August 2012

Students in India Design an Eye-Controlled Electric Wheelchair

RVEC Engineering Students Eye Controlled Electric Wheelchair India

Students at R V Engineering College (RVEC) in Bangalore, India have developed a new type of electric wheelchair that could assist quadriplegic patients gain independent mobility. The high tech wheelchair, named Project Wheelie, allows the user to direct the movement of the chair by tracking eye-movement.

Project Wheelie is in its final stages of completion, and the student engineering team masterminding the project consists of Satish Ravishankar, Nikihil Mysore, Govind Ram Pingali, Theja Ram Pingali, and Niyanth Krishna Polisetty. The group was inspired by Stephen Hawking, who communicates through a speech generating device.

The aim of the project was to help those with spinal cord injuries (SCI) and progressive motor neuron diseases (PMND) achieve independence that is normally unavailable to them.

“In many cases of severe paralysis, ocular (eye movement) control is either not affected or affected last. Keeping this in mind, we have developed a cost-effective solution in order to assure victims of paralysis a greater degree of independence and better quality of life,” Satish explained.

While other groups and companies have developed similar technology, Project Wheelie aims to be a much more cost-effective solution.

“Similar equipment developed by others so far, depend on image processing technology to achieve targets, which is quite expensive. Through Project Wheelie, we propose a system wherein a person on the wheelchair needs no support to move along. Here we capture the eye movement through Electro-Oculography (EOG) and it works on the bio-medical technique,” said Mysore.

“With enough sensors in place, the product assists the user in safe and collision-free mobility. Not just that. Wheelie also keeps track of his or her vital health statistics, generates alerts and notifications, which effect arrival of timely medical attention when required,” added Satish.

While the students are still awaiting their final grade on the project they devoted one and a half years to developing, others outside of the college have taken notice of the team’s innovation. Project Wheelie is the finalist for the Young Engineers Award, a national event run by Mahindra Satyam, and is also the national finalist of the Innovator-2011, which is an initiative of the Confederation of Indian Industry.


Stephen Hawking Opens 2012 London Paralympic Games

Stephen Hawking Opens Paralympic Games

On the evening of August 29th, Stephen Hawking, Britain’s greatest living scientist, launched the 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony, urging the crowd to “be curious.” Joined by the band Orbital, Professor Hawking took center stage, where he guided the audience through a “journey of discovery of the wonder of science.”

Stephen Hawking Opens Paralympics with Orbital

A giant flaming orb came from the ceiling, accompanied by Professor Hawking’s computerized voice. He then wheeled out onto stage to share some of his never-ending knowledge, “Look up at the stars, not down at your feet.” The speech he had prepared was inspired by his book A Brief History of Time.

2012 London Paralympics with Orbital and Stephen Hawking

Hawking, 70-years-old, was diagnosed at the age of 22 with debilitating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease in the US or motor neurone disease (MND) in the UK. The disease has left him completely paralyzed and barely able to speak. His disabilities do not hinder his longing to learn and discover, however. He says, “We live in a universe governed by rational laws that we can discover and understand. Look up at the stars, and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

Stephen Hawking 2012 London Paralympics Opening

Six former Paralympians were flown onto the stage in gold wheelchairs. The Afghan war veteran and amputee, Joe Townsend, flew across the stadium on a zip wire to light the flame. The ceremony included 2,000 volunteers, 73 deaf performers, and 68 people with disabilities.

The opening ceremony was directed by Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey. Hemmings says, “We worked very closely with Professor Hawking to develop a series of messages which are very much integrated into the storytelling of the ceremony. Everybody knows about Professor Hawking and his extraordinary theoretical work and writings about science, which have made very complex ideas accessible to all of us. What came through in our meetings with him was the humanity and the humor of him. He is a fun guy.”

Stephen Hawking Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony

In the 1970’s the professor discovered “Hawking radiation,” which allows a black hole to leak energy and gradually fade away to nothing. He brought together the concepts of combining quantum theory and general relativity. This idea is described in A Brief History of Time, which sold 25 million copies.

He recently wrote a book in 2010, Grand Design, which analyzes the relationship between religion and science. The book disputes the origination of the universe. Not only is Hawking known for his scientific research, he was also featured as a cartoon in the TV series The Simpsons, starred in Star Trek, and narrated a British Telecom commercial that was later sampled on a Pink Floyd album.

Stephen Hawking Paralympics Opening Ceremony

Professor Hawking says, “The Paralympic Games is about transforming our perception of the world. We are all different. There is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit. What is important is that we have the ability to create. This creativity can take many forms, from physical achievement to theoretical physics. However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”


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Paralympic Sailor Embraces His Disability

Paralympian Paul Callahan Teaches Disabled Kids Sailing

Paul Callahan, a 55-year-old father of two, will be representing the United States at the 2012 Paralympics in sailing. This will be his second time competing. He also teaches children with disabilities how to sail in Newport, Rhode Island.

At the age of 21, Callahan attended Harvard University, where he studied business. He seemed to have endless possibilities, when a freak accident suddenly changed his life forever. He broke his neck by slipping on a wet floor, and the accident left him paralyzed from the chest down. Although he can still use his arms, he no longer has use of his hands.

Sail to Prevail - Paralympian Paul Callahan teaches sailing kids with disabilities

After the accident he spent five years traveling to different rehabilitation centers across the United States in a hopeful search for recovery. Finally, a doctor told him he should start focusing on living a happy life without walking. He took the doctor’s advice, and in 1983 Callahan returned to Harvard, becoming the first quadriplegic to graduate from the university.

Callahan says, “It’s an evolutionary process where you transition from one life to the other. I never gave up moving forward.” He also adds, “Everyone is quite capable of doing much more than they think they can. Once they realize that fact, the world becomes their oyster.”

Paralympic Sailing Paul Callahan

In 2000, he competed in the Paralympics sailing event in Sydney, Australia. His team did not receive a medal; however, Callahan admits he was fairly new to the sport at the time. After gaining more experience, he took fifth place at the Disabled Sailing World Championships in Weymouth, Massachusetts last year.

Callahan’s passion for sailing sparked in 1995. He says, “I got on a sailboat and looked back at my empty wheelchair on the dock. It was the first time in fifteen years I was able to do something on my own. It was an incredible moment.”

Paul Callahan Sailing Paralympic Games

In fact, the moment inspired him so much, he quit his Wall Street job and took over the non-profit organization Sail to Prevail. The organization focuses on teaching children with disabilities how to sail. The charity is based in Newport, Rhode Island, and originally started with only eight children a year, but now helps around 1,000 children annually.

Callahan says he wants to win the gold not just for him, but for the children. “When we get on the starting line against fourteen other countries, I want to win a gold medal just as much as they do–but I’ve got an additional motivation. The better my team does, the more powerful impact it will have for Sail to Prevail.”

Paul Callahan Quadriplegic Paralympic Games Sailing

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he admits, “You’ve only got a limited amount of time in life. So you may as well choose to put that towards positive effort, rather than squandering it on the negative.”


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High School Team Creates Bike for Student with Spina Bifida

High School Team Creates Bike for Student with Spina Bifida Disability

A group of students from Lynden High School in Massachusetts unveiled the end result of their yearlong project, with Kalyz Lara pedaling the computer-controlled tricycle down the halls of the school. Kalyz, a ninth-grade student with spina bifida, was the motivation behind the creativity that lead the team to spend 1,400 out of classroom hours putting a grant from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to good use.

Every year, the Lemelson-MIT InveTeam program provides grants to a small number of teams around the country to fund an invention that will address a real world problem or challenge. To be considered, teams have to submit their ideas to be judged by a panel of MIT and Harvard University professors and past grant winners.

This year, 16 teams were awarded grants. Lynden High was the only team in Massachusetts to be awarded a grant. The team, which consisted of high schoolers Elli Shook, Harmeen Kaur, Bryce VanderYacht, Jordan Kooi, Daylon Knight, Jon Rouse, and Juan Tover were led by Lynden High teacher Dave Weidkamp and received assistance from a few local community members that provided expertise on specific areas of the projects development. High schoolers Calob Symonds and Gavin Wynne were not a part of the team, but helped program the computer chip that controlled the device.

“They’ve sacrificed going to sporting events. They’ve sacrificed a lot for the honor of this,” Weidkamp said. “I’m very proud of the kids that have done all this work.”

Those hours spent designing and fine tuning the recumbent tricycle resulted in a unique suspension system that allows riders with physical limitations to ride a trike that leans, but remains stable. The trike has a carbon fiber chassis, two wheels in the front, one wheel in the back, and utilizes a hydraulic lean mechanism controlled by an Arduino computer chip.

The benefit of the lean mechanism is that riders can use the feature to exercise core muscles that are often neglected due to disabilities. While similar devices are on the market, Weidkamp explained that “ours is an automatic and the rider can set it at what speed he wants to lean, or not lean.”

The rider can preset how much the trike will lean, up to 30 degrees, which allows riders to adjust the trike as their balance and skills improve.

The presentation of the project, which took place in Lynden High’s library, was met with much enthusiasm. The team has gone on to present their invention at the EurekaFest at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Museum of Science, where they were one of just four teams from around the country to present their projects on stage.

“It is a big deal that they’re presenting. It’s a big deal that all of the teams are there,” said Stephanie Martinovich, the external relations officer for the Lemelson-MIT Program.

The members of the Lynden InvenTeam said that the project taught them a lot about managing their time and making their dreams a reality. The most exciting part for the team is that they may even get to see their trike roll into stores in the future!


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Paralympics Accused of Overcharging for Wheelchair Tickets

2012 London Paralympic Games Tickets Ripoff

Paralympic Games organizers have been accused of forcing wheelchair users to purchase tickets using phone lines that cost up to 40 pence (about 63 cents) a minute. Meanwhile, able-bodied people can simply purchase their tickets online. Facebook users have launched a campaign called “Stop the Olympics from Discriminating Against Wheelchair Users!”

At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, wheelchair users could buy their tickets online, or purchase them through dedicated phone lines without any additional charges. Now the website for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) directs wheelchair ticket purchases to a section labeled “Ticket information for disabled people.” The website says, “If you require a wheelchair space, you can purchase tickets by calling the London 2012 Accessibility team on 0844-847-2012.”

However, despite the extra costs to wheelchair users, the LOCOG boasts on its website that it has “created a ticketing process which is inclusive and accessible.” They claim, “It is important to us that people of all abilities can purchase tickets early.

Wheelchair-user Sarah Bard, who has to use an adapted cell-phone, says she gave up trying to purchase tickets after she tried calling six times and was put on hold each time for fifteen minutes. She says, “LOCOG have designed the system to restrict us. Why are they advertising a 0844 (fixed-rate line)? It is discriminatory towards the disabled. My able-bodied friends can go online and check availability, see when the latest seats become available and buy them with no added charges.

Terrijayne Butler, 33, is the founder of the group on Facebook campaigning against the ticketing. Her son Reece has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. She sent a letter to LOCOG chairman Sebastian Coe complaining about the issues; she also sent her Facebook link to his Twitter account.

Butler says, “My fear was that my phone bill would end up being more than the actual tickets for the family. I know some people who have got through fairly quickly, but others who told me they have been waiting for more than half an hour only to be cut off. It is severely depressing that disabled people are being treated as second-class citizens like this.”

Former Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe, chairman of the all-party disability sports group at Westminister, says the phone charges are “unacceptable” and called on LOCOG to remove them. He says, “This is completely ridiculous. Wheelchair users should be able to book their Paralympics tickets online just like everyone else. I shall be contacting LOCOG as soon as possible to ask them to remove these charges and reimburse people who have incurred unnecessary expense so far. The Paralympics is about breaking down barriers, not subjecting wheelchair users to charges that other people don’t have to pay.”

LOCOG says they do not make any profit from the phone calls, and that it is unknown if Ticketmaster makes any revenue. A spokesman for LOCOG says, “All spectators were able to apply for tickets online for more than a year. From November 2011, we provided a bespoke phone line to ensure customers could discuss their individual accessibility needs. We are trying our best. There are so many needs–soldiers and others who need legroom for their prosthetic limbs. We try to switch them and need to talk to them. We are proud to do more for spectators with accessibility needs than any other sporting event in this country.

The Games organizers are trying in other ways to be accessible, however. They are offering free mobility scooters at Games venues, free handicap parking, along with a free adult companion seat for every wheelchair space, although that last one has been seen as a problem as well.

Do you think they’re doing enough? Weigh in with your opinions or direct experience. We would love to know.


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Nerve Bypass Surgery Restores Hand Movement in Quadriplegic Man

Hand Movement Restored After Spinal Cord Injury

An unnamed 71-year-old quadriplegic man, who was paralyzed from the waist down and had lost all movement of both hands after a car accident, has regained the motor function in his fingers thanks to an experimental surgery that bypasses the damaged nerves.

The patient was paralyzed after a car accident in 2008 and has limited arm, elbow, and shoulder movement. The C7 vertebrae in his spinal cord had been crushed in the accident, and the nerve circuits that send signals from the brain to the muscles in the hands were severed, leaving him without the fine motor movements of the fingers.

Quadriplegic Regains Hand Use from Nerve Trasplant Surgery

“The circuit [in the hand] is intact, but no longer connected to the brain,” Ida Fox, MD, an assistant professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Washington University, explained. “What we do is take that circuit and restore the connection to the brain.”

Quadriplegic Regains Hand Movement with Spinal Cord Injury

Luckily, the nearby nerves had not been damaged. Surgeons in the study cut an undamaged nerve from the elbow and rewired it to the damaged nerve that is responsible for moving the muscles of the hand that grasp objects. The undamaged nerve that was cut controlled the man’s brachialis, an arm muscle that helps the elbow to bend.

Quadriplegic Fine Motor Skills After Nerve Bypass Surgery

“We had to sacrifice something that’s ‘sacrificable,'” said Fox.

The surgery was not meant to create an instant fix. By resurrecting the connection between the brain and the hand, the nerve established a new connection to the brain. After the connection was completed, it took nine months of intense physical therapy for the man to regain the ability to use his hands for simple tasks like feeding himself and writing.

Nerve Transplant Bypasses Spinal Cord Injury

“The brain has to be trained to think, ‘OK, I used to bend my elbow with this nerve, and now I use it to pinch,'” said Dr. Fox. “We’re not changing any of the biomechanics; we’re just changing the wiring. So it’s more of a mental game that patients have to play with themselves.”

Nerve Transplant Surgery Restores Hand Movement

The procedure takes advantage of the ability in lower, peripheral nerves to regenerate after being cut, which is not possible in spinal cord nerves.

“Despite years of research, we haven’t figured out how to make the spinal cord work again,” added Fox. “But we know nerves in the peripheral nervous system can regenerate, and that’s what we’re trying to exploit here.”


Multiple Sclerosis Deaths from Gilenya Pill Remain Unclear

Novartis Gilenya Pill Benefits MS Patients More Than Its Risks

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that there was no definitive link between Gilenya, the Novartis AG pill to treat multiple sclerosis (MS), and the recent deaths of MS patients thought to be caused by the pill.

The FDA report was released weeks after both the United States and European regulators chose to back continued use of the drug. These regulators expressed concern about possible cardiovascular risks in some patients, citing that the first dose could lower the patient’s heart rate.

According to the FDA, one patient died just 24 hours after taking the drug, but the patient had extensive brainstem MS lesions that are often associated with sudden death. The patient had also been taking blood pressure medications, metoprolol and amlodipine, which can affect heart rate.

“Whether they could have played a role in the patient’s death is unknown,” the agency said. “On the basis of the available data, a link between the first dose of Gilenya and the patient’s death could not be ruled out, however, there is not clear evidence that the drug played any role in the death.”

Additional deaths involved cardiovascular issues.

Gilenya Multiple Sclerosis Pill Safety in Question

“For each of these deaths, Gilenya’s contribution to the death was unclear,” the agency said on its website. “The number of deaths of apparent cardiovascular origin or of unknown origin does not appear to be higher than in MS patients not treated with Gilenya.”

The FDA did not provide an exact number or nature of the deaths that were included in the clinical and postmarket studies, but doctors have become more cautious about the drug following the reports and deaths.

The deaths have not slowed sales of Gilenya. Novartis said that continued regulatory backing means that the medication is on track to exceed $1 billion in annual sales. The company added that it is of the belief that Gilenya’s benefit over risk ratio “remains favorable for appropriate patients when used according to the updated label.”

Are you or a loved one using Gilenya? How well has it worked for you, and how do you feel about its possible risks?


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Amputation as a Preference Due to New Prosthetic Technology

Realistic Prosthetics for Amputees

In the past, most people would fight to keep every inch of their limbs when amputation had to happen, losing only what was medically necessary. Today, more people are opting for elective amputations to take advantage of high tech prosthetics that cause less discomfort and allow for a more active lifestyle.

Five years ago, Ann Kornhauser was walking her golden retriever when the bones in her left foot suddenly cracked. She learned that she had a rare tumor in her foot, and half of her foot had to be amputated. She received a prosthetic foot, but it caused her terrible pain. Her doctor suggested an artificial limb, but the high tech limbs would require her leg to be amputated below the knee.

While the idea of amputating a large portion of her leg was scary, after two more years of pain Kornhauser decided it was time to act.

“All my family said was, ‘You’re going to be sitting there without a leg.’ But they didn’t know what I knew,” she said. “I knew it was going to look like a leg and that people ran marathons on them. I knew that I would have a life.”

Her new prosthetic leg has a flesh like surface and pedicured toes, few people even know it’s not her living leg and foot. The leg is mechanical, has a silicone skin and an ankle that can be adjusted for wearing different heel heights.

Realistic Artificial Leg Prosthetic for Amputees

“I was able to walk again,” she said. “And it looks real.”

Like Kornhauser, many of the United States 2 million people with amputations are choosing what was once unthinkable. Instead of trying everything medically possible to retain whatever is left of limbs, they are choosing to electively amputate more of the limb to be able to use the new prosthetics.

iWalk Biomechatronics Prosthetics for Amputees

The technologies available in the new prosthetics often include custom skins, motors, and microchips that replicate natural movement. Dr. Hugh Herr, head of the Biomechatronics group of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has founded a startup company called iWalk. iWalk’s first product was a bionic foot and ankle that was designed by carefully modeling the muscles, tendons, and spinal reflexes used when walking.

Dr. Hugh Herr of MIT Biomechatronics Prosthetics

The foot senses the terrain and actions of the wearer and adjusts automatically, much like human reflexes do naturally. A person wearing the prosthetic uses the same amount of energy that a person without a prosthetic would do the same activity, which is a breakthrough for prosthesis.

Unfortunately, most insurance companies only cover the most basic prosthetics. iWalk’s artificial limb comes with a price tag of $70,000, making it more than many people who could benefit from the device can afford. Hopefully, as this technology becomes more readily available, that come will come within reach of more people. The Pentagon is already studying the effectiveness of the BiOM prosthetic, among others.

Dr. Herr gave a talk about Biomechatronics at the TEDMED conference in 2010. If you’re interested in the future of prosthetic technology, this video is certainly worth watching:

More videos about people who chose amputation over pain and got more out their lives can be seen in this New York Times video gallery: Choosing Less.


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Adaptive Sports Stamps for the London 2012 Paralympic Games

Royal Mail Paralympic Stamp - Athletics

The United Nations Postal Administration (UNPA) has issued stamps featuring six Paralympic sports to honor the London 2012 Paralympic Games. An event was held at the Vienna International Centre in Austria to initiate the stamps. Austrian Paralympic Team and the United Nations table tennis club attended to show support. Doris Mader and Hans Ruep–Paralympic table tennis athletes–performed a table tennis match with members from the VIC Table Tennis Club.

United Nations Paralympic Stamps UN

The stamps feature Goalball, Sitting Volleyball, Athletics Archery, Wheelchair Basketball, and Paralympic Table Tennis.

The 2012 Paralympic Games will be the largest Paralympics yet, featuring 4,200 athletes from 160 countries and 20 sports. The games begin August 29th and end September 9th.

United Nations Paralympics Stamp Cancellations UN

On August 17th, 2012, hand-cancellations for the stamps became available at United Nations Headquarters in New York, the Palais des Nations in Geneva, and the Vienna International Centre (VIC). The hand-cancellations were illustrated by German illustrator, Daniel Stolle.

Royal Mail will be issuing stamps starting August 29th, 2012. These stamps will include four Paralympic Sports-power lifting, athletics, wheelchair basketball, and cycling. St Paul’s Cathedral and Palace of Westminister are two of the landmarks featured on the stamps.

Royal Mail Paralympic Stamp - Wheelchair Basketball

Moya Greene, Chief Executive of Royal Mail, said, “London is looking forward to welcoming Paralympians from all over the globe, and we think these stamps are an excellent way to reflect the once-in-a-lifetime event.

Royal Mail Paralympic Stamp - Cycling

Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of the British Paralympic Association, said, “Royal Mail has continued to show their support for the Paralympic Games and the British Paralympic team with this set of stamps celebrating the start of the London 2012 Paralympics.”

Royal Mail Paralympic Stamp - Powerlifting

Royal Mail also said they will paint post-boxes gold in the home town of every gold medal winner from Britain, which they did during the Olympics.


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Duchenne’s Researchers Find Clues to Muscle Stem Cell Functions

Transgenic MDX Mouse Used for Muscular Dystrophy Research

A recent study conducted by the Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland explains how skeletal muscle stem cells may be stimulated to help muscle repair in Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD).

The skeletal muscle is the largest “organ” system of the body. While muscles are often injured by trauma, inactivity, aging, or disease, they are unique in that they are one of the few tissues inside the human body that can fully repair itself after an injury. There is a form of adult stem cell known as “satellite cells” that are essential for muscle repair. These cells lie in waiting in the periphery of the muscle fiber until an injury occurs. The injury wakes the stem cells up, causing them to fuse with the injured muscle, which stimulates a process that results in the rebuilding of healthy muscle fibers.

A lipid signaling molecule, called sphingosine-1-phosphate or S1P, controls the movement and proliferation of many human cells. Previous studies have shown that S1P is capable of activating satellite cells, but the reason why this happened was unclear.

“We have been studying S1P signaling for many years,” states Julie D. Saba, MD, PhD, senior scientist at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI). “In 2003, we published a report demonstrating that fruit fly mutants with defective S1P metabolism were unable to fly because they developed a muscle disease or ‘myopathy’ that led to degeneration of their flight muscles. Based on that observation, I became convinced that S1P signaling played an important role in muscle stability and homeostasis, not just in flies but in mammals, including humans.”

In this recent study, Dr. Saba and her team show that S1P can trigger an inflammatory response that stimulates the muscle stem cells, and wakes them up to begin the repair process of damaged muscles.

“These findings are important especially for certain muscle diseases or ‘myopathies’ that can affect children,” Dr. Saba reports.

Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy Muscle Regeneration and Stem Cell Recruitment

The most common and one of the most severe myopathies is Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Patients with Duchenne’s begin with enough satellite cells to repair the degenerating muscle, but as they age, the satellite cells cannot keep up with the degeneration. The result is often death from respiratory and heart failure when the boys reach their twenties.

“We found that mdx mice, which have a disease similar to Duchenne muscular dystrophy, are deficient in S1P,” said Dr. Saba. “We were able to increase the S1P levels in the mice using a drug that blocks S1P breakdown. This treatment increased the number of satellite cells in the muscles and improved the efficiency of muscle regeneration after injury.”

Drugs that block S1P metabolism and boost the S1P levels are currently being tested for the treatment of other diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis. If the findings from this study are found to be true in humans with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, it may be possible to use the same medications to improve muscle regeneration in the future.


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