medical innovation

RECENT POSTS

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Honeybees (Seriously — It Could Work In Urban Slums)

Three trained bees in a special harness that holds them in place for the diabetes-detecting experiment. (Photo courtesy of Juliet Phillips, Bee Healthy project.)

Three trained bees in a special harness that holds them in place for the diabetes-detecting experiment. (Photo courtesy of Juliet Phillips, Bee Healthy project.)

By Richard Knox

The latest book by humorist David Sedaris is implausibly titled “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.” But as we all know, life is stranger than literature: Now, an imaginative team of social entrepreneurs has devised a way to explore diabetes with bees — that is, to train honeybees to diagnose hidden cases of diabetes.

It’s no crackpot idea. It’s in the running with five other finalists for a million-dollar prize given each year by the Clinton Foundation.

Here’s the concept: Bees are 10,000 times more sensitive to chemicals in the air than humans. The breath of humans with diabetes contains higher levels of a chemical called acetone. Bees are easily trained to stick out their tongues when they detect a certain concentration of acetone.

Put a bunch of these trained bees into tiny harnesses, have a person breathe into a straw aimed at the constrained bees and voila! A diabetes screening system that doesn’t require laboratories, expensive machines, highly trained technicians, dietary fasting, or more than a modicum of money.

It may be a good way to screen large numbers of people for undiagnosed diabetes in developing countries such as India, where the disease is burgeoning even faster than in overfed America.

Juliet Phillips of the Bee Healthy project studies a bee in harness, ready to be bathed in the breath of a volunteer. The bee is trained to stick out its tongue if it scents a certain level of a chemical in the volunteer’s breath, signaling diabetes. (Photo courtesy of Juliet Phillips, Bee Healthy project)

Juliet Phillips of the Bee Healthy project studies a bee in harness, ready to be bathed in the breath of a volunteer. The bee is trained to stick out its tongue if it scents a certain level of a chemical in the volunteer’s breath, signaling diabetes. (Photo courtesy of Juliet Phillips, Bee Healthy project)

“Millions of people aren’t aware they have this disease,” says Juliet Phillips, a leader of the project, called “Bee Healthy.” “They aren’t even aware there is this disease. So there’s a need to screen people for diabetes that’s free for people in slums but also culturally acceptable.”

Phillips and her colleague Tobias Horstmann were in Boston this month to test the idea on a group of people with known diabetes. The experiment, at the Joslin Diabetes Center, found that bees could identify the diabetic patients 70 percent of the time.

“That’s not as high as we want to go, but we believe we can get there,” Horstmann says. “We can get improvement in the training of bees.”

In addition, the Boston patients in the test all had well-controlled diabetes, so the level of acetone in their breath was much lower than undetected diabetics in a developing country whose diabetes is out of control. Continue reading

Opening Soon In Boston: Mass. General’s Museum Of Medical Innovation

The new museum of medical history and innovation on Cambridge St. in Boston


I was inching up Cambridge Street this morning, cursing the traffic as I got later and later for my dentist’s appointment, when suddenly my head whipped around and I muttered, “What the heck is that?”

In a spot in front of Massachusetts General Hospital that used to be completely unmemorable — judging by the fact that I can’t remember what was there — stood the gleaming little gem of a building you see above, all shining copper and glass. On the front, I made out “Museum of Medical History and Innovation.”

Who knew? Clearly I’ve been out of it, probably because I’ve been too assiduously ignoring all the big institutional birthdays around town, including Mass. General’s 200th. But the latest word, according to the hospital, is that the museum — named for transplant pioneer and history buff Paul S. Russell, MD — is expected to open to the public in March:

The museum’s ground floor will be home to permanent exhibits which highlight the evolution of medicine and clinical practice over MGH’s 200-year history, while the second story gallery will showcase changing exhibits, while also providing space for programs, lectures and special events.

My vote: Of course it’s a Mass. General institution, but it would be wonderful if it could also feature medical innovations beyond the hospital’s walls. Readers, any suggestions for exhibits?

For more background on the museum, a Beacon Hill-oriented section of the Boston Globe published a full account of the plans for it in February.