Latest News from Scientific American 15 November 2011: World changing ideas

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This press release contains:

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World Changing Ideas: Simple, but Revolutionary

Overcoming the “ick” factor

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World Changing Ideas: Simple, but Revolutionary

Imagine a “digital wallet” that relies on the unique 3D arrangement of the veins in our hands as our identification for payment at the store or restaurant. This and nine other ideas are some of the up-and-coming technologies highlighted in Scientific American’s annual World Changing Ideas series. Selected by the editors, each idea has the potential to change how we think about our relationship with technology and their application.

Another idea featured in this month’s issue is nanoparticles capable of destroying bacterial cells by piercing their membranes. If successful in human trials, the nanoparticle could be an important weapon against superbugs such as MRSA, a common bacterial infection that claims 19,000 lives in the U.S. every year. Or how about using bacteria to extract valuable metals from ore? Extracting metals, such as nickel and copper, from low-grade ores is essential to the burgeoning need of various manufacturing fields. By using simple microbes, up to 85 percent of metal in an ore can be extracted, even when the concentrations are lower than one percent.

As the editors say, “consider this collection our salute to the power of a simple idea.”

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Overcoming the “ick” factor

Fecal transplants represent an unusual but potentially effective treatment for severe diarrhea and intestinal disease caused by the bacterium Clostridium difficile. In this month’s Scientific American, Maryn McKenna explains how federal regulations — and squeamishness — could keep the procedure from helping people who might benefit.

Increasing antibiotic resistance means that C. difficile infections have become harder to cure, with the standard treatment relying on two broad-spectrum antibiotics. Recurrence of the infection is common and some patients with no other options must have their colon removed. Fecal transplant (also known as fecal bacteriotherapy) involves inserting a diluted stool sample from a healthy individual into the colon of a person with the infection. The transplanted bacteria appear to take over the gut, replacing the absent ‘friendly’ bacteria and outcompeting C. difficile.

Clinicians in the US, Europe and Australia have described performing about 300 fecal transplants in medical journals; more than 90 percent of patients recovered completely. The procedure will need to be rigorously studied in controlled clinical trials but although three such trials are underway in Canada, the National Institutes of Health cannot approve any trials in the US until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted feces “investigational” status. Medical centers need to be able to study the procedure, says Colleen Kelly of Brown University, who has administered fecal transplants to patients, “because people are trying it on their own.”

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Published: 15 Nov 2011

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