Healthy Choices

Health Bites: Can sunscreen ward off medical implant infections?

A study finds sunscreen may deter growth of bacteria.
A study finds sunscreen may deter growth of bacteria. Tribune News Service

Every two weeks, we gather some of the most interesting and intriguing studies from health researchers around the world. Here are the latest:

Can sunscreen help prevent infections in medical implants? Possibly, according to a recent University of Michigan study, which finds that a common ingredient in sunscreens could be an effective antibacterial coating for medical implants, such as pacemakers and replacement joints.

An ultra-thin coating of zinc oxide applied on implants could help prevent the growth of MRSA and other bacteria, which cause hard-to-treat infections in about 1 million medical devices each year, the study found.

“It is extremely difficult to treat these infections,” said Dr. J. Scott VanEpps of the University of Michigan Medical School’s Department of Emergency Medicine, whose team led the study. He said infection treatment involves either a long course of antibiotics, which can lead to toxic side effects and antibiotic resistance, or the implants must be surgically replaced, which is especially involved for heart valves and prosthetic joints.

In experiments, an ultra-thin coating of zinc oxide was applied to two sets of pegs in environments where bacteria could grow. After 24 hours, the coated pegs had 95 percent fewer viable staphylococcal cells when compared with uncoated pegs.

“While the coating was unable to completely eradicate all staphylococcal cells,” VanEpps said, “this dramatic reduction could likely enable antibiotic treatments to succeed or simply allow the human immune system to take over without the need for antibiotics.”

Does the pill help prevent ovarian cancer?

Patients who develop ovarian cancer appear to have better outcomes if they have a history of oral contraceptive use, according to a recent study by Mayo Clinic researchers.

“Multiple studies from a variety of sources have indicated that oral contraceptives are associated with a reduced risk of ovarian cancer, one of the most deadly cancers in women,” says Aminah Jatoi, M.D., an oncologist at Mayo Clinic and a co-lead author of the study. “However, few studies have explored the connection between the pill and outcomes in patients who ultimately develop the disease.”

In their study, a Mayo Clinic oncologist and epidemiologist examined outcomes of nearly 1,400 ovarian cancer patients between 2000 and 2013. More than half reported previously taking birth control pills.

Using clinical data from patients’ electronic health records, the researchers found those who had been on the pill showed improved “progression-free survival,” or the length of time people live with ovarian cancer without it worsening. They also showed improved overall survival rates, compared to those who had not been on the pill.

Though it’s not clear how oral contraceptives improve outcomes for ovarian cancer patients, more research could lead to new therapeutic targets.

“Without question, further studies are needed in this area,” said Dr. Aminah Jatoi, an oncologist and the study’s co-author, “but our study might provide a sense of hope for patients who are struggling with ovarian cancer.”

New technique in breast cancer surgeries

A new antennalike device could help make breast cancer surgery easier for women – and their doctors. That’s the conclusion from a team of breast cancer surgeons at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, who are testing a new device approved by the Federal Drug Administration.

To locate tumors they cannot feel, breast cancer surgeons must use detection methods that can cause anxiety and be uncomfortable for women patients, the study noted. Currently, a radiologist inserts a device into the woman’s breast, leaving a protruding wire for the surgeon to follow. The device targets a clip placed during the patient’s biopsy. During surgery, the surgeon removes the tumor, the device and the wire, but the wiring procedure itself can cause delays in surgery.

The new device, like the anti-theft radio frequency tags used in stores, acts like an antenna and responds to infrared radio signals. A radiologist can insert the device up to a week ahead of surgery. To locate the tumor, a surgeon uses a hand-held tool that sends an infrared signal. Unlike the current method, it does not involve any radioactivity and because it leaves no protruding wires, it makes surgery easier for women, according to the study.

“They have nothing protruding externally,” said Dr. Stephanie Fine, a University of New Mexico breast cancer surgeon, in a quote in the study. “It’s more comfortable and less anxiety-producing.”

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck