infrastructures and health systems of countries such as the Dominican Republic, which has reported more than 520,000 cases -- more than half of the overall outbreak and 5% of the island country's population.
As South American countries approach their summer, numbers are expected to rise there as the mosquitoes flourish in the heat.
"Brazil, Peru, Paraguay are coming into their summer months and reporting their first local transmission," Staples said. Already, more than 2,000 people have been infected in Brazil.
Is there cause for concern?
Because infection with Chikungunya is rarely fatal, the issue of most concern to officials is the burden on health services and the impact of the debilitating symptoms on the economy.
"The high number of cases can overload health services," says Dr. Pilar Ramon-Pardo, regional adviser for PAHO, the regional office of the World Health Organization. Until recently, monitoring for Chikungunya was not part of routine surveillance in the region.
"Clinicians have to be ready to diagnose," she said
About 20% to 30% of cases are expected to become chronic, with symptoms such as arthritis and other rheumatic manifestations leading to physical disabilities, Ramon-Pardo said. Further long-term effects are psychological as people become more depressed and tired.
All of this can result in missed work and lower school attendance, she said, hurting local economies.
Is it here to stay?
The warm climate of the region offers potential for Chikungunya levels to be maintained for years to come, just like Dengue fever. But areas of most concern are the tropics.
"The areas which have year-round favorable climate for the mosquito are at the greatest risk," says Dr. Laith Yakob of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which is monitoring the spread of the outbreak.
While the climate and mosquitos have long been present, Ramon-Pardo said, "we don't know why this is happening now." She said globalization is likely to blame, with increased population movement from one country to another. This offers more opportunities for local mosquitos to bite infected humans.
The CDC's Staples said she is temporarily at ease regarding numbers in the U.S. "We're moving into fall and winter periods, which should see activity decrease," she said. Cold temperatures reduce mosquito survival rates.
The rapid spread of Chikungunya this year also could help minimize future infections. "Chikungunya will go through a region quite rapidly and create a level of population immunity which helps mitigate large outbreaks of the disease," Staples said. Unlike Dengue, infection with Chikungunya results in lifelong immunity.
Like many other infections, Chikungunya could, however, remain in the background through animals capable of carrying the virus in their bloodstream and acting as so-called reservoirs of the disease.
"In Asia and Africa there is a transmission cycle in small mammals and monkeys," Ramon-Pardo said, meaning these animals keep the virus present within the population. "In the Americas ... we don't know yet."
Those words -- "we don't know" -- resonate throughout the community of scientists and government officials trying to control the outbreak.
The future risk of spread, levels of future immunity, risk from animal reservoirs, why this is only happening now, and the total economic impact are all unknown.
"Mathematical models are under construction by numerous research groups around the world to improve confidence over projections of future spread," said Yakob, whose team is modeling the disease. As they work, control efforts continue.
Getting it under control
When it comes to controlling Chikungunya, there are two main strategies -- reduce the likelihood of bites and remove the ever-biting mosquito. Prevention is the priority.
Unlike the mosquitoes behind malaria, which bite at night, the species behind Chikungunya bite any time, day or night. Those living in affected areas are asked to use repellent, sleep under bed nets and wear long clothing to avoid getting bitten. The air conditioned and indoor environments of people living in the U.S. mean numbers are likely to stay low there.
But mosquito control is at the heart of it all. Mass spraying of insecticides and removal of any sources of shallow water in which mosquitoes can breed are taking place across the continents. According to the CDC's Staples, Florida has been highly aggressive with its approach to control. "We're only at 11 (cases) due to such proactive measures," Staples said. For now, prevention is all they have as officials wait and see how the outbreak pans out.
"There is no vaccine currently and no good antivirals, so we are trying to control the spread of the disease," Staples said. "There are a lot of questions and only time will tell what we'll see for Chikungunya in the future."
By John Gever
Not all children with severe brain injuries need to be monitored for subclinical seizures, researchers said here, which means that resources can be focused on those at the highest risk.
Victims of abuse, those younger than 2, and those with bleeding within the brain rather than only in the epidural compartment are the pediatric ICU patients most likely to show significant seizure activity that should be detected and treated, said Rajsekar Rajaraman, MD, of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).
A separate study by many of the same investigators also found that, in a broader range of pediatric brain injury cases, risk of seizures could be predicted with "fair-to-good" accuracy on the basis of clinical characteristics that would be recorded routinely at admission.
Both studies were reported at the American Epilepsy Society's annual meeting here.
A senior author on both studies, Nicholas Abend, MD, of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said at an AES press briefing that identifying and treating seizures is important in the pediatric ICU. When seizures are extremely frequent or long-lasting -- and these can easily go without detection in hospitalized children who are unconscious or lethargic -- they significantly increase the likelihood of poor short- and long-term outcomes.
Such seizures can only be detected via continuous EEG monitoring, Abend explained, which also requires interpretation from trained electroneurologists.
Another investigator in the studies, UCLA's Jason Lerner, MD, noted that children may appear to be napping peacefully while actually undergoing continuous seizures.
Although it would be desirable to perform intense monitoring on all pediatric cases involving head trauma, that is not feasible at most centers, Abend said. He said the field could benefit from risk-stratification models that would allow the care team to track only those patients at the highest risk for damaging subclinical seizures.
Such models, he added, could be tailored to meet the needs of individual centers on the basis of their patient mix, staffing, and other factors.
In a platform session at AES, Rajaraman described one approach to developing such a model. He and colleagues collected data on 135 consecutive pediatric patients (ranging in age from infant to late adolescent) with traumatic brain injury who were treated in ICUs at UCLA and at Children's Hospital of Colorado in Denver. These children had continuous EEG monitoring for detecting subclinical seizures.
They found that all such seizures occurred in children younger than 2 and in those with intradural bleeding, and that the vast majority also involved abusive head trauma. Rajaraman and colleagues then sought to validate these associations in a separate cohort of 44 pediatric ICU patients with head injuries treated at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The same patterns were seen.
Across both cohorts, 81% of those with subclinical seizures were determined to have been victims of abusive head trauma, whereas the prevalence of such trauma in all the patients was 25%. Abend said it was uncertain why abusive trauma should be such a strong predictor of these seizures, but speculated that "shaken baby syndrome" -- the most common form of abuse of infants and toddlers -- may produce fundamentally different injuries in the brain compared with falls and car accidents.
Also, such abuse is often chronic, such that the episode that brings a child to the hospital is only the latest in a series of abusive incidents.
The other study, led by Abend, was aimed at producing a predictive model yielding a risk index score that pediatric centers could use to identify critically ill children who could benefit the most from continuous EEG monitoring. It was based on clinical information to which the attending neurologist would have ready access: age, seizure etiology, presence of clinical seizures prior to beginning continuous EEG, initial EEG background category, and interictal discharge category.
Data to design the model were drawn from a database of 336 patients from 11 centers, and then tested against a separate validation dataset of 222 patients treated at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Normalized scores in the model could range from 0 to 1.0, and Abend and colleagues examined the sensitivity and specificity of various cutoffs. When set at 0.10 in the validation cohort, sensitivity was 86% but sensitivity was only 58% -- the high sensitivity meant that 43% of patients would be identified as candidates for continuous monitoring. At the other end, a cutoff of 0.45 reversed the sensitivity and specificity percentages to 19% and 97%, respectively, such that only 5% of patients would be assigned to monitoring.
Abend said the beauty of this approach is that an individual center could choose its own optimal cutoff depending on the resources it has available to monitor multiple patients at one time. A well-equipped and staffed ICU could thus opt for high sensitivity whereas one with more limited resources could be more restrictive.
By GILLIAN MOHNEY
A Colorado family welcomed a larger-than-expected bundle of joy when their newborn daughter was born weighing almost 14 pounds.
Mia Yasmin Hernandez tipped the scales at 13 pounds, 13 ounces after her delivery Monday at San Luis Valley Hospital in Alamosa, Colorado. The newborn’s father, Francisco Garcia, said doctors had estimated the baby would weigh 8 pounds at birth.
Mia didn't seem especially large when she was born, Gracia said.
“She was swollen and everything” after delivery, he said. “I thought she was going to [weigh] 10 or 11 pounds.”
But after weighing Mia, the nurse told Garcia the infant’s weight.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, she’s the biggest baby I’ve ever seen,’” Garcia told ABC News.
Even hospital personnel agreed. Garcia said the nurse told hi she’d never seen “a baby that big.”
Dr. Robert Barbieri, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said in a previous interview about one out of 1,000 babies could weigh 11 pounds, and one out of every 100,000 could weigh 14 pounds. A 14-pound baby, he said, is extremely rare, because usually a doctor will induce labor if a baby appears oversize.
While Mia’s delivery via Caesarean section went smoothly, the infant developed breathing problems and was eventually moved to Children’s Hospital of Colorado in Aurora, Colorado, according to Garcia.
Garcia said Mia is on oxygen and doing well, although they’re not sure when she will get home.
Garcia said the couple has another four daughters at home, which might come in handy for new baby clothes.
“We bought her a lot of stuff like a newborn cap and pampers,” Garcia said. “They don't fit her. She’s too big.”
Researchers have developed a new device that may result in more comfortable mammography for women. According to a study being presented next week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), standardizing the pressure applied in mammography would reduce pain associated with breast compression without sacrificing image quality.
Compression of the breast is necessary in mammography to optimize image quality and minimize absorbed radiation dose. However, mechanical compression of the breast in mammography often causes discomfort and pain and deters some women from mammography screening.
An additional problem associated with compression is the variation that occurs when the technologist adjusts compression force to breast size, composition, skin tautness and pain tolerance. Over-compression, or unnecessarily high pressures during compression, is common in certain European countries, especially for women with small breasts. Over-compression occurs less frequently in the United States, where under-compression, or extremely low applied pressure, is more common.
"This means that the breast may be almost not compressed at all, which increases the risks of image quality degradation and extra radiation dose," said Woutjan Branderhorst, Ph.D., researcher in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Physics at the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam.
Overall, adjustments in force can lead to substantial variation in the amount of pressure applied to the breast, ranging from less than 3 kilopascals (kPa) to greater than 30 kPa.
Dr. Branderhorst and colleagues theorized that a compression protocol based on pressure rather than force would reduce the pain and variability associated with the current force-based compression protocol. Force is the total impact of one object on another, whereas pressure is the ratio of force to the area over which it is applied.
The researchers developed a device that displays the average pressure during compression and studied its effects in a double-blinded, randomized control trial on 433 asymptomatic women scheduled for screening mammography.
Three of the four compressions for each participant were standardized to a target force of 14 dekanewtons (daN). One randomly assigned compression was standardized to a target pressure of 10 kPa.
Participants scored pain on a numerical rating scale, and three experienced breast screening radiologists indicated which images required a retake. The 10 kPa pressure did not compromise radiation dose or image quality, and, on average, the women reported it to be less painful than the 14 daN force.
The study's implications are potentially significant, Dr. Branderhorst said. There are an estimated 39 million mammography exams performed every year in the U.S. alone, which translates into more than 156 million compressions. Pressure standardization could help avoid a large amount of unnecessary pain and optimize radiation dose without adversely affecting image quality or the proportion of required retakes.
"Standardizing the applied pressure would reduce both over- and under-compression and lead to a more reproducible imaging procedure with less pain," Dr. Branderhorst said.
The device that displays average pressure is easily added to existing mammography systems, according to Dr. Branderhorst.
"Essentially, what is needed is the measurement of the contact area with the breast, which then is combined with the measured applied force to determine the average pressure in the breast," he said. "A relatively small upgrade of the compression paddle is sufficient."
Further research will be needed to determine if the 10 kPa pressure is the optimal target.
The researchers are also working on new methods to help mammography technologists improve compression through better positioning of the breast.
U.S. health officials are poised to endorse circumcision as a means of preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday released its first-ever draft guidelines on circumcision that recommend that doctors counsel parents and uncircumcised males on the health benefits of the procedure.
The guidelines do not outright call for circumcision of all male newborns, since that is a personal decision that may involve religious or cultural preferences, Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, told the Associated Press.
Discussion board is open for inputs on this subject.
But "the scientific evidence is clear that the benefits outweigh the risks," Mermin said.
Circumcision involves the surgical removal of the foreskin covering the tip of the penis. Germs can collect and multiply under the foreskin, creating issues of hygiene.
Clinical trials, many done in sub-Saharan Africa, have demonstrated that circumcision reduces HIV infection risk by 50 percent to 60 percent, the CDC guidelines note. The procedure also reduces by 30 percent the risk of contracting herpes and human papilloma virus (HPV), two pathogens believed to cause cancer of the penis.
The guidelines do point out that circumcision has only been proven to prevent HIV and sexually transmitted diseases in men during vaginal sex. The procedure has not been proven to reduce the risk of infection through oral or anal sex, or to reduce the risk of HIV transmission to female partners.
The scientific evidence is mixed regarding homosexual sex, the guidelines say, with some studies having shown that circumcision provides partial protection while other studies have not.
Circumcision does reduce the risk of urinary tract infections in infants, according to the CDC guidelines.
The most common risks associated with the procedure include bleeding and infection.
Male circumcision rates in the United States declined between 1979 and 2010, dropping from almost 65 percent to slightly more than 58 percent, according to a CDC report issued last year.
The new draft guidelines mirror an updated policy on circumcision released by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2012.
"The American public should take confidence that these are pretty much converging guidelines. There is no doubt that it [circumcision] does confer health benefits and there is no doubt it can be performed safely, with a less than 1 percent risk of complications," Dr. Susan Blank, chair of the task force that authored the AAP policy statement, said Tuesday. "This is one thing a parent can do to protect the future health of their children."
In its policy statement, the AAP declared that the health benefits are great enough that infant male circumcision should be covered by insurance, which would increase access to the procedure for families who choose it, said Blank, who is also assistant commissioner of STD Control and Prevention at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
"The push from the academy's point of view is to really have providers lay out for parents what are the risks, what are the benefits, and give the parents the information they need to make a decision," Blank said. "And the academy feels strongly that since there are proven health benefits, the procedure should be covered by insurance."
The guidelines are expected to spur a response from anti-circumcision groups.
"There are certainly groups that are troubled by circumcision of an individual who is not in a position to provide their own consent," Blank said.
The public can comment on the draft guidelines through Jan. 16, according to the CDC.
By Honor Whiteman
Cancer is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide. In 2012, there were around 14 million new cases of cancer and around 8.2 million deaths from the disease. But despite such alarming numbers, a new study by researchers from the UK finds that most people ignore cancer warning signs, attributing them instead to symptoms of less serious illnesses.
Lead study author Dr. Katriina Whitaker, senior research fellow at University College London in the UK, analyzed the responses of 1,724 people aged 50 and over to a health questionnaire that was sent to them in April 2012.
The questionnaire asked participants whether they had experienced any of 17 symptoms, 10 of which are defined as cancer "alarm" symptoms by Cancer Research UK. These symptoms include unexplained cough, changes in mole appearance, unexplained bleeding, persistent change in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, difficulty swallowing and unexplained lumps.
Participants were not told which symptoms are cancer warning signs.
The respondents were also asked what they thought was the cause of any symptoms they experienced, whether they deemed the symptoms to be serious and whether they visited their doctor as a result of their symptoms.
Only 2% of respondents considered warning symptoms to be cancer-related
Results of study - published in the journal PLOS ONE - revealed that 53% of participants reported that they had experienced at least one cancer warning sign over the past 3 months.
The most common cancer warning symptoms reported were persistent cough and persistent change in bowel habits, while unexplained weight loss and problems swallowing were the least common.
However, the researchers were surprised to find that of the respondents who reported cancer warning symptoms, only 2% considered cancer to be a potential cause.
What is more, Dr. Whitaker says that of participants who reported the most obvious signs of cancer - such as unexplained lumps or changes in mole appearance - most did not consider them to be cancer-related.
"Even when people thought warning symptoms might be serious, cancer didn't tend to spring to mind," adds Dr. Whitaker. "This might be because people were frightened and reluctant to mention cancer, thought cancer wouldn't happen to them or believed other causes were more likely."
On a positive note, respondents did deem the cancer warning signs to be more serious than symptoms not linked to cancer - such as shortness of breath, fatigue and sore throat- and 59% of those who experienced cancer warning signs visited their doctor.
But the researchers say their findings show that the majority of people are dismissing potential warning signs of cancer, which could be putting their health at serious risk. Dr. Whitaker says:
"Most people with potential warning symptoms don't have cancer, but some will and others may have other diseases that would benefit from early attention. That's why it's important that these symptoms are checked out, especially if they don't go away. But people could delay seeing a doctor if they don't acknowledge cancer as a possible cause."
"Most cancers are picked up through people going to their general practitioner (GP) about symptoms, and this study indicates that opportunities for early diagnosis are being missed," adds Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK. "Its results could help us find new ways of encouraging people with worrying symptoms to consider cancer as a possible cause and to get them checked out straight away with a GP."
By Barry Hoffman
Paul Alexander's most impressive accomplishment is something most people never think about.
He taught himself how to breathe.
Alexander, 67, is a victim of the worst that polio had to offer children in the late 1940s and early 1950s. At the age of 6, he was completely paralyzed by the disease, his lungs stopped working, and he was literally thrown into an iron lung.
Alexander has been in that iron lung for 61 years because he remains almost totally paralyzed, able to move only his head, neck and mouth. He is one of an estimated seven people in the United States who are still living in an iron lung, and yet he has had a long and successful career as a lawyer.
"Over the years, I've been able to escape this machine for a few hours at a time by teaching myself voluntary breathing," Alexander said recently as he lay in the iron lung at his home in Dallas, Texas. "I have to consciously push air into my lungs, something that's done involuntarily by just about everyone else. It's hard work, but it allows me to escape this infernal device, if only for a little while."
Alexander "escapes" the machine most often when he is litigating a case -- his specialty is family law -- or gives a speech.
While he sometimes condemns the contraption that keeps him alive, Alexander is most grateful for his iron lung, whose machinery is essentially unchanged from the first ones that were put in use in the late 1930s. His machine, in fact, is the same one he entered 61 years ago.
"It is my cage, but it's also my cocoon," he said, as the iron lung issued a noticeable whishing sound, an almost uncanny replication of normal breathing.
But we're getting ahead of the story.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the nation's first mass polio vaccine inoculations, a time when hundreds of thousands of grade school students -- many of them throughout the South -- lined up in school gymnasiums, stuck out their arm and gritted their teeth as a nurse gave them Dr. Jonas Salk's experimental vaccine.
The shot was literally a game-changer. Most of these children had seen at least one or two classmates come to school on crutches, paralyzed by the ravages of polio. More than a few knew other students and friends who had died from the disease.
So 1954 signified their liberation during the summer -- they could return to public swimming pools and play in the rain and eat in restaurants and not be afraid that they would wake up the next day with a fever and terrible leg pains, which could rapidly lead to paralysis.
That's what happened to 6-year-old Paul Alexander in 1952, two years too early for the Salk vaccine.
"I remember it was really hot and raining, something that is sort of rare for Dallas in August," he recalled, "and my brother and I had been outside playing, running around and getting wet when the rain started.
"Our mother called for us to come in for dinner, and I remember her taking one look at me -- hot and wet and feverish -- and she cried out, 'Oh my God!' She ripped my clothes off and threw me onto her and my dad's bed and called the doctor.
"She knew right away that I had polio. I don't know how she knew, but she knew. I remember feeling hot and feverish, and for the next few days, I stayed in the bed and didn't move. I remember I had this coloring book, and I felt this compulsion to color as much as I could, sort of like maybe I wouldn't be able to do it in the future."
Why didn't Alexander's parents take him to the hospital? "Our family doctor said that all the kids with polio were at Parkland (Dallas' big municipal hospital), and he didn't want me there with the other kids because maybe I had a better chance to recover at home," Alexander said.
But all of that became moot about six days later when he could no longer move and found it difficult to breathe: "I remember having terrible pains in my legs, and breathing became really laborious. So they finally took me to Parkland."
And that's when the most horrifying event occurred before Alexander's long battle with polio could even begin: "I had become immobile; I don't think I could even talk, so the hospital staff put me on a gurney in a long hallway with all the other hopeless polio kids. Most of them were dead."
That would have been Alexander's fate, too, if not for Dr. Milton Davis, a well-known pediatric cardiologist who was examining all of the children in the hallway. "He took one look at me, gathered me up in his arms, and I think he performed a tracheotomy on me almost immediately so I could breathe," Alexander said. "And the next thing I remember, I was inside an iron lung."
And then he blacked out.
Alexander woke up weeks later still in the iron lung: "The pain was still there, although it seemed much less to me, and the iron lung pumped hot steam through a thick plastic water pump into my chest. This kept the mucuous loose enough so I could breathe."
He couldn't see through the steam at first, and he couldn't talk. But Alexander said he found some sort of determination within himself as strong as the iron in the device that was keeping him alive. "I decided I was going to fight this," he said. "I was going to have a life."
Eighteen months later, his parents brought him home. They stayed with him in shifts, fed him, helped him with school work (he was still enrolled in elementary school) and encouraged him to keep up his curiosity and enthusiasm for learning.
"My mother lobbied the school district for home-school learning, something very rare in the 1950s," he said. His dad fashioned a writing implement for him, similar to a T-square, which Alexander would put in his mouth and move around with his neck muscles in order to write.
Through their efforts and his own fierce determination, Alexander graduated high school as the class salutatorian. "I would have been valedictorian but the biology teacher gave me a B because I couldn't take lab," he joked.
Scholarships to Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the University of Texas in Austin allowed Alexander, with the help of a paid health aide, to get an undergraduate degree and then a law degree. He returned to the Dallas area and became associated with an Arlington law firm for a while, but eventually established a private practice that still handles everything from family law to financial cases.
"With help from a medical aide or one of my friends, I can get out of the lung and attend functions in a wheelchair or argue a case for a few hours," he said. "But I always have to remember to tell myself to inhale, exhale, inhale."
Alexander came to the attention this year of the leaders of the Dallas area's Rotary clubs through one of his doctors, Alexander Peralta, Jr., who is a Rotarian from Duncanville, Texas.
Rotary International has been working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to eliminate polio worldwide, just as smallpox has been eradicated.
"One of our clubs, which is well-versed in modern technology (the Dallas e-Club) went to Paul's house and made a four-minute video with him," said Bill Dendy, District Governor of District 5810, which has 65 local Rotary clubs in the north Texas area.
"What none of us realized at first is what a compelling story this is, not only Paul's triumphs under difficult circumstances, but also what a terrifying experience it can be, just sitting in the presence of that machine that keeps him alive. The iron lung personalizes the horror all those thousands of kids went through a little more than half a century ago," Dendy said. The video they made has been submitted to the local PBS station in Dallas.
Since making contact with Alexander, various district Rotary clubs have volunteered to make improvements to his house -- an old ramp leading to the front door was replaced -- and to be available to take him to his appointments. Throughout his life, Alexander has had a combination of help from health aides provided through the government and friends who pitch in.
Alexander said his iron lung is no longer supported by any company on an ongoing basis. The last company to service his machine, Philips Respironics, no longer does so. "So now, we have to strip spare parts from other discarded iron lungs to keep us going," he said. So far, it hasn't been a problem, he added: "There are only seven iron lung users left, so I don't think this is going to be a big problem of supply and demand."
How did he accomplish so much -- and keep his sense of humor -- while being virtually immobile for more than 60 years?
"It all starts with love," Alexander said. "My parents raised me in love. They taught me never to give up. They taught me the importance of relationships. They were always there for me.
"So, naturally, I had to reciprocate. And you know what? They were right. Anything is possible."