Bring back that loving feeling

From Cosmos Magazine, Issue 77, Summer 2018 (Image by Max Sparber via Flickr)

Psychedelic drugs have long been outlawed. Now psychiatrists want them back.

ON A SWELTERING NEW YORK EVENING in August 2016, Jesse Noakes finally found relief from years of mind-numbing depression. As he sat on the sofa facing the therapist his gloom melted away, replaced by feelings of clarity, warmth and enthusiasm. “It was magical,” he says, “something that I was so, so desperate for.”

The Australian writer had spent his 20s cycling from one antidepressant to the next without relief. The therapy session that finally sliced through his mental miasma came at the end of a months-long global quest that took him to the Netherlands, Switzerland, and finally the US. It also took him to the wrong side of the law. That’s because his therapy session was boosted by a dose of MDMA, the active ingredient in the illegal party drug ecstasy.

Clandestine therapy sessions like these may soon be a thing of the past. Read more… Bring back that loving feeling, or purchase Issue 77 here

The next generation of weapons against antibiotic-resistant superbugs

From Cosmos Magazine, June 30, 2017 (Image: naturalismus via Flickr) 

At his North Adelaide practice, Peter-John Wormald has the unenviable job of unblocking the noses of people with chronic sinusitis. Many of his patients have spent years on antibiotics that have failed to budge their infection, providing the perfect breeding ground for resistant superbugs.

For four out of five of them, surgery is the answer. Wormald carves away inflamed tissue, widens sinus openings and flushes out accumulated pus. For the stubborn one in five, however, Wormald is conducting one of the world’s first clinical trials into phage therapy, a century-old idea that predates modern antibiotics.

Such trials are desperately needed. We are on the threshold of returning to the dark ages that preceded antibiotics. Read more… 

A deep dive into the genomes of penicillin fungi reveals a trove of potential drugs

From Cosmos Magazine, April 4, 2017 (Image: AJC1 via Flickr)

Penicillium AJC1

A treasure trove of medicinal compounds could still be lurking within the fungi that revolutionised modern medicine through the use of antibiotics, according to a new study published in Nature Microbiology.

Penicillin, derived from the Penicillium fungi, became the first mass-produced antibiotic in the 1940s. Antibiotics have since saved millions of lives, but their efficacy against bacterial infections is waning, due to rampant overuse leading to potentially catastrophic antimicrobial resistance. Some estimates predict 10 million human fatalities a year by 2050 due to antibiotic ineffectiveness.

Yet the answer to this nightmare scenario may well lie in re-mining the veins of the Penicillium fungi, which bio-prospectors hunting for the next pharmaceutical blockbuster have to date largely overlooked despite it also being the source of other useful drugs including cholesterol-lowering statins. Read more…


How microbes affect you from brain to bowel

From Cosmos Magazine, September 5-9, 2016. (Photo: Lactobacillus casei by AJC1 via Flickr)

Not a day goes by without some new study proclaiming the importance of our microbes to our health. It’s hard to keep up, and hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, the mildly interesting association from the water-tight causal link. I recently wrote a five part series that looks at the current state of microbiota research – what evidence is solid, and what needs further investigation.

Microbes and you: a partnership millions of years old

We are not alone. Our bodies are teeming metropolises of microscopic life – and the microbes that call us home influence everything from bowel to brain.

Over the past decade, technological advances in the lab have allowed us to take a census of our microbial entourage – known as the microbiota – like never before. Instead of seeing only the small fraction of microbes from our skin or poo that blossom on a petri dish, we can now blend, extract and read the genetic essence – the DNA – of all microbes, called the microbiome, to get a better idea of who’s there.

The picture that has emerged is one of staggering complexity. Read more…

How bugs in your gut can make you fat (or thin)

Tinkering with gut microbes causes more than a tummy ache. They can wring more calories from food and boost fat cell production – all from day one.

By far the majority of our companion microbes, weighing an impressive 1.5 kilograms and containing more than 1,000 species, reside in our gut, mostly in the large intestine.

As soon as a baby is born – and perhaps even before – microbes move in. Many are seeded from bacteria in the mother’s birth canal if it’s a vaginal birth or from her skin if it’s a caesarean birth. Read more…

Microbe tenants help – and hinder – your immune system

Obesity isn’t the only condition linked to imbalanced gut microflora. A host of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions – inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus – are also associated with changes to gut microbial ecosystems.

(Indeed, obesity is often described as an inflammatory condition for the widespread immune reaction that accompanies excess weight.)

Connecting the dots between altered gut microbes and disease is a lively area of research. Scientists are working on the ‘chicken or egg’ problem: does disrupting the gut microflora cause the disease, or does having the disease lead to changes in gut microflora?

In many cases, it is likely that a complex interplay between genetics and environmental triggers – including the microbes in our guts – is involved. Read more…

Mood, mind and memory – can gut bacteria meddle with the brain?

The microbes in your gut may be tiny, but their influence appears to extend as far as the brain, affecting mental health, stress levels, memory and cognitive abilities. Yet many of the most compelling results illustrating the microbiota-gut-brain axis, as it has become known, have only been seen in animals.

The potential for gut microbes to affect mood is probably best illustrated by an experiment conducted at McMaster University in Canada. Mice devoid of a microbiota were effectively given ‘personality make-overs’ via poo transplants. Timid mice became more brazen, and once daring mice retreated into shyness, taking on the anxiety profiles of their donors.

Human-to-rodent poo transplants also work. Read more…

Bugs as drugs – medicine’s next frontier

Microbiome research is providing tantalising clues about how we might change our microbiota to improve our health. But translating findings from the lab into clinical treatments is a slow and arduous process.

The most dramatic illustration of how our microbiota can be used in the clinic is the case of the poo transplant, also known as faecal microbiota transplantation. Read more…


Game Changer for Cancer

From Cosmos Magazine, June 13, 2016. (Image: Melanoma by Martin Trotter via Flickr)

RON WALKER has never been one to shy from a challenge. But at 72, the former lord mayor of Melbourne was thrown a curveball. A pea-sized lump on his forehead turned out to be a melanoma.

Once removed, and with the lymph nodes showing all clear, his surgeon was optimistic. Within a year tumours blossomed in his lungs, bones and brain. Walker was given a few months to live. In a last-ditch attempt, he travelled to Los Angeles to enrol in a trial of a new drug, Keytruda. Every three weeks, Walker watched drug-laced fluid drain from the drip into his arm. After just four treatments, his tumours began shrinking. A year and a half later, his cancer was nowhere to be seen. Similar stories of survival against the odds are found across the globe, given prominence by celebrity recipients such as former US President Jimmy Carter, who used the drug to great effect in his fight against melanoma.

Keytruda and similar drugs are heralded as game-changers in the cancer community.

Read more…

Have we got sepsis wrong?

(Photo by Bastian via Flickr)

When Paul Manley awoke in the hospital, he had one clear conviction running through his groggy mind. “I thought, ‘this is what death feels like, I’m going to die’,” he says. The 62-year-old retired Air Force Colonel had been in a coma for eight days, not because he had been in a car accident, nor because he’d had a stroke or heart attack. What had landed him in the intensive care unit was sepsis, a complication of infection that is still not fully understood.

Infections are a mundane part of life, and in most cases, our body’s immune system shakes them off with little effort. But for more than three quarters of a million people in the US each year – and many millions globally – infections turn into life-threatening sepsis. One in ten people admitted to intensive care units in the US have sepsis, and startlingly, it is the culprit in up to half of all hospital deaths. Continue reading “Have we got sepsis wrong?”