Medicine in Blue and White

About the series

"Medicine in Blue and White" is a new television series about Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and the first medical information show to air on the Big Ten Network.     >> Watch Episode 2    >> Watch Episode 1

Episode 3:

The incredible connection between one fourteen year old boy -- and the thousands of people he has helped over the past forty years. Combining aerospace engineering and medical technology to help improve health care in developing countries. Never-before-seen-behavior under the microscope that could lead to a cure for some of the most challenging diseases we face. And a new way to test for what is -- literally -- an age-old problem.

You wouldn't expect 15,000 Penn State students to have all that much in common with a 14-year-old boy named Chris Millard, but that's what makes this story so special. In fact, the 15,000 are part of an annual event called THON -- Penn State's Dance Marathon. But it's not just any event, it's the largest student run philanthropy in the world.

Chris Millard was not just any kid. Before he died of cancer at the age of 14, he wrote a short story called The Four Diamonds -- calling out the very best of human qualities: courage, honesty, wisdom and strength.

The Four Diamonds -- a charitable organization set-up by Chris' parents in his memory in 1972-- has been helping families who themselves have a child battling cancer at Penn State Children's Hospital.

That's where THON comes back into the picture. The money raised here – more than $127 million dollars as of 2015 – goes directly to Four Diamonds to cover the cost of treatment that insurance or means do not cover, support the medical team – expert physicians  nurses, and therapy specialists – who care for the children fighting cancer and their families, and fund leading-edge research into new treatment options and cures for pediatric cancers.

Four Diamonds' ultimate goal? To conquer childhood cancer. Period. Each year, Four Diamonds provides direct support to approximately 600 children with cancer – 100 who are newly diagnosed and 500 who are continuing their fight. You'll meet two of them here. 

With new medicines and technologies, survival rates for pediatric cancers are rising significantly -- from nearly 60 percent in 1975 to about 80 percent today. But that's only in the United States. And the “lack” goes beyond just pediatric cancers.

It's no secret, of course, that many of those who seek healthcare in developing nations are left wanting. A Penn State Hershey team of doctors, scientists and engineers is working to help change that. And they're starting with the CAT scan, a special type of x-ray machine that's been around since the 1970s. It uses digital geometry to give doctors a 3D view inside the body.

Because it's been around for 40 years, many poorer communities have access to one and this team wants to take advantage of that. Their goal: make the existing machines smarter so that they can see more. To help them do that, the Penn State Hershey team is adapting military aircraft technology. They are using the same complex mathematical algorithms that help pilots track targets to upgrade CAT scans to better target disease.

Two conditions that could be impacted are epilepsy and hydrocephalus -- or water on the brain. Doctors will be able to treat both better with the improved CAT scans.

And there are a lot of people in need. Fifty million people in the world have epilepsy -- the most common serious neurological disorder. More than 40 million of them are thought to be in developing countries and ninety percent of them -- some 36 million people, are not receiving appropriate treatment.

As for hydrocephalus -- It's one of the most common birth defects, affecting about 1 child in 500...making it more common than Down Syndrome or deafness.

Enhanced CAT scans to help visualize the brain will be crucial in treating the condition. There are now about 6,000 CAT scanners installed in the U.S. and about 30,000 installed worldwide.

Take a look at a retrovirus. At its simplest, it's a biological agent that reproduces inside a host cell, but changes its genetic makeup faster than other viruses. Some are linked to life-threatening diseases. And though they have existed for millions of years, scientists still have a lot of unanswered questions.

For the very first time, researchers can see a retrovirus use the nucleus of a cell in order to make more copies of itself, something the scientific community thought never happened. Knowing how viruses operate is key to finding cures for the diseases they cause.

Currently, there are only three known infectious human retroviruses -- and they're linked to HIV, cancer and neurological disease. So while this Penn State Hershey team is excited about their discovery, they realize there is much more work ahead.

Macular Degeneration is a disease that affects some 13 million Americans and yet 85 percent of them don't even know that they have it. Unlike glaucoma, which affects about 4 million Americans, macular degeneration is an especially challenging disease because it can come on so slowly and gets confused with the normal aging process.

Right now, there is no cure for macular degeneration. Until now, there wasn't even a test for it. That's about to change. Dr. Jackson's team found an early warning symptom that largely goes unnoticed: Night vision, or to be more precise, the gradual loss of it.

Researchers found that the cells responsible for night vision are affected by macular degeneration long before and more severely than those that enable sight during the day. But they weren't being tested.

A Penn State Hershey team developed screening technology to measure that adjustment period. The patient sees a flash of light and then pushes a button when they see a more faint green light. The screening will be widely available soon. Early detection could help to arrest the disease that causes so much damage to so many people. By 2040, 33 million people could be impacted by macular degeneration.

More research information