Quirky Medical Stories of 2016
January 17, 2017

Quirky Medical Stories of 2016

If one statement can be met with universal agreement, it’s that 2016 was a surprising year. Politics, deaths of pop culture icons, Brexit, the Cubs… Last year left many of us with our mouths agape, wondering what might happen next.

It was so wacky, that attention was diverted from some of the smaller, yet equally unexpected events of the year. Certainly medicine contributed its own share of quirkiness to a head-scratching year.

A Little to the Left…

Researchers in Berlin donned gloves and tickled rats for the sake of science. The rats enjoyed it so much, they responded by laughing aloud and chasing the hand around their enclosure looking for more. They even jumped for joy – a move called Freudensprünge.

This may sound silly, but the researchers were able to locate the part of the brain that was most activated by the tickling. When they stimulated that part of the brain with electrodes instead of tickling, they got the same results as if they had physically tickled the rats.

It may sound like they were just playing with ticklish rats, but this research opens avenues for further research into how the physical and emotional are connected. It could help answer questions about depressions, pain management, and more.

First Successful Penis Transplant in the U.S.

Until 2014 there was little hope for a man who had suffered disease or trauma that caused him to lose his penis. But that year, a young man in South Africa had a successful transplant after a severe penile infection. And the first successful transplant in the U.S. was just performed in Boston last May, when a 64 year-old penile cancer survivor received a new penis.

Thomas Manning has spoken openly about his ordeal with cancer and the aftermath, and now what it is like to live with the transplanted penis. He recently gave an interview to Boston Magazine. On his openness about his procedure, he says:

“Any time you’re dealing with the penis, vagina, or breasts, it’s sex, sex, sex. Everything gets blown out of proportion and becomes “dirty.” When you’re dealing with this straight up and bluntly, it’s really just life itself.”

When Dad Says No, and Mom Says No, Ask Mom

A woman carrying a genetic disorder that caused the deaths of two of her children gave birth to a healthy baby boy last year. This child did not inherit the disorder that killed his siblings, but instead carries the genes of three parents.

The genes for the disorder, Leigh Syndrome, are carried in the mitochondria, a small packet of genetic material separate from the chromosomes. They are only passed from mother to child – you don’t inherit mitochondrial DNA from your dad. Scientists were able to replace the mitochondria in the mother’s eggs with healthy mitochondria from another woman. They fertilized the egg with the father’s sperm and nine months after implantation into the mother’s uterus, a healthy baby boy was born.

There are a number of devastating mitochondrial diseases on the books. This procedure offers hope for women who carry these disorders and wish to have children. But manipulating genes to select characteristics of a baby also has significant ethical implications. And we are just getting started with that.

Getting Ripped at the Gym

Recreational marijuana use is now legal up and down the West Coast. Queue the entrepreneurs. Be on the lookout for new, lucrative cannabis-related trends, such as the first cannabis-centric workout facility.

Power Plant Fitness of San Francisco started 2016 with just a few outdoor offerings. For example, Power Plant trainers lead “Elevated Yoga Bootcamps” in area parks. The first physical facility will open in May of 2017 in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.

The business is the brainchild of Jim McAlpine, a longtime advocate of marijuana’s benefits for the athlete. Former NFL running back Ricky Williams, is a partner in the effort. It’s important to note that medicinal effects of marijuana are poorly studied and any claims about its benefits aren’t backed by rigorous science – yet. Somehow I don’t think that will slow business down.

Is it Centrifugal or Centripetal?

Anyone who has ever had a kidney stone knows it is a miserable affliction. But one observant doctor made a discovery that could make the whole experience a lot more fun.

When a couple of patients mentioned they passed stones after riding a roller coaster, Dr. David Wartinger of Michigan State University got curious. So, as one does when curious these days, he got out his 3D printer. He printed a model of the human kidney, added some stones and filled it with urine. Then he took it on a roller coaster ride 60 times. And guess what? The roller coaster was pretty good at dislodging the stones.

We all figured out when we were 14 that the ride in the back of the coaster is more fun… it’s also better at dislodging kidney stones. Four out of 24 kidney stones were dislodged after a front seat ride. But a whopping 23 out of 36 were dislodged after riding in the rear.

Don’t go buy your kidney stones a ticket to Disneyworld just yet. There is still a lot of research to be done on the topic. But if you’ve ever passed a stone the hard way, this is promising news.

If we learned anything in 2016, it may be that truth is stranger than fiction. It might also be the case that medicine is stranger than politics.

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