11-28-19 Modified BCG vaccine could prevent TB in cattle and help end culls
A modified version of the BCG vaccine against tuberculosis could allow cattle around the world to be vaccinated against the disease for the first time. At present, the disease is controlled by slaughtering infected cattle and other animals thought to spread it, such as badgers, which has been a source of controversy. The modified vaccine has been tested only in guinea pigs so far, but the team is confident it will work in cattle too. “We would expect it to work in cows,” says team leader Johnjoe McFadden at the University of Surrey, UK. Testing in large animals like cattle is expensive, he says, and the team hasn’t yet got the funding. Vaccinating cattle with the standard BCG vaccine used in people – which contains a live bacterium – is banned in most countries. The reason is that the vaccine protects only about 70 per cent of cattle and a standard test can’t distinguish between cattle that have been vaccinated and those that are infected. The test involves injecting dead TB bacteria into the skin, but vaccinated and infected cattle react in the same way. This means the disease could spread undetected if vaccination was allowed. McFadden’s team has got around this by deleting six protein-coding genes from the BCG vaccine strain. If these six proteins are injected into the skin of cattle vaccinated with the new strain, there will be no response, but in infected cattle there will be a response. So if the modified vaccine is used in conjunction with the new skin test, infected animals can be detected. The work was done in collaboration with research organisations in India, where TB in cattle is a particular problem. Cows can’t be culled there because Hindus consider them to be sacred. In the UK, wild badgers are culled to halt the spread of the disease, a controversial practice that some studies suggest might be counterproductive. This practice could be stopped if vaccination became possible, says McFadden.
11-28-19 Fossil of a newly-discovered mammal shows it had bizarre ears
A rodent-like mammal that lived 120 million years ago had a weird ear that may have evolved as a result of its unique chewing style. Yuanqing Wang of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, China and his colleagues discovered an almost complete skeleton of a previously unknown creature – named Jeholbaatar kielana – in the Jiufotang Formation in the Liaoning province of China. The rodent-like animal’s lower cheek configuration suggests it had an unusual back and forward chewing style that allowed it to grind up and eat plants. This may have contributed to its success as a species, because other mammals alive at the time could only eat insects and other vertebrates. J. kielana, which weighed about 50 grams, was also different to some other early mammals because its ear bones were separate to its jaw. Its chewing style may have driven this anatomical development, because it forced parts of the jaw to move up to the skull where they ended up forming a unique hearing apparatus, says Wang. Like modern mammals, J. kielana had three middle ear bones – the malleus, incus and stapes (or hammer, anvil and stirrup) – that transform soundwaves into electrical signals. But instead of the incus being interlocked with the malleus, as it is in people and other living mammals, it sat partially on top of the malleus. This configuration was probably necessary to accommodate the animal’s back and forward chewing style, says Wang. In contrast, cats slice their food by biting up and down and cows grind plants between their teeth with a sideways movement. We don’t know if the unusual configuration caused J. kielana to hear sounds in a different way to other mammals.
11-27-19 Working hard at being happy
The cycle of trying to maximize our experience to reach ‘peak happiness’ is a formula for endless disappointment, said Cody Delistraty in Aeon.co. We’d be better off accepting that life requires sadness too. In 1920, the American psychologist John B. Watson published the results of one of the more ethically dubious scholarly articles of the past century. Along with Rosalie Rayner, a 21-year-old graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he taught, Watson aimed to instill a specific fear in an otherwise normal baby. Until then, behavioral conditioning had been exercised solely within the animal realm, but Watson and Rayner selected a 9-month-old boy they called “Albert” for their study, paid his mother a dollar, and placed a variety of small, live animals in front of him, including a rat—in which he initially showed a playful interest. As Albert played with the rat, the experimenters hit a nearby steel bar with a hammer, emitting a loud noise that scared the boy and made him cry. After doing this a few times, all the experimenters had to do to make Albert burst into tears was to show him the rat. Even without the noise, they successfully conditioned in him a fear of rats, which eventually carried over to a fear of numerous furry creatures, including rabbits and dogs. One would think that such an unprincipled experiment might have led to some kind of public outcry—after all, the experimenters never deconditioned Albert—or even scientific objection, since there was no consistent control; nonetheless, it seemed to show that humans, not just animals, could be behaviorally conditioned in myriad ways. In fact, following the article’s publication, Johns Hopkins raised Watson’s salary by 50 percent to keep him at the university. He was already popular: A year earlier, students had voted him “handsomest professor.” But then, after his wife discovered and published the love letters he’d written to Rayner, whom he’d been having an affair with and would go on to marry, the university fired him. Watson quickly landed in advertising, where J. Walter Thompson hired him to continue his work conditioning humans, specifically consumers. “I began to learn that it can be just as thrilling to watch the growth of a sales curve of a new product as to watch the learning curve of animals and men,” Watson later reflected. Bringing a scientific ethos to advertising, he was tasked with instilling brand loyalty, creating product personalities, and, as he and Rayner had done with baby Albert, instilling fears in consumers in order to get them to buy certain products. For the Scott’s toilet paper account, for instance, he helped to create a print advertisement in which surgeons are looking at a patient, while the text below says “and the trouble began with harsh toilet tissue” as a way of scaring and selling. oday, such behavioral manipulations are the norm, but they take subtler and more sinister forms, thanks to Big Data and a digital environment in which algorithmic surveillance is more or less omnipresent. Rather than conditioning specific fears, it’s now more common to find human happiness the target of psychological manipulation. Happiness is in many ways the marketing breakthrough of the past decade, with self-care and anti-stress products now rounding out the best-seller list on Amazon—think of “gravity blankets,” “de-stressing” adult coloring books, and fidget spinners—where they nestle alongside chart-topping tomes by “happiness bloggers.” All of this is made possible by a specific, disturbing, and very new version of “happiness” that holds that bad feelings must be avoided at all costs.
11-27-19 Fast access to new medicines shouldn’t mean endangering our health
Agencies like the US Food and Drug Administration speed the approval of some drugs to address urgent needs, but there are signs that the balance between safety and speed isn’t quite right HIGH ideals have a way of seeming like high hurdles when time is running out. If someone you love has been told they have just months to live, and there is a drug that might offer them even a few months more, it suddenly matters less that the drug isn’t cost-effective, or that it was approved on the basis of a small trial and its risks and benefits remain unclear. What matters is that it might buy precious time right now. Such dilemmas are why the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and similar agencies around the world aim to strike a balance between efficacy and expediency, speed and safety when it comes to approving new medications. In the 1970s, it took the FDA nearly three years to usher a new drug through its evaluation process. But in response to public demand after the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the agency began to introduce expedited approval processes to get new medicines to market much faster. Today, there are several methods used to speed things up, and more than half of medicines are now evaluated through some kind of expedited pathway. To pay for the staff to keep up the pace of approvals, however, the FDA has come to rely more heavily on pharmaceutical industry fees – and accepts those funds in exchange for keeping to set timelines. The trouble is, the kind of research needed to ensure that drugs are safe and effective takes time. Faster approvals may be based on smaller studies or measure things that are proxies for the desired effect. Medication that is rushed to market in this way is more likely to be withdrawn later over safety concerns or to turn out not to work as intended. There is a growing group of researchers raising the alarm over this trend. They don’t dispute the need for quicker access to new treatments or pretend that it is a straightforward problem to solve. And they don’t expect regulatory agencies to do it without help from companies. Fortunately, there is no shortage of ideas about how to strike a better balance. That balance is critical, because if the drugs you take to get better could actually cause you harm, then the system meant to protect you just isn’t working.
11-27-19 Many heart surgeries may be unnecessary
Two of the most common surgical heart procedures are no better at preventing heart attacks and death in patients with stable heart disease than medicine and lifestyle improvements. That’s the conclusion of a landmark study that could be a game changer for treating coronary artery disease, reports The Washington Post. Cardiologists often try to improve blood flow in patients by using stents—tiny mesh scaffolds that prop open clogged arteries—or doing a bypass around the blockage. To assess those interventions, scientists recruited 5,179 patients from 37 countries, all of whom had moderate to severe blockages in their arteries. They were split into two groups: the first received only medical therapy, such as statins or other cholesterol-lowering drugs; the second received the drugs as well as a surgical procedure, with three-quarters having a stent and the rest undergoing bypass surgery. Over a study period lasting an average of 3½ years, the number of people who died or had a heart attack was essentially the same in both groups. The invasive procedures did, however, work better than pills at reducing participants’ chest pain. The research appears to confirm the latest thinking on heart disease, which is that blockages crop up all over the coronary arteries rather than just in one area—meaning stents and bypasses cannot pinpoint the problem. Study leader Judith Hochman, from New York University, says that for nonemergency heart issues there’s “absolutely no risk in trying medicines and seeing if the patient gets better.”
11-27-19 The growing superbug threat
Drug-resistant superbugs are a much larger threat to public health than previously thought, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a long-awaited report, the federal agency found that bacteria, fungi, and other germs resistant to antibiotics sicken some 3 million people a year in the U.S.—up from 2.6 million in 2013—and kill 35,000, reports the Associated Press. The toll rises even higher when Clostridioides difficile—which infects 223,000 people a year, killing 12,800—is factored in. While that gut-ravaging bacteria is rarely drug-resistant, it is often diagnosed in patients taking antibiotics. The study identifies 18 germs that public health officials must monitor, including two emerging superbugs: Candida auris, a fungus that began appearing in hospital and nursing-home patients in the U.S. in 2013; and carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, a bacteria that has evolved resistance to nearly all antibiotics. “[We] are living in a time when some miracle drugs no longer perform miracles,” CDC Director Robert Redfield wrote in a letter accompanying the report. “Stop referring to a coming post-antibiotic era—it’s already here.”
11-27-19 Measles crisis
Five thousand people, the vast majority of them children, have died of measles in Congo over the past year. Some 250,000 people have been infected by the disease so far in 2019—more than three times the number of infections in 2018—and the impoverished, conflict-torn nation is also battling an Ebola outbreak. Health-care workers are struggling to vaccinate children against measles, hampered by a lack of vaccines as well as public mistrust of authorities. Hundreds of clinics have been attacked. Measles is tough to eradicate because it requires two doses of vaccine administered months apart, and reaching the same children to give the second dose is challenging. Measles can cause blindness, severe diarrhea, ear infections, and encephalitis, as well as lifelong immune problems in survivors.
11-27-19 Literacy and dementia
The ability to read and write may offer some protection against dementia, a new study suggests. Researchers at Columbia University examined 983 people—all age 65 or older, most of them immigrants from the Dominican Republic—who had attended school for no more than four years. Three-quarters of the participants had learned to read outside of school; the other quarter could neither read nor write. For a study period of about four years, the participants periodically took tests on memory, language, and reasoning. The researchers found that the illiterate participants were 2½ times more likely to have dementia at the start of the study than those who could read and write, and were twice as likely to have developed the condition by the end. “Early-life exposures and early-life social opportunities have an impact on later life,” co-author Jennifer Manly tells The New York Times. “That’s the underlying theme here.” Manly and her colleagues now want to see whether the same effect occurs in other populations—and whether learning to read and write in middle age can lower dementia risk.
11-27-19 Health scare of the week ‘Feather duvet lung’
If you’re having breathing problems at night, you might want to look inside your pillow, reports The Guardian (U.K.). Doctors in Scotland have identified a case of “feather duvet lung”—inflammation of the lung caused by dust from the feathers in bedding. For three months, Martin Taylor, a 43-year-old nonsmoker, suffered shortness of breath that left him unable to stand or walk for more than a few minutes. Doctors eventually diagnosed him with hypersensitivity pneumonitis—an inflammation of the airways—and an allergy to birds. After swapping out his feather bedding for bedding stuffed with hypoallergenic material, Taylor quickly returned to normal. Owen Dempsey, the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary doctor who wrote up the case, emphasizes that feather duvet lung is very rare. But he warns that if left untreated, the condition can cause irreversible damage to the lungs. “For medical professionals,” he says, “it is really important to be nosy [and to] ask people about exposures.”
11-27-19 Treating babies for HIV rapidly after birth reduces signs of the virus
Treating babies infected with HIV as soon as possible after birth seems to be most effective at reducing signs of the virus. Newborns given HIV treatment quickly after birth had fewer infected cells in their blood and their immune systems were less damaged than those given the treatment later. Mathias Lichterfeld at Harvard University studied 20 babies with HIV born in Botswana. Ten of the babies received antiretroviral therapy for HIV rapidly, normally within a day of birth, and the others started treatment later, around four months after birth. The researchers then checked how the babies were doing two years after starting treatment. The babies who received early treatment had stronger immune systems, with fewer damaged immune cells. They also had 200 times fewer dormant HIV-infected cells, which can reactivate and start replicating. “Every day that an infant remains untreated counts and makes things worse,” says Lichterfeld. Testing and treatment should happen early, whenever it is feasible, says Roger Shapiro, part of the team and also at Harvard. Without treatment, 25 to 50 per cent of children infected with HIV die within their first two years of life. HIV can be transmitted from a woman to her child during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. In most cases, transmission can be prevented by giving treatment to the mother, says Shapiro. “But for the few who slip through this safety net, we owe it to them to provide diagnosis and treatment as quickly as possible,” he says. Left untreated, HIV causes AIDS – a fatal syndrome where the body can’t fight off infections. The condition progresses more quickly in infants than it does in adults because their immune systems are still developing. Antiretroviral therapy normally prevents AIDS from developing but isn’t a cure, meaning that the drugs must be taken for life.
11-27-19 Gut microbes may predict whether exercising will prevent diabetes
Your gut microbes may determine how you respond to exercise. That is according to research showing how people with certain microbiomes have better metabolic outcomes after exercise. The discovery opens the door to diabetes treatments that target the microbes in our gut. Type 2 diabetes is a growing problem internationally. While there is no cure, it can be prevented by early lifestyle interventions, says Aimin Xu at the University of Hong Kong. “Exercise is the most cost-effective strategy for diabetes prevention,” he says. “However, some people do not respond favourably to exercise.” To understand why, Xu and his colleagues studied how exercise affected the microbiome and metabolism of 39 men with prediabetes, where blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to qualify for a diagnosis of diabetes. The participants, who had never taken medication for the condition, were randomly assigned either to a sedentary control group, or to a group that undertook a three-month, high-intensity, supervised exercise training course. They were told to maintain their usual diet. While all participants in the exercise group had similar levels of weight and fat-mass reduction, only 70 per cent had significant improvements in glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, Xu found. An analysis of their gut microbes revealed that the people who saw improvements in glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity had significantly different microbiomes that were able to generate more molecules called short-chain fatty acids and break down more branched-chain amino acids. the microbiomes of non-responders were more likely to produce compounds that are harmful to metabolism. Next, the researchers asked the study participants to provide faecal samples, and transplanted the microbes they contained into obese mice. Rodents receiving microbes from people who responded well to exercise went on to develop better insulin resistance and glucose regulation. The rodents receiving microbes from people who hadn’t responded to exercise didn’t see any boost to these processes.
11-27-19 Neanderthals may have died out due to sheer bad luck
Neanderthals may have died out not because of competition from our species, but simply through sheer bad luck. A simulation of their population suggests that they were always vulnerable to extinction and random chance was enough to tip them over the edge. Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia for hundreds of thousands of years. However, their population was always small, probably just a few thousand, and they died out about 40,000 years ago. At this time modern humans were entering Europe from Africa in large numbers for the first time. As a result, many researchers suspect that our species is to blame for the Neanderthals’ demise. This doesn’t necessarily mean that humans killed them – it could be that humans were smarter and outcompeted them. But Krist Vaesen of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and his colleagues think we aren’t to blame. They simulated the Neanderthal population based on DNA records, tracking how many were born and died each year, and how closely related they were, using estimates based on modern humans. This allowed the researchers to track three processes that they believe made the Neanderthals vulnerable. The first is inbreeding, which can lead to a build-up of harmful mutations. “In a small population, the chances you mate with a relative are higher,” says Vaesen. The second is a phenomenon called the Allee effect. “If you’re in a small population, you have higher problems with finding a suitable mate,” says Vaesen, simply because you won’t have many options. Finally, there is random chance: for instance, unusually high death rates in a single year. For a small and isolated population, one bad year can be catastrophic. “We ran those models for 10,000 years and looked at whether they would go extinct or not,” says Vaesen. “We found that these three processes were enough to do the trick.”
11-27-19 We still don't know whether vaping is safe or not
Vaping was once thought to be "95 per cent safer than smoking", but a sudden rise in deaths and injury linked to e-cigarettes is causing some people to reconsider SINCE e-cigarettes were launched just over a decade ago, their popularity has soared. Some 3.6 million people in the UK and more than 10 million in the US are vapers. But then came the horror stories. In the past few months, 47 deaths and over 2200 cases of lung injury have been linked to e-cigarette use in the US, where health officials are now warning against vaping. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the only way to ensure you aren’t at risk while the problem is being investigated is by “refraining from use of all e-cigarette, or vaping, products”. But UK health bodies seem to disagree, with the statement that vaping is “95 per cent safer than smoking” – taken from a report by Public Health England – widely repeated. So how safe are e-cigarettes? Why has the UK not seen the same health problems as the US? And are we unnecessarily exposing another generation to nicotine addiction? “It’s such a complex, rapidly moving landscape that it’s difficult for people to keep track,” says Linda Bauld at the University of Edinburgh, who has advised the UK government on tobacco control. E-cigarettes are handheld, battery-run devices that vaporise “e-liquids”. These typically contain nicotine, along with other chemicals and sometimes flavourings, but they are free from the tar found in tobacco cigarettes. Bauld highlights two key issues with e-cigarettes: the current rash of health problems and users’ age. So far, every US state apart from Alaska has reported cases of lung injury linked to vaping. There is no specific test for such injuries, but symptoms include coughs, nausea, diarrhoea, shortness of breath and pains in the chest or abdomen. Some people have developed a form of pneumonia caused by substances from e-liquids getting into their lungs.
11-27-19 Critics say an EPA rule may restrict science used for public health regulations
The agency argues the proposed policy would increase transparency, but some scientists disagree. In science, transparency is typically considered a virtue. But a rule proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, billed as a means to keep environmental regulations rooted in reproducible science, is getting pushback from the scientific community. The proposal, titled “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” would require studies that factor into EPA rule-making to be based on publicly available data. Doing so, the agency argues, would ensure that other researchers could access that data and verify the findings of any study. The EPA administrator would be able to handpick allowances for studies whose data cannot be made public. But according to a Nov. 12 EPA news release, “this should be the exception instead of the way of EPA doing business.” That stipulation has some scientists worried that EPA regulations may then be able to ignore relevant evidence from many studies based on private information. Among the critics are editors of six major scientific journals — Science, Nature, Cell, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PLOS and the Lancet — who voiced their concerns in a statement published online November 26 in Science. “We support open sharing of research data, but we also recognize the validity of scientific studies that, for confidentiality reasons, cannot indiscriminately share absolutely all data,” the authors write. Ignoring pertinent information in creating and updating policies like public health regulations simply because results are based on private data “would be a catastrophe.”
11-27-19 Bad medicine? Why rapid drug approvals may put your health at risk
Rushing medicines to market is supposed to help people in need. But relying on lower standards of evidence may ultimately cause more harm than good WEEKS before their due date, some women find themselves stunned, peering through glass at their baby, a tiny body covered in sensors and tubes, striving to stay in the world. Premature birth can be terrifying. Although survival rates for babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy have steadily improved, they are still significantly worse than those of babies born later, and the likelihood of longer-term health complications is higher. So any medication that could reduce that risk would be gratefully received – and has been. In 2011, a drug called Makena was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the basis of a small trial showing that it helped prevent preterm birth. Later, larger studies found that it didn’t. One hospital even reported higher rates of gestational diabetes among women given the drug. Then last month, a large trial found that Makena was no better than placebo; an FDA committee recommended withdrawing it from the market. The FDA has yet to decide. It isn’t just Makena. At drug approvals agencies around the world, more and more medications are being rushed to market after limited testing. Drugs are approved based on preliminary findings, or authorised for a particular use, then widely prescribed for something else. And hanging over the process is a worrying question: are these agencies working to protect the public or to further the interests of drug companies? We would all like to think that any treatment our doctors offer is the best option available for us, based on credible evidence. But not only do some approved drugs turn out not to work, they may be worse for us than doing nothing. Decisions made by the FDA or European Medicines Agency (EMA), which agree on approvals more than 91 per cent of the time, have international ramifications. The FDA recently announced an initiative with Canada and Australia for faster, simultaneous approvals of certain cancer medications, for instance. Even when collaboration isn’t direct, FDA decisions have ripple effects: the US process is viewed as the gold standard worldwide and drugs granted accelerated approval by the FDA or EMA can then be fast-tracked by authorities elsewhere.
11-27-19 A dose of ketamine could lessen the lure of alcohol
The hallucinogenic drug may help treat addiction by weakening past memories of drinking. A single dose of ketamine may cut down problematic drinking. Taken in the right context, the hallucinogenic drug may be able to weaken the pull of the cues that trigger people to drink beer, researchers report November 26 in Nature Communications. Ketamine’s influence on people’s drinking was modest. Still, the results might be a time when “small effects tell a big story,” says addiction researcher David Epstein of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Baltimore. “If a seemingly small one-time experience in a lab produces any effects that are detectable later in real life, the data are probably pointing toward something important.” The study hinges on the idea that addiction, in a way, is a memory disorder. People learn to associate a drug or alcohol with the good feelings it brings. Cues in the world, such as the smell or picture of a beer, can trigger those memories — and cravings. “We’re trying to break down those memories to stop that process from happening, and to stop people from relapsing,” says study coauthor Ravi Das, a psychopharmacologist at University College London. Ketamine is an anesthetic, that at lower doses, has also shown promise as a treatment for severe depression (SN: 3/21/19). The drug can also affect memories. One of ketamine’s effects in the body is to interfere with a molecule called NMDA, which is involved in reforming memories after they are called up. Das and his colleagues recruited 90 people who said they drank too much beer, though none was formally diagnosed with alcohol addiction. First, participants were exposed to pictures of beer and even got to drink one in the lab. During the experience, they rated their beer cravings, enjoyment of drinking, and after the beer was gone, the desire to have another one.
11-27-19 Archaeologists tie ancient bones to a revolt chronicled on the Rosetta Stone
The skeleton provides a rare glimpse into an uprising around 2,200 years ago. Excavated remains of a warrior slain around 2,200 years ago provide rare, physical evidence of an uprising that’s described on the Rosetta Stone, scientists say. “Most likely, the warrior we found was a casualty of the ancient Egyptian revolt,” said archaeologist Robert Littman on November 22 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. A team led by Littman, of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and anthropological archaeologist Jay Silverstein of the University of Tyumen in Russia unearthed the man’s skeleton at the ancient city of Thmouis. That city is now buried beneath a mound of earth and debris called Tell Timai in the Nile Delta. The Rosetta Stone, carved in 196 B.C., is famous for bearing an official message in three scripts, including one in ancient Greek that enabled scholars to decipher another written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. That message describes a military victory of Ptolemy V, a pharaoh from a powerful Greek dynasty, against a faction of a native Egyptian revolt known from written sources to have lasted from 206 B.C. to 186 B.C. Thmouis was located in a region where battles in that revolt occurred. Excavations in 2011 yielded the warrior’s skeleton. His body had been thrown on the ground and covered with dirt, with no sign of a burial. Healed and unhealed arm injuries and fractures elsewhere on the skeleton likely resulted from combat near the time of death as well as years earlier, Littman said. Near the skeleton, researchers found a burned arrowhead and burned ballista balls, nearly baseball-sized stones that were hurled by catapults.
11-26-19 A protein helps disease-causing immune cells invade MS patients’ brains
Tests in human brain barrier cells and mice suggest blocking the protein may slow progression. In multiple sclerosis, barriers that guard the brain become leaky, allowing some disease-causing immune cells to invade. Now scientists have identified a key molecule in the process that helps B cells breach the barriers. ALCAM, a protein produced by B cells, helps the immune cells sneak into the central nervous system, researchers report November 13 in Science Translational Medicine. Tests in mice and in artificial human brain barriers show that B cells without ALCAM, or activated leukocyte cell adhesion molecule, had trouble getting through the brain’s barriers. And in mice with a disease with some characteristics similar to MS, blocking ALCAM seemed to alleviate the disease’s severity. These early results indicate that the protein may be a good target for new treatments for multiple sclerosis in people, the researchers say. “This is a very important puzzle piece in how we understand multiple sclerosis,” says David Leppert, a neurologist at the University Hospital Basel in Switzerland who was not involved in the work. “How it translates into clinical applications is yet another question.” Worldwide, over 2.3 million people have multiple sclerosis, including nearly 1 million adults in the United States. Scientists think that rogue immune cells invade the brain and strip away the protective coating on nerve cells — leading to neurological issues and physical disability as the disease progresses. There’s no cure, and treatments don’t work for advanced stages of multiple sclerosis. Scientists have developed over a dozen medications to treat MS symptoms (SN: 11/29/17), one of which uses antibodies to destroy the body’s B cells. But that approach weakens patients’ immune systems, opening the door for future infections or cancer. In the new study, the researchers are instead focusing on preventing disease-causing B cells from entering the brain.
11-23-19 Why we should be more trusting
We learn more, for better or worse, by taking that leap of faith. We all know people who have suffered by trusting too much: scammed customers, jilted lovers, shunned friends. Indeed, most of us have been burned by misplaced trust. These personal and vicarious experiences lead us to believe that people are too trusting, often verging on gullibility. In fact, we don't trust enough. Take data about trust in the United States (the same would be true in most wealthy democratic countries at least). Interpersonal trust, a measure of whether people think others are in general trustworthy, is at its lowest in nearly 50 years. Yet it is unlikely that people are any less trustworthy than before: the massive drop in crime over the past decades suggests the opposite. Trust in the media is also at bottom levels, even though mainstream media outlets have an impressive (if not unblemished) record of accuracy. Meanwhile, trust in science has held up comparatively well, with most people trusting scientists most of the time; still, in some areas at least, from climate change to vaccination, a share of the population doesn't trust science enough — with devastating consequences. Social scientists have a variety of tools to study how trusting, and how trustworthy, people are. The most popular is the trust game, in which two participants play, usually anonymously. The first participant is given a small amount of money, $10 say, and asked to decide how much to transfer to the other participant. The amount transferred is then tripled, and the second participant chooses how much to give back to the first. In Western countries at least, trust is rewarded: the more money the first participant transfers, the more money the second participant sends back, and thus the more money the first participant ends up with. In spite of this, first participants on average transfer only half the money they have received. In some studies, a variant was introduced whereby participants knew each other's ethnicity. Prejudice led participants to mistrust certain groups — Israeli men of Eastern origin (Asian and African immigrants and their Israeli-born offspring), or black students in South Africa — transferring them less money, even though these groups proved just as trustworthy as more esteemed groups. If people and institutions are more trustworthy than we give them credit for, why don't we get it right? Why don't we trust more?
11-23-19 A carved rock found in Jordan may be the oldest known chess piece
The 1,300-year-old game piece resembles a rook, or castle. A palm-sized sandstone object found in 1991 at an Early Islamic trading outpost in what’s now southern Jordan appears to be the oldest known chess piece. This roughly 1,300-year-old rectangular piece of rock with two hornlike projections on top resembles several rooks, also known as castles, that have been found at other Islamic sites in the region. But those other rooks date to a century or more later, John Oleson, an archaeologist at the University of Victoria in Canada, said. He presented his analysis of the carved rock on November 21 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Simpler board games than chess go back roughly 4,000 years in Eurasia (SN: 11/16/18). Surviving written accounts indicate that chess originated in India at least 1,400 years ago, Oleson said. Merchants and diplomats probably carried the game westward. The suspected chess piece, excavated at Humayma, located on what was once a major trade route, dates to between 680 and 749, when an Islamic family owned and ran the site. “Chess became very popular in the early Islamic world,” Oleson said. It also brought together people with diverse backgrounds. Islamic texts from that time portray chess matches between Muslims and Christians and between rich and poor players. Rooks from southwestern Asia in the shape of two-horse chariots date to as early as the late 700s. The two-pronged shape of early Islamic rooks may have been meant to represent such chariots, Oleson said.
11-23-19 Egypt animal mummies showcased at Saqqara near Cairo
A large cache of mummified animals found in an ancient Egyptian necropolis have been displayed for the first time near the capital Cairo. Archaeologists discovered the trove last year near the Step Pyramid of Saqqara, south of the capital. They uncovered hundreds of artefacts, including masks, statues and mummified cats, crocodiles, cobras and birds. Egyptian authorities unveiled the artefacts at an exhibition near the Saqqara necropolis on Saturday. Tests are being carried out to verify whether two of the mummified animals are lion cubs, Egypt's ministry of antiques said. Unlike mummified cats, which are frequently found by archaeologists, the discovery of intact lions is considered rare. At a news conference on Saturday, one Egyptian official touted a large scarab statue as one of the most significant discoveries. "The most lovely discovery out of those hundreds: that scarab," said Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. "It is the biggest and [largest] scarab all over the world." Saqqara is an ancient burial ground that served as the necropolis for Memphis, the capital of ancient Egypt for more than two millennia. Located around 30km (18 miles) south of Cairo, Saqqara was an active burial ground for more than 3,000 years and has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. In recent years, Egypt has ramped up its promotion of its archaeological finds in a bid to revive its vital but flagging tourism industry.
11-23-19 We can now settle debates on when ancient people lived using their DNA
It is now possible to determine when an ancient human was alive by examining their DNA. The new technique could reveal the ages of bones that can’t be carbon dated. “This is a huge problem in the field that is either being ignored or just solved incorrectly,” says Eran Elhaik of Lund University in Sweden. Carbon dating is used to estimate the age of bones and other remains. It works by measuring how much of a radioactive form of carbon in the sample has decayed. However, carbon-dating only works on samples less than 50,000 years old, and only if the sample contains a lot of organic material. “Over half the samples in the literature are not carbon dated,” says Elhaik. Instead, archaeologists have dated them using other clues, such as the age of the sediments in which they were buried. This can go badly wrong: a bone from a cave in Afghanistan was thought to be 30,000 years old, but when carbon dating was finally performed, it turned out to be just 4500 years old. When carbon dating isn’t an option, Elhaik says it is now possible to use ancient DNA. His team turned to ancient DNA from 961 people who lived in Eurasia between 14,000 and 1000 years ago, 602 of whom had also had their remains carbon dated. They identified points in the genome that varied predictably with time: just as some genetic variants are more common in particular places, some were more common in specific periods. By reading these markers of time in the genome of a fossil, the team could estimate its age to within 500 years. For the 602 cases where it was possible to compare the DNA-estimated age with the carbon dating age, there was generally close agreement. Confident that their method worked, the team has used it to date the 359 individuals who couldn’t be carbon dated. In some cases, this has resolved apparent inconsistencies.
11-23-19 Dinosaurs: Restoring Mongolia's fossil heritage
Eighty million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period, Mongolia's Gobi Desert was a dinosaur's paradise of vast valleys, freshwater lakes and a humid climate. Mammal-eating velociraptors, lizard-hipped sauropods and spike-armoured ankylosaurs could have been spotted roaming in what are now the Martian red sandstone spires of Bayanzag's Flaming Cliffs. These prehistorically favourable conditions make the Gobi Desert the largest dinosaur fossil reservoir in the world. Over almost 100 years of palaeontological research in the Gobi, more than 80 genera have been found. But for many people living there, this scientific heritage remains unknown. "Putting a fence up is not protection; protection is people's knowledge," Mongolian palaeontologist Bolortsetseg Minjin explains as we wind through the Flaming Cliffs in search of signs of fossil poaching. It was here, nearly a hundred years ago, that the world's first dinosaur egg nests were found by American scientist Roy Chapman Andrews - the whip-wielding, trilby-wearing inspiration for Indiana Jones. This discovery was a turning point in the palaeontological history of the world - the first proof that dinosaurs laid eggs. In the space of just two years, his expedition team unearthed over 100 dinosaurs and took them home to the American Museum of Natural History where many stand today. And in Bayanzag, renamed the Flaming Cliffs by Chapman-Andrews, little remains to mark this history. There are no signs, maps or museums to give visitors information about these creatures. Fossil-poaching is rife and as we explored the site, motorcycle scramblers zigzagged over its prize excavation opportunities. Unlike in America and the UK, where a finders keepers law applies if you happen to discover a T. rex lurking in your flower beds, in Mongolia, as with Brazil and China, any fossils found are state-owned and exports are strictly forbidden. Yet, dinosaurs from fossil-rich sites like the Flaming Cliffs are still smuggled and find their way into premier auctions.
11-22-19 Is vaping more harmful than smoking?
In another worrying finding on vaping, two new studies have indicated that e-cigarettes could be more damaging to the heart than traditional cigarettes. If that research is correct, the health implications could be significant, because more Americans die each year from smoking-related heart disease (210,000 people) than from lung cancer (140,000). In the first study, which involved 476 people, researchers at Boston University compared the cholesterol levels of e-cig users, regular smokers, those who used both products, and nonsmokers. They found that the vapers had higher levels of unhealthy LDL cholesterol—which can gum up blood vessels—than nonsmokers. In the second study, researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles examined how the hearts of 10 smokers, 10 nonsmokers, and 10 vapers responded to a mild burst of exercise. The flow of blood went up in nonsmokers and tobacco smokers, although the increase in smokers was notably lower. E-cigarette users, however, effectively saw no increase. “There is a lot we still don’t know about e-cigarettes,” Sana Majid, author of the Boston University study, tells NBCNews.com. “It’s going to take time for us to understand how [they] affect your heart health.” There are already significant concerns about vaping’s effects on lungs: More than 2,000 vapers have been hospitalized in recent months with lung illnesses, and at least 42 have died. Scientists suspect many had vaped illicit liquids containing THC—the psychoactive compound in marijuana—that had been cut with vitamin E acetate, a sticky oil that can cling to the lungs.
11-22-19 Controversial DNA screening technique used for at least one pregnancy
A company called Genomic Prediction has confirmed that at least one woman is pregnant with embryos selected after analysing hundreds of thousands of DNA variants to assess the risk of disease. It is the first time this approach has been used for screening IVF embryos, but some don’t think this use of the technology is justified. “Embryos have been chosen to reduce disease risk using pre-implantation genetic testing for polygenic traits, and this has resulted in pregnancy,” Laurent Tellier, CEO of Genomic Prediction, told New Scientist. He didn’t say how many pregnancies there were, or what traits or conditions were screened for. While a few genetic mutations lead to serious disorders, the effect of most DNA changes is much less clear-cut. A particular mutation may only very slightly raise the risk of heart disease or cancer, for instance. Geneticists attempt to work out the overall effect of thousands of mutations by sequencing people’s DNA and calculating a so-called polygenic risk score, but there are big questions about how accurate or useful these are. Genomic Prediction, which is based in New Jersey, is the first company to offer polygenic risk scores for embryos rather than adults, including an option to screen out embryos deemed likely to have very low IQ. Using polygenic risk scores to screen embryos is controversial. “It is inappropriate to use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to screen out polygenic risk factors for things like cardiovascular disease,” says Frances Flinter at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in the UK. “I think it’s a misuse of the technology.” Such screening places undue emphasis on genetics when it isn’t the biggest factor, she says. For most of us, our risk of heart disease is determined by our diet, whether we smoke, how much exercise we take and so on.
11-22-19 Bad sleep, bad heart
People who have trouble sleeping may be more likely to suffer from heart disease and stroke, new research suggests. The study involved 487,200 participants, ages 30 to 79, with no history of either health issue. Researchers asked them if they regularly experienced signs of insomnia—having trouble dropping off or staying asleep; waking up too early; struggling to stay focused during the day—and then monitored the participants for an average of 10 years. Over that period, the people with all three symptoms were 18 percent more likely to develop heart disease or stroke than those with none. The participants who had trouble falling or staying asleep had a 9 percent increased risk; for those who woke too early it was 7 percent; and for those who couldn’t stay focused it was 13 percent. The study was observational, and so didn’t prove cause and effect. But author Liming Li, of Peking University in Beijing, tells ScienceDaily.com that helping people overcome sleep troubles “could reduce the number of cases of stroke, heart attack, and other diseases later down the line.”
11-22-19 Hate broccoli? Blame your genes
People who loathe cabbage, broccoli, and other vegetables aren’t necessarily fussy eaters—they may have a natural aversion to greens. Everyone has two copies of TAS2R38, a gene that enables taste receptors on the tongue to detect bitterness. But TAS2R38 comes in two variants: AVI and PAV. About half of us have one of each and aren’t particularly sensitive to bitterness. Another 25 percent have two copies of AVI and don’t really taste bitterness at all. The final 25 percent have two copies of PAV, and for these “super-tasters,” certain vegetables are so bitter they are all but inedible. In a small study, researchers at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine examined the possible consequences of this genetic oddity. They found that super-tasters were 2.6 times more likely to eat fewer vegetables than the other groups. Some culinary tricks can help super-tasters enjoy their veggies, says Valerie Duffy, an expert in food taste at the University of Connecticut who wasn’t involved in the study. She tells CNN.com that adding a bit of fat or sweetness or roasting them in the oven can “enhance the overall flavor or taste of the vegetable and block the bitterness.”
11-22-19 NSAIDs for depression
Taking aspirin or ibuprofen every day could help relieve the symptoms of depression, reports The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). Researchers in China looked at 30 previous studies that examined the effects of anti-inflammatory drugs on patients who suffered major depressive disorders. They considered not only nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), a class that includes aspirin, ibuprofen, and celecoxib, but also other medications with anti-inflammatory properties, such as statins. NSAIDs seemed to make the most difference: A daily dose was 79 percent more effective than a placebo at eliminating depressive symptoms, and 52 percent more effective at reducing their overall severity. But most of the other treatments also seemed to have a positive impact, and appeared to boost the effectiveness of antidepressants when taken at the same time. While depression isn’t regarded as an inflammatory disorder, several studies have linked it to brain and body inflammation, leading to speculation that an overactive immune system—which can cause inflammation—could be a factor. Alan Carson, the University of Edinburgh neuropsychiatrist who edited the Chinese team’s findings, says depression “may simply be the price we pay for having an immune system.”
11-22-19 An ancient mammoth trap
Archaeologists in Mexico have unearthed pits that early humans dug some 15,000 years ago to trap woolly mammoths, shedding new light on the hunting habits of our prehistoric ancestors. Found in the Mexico City suburb of Tultepec during excavations for a landfill, the two pits are believed to be the first of their kind discovered anywhere in the world, reports The New York Times. Measuring about 6 feet deep and 80 feet in diameter, they contained more than 800 bones from at least 14 mammoths. “There was little evidence before that hunters attacked mammoths—it was thought they frightened them into getting stuck in swamps and then waited for them to die,” says excavation leader Luis Córdoba Barradas. “This is evidence of direct attacks.” Córdoba speculates that the humans hunted in groups of 20 to 30 people, using torches and branches to force the animals into the traps. He says early humans may have tried to increase their odds of a catch by digging a series of pits; further excavations could reveal more traps.
11-22-19 Vaping linked to teen's 'popcorn lung' type injury
A Canadian teenager has developed a vaping-related lung injury similar to "popcorn lung", his doctors say. The condition was previously seen in workers who were exposed to the chemical flavouring diacetyl as they packaged microwave popcorn. The Canadian case may be the first to show a new type of damage linked to vaping, distinct from lung injuries seen in the US and elsewhere. It is documented in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Six doctors from London, Ontario, who treated the 17-year-old published the report on Thursday. Their patient, a previously healthy teenager, sought medical treatment after he developing persistent cough and a fever. The boy had vaped daily for five months using flavoured cartridges and regularly added THC - the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis - to his vaping fluid. His parents told the doctors he also had a habit of inhaling deeply when vaping. As his condition deteriorated, he was taken to intensive care. He spent 47 days in hospital and narrowly avoided needing a double lung transplant, though there may be severe long-lasting lung damage, his doctors say. After his physicians ruled out other causes for his illness they began suspecting flavoured e-liquids were the cause. "This patient had severe, acute bronchiolitis, possibly related to inhalational injury from vaping, with several features suggestive of subsequent early bronchiolitis obliterans ['popcorn lung']," they write. "Popcorn lung" is a rare form of irreversible obstructive lung disease that scars the smallest airways in the lung - the bronchioles - and makes it difficult for air to flow. The disease was so named because a cluster of popcorn factory workers in the early 2000s were found to have the condition, eventually linked to a vapour from butter flavouring. Research has found many e-liquid vaping flavours tested contain some level of diacetyl.
11-22-19 An AI doctor is analysing heart scans in dozens of hospitals
In a dimly lit room full of computers at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, doctors pore over images of people’s hearts. Until recently, medical staff here had to interpret the blotchy on-screen images purely by sight. Now artificial intelligence is helping to explain what they are looking at. Charlotte Manisty, a consultant cardiologist at St Bartholomew’s, analyses an MRI scan of a struggling heart and points to blue smudges over one area of muscle. The image on her screen has been coloured in by AI. A swathe of blue around the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, means that not enough blood is getting to that part of the muscle. The volume of blood reaching each bit of the heart is a good indicator of how well it is functioning. Not only does the AI give a colour-based indicator, it also provides a numerical estimate of blood flow for each region too. Previously, doctors had to eyeball black and grey scans to make a judgement about how much blood was present. Getting an actual number needed specialists and took several hours or days. “All of the things that we’re working on here are to try and reduce the training required,” says Manisty. The AI works completely automatically and delivers its analysis in around two minutes, she says. The same system is now used at more than 30 hospitals worldwide and has analysed more than 20,000 MRI scans to date. It was developed by Peter Kellman and Hui Xue at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland and their colleagues. To get the algorithm to correctly identify each bit of the heart in MRI scans, the team trained it on more than 1900 scans of around 1000 patients. The system was then tested against 200 scans from 105 patients to show that it could reliably select each area of heart muscle. It proved to be at least 90 per cent accurate in each case. The system was also previously trained to quantify blood flow and compared against cardiac positron emission tomography, where it was found to be 92 per cent in agreement with that method.
11-22-19 Why screening DNA for ‘designer babies’ probably won’t work
Selecting embryos for height doesn’t necessarily lead to tall children. Picking embryos based on genetics might not give prospective parents the “designer baby” they’re after. DNA predictions of height or IQ might help would-be parents select an embryo that would grow into a child who is, at most, only about three centimeters taller or about three IQ points smarter than an average embryo from the couple, researchers report November 21 in Cell. But offspring predicted by their DNA to be the tallest among siblings were actually the tallest in only seven of 28 real families, the study found. And in five of those families, the child predicted to be tallest was actually shorter than the average for the family. Even if it were ethical to select embryos based on genetic propensity for height or intelligence, “the impact of doing so is likely to be modest — so modest that it’s not likely to be practically worth it,” says Amit Khera, a physician and geneticist at the Center for Genomics Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who was not involved in the new study. For years, couples have been able to use genetic diagnosis to screen out embryos carrying a disease-causing DNA variant. The procedure, called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, involves creating embryos through in vitro fertilization. Clinic staff remove a single cell from the embryo and test its DNA for genetic variants that cause cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs or other life-threatening diseases caused by defects in single genes. Many diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as traits like height and intelligence, are considered complex because they are caused in part by tiny effects of variants in hundreds or even thousands of genes (SN: 5/31/13; SN: 9/29/10) But researchers can boil down those tiny effects of multiple genes into one “polygenic” score (SN: 4/18/19). Khera was involved, for example, in compiling 6 million genetic variants into a risk score for heart disease.
11-22-19 Ribose, a sugar needed for life, has been detected in meteorites
The find suggests that a molecule crucial to life’s genetic machinery hitched a ride to Earth. Space rocks that fell to Earth contain ribose, an essential molecule for life’s genetic machinery, and other related sugars. The finding, reported online November 18 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lends support to the idea that many of life’s ingredients were delivered to Earth by interplanetary debris. Many organic molecules have been found in space. Comet Lovejoy, for example, carts around sugar and alcohol, the base ingredients for a decent interplanetary cocktail (SN: 10/23/15). But until now, no one had confirmed an extraterrestrial source for ribose. This molecule forms part of the sugar-phosphate backbone of RNA, molecular workhorses within cells responsible for reading and carrying out instructions encoded in DNA. Yoshihiro Furukawa, a geochemist at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, and colleagues found the ribose, along with several chemically similar sugars, in samples from two meteorites, one collected from Morocco, the other from Australia. By measuring the amounts of carbon-13 in the sugars — a variant of carbon with an extra neutron, which appears more often in organic molecules from space than in their terrestrial counterparts — the team found that the compounds likely originated in space and weren’t picked up on Earth. The team suspects that the sugars formed from chemical reactions between water and formaldehyde in the meteorites long ago. Previous lab work in a simulated space environment — where ultraviolet light irradiated chilled water, ammonia and methanol — has also shown that ribose could form on interstellar ice grains (SN: 4/7/16). Other similar experiments have done the same for ribose’s chemical cousin deoxyribose, which helps form the backbone of DNA (SN: 12/19/18).
11-22-19 An AI found a hidden Nazca Line in Peru showing a humanoid figure
Using AI to speed up finding the ancient glyphs could give insight into their purpose. Artificial intelligence is putting on its Indiana Jones hat. An AI trained to recognize Nazca Lines, ancient designs in the desert plains of Peru, has discovered a new geoglyph etched into the earth: a faint humanoid figure a few meters across. The figure joins a collection of more than 2,000 previously known Nazca Lines, depicting animals, plants, fantastical beings and geometric patterns. These glyphs can be difficult to spot, though, as they often are obscured by other markings on the landscape, such as roads. Commissioning AI to scour large sets of aerial photos, maps and other data on the Peruvian landscape could help uncover more glyphs that archaeologists have overlooked. Researchers at IBM and Yamagata University in Japan taught an AI to recognize Nazca Lines by showing it drone and satellite images of known glyphs. The AI identified over 500 possible new geoglyphs, including the humanoid figure, while searching a five-kilometer stretch of terrain. Aerial images and in-person visits to the site confirmed the presence of the humanoid figure, which is near a well-known hummingbird-like Nazca design (SN: 6/26/19). The newly uncovered glyph is the latest discovered by the Yamagata University research team, which has identified over 100 other Nazca Lines through aerial images and fieldwork, the team reported November 15 in a news release. Next, the researchers plan to run a more powerful AI system that will leverage aerial images, as well as other information like laser mapping data, to identify Nazca Lines more quickly and accurately (SN: 9/27/18). Creating a more comprehensive map of the Nazca Lines may offer new insight into why people created these markings thousands of years ago, and how to best preserve them (SN: 12/7/12).
11-21-19 Suspended animation for emergency medicine: your questions answered
Yesterday, New Scientist broke the news that suspended animation has been tried on humans for the first time. The idea is to buy doctors more time to operate on people who would otherwise die from their injuries. To do this, at least one person who had a traumatic injury and entered cardiac arrest was cooled to around 10°C and their blood replaced by saline. This halts activity across the body and gives medics two crucial hours, where they would normally have minutes, to see what can be done to save them.
- Isn’t suspended animation a bit like an induced coma? Yes, there are similarities between the two.
- Do people get to choose whether they are put into suspended animation? The technique is only used as a last resort, meaning the team at the University of Maryland School of Medicine will have done everything they can to save the person’s life the regular way first.
- Would this procedure only be available to the rich or famous? No, it doesn’t distinguish between rich and poor.
- What about mental health? Could it be used to treat depression or anxiety too? I’m not sure how it could be used in mental health, but the hope is that it might be used in other medical areas.
- So is immortality the endgame of all this? The endgame is about saving the life of someone who would almost certainly have died.
11-21-19 Genetic screening of IVF embryos is unlikely to lead to smarter babies
As our understanding of genetics grows, so does the potential for people to use it to have babies with particular characteristics. In theory, DNA analysis could help prospective parents choose which IVF embryos to implant on the basis of characteristics like intelligence. But now a study estimates that such practices are likely to have only a small effect. In recent years, it has become possible to sequence the entire genome of embryos. This means it is feasible to look at thousands of genetic variants that each have a tiny effect on traits such as height. Geneticists can add all of these together, producing a combined “polygenic score” for that characteristic. This raises the prospect of being able to calculate polygenic scores for each embryo produced by IVF, and letting parents choose which ones they want to use. But would selecting embryos in this way really make much of a difference? To find out, Shai Carmi at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his colleagues fed data from detailed, large-scale genetic studies into a computer model to estimate the maximum potential effect of selecting IVF embryos on the basis of polygenic scores for IQ or height. They found that the approach could only increase height by 3 centimetres at most, and IQ by an average of only 3 points. “The gain is not guaranteed,” says Carmi. “This is the average over all families.” “It’s not nearly as predictive as we think it might be,” says Frances Flinter at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in the UK. “It’s ascribing undue and inappropriate importance to the genetics, and I say that as a geneticist.” Non-genetic factors such as the environment, diet and education can have a much greater effect than genetic variants, she says.
11-21-19 Humans across cultures may share the same universal musical grammar
Whether it’s a love song, dance song or lullaby, music shares similar underlying structural elements, according to a ground-breaking study. In fact, we even use the same simple building blocks to make melodies, suggesting humans might have an innate “grammar” for music. While music seems to be everywhere, scientists haven’t previously found much evidence to suggest it has any universal features. The prevailing view is that music is so diverse that few, if any, universals exist. Settling the matter empirically has been difficult, because research often focuses on individual cultures and musical contexts, says Samuel Mehr of Harvard University. So Mehr and his colleagues decided to use data science to try to understand what was universal and what varied in music across the world. To do this, they developed a database containing around 5000 detailed descriptions of songs and their performances in 60 human societies. They created another database to analyse recordings taken of four types of music from 30 different regions, which included dance songs, healing songs, love songs and lullabies. Mehr and his colleagues only included vocal songs, because the voice is a musical instrument shared by all cultures. The societies were mostly small, and the researchers believe they are representative of cultural diversity across the globe. Not only was music present in all societies that the authors had information on, but distinct patterns emerged. For example, songs used in similar contexts shared similar features. Ritual healing songs were more repetitive than dance songs, and dance songs were quicker and more rhythmic than lullabies.But the most striking discovery was that all cultures had melodies centred around a base tone. For example, starting the song Twinkle, twinkle little star on the note C means that notes in a C major scale are used. In a tonal song like this, the note C offers listeners a sense of stability and feels like “home” – and is often the note on which the song ends.
11-21-19 Wearable artificial kidney works well in first tests in people
We are a step closer to having reliable, wearable artificial kidneys, after a prototype device that is worn like a small handbag was used successfully in people for the first time. While the technology still needs refining, it could eventually free people from being tied to large dialysis machines or hooked up to bags of fluid and tubing, says its developer Marjorie Foo at Singapore General Hospital. “For some patients, dialysis is controlling their life – this gives a bit more freedom.” People whose kidneys are failing usually need a transplant, but may spend years on a waiting list. In the meantime, they have to undergo dialysis to remove toxins from their blood. The most common form is haemodialysis, which takes about four hours at hospital, three days a week. This can interfere with work, and people can sometimes begin to feel ill and tired between sessions. The alternative, peritoneal dialysis, involves putting fluid into part of the abdomen, which allows toxins to pass from the blood into the fluid. The fluid is then drained away. This can be done at home daily so toxins don’t build up, but it can be time-consuming to keep exchanging the large volumes of liquid. The new wearable kidney is a more portable form of peritoneal dialysis. The system recycles the waste liquid by passing it through a cleaning device kept in the handbag then returning it to the abdomen. This avoids the user having to deal with large volumes of fluid. The device is about the size of a DVD box set and is joined with a tube to a port in the abdomen. The user has to change a small cartridge in the cleaning device every seven hours to replace the chemicals. In a trial that finished last year, the device was used successfully for three days by 15 people. Blood tests suggested it worked as well as conventional dialysis and would only need to be used for two 7-hour sessions a day, says Foo, who presented the work at the American Society of Nephrology Kidney Week conference in Washington DC earlier this month.
11-20-19 Approval of golden rice could finally end vitamin A deficiency deaths
Genetically modified golden rice finally seems set for approval where it is needed to address vitamin A deficiency, but anti-scientific misinformation campaigns continue, says Michael Le Page. AFTER a regulatory approval process lasting two years, Bangladesh is expected to soon green-light the cultivation of “golden rice” genetically modified to prevent vitamin A deficiencies. It would be the first approval in a country where the rice is sorely needed, and perhaps a turning point in a long-running and bitter battle. Our bodies make vitamin A from beta-carotene, the pigment that gives carrots and sweet potatoes their colour. But many people can’t afford to eat much apart from rice, which is low in beta-carotene. Lack of vitamin A causes blindness and weakens the immune system, and kills more than half a million children a year. There is a global push to give vitamin A supplements to children, but a third of those at risk still aren’t receiving them, and coverage has fallen in recent years. When biologists unveiled the prototype of golden rice in 1999, they expected a warm welcome. The researcher behind the project, Ingo Potrykus, told New Scientist that it would be three years before farmers could plant it. Yet 20 years on, the rice has been approved only in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US, countries not noted for vitamin A deficiency. Early strains didn’t produce enough beta-carotene, but this was fixed. The problem now is that golden rice has been demonised by anti-GM campaigners, who see it as a Trojan horse for the acceptance of other genetically modified crops, even though this has already happened in many countries. What shocks me is that some activists continue to misrepresent the truth about the rice. The cynic in me expects profit-driven multinationals to behave unethically, but I want to think that those voluntarily campaigning on issues they care about have higher standards.
11-20-19 If you don’t notice something within 1.5 seconds, you may never see it
If you were watching a basketball game and a person in a gorilla suit walked across the court, you would notice, right? A 20-year-old experiment showed that only about half of us would, and now it turns out that if you don’t notice new information in your visual field within about 1.5 seconds, you are unlikely to catch it at all. “The reason we seem to have this inattentional blindness is that we can only take in so much visual information at once. One of the ways we deal with that is the deployment of selective attention,” says Katherine Wood at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Wood and her colleague Daniel Simons, who is also from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, used a series of experiments to see if increasing the length of time a new visual cue is in someone’s field of view can break through inattentional blindness. They asked people to watch black and white shapes moving in straight lines across a computer screen and bouncing off the screen edges at 45° angles. The participants were told to count how many times the objects of one colour bounced off the edge. While they were doing this, a new, cross-shaped object passed across the screen. The cross showed for either 5 seconds or 2.67 seconds. “The noticing didn’t vary much, so we cut that short time in half again,” says Wood. This time, two groups of participants saw the cross for either 5 seconds or 1.5 seconds. Slightly more than half of the people noticed the cross if it was displayed for 5 seconds, and slightly less than half noticed it when it was displayed for 1.5 seconds. In more detail, there was just a 12.7 per cent rise in the chances of noticing the object if it was displayed for 5 seconds rather than 1.5 seconds.
11-20-19 Geneticists are writing the rule book for creating gene-edited babies
A handful of protesters were leafleting people arriving for a conference on creating gene-edited children in London last week. The Stop Designer Babies campaign group claimed in a press release that those at the meeting “are planning how to conduct GM baby experiments without asking the public”. It is true that this meeting was about coming up with guidelines for how to conduct the first clinical trials of human germline genome editing, making changes that could pass down the generations. But those involved want to consult the public, and many think the guidelines will deter rather than encourage further attempts, at least in the short term. If people have to tick off a checklist before trials begin, they aren’t going to get far down the list, says Andy Greenfield at the MRC Harwell Institute in the UK. This meeting was a direct result of the announcement last November that a woman in China had given birth to two genetically edited baby girls. This led to the establishment of the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing, a group of doctors, biologists and ethicists tasked with considering the potential uses of the technology and drawing up guidelines for how to proceed. For now, the consensus remains that it would be irresponsible to try it. This is because, at the group’s second meeting last week, two broad messages became clear. First, we still don’t know if any of the many variants of CRISPR gene editing are safe enough to use for editing embryos. Kathy Niakan at the Francis Crick Institute in London, who is using CRISPR to study early development, said her team is finding that the technique deletes large chunks of DNA in about 20 per cent of embryos. This was discovered only recently. Effectively, biologists were looking for spelling mistakes and not noticing that whole pages were missing.
11-20-19 Some people with half a brain have extra strong neural connections
A new study shows how the brain adapts after a hemispherectomy to treat childhood epilepsy. Half of a brain can do a full-time job. A detailed study of six adults who, as children, had half of their brain removed to treat severe epilepsy, shows how brains can reorganize and bounce back. As extreme as the surgery is, many of these people keep or recover language and thinking skills. In a new study, researchers from Caltech and their colleagues discovered one way the brain might compensate. While the six participants rested in an MRI scanner, researchers measured blood flow in seven brain regions that handle jobs such as vision, attention and movement. In the experiment, blood flow served as a proxy for brain activity. When activity in one part of the brain changes in lockstep with activity in another, that implies that the regions are working together and sharing information. These are signs of strong connections, which are thought to be crucial for a healthy brain. In the six people who had had hemispherectomies, these seven brain systems seemed to be working normally. In fact, the connections between those seven systems were even stronger than such connections in six people with whole brains, the researchers report November 19 in Cell Reports. Such stronger-than-normal connections might help explain how these post-surgery brains compensate for missing parts, the researchers suspect. Understanding more about how the brain reorganizes itself after a big change could lead to new approaches to speed people’s recoveries from common brain injuries.
11-20-19 Dengue cases in the Americas have reached an all-time high
Infections with the mosquito-borne virus are surging worldwide. The Americas set a gloomy record in 2019: the most dengue cases ever reported. More than 2.7 million cases of the mosquito-borne disease have struck the region, largely in Brazil, the Pan American Health Organization reported on November 13. Dengue is one of the top 10 threats to global health, according to the World Health Organization, with cases of the viral disease climbing rapidly around the world in recent decades. An estimated 390 million dengue infections occur each year, which can be mild or cause flulike symptoms and headaches. Less commonly, dengue can lead to a severe, life-threatening illness. South Asian countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have also been slammed with large dengue outbreaks this year (SN: 10/7/19). The last record-breaking year for the Americas was 2015, when there were more than 2.4 million cases. After that, cases dropped slightly in 2016 and then precipitously in 2017 and 2018, coming in below 600,000 each of those years. “Dengue is endemic in the Americas, with cycles of the epidemics that are repeated every three to five years,” says Jose Luis San Martin, an advisor on dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases for PAHO in Washington D.C. “During those two years there was an accumulation of a large number of people susceptible to the disease.” That may seem like too short a time for so many people to be vulnerable again to dengue, transmitted by the bite of an Aedes aegypti mosquito. But dengue outbreaks are complicated by the fact that there are four different types of the virus. Infection with one type provokes the development of antibodies that provide lifelong immunity to that type. Those antibodies can initially protect against other types, but that effect is temporary, lasting roughly one to three years.
11-19-19 70 is the new 65 when it comes to health and life expectancy in the UK
Age 70 is the new 65 in terms of health and life expectancy, according to the UK’s official statistics authority. The idea that turning 65 marks the beginning of old age is already seen as outdated in the world of work, with the UK’s state pension age looking set to rise to 68 by the end of the 2030s. But the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) says it now appears the notion is outmoded for health and longevity too. The ONS found levels of poor health for men aged 70 today were about the same as those for a 65-year-old man in 1997. These levels didn’t improve as quickly for women, with a 70-year-old woman today on a par with a woman aged 65 in 1981. Today’s 70-year-olds also have a life expectancy similar to that of a 65-year-old several decades ago. A 70-year-old man in 2017 is considered to have 15 years left to live on average, the same as a 65-year old man in 1997. For women aged 70, remaining life expectancy is 17 years, equivalent to a 65-year-old woman in 1981. The ONS says these findings imply that 70 really can be thought of as the new 65 when it comes to life expectancy and health. “The data is believable, it reflects what we see in the clinic,” says Janet Lord at the University of Birmingham, UK. She says there are three possible reasons why bigger health improvements have been seen, particularly for men, in recent decades: the introduction of new drugs to treat hypertension, reduced levels of smoking and the introduction of lipid-lowering statins. To measure health, the ONS looked at two long-running surveys. One asked people to rate their general health, while the other asked whether they had a long-term illness and, if so, whether it reduced their ability to carry out daily activities. On average, 45 per cent of people aged 65 to 85 reported poor general health in 1981, which fell to 39 per cent by 2017. (Webmaster's comment: Life expectancy in Canada is 82 years, in the United Kingdom 81 years, in the United States 79 years!)
11-18-19 Full intestines, more than full stomachs, may tell mice to stop eating
Nerve endings in mice’s intestines that sense a full load could be a part of appetite control. Bulging stomachs often take the blame for ending holiday indulging. But bulging guts might be the real appetite killer, a study in mice suggests. The results, published November 14 in Cell, could point out new ways to treat obesity, or even help explain how gastric bypass surgeries limit eating. Those procedures result in food moving faster through the stomach into the intestines, stretching the gut in a way that might signal fullness, the authors speculate. Zachary Knight, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues identified and studied nerve cells in mice’s intestines that sense mechanical stretching. To simulate full intestines, the team activated these nerve cells with light and chemicals. As a result, the mice ate less food. Physically stretching the mice’s intestines with a salty liquid or a diuretic also caused the mice to eat less. Different stretch-sensing cells in the stomach also curbed mice’s appetites, but to a lesser extent, the researchers found. These nerve cell endings relay messages up the vagus nerve (SN: 11/13/15), which then zips signals to the brain. These messages about intestinal stretching help influence the eat-or-not decision, researchers suspect.
11-18-19 Drill music with positive lyrics is more popular than negative songs
Drill music, a form of hip hop known for its gritty lyrics, has been criticised by police for encouraging gang violence, but a new analysis shows that songs with positive lyrics are more popular on YouTube. Bennett Kleinberg and Paul McFarlane of University College London analysed 550 YouTube videos by 105 London-based drill music artists, using machine learning to investigate how the tone of a song’s lyrics changes. Every word in each song was captured and given a sentiment score based on its context. For example, “gun” received a rating of -1, while “thrive” received a +1 score, the minimum and maximum scores possible. Rather than glorifying violence – a claim drill music’s detractors make against the genre – the researchers discovered that drill music fans watched and engaged more often with music videos whose lyrics had a positive tone. “We find that songs in the positive cluster attract almost twice as much audience engagement on YouTube in the form of comments and views than songs in the negative sentiment cluster,” says Kleinberg, who also points out that it is possible a song can have a positive overall sentiment but still contain violent language. Craig Pinkney of University College Birmingham in the UK, who has researched the connection between gangs, youth violence and drill music, believes that while the content of the songs can be violent, the ability to make it as a musician and leave gang life behind is a benefit. “Unfortunately what happens is we only listen to the music in terms of its content and see the violence that [it] perpetuates and that’s all we talk about,” he says. Glorification of violence is also far from limited to drill music, says Pinkney. “I like watching gangster films, I like to watch Narcos and Breaking Bad.”
11-15-19 Long-term smokers who start vaping see health benefits within a month
Long-term smokers who switched to vaping were halfway towards achieving the vascular health of a non-smoker within a month, a study has found. Researchers from the University of Dundee, UK, said they discovered a “clear early benefit” in switching from smoking to vaping, in the largest clinical trial to date. Those who ditched cigarettes and vaped instead saw their blood vessel function increase by around 1.5 percentage points within four weeks compared with those who continued smoking. The researchers said they didn’t know whether this benefit would be sustained, with more research needed into the long-term implications of vaping. They also warned that vaping isn’t safe, merely “less harmful” than smoking. But they said that if this improvement were sustained into the long-term, those who switched would have at least a 13 per cent reduced risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks. The study recruited 114 adults in the UK who had smoked at least 15 cigarettes a day for at least two years and were free from established cardiovascular disease. Forty continued smoking tobacco cigarettes, 37 switched to e-cigarettes with nicotine and 37 switched to e-cigarettes without. The researchers measured shifts in blood vessel function – the earliest detectable change to cardiovascular health – through a test known as flow mediated dilation (FMD) that assesses how far a blood vessel opens. They used another test to measure the vessels’ stiffness. Overall, the groups who switched to e-cigarettes experienced a 1.49 percentage point improvement in their vascular function compared with those who continued smoking. Separate research has shown that for every 1 percentage point improvement in vascular health, 13 per cent fewer cardiovascular events occur over the long-term.
11-15-19 Eating a keto diet may give some protection against the flu
Ditching carbohydrates and eating lots of fat may give some protection against the flu. Feeding mice the so-called keto diet seems to boost certain immune cells, which may be responsible for the effect. The keto diet forces the body to burn fat for energy, which can help with weight loss, and people may get flu-like symptoms known as the “keto flu” as their body adapts to so little carbohydrate. The keto diet has also been linked to improved heart health and control of blood sugar in diabetes, but much of the evidence is conflicting. Akiko Iwasaki at Yale School of Medicine and colleagues previously found that the keto diet reduced inflammation in mice with gout. Because inflammation is common to both gout and flu, the team thought the keto diet could similarly deal with flu-related inflammation, which can severely damage the lungs. To put this theory to the test, the team fed mice infected with influenza A – the most serious type of the virus – either a keto or standard diet for a week before infection. After four days, all seven of the mice fed a standard diet succumbed to the infection, compared to only five out of the 10 mice on the keto diet. These keto diet mice also didn’t lose as much weight, which is usually a clear sign of flu infection in animals. The team found that the keto diet amped up the numbers of a specific type of T cell – key players in the body’s immune response – found in the lungs. Boosting these T cells dampened the sensitivity of cells lining the lungs to infection and increased mucus production. It seems that this extra mucus is important for protecting the mice, says Iwasaki, because it traps the flu virus to stop it spreading. It still isn’t clear what these T cells do outside of this study though, she says.
11-15-19 How to not feel hungry all the time
- Get more rest When the body is sleep-deprived, it produces more ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates appetite. Fatigue will make you crave junk food, too.
- Drink more water. “It’s normal to confuse thirst with hunger.” To keep from getting dehydrated, drink half as many ounces of water each day as your weight in pounds. If you weigh 180 lbs, that’s 90 oz, or 11 cups.
- Balance your diet. To feel full, you need to eat a mix of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Carbs should be 45 to 65 percent of your calories, fats 20 to 35 percent, and protein 10 to 35 percent. And a daily helping of fiber will also help you feel full longer.
- Evaluate your stress. If you’ve missed no meals and crave something specific (like Häagen-Dazs), “you might just be emotional-hungry.” Pause to consider if boredom or anxiety might be the real problem. Then do something fun or relaxing.
11-15-19 Only children and obesity
Only children are seven times more likely to be obese than those with siblings, new research suggests. In a small study, researchers examined the eating habits and weight of what they called “singletons.” They found that these children tended to have less healthy eating and drinking habits than kids in larger families. The study didn’t prove cause and effect. But the researchers did note that the mothers of only children were more likely to be overweight themselves—suggesting that they may be passing down their poor dietary habits to their singletons. Lead author Chelsea Kracht, from Louisiana State University, says that biological factors could also be in play, and that only children may be less active because they don’t have a playmate under the same roof. Meal planning might also be an influence. “With multiple children, you’re scheduling a little bit more of your meals,” Kracht tells CNN.com. “So we’re going to have more at-home meals. We’re probably going to have less fast food.”
11-15-19 How measles hurts the immune system
The measles infection is far more harmful than scientists previously thought, reports NPR.org. The virus itself can cause a severe and sometimes fatal illness, but two new studies suggest it can also wipe out patients’ immune systems—leaving them vulnerable to dangerous infections such as flu and pneumonia for months and possibly years. For the studies, researchers examined blood samples from 77 children in the Netherlands who went unvaccinated for religious reasons. The samples were taken before and after the kids contracted the disease during a 2013 outbreak. They found that measles wiped out 11 percent to 73 percent of the children’s antibodies, which provide protection against an array of viruses and bacteria. (Similar tests in vaccinated children found no loss of antibodies.) Scientists call this effect “immune amnesia.” The immune system essentially forgets what it needs to do to fight colds, flu, stomach bugs, and other illnesses, including illnesses for which the person has been vaccinated. “Measles is much more than a rash,” says Harvard Medical School’s Michael Mina, who led one of the studies. “It’s got these very long-term, stealth-like detrimental effects that are extraordinarily difficult to measure.” Researchers note that the introduction of the measles vaccine in the 1960s was followed by a sharp decline in deaths from other childhood diseases—a shift that could reverse if vaccination rates continue to decline.
11-15-19 Seaweed for Alzheimer’s?
Chinese regulators have conditionally approved a new seaweed-based treatment for Alzheimer’s—a potential breakthrough that has been greeted with both enthusiasm and caution. In a clinical trial involving 818 people, the drug, Oligomannate, improved cognitive function in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. The researchers say the benefits were apparent within just four weeks of starting treatment and endured throughout the 36-week trial. The drug’s approval means it can go on sale in China while further trials are carried out there, but clinical trials in the U.S. and Europe aren’t scheduled to start until 2020. Its developers say a sugar in seaweed helps suppress bacteria in the gut that can cause degeneration and inflammation of the brain. But many scientists in the U.S. and Europe remain skeptical, noting that trials in the West typically last longer and are larger. “It’s good to see that drug regulators in China are prioritizing emerging treatments for Alzheimer’s,” Carol Routledge, a British Alzheimer’s researcher, tells Scientific American. “But we do still need to see more evidence that this drug is safe and effective.”
11-15-19 Running for a long life
Going for a run just once a week could be enough to significantly cut your risk of early death. Researchers at Victoria University in Melbourne looked at 14 studies that examined the links between running and mortality. That data set included more than 230,000 people, whose health was tracked for up to 35 years. The researchers found that the people who did any running at all were 27 percent less likely to suffer a premature death. Runners had a 30 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular problems, and a 23 percent reduced risk of dying from cancer. More surprisingly, those who ran longer distances or at a faster pace didn’t see their risk decline any further—just 50 minutes of jogging a week was enough. Running has long been linked with an array of health benefits, in particular reductions in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and weight. “If you are physically inactive and don’t have much time on your hands for exercise,” lead author Zeljko Pedisic tells ABCNews?.com, “running might just be the right activity for you.”
11-15-19 Troubling generational health patterns
Millennials, with a new study warning of “troubling generational health patterns” among those born between 1981 and 1996, including depression, hyperactivity, high cholesterol, and substance abuse. “Without intervention,” the study says, Millennials could have a 40 percent higher mortality rate than (the preceding) Generation X.
11-15-19 Iowa’s monument to mound builders
“Iowa has a reputation for being flat and monotonous,” said Steve Stephens in The Columbus Dispatch. “I have only traveled the edges, however, which are anything but.” Most recently, I visited the state’s northeastern corner to explore Effigy Mounds National Monument, a woodsy tract where steep rocky bluffs overlook the Mississippi River. About 1,000 years ago, Native Americans created 10,000 low earthen mounds throughout the area, some shaped like bears, turtles, and birds. Today, fewer than 1,000 remain, including 206 protected by the park, with the largest, Great Bear Mound, measuring 137 feet long. “No one knows the purpose of the mounds, whether ceremonial, religious, or artistic.” Because they’re only a few feet tall, seeing them is “a bit underwhelming.” But cliff-edge overlooks like Fire Point offer tremendous views and a chance to reflect on the mound makers, and how much this place meant to them.
11-15-19 An insulin nasal spray could help with polycystic ovary syndrome
Most women with polycystic ovary syndrome often struggle to maintain a steady weight. A nasal spray of insulin might help such women burn calories, according to preliminary research in sheep, which can show many of the same symptoms of PCOS. A trial in women with PCOS is now being planned. Around 7 to 8 per cent of women have polycystic ovary syndrome, which affects the way ovaries work. Women with PCOS often have irregular periods and can find it difficult to get pregnant. But PCOS also appears to put women at risk of obesity and diabetes. In the US, around three-quarters of women with PCOS are also obese. Colin Duncan at the University of Edinburgh says that most of his patients can have restored ovulation with the right treatment, but treating obesity is much harder. That’s because women with PCOS find it more difficult to lose weight. A study published in the 1990s suggests that this is because women with PCOS are less able to burn calories. After most people eat a meal, their fat tissue starts to burn through calories, releasing heat, but this is reduced by around 25 per cent in women with PCOS. This means that women with PCOS would have to eat around 4 per cent less, or exercise around 20 per cent more, than another woman of a similar height and weight who doesn’t have the disorder, just to maintain a steady weight, says Duncan. To find out why this might be, Duncan and his colleagues turned to sheep. When Scottish greyface ewes are injected with male levels of testosterone, they show the symptoms of PCOS – they stop ovulating, develop polycystic ovaries and gain weight, says Duncan. His team then implanted thermometers in the sheep’s fat tissue, to record minute-by-minute changes in temperature. In sheep that didn’t receive testosterone injections, the temperature reading soared after a meal, before settling back down. The same pattern was seen in overfed obese sheep.
11-15-19 For people with HIV, undetectable virus means untransmittable disease
To bring people into clinics, Washington, D.C. spreads the hopeful message that treatments and prevention work. In October 1995, George Kerr III tested positive for HIV. “I was terrified,” he remembers. “I thought my life was over.” That year, more than 50,000 people in the United States died from AIDS, the disease that ravages the body when the human immunodeficiency virus goes unchecked. It was the highest number of AIDS deaths the United States would experience in a single year. Kerr was 29 at the time. He started treatment and suffered through nausea, diarrhea and night sweats. Sometimes, the medication made him pass out. “At one time I was taking 27 pills a day,” Kerr says, some with meals, some without. The regimen was so disruptive, sometimes he didn’t take his medications as prescribed. Today, he takes only three pills a day to keep the virus under control. “It’s easier,” Kerr says. There are even one-pill formulations that combine the drugs necessary to treat HIV. The many available drugs — collectively called antiretroviral therapy, or ART — do more than cut down on pills and side effects. ART is also a kind of prevention (SN Online: 7/12/16). There is no cure for HIV, but a person consistently taking ART can almost make HIV disappear. The virus’s presence in the blood becomes so vanishingly small that the virus can’t be transmitted sexually. The concept is called undetectable = untransmittable, or U=U, and it has changed everything. People with HIV who stick to their medications no longer have to fear passing the virus to a sexual partner. “The person that I am seeing today is HIV-negative,” says Kerr, a community activist in Washington, D.C. “I know without a doubt that I will not be infecting him.” With U=U, he says, HIV-positive people “can have the same dreams and goals as any other person in the world.”
11-15-19 A Dallas museum hosts rare hominid fossils from South Africa
A new exhibition features Australoptihecus sediba and Homo naledi bones. For the next few months, visitors to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas will have a rare opportunity to see fossils of ancient hominids up close. A new exhibition, “Origins: Fossils from the Cradle of Humankind,” open through March 22, brings to the museum Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi. The discoveries of these South African species over the last decade have raised new questions about humans’ family tree (SN: 12/23/17 & 1/6/18, p. 24). Almost as amazing as the fossils themselves is the fact that they traveled to the United States. “Origins” marks the first time these fossils have been displayed outside of South Africa, and Dallas is their only scheduled stop. “There’s something really distinct in our modern world about being able to see something … that’s authentic, that really is 2 million years old or 300,000 years old, and you’re there just inches from it rather than seeing it in virtual reality or on your computer screen,” says Becca Peixotto, director of the museum’s Center for the Exploration of the Human Journey. “Origins” focuses primarily on two specimens. First there’s Karabo, the male A. sediba skeleton that paleoanthropologist Lee Berger’s 9-year-old son Matthew discovered at a site called Malapa in 2008. Karabo, at the time of his death, about 1.97 million years ago, was close to Matthew’s age. Then there’s Neo, one of over a dozen H. naledi individuals found deep in the Rising Star cave system near Johannesburg in 2013 (SN: 10/3/15, p. 6). Neo, an adult male, lived about 300,000 years ago, about the time H. sapiens emerged (SN: 6/10/17, p. 6). The exhibition encourages visitors to compare the mix of physical traits that these hominids had, in the same way scientists might as they piece together where species fit in humans’ evolutionary story. A panel points out how A. sediba had hands, feet, teeth and hips similar to modern people’s, yet also had small brains and long, apelike arms. In analyzing A. sediba’s features, Berger, of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, has argued that A. sediba is a contender for a direct ancestor of the genus Homo (SN: 8/10/13, p. 26).
11-15-19 Stone Age artists were obsessed with horses and we don’t know why
Stone Age occupants of Europe had a strange fixation on horses. Almost one in every three animals they depicted on cave walls was a horse and the images are often larger and occupy more prominent positions than those of other animals. However, why the horse loomed so large in ancient minds may remain forever a mystery. Since the 1990s, Georges Sauvet at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, France, has been compiling a database of European Stone Age (or Palaeolithic) art. Today that database contains information on more than 4700 drawings, paintings and engravings of animals found in caves across France and Spain. The oldest image may be more than 30,000 years old and the youngest roughly 12,000 years old. Sauvet has begun analysing the information and has realised something odd: no matter where or when artists were at work in Stone Age France and Spain, they were very likely to put horses in their pictures. Some 29.5 per cent of all the animals in Sauvet’s database are horses, with three-quarters of all sites across his study area containing at least one image of a horse. Impressive though these raw numbers are, they don’t tell the whole story. Sauvet has also looked at the way Stone Age artists portrayed horses and found additional evidence of their special status. For instance, the ancient artists tended to depict all animals – including lions, mammoths and bears – in profile with the head to the left. The horse is different: it is the only species that is predominantly orientated to the right. Even the location and size of horses in the ancient murals stand out as special. Artists often chose to depict horses on high and particularly conspicuous surfaces, writes Sauvet. For instance, in Lascaux cave, France, there is a pair of large horses – one is 2.5 metres long – on the ceiling. Sauvet writes that they hang above and dominate the hundreds of smaller animals drawn on the walls below. A horse in Rouffignac cave, also in France, is even larger, at 2.7 metres long. There are 65 animals drawn around it, including mammoth and rhinoceros, but all are far smaller.
11-14-19 Improved rabies vaccine could be better and cheaper
Tweaking the rabies vaccine to spur the body into mounting a stronger immune response could lead to more effective and cheaper treatments. This could help save some of the 60,000 lives thought to be lost to the disease each year. Around the world, more than two in three people live in regions where rabies is endemic. Something as simple as a dog bite or scratch from a bat can transmit the virus, but symptoms may not emerge for weeks or even months. If the infected person hasn’t received medical treatment by then, the death rate is virtually 100 per cent. Unfortunately, the vaccines used both to protect people from a possible infection and to treat them afterwards are expensive and need multiple rounds to work. This prompted James McGettigan at Thomas Jefferson University in Pennsylvania and his colleagues to search for a way to make them quicker and more powerful. The current vaccines use inactive virus to trigger special types of cells in the body, known as B cells. These cells remember the virus and produce antibodies against it if they see it again. The team exploited this by attaching an additional protein to the surface of the inactive virus, called the B cell activating factor. This binds directly to B cells and alerts them to the existence of the pathogen more quickly than the traditional vaccine does. When the researchers tested this modified vaccine on mice, they found that the levels of antibodies in their blood jumped quicker and higher than in mice that had been given the traditional vaccine. Within five days, mice who were given the new vaccine had twice the level of virus-neutralising antibodies in their blood of the other mice, and by seven days this had risen to five times. The team also found the mice needed less of the vaccine to get the same immune response, and that this immunity wasn’t any more likely to fade over time.
11-14-19 Genetic study reveals the family secrets of people in the 1800s
In the 19th century, poorer families living in cities in Europe had a higher rate of children who weren’t biologically related to their legal fathers. This is according to a genetic study that looked at how this rate differs for different socio-economic groups. It is widely assumed many men aren’t the biological fathers of their children. The rate of extra-pair paternity, as this is called, has been claimed to be as high as 30 per cent today. “They look just like the milkman,” goes the popular joke that no parent finds funny. However, over the past two decades DNA studies in several countries have shown the average rate is low – around 1 per cent. Maarten Larmuseau at KU Leuven in Belgium, who authored one of these studies, wondered whether there was a difference between groups. He suspected, for example, that the rate was higher among aristocrats in the 17th century, as there was often a large age gap between husband and wife. Extra-pair paternity is depicted in the 1664 painting Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen, which shows a wealthy Dutch father holding his newborn child. But behind him a man is making the sign of the “cuckold’s horns”, meaning the child was fathered by another. Larmuseau’s team identified 500 pairs of men in Belgium and the Netherlands where, according to genealogical records, each pair descended from the same male ancestor through a male lineage. Half of these ancestors were born before 1840 and the oldest was from 1315. The men in each pair should have inherited their shared ancestor’s Y chromosome, as it comes from the father. When DNA testing revealed a mismatch, the team tested other male descendants to narrow down when a son had been fathered by someone other than the husband. All the men were volunteers and the team didn’t test close relatives to avoid uncovering recent cases.
11-14-19 Diabetes: UN to tackle 'overly expensive' insulin prices
The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced a scheme to lower the "overly expensive" price of insulin. The UN agency wants other drug companies to produce generic versions of insulin, which it will then test. Since its discovery in 1923, the price of insulin has risen in America from $1 (78p) per vial to about $300 (£233). About 20 million people have type 1 diabetes and need regular insulin injections to live, according to the WHO. The 54 million people worldwide with type 2 diabetes only use insulin in severe cases. A generic version of a drug is chemically similar, but produced by a different pharmaceutical company than those producing the existing drug. The process of getting pharmaceutical companies to produce generic versions of an existing drug, and then testing it for quality and safety, is known as a prequalification programme. Once the generic version passes the safety tests, it is introduced into the global marketplace at a cheaper rate, driving down the price of the drug. The WHO has successfully run similar schemes in the past, most notably for HIV medication in 2001. The UN agency announced the two-year initiative on Wednesday, at a conference in the Swiss city of Geneva. Emer Cooke, a director at the WHO, said: "The simple fact is that the prevalence of diabetes is growing, the amount of insulin available to treat diabetes is too low, the prices are too high, so we need to do something." Diabetes is a disease characterised by high levels of blood glucose (blood sugar). Insulin is a hormone normally produced by the body. It controls blood sugar levels by moving glucose out of the blood stream and into cells, where it is broken down. The most common is type 2 diabetes, where the body either becomes resistant to insulin or doesn't make enough insulin. This can be triggered by an unhealthy diet or not enough physical activity.
11-14-19 Drug-resistant microbes kill about 35,000 people in the U.S. per year
A CDC report adds two organisms to a list of five bacteria and fungi considered urgent threats. Close to 3 million people in the United States develop difficult to treat infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria and fungi each year — and about 35,000 die, according to a new government report. “The modern medicine available to us today may very well be gone tomorrow if we don’t slow the development of antibiotic resistance,” said Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, during a news briefing on November 13. In its first report on drug-resistant infections in six years, the CDC revised its 2013 report using newly available data including electronic health records from over 700 hospitals. The number of annual deaths from drug-resistant infections at that time is now estimated to have been around 44,000 — almost double the 23,000 deaths previously estimated. The new report also estimates that currently about 35,000 people die annually from drug-resistant infections, reflecting an 18 percent decrease from the revised number of the 2013 report. That shows there’s been progress in reducing the spread of drug-resistant microbes typically associated with hospitals, a major source of deaths, said Michael Craig, a senior advisor on antimicrobial resistance at the CDC, during the news briefing. Even with the additional data, however, the CDC considers its estimates conservative. In a letter published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology in 2019, researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, using different methodologies, estimate that more than 150,000 people in the United States died from drug-resistant microbes in 2010.
11-14-19 China has 50 per cent fewer pigs – but how many of them actually died?
A river runs red with the blood of dead pigs in South Korea. Denmark, Luxembourg and France are building border fences to interrupt the movements of wild boars, even as European Union farmers stock more pigs to cash in on rocketing pork prices. Overseas visitors found bringing undeclared pork treats into Australian airports are being sent home, and having their visas cancelled for up to three years. The continuing rampage of African swine fever across Eurasia dwarfs most other infectious outbreaks among animals, and has experts reaching for apocalyptic language. “It’s the biggest threat to any commercial livestock of our generation,” says Mark Schipp, chief veterinary officer of Australia. China, where 2019 is the Year of the Pig, was home to half the world’s pigs when African swine fever arrived there last year. Now the number of pigs in the country has halved. Schipp made global headlines in late October by saying that a quarter of the world’s pigs would die because of the swine fever. That was based, Schipp told New Scientist, on figures from China showing pig numbers in August at 40 per cent of pre-swine fever levels. “We have probably already reached 25 per cent,” he says. A study by Dutch agricultural financial services firm Rabobank has reached similar conclusions. But pig numbers fell both because pigs died – either of swine fever, or through culling of infected herds – and because farmers who lost their pigs didn’t immediately restock and breed as usual, because the virus can linger for months. So, the number of pigs in the world is down by a quarter, but how much of this is due to animals dying, and how much is due to them simply not being produced? “We don’t really know how much of each,” says Schipp. Justin Sherrard of Rabobank agrees.
11-14-19 A tooth fossil shows Gigantopithecus’ close ties to modern orangutans
Proteins help clarify how the giant ancient ape evolved. An ancient ape that was larger than a full-grown male gorilla has now revealed molecular clues to its evolutionary roots. Proteins extracted from a roughly 1.9-million-year-old tooth of the aptly named Gigantopithecus blacki peg it as a close relative of modern orangutans and their direct ancestors, say bioarchaeologist Frido Welker of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues. Protein comparisons among living and fossil apes suggest that Gigantopithecus and orangutan forerunners diverged from a common ancestor between around 10 million and 12 million years ago, Welker’s group reports November 13 in Nature. Since it was first described in 1935, based on a molar purchased from a traditional Chinese drugstore in Hong Kong, G. blacki has stimulated debate over its evolutionary links to other ancient apes. Almost 2,000 isolated teeth and four partial jaws of G. blacki have since been found in southern China and nearby parts of Southeast Asia. G. blacki fossils date from around 2 million to almost 300,000 years ago. The sizes of individual teeth and jaws indicate that G. blacki weighed between 200 and 300 kilograms. Proteins preserve better in teeth and bones than DNA does, but both molecular forms break down quickly in hot, humid settings. “We were surprised to find any proteins this old at all, especially in a fossil from a subtropical environment,” Welker says. Proteins consisting of chains of amino acids can be used to sort out living and fossil species of various animals, including hominids (SN: 5/1/19).
11-13-19 Huge mysterious ape Gigantopithecus was a distant cousin of orangutans
STANDING at least 2.5 metres tall, Gigantopithecus lived in the forests of South-East Asia between 2 million and 300,000 years ago. It was larger than any living great ape, but all we have found of it so far are teeth and fragments from jawbones, so we know little about its appearance or behaviour. Now we have been able to glimpse its family tree, which suggests it split from orangutan-like cousins around 11 million years ago. To create the family tree, Frido Welker at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and his colleagues studied a 1.9-million-year-old Gigantopithecus tooth discovered in southern China. The climate in this region is subtropical, with an average temperature of around 20°C. In such warm and wet conditions, DNA soon breaks down, so it isn’t possible to read Gigantopithecus‘s genome. Instead, the team extracted proteins from its tooth enamel, as these are more durable. “This is the big breakthrough of this paper,” says Katerina Douka of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. DNA is normally used for studies like these, but proteins are a promising alternative in cases where this isn’t possible. “No one so far has ever managed to get DNA older than 8000 to 10,000 years old from that part of the world.” The researchers compared the Gigantopithecus proteins to those of other apes. This allowed them to draw a family tree that suggests Gigantopithecus‘s closest living relatives are orangutans (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1728-8). This was long suspected, says Russell Ciochon at the University of Iowa. “We expect Gigantopithecus to be more closely related to the orangutans than the African apes,” he says.
11-13-19 Secrets of the largest ape that ever lived
A fossilised tooth left behind by the largest ape that ever lived is shedding new light on the evolution of apes. Gigantopithecus blacki was thought to stand nearly three metres tall and tip the scales at 600kg. In an astonishing advance, scientists have obtained molecular evidence from a two-million-year-old fossil molar tooth found in a Chinese cave. The mystery ape is a distant relative of orangutans, sharing a common ancestor around 12 million years ago. "It would have been a distant cousin (of orangutans), in the sense that its closest living relatives are orangutans, compared to other living great apes such as gorillas or chimpanzees or us," said Dr Frido Welker, from the University of Copenhagen. The research, reported in Nature, is based on comparing the ancient protein sequence of the tooth of the extinct ape, believed to be a female, with apes alive today. Obtaining skeletal protein from a two-million-year-old fossil is rare if not unprecedented, raising hopes of being able to look even further back in time at other ancient ancestors, including humans, who lived in warmer regions. There is a much poorer chance of being able to find ancient DNA or proteins in tropical climates, where samples tend to degrade quicker. "This study suggests that ancient proteins might be a suitable molecule surviving across most of recent human evolution even for areas like Africa or Asia and we could thereby in the future study our own evolution as a species over a very long time span," Dr Welker told BBC News. Gigantopithecus blacki was first identified in 1935 based on a single tooth sample. The ape is thought to have lived in Southeast Asia from two million years ago to 300,000 years ago. Many teeth and four partial jawbones have been identified but the animal's relationship to other great ape species has been hard to decipher. The ape reached massive proportions, exceeding that of living gorillas, based on analysis of the few bones that have been found. It is thought to have gone extinct when the environment changed from forest to savannah.
11-13-19 Health impacts of climate change on children don't need exaggerating
A child born today faces far-reaching health impacts from living through a world 4°C warmer than humans have ever experienced, according to a major assessment released today. But the research doesn’t support claims by some climate activists that children may not grow up at all. The 2019 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, put together by doctors and researchers, warns that children are particularly vulnerable to climate change, because a warming world exposes them to more infectious diseases, malnutrition and stunted growth, and dirty air that hinders the development of their lungs. A major concern is Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that leads to diarrhoeal disease, the world’s number two killer of children under the age of 5. People are most susceptible in certain coastal areas, and the percentage of these at-risk regions has already grown almost a third in the Baltic and north-east US since the 1980s as warming changes sea surface temperatures. Elizabeth Robinson at the University of Reading, UK, one of the report’s authors, says children’s diets are also at risk, with under nutrition and malnutrition set to rise as climate change causes food production to fall. “We are a little concerned with a triple negative,” she says. Heat is already causing yields of crops to fall in some places – such as wheat in Australia – and many of the yield declines are expected in countries that are food insecure, and the productivity of farms will be hit as labourers struggle with heat. All of this means that children face a poorer diet. In some places, higher temperatures will trap more air pollution in cities, says another report author, Nicholas Watts, a medical doctor at University College London. This will have a particular impact on children. “It has lifelong effects on your lungs as they are trying to develop,” he says.
11-13-19 A severe form of epilepsy could be treated with cholesterol medication
It may be possible to lessen the severity of a rare and potentially lethal form of epilepsy with common statins, which are used to lower cholesterol levels for people with heart disease. Status epilepticus is a severe form of epilepsy in which seizures last more than 5 minutes and can sometimes go on for days or weeks, potentially leading to permanent brain damage or death. Aurélie Hanin at the Brain and Spine Institute in Paris, France, and her colleagues analysed the blood and cerebrospinal fluid of 63 people with status epilepticus and compared the results with the same information from 92 people who either had epilepsy without these severe seizures or had a functional neurological disorder. The researchers also analysed the brain material of mice who had been induced to have the disorder. They found an increase in cholesterol synthesis in the mice brains, and they saw signs indicating a similar increase in humans. Cholesterol can’t cross an intact blood-brain barrier – the protective cell structure that helps stop toxins passing from the bloodstream to the brain – without being broken down by an enzyme in the nervous system. The researchers looked for a byproduct of this breakdown in the human blood plasma. In people with status epilepticus, they found a significant decrease, and they also saw higher levels of a protein that transports cholesterol. Hanin says these two signs indicate that in people with status epilepticus, cholesterol isn’t being eliminated and is instead being stored up in the brain. She presented the work at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago on 20 October. “To treat the increase of cholesterol synthesis in the brain, you have to use a statin able to cross the blood-brain barrier, but currently there are only three statins that are able to do that,” she says.
11-13-19 Eating tiny nutrient particles could be better than health supplements
Tiny particles packed with vital nutrients could provide a better way of delivering dietary supplements to people worldwide. The particles can protect their contents from moisture and also resist heat during cooking before breaking down in the stomach to release their contents. Some 2 billion people globally have nutrient-deficient diets. This is the leading cause of cognitive and physical disorders in the developing world, according to an international research team led by Ana Jaklenec and Robert Langer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A major challenge in adding nutrients to food is that many nutrients are destroyed by the heat of cooking or add a bad taste to the food, the two researchers say. Their team has overcome this problem by trapping nutrients inside small, protective particles, which can be added to food. The microscopic particles measure less than a quarter of a millimetre across and can package 11 different nutrients individually, or combinations of up to four different nutrients together. They are made of a material that is resistant to heat, light and moisture, but which disintegrates when exposed to the acidic environment of the stomach, ensuring that the nutrients contained inside can be released and absorbed by the gut. The researchers baked iron-containing versions of the particles into bread, which was then eaten by 24 volunteers. Almost 3 weeks after eating the bread, iron levels in the blood of the volunteers were equivalent to levels detected after they had taken a conventional iron supplement. The researchers, who received support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also tried the bread, as did Bill Gates himself.
11-13-19 Why the hunt for alien life is under way far beneath Earth's surface
Microbes that breathe sulphur could redefine what it means to be alive and provide clues about what organisms may lurk in the cosmos. “IT’S the smell of science!” says Heidi Aronson, her face dimly lit by the beam of her head torch. In that case, science smells like an egg sandwich that’s been left out past its use-by date and then rolled in mud. Some 300 metres above our heads is a bucolic Italian landscape of rolling sunflower fields, Verdicchio wineries and winding mountain roads. Here in the Frasassi caves, the air reeks of hydrogen sulphide and the walls are slimy with slow-growing microbial deposits. My mind keeps drifting upwards, but there is nowhere Aronson, a researcher at the University of Southern California, would rather be. Down here, far from the light, she is hunting aliens. Virtually anywhere you look on Earth, you find life. It can be in sites dominated by heavy metals that are toxic to humans or on the plateau of the Atacama desert, where soils are so dry they are Mars-like. It can be found feeding on nuclear waste, as well as at both extremes of temperature and pH. But if Aronson is right, then the Frasassi system could be crawling with life unlike anything we’ve ever seen: microbes that gulp down sulphur compounds the way we breathe air. These would be evidence of a biology radically different from all other life on Earth. Such a discovery would have dramatic consequences. An organism capable of generating energy in this way would not only shed light on the origins of life on our own planet, it could also hint at the nature of life elsewhere in the universe. To find this new life form, she just needs to follow the sulphurous stench. The diversity of life on Earth is astonishing. You don’t need a brain to be alive, or a heart, or a spine. You can survive without oxygen, without sunlight, even without two cells to rub together. You can live without feeling the effects of ageing, or in total isolation, or through centuries of hibernation. As soon as scientists come up with a definition of what makes a living creature, it seems that something comes along to challenge it.
11-13-19 Flipping a molecular switch can turn warrior ants into foragers
Toggling one protein soon after hatching can reprogram a worker ant’s career path. When it comes to career paths, worker ants split into castes: Some tackle defense, others forage for the colony. But these roles aren’t predestined. An ant’s career trajectory is influenced by factors in its environment early on in life. Now, a study reveals one way those environmental factors play out. A protein called CoREST acts like a molecular switch in Florida carpenter ants (Camponotus floridanus), researchers report November 12 in Molecular Cell. By toggling it, big workers fated to be soldiers can be reprogrammed to do the job of their smaller, forager sisters. Brawny warriors, called majors, and foraging, nursery-tending workers, called minors, share nearly identical sets of DNA. So researchers have looked for epigenetic influences, chemical tags on DNA and associated proteins that can manipulate how genes are read, to explain the different behaviors. “And that’s what we found,” says Shelley Berger, a molecular biologist at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. “It’s the first epigenetic mechanism that’s been found in ants to regulate behavior in the brain.” The new study highlights that even highly specialized social insects retain substantial flexibility and responsiveness to their environment, says Beryl Jones, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University not involved in the research. “This is likely another important facet of the great success of social insects,” she says. Berger’s team had previously shown that injection of a chemical, trichostatin A, that helps unwind tightly packaged DNA could reprogram the majors to behave like minors (SN: 12/31/15). But it wasn’t clear what genes trichostatin A was influencing, or how far along in their development the ants could still switch jobs.
11-12-19 Millions in U.S. Lost Someone Who Couldn't Afford Treatment
More than 13% of American adults -- or about 34 million people -- report knowing of at least one friend or family member in the past five years who died after not receiving needed medical treatment because they were unable to pay for it, based on a new study by Gallup and West Health. Nonwhites, those in lower-income households, those younger than 45, and political independents and Democrats are all more likely to know someone who has died under these circumstances.
- 34 million adults know someone who died after not getting treatment
- 58 million adults report inability to pay for needed drugs in past year
- Little progress seen by Trump administration in limiting rising drug costs
11-12-19 Some people 'genetically wired' to avoid some vegetables
Hate eating certain vegetables? It could be down to your genes, say US scientists who have done some new research. Inheriting two copies of the unpleasant taste gene provides a "ruin-your-day level of bitterness" to foods like broccoli and sprouts, they say. It could explain why some people find it difficult to include enough vegetables in their diet, they suggest. The gene may also make beer, coffee and dark chocolate taste unpleasant. In evolutionary terms, being sensitive to bitter taste may be beneficial - protecting humans from eating things that could be poisonous. But Dr Jennifer Smith and colleagues from the University of Kentucky School of Medicine say it can also mean some people struggle to eat their recommended five-a-day of fresh fruit and veg. Everyone inherits two copies of a taste gene called TAS2R38. It encodes for a protein in the taste receptors on the tongue which allows us to taste bitterness. People who inherit two copies of a variant of the gene TAS2R38, called AVI, are not sensitive to bitter tastes from certain chemicals. Those with one copy of AVI and another called PAV perceive bitter tastes of these chemicals, but not to such an extreme degree as individuals with two copies of PAV, often called "super-tasters", who find the same foods exceptionally bitter. The scientists studied 175 people and found those with two copies of the bitter taste PAV version of the gene ate only small amounts of leafy green vegetables, which are good for the heart. Dr Smith told medics at a meeting of the American Heart Association: "You have to consider how things taste if you really want your patient to follow nutrition guidelines." The researchers hope to explore whether using spices could help mask the bitter taste and make vegetables more appealing for people who are hard-wired to dislike certain varieties.
11-12-19 A will to survive might take AI to the next level
Researchers argue that the biological principle of homeostasis would make for smarter robots. Like that emotional kid David, played by Haley Joel Osment, in the movie A.I. Or WALL•E, who obviously had feelings for EVE-uh. Robby the Robot sounded pretty emotional whenever warning Will Robinson of danger. Not to mention all those emotional train-wreck, wackadoodle robots on Westworld. But in real life robots have no more feelings than a rock submerged in novocaine. There might be a way, though, to give robots feelings, say neuroscientists Kingson Man and Antonio Damasio. Simply build the robot with the ability to sense peril to its own existence. It would then have to develop feelings to guide the behaviors needed to ensure its own survival. “Today’s robots lack feelings,” Man and Damasio write in a new paper (subscription required) in Nature Machine Intelligence. “They are not designed to represent the internal state of their operations in a way that would permit them to experience that state in a mental space.” So Man and Damasio propose a strategy for imbuing machines (such as robots or humanlike androids) with the “artificial equivalent of feeling.” At its core, this proposal calls for machines designed to observe the biological principle of homeostasis. That’s the idea that life must regulate itself to remain within a narrow range of suitable conditions — like keeping temperature and chemical balances within the limits of viability. An intelligent machine’s awareness of analogous features of its internal state would amount to the robotic version of feelings. Such feelings would not only motivate self-preserving behavior, Man and Damasio believe, but also inspire artificial intelligence to more closely emulate the real thing. (Webmaster's comment: Human's drive to survive has made humans the most brutal and dominate creature on earth. We don't want that drive built into robots!)
11-11-19 Why being kind could help you live longer
What can kindness do for you? Give you a warm glow perhaps, or a feeling of well-being? While that may be true, scientists and academics at a new research centre say it can do much more - it can extend your life. The staff at UCLA's Bedari Kindness institute are ready for the jokes. "We look at the scientific point of view. We aren't sitting around in circles, holding hands. We're talking about the psychology, the biology, of positive social interactions," says Daniel Fessler, the institute's inaugural director. The notion of kindness has made headlines recently. It was a key part of former president Barack Obama's eulogy of veteran US Democrat Elijah Cummings, following his death last month. "Being a strong man includes being kind. There's nothing weak about kindness and compassion," he said. "There's nothing weak about looking out for others. You're not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect." And then there was Ellen DeGeneres calling for kindness when speaking about her surprising to some friendship with George W Bush: "When I say, 'Be kind to one another,' I don't mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone. It doesn't matter.'" Ahead of World Kindness Day this week, what does it actually mean to be kind - and why is it important? This is what the experts want to examine. And they are deadly serious about it. After all, it could be a matter of life and death, they say. Mr Fessler's work has looked at how people can be motivated to be kind simply by witnessing acts of kindness - and working out who is affected by this "contagious kindness". "I think it's fair to say we live in an unkind age right now," he says. "Both domestically in the United States and around the world, what we are seeing is increasing conflict between individuals who hold different political views or belong to different religions." Kindness, he says, is "the thoughts, feelings and beliefs associated with actions intending to benefit others, where benefiting others is an end in itself, not a means to an end".c
11-11-19 UK teen almost died from severe lung failure linked to vaping
Doctors have issued a warning over vaping after a teenager in the UK almost died from serious respiratory failure linked to e-cigarettes. Ewan Fisher, who turns 19 on Tuesday, ended up on life support. He was under age when he purchased vaping equipment over the counter from a shop and had been vaping for four to five months before he was taken ill aged 16. Ewan was treated for hypersensitivity pneumonitis – a type of allergic reaction to something breathed in which results in inflammation of the lung tissue. He became so ill that an exterior artificial lung was used to put oxygen into his blood and pump it around his body. Jayesh Mahendra Bhatt at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, who treated Ewan, said: “The evidence we gathered showed that it was [vaping] that was to blame.” Ewan, a previous smoker, was admitted to hospital following a week of fever, a persistent cough and increasing difficulty with breathing. His condition deteriorated rapidly and he developed respiratory failure and was put on life support plus intravenous antibiotics and steroids. Ten days later, his condition became critical and he developed severe muscle weakness, requiring a long period of rehabilitation. The teenager told medics “he had recently started to use e-cigarettes fairly frequently, using two different liquids, purchased over the counter”. The listed ingredients for both vaping liquids were the same apart from the unnamed flavourings. After two months, he was still suffering and underwent skin tests with vaping fluid, which made his symptoms worse. Blood samples also showed that he had more antibodies to one of the two liquids, raising the possibility this might have been the source of his reaction. After 14 months, Ewan eventually recovered.
11-11-19 AI can predict if you'll die soon – but we've no idea how it works
rtificial intelligence can predict a person’s chances of dying within a year by looking at heart test results – even when they look normal to doctors. How it does so is a mystery. Brandon Fornwalt at healthcare provider Geisinger in Pennsylvania, US and colleagues tasked an AI with examining 1.77 million electrocardiogram (ECG) results from nearly 400,000 people to predict who was at a higher risk of dying within the next year. An ECG records the electrical activity of the heart. Its pattern changes in cardiac conditions including heart attacks and atrial fibrillation. The team trained two versions of the AI: in one, the algorithm was only given the raw ECG data, which measures voltage over time. In the other, it was fed ECG data in combination with patient age and sex. They measured the AI’s performance using a metric known as AUC, which measures how well a model distinguishes between two groups of people – in this case, patients who died within a year and those who survived. The AI consistently scored above 0.85, where a perfect score is 1 and a score of 0.5 indicates no distinction between the two groups. The AUCs for risk scoring models currently used by doctors range between 0.65 and 0.8, says Fornwalt. For comparison, the researchers also created an algorithm based on ECG features that doctors currently measure, such as certain patterns from the recordings. “No matter what, the voltage-based model was always better than any model you could build out of things that we already measure from an ECG,” says Fornwalt. The AI accurately predicted risk of death even in people deemed by cardiologists to have a normal ECG. Three cardiologists who separately reviewed normal-looking ECGs weren’t able to pick up the risk patterns that the AI detected.
11-9-19 Vitamin E acetate is a culprit in the deadly vaping outbreak, the CDC says
An ingredient often used as a dietary supplement was found in all tested lung fluid samples. For the first time, a chemical potentially responsible for widespread vaping-related lung injuries and deaths in the United States has been found in lung fluid from patients. Researchers detected vitamin E acetate, widely used as a dietary supplement, in every sample of lung fluid collected from 29 patients suffering from the severe illness, health officials announced November 8 in a news briefing and a report. Vitamin E acetate is also an ingredient in some skin care products but could be toxic when inhaled. “We are in a better place than we were two weeks ago, in terms of having one very strong culprit of concern,” said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “We still have more to learn.” CDC researchers obtained bronchoalveolar lavage fluid, a sample that contains fluid from the lining of the lungs, from health care workers caring for patients with the injuries, called e-cigarette or vaping-associated lung injury, or EVALI. Twenty-nine patients from 10 states provided the specimens. Vitamin E acetate was the only chemical detected in all of the fluid samples, CDC researchers reported online November 8 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Vitamin E acetate was previously identified by health officials in some vaping products used by patients (SN: 9/6/19). Vitamin E acetate is used as a diluting and thickening ingredient in vaping products that contain tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Most EVALI patients have reported using vaping products containing THC; some also used nicotine-containing products. Although vitamin E acetate is considered safe when used in skin creams and as a dietary supplement, research indicates that it could be harmful when inhaled.
11-8-19 Brain implants used to fight drug addiction in US
Patients with severe opioid addiction are being given brain implants to help reduce their cravings, in the first trial of its kind in the US. Gerod Buckhalter, 33, who has struggled with substance abuse for more than a decade with many relapses and overdoses, has already had the surgery. Lead doctor Ali Rezai described the device as a "pacemaker for the brain". But he added it was not a consumer technology and should not be used for "augmenting humans". Mr Buckhalter had his operation on 1 November at the West Virginia University Medicine Hospital. Three more volunteers will also have the procedure. It starts with a series of brain scans. Surgery follows with doctors making a small hole in the skull in order to insert a tiny 1mm electrode in the specific area of the brain that regulate impulses such as addiction and self-control. A battery is inserted under the collarbone, and brain activity will then be remotely monitored by the team of physicians, psychologists and addiction experts to see if the cravings recede. So-called deep brain stimulation (DBS) has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for treating a range of conditions including Parkinson's disease, epilepsy and obsessive compulsive disorder. Some 180,000 people around the world have brain implants. This is the first time DBS has been approved for drug addiction and it has been a complex trial, involving many teams, including ethicists, psychologists and many regulators. Over the next two years the patients will be closely monitored. Dr Rezai told the BBC: "Addiction is complex, there are a range of social dynamics at play and genetic elements and some individuals will have a lack of access to treatments so their brains will slowly change and they will have more cravings." "This treatment is for those who have failed every other treatment, whether that is medicine, behavioural therapy, social interventions. It is a very rigorous trial with oversight from ethicists and regulators and many other governing bodies." He points to figures which suggest overdoses are the main cause of death for under-50s in the US.
11-8-19 Trans fats and dementia
Researchers have known for years about the link between trans-fatty acids and heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Now they’ve found that high levels of trans fats are also tied to a heightened risk of dementia, reports The New York Times. Cheap, industrially produced trans fats are used as taste and texture enhancers in many processed foods, including margarine, cakes, and frozen pizzas. To examine this glop’s connection to dementia, researchers in Japan followed 1,628 men and women, all age 60 or older and with no sign of the disease, for 10 years. They measured the participants’ blood levels of the most common trans fat, elaidic acid, and analyzed their diets. After controlling for factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes, the researchers found that the quarter of the group with the highest levels of trans fats were 50 percent more likely to develop dementia than the quarter with the lowest. Senior author Toshiharu Ninomiya, from Kyushu University, says the observational study cannot prove cause and effect. But he adds that given what we know about trans fats, “it would be better to try to avoid them as much as possible.”
11-8-19 An in-body brewery
A North Carolina man has been diagnosed with a rare condition that causes his body to brew alcohol. The unnamed man, 46, began experiencing strange symptoms after taking antibiotics in 2011. He became depressed and suffered memory loss; on one occasion, despite not having drunk a drop, he was pulled over by police and found to have a blood alcohol level 2.5 times the legal limit. Eventually, researchers concluded he had auto-brewery syndrome, which occurs when fungi or bacteria in the gut convert carbohydrates from food into ethanol. The condition usually affects people with diabetes, obesity, or Crohn’s disease, but can occur in otherwise healthy people. “These patients have the exact same implications of alcoholism: the smell, the breath, drowsiness, gait changes,” lead author Fahad Malik, from the University of Alabama, tells CNN.com. “The only difference here is [they] can be treated by antifungal medications.” Malik and his team believe the man’s antibiotics likely changed his gut biome, allowing fungi to grow in the gastrointestinal tract. Following treatment, he is now symptom-free.
11-8-19 Cradle of humanity found?
Researchers claim to have traced the “homeland” of modern humanity to Botswana. “We have known for a long time that modern humans originated in Africa,” senior author Vanessa Hayes, from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, tells The Guardian. “What we hadn’t known until this study was where exactly.” Hayes’ team based their conclusion on an analysis of 1,217 samples of mitochondrial DNA from people living in southern Africa today, along with geological, archaeological, and fossil evidence. They posit that about 200,000 years ago, our ancestors settled near a huge lake system—now sprawling salt flats—in northern Botswana that was starting to break apart. That would have created a vast wetland brimming with life. After 70,000 years, changes in rainfall opened up corridors of vegetation in the surrounding desert, enabling humans to migrate, first to the northeast and later to the southwest. The analysis has been criticized by some geneticists. They say mitochondrial DNA cannot be used to pinpoint geographical origins in this way, and that lineages in other regions should have been included in the study.
11-8-19 Babies are less afraid when they can smell their mothers
Babies are reassured by the presence of their mother’s scent, according to research that looked at how their brains respond to fear. The idea that a familiar scent can soothe infants is not a new one. “Some midwives tell new mums to put a worn t-shirt or scarf in the crib with their baby,” says Sarah Jessen at the University of Lübeck in Germany. To investigate why this works, Jessen presented photos of happy and fearful face expressions to 7-month-old babies – she says this is the age by which the fear response has developed. Each of the 76 infants viewed the photos while being exposed to either the familiar smell of their mother, a stranger’s odour or no specific odour at all. Jessen also measured electrical signals in the babies’ brains using an EEG cap. Before the experiment, all the babies’ mothers were given a cotton t-shirt, which they slept in for three consecutive nights. The mothers were told to use their normal shampoo, soap and deodorant but to refrain from using any new products. Seeing photographs of fearful face expressions usually induces a fear response in babies, which produces a specific pattern of electrical activity in their brains, but the babies who could smell their mother didn’t have this pattern. These results suggest a baby’s experiences, including of smell, can influence fear processing in their brain. Jessen says she is interested to investigate whether babies have a similar response to their father’s scent or to the scent of other people who they frequently spend time with. “There isn’t much research done on odour in infancy,” says Karla Holmboe at the University of Oxford. She says that work like this helps us understand how babies perceive the world and what influences their development “Infancy is really the foundation of everything, all the skills we learn later in life.”
11-8-19 Mom’s immune system and microbiome may help predict premature birth
How to find and interpret markers of early labor. Every Monday, Jennifer Degl leads a group through the halls of the neonatal intensive care unit at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, N.Y. The volunteers offer support to the parents of babies born early and struggling to survive. Seven years ago, Degl, a high school science teacher in Putnam County, was one of those anxious parents. Her daughter, Joy, was born at 23 weeks gestation, weighing just over a pound. The baby spent her first four months in that NICU. Degl wasn’t allowed to hold Joy or change her diaper for a month. Although already a mom to three boys, Degl was completely unprepared for the experience. “People call [the NICU] a roller coaster for a reason,” she says. Joy would gain half an ounce and do well enough for Degl to start the 45-minute drive home to spend time with her sons, only to be called back because the baby was having trouble breathing and needed a breathing tube. “There is no smooth NICU ride,” Degl says. Like Joy, roughly 10 percent of children worldwide — an estimated 15 million babies — are born prematurely, or before 37 weeks gestation, each year. In developed countries, surviving an early birth has become more likely, thanks to the availability of intensive medical care. More than 98 percent of U.S. preemies survive infancy, according to a study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 2016, though as many as 44 percent of the youngest preemies don’t make it. Survival is least likely in nations with the fewest resources. Worldwide, complications associated with preterm birth are the leading cause of death in children younger than 5 years old.
11-8-19 Neanderthals' cave art skills questioned in dispute over age of images
A row has broken out about the artistic capabilities of our Neanderthal cousins. Last year, a research team announced that cave paintings found in Spain were at least 64,800 years old, implying that the artists were Neanderthals, as modern humans aren’t thought to have arrived in western Europe by that time. Now, a group of 44 researchers has written a strongly worded critique of the dating of these paintings, claiming that “there is still no convincing evidence that Neanderthals created Iberian cave art.” But the team that carried out the dating of the prehistoric paintings is standing firm. “None of the criticisms hold,” says Dirk Hoffmann at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “They seem to be driven by the belief that Neanderthals were not able to paint in caves.” Hoffmann is part of a team led by Alistair Pike from the University of Southampton, UK, that has been studying prehistoric cave art in Spain for more than a decade. Last year, the team reported a remarkable analysis of three paintings in the Monte Castillo region of Spain: a rectangular sign, a hand stencil and red traces on stalagmites. These are covered with a mineral called calcite, which precipitates out of water trickling down the cave walls. This calcite contains radioactive uranium, which decays into thorium at a known rate. By comparing the amount of uranium and thorium, the age of the calcite can be deduced and hence so can the age of paintings underneath. Using this technique, Pike and his colleagues determined the calcite to be 64,800 years old, so the paintings underneath must be at least that old. If so, this art dates back to before the arrival of modern humans in western Europe, and it is therefore likely that it was created by Neanderthals instead. It was a ground-breaking discovery, suggesting that the capacity of Neanderthals for symbolic thought was similar to ours and that the ability to make art may have been inherited from the common ancestor we share with Neanderthals, which lived 500,000 years ago.
11-7-19 DNA sites propose security plans to address genetic privacy fears
The two biggest genetic genealogy sites are hoping to introduce major new security measures to protect the DNA of millions of people, following recent concerns over risks to genetic privacy. Anyone who takes a direct-to-consumer DNA test with a company such as 23andme can download the raw data and upload it to third parties, often to help them find relatives. Researchers last week showed attackers could upload faked DNA profiles to create family matches for users of one leading genetic genealogy site, GEDmatch. Another study raised wider concerns about genetic privacy being compromised on similar services. Now two of the biggest third party sites – MyHeritage, which 3 million users, and FamilyTreeDNA, which has 2 million – have told New Scientist they want to address the issue. Paul Maier at FamilyTreeDNA says both services are willing to use encryption keys and cryptographic signing of customer’s raw data files, which would mark them as genuine and prevent the above attacks. But he says that for the measures to be effective it would require the DNA testing firms such as AncestryDNA to also adopt them. “If there’s agreement on their end, this solves the [privacy] concern,” he says. In a paper in the journal Science last year, Yaniv Erlich at MyHeritage called for the establishment of cryptographic signatures by DNA testing firms, with a unique encrypted key created and applied to each test. Genetic genealogy sites could then reject any DNA test results without a signature. He is working with other academic groups on the creation of an open source code for the approach, but says they are a few months off having a working solution. If it was adopted across direct-to-consumer DNA firms and third party sites, he says it would be a “very strong step forward”.
11-7-19 Self-destructing mitochondria may leave some brain cells vulnerable to ALS
In upper motor nerve cells in mice, the cell organelles formed loops that then disintegrated. A newly discovered type of mitochondrial self-destruction may make some brain cells vulnerable to ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In mice genetically engineered to develop some forms of a degenerative nerve disease similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, energy-generating organelles called mitochondria appear to dismantle themselves without help from usual cell demolition crews. This type of power plant self-destruction was spotted in upper motor neurons, brain nerve cells that help initiate and control movements, but not in neighboring cells, researchers report November 7 in Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience. Death of those upper motor neurons is a hallmark of ALS, and the self-destructing mitochondria may be an early step that sets those cells up to die later. Pembe Hande Özdinler, a cellular neuroscientist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, and her colleagues have dubbed the mitochondrial dissolution “mitoautophagy.” It is a distinct process from mitophagy, the usual way that cellular structures called autophagosomes and lysosomes remove damaged mitochondria from the cell, Özdinler says. Usually, clearing out old or damaged mitochondria is important for cells to stay healthy. When mitochondria sustain too much damage, they may trigger the programmed death of the entire cell, known as apoptosis (SN: 8/9/18). Özdinler’s team spotted what she describes as “awkward” mitochondria in electron microscope images of upper motor neurons from 15-day-old mice. These unweaned mice are equivalent to human teenagers, Özdinler says. ALS typically doesn’t strike until people are 40 to 70 years old. But by the time symptoms appear, motor neurons are already damaged, so Özdinler’s group looked at the young mice to capture the earliest signs of the disease.
11-7-19 A human liver-on-a-chip may catch drug reactions that animal testing can’t
The artificial organ, which mimics a real liver, can help predict drug toxicity or safety. A lab-grown liver stand-in may better predict bad responses to drugs than animal testing does. A human “liver chip” — liver cells grown on a membrane along with several types of supporting cells — formed structures reminiscent of bile ducts and reacted to drugs similarly to intact livers, researchers report November 6 in Science Translational Medicine. Similar rat and dog liver chips also processed drugs like normal livers in those species, allowing scientists to compare human liver cells’ reactions to drugs to those of the other species. Rats, dogs and other animals are often used to test whether drugs are toxic to humans before the drugs are given to people. But a previous study found that the animal tests correctly identified only 71 percent of drug toxicities. The liver chip is designed to catch bad drug reactions that animal tests might miss. For instance, bosentan, an experimental high blood pressure drug, doesn’t harm rats’ livers, but causes bile salts to build in humans’ livers, damaging the organ. Those effects were mimicked by the chips, Kyung-Jin Jang of the Boston-based company Emulate Inc., which makes the chips, and her colleagues found. Some drugs that were toxic to dogs and rats might not harm people, the human liver chip tests also suggest. Development of one experimental compound called JNJ-2 was discontinued because it caused liver fibrosis, or scarring in rats. But the human liver chip didn’t show any bad reactions, suggesting it might be safe for people.
11-7-19 People who lack olfactory bulbs shouldn’t be able to smell. But some women can
The structures are the parts of the brain known to receive sensations of smell from the nose. Some people may be able to smell even without key structures that relay odor information from the nose to the brain. Researchers used brain scans to identify two women who appear to be missing their olfactory bulbs, the only parts of the brain known to receive signals about smell sensations from the nose and send them to other parts of the brain for processing. Both individuals performed similarly to other women with olfactory bulbs on several tests to identify and differentiate odors, the scientists report November 6 in Neuron. The findings challenge conventional views of the olfactory system, and may lead to treatments for people with no sense of smell (SN: 7/2/07). “I’m not sure that our textbook view of how the [olfactory] system works is right,” says Noam Sobel, a neuroscientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. MRI scans of the women’s brains revealed that where most people have two olfactory bulbs, these two appeared to have cerebrospinal fluid instead. To the researchers, this indicated that the women didn’t have olfactory bulbs. But Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study, says “I am not convinced that the women are indeed missing their bulbs.” Some evidence for olfactory bulbs may be undetectable with MRI, like microscopic structures or olfactory tissue that could be found with antibodies, he says. A typical olfactory bulb has about 5,500 nerve clusters called glomeruli. With the MRI resolution used, the researchers calculate that they should be able to see olfactory bulbs with at least 10 glomeruli — about 0.18 percent the size of a normal bulb. But it’s possible the women could have even smaller olfactory bulbs, Sobel acknowledges.
11-7-19 A new dengue vaccine shows promise — at least for now
Further study is needed to ensure people aren’t left vulnerable to future infections. The latest dengue vaccine reduced the occurrence of the disease by about 80 percent in children vaccinated compared with unvaccinated children, researchers report. But the full picture of the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness is still under study, and won’t emerge for several more years. Dengue is responsible for an estimated 390 million infections each year. There’s no cure for the viral disease, which can cause fever, aches, pain and — in severe cases — bleeding, vomiting and rapid loss of blood pressure, which can be fatal. Young children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to developing severe disease. The new vaccine, under development by Takeda Vaccines, is called TAK-003. Among 12,700 children ages 4 to 16 who were given two doses of TAK-003 three months apart, 61 infections occurred, compared with 149 cases among 6,316 children not given the vaccine. TAK-003 also reduced the occurrence of dengue cases that lead to hospitalization by 95 percent: Of the 210 cases of dengue, there were five hospitalizations among the vaccinated children compared with 53 in the unvaccinated ones, researchers report online November 6 in the New England Journal of Medicine. The results describe how the vaccine performed in the year after the second dose; the children, from Asia and Latin America, will continue to be followed another 3½ years. Dengue, one of the world’s most rapidly spreading mosquito-borne diseases, is gaining footholds in new areas thanks to global travel, urbanization and climate change (SN: 10/7/19). Along with measures to control mosquito populations, developing a vaccine is seen as key to fighting dengue, says Derek Wallace, a physician who heads the dengue vaccine development program at Takeda Vaccines in Cambridge, Mass.
11-6-19 Return of hypnosis: Time to see if it really has a place in medicine
Signs are growing that hypnosis, once the preserve of charlatans, has real medical benefits. We need robust research to find out for sure. DO YOU know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine. So says Tim Minchin in his poem “Storm”, in which he makes the case for evidence-led treatment. We have a long history of therapies that first seemed bananas, only to be proved marvellous medicine. In the 1980s, two Australian scientists showed that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria, not stress. As a result, simple antibiotics could treat a problem once considered incurable. But the medical establishment took some persuading. The pair won a Nobel prize, for having the “tenacity to challenge the prevailing dogma”. Tenacity is just what is needed now, in identifying the place of hypnosis in mainstream medicine (see “What hypnosis does to your brain, and how it can improve your health“). People are right to be sceptical, given its fantastical origins, but evidence is accumulating that hypnosis has real promise as a medical therapy – helping doctors perform surgery with fewer side effects and at lower cost, minimising chronic pain, improving weight loss techniques and potentially aiding an international addiction crisis. But no establishment should accept any alternative medicine until we have solid evidence of what works, and what doesn’t. Tenacity only gets you so far. We also need investment and rigorous studies. When it comes to hypnosis, these are still in short supply. For instance, despite its popularity as a means to quit smoking, a recent review found no good evidence that hypnosis helps. But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t, says Jamie Hartmann-Boyce at the University of Oxford, because relevant research has been so poorly designed it makes it impossible to say for sure either way. “It’s such an important issue that we need… bigger, better trials,” she says.
11-6-19 Why embracing failure, mistakes and forgetfulness is key to success
Making mistakes helps us learn and get better at stuff, says neuroscientist Henning Beck, but be wary of thinking what works for humans will work for AI. Consider the alternative: if we never made any mistakes and followed the rules perfectly, we would never visit anywhere new. Breaking rules and making mistakes push the boundary of human knowledge. The brain is the last and greatest mystery in science. No other thing has been studied so deeply and is so poorly understood. When you look at a brain from the outside, you just see a wet mass full of densely packed nerve cells. How can this be the origin of game-changing ideas, great symphonies, language, love and art? We have no idea. Is there a greater enigma on Earth? When I started, neuroscience was dominated by biochemistry and molecular biology. But it turns out that biology alone cannot explain how the brain works. We need support from mathematics and information science to understand how the brain actually creates thoughts and organises information. We know that there are mathematical principles and rules that guide its processing, but we have no clue what they are. When I was 17, my teacher said: “It’s the mistakes we make that distinguish us from unimaginative computers.” Since then, I’ve remembered that learning from failures is more important than avoiding them. Done is better than perfect. In a thousand years, no one will remember anything about life today because our electronic storage devices are non-durable. We’re a lost generation. People will look back to the present–day dark ages and wonder what we fools were up to.
11-6-19 Experimental dengue vaccine cuts infection rates in real-world trials
An experimental vaccine for dengue fever is 80 per cent effective at preventing infections, according to preliminary results from a large clinical trial. Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne illness that affects around 390 million people each year. If untreated, it has a mortality rate of 20 per cent. The first vaccine against dengue, called Dengvaxia, began to be rolled out in the Philippines in 2016, but the campaign was halted the following year when safety concerns came to light. Trials showed that the vaccine increases the risk of serious illness in people who have never had a dengue infection. Earlier this year, US regulators approved Dengvaxia, but said it should only be given to people if tests show they have previously been infected with the virus. The new vaccine, developed by Japanese pharmaceutical firm Takeda, is based on a weakened live virus. It has been compared with a placebo in a trial involving more than 20,000 children aged 4 to 16 at 26 sites in Asia and Latin America. Each child received two doses of the vaccine, three months apart. The current results are based on one year of follow-up after the second dose, but a further three years are planned. Unlike Dengvaxia, the new vaccine appears to work well both for people with previous exposure to the virus and for those without. There are four versions of the dengue virus circulating. The vaccine seems to offer good protection against one type and partial protection against at least two of the others. Based on what happened with Dengvaxia, we must wait for more time to find out if these protective results are stable, says Scott Halstead, a retired dengue researcher. Duane Gubler at Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore, who is a patent holder of the new vaccine, says the results look promising. “If these results hold during long-term follow-up and if the vaccine shows a significant reduction in severe disease, this vaccine, if used properly, could have a major impact on our ability to prevent and control the pandemic of dengue currently ravaging the world,” he says.
11-7-19 Fossils suggest tree-dwelling apes walked upright long before hominids did
The 11.6-million-year-old bones still don’t tell us how members of the genus Homo became bipeds. Tree-dwelling apes in Europe strode upright around 5 million years before members of the human evolutionary family hit the ground walking in Africa. That’s the implication of fossils from a previously unknown ape that lived in what’s now Germany about 11.6 million years ago, say paleontologist Madelaine Böhme of the University of Tübingen in Germany and her colleagues. But the relation, if any, of these finds to the evolution of a two-legged stride in hominids by perhaps 6 million years ago is hazy (SN: 9/11/04). Excavations in a section of a Bavarian clay pit produced 37 fossils from the ancient ape, dubbed Danuvius guggenmosi by the investigators. Bones from the most complete of four individuals represented by the new finds cover about 15 percent of that creature’s skeleton, including nearly complete specimens from the forearm and lower leg, Böhme’s team reports online November 6 in Nature. Earlier research had generated age estimates for fossil-bearing sediment in the German pit. Danuvius’ limbs, spine and body proportions indicate that it could hang from branches, like present-day orangutans and gibbons, as well as walk on two legs slowly, somewhat like hominids that originated in Africa roughly 6 million to 7 million years ago, the researchers say. No other fossil or living ape has moved in trees and on the ground precisely as Danuvius did, they conclude. An ape built like Danuvius likely served as a common ancestor of great apes and hominids that emerged roughly 7 million years ago or more, Böhme contends. If true, Danuvius’ body design would upend the long-standing idea that hominids evolved an upright stance after splitting from a common knuckle-walking, chimplike ancestor in Africa. The new finds also challenge an argument that hominids evolved from ancient apes built much like modern orangutans, which walk upright on tree branches while grasping other branches for support (SN: 7/30/07).
11-6-19 Did apes first walk upright on two legs in Europe, not Africa?
The discovery of 11.6-million-year-old fossils in Europe suggests that the first apes to walk upright may have evolved there, not Africa. “These findings may revolutionise our view on human evolution,” says Madelaine Böhme at the University of Tübingen, Germany. Böhme and her colleagues discovered the fossils in a clay pit in Bavaria in southern Germany. They found 37 bones belonging to four individuals: an adult male, two adult females and a juvenile. They named the new species Danuvius guggenmosi. It was a small ape, weighing between 17 and 31 kilograms, and probably ate hard foods like nuts. Surprisingly, its legs resemble those of humans. We can fully extend our knees, so our legs act like pillars directly under our bodies. Chimps can’t do this: when they stand on two legs, their knees stay bent. D. guggenmosi’s leg bones suggest it could stand like a human, prompting Böhme’s team to argue that the ape stood and walked upright in trees, unlike all known apes. This is startling because D. guggenmosi is much older than the oldest known hominins that may have been bipedal: Sahelanthropus tchadensis and Orrorin tugenensis. Both lived around 6 million years ago, meaning the newly discovered species may push back the origin of bipedality about 5 million years. Furthermore, the known bipedal hominins are all African, leading scientists to believe that bipedality evolved there. Böhme’s team argues that this trait arose among European apes. Her colleague David Begun at the University of Toronto, Canada, has long argued that hominins first evolved in Europe before moving into Africa. He has presented evidence that another European ape, Rudapithecus, could walk on two legs; that some European apes had small teeth like hominins; and that a little-studied ape called Graecopithecus, from the eastern Mediterranean, may have been a hominin.
11-6-19 'Astonishing' fossil ape discovery revealed
Fossils of a newly-discovered ancient ape could give clues to how and when walking on two legs evolved. The ability to walk upright is considered a key characteristic of being human. The ape had arms suited to hanging in the trees, but human-like legs. It may have walked along branches and even on the ground some 12 million years ago, pushing back the timeline for bipedal walking, say researchers. Until now the earliest fossil evidence for walking upright dates back to six million years ago. The four fossils - of a male, two females and a juvenile - were unearthed in a clay pit in Bavaria between 2015 and 2018. "The finds in southern Germany are a milestone in palaeoanthropology, because they raise fundamental questions about our previous understanding of the evolution of the great apes and humans," said Prof Madelaine Böhme from the University of Tübingen, Germany. She said the ape could be the best model we have for the "missing link" between humans and apes. Ever since Charles Darwin's day, there has been intense debate about how and when our early ancestors began to walk on two legs. Did this key characteristic of humans arise from an ape, much like the orangutan, that lived in the trees, or from a knuckle-walking ancestor, which spent most of the time on the ground, similar to a gorilla? The new research, published in the journal Nature, suggests our upright posture may have originated in a common ancestor of humans and great apes who lived in Europe - and not in Africa, as previously thought. The fossils of Danuvius guggenmosi, which lived 11.62 million years ago, suggest that it was well adapted to both walking upright on two legs as well as using all four limbs while climbing like an ape. These findings suggest that bipedal walking evolved in the trees over 12 million years ago, the researchers said. "Danuvius combines the hindlimb-dominated bipedality of humans with the forelimb-dominated climbing typical of living apes," explained Prof David Begun, a researcher from the University of Toronto.
11-6-19 The weird creatures that might be the very first complex animals
The Cambrian explosion is feted as evolution's big bang, but the enigmatic Ediacaran creatures that came first are rewriting the history of life on Earth. LIFE appeared on our planet more than 3.5 billion years ago and consisted exclusively of microbes for the next 3 billion years. Then, about 539 million years ago, everything changed. In the geological blink of an eye, the seas were filled with large and complex animals, including worms with legs and fearsome spikes, creatures with a trunk-like nose and five eyes, and giant shrimp-like predators with mouths like pineapple rings. This evolutionary starburst is known as the Cambrian explosion. It is one of the most significant moments in life’s history on Earth because it is the point at which species that are clearly related to today’s animals first appeared. It is seen as evolution’s big bang. But over the past few years, geologists have begun to have second thoughts. Newly discovered fossils and careful analysis of ones found decades ago suggest that animals were thriving in the period before the Cambrian. As a result, some people are now arguing that the explosion of animal life started about 12 million years earlier. Others are questioning whether it is possible to define a distinct explosion at all. You could be forgiven for thinking that shifting the dawn of the animal revolution from 539 to 551 million years ago isn’t that big a deal. But evolution can do a lot in that length of time: the entire span of human evolution probably fits within 12 million years, the length of time since our lineage separated from that of chimpanzees. What’s more, shifting life’s big bang back could have important implications for the quest to figure out what sparked evolution’s most spectacular spell of invention. Scholars first worked out how to read the geological record in the 19th century, and they quickly noticed something puzzling. The oldest rocks they could find seemed devoid of fossils. Biologically complex marine animals, including woodlouse-like trilobites, suddenly appeared in abundance in the rocks assigned to the Cambrian period.
11-6-19 Who owns life? The world is about to decide, with huge ramifications
A debate between countries over who can access and exploit the planet’s genetic resources will have ramifications for all of us, says Laura Spinney. NEXT week, delegates will gather in Rome to discuss a question that could have profound implications for global biodiversity, food security and public health. Stripped of technical language, it boils down to this: who owns life? The Rome meeting convenes the governing body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. It is also known as the “seed treaty” because it mostly deals with seed collections. It will address arrangements for accessing these genetic resources, and how to share any benefits resulting from their exploitation. Central to that discussion will be “digital sequence information”. The seed treaty covers only samples of the physical material that constitutes plants. But as more species are sequenced and their molecular blueprints digitised, they can be exploited – for creating a drought-resistant crop plant, say – without accessing a physical sample. It is not just plants at stake. The outcome of the Rome meeting is likely to influence a meeting for the Convention on Biological Diversity next October. This treaty covers all life, and also neglects digital sequences. Given that an organism’s DNA, RNA or protein sequence is merely information stored in a molecule, you might think that extending these treaties to cover digital sequence information would be uncontentious. Far from it. So far, all attempts to reach a consensus have failed, and some have called the issue “the monster in the closet“. Part of the problem is that digital sequence information isn’t clearly defined: should it include only DNA and RNA sequence data, for example, or also amino acid sequences and epigenetic data?
11-6-19 Most people give up on using mental health apps within a few weeks
From breathing exercises to guided meditation, millions of people have downloaded mental health apps. But an analysis suggests that almost everyone gives up on such apps within just two weeks of downloading them, raising questions about how useful they really are. Amit Baumel at the University of Haifa in Israel and his colleagues used data analytics software to study the use of 93 popular mental health apps. The software wasn’t able to determine when individual users stopped using an app, but did count the number of people who used the apps each day. From this, the team was able to calculate how quickly people stop using mental health apps. The data showed that after 15 days, more than 94 per cent of users had stopped opening their apps. Baumel says that he expected to see a decline in app use but was surprised by how steep it was. There are thousands of mental health apps available, so the team focused on only those available in English that have been installed at least 10,000 times via the Google Play store. App use also differed depending on the kind of support the products provide. On any given day, just over 4 per cent of people who have downloaded mindfulness and meditation apps will use them. But this figure is 17 per cent among those who had installed peer-support apps, which enable you to talk to someone who may be experiencing similar issues. The team hasn’t revealed which 93 apps were included in the analysis, but the findings raise questions over how useful mental health apps are. Baumel says we don’t yet know how often one needs to use such apps for them to be effective. He also suggests that the future of these apps lies in them becoming more personalised to users and their specific needs. The relatively higher engagement rate of peer-support apps imply that a personal connection can keep people coming back.
11-6-19 What hypnosis does to your brain, and how it can improve your health
The history of hypnotherapy is riddled with hucksters, but it can provide real benefits – from weight loss to managing pain. Why modern medicine is starting to take it seriously. “HONESTLY, I wondered whether I was actually in labour, because surely it was meant to be more painful than this.” That’s Shona, describing the recent birth of her daughter. Her secret? Hypnosis. During pregnancy, she learned how to hypnotise herself into a state of mind that allowed her to minimise the pain of labour and, in her own words, “quite enjoy the whole thing”. The word hypnosis may call to mind a swinging watch or an entertainer getting people to believe they are naked on stage for an audience’s amusement. Its history is one of sorcery and magic, tales of the occult and exploitative charlatans. Practitioners are rarely doctors or counsellors, clinical trials struggle to get funded and there is still no regulatory authority that monitors the practice. Yet despite these issues, people are turning to the technique to help with everything from labour to hot flushes, anxiety and chronic pain, and a growing body of research is starting to confirm its benefits. We are also beginning to get a handle on how it actually works and what happens in the brain during hypnosis. The result is that how we define hypnosis is changing, and its use in mainstream medicine is increasing. The UK’s Royal College of Midwives now accredits hypnobirthing courses and funds training in the technique. Some anaesthetists now include hypnosis in their toolkit, and it is even being touted as a solution for the opioid addiction crisis. Hypnosis is certainly no cure-all, but learning what works, why it works and how to do it ourselves may help us harness the power of the mind for some of life’s toughest battles.
11-6-19 Some women lack odour-detecting brain cells but can still sense smells
The olfactory bulb, a structure at the very front of the brain, plays a vital role in our ability to smell. Or, at least, so we thought. A research team has now discovered a handful of women who have a perfectly normal sense of smell but who seem to lack olfactory bulbs – completely altering our long-held views about smell. The team, including Tali Weiss and Noam Sobel at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, were looking for a connection between the ability to smell and reproduction. Their investigations suggested one of the female volunteers in their experiments did not possess olfactory bulbs. This is unusual but not remarkable: one in 10,000 people don’t have olfactory bulbs, and these people cannot smell. This woman was different. Sobel says the 29-year-old woman was adamant: I have a very good sense of smell, she claimed. Every test they threw at her suggested she did indeed have a good ability to distinguish odours, despite lacking the neurons typically believed necessary to do so. Then, as the researchers continued to investigate, they found another woman with the same curious condition. “We were blown away,” says Sobel. The researchers then turned to the Human Connectome Project, which gathers olfaction scores for all participants. They looked at information from about 600 women and 500 men, and found another three women who can smell without olfaction bulbs. None of the men had the condition. Using this data, they were able to estimate the odds of being a woman who can smell normally without olfactory bulbs to be around 0.6 per cent. Mysteriously, the odds are raised dramatically in left-handed women. Among the subset of the general population who are left-handed, women who lack olfactory bulbs have a roughly four per cent chance of still being able to smell normally.
11-6-19 We remember the act of eating better than other things we do
Out of everything you do today, eating a chocolate bar might be what you will remember best. It seems that eating sticks in our mind far more than other activities, prompting a rethink of how our memory prioritises different experiences. We already know that memory can influence how much we eat. Thinking about food, for example, can make us feel fuller so we eat less during our next meal. Benjamin Seitz and his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles responded to this concept and looked at whether eating is better remembered than other behaviour. To test this, the team asked 159 men and women to each eat 30 sweets from a bowl while watching a video on a screen that was surrounded by different symbols. They then had to repeat the task, but this time move 30 sweets from a bowl to an opaque jar to mimic eating movements, rather than actually eating them. Finally, they had to move 30 plastic beads rather than sweets while watching the video. In all cases, the participants weren’t told how many sweets or beads were in the bowl to begin with. Afterwards, the team quizzed participants on how many items they ate or moved, what was in the video and how the symbols were arranged. The team found that, on average, people guessed they ate 20 sweets, but thought they had only moved 15 sweets and 15 beads. How well they remembered the video or symbols didn’t differ across all three tasks, suggesting that eating was responsible for the more accurate guessing. “Eating is important for evolutionary fitness and survival and that’s a reason why we expected memory for eating to be really active and strong,” says Seitz. Why we remember eating better than other activities is still unknown, but it could simply be that our normal memory machinery is kicked up a notch when we eat. Or it might be because extra brain regions are recruited for more evolutionarily important tasks. If so, current models of memory that don’t consider the biological significance of different behaviours may be missing something, says Seitz.
11-5-19 Running just once a week may help you outpace an early death
Any amount of running can lower a person’s risk of early death, an analysis of multiple studies finds. If you’re looking for motivation to take up running, perhaps this will help. A new study finds that people who run as little as once a week have a lower risk of early death compared with people who don’t run at all. In fact, any amount of running was associated with a 27 percent lower risk of premature death. And researchers found no evidence that running more alters that number significantly, according to a new meta-analysis published November 4 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. “This is good news for the many adults who find it hard to find time for exercise,” says Elaine Murtagh, an exercise physiologist at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland, who was not involved in the study. “Any amount of running is better than none.” While this conclusion might seem obvious to runners, the science has been fairly mixed, says public health researcher ?eljko Pedišic of Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. “Some studies found a significant benefit of running, but others did not,” he says. Also unclear was whether the duration or intensity of running mattered. Researchers who study the effects of running think about the activity in terms of doses, as though it were itself a medicine. Pedišic says that while it might make sense that more running would yield greater health benefits, some studies have sparked debate by suggesting that higher levels of running — more than 250 minutes a week — could actually negate any benefits in terms of mortality. Pedišic and his colleagues tried to make sense of these conflicting findings by pooling and reanalyzing data from previous studies, an approach known as a meta-analysis. They settled on 14 previously published studies, which collectively asked 232,149 participants about their running habits and then tracked their health over a period of time from 5 ½ to 35 years.
11-5-19 A quarter of all pigs have died this year due to African swine fever
A quarter of the world’s domestic pigs have died this year as a virus rampages across Eurasia, and that may be just the start. Half the pigs in China – which last year numbered 440 million, some 50 per cent of the world’s pigs – have either died of African swine fever (ASF) or been killed to stamp out the virus. ASF comes from East Africa. In 2007, it reached Georgia in the Caucasus in contaminated meat, and in infected wild boar. Now, it is all over Russia and eastern Europe and infected wild boar have turned up as far west as Belgium. It is also spreading in east Asia, killing many pigs in Vietnam and elsewhere. ASF was spotted in China in August 2018. It is now in every province. The virus may have spread there from North Korea. The only way to get rid of ASF is to kill infected herds. But while pigs on farms can be destroyed and replaced, the disease persists in wild boar and feral hogs, as well as in meat, which is increasingly sold abroad. “I predict ASF virus will remain endemic for some time in east Asia and eastern Europe, with constant introductions around the world,” says Dirk Pfeiffer of City University in Hong Kong. “Currently nobody on this planet has the solution to the problem.” Despite years of warnings from virologists, there is no vaccine. Most vaccines against viruses stimulate the body to make antibodies against viral structural proteins, such as those in the virus coating. These then stop the virus from entering cells, for example. But ASF, says Linda Dixon of The Pirbright Institute in Surrey, UK, is a large, complex virus, with two coatings and several ways of entering cells. Antibodies to various bits of it have never been enough to stop it.
11-5-19 I tested out DNA-based food shopping and it was strange
In a colourful shop in Covent Garden, London, the tagline “Shop with your DNA” is brightly emblazoned above customers’ heads. One wall is lined with rows of multicoloured cubicles that contain printer-like DNA testing devices. I’m stood in DNA Nudge, a shop which opened in London this week. It claims to help people make better food shopping choices based on their DNA and lifestyle factors such as physical activity, but how effective personalised diets based on genetic testing are remains to be seen. DNA swabs are being analysed in the store. Customers swab the inside of their cheeks using a cotton bud. This is then placed in a small device for analysis, which takes around an hour, testing for genes associated with caffeine metabolism and a predisposition for hypertension, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. This information is turned into a personal profile that recommends intake amounts of dietary components including salt, fat and sugar. For £80, customers can then purchase a wristband for scanning barcodes on supermarket foods. The wristband flashes red or green depending on whether an item “fits” a person’s dietary intake profile. For someone who is predisposed to having high blood pressure, for example, the wristband may flash red for an item high in salt. A connected smartphone app would then suggest alternatives in the same food category. DNA Nudge has a database of items found in most major UK supermarkets to make this function work.I tested a shop assistant’s wristband on some cereal, which gave her the green light on chocolate chip Weetabix. It feels strange to have a piece of tech telling you what you should and shouldn’t eat – kind of like having a traffic light for a diet coach. “The best diet is the diet you don’t know you’re having,” says DNA Nudge CEO Chris Toumazou. “Mindless overeating becomes mindless healthy overeating.” To date, there is little research to suggest that eating based on one’s genes conveys any significant benefits.
11-5-19 50 years ago, cancer vaccines were a dream
Now, researchers are enlisting the immune system to combat the disease. The dream of a cancer vaccine is still just that — a dream. But experimenters at Emory University in Atlanta have shown that the basic mechanism — stimulation of an immune response — can take place. Researchers have devised several ways of getting the immune system to prevent or control cancer. Vaccinations against human papillomavirus, or HPV, prevent infections that cause cervical and other cancers. Hepatitis B vaccines may head off some forms of liver cancer. Other strategies, like CAR-T cell therapy and PD-1 blockade therapy (SN: 7/11/15, p. 14), prompt T cells of the immune system to go after tumors. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first PD-1 blockade therapy in 2011 and then two CAR-T cell therapies in 2017 for patients with certain types of cancers (SN: 12/23/17 & 1/6/18, p. 29). Overstimulating the immune system can produce severe side effects, so scientists are working to develop safer options (SN: 7/7/18, p. 22).
11-4-19 California's strict vaccination laws may only have a small effect
Officials in US states and cities are trying several strategies to limit the number of people who go unvaccinated, which has become more urgent after recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. In California, these measures have resulted in a slight decrease in the number of unvaccinated children in schools, but they haven’t fully counteracted the effects of hesitancy over whether to vaccinate. California passed a law in 2015 that banned non-medical exemptions based on religious or philosophical beliefs for parents who wanted to opt out of vaccinating their children. It is not the only place to do so – Washington state enacted a similar law in 2019, and New York City went so far as to mandate that all people in an area with a large measles outbreak had to be vaccinated or face fines. But will these laws work? To find out, Paul Delamater at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his colleagues analysed data from California. The team estimated the proportion of schoolchildren whose parents claimed an exemption to vaccination rules based on vaccination and enrolment data for kindergarteners and seventh graders – the grades at which schools in California check vaccine status, which corresponds to around 5 and 12 years old. As of now, the California law change seems to have resulted in 0.5 per cent fewer unvaccinated children. If the law remains, the researchers found that by 2027, the percentage of children with any vaccine exemption would decrease from 2.59 per cent to 1.87 per cent, where the rate is likely to stabilise. The team also examined the effect of another law in California, which increased scrutiny on medical exemptions – because these are sometimes inappropriately used when non-medical exemptions are unavailable. In that scenario, the percentage of children with vaccine exemptions would be reduced to 1.41 per cent by 2027. If neither law was repealed or had never been enacted, their models show that the rate would stabilise at 2.36 per cent.
11-3-19 Our stuff, our selves
In 1859, around 450 passengers on the Royal Charter, returning from the Australian goldmines to Liverpool, drowned when the steam clipper was shipwrecked off the north coast of Wales. What makes this tragic loss of life remarkable among countless other maritime disasters was that many of those on board were weighed down by the gold in their money belts that they just wouldn't abandon so close to home. Humans have a particularly strong and, at times, irrational obsession with possessions. Every year, car owners are killed or seriously injured in their attempts to stop the theft of their vehicles — a choice that few would make in the cold light of day. It's as if there is a demon in our minds that compels us to fret over the stuff we own, and make risky lifestyle choices in the pursuit of material wealth. I think we are possessed. Of course, materialism and the acquisition of wealth is a powerful incentive. Most would agree with the line often attributed to the actress Mae West: "I've been rich and I've been poor — believe me, rich is better." But there comes a point when we have achieved a comfortable standard of living and yet we continue to strive for more stuff — why? It is unremarkable that we like to show off our wealth in the form of possessions. In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons were markers of elite social position. He coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe the willingness of people to buy more expensive goods over cheaper, yet functionally equivalent, goods in order to signal status. One reason is rooted in evolutionary biology. Most animals compete to reproduce. However, fighting off competitors brings with it the risk of injury or death. An alternative strategy is to advertise how good we are so that the other sex chooses to mate with us rather than with our rivals. Many animals evolved attributes that signal their suitability as potential mates, including appendages such as colorful plumage and elaborate horns, or ostentatious behaviors such as the intricate, delicate courtship rituals that have become markers of "signaling theory." Due to the unequal division of labor when it comes to reproduction, this theory explains why it is usually the males who are more colorful in their looks and behavior than the females. These attributes come at a cost but must be worth it because natural selection would have disposed of such adaptations unless there was some benefit.
11-2-19 Studies that deliberately infect people with diseases are on the rise
Are they worth the risks? An unusual statue stands in the courtyard of the San Fernando Medical School in Lima, Peru. It commemorates a student named Daniel Alcides Carrión, who died in 1885 after he deliberately exposed himself to bartonellosis, a bacterial disease spread by the bites of infected sand flies. Carrión was trying to prove that the disease was also responsible for distinctive lesions that erupted from the skin of people in the region. He did so — but only after dying when he injected himself with material taken from one such lesion on a patient. Carrión's risky self-experiment was very much of its time. But a new generation of scientists have revived and updated the principle, and are once again purposely exposing, if not themselves, then other human volunteers to harmful diseases. The good people of Southampton, U.K., are being asked to inhale a bad bug that is driving a lethal, international revival of infant whooping cough. Fifteen strong-willed men and women in 2010 endured a week of stomach cramps and diarrhea at the University of Vermont after they knowingly swallowed a food-poisoning agent found in raw milk. And in the last few decades hundreds of men in the southern United States have come forward to be inoculated with gonorrhea, well, you know where. Supporters of these types of experiments — called human challenge trials or controlled human infection models — argue that they are the quickest and cheapest way to develop new vaccines, test medicines, and study the basic progression of some of humanity's most enduring infectious foes, as well as some new ones. The strategy is popular with organizations such as the British biomedical charity the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as they spend their billions trying to tackle neglected ailments of the developing world. Malaria, dengue fever, cholera, influenza, typhoid, and tuberculosis — which among them kill some three million people each year — are all being investigated by scientists who make healthy people purposely sick. "It's not without risk, but we work to make it as safe as we possibly can," says Robert Read, an infectious disease expert at the University of Southampton who is leading the whooping cough trial. The conventional way to develop vaccines is expensive and inefficient, he says. "It wastes the lives of thousands of animals that are not physiologically relevant — and then, when we do pre-clinical work in people, we find it doesn't work." Still, ethicists say it's time for a more detailed assessment of the rights and wrongs of human challenge trials. That's because, although the vast majority have taken place in rich nations, scientists increasingly seek volunteers in places where the diseases being studied are endemic. The shift is important if treatments and vaccines are to work, proponents of these studies say, because people who live under constant threat of a disease often develop a different immunological response.
11-2-19 Hearing aid uses 3D printed parts and costs less than a dollar
A 3D-printed hearing-aid which costs less than a dollar could make hearing aids accessible for those who currently can’t afford them. Saad Bhamla and Soham Sinha at Georgia Tech built the device using cheap off-the-shelf electronic components and a 3D printed casing. It is based on the first designs of hearing aids developed in the early 50s, which were body-warn devices with earphones attached. The pair built the hearing-aid to work for people who have age-related hearing loss, currently affects over 200 million people worldwide. This type of hearing loss is characterised by a difficulty to heard higher sound frequencies, so the device specifically amplifies those. According to the non-profit World Wide Hearing, fewer than one in 40 people who need hearing aids in developing countries, can afford them. While very cheap personal sound amplification devices proliferate on the internet, these devices simply amplify all sounds, and are meant only for those with mild hearing loss. Bhamla and Sinha’s hearing aid currently has internal circuitry that is too loud according to World Health Organization standards, but the team are working to reduce it. Brad McPherson at the University of Hong Kong says he doesn’t know of any other hearing aids which are so cheap. Others have built low cost hearing aids, but they usually cost nearer $100 dollars, says Bhamla. While hearing aids are notably expensive, their cost is not the sole reason for their low uptake. Even in countries where hearing aids are free, like in the UK, only two million of the suspected six million people who need them have taken up the offer. Many people don’t even realise they have hearing loss, and there is a stigma attached to wearing hearing aids.
11-2-19 A toe bone hints that Neandertals used eagle talons as jewelry
The find supports the idea that the hominids made symbolic ornaments. An ancient eagle’s toe bone featuring stone tool incisions adds to evidence that Neandertals made pendants or other ornaments out of birds’ talons, researchers conclude in the Nov. 1 Science Advances. Excavations in Foradada Cave, near northeastern Spain’s Mediterranean coast, have produced a roughly 39,000-year-old imperial eagle toe fossil. Stone tool marks on the bone were likely made when someone removed a talon from the bird’s foot, say archaeologist Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo of Madrid’s Institute of Human Evolution in Africa and colleagues. Neandertals have been linked to the style of stone artifacts found in the cave, the scientists add. Only 12 bones from imperial eagles and other birds of prey, including seven toe bones and a talon, were found in the cave. No signs of burned sediment or cooking areas turned up, suggesting that these creatures were sought for talons and not as food, the scientists say. This discovery joins similar finds of avian toe bones and claws at 10 southern European sites dating to between 130,000 and 42,000 years ago that have been attributed to Neandertals (SN: 3/20/15). The hominids created talon jewelry for more than 80,000 years, until they died out (SN: 6/26/19) around the time that Foradada Cave was sporadically used a hunting shelter, the researchers assert. But claims of symbolic behavior among Neandertals have long ignited controversy (SN: 10/28/19). And investigators disagree about whether Neandertals or Stone Age Homo sapiens invented the type of stone tools unearthed at Foradada Cave and several other European sites of comparable age (SN: 9/13/05).
11-1-19 Toxic metals in baby foods
Many common baby foods contain potentially harmful levels of arsenic, lead, and other toxic chemicals, reports NBCNews.com. The nonprofit group Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) tested 168 common baby foods from 61 brands. Ninety-four percent contained lead, 73 percent arsenic, 75 percent cadmium, and 32 percent mercury. A quarter contained all four metals; 1 in 5 had over 10 times the lead level deemed excessive by public health bodies. The harmful effects of these metals is well established: Lead exposure can affect brain development in children; arsenic is a carcinogen. “Even in the trace amounts found in food, these contaminants can alter the developing brain and erode a child’s IQ,” the authors write. “The impacts add up with each meal or snack a baby eats.” Among the highest-risk foods identified by HBBF are fruit juices, rice-based products, sweet potatoes, and carrots. The group is pushing the Food and Drug Administration to set maximum safe limits for the metals.
11-1-19 Brain damage on the soccer field
Football isn’t the only sport that can be bad for athletes’ brains: A new study has found that pro soccer players also face a heightened risk of dying from neurodegenerative diseases. Commissioned by England’s Football Association, the research appears to confirm long-held fears that repeatedly heading a soccer ball can cause chronic brain trauma. Researchers from the University of Glasgow compared the causes of death of 7,676 male former pro soccer players with more than 23,000 people from the general population. The ex-players were less likely to die from heart disease and certain cancers and had an average life expectancy that was about three years longer. But they also had a 3.5 times higher risk of dying than the control group from diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. While soccer players don’t endure the same kind of crashing tackles that have been shown to cause degenerative brain disease in football players, heading the ball—something the typical player does six to 12 times a game—can alter the makeup of the brain. “It appears that it is not just the ‘big hits’ resulting in symptomatic concussions that increase the risk of neurologic disorders later in life,” Boston University neurologist Robert Stern, who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Reuters.com. Still, he says, parents of young soccer players shouldn’t panic, since the study looked at professional players. The exercise that comes with playing soccer also produces “substantial health benefits,” he says.
11-1-19 Clues on mystery paralysis
Researchers have made a breakthrough in their hunt for the cause of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), a rare polio-like condition that can result in paralysis in children. First documented in 2012, AFM affects fewer than one in a million kids. But its effects can be devastating: Children have been left unable to move their arms and legs and needing ventilators to breathe. Many researchers suspected the culprit was a virus, yet traditional testing methods could find no obvious cause. For a new study, researchers examined the spinal fluid of patients for signs of an immune response to enteroviruses—common viruses that cause cold-like symptoms but can occasionally trigger severe neurological issues. They found antibodies to two enterovirus strains in 70 percent of children with AFM and in only 7 percent of kids with other neurological conditions. The researchers now want to examine how exposure to these common viruses can spark such an extreme reaction in some children. “There may be a genetic predisposition, we don’t know,” co-author W. Ian Lipkin, from Columbia University, tells CNN.com. “We are very eager to understand why.”
11-1-19 A gene-editing ‘word processor’
Scientists have developed a new gene-editing tool that they say could one day be used to correct 89 percent of the genetic mutations that cause inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia. The most popular existing gene-editing approach, CRISPR-Cas9, uses “molecular scissors” to home in on a faulty piece of genetic code, then cuts both strands of the DNA double helix and splices in a new section of code. Though cheap and fast, CRISPR-Cas9 often damages nearby code or inserts the new material in the wrong place. That’s not a problem when researchers are working in the lab and can toss out the samples, reports TheGuardian.com, but it becomes an issue when scientists want to rewrite genes inside a person’s body. The new technology, known as prime editing, cuts only one strand of the double helix—minimizing the risk of dangerous unintended changes. “If CRISPR-Cas9 is like scissors,” explains study leader David Liu, from Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute, “prime editors [are] like word processors.” Liu and his colleagues have already used the new technology to make 175 DNA edits to human cells with incredible precision. In one experiment, they removed the four extra DNA letters in a gene that cause the nerve-destroying Tay-Sachs disease.
11-1-19 Exclusive: Spray-on gene editing could make genetic modification easy
Genetically modifying plants could soon be almost as easy as spraying them with water. A new technique that uses DNA attached to nanoparticles could have a wide variety of uses, including changing the properties of crops while they are growing in fields. “It was so straightforward,” says Heather Whitney at the University of Bristol in the UK. “It was really surprising how easy it was.” Whitney and her team have so far tested their technique on a variety of plants, including wheat, maize, barley and sorghum. They simply used an ordinary plant mister to spray leaves with water containing carbon dots bound to DNA. The DNA, which codes for a fluorescent protein, got into cells in the plants’ leaves, prompting them glow green under UV light. This is a huge advance on conventional methods for inserting DNA into plants, which are not as easy or widely applicable. But this DNA was not incorporated into the genomes of the cells sprayed, so should break down over time. Whitney and her colleagues then took their technique a step further, using carbon dots bound to DNA that codes for the CRISPR machinery that is used for genome editing. In this way, the team were able to make permanent edits to the genomes of cells in the leaves they sprayed. The results have yet to be confirmed by other groups. But if it works, spray-on gene editing has the potential to speed up plant research and lead to new ways to improve and protect crops, and to turn plants into biofactories capable of making chemicals such as flavourings and pharmaceutical products. “It’s amazing,” says Ignacio Rubio Somoza of the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Spain, who is now planning to try the method. “I think it’s a pretty great advance.”
11-1-19 Sleep may trigger rhythmic power washing in the brain
Waves of fresh cerebrospinal fluid could help clean out harmful proteins. Every 20 seconds, a wave of fresh cerebrospinal fluid rolls into the sleeping brain. These slow, rhythmic blasts, described for the first time in the Nov. 1 Science, may help explain why sleep is so important for brain health. Studies on animals have shown that the fluid, called CSF, can wash harmful proteins, including those implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, out of the brain. The new results give heft to the idea that a similar power wash happens in sleeping people. Researchers studied 13 healthy, young people in an MRI scanner as they fell into non-REM sleep, the type of slumber that takes up most of the night. At the same time, the scientists monitored different sorts of activity in participants’ heads. Electrodes measured the activity of large collections of nerve cells, and functional MRI measured the presence of oxygenated blood that gives energy to those nerve cells. By using a form of rapid fMRI, the team also measured another type of activity — the movements of CSF in the brain. Fast fMRI revealed waves of fresh CSF that flowed rhythmically into the sleeping brains, a pattern that was obvious — and big, says study coauthor Laura Lewis, a neuroscientist and engineer at Boston University. “I’ve never had something jump out at me to this degree,” she says. “It was very striking.” Awake people have small, gentle waves of CSF that are largely linked to breathing patterns. In contrast, the sleep waves were tsunamis. “The waves we saw during sleep were much, much larger, and higher velocity,” Lewis says.
11-1-19 New details on immune system ‘amnesia’ show how measles causes long-term damage
After the disease, fewer antibodies are left in the body that recognize other viruses. Measles wages war on cells of the immune system. Now two tallies of the carnage, described in the Nov. 1 Science and Science Immunology, offer even more compelling support for the measles vaccine. The measles virus infects immune cells and erases their memories of earlier threats, raising the risk of contracting other infections for up to three years (SN: 5/21/19). Researchers including geneticist Stephen Elledge, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, put numbers to this erasure with a tool called VirScan. It measures antibodies, proteins made by immune cells that recognize previously encountered infections, in blood. With VirScan, the researchers searched human blood for antibodies, each of which recognized one of about 400 infectious viruses, as well as some bacteria. Blood tested from 77 unvaccinated Dutch children, taken before and about seven weeks after a bout of measles, showed that the children’s immune systems suffered after the disease. Kids lost from 11 to 73 percent of their antibodies for specific threats, including viruses that cause common colds and a type of severe respiratory illness in young children, the team reports in Science. Measles infections also interfere with the body’s ability to replenish a type of memory-storing immune cell called B lymphocytes, scientists report in Science Immunology. Together, the results show how measles is a particularly damaging virus, and attest to the “immense public health value of the measles vaccine,” the researchers write in Science.