Swedish company Epicenter implants microchips into employees

An implantable radiofrequency identification microchip for human use.

SOME workers have been implanted with microchips that allow the companies that employ them to track their every move.

Swedish company Epicenter will embed a chip into about 150 workers, so bosses can monitor toilet breaks and how long they work.

The workers volunteered to have the microchip, which is about as big as a grain of rice, implanted for free.

Patrick Mesterton, co-founder and chief executive of Epicenter, an innovation and technology company, told the ABC the microchips inserted into employees’ hands would simplify life.

With the radiofrequency identification chip, they’ll be able to open doors and use office technology like photocopiers and it can even pay for lunch at the office cafe.

“You can do airline fares with it, you can also go to your local gym … so it basically replaces a lot of things you have other communication devices for, whether it be credit cards, or keys, or things like that.”

Two years ago, Mr Mesterton told news.com.au many of Epicentre’s employees had already been chipped and used the technology in their everyday life.

“It’s an implant in the hand that enables them to digitise professional information and communicate with devices both personal and within Epicenter. Once ‘chipped’ with this technology, members can interact with the building with a simple swipe of the hand. Chips can also be programmed to hold contact information and talk to smartphone apps,” he said.

A microchip being inserted in humans could hold payment details instead of bank cards.Source:News Limited

These types of microchips have been used in humans and animals before and means people don’t need to keep track of multiple passwords and PINs because it will all be installed on the inserted chip.

Emilott Lantz had a microchip implanted under her skin about three years ago and told Swedish newspaper The Local it wasn’t the future.

“This is the present. To me, it’s weird that we haven’t seen this sooner.”

Mr Mesterton told the ABC the idea wasn’t that far-fetched, as people had been implanting devices under their skin for decades, including things like pacemakers.

“That’s a way, way more serious thing than having a small chip that can actually communicate with devices,” he said.

Microbiologist Ben Libberton, from Swedish university Karolinska Institute, told the ABC the chip could compromise security and hold a lot of private information.

“Conceptually you could get data about your health, and you could [get] data about your whereabouts, how often you’re working, how long you’re working, if you’re taking toilet breaks and things like that,” he said.

“All of that data could conceivably be collected.

“So then the question is: What happens to it afterwards? What is it used for? Who is going to be using it? Who is going to be seeing it?”

Elon Musk starts news company to connect our brains to computers

Elon Musk’s new company wants to merge your brain with a computer. Picture: Karim Sahib

THE so-called real life Tony Stark has quietly launched a company effectively designed to turn us into cyborgs and merge our brains with AI technology.

Whether he’s promising to fix South Australia’s power supply crisis or colonise Mars, few dream bigger than Elon Musk.

The co-founder of PayPal and the founder of Tesla and SpaceX has reportedly launched a new company that could merge computers with human brains.

The company is called Neuralink Corp and is pursuing what Musk calls “neural lace” technology, implanting tiny brain electrodes that may one day upload and download thoughts, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The concept is not an uncommon one but the science behind it is very much in its infancy.

Musk has long signalling his intention to enter the area of brain-computer interfaces and outlined his vision for the neural lace at the Recode’s Code Conference last year.

“We’re already a cyborg — I mean, you have a digital or partial version of yourself in the form of your emails and your social media and all the things that you do, and you have basically superpowers with your computer and your phone and the applications that are there,” Mr Musk said at the conference.

For him the plan is all about ushering in the true symbiosis of man and machine intelligence — a task countless others are also committed to.

Elon Musk speaks to participants ahead of testing of their pods in the SpaceX Hyperloop competition in Hawthorne, California on January 29, 2017. Picture: Gene BlevinsSource:AFP

“Effectively merging in a symbiotic way with digital intelligence revolves around eliminating the I/O (input/output) constraint, which would be some sort of direct cortical interface,” the billionaire entrepreneur said.

Back in January, during musings on social media about starting a boring company to dig underground tunnels to alleviate traffic congestion, Musk told one Twitter user he might soon make an announcement about his neural lace plans.

Musk has not made an official announcement, but Neuralink was registered in California as a “medical research” company last July, and he plans on funding the company mostly by himself.
It is unclear what sorts of products Neuralink might create, but people who have had discussions with the company describe a strategy similar to Musk’s other companies, SpaceX and Tesla.

In recent weeks, Neuralink has also hired leading academics in the field, the Journalreported.

Inside researchers’ amazing — and terrifying — gene editing discovery

China’s eagerness to use genetic enhancement technology has led some to suggest the deeply divisive issue could cause a new kind of Cold War conflict.

WELCOME to the brave new world of gene editing.

An international team of scientists in the United States have safely repaired a gene mutation that causes a heritable heart defect in human embryos — sparking debate about the new frontier of genetic engineering.

The first-of-its-kind research, which was spearheaded by the Oregon Health and Science University and published last week in the journal Nature, could one day help families affected by inherited diseases.

“I, for one, believe, and this paper supports, the view that ultimately, gene editing of human embryos can be made safe. Then the question truly becomes: If we can do it, should we do it?” said Dr. George Daley, the dean of Harvard Medical School.

One major fear is that this kind human embryo modification could give rise to “designer babies,” allowing parents to pay for desirable traits they want in their kids. “I think gene editing can be used to help people who are sick,” Marcy Darnovsky, director of the Center for Genetics and Society said.
“But the idea of using it on the front end to engineer a future generation — we need to draw a bright line there.”

She insisted that current embryo-screening technology, done routinely at in-vitro fertilisation clinics across America, already helps parents avoid passing on genetic diseases to their kids.

“If you’re worried about passing on some inherited disease, you can already do that without mucking around with your child’s genes,” she said.

David King, of the Human Genetics Alert, a UK-based organisation, said governments need to “wake up and pass an immediate global ban on creating cloned or GM [genetically modified] babies before it is too late.”

“If irresponsible scientists are not stopped, the world may soon be presented with a fait accompli of the first GM baby,” he said.

In this photo provided by Oregon Health & Science University, taken through a microscope, human embryos grow in a laboratory for a few days after researchers used gene editing technology to successfully repair a heart disease-causing genetic mutation.Source:AP

But Shoukhrat Mitalipov, an embryologist at OHSU who led the gene-editing experiment, said the research was about “correcting” genes that cause diseases, not altering them.

“Really, we didn’t edit anything. Neither did we modify anything,” Mitalipov said. “Our program is toward correcting mutant genes.”

The researchers used a gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 — which acts like a pair of “molecular scissors” — to target a mutation that causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease that weakens the heart and has led to the sudden deaths of many apparently healthy young athletes.

They then injected sperm from a donor with the heart disease, which affects 1 in 500 people worldwide, into eggs from 12 healthy patients, along with the genetic scissors to snip out the mutated gene. Scientists were surprised to discover the embryos then repaired themselves, taking a healthy copy of the gene from the egg as its cells began to multiply.

“The embryos are really looking for the blueprint,” Mitalipov said. “We’re finding embryos will repair themselves if you have another healthy copy.”

All told, the experiment was successful in 42 of the 58 embryos used, about 72 per cent of the time.

Mitalipov now hopes the strategy could one day be used to prevent a slew of heritable diseases caused by gene mutations, which include Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis.

“Every generation on would carry this repair because we’ve removed the disease-causing gene variant from that family’s lineage,” he said. “By using this technique, it’s possible to reduce the burden of this heritable disease on the family and eventually the human population.”

There have been previous attempts to edit embryos in China — but those experiments were marred by a problem called mosaicism, which means some cells in the embryo still carry the mutation.

Mitalipov said they solved that problem by intervening before fertilisation. “Everybody was injecting too late,” he said.

But China’s eagerness to use CRISPR technology has heightened concerns about designer babies and prompted some to suggest the deeply divisive issue of genetic enhancement could cause a new kind of Cold War conflict.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov, left, talks with research assistant Hayley Darby in the Lab. Mr Mitalipov led a research team that, for the first time, used gene editing to repair a disease-causing mutation in human embryos. Picture: Kristyna Wentz-Graff/Oregon Health & Science UniversitySource:AP

Scientists are still a long way off from taking their gene-editing experiments out of the lab and using them on pregnant women. There are safety concerns, of course, but also regulatory roadblocks in the US.

The National Institutes of Health doesn’t fund research involving embryos, and Congress doesn’t allow the FDA to consider any experiments that involve genetically modified human embryos. This experiment was financed by OHSU, the Institute for Basic Science in South Korea and others.

Particularly controversial is the idea of germ-line editing — making precise genetic changes that can pass on to future generations.

“Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain,” the NIH said in 2015.

“These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germ line in a way that affects the next generation without their consent and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR-Cas9 in embryos.”

But more recently, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine took a softer approach, advising caution but not prohibiting germ-line editing.

“We say proceed with all due caution, but we don’t prohibit germ line after considerable discussion and debate,” said Richard Hynes, an MIT biologist who chaired the review. “We’re talking only about fixing diseases.”

Mitalipov said regulators should start giving more guidance on what’s permissible — especially since some scientists may resort to conducting their experiments in areas that don’t have regulations. “This technology will be shifted to unregulated areas, which shouldn’t be happening,” he told The Washington Post.

Mitalipov added that they could be interested in continuing their work in other countries, like the United Kingdom, NPR reported.

Medical ethicist Arthur Caplan said the technology is still at embryonic stages in terms of developing legal guidelines. “Who should own genetic-engineering techniques, and what, if any, requirements will they have to make the taxpayer-funded research that made this possible available and accessible at affordable prices?” said Caplan, founder of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine.

Korea’s booming hangover cure drinks industry is being embraced in Silicon Valley

Cyndi Lauper was right. Girls just wanna have fun.

IF YOU’RE feeling a bit worse for wear this weekend thanks to a big night out — and let’s face it, there’s probably about a million of us right now — you might wish you were in South Korea.

The country has a booming industry of specialty drinks which promise to help you get on the booze without the bumping headache the next day.

The country’s “hangover cure” industry generates about $158 million a year and these special-purpose drinks which underpin it are widely popular.

They are consumed before a heavy drinking session and an ingredient in them is said to break down a toxin produced in our liver when drinking and also reduce the effect of alcohol on our brain’s neurotransmitters.

Best hangover cures

A former engineer for Elon Musk’s electric car company, Tesla, has recently started his own venture in the US, bringing the drink to the busiest tech hub of the world.

The 26-year-old Korean-born Sisun Lee has created a hangover cure drink. His company Morning Recovery began operating earlier this month and according to Business Insider, has gone crazy in Silicon Valley.

It all started when he went on a recent trip to Korea to see friends and family and was introduced to the drinks. Naturally, he tried them and “the next day, I woke up feeling great,” he said.

He eventually tried to import the drinks and become a distributor for the American market but when that didn’t work out, he decided to create his own version.

The magic ingredient Dihydromyricetin (DHM) which has anti-hepatotoxic properties to help detoxify our body after alcohol poisoning.

DHM is a chemical extract found in a Japanese raisin tree and is present in certain Korean pears.

This drink promises to mitigate hangovers.Source:Supplied

Korean pears act on the key enzymes involved in alcohol metabolism to help the body metabolise and eliminate alcohol quickly.

“Korean pears have been used as a hangover cure for centuries in Korea and China,” Professor Manny Noakes from the CSIRO told news.com.au in 2015.

Certain studies by “Korean researchers showed there was some validity to the claim that consuming 220mL of pear juice prior to alcohol consumption could reduce blood alcohol levels by 20 per cent and reduced the symptoms of a hangover,” she said.

In previous studies, hangover symptoms were improved in people who had a particular gene type.

“We know in some Asian countries they have a lowered ability to metabolise alcohol. So it was in those gene types where alcohol metabolism was the slowest that the impact was more pronounced,” Professor Noakes said.

So while hangover clinics have begun to pop up in Australia, Silicon Valley appears to be developing a thirst for Korea’s unique hangover cure drinks.

Let’s hope the industry takes off in Australia.

CTE found in nearly all brains of people who played football across all levels

All contact sports need to find out the real risk of concussion and CTE. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

THERE is a progressive degenerative brain disease that can only be diagnosed after death and there is a very high chance you could be living with it right now.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is responsible for memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and progressive dementia for people who have suffered repetitive brain trauma.

The brain disease is attributed to both symptomatic concussions and asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head that do not result in symptoms.

While previous research has demonstrated a strong link between the condition and professional football players, prize fighters and extreme sport stars, it now appears CTE is much more widespread than first thought.

Will Smith, Alec Baldwin In ‘Concussion’ First Trailer
A recent study discovered anyone that has played contact sport at any level could be living with the disease, which triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue.

After examining 202 deceased former football players — including a combination of high school, college and professional players — CTE was diagnosed in 177 of them.

Even more concerning was the fact 99 per cent of the former NFL players in the study had CTE.

Suicide was the most common cause of death among those suffering mild CTE, with 27 per cent of those involved in the study taking their own lives.

Yet for those with severe CTE, degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease were more present.

On average those with mild and severe CTE had played football for 13 and 15.8 years, respectively.

This combination of photos provided by Boston University shows sections from a normal brain, top, and from the brain of former University of Texas football player Greg Ploetz, bottom, in stage IV of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. (Dr. Ann McKee/BU via AP)Source:AP

Lead author Ann McKee said while it’s hard to pinpoint the exact occurrence rate, she suspects the problem was extremely widespread.

“While we still don’t know what the incidence is in the general population or in the general population of football players, the fact that we were able to gather this many cases says this disease is much more common than we previously realised,” she told NPR.

Ms McKee said many of the families of players involved in the study had expected to see some evidence of CTE.

“Families don’t donate brains of their loved ones unless they’re concerned about the person. So all the players in this study, on some level, were symptomatic,” she said.

The chief of neuropathology at VA Boston Healthcare System said more research needs to done to understand the degenerative brain disease.

“I think any sports organisation that has participants that are exposed to head trauma needs to endorse this research and support it,” she said.

“We need a very well-constructed longitudinal study looking at young individuals playing these sports. We need to follow them for decades.

“We need to take measurements throughout their lives and playing careers so we can begin to detect when things start to go wrong. If we can detect early changes, that’s when we could really make a difference.”

Ms McKee added wasn’t willing to condemn contact sport entirely at this stage, but feels like there is a definitely a cause for concern.

“While I’m not willing to say football is doomed and I also am unwilling to make a decision [on a young person playing football] for other individuals … I think there’s a risk to playing football,” she said.

Ancient humans had sex with a mysterious species, scientists discover

Human diversity in recent past was much greater than we once expected but we weren’t opposed to intraspecies cavorting. Picture: Jim Watson

HUMANITY has a filthy secret: our ancestors used to have sex with members of other species.

That’s the finding in a new piece of research which suggests ancient people used to romp with a “ghost” species of proto human.

We are just one of a number of species known as hominins. Members of this family include Neanderthals and Denisovans, which are no longer found on Earth.

“It seems that interbreeding between different early hominin species is not the exception — it’s the norm,” said Omer Gokcumen, assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Buffalo.

Gokcumen tested the DNA of humans living in Sub-Saharan Africa and found genes which were “wildly different from versions found in other modern humans”.

The mystery hominin is called a ‘ghost’ species because we don’t have the fossils.Source:Supplied

These genes probably trace back to prehistoric rumpy pumpy which probably took place about 150,000 years ago between our ancestors and a mysterious species.

“Based on our analysis, the most plausible explanation for this extreme variation is archaic introgression — the introduction of genetic material from a ‘ghost’ species of ancient hominins,” Gokcumen added.

“This unknown human relative could be a species that has been discovered, such as a subspecies of Homo erectus, or an undiscovered hominin.

“We call it a ‘ghost’ species because we don’t have the fossils.”

People living today would be a lot more like Neanderthals had it not been for a quirk of evolutionary fate.

Does drinking hot liquids on a hot day actually cool you off?

A hot beverage on a hot day sounds almost counterintuitive enough to work.


Every summer, reporters from around the world call Ollie Jay to ask one question: Does consuming hot liquids in the summer really cool you off?
“I think the old wives’ tale of drinking a hot drink on a hot day really resonates,” Jay says. He now heads the Thermal Ergonomics Laboratory at the University of Sydney. But back in 2012, while at the University of Ottawa’s School of Human Kinetics, he published a paper which found that hot drinks can cool you down, at least to a certain degree.

Jay and his team had nine men cycle for 75 minutes with a fan blowing at them, evaporating any sweat. The volunteers drank water ranging in temperature from an icy cold 35°F to a hot 122°F. The researchers found that when the men cycled and drank hot water, they lost 56 kilojoules more of energy in the form of heat compared to when they drank room temperature water. But when the volunteers drank the chilly liquid, they actually gained 21 kilojoules compared to the same situation.

“It’s kind of this paradoxical idea,” says Jay. “A cold fluid feels cooler when it goes inside of you, but it doesn’t really make you cooler because you reduce your sweating.”

The key to this energy exchange is good ol’ sweat. For every gram of perspiration which evaporates from your skin, you lose approximately 2.43 kilojoules of energy. The men who drank hot water gained 52 extra kilojoules of heat from the water. But when the sweat started pouring off their bodies, the men also lost 108 kilojoules of heat from sweat evaporation. When it came to chilly drinks, the opposite happened. The men produced much less sweat, and therefore experienced less evaporation. While the cold water cooled them down by 138 kilojoules, that wasn’t enough to counteract the 159 kilojoules retained from decreased evaporation on their skin. When the cyclists drank room temperature water, the amount of heat they gained versus the amount they lost stayed the same.

Okay, so drinking hotter drinks makes you sweat more and lose more heat, whereas colder drinks cool you down, but not quite enough. So should everyone start downing hot tea in the middle of a scorching August afternoon? Probably not.

“I never really advocate people drinking hot fluids on a hot day,” Jay emphasizes. For one, he says, the heat lost from evaporation isn’t actually all that substantial. For another, the experiment also took place in front of a fan. That ensured that every drop of sweat the cyclist produced was evaporated and contributed to the overall heat lost. If the sweat drips off your face or you wipe it off with a towel, that means that bead of sweat didn’t evaporate from your skin and you didn’t experience the benefits of the heat loss through sweat evaporation.

But, what was the connection between the water’s temperature and the mens’ sweat levels? The experiment didn’t change the volunteers’ internal body temperatures. So how could the body have known whether to turn down or up the sweat production?
Jay hypothesized that it must have happened somewhere along the water’s path. There were nerve endings in either the mens’ stomachs or mouths called thermoreceptors which could sense temperatures and exerted much of the control over sweat rates. So in 2014, he ran a new experiment. Volunteers either rinsed their mouths out with water of varying temperatures, or directly injected the water into their stomachs through a nasogastric tube in order to completely bypass the mouth.

It turned out that gargling water didn’t change sweat levels. However, the water pumped directly into their stomachs did. Cold water made the volunteers sweat less while hot water made the volunteers sweat more.

But these receptors in the stomach are hardly the only temperature receptors in your body. As you may know, after an intense workout, many people put ice packs on the back of their necks to cool down. “That feels really good, right?” says Jay. “But that’s not cooling your brain down.”

Blood might be rushing by just underneath the skin, but there’s not a lot of heat being exchanged between the ice and your blood. Instead the nerve endings there act as temperature receptors, just like in the stomach, and make you feel cooler even if you aren’t.

You might have experienced something similar at night if you woke up feeling too warm. Your feet have nerves with a similar function. “In bed, one of the first things you’ll try to do to feel cool is to pop your feet out from under the bottom of the sheet,” says Jay. “The amount of extra cooling you get is obviously not going to be that much, but it has a disproportional influence on how cool or how hot you feel.”

So now you know that you can thank the temperature receptors in your stomach for the relief you feel after a giant slushie and for the sweat you create when you gingerly sip a steaming cup of coffee. But if you are looking for the best way to cool down on a hot summer day, you should probably just head indoors or at least out of direct sunlight.

Have a science question you want answered? Email us at ask@popsci.com, tweet at us with #AskPopSci, or tell us on Facebook. And we’ll look into it.

Chemists confirm that whiskey really does taste better with a splash of water

Bartenders often suggest whiskey drinkers should add a splash of water to their drink. Chemists uncover the reason why.


Your bartender was right, according to a study released today in the journal Scientific Reports. When it comes to whiskey, a touch of dilution improves the solution. Diluting your whiskey with water makes it more flavorful, especially if it’s Scotch.

The reason is guaiacol, an aromatic oil that gives the liquor its signature smoky flavor. Guaiacol is present in guaiacum, a kind of slow-growing shrub with pretty purple flowers, and, as relates to whiskey, the compound is also present in something called wood creosote.

To make whiskey, distillers create a mash, or fermented alcohol solution from a mixture of grains, yeast and water. If you’ve ever wondered what, besides spelling, separates American whiskey from Irish whiskey and Scottish whisky, the answer is (at least in part) the ingredients. Broadly speaking, American whiskey (also called bourbon) is usually made from corn; Irish whiskey from a blend of malted and regular barley; Scottish whiskey (Scotch) from only malted barley. After the mash is made with its respective grain, whiskey makers pour it in distillers, or special containers that boil off the methanol—alcohol that famously makes humans go blind. That leaves behind ethanol, the alcohol that we think of as, well, alcohol, along with the flavors of the original mash. The remaining liquid is put to age in charred oak barrels, which is where scotch gains it’s guaiacol. Charring wood creates wood creosote, so as the liquid interacts with the barrel’s walls, guaiacol migrates into the liquor.

Scotch tends to have more guaiacol than other whiskies because it’s made from malted barley, or barley that’s been soaked in water to make it germinate and then heated to stop that germination. In the case of whisky from the Scottish island of Isley, the barley is smoked on peat fire. Both steps add a bit more guaiacol to the mix.

What does this have to do with adding water to your drink?

Unless you’re drinking your whiskey through a bendy straw, you’re sipping from what’s known as the liquid-air interface—the top. But when whiskey is more than 50 percent alcohol, as is the case with some of the finer varieties, guaiacol tends to hang out deep in the glass. Adding a bit of water moves guaiacol closer to the surface, where you can better smell and taste it, creating a more satisfactory flavor.

It would be great if researchers from Linnæus University in Sweden had come to this conclusion by simply drinking lots of whiskey, but instead they ran computational models to study the distribution of guaiacol in water-alcohol mixtures of different concentrations. They found that alcohol doesn’t actually love mixing with water. At lower alcohol levels, it moves close to the top of the glass. But as alcohol concentration increases, the alcohol molecules clump together to form bigger, denser clusters. Those clusters tend to move to the bottom of your drink, away from your taste buds. As it’s the alcohol that contains the guaiacol, this southern migration takes the flavor along with it. Of course, some might argue that the test is in the tasting.

Dilution of cask strength whisky (69 vol-% of ethanol) drives taste contributing compounds such as guaiacol away from the bulk of the liquid to its surface thus improving the perception of guaiacol.

Björn CG Karlsson

Popular Science reached out to Eddie Russell—the master distiller at noted bourbon manufacturer Wild Turkey—to see what he thinks of a splash of water.

“Most of the bourbon makers when I was growing up—Booker Noe, Jimmy Russell, Elmer T. Lee—they would say no, you don’t need no water; it’s perfect the way it is,” says Russell. “But I think that was just because the scotch guys always said to drop a few drops of water in it.”

There is, needless to say, a friendly rivalry between the different schools of whiskey making.

Russell doesn’t add drops of water to his bourbon when he’s drinking, but he does add two ice cubes—which is, in terms of the study’s findings, essentially the same thing. “I think as it melts it does sort of open up some different flavors you wouldn’t get right off,” says Russell. “Whether it’s cutting down the alcohol a little bit or just different things combining to bring out some different flavors.”

There is an exception, however, which is when the whiskey is coming straight from the barrel. That, Russell prefers to drink neat: no ice, no water. He says that makes it taste more natural, which flies in the face of what the study authors say. They conclude that cask strength whiskey is especially improved through dilution, as whiskey is typically diluted before being bottled. It could be that a fresh pour from a cask, where bourbon has so recently been in intimate contact with the source of its tasty guaiacol compounds, is outside the behavior that they modeled. Or it could be that this is a question that warrants further study. We’ll drink to that.

Your UTI keeps coming back because we use too many antibiotics

Our increased use of antibiotics is making urinary tract infections harder and harder to treat.


Urinary tract infections are insanely common. Alone, they make up almost 25 percent of all infections, and more than half of women will get at least one in their lifetimes. In parallel, they’re also becoming increasingly harder to treat as the bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. Some urinary tract infections (UTIs) now manage to survive multiple rounds of antibiotic treatment, require bacterial cultures, and last much longer than the usual few days. How can you tell if your or a loved one has an antibiotic-resistant UTI, and what can you do about it?

A classic UTI goes something like this: You feel a burning sensation when you pee, so you see a doctor who diagnoses it and prescribes an antibiotic, which kills the bacteria and clears up the infection in a number of days. Throw in a little cranberry juice for good measure, some extra water, and annoying trips to the bathroom about every 20 minutes, and that pretty much sums up your run-in with the unpleasant infection.

But what happens when your symptoms come back—or refuse to ever really go away in the first place? About 25 percent of women with acute UTIs experience another within six months of the first infection. If you’re an otherwise healthy person, this means the bacteria weren’t totally wiped out, and have regrown to once again wreak havoc on your urinary system (and life). Assuming you’ve taken the entire course of antibiotics, that means the strain of bacteria you were originally infected with is resistant to the particular antibiotic you took. If you’re lucky, a doctor can fix this by having your urine tested, so they can select a second round of antibiotics that’s known to work against the offending bacteria. If you’re really unlucky, it may take two or more rounds of this to knock the UTI from your system.

If you have two UTIs in a three month period, or more than three UTIs in a single year, you officially have a recurrent UTI (RUTI). But the reasons for developing a lingering one isn’t the same for everyone. And not all of them are the result of impervious bacteria. For example, people who are chronically dehydrated (as is often the case with seniors, especially the mentally impaired) are at an increased risk because they aren’t flushing out bacteria at a normal rate. Those who have catheters for other medical reasons are also at an increased risk, because the catheter itself can introduce new bacteria to sensitive areas. Postmenopausal women often have lower estrogen levels, which can harm the good bacteria that should remain in the vaginal flora. Finally, those with physical irregularities that lead to voiding dysfunction (or an incomplete release of urine) are also at risk, since this can keep bacteria from getting flushed out during trips to the bathroom.

With this in mind, most preventative measures are fairly intuitive. Things that are more likely to introduce bacteria into the urinary tract are risk factors. This includes sex more than three times a week, having multiple partners, using spermicides and diaphragms, or skin allergens like bubble bath, oils, deodorants, or sprays. Good hygiene is important to prevention (though less proven in medical data). This includes wearing cotton underwear, avoiding tight pants, and always peeing after sex. Evidence is mixed about the value of drinking cranberry juice, but doctors agree there is little risk, so go at it. There’s a ton of sugar in most cranberry juice products, however, so popping cranberry pills or pure cranberry juice is better than drinking juice cocktail.

Do RUTIs have anything to do with superbugs? Each time the bacteria in your system survive a round of antibiotics, it means that bacteria is resistant to that drug. Doctors start out prescribing relatively mild antibiotics on a three or five day regimen, at the first tier of “strength,” for your first UTI visit. But they escalate to the second and third tiers (and for longer regimens) as the infection persists. Last year, a woman in the U.S. was treated for a UTI, and the bacteria in her infection were found to be resistant to colistin—one of the strongest “last resort” antibiotics we have. Luckily the infection was susceptible to other drugs lower on the antibiotic ladder, but it’s certainly forced us to confront a reality where antibiotics may actually run out.

The fact that a colistin-resistant bacteria was found in a UTI case shouldn’t be looked over, many experts say. UTIs are such a common problem that they often aren’t taken seriously. They also disproportionately affect women—whose pain we tend to not take as seriously. But if left untreated, they can escalate until a patient urinates blood and experiences extreme discomfort and fever. If the infection reaches the kidneys, it becomes life-threatening. At least one scientist estimates that 8 million UTI cases occur in the U.S. every year, probably 10 percent of which are antibiotic resistant.

Dr. Jeffery Henderson, Associate Professor at Washington University in St. Louis and part of the school’s Center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research, says that he’s noticed UTIs are becoming harder to treat. And he’s surprised by how quickly the antibiotics used to treat common infections are becoming unreliable. One class of them, he says, called fluoroquinolones, went from being almost completely reliable at the beginning of his medical education, to now working only 30 to 50 percent of the time. “We lost an entire class of antibiotics,” says Henderson.

Cases like UTI antibacterial resistance highlight the necessity of new antibiotic development, Henderson says. He and other researchers around the country are currently trying to understand the underlying mechanisms that sustain bacteria. This knowledge could lead to drug therapies that would target that process and stop bacterial growth.

UTIs and even RUTIs are almost never a life-threatening condition, and are not contagious (unless caused by an otherwise infectious sexually transmitted disease). And you can rest assured that, for now, even the most stubborn RUTIs eventually go away with continued communication and treatment—although like many medical conditions, you may always be at elevated risk. However, this increase in RUTIs serves as a reminder that bacteria are powerful and constantly evolving.

The Forest Service really doesn’t want you flying your drones into wildfire

Flying a drone through a fiery landscape to capture good video could cost a firefighter their life.


Forget Smokey the Bear. The Forest Service has a new message for Americans: Keep your drones out of their wildfires.

Even as the Forest Service uses drones both to help prevent fires, by starting prescribed burns and on occasion to help battle flames, drones are emerging as a new fire threat. People fly them into fires to get pictures that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to capture. The problem is, however, that capturing those images puts firefighters at even greater risk. And, if a drone hinders the firefighting process, that can cost valuable time.
When hobbyist drones dive into a wildfire, planes and helicopters tasked with dumping water and fire suppressing chemicals on the blazes can’t fly. This famously came to a head in 2015 when five drones flew over California’s North Fire as it barreled across a Los Angeles freeway. The helicopter that was supposed to drop water over the conflagration was grounded for more than twenty minutes. The mix of hazy, smokey conditions made the likelihood of an in-air collision too great and potentially devastating. And it’s not only dangerous, but also illegal. Last month a 54-year old Arizona man was arrested under suspicion of flying a drone over Arizona’s Goodwin fire. A helicopter was in the air at the time, and it had to be grounded for two hours. The fire took two weeks to be fully contained during which more than 28,000 acres, an area roughly the size of Florida’s Walt Disney World, burned. Wild land firefighters don’t need a tough job made any tougher.

Since the 1970s, the wildfire season has expanded by 78 days, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which includes the US Forest Service. The reasons behind the longer season are complex. Past fire suppression efforts have paradoxically made wild lands more likely to burn bigger and hotter. The wildfire budget often gets spent on putting out wildfires rather than preventative care, like clearing out the underbrush that fuels fire. Add those elements to people encroaching into wilderness; and a changing climate and you have a potent mix of potential hazards.

Whatever the reasons, a longer fire season with hotter fires means the job isn’t getting any easier for wild-land firefighters who by some estimates have a death rate six times higher than those of structural (as in house and building) firefighters. At least two firefighters have already died this year battling blazes. Trenton Johnson, a 19-year old firefighter from Montana working as part of a privately contracted firefighting company, was killed while fighting the Florence Fire near Seeley Lake, Montana, and Brent Witham, a 29-year-old fire fighter from California, died while fighting the Lolo Peak fire in Western Montana.

To help keep fires contained and their firefighters safe, the government has designed a series of posters in a style that can only be described as throwback posters to remind us to keep drones out of fires, a space that they’re referring to as “no drone zones.” Here are some of the ones we liked the most.