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Frontiers of medicine

Posted by Richard on February 20, 2007

On the diagnostic front, a New Jersey company has developed a new use for its super-sensitive breathalyzer, and as an ex-smoker, I’m interested:

A new breath test has been reported to detect lung cancer in its early stage. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, and doctors believe that early detection could offer sufferers their best chance for early survival.

Dr. Michael Phillips, CEO of Menssana Research, the company that developed the breath test, said, "We developed a breathalyzer that is one billion times more sensitive than those the police use to measure alcohol in the breath. It detects around 200 different chemicals in a person’s breath, and some of these chemicals are markers of cancer. A breath test has great advantages over most other medical tests – it is completely safe, painless and non-invasive. All you have to do is breathe gently into a tube for two minutes. There are no potentially dangerous x-rays to worry about, and it will certainly be a lot less expensive than chest imaging."

In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health that will be published in Cancer Biomarkers, researchers studied 404 smokers and ex-smokers aged over 60. The breath test predicted lung cancer with almost the same accuracy as computerized tomography, or chest CT, the best screening test for lung cancer currently available.

The company is also working on breath tests for tuberculosis, heart disease, and breast cancer. The lung cancer test still has to get FDA approval, and I hope that happens soon.

On the surgical front, if you’re going to have laparoscopic surgery, you may want to quiz your surgeon about his or her recreational activities:

Surgeons who played video games at least three hours a week in their past were 27% faster, with 37% fewer errors, in simulations of laparoscopic surgery than nonplayers, reported James C. Rosser Jr., M.D., of Beth Israel Medical Center here, and colleagues in the February issue of the journal Archives of Surgery.

Among the 33 residents and attending physicians in Dr. Rosser’s Top Gun Laparoscopic Skills and Suturing training program, those who currently played video games committed 32% fewer errors and were 24% faster than nonplayers.

In a regression analysis, past and current video gaming were the most important factors in laparoscopic simulation performance, even more so than traditional factors, such as years of training and number of laparoscopic cases.

Sounds like you’re better off with a video-gamer surgeon, doesn’t it? But keep in mind that it’s a small study, and the research looked at the surgeons’ performance on simulations of laparoscopic surgery, not actual surgeries. John Timmer at Ars Technica offered a computer geek’s perspective of why that might make a difference:

Part of the appeal of gaming is that we can abstract our actions from any real-world consequences—we can choose to participate in virtual death and mayhem without causing any actual damage. The surgical skills test appears to give its participants the same opportunity, namely to view the errors they make as having no consequence. It’s possible that surgeons that do not game are less able to make that abstraction, and that their slow pace and (possibly nervous) errors reflect their view of the surgical drill as having similar consequences to working on an actual patient.

As usual, experts said more studies were needed (although this isn’t the first; see this from 2004 and this from 2006). They also cautioned parents that the study didn’t mean we should "relax our concerns" about video gaming by kids:

"Parents should not see this study as beneficial if their child is playing video games for over an hour a day," Gentile said. "Spending that much time playing video games is not going to help their child’s chances of getting into medical school."

Remember that, parents — your kids need to learn math and science, not Quake 3! Those fuddy-duddy med schools are still making admission decisions based on MCAT scores and GPAs instead of who has the fastest twitch.

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