Health Buzz: Skin Cells Created from Blood Cells

No magic in testosterone replacement therapy; new members, new look at health reform.

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Researchers Create Blood From Skin Cells

Need blood? You could one day make your own, researchers say. Canadian scientists used skin cells from six people—both newborns and adults—to produce white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets, according to a study published Sunday in Nature. The technique, called "direct reprogramming," involves inserting a virus containing the gene OCT4 into skin cells, and then bathing the mixture in immune-stimulating proteins called cytokines. A patch of skin the size of a fingernail could potentially produce enough blood for an entire transfusion, researchers say. "There is a great need for alternative sources of human blood," study author Mick Bhatia told The Los Angeles Times. "Since this source would come from a patient's own skin, there would be no concern of rejection of the transplanted cells." Cancer patients who often wind up with low blood cell counts due to chemotherapy and people with blood conditions like anemia would likely be the first to benefit from the approach, and clinical trials could start within two years.

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  • No Magic in Testosterone Replacement Therapy

    Maybe your sex drive is stuck in neutral, or your boundless energy has given way to sluggishness, or your taut torso is slowly softening. No guy likes to lose his edge. Could the problem be low testosterone? Why not jack it up with a gel, a patch, or a pellet implanted beneath the skin?

    Not so fast. Lobbying a doctor for a dose of the male hormone before looking for other reasons for your problem is a bad idea, writes U.S. News's Kurtis Hiatt. If low testosterone isn't the culprit, focusing on it wastes time and money better spent on finding the real cause, perhaps a circulatory condition, that could pose a greater threat to your health. And even if your testosterone is slightly low, there's no guarantee that kicking it up pharmaceutically will help, says Peter Snyder, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine who has studied testosterone for 35 years. "There are people who are looking for the Fountain of Youth," he says. The reality, he says, is that they "are not acting on the basis of evidence." [Read more: No Magic in Testosterone Replacement Therapy.]

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    • New Members, New Look at Health Reform

      Tuesday's election results giving Republicans control of the House and a stronger voice in the Senate virtually guarantee that something will be done to the new healthcare law before all Americans are required to purchase insurance in 2014. That is, if recent comments from our leaders are any indication, writes U.S. News's Deborah Kotz. In a White House press conference Wednesday, President Obama stated, "If the Republicans have ideas for how to improve our healthcare system, if they want to suggest modifications that would deliver faster and more effective reform, I'm happy to consider some of those ideas." However, Washington Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would just like to trash the whole law altogether; in a speech he gave Thursday at the Heritage Foundation in D.C. he said Republicans in Congress should aggressively seek votes to repeal Democrats' healthcare overhaul.

      What should happen, if anything, to healthcare reform? Tweak, repeal, or leave well enough alone? When lawmakers reopen the debate, they will confront a set of uncomfortable realities they will have little choice but to acknowledge. Here are five of the most important:

      1. Bringing more people under the insurance tent won't fix our chronic health problems. Because screening that picks up health problems early is encouraged, the American healthcare system enables us to live longer than the British despite the fact that we've got much higher rates of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, according to a study released Thursday by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research group in Santa Monica, Calif. "We spend twice as much as the English do on medical care," says study coauthor James Smith, a senior economist at Rand. "It costs a fortune" to screen more aggressively for breast and prostate cancers, he says, but we "get extra years of life out of it." That's true, at least for those of us who have insurance; 95 percent of the study sample did. But we can't realistically keep this spending up as our population ages, he says. Nor will providing superb healthcare to all fix the fact that Americans develop chronic illnesses about 15 years earlier than our British counterparts, mostly due to poor lifestyle choices like lack of exercise. No amount of healthcare access will solve what Smith says is the real problem: Americans are loathe to walk or bike from place to place, and we've got bigger waistlines as a result. [Read more: New Members, New Look at Health Reform.]