Health Features

A Better Tomorrow: Health Advances

So much work is being done to better ourselves and the world around us both for today and future generations. Nowhere is that more clear than in the advances being made in health and self-care. Whether it’s investigating the ways diseases develop to find solutions, creating tools to help health care systems reach the community or finding ways to make our wellness routines more sustainable, there are breakthroughs and innovations being made every day.

aging insights
New research at Washington University School of Medicine is looking to understand an evasive type of cell that plays an important role in the diseases of aging, including cancer and neurodegeneration. Senescent cells are ones that stop dividing and never regain their ability to do so. Previously, scientists suspected that senescence only occurred in lab-grown cells and didn’t exist in living organisms. While improved technology has proven that to be false, these cells are still extremely difficult to observe.

Washington University has joined the Cellular Senescence Network (SenNet), which was established by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to identify and describe senescent cells across multiple tissues throughout the human body and at many points across the human lifespan. The NIH will provide $125 million of funding to 16 research centers over five years. Washington University will serve as one of eight tissue mapping centers and will focus on bone marrow and liver samples. The research will hopefully provide insight into the development of blood and liver cancers and metabolic disorders.

“We are excited and proud to be a part of this national effort to understand cellular senescence,” says Dr. Li Ding, principal investigator and a professor of medicine and genetics. “These cells are quite mysterious. We don’t have good ways of detecting senescent cells in the body. They have lost their ability to divide, and some think that they are more fragile than normal cells. They also secrete a characteristic set of proteins as part of the ‘senescence associated secretory phenotype.’ Senescent cells are not cancerous, but they can lead to inflammation that sets the stage for cancer to develop along with other diseases that we associate with aging. Our group will map out senescent cells in bone marrow and liver samples in an effort to understand their spatial distribution and molecular signature in different tissue environments and at different ages.”

a community effort
Saint Louis University School of Medicine students played an instrumental role in building community access to care. Earlier this fall, the medical schools’ Health Resource Center (HRC) organized a health fair to help increase traffic at the clinic, which is operated by students under the guidance of SLU physicians and provides free primary care and specialty medical services to St. Louis residents. “Post-COVID, patient numbers dwindled but have begun to pick up again,” second-year medical student Anika Mahavni says. “The health fair was designed to spread the word.”

The HRC is located in the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis’ headquarters. The center was designed to serve people over 18 who are uninsured or don’t have a primary care physician. Organizers for the health fair estimate that 50 people attended, including state Rep. Kimberly-Ann Collins, D-District 77. Speciality services provided by student representatives that day included glucose testing and blood pressure, cholesterol, vision and psychiatric evaluations. “The health fair was well received, and students involved with the HRC hope to make it an annual tradition,” second-year med-student Ayesha Mohan says.

The fair also worked with several community partners. The St. Louis County Department of Public Health administered Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots. NoMoDeaths supplied free naloxone and resources to help fight opioid addiction. To help the Spanish-speaking community, STLJuntos and LifeWise translated promotional materials and helped visitors navigate the fair. Fresh produce was provided at affordable prices by St. Louis Metro Market, and Missouri School of Dentistry and Oral Health distributed free dental hygiene products.

going digital
SSM Health has partnered with two health systems, Intermountain and Presbyterian, to create Graphite Health. The nonprofit is focused on digital health care and interoperability challenges. While there are many digital solutions on the market, they can be difficult to adopt. Health care systems can spend up to two years implementing new digital tools, which means they must commit long before they get any practical use out of the technology. By creating a standardized data platform, Graphite Health hopes to help entrepreneurs develop plug-and-play digital applications, which health systems will be able to integrate more easily and at lower cost.

The organization is member-led, meaning members contribute to the company and commit to utilizing its tools and technology. In return, they have a voice in the company’s direction and will benefit from the innovations ultimately deployed through its marketplace. They also receive the resources required to more easily onboard and adopt these new capabilities. In the near future, Graphite Health plans to bring additional health care systems into its coalition, and partner with leading technology innovators.

“The promise of digital transformation to reduce real human suffering is too big to quibble over definitions and silos,” says Carter Dredge, lead futurist of SSM Health.” It is a collective problem that requires collective action. We’re addressing this market failure through a novel utility model that spreads the costs and efforts across a broad set of like-minded stakeholders so everyone can lift together—so everyone can benefit.”

biotech beauty
Biotechnology may not instantly spring to mind when you think of the beauty industry, but it’s poised to revolutionize how companies approach sustainability. By re-creating over-consumed natural ingredients in a lab, products can use naturally derived components with almost zero environmental impact. Using materials like bacteria, yeast and algae, scientists can grow multiple compounds like hyaluronic acid and collagen. The lab-grown (or biosynthetic) substances also can be edited to perform better in skin care, such as adjusting the size of molecules so they better penetrate the skin, and the quality of ingredients can be regulated in a controlled environment in ways it can’t in nature.

Examples of biotech ingredients:

  • Ambroxan and ambroxide: These are ambery scents made from sugarcane and clary sage. These biosynthetic options replicate ambergris, which is produced in the digestive system of sperm whales.
  • Hyaluronic acid: Traditionally, hyaluronic acid is derived from roosters’ combs. However, there is a plant-based lab-grown alternative that is created through microbial fermentation.
  • Squalane: This is a lab-grown alternative to squalene, which is sourced from sharks’ livers. It is estimated that more than 2.7 million sharks are harvested annually for their livers, according to the nonprofit Shark Allies. The biotech option is created by fermenting a mixture of yeast and sugarcane syrup.
  • One Ocean Beauty: This brand was developed with a focus on sustainability and ocean stewardship. It uses marine actives in its products that are grown in the lab rather than harvested from the ocean.
  • Palm oil: The demand for palm oil, which is used in a wide variety of products including cosmetics like lipstick, is outpacing the supply, leading to deforestation in some of the most biodiverse places on earth. New York City-based company C16 Bioscience has developed a lab-grown alternative to palm oil that uses yeast-fermented microbes in a similar way to traditional fermentation.

Sources: Marie Claire, Forbes

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