News, Culture & Society

Plaster exercises heart failure patients’ legs

People with heart failure may soon be able to exercise without actually having to move — by applying stick-on devices to their legs that effectively give their muscles a workout.

The effect is similar to physical exercise, according to a recent study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

Around 900,000 people in the UK have heart failure, where weakened heart muscle is unable to deliver enough oxygen to the tissues.

Around 900,000 people in the UK have heart failure, where weakened heart muscle is unable to deliver enough oxygen to the tissues

It tends to affect older people and can occur as a result of numerous conditions, such as high blood pressure or a heart attack, which makes the heart’s pumping action weaker.

Heart failure causes symptoms such as severe tiredness, shortness of breath and chest pain. There is no cure — most treatments are aimed at trying to control symptoms or slowing the condition’s progression.

Exercise is important, as it can help reduce symptoms, but patients can find it tiring because their heart is not strong enough to pump sufficient blood to their muscles.

The new approach — which scientists call functional electrical stimulation — uses low-energy electrical pulses to trigger muscles to move.

Young people can digest rare and well-done meat at about the same rate, but older people struggle to break down protein in rare meat

Young people can digest rare and well-done meat at about the same rate, but older people struggle to break down protein in rare meat

It consists of small fabric patches that contain electrodes, which are attached to the skin around the muscles of the upper and lower legs. The electrodes are connected to a small, battery-powered generator.

In a recent trial, researchers at the Catharina Hospital in the Netherlands and Attikon University Hospital in Greece monitored 120 patients with heart failure. They found that those who used the patches daily were 60 per cent less likely to have needed hospital treatment during the one-year follow-up period, compared to those using a placebo device.

Exactly how this kind of electrical stimulation works is unclear, but one theory is that it triggers muscle contractions similar to those seen as a result of physical exercise. It may also improve blood flow.

‘Physical exercise has beneficial effects on the workings of the blood vessels in these patients and leads to a relative risk reduction of 23 per cent for death or hospitalisation,’ says Dr Punit Ramrakha, a consultant cardiologist at the Hammersmith Hospital in London.

‘However, compliance with fitness training programmes is unsatisfactory, due to limitations resulting from the advanced heart failure or coexisting conditions. 

‘Functional electrical stimulation of leg muscles offers an alternative and represents an attractive option for heart failure patients who are unable or unwilling to exercise.’

He adds: ‘There is now good evidence that this type of treatment improves wellbeing and clinical measures, which, in turn, translate to a significant reduction in hospitalisation.

‘This new study should prompt heart failure teams across the country to review the provision of such treatments.’

Meanwhile, a single jab of stem cells is being used to treat patients with heart failure. Doctors are harvesting stem cells from patients and then injecting them back into their coronary arteries to ‘rejuvenate’ them.

The researchers, at the Royan Institute in Tehran, believe the stem cells will help to do that: in an 18-month study with 60 patients, half will have the treatment and the others will have a dummy jab.


Elderly people should order their steak well done to prevent sarcopenia — the age-related degenerative loss of muscle mass and strength — suggests a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Researchers at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research gave ten volunteers aged between 70 and 82 rare or well-done steak. 

Blood tests found they took in fewer amino acids — the building blocks for protein and muscle — from the rare meat.

The study authors noted young people can digest rare and well-done meat at about the same rate, but older people struggle to break down protein in rare meat.


An instant fingerprick blood test for gout sufferers may help to prevent attacks of the painful condition, according to a trial at Hôpitaux de Paris.

The test, which takes the sample using a monitor called HumaSensplus, measures levels of uric acid — gout is caused by high levels of this, which then form crystals in the joints, triggering swelling and severe pain.

Monitoring a patient’s levels of uric acid is a key part of controlling and treating the illness, but it is currently done in a laboratory and results can take time to come back.

Around two in every 100 people in the UK have gout.


A ‘selfie’ could help spot pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages, thanks to a new app. Developed by researchers at the University of Washington, the app, called BiliScreen, analyses a smartphone photo of the white of the eye for signs of jaundice.

Jaundice, a symptom of pancreatic cancer, is caused by raised levels of bilirubin, a pigment in blood cells.

Currently, pancreatic cancer often escapes detection until it is too late, and the five-year survival rate is just 9 per cent.

The app, which is not yet available, is designed to be used at home by people with risk factors, or who have the disease and need frequent bilirubin monitoring, normally done in hospital.


Scientists are working on a pill that could help reduce the ‘hit’ produced by alcohol and, ultimately, be used to treat binge drinking and alcoholism.

The drug is based on baclofen, a muscle relaxant, which works by targeting GABA receptors in the brain — this effectively reduces the activity of brain cells (alcohol can have a similar effect, which is why we feel relaxed when we have a drink).

The manufacturer, Indivior, says the new drug could be available by 2020. As well as alcoholics, they say it could help people who consume more than the recommended limit.

■ Hard water can damage the skin barrier and could trigger eczema, say researchers at King’s College London and the University of Sheffield. Skin is naturally acidic, but hard water is very alkaline, which can raise the skin’s pH, causing problems. The team is now looking at whether putting water softeners in households with a new baby can protect against eczema. 


Givers are happier than takers — and even very small acts of generosity trigger brain changes that make people happier, report scientists at the University of Zurich.

The researchers enlisted 50 volunteers who were given 25 Swiss francs (£20) a month: half the group pledged to spend it on others; the rest spent it on themselves. The giving group was asked to accept or reject different options at personal cost, including being charged three francs to give somebody ten.

Brain scans showed that the givers’ brains had greater activity in the areas associated with feeling happier, even after making a simple commitment to being more generous.