2-28-22 Omega-3 supplements could reduce the number of premature births
South Australia has launched a world-first programme to reduce premature births by testing omega-3 levels during pregnancy and giving supplements when they are low. Giving omega-3 supplements to pregnant women with low levels of this fatty acid could prevent about 14 per cent of early preterm births, according to data from an Australian trial. The finding has inspired a world-first screening and treatment programme for omega-3 deficiencies in pregnant women in South Australia. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish and are known to protect heart and brain health, and there is evidence that they are also important in pregnancy. For example, observational studies have shown that eating fish regularly during pregnancy seems to lower the risk of preterm birth. A few years ago, Maria Makrides at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute and her colleagues ran a trial in which they randomly assigned 5500 pregnant women to have either 1 gram of omega-3 per day in the form of fish oil capsules or a placebo, starting any time before 20 weeks of gestation. They found that in women who started out with low levels of omega-3 in their blood, supplements of omega-3 fatty acids reduced the risk of birth happening before 34 weeks of gestation by 77 per cent. The placebo had no effect on the risk of such early premature birth. But for women who already had high omega-3 levels, taking the omega-3 supplements actually increased their risk of these preterm births. This suggests that the supplements should only be recommended to pregnant women with low omega-3 levels, although multivitamins containing small omega-3 doses are fine for women who already have high levels, says Makrides. On the back of these results, Makrides has helped launch a screening programme in the state of South Australia that offers free blood tests to all pregnant women to identify and treat those who are low in omega-3. About 3000 women have been screened since May 2021 and so far 17 per cent have been found to have low omega-3 levels.
2-28-22 Nanoparticles can translate chemical signals from bacteria to yeast
Particles that facilitate communication from one type of cell to another could have applications in medicine and agriculture. Specially designed nanoparticles have been used to let bacteria communicate with yeast cells by “translating” chemical messages from one form to another. It is the first time that cells from different kingdoms of life have interacted in this way, and the concept could be used in fields ranging from medicine to agriculture. Antoni Llopis Lorente at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and his colleagues engineered a particle that can process a chemical signal from an E. coli cell, a bacterium, then release a chemical that a yeast cell (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), which is a fungus, can understand. Previous studies have used nanoparticles to allow cells to interact, but never between different kingdoms of life. The team initiated the communication by adding lactose to the cells’ growth medium. The E. coli cells responded by secreting an enzyme that breaks down lactose into galactose and glucose. The nanoparticles, which are about 100 nanometres in diameter, convert glucose into gluconic acid, causing a drop in pH, which causes pores in the nanoparticle to open. This releases phleomycin, a chemical messenger contained in the nanoparticle that can be detected by yeast. The yeast cells were engineered to produce a fluorescent protein in response to the signal, making them glow when this communication occurred. Currently, the interaction only works in one direction – the nanoparticles can’t translate chemical signals from yeast into a form that an E. coli cell would understand, Lorente says. The technology is still in its early stages and Lorente emphasises that the study is only a proof of concept. But he says there are numerous potential applications. For example, nanoparticles could enable plants under attack from pests to call for help from fungi that produce pesticides.
2-28-22 Air pollution may make some bacteria in our nose and throat turn nasty
The superbug MRSA is potentially even more harmful if it is exposed to air pollution, some studies using mice and human cells suggest. Air pollution from fossil fuels and wood burning can directly affect the behaviour of bacteria, in some cases making them more likely to cause illness, a series of studies has shown. “This is at an early stage, but it’s something that we need to look into more,” says Julie Morrissey at the University of Leicester in the UK. “This could be affecting health, because it is potentially affecting microbiomes and infectious disease microbes.” Air pollution has many adverse effects on our health, including making us more vulnerable to respiratory infections. It has long been assumed that such infections are a result of damage to the tissues in our airways and lungs. A few years ago, however, a conversation with a colleague made Morrissey wonder if air pollution could also affect bacterial behaviour directly. Her team has now amassed substantial evidence suggesting that this is the case. Many people have potentially dangerous bacteria living harmlessly inside their airways. When these bacteria sense an opportunity, they may collectively decide to launch an attack, causing an infection. Morrissey’s findings suggest that the presence of some pollutants can trigger this change in behaviour. In one of the latest studies, her team grew a strain of MRSA – an antibiotic-resistant “superbug” – for a few days in the presence or absence of a kind of particulate pollution called black carbon. “It’s like soot,” says Morrissey. When the MRSA bacteria were then put in the noses of mice, those that had been exposed to black carbon were more virulent. After a week, there were five times more of the black-carbon-exposed bacteria in the respiratory tract of the mice.
2-28-22 One forensic scientist is scraping bones for clues to time of death
Noemi Procopio is tracking down molecular clocks that could help identify skeletal remains. In a quiet laboratory beyond the decomposing remains on a body farm in Huntsville, Texas, Noemi Procopio works carefully with her drill. With each cut she makes into human bones, Procopio removes minuscule amounts of material, collecting some in a tube. That precious powder holds clues to when its donor died and the person’s age at death. Popular television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its spin-offs may make it seem easy to work out a person’s time of death. But many methods, such as analyzing insects that colonize a corpse (SN: 11/18/08), don’t work for remains that are mostly bare bones. Estimating time since death for skeletal remains currently relies on inspecting the bones for their degree of weathering — a rather subjective measure. It’s not uncommon for analysts to reach different conclusions for the same bones, says Procopio, a forensic scientist and molecular biotechnologist at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England. Those difficulties inspired Procopio to look for proteins and other molecules in bones that could provide an objective, dependable way to clock time. She and her colleagues have already identified a handful of candidates. Now, in one of the largest studies of its kind, the team is tracking these timekeeping molecules and searching for others in the cadavers of more than 100 people. There are a couple of ways that proteins in bones can be used to track time, Procopio has previously found. When certain proteins decay, one of their amino acids — the building blocks of proteins — loses a certain chemical group over months to years. These missing bits can clue researchers in to how long a protein has been decaying. Meanwhile, populations of proteins also change in composition after death.
2-23-22 Severance review: A compelling thriller about dividing work and play
THE first thing you should know about Mark Scout is that he is an employee of Lumon Industries, the nebulous corporation at the heart of new sci-fi thriller series Severance from Apple TV+. He is many other things besides – a cynic, a widower, a former history professor – but it is this fact that has come to define him, right down to his very biology. That is because Mark (Adam Scott) is one of a select few who have chosen to undergo severance, an irreversible brain surgery that causes their memories of their jobs to be divided from the rest of their life. While working in Lumon’s macrodata refinement department, Mark’s “innie” has no knowledge of who he is outside the office. Likewise, his “outtie” can’t recall how he is treated at Lumon or the nature of the work he performs. Why sever your job from your personal life? Lumon pitches the procedure as a means of creating a healthy work-life balance. When you head out of the door at 5pm, you really are switching off until tomorrow. For some, there are other benefits: severance means Mark can briefly forget about his wife’s death and hold down a job despite his still-debilitating grief. The severed workers made their decisions willingly, but there are few ways out once the process is complete. Mercifully, Severance contains no explicit allusions to the pandemic’s effect on our relationship with work, despite the series being filmed in 2020 and 2021. It largely steers away from implausible explanations of how severance is achieved, something that requires suspension of disbelief for anyone with a basic knowledge of how memory works. Instead, the series is an indictment of what the working world has long been for many: a slow, degrading assault on the soul. Mark’s job is dull, requiring him to sort data packets into folders according to unknown, seemingly arbitrary criteria. He is assured without evidence that his work is of vital importance, and his weak incentives are the promise of a desk toy or a waffle party at the end of the quarter.
2-23-22 How can our own farts smell tolerable when other people’s smell awful?
. It’s not rocket science. It’s sensory desensitisation. I wonder what the reactions would be if two people sat with their backs to each other farted at exactly the same time. And what if they were unaware of the presence of each other? Would a situation like this confuse the brain’s “fart-recognition” ability? Smell is subjective. The scent of unwashed socks can suddenly seem pleasant when you realise it is instead coming from a delicious piece of Gorgonzola cheese. When completing a difficult transatlantic voyage on a sailing boat, I could smell land before I could see it. The odour – something between cow dung and leaf mould – was the most delightful perfume I have ever smelled. As a science teacher, this is a question that my pupils frequently ask. They usually suggest that the answer is “because fart smell depends on what we eat, and we like our own food but not everyone else’s”. The reason that I give my students is a more primal explanation. Many mammals mark their territory by using their urine and faeces, therefore it is logical to assume that they want their marking to smell both bad and strong as a warning to others. Likewise, it is probable that many mammals that use their scat in such a way will have adapted to find their own scent reassuring, familiar and possibly even pleasant, so it is easily recognisable and inoffensive. After all, why would any creature want to smell bad to themselves? And make no mistake, we are animals too. Mine smell awful to me too, but I can highly recommend living with a Labrador to both improve one’s overall tolerance of farts and provide plausible deniability. This question reminds me of an unanswered one from The Last Word in the past: Why does it feel so pleasant to defecate? Considering these two questions together, here is my suggestion. It is important to eject waste material from the body, so evolution has given us appropriate emotions to ensure we do this – we experience the need to defecate and feel good after a successful toilet visit. Expelling wind also relieves pressure in the colon. We are used to the smell of our own excrement and farts, and this supplements these positive feelings. But we also know that excrement is messy and unhealthy, so smelling the results of others’ excretions is more likely to trigger a disgust response and the desire to retreat to a safe distance.
2-25-22 The COVID-19 pandemic is not an on-off switch
Like a dimmer switch, it will be a slow slide to the endemic phase. During the winter surge of COVID-19, it felt like the coronavirus was everywhere. Colder weather pushed people inside where the virus can linger in the air, and the surge-dominating omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, had the troublesome ability to dodge some immune responses (SN: 5/18/21). That meant that both vaccinated or previously infected people were more susceptible to getting infected than they were with previous coronavirus variants. Perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise given the vaccines’ primary goal is to prevent severe disease and death (not to prevent infection at all, what’s called sterilizing immunity). Still, omicron caught everyone off guard. Finally, weeks after COVID-19 cases skyrocketed, they continue to trend downward in most parts of the United States and around the world. Every time cases drop, I find myself holding my breath, hoping that signs of a resurgence won’t appear. So far, so good — for now. I might be able to let that breath out soon, for at least a bit. (Although cases in New Jersey, where I live, appear to be plateauing at levels close to the peak of last summer’s delta wave.) The bulk of the winter COVID-19 cases were caused a subvariant of omicron dubbed BA.1. Researchers are now keeping an eye on its close sibling, an omicron subvariant called BA.2. Even as cases decrease overall, BA.2 is on the rise, accounting for an estimated 4 percent of new cases in the United States for the week ending February 19. BA.2 concerns researchers because it is slightly more transmissible than BA.1, which could extend the current surge, and it also has some different mutations than BA.1. Both BA.1 and BA.2 can evade immune responses by dodging virus-attacking antibodies sparked by vaccination or infection with other variants, and some of BA.2’s differences might mean it could evade antibodies made after a BA.1 infection (SN: 12/21/21). So far, that’s not what scientists are seeing. Instead, even though these types of reinfections can happen, they are rare, a team from Europe reports in a preliminary study posted February 22 at medRxiv.org. Reinfections with BA.2, the team found, were most common in young, unvaccinated people who weren’t hospitalized. Time will tell how long this protection holds up and how it might fare against future variants or subvariants.
2-25-22 More than 5 million children have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19
Over six months in 2021, the number of children who experienced such loss almost doubled. An estimated 5.2 million children worldwide have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19. The tally covers the beginning of the pandemic through October 2021, during which there were about 5 million deaths globally from COVID-19. With each reported death, at least one child became orphaned — losing one or both parents — or experienced the loss of a caregiver, such as a grandparent or other adult relative that lived in the home, researchers report online February 24 in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. Of the more than 3 million children who became orphans, just over 2 million were 10 to 17 years old, nearly 740,000 were ages 5 to 9, and almost 500,000 were 4 years old or younger. Close to 800,000 children lost their mothers. The fathers of more than 2.5 million children died of COVID-19. The international research team’s calculations are based on an analysis of reported COVID-19 deaths, excess deaths that occurred during the pandemic (those beyond what would be expected without a pandemic) and other data from 21 countries. Previously, the team had estimated that from March 2020 through April 2021, 1.5 million children lost a parent or caregiver as a result of COVID-19 (SN: 8/10/21). The researchers adjusted that total to 2.7 million, based on updated mortality data. That means that over the six months from May through October 2021, the number of children who lost a parent or caregiver due to COVID-19 almost doubled, from 2.7 million to 5.2 million. The death of a parent or caregiver can harm the long-term health and well-being of children (SN: 10/27/21). “Our findings suggest an urgent need for pandemic responses to prioritize children affected by deaths of parents and caregivers,” the researchers write, with approaches tailored to the age- and circumstance-dependent risks that children face. For example, studies have found that orphaned adolescents are more likely to leave school and report symptoms of depression than those who aren’t orphans.
2-25-22 Antibiotic-resistant superbug has a protein coat like chain mail
The outer coat of the antibiotic-resistant bacterium Clostridium difficile has a structure similar to chain mail that stops drugs and immune system cells from killing it. A bacterium called Clostridium difficile is known as a superbug for its incredible resistance to antibiotics, which may be due to the fact that its outer protein coat has a structure akin to chain mail. This coating may protect the bacterium from drugs and the immune system’s defences. “This armour is made of proteins organised in an ordered but adjustable lattice, like a chain mail – strong but flexible,” says Paula Salgado at Newcastle University in the UK. “It’s very tightly packed, with very narrow openings that would prevent antibiotics and immune system molecules from entering the cells.” C. difficile is found at low levels in some healthy people, but antibiotic treatment of people in hospital can disrupt the balance of bacteria in their guts, enabling the antibiotic-resistant bacterium to overgrow and cause infections. Toxins released by the bacterium can cause damaging inflammation in the gut, leading to diarrhoea – which can be fatal. The infection is usually treated by stopping the original antibiotic treatment and switching to a course of antibiotics that are effective against the bacterium. But bacteria constantly evolve to resist antibiotics, so new methods are needed. Until now, the search for new treatments has been limited by a lack of understanding of C. difficile’s protective coat, called the S-layer. “Our work is the first step in a better understanding of the S-layer, how it might help C. difficile resist antibiotics and the immune system,” says Salgado. She and her colleagues took high-resolution images of the S-layer structure at the atomic level. They found that the coat is made of two proteins that assemble to form a compact lattice that envelops the bacterial cell and anchors to the cell wall. The pores in the protein chain mail are too small to let in larger molecules – including antimicrobial enzymes and antibiotics – but small molecules and ions can pass through./p>
2-25-22 A chain mail–like armor may shield C. difficile from some antibiotics
The finding may help researchers identify new ways to treat infections. Chain mail–like armor may help keep one superbug safe from bacteria-killing medicines. Clostridioides difficile bacteria are notorious for taking over the guts of people who have taken antibiotics to treat other infections. If the antibiotic clears out too many good bacteria, the loss can throw the gut’s microbial system out of whack and allow diarrhea-causing C. difficile to take over (SN: 10/16/14). And C. difficile itself is resistant to many antibiotics, making the nearly half a million infections in the United States each year hard to treat. That antibiotic resistance may arise because the medicines have a tough time breaking through the superbug’s nearly impenetrable outer barrier, researchers report February 25 in Nature Communications. That barrier, called the S-layer, can also prevent penetration of an enzyme that host cells make to kill bacteria, preventing death of the infectious invader. Using X-ray crystallography and electron microscopy, structural microbiologist Paula Salgado of Newcastle University in England and colleagues zeroed in on the main protein that makes up C. difficile’s S-layer, called SlpA. The closeup view revealed tightly linked proteins with minuscule gaps that looked like medieval knights’ chain mail. Because the gaps are so small, few molecules (such as antibiotics) can pass through. C. diff’s outer barrier is “flexible, but strong at the same time,” Salgado says. Removing a region of the S-layer called D2 made C. diff cells susceptible to lysozyme, an enzyme typically found in saliva that tears open microbes’ exteriors, the team found. Understanding how SlpA forms the S-layer could help researchers find new ways — such as poking holes in its chain mail — to treat C. difficile infections, which can come back time and time again. One out of six people have a second infection. “If we have drugs to target C. diff specifically,” Salgado says, “then [we could] break that cycle.”
2-25-22 50 years ago, freezing sperm faced scientific skepticism
Excerpt from the February 26, 1972 issue of Science News. Many men contemplating vasectomies have been depositing a quantity of their semen with sperm banks where, for a fee, it is frozen and stored.… There is wide disagreement on the length of time that sperm may be frozen and then thawed and used successfully to impregnate a woman, with estimates ranging from only 16 months to as much as 10 years. The ability to freeze sperm has helped make parenthood possible for millions of people, including infertile or same-sex couples and people who have undergone cancer treatment (SN: 6/19/21, p. 16). Sperm-freezing methods have improved since the 1970s, and studies have shown that frozen sperm can remain viable for many years, even decades. The rate of live births from sperm frozen for up to 15 years at a sperm bank in China was similar to rates from sperm stored for much shorter periods, scientists reported in 2019. In 2013, U.S. researchers reported the birth of healthy twins who were conceived using sperm that had been frozen for about 40 years.
2-24-22 DIY treatments and clinical trials – one person’s tale of long covid
On Body Politic’s covid-19 support group, which uses the app Slack, my username says it all. I am MBCaschetta_May2020. I caught covid-19 on 15 May 2020 and I have been battling long-term symptoms ever since: lung pain, muscle weakness, brain fog, debilitating exhaustion and a perpetually sore throat. Despite the promise of new treatments, for those who have been suffering for years, interventions still feel far away. So, what is a long hauler to do? All around the world, desperados like me are entering research trials of treatments that have proven efficacious in other diseases whose symptoms resemble those of long covid. I have enrolled in a clinical trial at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I will strap on a pair of scuba diver-like trousers with pockets that will circulate warm water around my lower extremities. My heat therapy will take 40 minutes, five days a week, for eight weeks. The team will look out for improvements in a battery of chemical markers measured at the start of the trial. The trial’s coordinator, Corinna Serviente, says that heat therapy has improved muscle function and the health of blood vessels in other conditions and in healthy people, and may also work to relieve muscle aches and fatigue in long covid. So far, only two people, both in their 70s, have participated. It is too soon to tell whether their markers suggest any improvement, or if they feel any better. There are many other trials targeting the multitude of symptoms associated with long covid. For instance, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, are investigating hyperbaric oxygen therapy, in which you breathe pure oxygen in a pressurised environment. Under these conditions, the lungs gather more oxygen than normal, which is thought to promote healing, decrease inflammation and encourage better oxygen supply after the therapy is completed. The team hopes it may improve people’s shortness of breath or difficulties exercising.
2-24-22 Brain cells that regulate wakefulness may become overactive with age
Brain cells that promote wakefulness fire too much in older mice, which may explain why many people find it harder to sleep as we get older. It may get harder to sleep as we get older because neurons that promote wakefulness in the brain become overactive, a study in mice suggests. Poor sleep in older people is a major issue. “More than 50 per cent over the age of 65 have complained about their sleep,” says Luis de Lecea at Stanford University in California. “This jumps to 80 per cent of patients with neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It’s a very serious problem.” Beyond worsening quality of life, poor sleep has also been linked to the development of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. De Lecea and his colleagues analysed a set of neurons in the hypothalamus of mouse brains that produce a protein called hypocretin. These neurons have been implicated in wakefulness in both humans and mice. The researchers suspected that this circuit may be involved in older people having worse sleep because the number of hypocretin neurons in the hypothalamus declines with age in mice and humans. “As many as 20 per cent of these neurons die in older people,” says de Lecea. Like older humans, older mice also have a more disrupted sleep pattern – even though the two species have very different sleeping habits. When comparing this set of neurons in young and old mice, they found that the hypocretin neurons in the older mice fired more easily – which is known as being hyperexcitable – and were therefore overactive. When they treated the older mice with a drug that reduced the neurons’ hyperexcitability, their sleep quality improved. De Lecea says he has no idea what may be causing this hyperexcitability in the first place, but since hypocretin neurons are also present in humans and have the same function, this gives us a potential drug target for people.
2-24-22 Largest ever family tree of humanity reveals our species' history
A genealogy of humans constructed from thousands of genomes gives us clues about where our species first evolved and how we spread across the world. Meet your relatives. A family tree of humanity has been constructed using genetic data from thousands of modern and prehistoric people. The tree gives a view of 2 million years of prehistory and evolution. “Humans are all ultimately related to each other,” says Gil McVean at the University of Oxford in the UK. “What I’ve long wanted to do is to be able to represent the totality of what we can learn about human history through this genealogy.” The new family tree suggests that our earliest roots were in north-east Africa. It also offers clues that people reached Papua New Guinea and the Americas tens of thousands of years earlier than the archaeological record implies, hinting at early migrations that have not yet been discovered. However, both these ideas would need to be confirmed by archaeologists. Geneticists have been reading people’s entire genomes for the past two decades. McVean and his colleagues compiled 3609 complete genomes, almost all of which belonged to our species Homo sapiens – except for three Neanderthals and one from the Denisovan group, which may be a subspecies of Homo sapiens or a separate species. Putting them together into a tree was challenging. “The different data sets have been produced over time, using different technologies, analysed in different ways,” says McVean. The team focused on bits of DNA that vary from person to person. They identified 6,412,717 variants and tried to figure out when and where each one arose. To do this, they also looked at an additional 3589 ancient DNA samples, which weren’t good enough to include in the tree, but did shed light on when the variants emerged. Variants that emerged before 72,000 years ago were most common in north-east Africa, and the oldest 100 variants also centred there – specifically in Sudan. Those oldest variants are about 2 million years old, so they long predate our species, which is around 300,000 years old. Instead, the variants date to the earliest members of our genus, Homo.
2-24-22 Life may actually flash before your eyes on death - new study
New data from a scientific "accident" has suggested that life may actually flash before our eyes as we die. A team of scientists set out to measure the brainwaves of an 87-year-old patient who had developed epilepsy. But during the neurological recording, he suffered a fatal heart attack - offering an unexpected recording of a dying brain. It revealed that in the 30 seconds before and after, the man's brainwaves followed the same patterns as dreaming or recalling memories. Brain activity of this sort could suggest that a final "recall of life" may occur in a person's last moments, the team wrote in their study, published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience on Tuesday. Dr Ajmal Zemmar, a co-author of the study, said that what the team, then based in Vancouver, Canada, accidentally got, was the first-ever recording of a dying brain. He told the BBC: "This was actually totally by chance, we did not plan to do this experiment or record these signals." So will we get a glimpse back at time with loved ones and other happy memories? Dr Zemmar said it was impossible to tell. "If I were to jump to the philosophical realm, I would speculate that if the brain did a flashback, it would probably like to remind you of good things, rather than the bad things," he said. "But what's memorable would be different for every person." Dr Zemmar, now a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville, said in the 30 seconds before the patient's heart stopped supplying blood to the brain, his brainwaves followed the same patterns as when we carry out high-cognitive demanding tasks, like concentrating, dreaming or recalling memories. It continued 30 seconds after the patient's heart stopped beating - the point at which a patient is typically declared dead. "This could possibly be a last recall of memories that we've experienced in life, and they replay through our brain in the last seconds before we die." The study also raises questions about when, exactly, life ends - when the heart stops beating, or the brain stops functioning.
2-24-22 Pedestrian-friendly cities have lower rates of diabetes and obesity
A review of 170 studies finds consistent evidence that people are less likely to be obese or have diabetes if they live in cities where walking and cycling is safe and convenient. Diabetes and obesity rates can be reduced by transforming towns and cities into places where it is safe and convenient to walk, cycle or take public transport rather than drive. Gillian Booth at the University of Toronto and her colleagues scoured more than 170 previous studies and discovered consistent evidence that people who live in areas where walking and cycling are practical options are more active and less likely to have diabetes or obesity. One large study that Booth’s team considered involved 32,767 people and found that the prevalence of obesity among adults living in pedestrian-friendly towns and cities was 43 per cent, compared with 53 per cent of those living in areas where walking was a less practical option. Another study that involved analysing the blood of 1.1 million adults also demonstrated the benefits of pedestrian-friendly areas. People with normal blood sugar levels at the beginning of the study were 20 per cent more likely to show symptoms of pre-diabetes eight years later if they lived in areas judged less friendly for pedestrians. According to the charity Diabetes UK, the National Health Service spends £10 billion a year treating diabetes, which is about 10 per cent of its budget. The NHS estimates that a quarter of UK adults are obese and predicts that the annual cost of treating the condition will reach £9.7 billion by 2050. Making towns and cities safer and more convenient to walk in could be a cost-effective way to tackle these dual epidemics. Booth says the study shows there is a role for prevention as well as treatment with these conditions, and that “unchecked urban sprawl” that leaves people reliant on cars is part of the problem that needs to be tackled. She believes the solution is a package of measures including higher-density living with shops and services within walking distance, more bike and footpaths and better public transport.
2-24-22 Africa’s oldest human DNA helps unveil an ancient population shift
Long-distance mate seekers started staying closer to home about 20,000 years ago. Ancient Africans in search of mates traded long-distance travels for regional connections starting about 20,000 years ago, an analysis of ancient and modern DNA suggests. That shift occurred after treks across much of Africa to find breeding partners had been the norm starting at least 50,000 years ago, the same analysis shows. These new findings — helped by several examples of the oldest human DNA from Africa isolated to date — offer the first genetic support for a previously suspected change in mating patterns around that time. These newly identified, long-distance movements of ancient human groups help explain archaeological discoveries of common types of stone and bone toolmaking and other cultural behaviors that increasingly appeared across much of Africa beginning about 50,000 years ago, evolutionary geneticist Mark Lipson of Harvard Medical School and colleagues report February 23 in Nature. Starting around that time, inherited sets of gene variants became increasingly similar in ancient individuals found in central, eastern and southern regions of sub-Saharan Africa, the researchers report. This suggests that this area was a genetic melting pot, in which hunter-gatherers migrated between the three regions, mating with each other along the way. Comparisons of ancient human DNA to that of present-day hunter-gatherers and herders in the same three parts of Africa indicate that people generally stopped traveling outside their home regions to find mating partners about 20,000 years ago, the team says. People may have stayed closer to home at least partly because the last ice age peaked around that time, reducing the number of areas harboring enough edible plants, animals and other resources needed to survive, says Yale University bioarchaeologist and study coauthor Jessica Thompson.
2-24-22 The Age of Dinosaurs may have ended in springtime
Fossilized fish from North Dakota suggest when the Chicxulub asteroid strike devastated Eart. About 66 million years ago, a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid slammed into Earth and not long afterward, all nonbird dinosaurs, as well as many other species on land and in the sea, perished. Scientists don’t know the exact year of the strike, but researchers now say they have determined the impact’s season — springtime in the Northern Hemisphere. The finding comes from a new analysis of the bones of ancient fish entombed at an extraordinary site dubbed Tanis in southwestern North Dakota, the researchers report February 23 in Nature. Pinning down the season of the impact may help researchers explain the global pattern of survival of birds, small mammals and other creatures following the strike. For example, creatures that spend the winters in burrows underground would have emerged and been active during a Northern Hemisphere spring, rendering them especially vulnerable. By contrast, in a Southern Hemisphere autumn, these creatures probably would have been settling in for a season-long nap and perhaps were more protected. Discovered in 2008, sediments at Tanis purportedly capture the flooding of a riverbed and other destruction that happened there in the immediate aftermath of the Chicxulub impact, which took place 3,000 kilometers away off the coast of what’s now Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula (SN: 4/2/19; SN: 1/25/17). Previous work has also suggested that some of the fossilized Tanis fish have tiny spherules — solidified globs of molten and vaporized rock that had been flung skyward from the asteroid impact — stuck in their gills, a strong sign that the fish were still living and breathing as hell rained down on them. “These creatures died incredibly close to the moment that debris was coming down,” says Thomas Holtz Jr., a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Maryland in College Park who was not involved in the new study.
2-23-22 Long covid – the best thing that ever happened to functional disorders
TOO many people are ill and can’t be properly treated. They have “functional disorders” like myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), aka chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), that are life-altering and often disabling, but with unclear causes. Doctors struggle to find anything out of the ordinary in blood tests and other investigations. All they can do is try to relieve symptoms. Now, tens of millions have developed a functional disorder at the same time: long covid. This can set in after infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and last for months or even years. Despite being initially dismissed by many doctors, people with long covid have campaigned for the illness to be recognised and studied. Researchers have now identified possible underlying causes, and are devising and testing treatments, some of which may be in use this year. This will have felt like a protracted wait for many of those with long covid, but is still an incredibly fast turnaround. Other functional disorders need the same attention. In some cases, like ME/CFS, we have clues to what is going on, even if that hasn’t yet led to treatments. Others, like fibromyalgia, a condition of widespread pain, are more mysterious. Diagnoses may be umbrella descriptions, hiding a range of physical goings-on that manifest as similar symptoms. But “unexplained” doesn’t mean “unexplainable”. There is evidence many conditions can be traced back to infections with mild initial symptoms. Long covid isn’t the only post-viral condition: for example, there is also a post-Ebola syndrome. Multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nervous system condition, seems almost exclusively to arise in people infected with the Epstein-Barr virus behind glandular fever, or “mono”. Functional disorders have been neglected for too long, despite their toll on people’s well-being and society. The research momentum that has built up around long covid offers hope to the millions of people who have it, but also to millions with other functional disorders. Long covid looks like proof that these conditions, if they are pursued with enough determination and rigour, can be understood and properly treated.
2-23-22 We're closing in on the causes of long covid and possible treatments
Tens of millions of people have long covid. We are finally beginning to understand the mechanisms behind the disease - and medicines are probably less than a year away. LAUREN NICHOLS first fell ill on 10 March 2020. Her symptoms started with crushing fatigue, swiftly followed by headaches, brain fog and agonising gastrointestinal pain. “My oesophagus was incredibly painful,” she says. “Every time I took a breath of air, every time I spoke, I wanted to die.” Her doctor diagnosed bad acid reflux. Nichols had an inkling it was covid-19, and later tested positive, but her symptoms didn’t run their course in a couple of weeks, as official advice at the time stated. Two years down the line, she is still waiting for relief. She isn’t alone. Alongside the 5.8 million people confirmed to have died from the coronavirus, tens of millions more have long covid: a lingering condition with symptoms that last for months or years. These “long haulers” are still experiencing the ill effects of infection, often with little help from doctors. “They still aren’t listening to patients,” says Nichols, who is now vice president of Body Politic, an international advocacy group currently focusing on covid-19. Despite a lack of funding and attention from governments, two years into the pandemic, long covid is beginning to reveal its secrets. “Scientists are working around the clock to try to understand what’s going on,” says Akiko Iwasaki at Yale University. Not only are we starting to appreciate why some people remain ill after infection while others are left with barely a sniffle, we are making sense of what is happening in the body – and with that, the ways to treat and even prevent it. The first whispers of a lingering condition associated with covid-19 started within months of the disease emerging. Some people who had been infected with SARS-CoV-2 reported that they couldn’t get better. The multitude of symptoms varied from person to person and changed over time in unpredictable ways.
2-23-22 Dog owners are half as likely to develop a disability in older age
Older adults who own a dog have a much lower risk of cognitive and physical disabilities, but those who own a cat don’t have the same benefit. People who own a dog have a much lower risk of disability in older age – but cat owners don’t seem to be protected in the same way. Unsurprisingly, the benefit is lost if you don’t walk your dog – or take part in another form of exercise – more than once a week. Yu Taniguchi at the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Tsukuba, Japan, and his colleagues asked around 11,000 people aged 65 to 84 years old if they currently or previously owned a cat or dog. The researchers then tracked the onset of cognitive and physical disability in the participants for 3.5 years between 2016 to 2020. They found that current dog owners who exercised more than once a week were around half as likely to develop a disability compared with people who had never owned a dog, even when controlling for age, sex, income and health factors such as smoking, diet and cardiovascular disease. The team also found that people who owned dogs in the past had around a 10 per cent lower risk of disability compared with those who had never owned a dog. “Dog walking is a moderate-intensity physical activity that appears to have a protective effect in reducing the risk of disability onset,” says Taniguchi. Around 13 per cent of dogs in the UK aren’t walked daily according to a 2019 survey by veterinary charity the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, putting the animals at risk of obesity and poor mental health. Meanwhile, current and former cat owners were just as likely as people who had never owned a cat to develop a disability. But owning a dog had no effect on people’s likelihood of dying in the study period – and neither did owning a cat.
2-23-22 Science needs to address its imagination problem - lives depend on it
Almost 200 people died in the German floods of 2021 because experts couldn’t convince them of impending danger. We must rethink how to get through to the public, says hydrologist Hannah Cloke. IMAGINATION is one of those powerful human traits that sets us apart from other animals. By reading the word “circus”, your brain automatically conjures up a rich tableau of images and ideas. But you don’t need to be daydreaming of clowns to know that imagination plays a vital role in science. The advancement of this domain intrinsically requires the birth of new ideas. Einstein famously claimed that imagination was more important than knowledge in the formulation of his theories. When researchers test ideas against reality, imagination is hardwired into the process: the point of science is that it allows you to see the future, to look round corners, to extend the capability of human insight. In that sense, imagination in science is alive and well. But in another sense, it has an imagination problem. I recently gave evidence to two state-level inquiries in Germany into the July 2021 floods in the west of the country. Both inquiries are exploring why almost 200 people died there in a deluge that was forecast accurately several days in advance. It is a complicated question that will probably yield many answers. I believe a lack of imagination may be partly behind this. The scientists couldn’t imagine that their forecasts, delivered in good time and with accuracy, could be ignored. Municipal authorities couldn’t imagine that such dire forecasts might be correct. And many of the people living in harm’s way just couldn’t imagine what a 9-metre wall of water would do, or how badly they would be affected. The best scientists use many of their human abilities – imagination and creativity, collaboration, communication and empathy – to make discoveries and reach new insights. Yet when it comes to telling people about them, we can turn into robots, unable to deliver important messages.
2-23-22 Baby boomers are the unhappiest generation in the UK
People born between 1946 and 1964 reported lower happiness than other cohorts in surveys spanning 16 years – probably because the size of the group means more competition. Baby boomers are the least happy generation in the UK despite being one of the most well-off, new research shows. The main reason for this appears to be their sheer number, which has led to competition for jobs, houses, partners and everything else. Yiwan Ye and Xiaoling Shu at the University of California, Davis, analysed data from a social survey that is conducted every two years in the UK to gauge people’s happiness and examine other social trends. The data spanned 2002 to 2018 and involved more than 19,000 people across the UK. They found that baby boomers – people born between 1946 and 1964 – were the unhappiest generation over the 16-year survey period. When asked, “taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?”, 17 per cent of boomers reported being unhappy, meaning they selected a score of 5 or below on a scale running from 0 to 10. The happiest generations were the youngest and oldest. Only 10 per cent of Gen Zers, born between 1997 and 2012, and just 12 per cent of the “Greatest” generation, born between 1900 and 1927, said they were unhappy. This hints that baby boomers may be less happy because they are at a tricky middle age – possibly struggling with retirement or the triple demands of children, grandchildren and elderly parents. But Ye says this isn’t the case, because they were also unhappiest when the survey began in 2002 and some were only in their late 30s then. Moreover, the generations above were happier when they were the age that boomers are now. So what’s going on? Ye and Shu’s analysis found that cohort size was the biggest predictor of happiness, accounting for 48 per cent of the variation between generations. The large size of the boomer generation seems to have made it the most miserable.
2-22-22 There are neurons in the brain that only seem to respond to singing
Electrical recordings from the auditory cortex of 15 people identified brain cells that specifically respond when we listen to singing. Humans may have neurons whose main job is to process singing. Scientists have previously found neurons that are selective for speech and music, suggesting that our brains have specific cells that handle different types of sounds we hear. Sam Norman-Haignere at the University of Rochester, New York, and his colleagues recorded brain electrical activity from 15 people while they listened to 165 different sounds. These included music, speech, animal calls and the sound of a flushing toilet. The participants already had electrodes implanted into their heads, as they were in hospital for epilepsy treatment, which enabled the researchers to get more precise data compared with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. With these recordings, the researchers discovered a population of neurons that seemed to respond nearly exclusively to singing, although they also had a very small response to speech and instrumental music. “This work suggests there’s a distinction in the brain between instrumental music and vocal music,” says Norman-Haignere, although the researchers didn’t test whether the neurons also responded to spoken word or rap music. They overlaid these results with fMRI data from 30 other people who listened to the same sounds so that they could map the neurons to a specific region of the brain. The “singing” neurons were located roughly between the music and speech-selective areas of the auditory cortex. The researchers don’t know why we would have such neurons. “It could have been due to some evolutionary role,” says Norman-Haignere. “Many people think that singing has some important role in the evolution of music.”
2-22-22 Fossils show a crocodile ancestor dined on a young dinosaur
The new evidence confirms what scientists have long suspected. For the first time, scientists have found indisputable evidence that an ancient crocodile ancestor chowed down on a dinosaur. Preserved within a fossilized crocodyliform, a member of a newfound species dubbed Confractosuchus sauroktonos, are the partially digested remains of a juvenile bipedal ornithopod, paleontologist Matt White of the University of New England in Australia and colleagues report February 10 in Gondwana Research. Crocodyliforms include modern species like crocodiles and alligators as well as their ancestors. Those ancestors lived alongside dinosaurs for millions of years, and previous evidence, such as bite marks on fossilized dinosaur bones, has hinted that croc ancestors dined on dinosaurs when the opportunity arose (SN: 10/24/01). But fossils with actual preserved stomach contents are extremely rare (SN: 8/10/20). In fact, C. sauroktonos is only the second extinct crocodyliform fossil with identifiable stomach contents — and the first to reveal a meal of dinosaur. C. sauroktonos was about 2.5 meters long — slightly smaller than an adult female American alligator — and lived between 104 million and 92.5 million years ago in what is now Queensland, Australia. Similarities between the creature’s skull features and those of living and extinct crocodyliforms suggest that it didn’t just eat dinos. C. sauroktonos probably cast a wide net when it came to seeking out prey. As for the grisly contents of its gut — including a few ribs and bits of leg and arm bone — they represent the first ornithopod ever found in Queensland’s Winton rock formation. The herbivorous dino may also be a new species, although it’s difficult to tell from these few pieces, the team says.
2-22-22 Pterosaur fossil from Scotland is largest Jurassic flier ever found
A 170-million-year-old pterosaur found on the Isle of Skye off the north-west coast of Scotland had a wingspan of about 2.5 metres, making it the largest known winged reptile from the Jurassic. An exceptionally well-preserved pterosaur fossil, unearthed on a Scottish island, represents the largest flying reptile ever discovered from the Jurassic Period. With a wingspan of approximately 2.5 metres, an aerodynamic head and upper and lower teeth that criss-crossed each other like the stiff hairs on the leaf of a Venus flytrap, the new species provides evidence that pterosaurs started getting larger at a much earlier point in prehistory than previously thought. The newly named 170-million-year-old Dearc sgiathanach was about the size of a modern albatross, says Natalia Jagielska at the University of Edinburgh, UK. “This is the first time in the very long history [of UK pterosaur research] that we have found a skull and the body attached, and especially representing a species and a time period that’s so poorly understood,” says Jagielska. “So it’s super, super exciting to be making history in terms of research.” Pterosaurs evolved 230 million years ago during the Triassic Period as small, flying reptiles. But by the Cretaceous Period – when popular terrestrial dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops roamed – pterosaurs such as Quetzalcoatlus had grown to the size of modern fighter jets with 12-metre-wide wingspans. “In between, there is just this lack of information,” says Jagielska, referring specifically to the Middle Jurassic, around 174 million to 164 million years ago. Few pterosaur fossils from this time are left worldwide – probably because climatic conditions weren’t favourable for their preservation. Scientists had generally assumed that pterosaurs remained small at this time, with wingspans of no more than 1.8 metres, before becoming larger at the very end of the Jurassic and into the Cretaceous, she says.
2-22-22 Fossil of largest Jurassic pterosaur found on Skye
The world's largest Jurassic pterosaur - a 170-million-year-old winged reptile - has been found protruding from the rocks of the Isle of Skye. PhD student Amelia Penny spotted its sharp-toothed jaw in a layer of ancient limestone on Skye's coast. That initial discovery, in 2017, has now been followed up with detailed examination of the fossil skeleton. Those studies, published in the journal Current Biology, show the flying lizard had a 2.5m (8ft) wingspan. The research, led by PhD student Natalia Jagielska, also revealed the creature was a species new to science. It has now been given the Gaelic name Dearc sgiathanach (pronounced Jark Ski-an-Ach), which translates as "winged reptile". Researchers from the Hunterian Museum, in Glasgow, and the Staffin Museum, on Skye, had to extract the rock slab entombing the fossil - a painstaking process and noisy process racing the incoming tide - and bring it to the University of Edinburgh. But it was well worth the effort. "Dearc is a fantastic example of why palaeontology will never cease to be astounding," Ms Jagielska said. "Pterosaur fossils as complete as this are very rare. "As flying animals, their bones are really light, just like today's birds. "That makes them incredibly fragile and so they don't usually preserve as fossils." The remarkable condition and completeness of this specimen - particularly the detail preserved in its skull - has already allowed scientists from the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews and National Museums Scotland, where the fossil will be displayed and studied further, to conclude Dearc had good eyesight. "We look forward to studying Dearc in greater detail to discover more about how it lived and its behaviour," Ms Jagielska added. Prof Steve Brusatte, of the University of Edinburgh, who was leading the Isle of Skye field trip, called it "a superlative Scottish fossil". "The preservation is amazing, far beyond any pterosaur ever found in Scotland and probably the best British skeleton found since the days of [fossil hunter] Mary Anning in the early 1800s," he said. And its size "tells us that pterosaurs got larger much earlier than we thought, long before the Cretaceous period when they were competing with birds, and that's hugely significant".
2-18-22 Malawi finds Africa’s first wild polio case in five years
Malawi has declared a wild polio outbreak after a case was identified in a three-year-old girl - the first of its kind in Africa for more than five years. The continent was declared free of all forms of wild polio in 2020. The Malawian authorities are now working to contain any possible spread including by boosting immunisation. Wild polio remains endemic in only two countries in the world - Afghanistan and Pakistan. The strain that was identified in Malawi was linked to one found in Pakistan, but it is not clear how or when it arrived in the southern African country. The case was confirmed after tests were carried out on samples from the infected child who was suffering from paralysis, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Polio usually affects children under five, sometimes leading to irreversible paralysis. Death can occur when breathing muscles are affected. Twenty-five years ago thousands of children in Africa were paralysed by the virus. But following a mass vaccination campaign across the continent 95% of the population has been immunised. There is no cure but the polio vaccine protects children for life. As the case came from Pakistan, it does not affect the continent's wild poliovirus-free status, the World Health Organization (WHO) says. Wild polio is caught from the environment, but there is another type of polio linked to the oral vaccine (which contains live, weakened virus) that is equally worrying. It can linger in the gut, mutate and spread in areas where few people are vaccinated. There have been outbreaks of this form of polio in more than 20 African countries in recent years. But an injectable form of the vaccine is now used, containing dead virus, which does not lead to polio cases.
2-18-22 An anime convention in November was not an omicron superspreader event
Vaccines, ventilation and other measures probably prevented the virus’ spread, two studies say. A large anime fan convention held in New York City last November was not an omicron superspreading event despite cases of the highly contagious variant linked to the gathering, researchers report in two studies in the Feb. 18 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Vaccination and masking requirements, social distancing and improved ventilation at the event venue probably reduced transmission, the researchers say. The event also benefitted from timing, as it occurred at the very beginning of the city’s omicron wave when community transmission was low. In early December, the Minnesota public health department sounded the alarm about Anime NYC, a convention celebrating Japanese comics and cartoons that drew attendees from across the United States and 30 other countries. The state agency had identified that Peter McGinn, a Minnesota resident, had attended the event while infected with omicron. This was only the second omicron case identified in the United States — and media reports labeled the 53,000-person convention as a potential superspreader event when several of McGinn’s friends, who had also attended the convention, tested positive. But two parallel investigations into the convention failed to find any omicron transmission outside of this group. Contact tracers interviewed McGinn as well as 22 of the 29 friends in his convention group and their household contacts. Meanwhile, a second group of researchers used data from convention organizers to search state and local health databases for positive coronavirus tests among event attendees. The search turned up 4,560 results, 119 (or 2.6 percent) of which were positive. Among those 119 attendees, only 16 cases were tied to McGinn and his friends. Five of the 16 cases were sequenced, and all were identified as omicron. Outside of that cluster, 15 other sequenced cases were identified as delta.
2-18-22 The world’s oldest pants stitched together cultures from across Asia
Move over, Versace. These 3,000-year-old pants were stylish, functional and multicultural. What little rain that falls on a gravelly desert located in western China’s Tarim Basin evaporates as it hits the blistering turf. Here, in this parched wasteland, lie the ancient remains of people who made one of the biggest fashion splashes of all time. Herders and horse riders who buried their dead in the Tarim Basin’s Yanghai graveyard pioneered pants making between roughly 3,200 and 3,000 years ago. Their deft combination of weaving techniques and decorative patterns — displaying influences from societies across Eurasia — yielded a pair of stylish yet durable trousers now recognized as the oldest such garment known in the world (SN: 5/30/14). Now, an international team of archaeologists, fashion designers, geoscientists, chemists and conservators has untangled how those trousers were made and painstakingly created a modern replica. The vintage slacks weave a tale not only of textile innovation but also of how cultural practices fanned out across Asia, the researchers report in the March Archaeological Research in Asia. “A diversity of textile techniques and patterns of different local origins, traditions and times merged into something new in this garment,” says archaeologist and project director Mayke Wagner of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. “Eastern Central Asia was a laboratory where people, plants, animals, knowledge and experiences from different directions and sources came … and were transformed.” One man brought the pants to scientists’ attention without uttering a word. His naturally mummified body, as well as the preserved bodies of more than 500 others, was uncovered during excavations conducted by Chinese archaeologists since the early 1970s at the Yanghai cemetery. Among those 119 attendees, only 16 cases were tied to McGinn and his friends. Five of the 16 cases were sequenced, and all were identified as omicron. Outside of that cluster, 15 other sequenced cases were identified as delta.
2-18-22 106-million-year-old virus found ‘fossilised’ in the human genome
The remnants of a virus that plagued our mammal ancestors during the age of the dinosaurs have been found lurking in our genomes. Around 106 million years ago, the DNA of a virus somehow got integrated into the genome of one of our mammal ancestors. Two million years later, something similar happened again with a closely related virus. Now, the ancient remnants of those viruses have been found inside our cells. “It’s kind of hiding in plain sight in the human genome,” says Aris Katzourakis at the University of Oxford. These two viral “fossils” are some of the oldest ever discovered, and possibly even the oldest. They are also rather unusual. Our genomes are strewn with “fossil” viruses, but almost all are retroviruses, which actively insert DNA copies of their RNA genes into the genomes of the cells they infect. If this happens in cells that give rise to sperm or eggs, this virus-derived DNA can be passed down the generations. Over time, the viral genes mutate and eventually can no longer give rise to infectious viruses. Between 5 and 10 per cent of our genome consists of retroviral remnants. The newly discovered viruses instead belong to an ancient group of DNA viruses called Mavericks. Fossil Mavericks have been found in various animals, including fish, amphibians and reptiles, but until now had never been found in mammals. The researchers think these viruses plagued mammals from the time these animals first evolved around 180 million years ago during the Jurassic Period until at least 105 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period, when the insertions took place. After that, Mavericks appear to have died out in mammals for reasons that aren’t clear. They might still infect other animals, such as fish, but as yet no free-living Maverick viruses have ever been found. “There aren’t that many non-retroviral viruses in our genome,” says Katzourakis. “This is the only DNA virus in the human genome that we know of, and it’s certainly the oldest non-retroviral insertion in our genomes.”
2-18-22 A technique borrowed from ecology hints at hundreds of lost medieval legends
Only about 9 percent of documents containing European tales from that time may have survived. King Arthur’s lasting renown is one for the books. But a statistical spotlight now shines on medieval European literature’s round table of lost and forgotten stories. An international team used a mathematical formula borrowed from ecology to estimate the extent to which medieval adventure and romance tales, and documents on which they were written, have been lost over the years. Only about 9 percent of these documents may have survived till modern times, the researchers found. These findings indicate that simple statistical principles can be used to gauge losses of a range of past cultural items, such as specific types of stone tools or ancient coins, literature professor Mike Kestemont of the University of Antwerp in Belgium and his colleagues report in the Feb. 18 Science. Their approach represents a simple but powerful tool for studying culture, says anthropologist Alex Bentley of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who did not participate in the study. “It’s like walking into an abandoned Amazon book warehouse decades later and estimating the total number of book titles based on the numbers of surviving single and double copies that you find.” Much medieval European literature, which dates to between roughly the years 600 and 1450, has been lost, and many surviving manuscripts are fragmentary. Durable parchment documents were often recycled as small boxes or for other practical uses. That has left researchers unsure about whether surviving tales and documents are representative of what once existed. Kestemont’s team turned to a formula developed by environmental statistician and study coauthor Anne Chao of National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. Chao’s statistical technique accounts for species that go undetected by researchers in field surveys of biological diversity. More generally, her approach can be used to estimate the number of unobserved events of any type that accompany relatively frequent observed events of the same type.
2-17-22 Your brain doesn't slow down until your 60s – later than we thought
Although people take longer to make decisions from age 20 onwards, this may not be due to a decline in the speed of information processing, a large study has found. Our ability to process information during decision-making doesn’t drop off until age 60, according to new findings that challenge the widespread belief that mental speed starts to decline in our 20s. Mischa von Krause at Heidelberg University in Germany and his colleagues analysed data collected from around 1.2 million people aged 10 to 80 who took part in an experiment that was originally designed to measure implicit racial bias. During the task, participants were asked to sort words and images, for example by labelling faces as white or Black, or classifying words such as “joy” or “agony” as good or bad, by pressing one of two buttons. In support of previous studies, the researchers found that people’s reaction times speed up from their teens to around age 20, then slow down as they get older. This decline has typically been attributed to slower mental speed, but this isn’t the case, says von Krause. The team used an established model of cognition based on previous research, which assumes people make decisions by continuously considering information until they reach a threshold of certainty. According to this model, the decrease in reaction time from age 20 is probably due to people wanting more certainty before making decisions as they age, visual information taking more time to travel from their eyes to their brain and people taking longer to physically hit the button as they get older. The analysis suggests that people’s mental speed increases in their 20s, and stays high until age 60. “Until older adulthood, the speed of information processing in the task we studied barely changes,” says von Krause. “People become more cautious in their decisions with increasing age – they try to avoid mistakes. At the same time, the motor processes – the pressing of the response keys in an experiment – slow down with increasing age.”
2-17-22 We have lost 90 per cent of the original copies of Medieval literature
A statistical tool borrowed from ecology suggests that there were originally 40,600 copies of stories about King Arthur and other western European heroes – but only 3648 survive. Nine in 10 medieval manuscripts telling tales of chivalry and heroism have been lost to time, according to a new estimate that uses ecological statistical models to understand the volume of literature produced. Katarzyna Anna Kapitan and Daniel Sawyer at the University of Oxford and their colleagues from around Europe borrowed the ecological concept of the “unseen species model” to understand the volume of medieval literature in the genre of narrative fiction that once existed. These medieval texts include the famous stories of King Arthur and of Lancelot. An unseen species model is a statistical tool that ecologists can use to estimate biological diversity after surveying an area. Chances are that the survey won’t uncover all of the species in the area, but the model can use the number of observed species and their abundances to estimate how many additional species are present. “These models use the pattern of the observed evidence to estimate what we’re not seeing,” says Sawyer. In the manuscript study, the researchers looked at the number of surviving copies of each manuscript – which is a little bit like the abundance of a biological species. Their model states that once all copies are missing, the manuscript is lost – a little like a species vanishing from the study area. They gathered records of 3648 copies of 799 works written in Dutch, French, Icelandic, Irish, English and German. The model then suggested that these copies are part of a population that originally contained 40,614 copies of 1170 works. “It’s very valuable for our research that we’re stepping beyond the case studies that dominate our field,” says Kapitan – in other words, it is important to engage with the manuscripts that have been lost as well as those that survive.
2-17-22 Nudge theory’s popularity may block insights into improving society
Two scientists want their peers to dream big when it comes to changing societal behavior. Imagine removing a branch of the U.S. government, say the Supreme Court. What are the myriad ways that such an upheaval might reshape people’s lives? Policy makers and researchers probably would want to have an idea of what those effects might be before erasing the highest court in the land. But “you can’t test deep structural changes like that in an experiment” first, says behavioral decision–making expert David Gal of the University of Illinois Chicago. Likewise, less wildly hypothetical but perhaps still far-reaching changes to society, such as expanding Social Security or providing universal parental leave, can’t be tested with conventional experiments that include control and experimental groups. As a result, many behavioral scientists today have instead turned to researching “nudges” — smaller interventions that operate within existing policies. Nudges can influence human behavior, research suggests, and can be readily tested using experiments before being applied. But this recent overreliance on nudges has stifled broader behavioral science research and insights into how to create a better society, Gal and marketing expert Derek Rucker of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., contend January 12 in a commentary in Nature Reviews Psychology. Nudges exploded in popularity in 2008 when economist Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago and law professor Cass Sunstein of Harvard University published a book on the topic. That research netted Thaler a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences and inspired governments worldwide to set up nudge units to modify or create public policies (SN: 10/9/17; SN: 3/18/17). Examples of nudges include offering small cash rewards to encourage people to get a new vaccine or sending text reminders about a looming deadline. For instance, researchers recently revamped a court summons form and sent text reminders to get more people to attend mandatory court appointments in New York City. The intervention increased court attendance by roughly 20 percent over previous years, the researchers estimate (SN: 10/08/20).
2-16-22 Petrov’s flu review: A surreal journey through one man’s delirium
PETROV (Semyon Serzin) is riding a trolleybus home across the snowbound city of Yekaterinburg when a fellow passenger mutters that the rich deserve to be shot. Seconds later, the bus stops, Petrov is pulled onto the street and a rifle is pressed into his hands. Street executions follow. Then, he is back on the bus and it is unclear how much of that actually happened. Petrov’s Flu is an ambitious, mischievous film, one that is rich in allusions to Russian history, literature and cinema. It is also a painfully precise, gut-wrenching depiction of what it is like to run a high fever. Seeing everything from Petrov’s sick, disjointed point of view, we find the real world sliding away again and again, often into violent absurdity. Petrov’s fever gradually breaks over the course of the film, but it is a while before we can be confident about what is real and what isn’t: whether his friend, the drunken mischief-maker Igor (Yuri Kolokolnikov), is real and whether Sergey (Ivan Dorn), the struggling writer who browbeats poor Petrov on every point, is a figment of Petrov’s febrile imagination. At the start, Petrov’s Flu is very much a sci-fi movie. The city is languishing under an epidemic that arrived accompanied by lights in the sky; Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova), Petrov’s estranged wife, is possessed by a demonic alien force during a library poetry reading; UFO-themed street graffiti comes to life and wiggles across the screen. As reality and hallucination part company, however, it becomes something different: a film about parents and children; about creative work, pretension and ambition; and also, strongly, about Russia’s love of science fiction. At its birth, Western science fiction, and especially US science fiction, celebrated adventure and exploration. Russian sci-fi has always been more about finding and building homes in a hostile environment. It is also strongly religious in spirit, and was indeed for many years one of Russia’s very few outlets for spiritual expression. The aliens in Russian science fiction invariably offer some form of redemption to a struggling humanity, and Petrov’s Flu is no exception. One of the most affecting scenes in the film is when Petrov, overcome with fear, dashes with his son to a local hospital, only for the pair to be intercepted by a kindly UFO.
2-16-22 Map of pain neurons may lead to more effective drugs for chronic pain
An analysis of gene activity in pain neurons could help identify the most promising drug targets and reveal how pain pathways differ between men and women. A map of pain neurons in the body may help researchers develop more effective treatments for chronic pain. Alongside a second study that reveals the importance of an overlooked type of cell in the nervous system, the findings highlight how much we still have to learn about pain perception. Chronic pain, defined as that lasting 12 weeks or more, affects between one-third and a half of all adults in the UK. Globally, about 70 per cent of the people it impacts are women. With the world’s population getting older, finding new treatments and therapies is becoming more urgent because chronic pain is more prevalent in older groups. “A lot of pain studies have been conducted in mice and there’s been some lack of translation when it comes to looking for drug targets for humans,” says Diana Tavares-Ferreira at the University of Texas at Dallas. To learn more about the differences between species, she and her team mapped the pain neurons in eight deceased people who had donated their bodies to science and then compared these findings with data from mice and macaques. Pain signals are carried by specialised neurons with fibres that spread throughout the body, but the main parts of these cells are in clusters called dorsal root ganglia. “Many pain drug development projects are focused on targeting these peripheral neurons,” says Theodore Price at the University of Texas at Dallas, a co-author of the study. “These neurons are the source of pain for most chronic pain patients.” The team used a method called spatial transcriptomics to determine which genes are active in each cell. This showed that pain receptors in humans seem to be geared to respond to all kinds of pain, such as heat or mechanical pain, whereas rodent pain receptors are more specific. Learning more about these differences will help in the pursuit of drug candidates that are more likely to work in humans, says Price. “This is hopefully the start of many studies which produce more atlases that help us better understand the molecular architecture of the pain system in humans,” he says.
2-16-22 Lung with switched blood type is step towards universal donor organs
Using two enzymes, researchers changed a donated lung from type A to type O, which can be accepted by any recipient. Researchers have successfully changed the blood type of a donated human lung by treating it with enzymes, in an important step towards making universal donor organs. “We still have a way to go to show safety in clinical trials,” says Marcelo Cypel at the University of Toronto, Canada. “But assuming that the results on clinical trials are similar to the results we observed here, this will be a major breakthrough.” Blood types are largely defined by the presence or absence of certain sugar molecules called antigens on the surface of cells. These can occur not just on the cells of the blood itself, but also other tissues, such as those in the lung. If an antigen isn’t recognised by the body’s immune system, it will mount an attack on these cells. This leads to the rejection of transplanted organs from a donor with a different blood type. People with rare blood types often have to wait longer for transplants because the pool of potential donors is smaller, and some die while they are on the waiting list. People with the most common blood type, O, lack these antigens on their cells, so their organs can be accepted by people with other blood types. If all donor organs could be made type O, for example the lungs from someone with blood type A, this could be a help. To try this, Cypel and his team used a pair of enzymes that are normally found in the human gut to digest sugars. They found that the enzymes removed more than 99 per cent of type A antigens from red blood cells and 97 per cent from lungs from a type A donor in 4 hours. This meant the cells had been effectively changed to blood type O. After this treatment, the altered lungs were kept alive using a system known as ex-vivo lung perfusion, which supplies organs with nourishing fluid so they are ready for transplantation.
2-16-22 Why everything you thought you knew about posture is wrong
If you're worried that slouching is causing your back pain, think again. New evidence is overturning many common assumptions about posture, and rewriting the rules of how to sit and stand. HEAD up. Shoulders back. Sit up straight. No doubt you heard these commands as a child, and they have probably prompted you to sit or stand a little straighter right now. With UK adults spending half of the day in front of a screen, and millions experiencing backache, you would be forgiven for linking the two and being as concerned about your posture as your parents. “The public genuinely think that it’s dangerous to slouch. We have done multiple studies in different countries about this,” says Kieran O’Sullivan at the University of Limerick, Ireland, who specialises in back pain. To a legion of slouchers, then, it may come as a surprise to hear that clear evidence of what constitutes good posture and whether your deportment is harming you is only just coming to light. The revelations are overturning many common assumptions. New studies are unravelling the link between posture and pain, highlighting the problems that we really should care about and even identifying ways of sitting and standing that can boost our mood. So, sit back (slouch if you want) and prepare to have your ideas about posture turned on their head. The ideal posture is something that humans have been talking about since at least the Ancient Greeks – think of all those statues with athletic-looking physiques, standing upright, back straight. “Written evidence in the West begins with the Greeks, but in my fantasy, I can see some Neanderthal mother yelling at her kids to ‘stand up straight and stop looking like those Homo sapiens across the valley’,” says Sander Gilman at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, the author of Stand Up Straight! A history of posture.
2-16-22 Snooze it to lose it: Does sleeping more make you eat less?
That April is the cruellest month has yet to pass peer review, but there is little doubt February is the shortest. Feedback considers this just as well. Some of our more southerly readers may be sunning themselves on the beach, but in our pre-Arctic stationery cupboard hole, we are just waiting for the winter murk to clear. It is at this time of year, when we are thinking about getting fit for the bikini season and doing nothing about it, that we want to read, and not question too deeply, headlines such as our own “Getting enough sleep may lower the amount of calories you eat”. The study in question, from a team at the University of Chicago Sleep Research Center, found that an extra hour’s sleep at night allowed participants to cut their energy intake by 270 calories a day – “the equivalent of around three chocolate digestive biscuits”, as the Press Association helpfully put it in its story on the research. Why stop there? A comforting graph swims into our head of a rising line of hours not consuming calories, crossing over a falling line of calories consumed. The most effective weight-loss mechanism is surely to never get out of bed at all. As we take some horizontal exercise, a PR puff is popped our way by a svelte, overslept-looking colleague with a straw hanging from their nose. “To inspire those who struggle to reach their recommended daily intake of water, air up is a world first in food technology that utilises retronasal smell to provide a zero-calorie, zero sugar, zero additive way to drink 100% pure water which tastes flavoured,” we read. Flavours “from Lime and Orange-Passionfruit to Cola and Iced Coffee” are created by using a special widget to inject bubbles of scented air into the previously 100 per cent blameless water. “We’ve revolutionised the way we drink water. You still have to use your mouth, but the taste has changed!” the company’s website continues. A welcome release for those of us who had been attempting to discover flavour by snorting our water.
2-16-22 Could ancient viruses from melting permafrost cause the next pandemic?
Bacteria and viruses can survive for millions of years frozen in glaciers, ice sheets and permafrost and as global warming increases they are emerging. Here's what we know about the threat. IN NOVEMBER 2019, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine held a workshop to discuss an emerging disease threat. Not covid-19: they were a couple of months too early for that. Instead, they were trying to figure out what to do about microorganisms trapped in glaciers, ice sheets and permafrost, which will be released as the world warms and the ice thaws. During the meeting, Alexander Volkovitskiy from the Russian Academy of Sciences recounted an alarming incident. It took place in 2016 on the Yamal peninsula on Russia’s northern coast where local people herd hundreds of thousands of reindeer. That summer, temperatures were unseasonably warm and some of the permafrost thawed. The bacterium that causes anthrax – which had been present on the peninsula for over a century – emerged from the soil and spread like wildfire. Before the outbreak was brought under control, more than 2000 reindeer had perished. Dozens of people also caught the disease, including an unnamed boy who died. This story could be a harbinger of what is to come. As Earth’s icy regions thaw, long-dormant microbes will inevitably emerge. The organic matter in permafrost is teeming with them, and even glaciers and ice sheets aren’t the pristine environments once imagined. How likely is it that these microbes – some of which have been trapped for millions of years – will defrost and come back to life? If they do, what risk could they pose to humans? Might we even be exposed to ancient diseases that once infected Neanderthals and Denisovans? These are the questions we need to answer if we are to combat this latent threat.
2-16-22 Newly identified dinosaur had teeth that were constantly replaced
Iberospinus natarioi, a new species of spinosaur dinosaur found in Portugal, constantly grew new teeth to replace those it broke while hunting fish and other aquatic animals. A newly identified 8-metre-long predatory dinosaur probably waded in water waiting to ambush fish and other aquatic prey with its crocodile-like jaws and its constantly renewing, serrated teeth. Iberospinus natarioi represents a new genus and species of spinosaurid, a group of predatory dinosaurs that includes Spinosaurus. The spinosaurids are known for their long jaws, but they remain a bit mysterious because relatively few of their remains have been discovered. The I. natarioi fossils, unearthed during two field trips 21 years apart, now make up one of the world’s most complete specimens of the spinosaurids, says Dario Estraviz-López at Nova University Lisbon in Portugal. Scientists originally thought that the bones and teeth an amateur collector found on a western Portuguese peninsula in 1999 belonged to an already known spinosaurid called Baryonyx walkeri. But in 2019, a different team of scientists studying the fossils noticed that the bottom edge of the lower jaw seemed too flat for a Baryonyx, which usually has a more curved lower profile in this jaw. Inspired by those observations, Estraviz-López and his colleague Octávio Mateus at Lourinhã Museum in Portugal decided to re-examine the fossils. Their task was made easier because additional fossil bones belonging to the spinosaurid were uncovered in a 2020 excavation at the same site. They scanned teeth and various bones, including parts of a jaw, a shoulder blade, a femur, a foot bone, a pubic bone and several vertebrae, mostly from the tail. The pair realised the fossils didn’t match the descriptions and measurements of any previously known spinosaurid, says Estraviz-López. The flatter lower jaw gave it a bit more of a crocodilian look and it had distinctive grooves in the jaw where a complex system of nerves was originally located. The nerves probably helped the dinosaur sense its prey more effectively.
2-16-22 We seem to find people with a strong immune system more attractive
Previous research has shown that we are attracted to the body odour of people with better health, and now it seems the strength of your immune system is reflected in your face. Men and women are more physically attracted to the faces of people who have higher functioning immune systems that might protect them from diseases over their lifetimes. “There’s nothing inherently special or beautiful about a face that we find attractive, so the theoretical rationale is that there must be something over the thousands of years of evolution that has been consistently rewarded in our mate choice, and that we find these specific traits attractive,” says Summer Mengelkoch at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. “Perhaps it’s a cue to people’s genetic qualities, including their immune function and [the capacity to] pass on that good immune function down to their children.” Scientists had already determined that people are more attracted to the body odours of people of the opposite sex who have better health. However, studies that didn’t involve the detection of any bodily chemicals like smells have shown inconsistent links between attractiveness and health or immune function. To investigate further, Mengelkoch and her colleagues asked 159 men and women, averaging 20 years old, to pose for professional headshots in which they had neutral facial expressions and wore no make-up or jewellery. They asked these participants about their health, and tested their blood and plasma to check their immune functions. Next, they recruited another 492 men and women, averaging 25 years old, to rate 25 randomly selected photos. Both heterosexual and homosexual participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of people of the opposite sex, and participants weren’t asked about their gender. The team found that people with higher ratings of attractiveness also had higher rates of phagocytosis– essentially, of white blood cells that combat disease-causing bacteria such as Escherichia coli – a measure that was “pretty consistently related to facial attractiveness”, says Mengelkoch. These people also had lower counts of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell essential for phagocytosis, suggesting that their white blood cells were particularly efficient in their pathogen-fighting functions.
2-16-22 We may be unable to grow new brain cells after we enter adulthood
Several recent studies have led to the suggestion that humans can grow new neurons in some parts of the brain as adults, but the idea is being questioned after a close look at RNA in brain cells. Adults may be unable to grow new neurons in the brain – contrary to previous findings. The question of whether adults can form new neurons, called neurogenesis, has long been a source of controversy. While researchers have discovered adult neurogenesis in mice and macaques, any evidence of this ability in humans is less clear. The hippocampus, which has been linked with adult neurogenesis, is vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. This has led to arguments that adult neurogenesis may hold the key to treating these conditions. Jon Arellano and Pasko Rakic at Yale University and their colleagues examined the brains of six people, with an average age of 53, who had donated the organ to science. They also studied the brains of seven macaques and 18 pigs, and looked at data from studies of mouse brains. “There are two regions where neurogenesis occurs [in non-human animals],” says Arellano. “One is the olfactory bulb and the other is the hippocampus.” The human olfactory bulb, which is important for our sense of smell, is already considered to be incapable of adult neurogenesis, says Arellano, but there is still debate when it comes to the hippocampus. The researchers used a technique called single-nucleus RNA sequencing to study the hippocampal cells in the brain samples. This method targets the nuclear RNA molecules that can help turn DNA code into proteins and can characterise the cell – which can help establish its age. “You basically go to the cell, break the membrane of the cell and get the RNA that is inside the cell,” says Arellano. “It can give us information like 30 different genes in that cell which helps us better classify it.”
2-16-22 Covid-19 news: Vaccination halves risk of long covid, finds analysis
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. The chance of getting long covid are halved in those who are fully vaccinated, according to a review by the UK Health Security Agency. A review of 15 studies by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has found that people who are fully vaccinated against covid-19 are half as likely to develop long covid symptoms compared with those who are unvaccinated or have just received one dose. The UKHSA found that individuals who’d received two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca or Moderna vaccines, or one dose of the Janssen vaccine, were half as likely to develop long covid symptoms lasting more than 28 days than people who’d only received one vaccine dose or who were unvaccinated. The review found that the vaccines were most effective against long-term symptoms in people over 60 years-old. The review also found that unvaccinated individuals who had long covid and then got vaccinated were more likely to report an improvement in their symptoms than unvaccinated people with long covid who didn’t subsequently get vaccinated. The UKHSA’s Mary Ramsay said in a statement: “These studies add to the potential benefits of receiving a full course of the COVID-19 vaccination. Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself from serious symptoms when you get infected and may also help to reduce the longer-term impact.” A recent estimate suggests that around 2 per cent of the UK population were experiencing long covid symptoms in early December. Typical symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue and muscle or joint pain. Wales and Scotland have announced that they will offer vaccinations to all children between the ages of five and 11 years. The plans have been informed by unpublished advice from the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, according to the Welsh and Scottish governments. An announcement on vaccinating this age group in England is expected on 21 February, after repeated delays. The Netherlands will lift almost all its covid-19 restrictions on Friday, Dutch health minister Ernst Kuipers announced yesterday. This includes scrapping social distancing measures, as well as relaxing curfews for bars and restaurants. Yesterday, Japan reported 236 new covid-19 deaths – the country’s highest daily toll since the pandemic began. Essential information about coronavirus.
2-15-22 How Australia has cut child cancer deaths – and hopes to get to zero
An Australian plan to eliminate childhood cancer deaths using personalised medicine will be made available to all Australian children with the condition from 2023. An ambitious Australian programme to use personalised medicine to reduce the number of children who die of cancer to zero has already kept alive more than 150 children with aggressive cancers who would have otherwise died. The success of the scheme – the Zero Childhood Cancer Program, or Zero – means it will be made available to all Australian children with cancer from 2023. One of Zero’s participants is Jack Burai in Sydney, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2017, when he was 9 years old. His cancer was surgically removed, but came back aggressively a year later and spread through his brain and spine, leaving him unable to walk, eat or see out of his right eye. “It was an end-of-life situation,” recalls his father Alex. “When his mum was out of the hospital room, he would turn to me and say, ‘Dad, am I going to die?’.” Now, Jack is a healthy, seemingly cancer-free 14-year-old who runs marathons and rides his BMX bike daily thanks to the personalised care he received through Zero. The idea of the programme is to move away from giving standardised treatments and to view every child’s cancer as unique, says Chelsea Mayoh at the Children’s Cancer Institute in Sydney, where Zero is based alongside the Sydney Children’s Hospital. The first step is to try to work out more about each child’s cancer. To do this, Mayoh and her colleagues genetically sequence a child’s tumours and run other tests. Once the possible drivers are identified, the team searches medical literature and talks to colleagues to determine what sort of treatment might work best. The team also tries a scattergun approach by testing more than 100 different cancer drugs on tumour cells taken from the child and grown in Petri dishes. Drugs that seem most active against the cells are then tested in mice that have been injected with the child’s tumour cells to check their safety and efficacy before they are given to the child.
2-15-22 Chewing sugar-free gum reduced preterm births in a large study
The idea was inspired by the connection between poor oral health and preterm birth. Chewing a sugar-free gum daily reduced preterm births in a large study in Malawi. The oral intervention was inspired by past research linking poor oral health and preterm birth. The gum contains xylitol — a chemical that can boost oral health — in place of regular sugar. Among women who chewed the xylitol gum, 549 out of 4,349 pregnancies, or 12.6 percent, were preterm, researchers reported February 3 at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine’s Annual Pregnancy Meeting. That’s a 24 percent reduction compared with the group who didn’t receive the gum. Among those women, 878 out of 5,321 pregnancies, or 16.5 percent, of the babies were born before 37 weeks. The oral health of gum users also improved. About 4,000 of the women had an initial dental exam and a later checkup. The women who chewed the gum had less periodontal disease, a condition in which the tissue surrounding the teeth becomes infected and inflamed, compared with those who didn’t get the chewing gum. “The findings are very encouraging,” says Kim Boggess, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill who was not involved with the study. The researchers “are approaching a very complex problem in a low-resource area by trying to use a low-tech, easily applicable intervention.” It would take more research to see if this could work in other settings, she says. For the new study, researchers enrolled around 10,000 women across eight health centers in the greater Lilongwe area of Malawi before they were pregnant or in early pregnancy. All of the women received tailored information on pregnancy, preventing preterm birth and improving oral health from community health workers. Roughly half of the women also received the gum.
2-15-22 Pharmaceuticals in rivers threaten world health - study
Pollution of the world's rivers from medicines and pharmaceutical products poses a "threat to environmental and global health", a report says. Paracetamol, nicotine, caffeine and epilepsy and diabetes drugs were widely detected in a University of York study. The research is among the most extensive undertaken on a global scale. Rivers in Pakistan, Bolivia and Ethiopia were among the most polluted. Rivers in Iceland, Norway and the Amazon rainforest fared the best. The impact of many of the most common pharmaceutical compounds in rivers is still largely unknown. But it is already well established that dissolved human contraceptives can impact the development and reproduction of fish, and scientists fear the increased presence of antibiotics in rivers could limit their effectiveness as medicines. The study sampled water from more than 1,000 test sites in more than 100 countries. Overall, more than a quarter of the 258 rivers sampled had what are known as "active pharmaceutical ingredients" present at a level deemed unsafe for aquatic organisms. "Typically, what happens is, we take these chemicals, they have some desired effects on us and then they leave our bodies," Dr John Wilkinson, who led the research, told BBC News. "What we know now is that even the most modern efficient wastewater treatment plants aren't completely capable of degrading these compounds before they end up in rivers or lakes." The two most frequently detected pharmaceuticals were carbamazepine, which is used to treat epilepsy and nerve pain, and metformin, used to treat diabetes. High concentrations were also found of so-called "lifestyle consumables" like caffeine [coffee] and nicotine [cigarettes] as well as the painkiller paracetamol. In Africa, artemisinin - used in anti-malarial medicine - was also found in high concentrations.
2-15-22 Why is Canada's Covid death rate so much lower than US?
Images of Canada's paralysed capital and of pandemic-rules protests have thrust the country's Covid response under the spotlight. What started as a trucker-led movement to demand the end of a vaccine mandate has escalated to include all kinds of public health restrictions. But since the pandemic began, Canada has fared far better than the US, despite similar income disparities, territorial divides, and comorbidities such as obesity and hypertension as its southern neighbour. There is a staggering difference, for example, in how many more Americans have died because of Covid compared to Canadians, both in absolute numbers and as the ratio of deaths per million inhabitants. So what is going on, and why might Canada's experience be different to that of the US so far? And amid mounting public pressure to relax restrictions, will Canada be able to keep a lid on the pandemic going forward? The proportion of daily new confirmed Covid cases has been lower in Canada than the US throughout most of the pandemic.As of 12 February - and even with infection rates falling across the country - new cases in the US stood at about 543 per million people, compared with 258 in Canada, according to Our World in Data, a collaboration between Oxford University and an educational charity. The trajectory of the pandemic has been similar in both countries, with cases rising and falling at roughly the same time, with the notable exception of the second US surge in the summer of 2021. "In fact, the reproduction rate of the virus has been exactly the same," said Canadian national Dr Mark Cameron, an associate professor in the department of population and quantitative health sciences at Case Western University in Ohio. "[But] Canada's per capita case rate has generally been less than half that of the US". The total death toll of the pandemic in the US stands at about 919,000, compared to 35,500 in Canada, according to Johns Hopkins University. While the population of the US - over 332.4 million - is more than eight times Canada's 38.2 million, its ratio of deaths per million inhabitants still far surpasses Canada's. Another set of statistics compiled by Johns Hopkins shows that as of 11 February, 279 US residents have died of Covid per 100,000, compared to about 94 in Canada.
2-14-22 What's to blame for a COVID-era increase in pedestrian deaths?
Just about two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. is contending with record levels of pedestrian deaths thanks to a "nationwide flare-up in reckless driving," The New York Times reports. Authorities blame things like rising anxiety levels, pandemic drinking habits, and weakening social norms for the surge. While the rise in deaths has hit Sun Belt states "particularly hard," the "pedestrian death toll spiked last year in many parts of the country," the Times writes. And though traffic specialists expected deaths to decline when COVID hit, the opposite occured; even with a drop in driving, the pedestrian fatality rate surged approximately 21 percent in 2020, "the largest ever year-over-year increase," per the Times. Why? Well, initially, empty roads may have led to faster driving, while police relaxed enforcement to cut back on in-person interactions. Drivers also seemed to get angrier, writes the Times, perhaps because the pandemic made them feel like other threats weren't nearly as large. COVID also "intensified" certain trends with which the U.S. was already dealing, including an aging population (where older pedestrians are more vulnerable) and an increase in car size and weight. "Cars are getting bigger, faster and deadlier," said journalist and author Angie Schmitt. Others say that since cars have grown safer for those who drive them, what with features like backup cameras, "some drivers are emboldened to dismiss the risks to pedestrians," notes the Times. Not to mention that, after all of this, people are just plain fed up, cognitive scientist Art Markman added. "When you get angry in the car, it generates energy — and how do you dissipate that energy? Well, one way is to put your foot down a little bit more on the accelerator."
2-11-22 Omicron crushed delta in the U.S. These numbers show just how fast it happened
The highly contagious coronavirus variant rose to U.S. dominance four times faster than delta. If it felt like omicron exploded with mind-boggling speed, a new look at the numbers backs that up. The highly contagious coronavirus variant achieved dominance in the United States in a record-breaking two weeks; in comparison, it took the delta variant eight weeks to hit that milestone, researchers report in the Feb. 11 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Delta began its climb to domination amid a smorgasbord of variants circulating in the United States in early 2021 (SN: 7/2/21). At the beginning of May, delta was responsible for a mere 1 percent of new weekly infections. Eight weeks later, the week ending June 26, delta drove more than half of new infections. And by the end of July, the variant accounted for more than 95 percent of new COVID-19 cases each week. Omicron, on the other hand, is estimated to have accomplished the same feat four times faster. U.S. public health officials documented the first omicron case on December 1, 2021. By the week ending December 11, the variant accounted for more than 1 percent of new cases. Only two weeks later, that number rocketed to more than 50 percent — then rose to more than 95 percent the week ending January 8. The omicron variant’s rapid spread was likely driven by increased transmissibility over delta, as well as a better ability to evade parts of the immune system, the researchers say (SN: 12/21/21). Recent estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that omicron may have extinguished the delta variant’s spread in the United States by February 5, though it’s possible that the analysis wasn’t broad enough to catch any lurking delta variants. The numbers can also change over time as officials analyze more data.
2-11-22 Gene therapies for sickle cell disease come with hope and challenges
Pediatrician Erica Esrick discusses existing sickle cell treatments and an ongoing clinical trial. Today, it’s clear that our genes not only cause many diseases, but also hold potential cures. But that wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until 1949 that scientists first found the molecular culprit of a disease — its roots in the genetic code. The disease was the blood disorder known as sickle cell disease, an inherited disorder that causes severe and debilitating pain. Now, nearly 75 years later, researchers are developing gene therapies to cure it. Sickle cell disease results from a change in a key protein in hemoglobin, which helps transport oxygen in red blood cells. Hemoglobin normally allows “red blood cells to be very floppy and pliable, and slip and slide through the blood vessels easily,” says pediatrician Erica Esrick. But a mutation in a single gene, the HBB gene, makes hemoglobin stack in long strings inside blood cells, giving them an inflexible, sickle shape. Instead of being “squishy,” the stiff red blood cells get stuck inside blood vessels, blocking blood flow. Sickle cell affects millions of people around the world, particularly those whose ancestors come from sub-Saharan Africa, parts of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In the United States, for instance, approximately 100,000 people live with the disease, most of them Black or Latino. People with sickle cell disease have a shortened life expectancy, living only into their late 40s on average, in large part due to strokes or organ damage from blocked blood vessels. Esrick, of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and others are trying to fight the disease through gene therapy. Gene therapies seek to manipulate the very information of life by replacing, inactivating or fixing missing or broken genes — and so curing patients. But the journey to today’s handful of approved gene therapies, including for diseases like severe combined immunodeficiency syndrome, or SCID, certain blood cancers and spinal muscular atrophy, has been rocky. Early clinical trials in the 1990s weren’t effective, and the 2000s brought unintended and sometimes deadly consequences, including a leukemia-like illness.
2-11-22 Fossils reveal what may be the oldest known case of the dino sniffles
A respiratory infection led to bone lesions in a 150-million-year-old sauropod’s vertebrae, a study suggests. The prehistoric world wasn’t a paradise free of disease, but diagnosing ancient ailments is tricky: Germs usually don’t fossilize well. Now, though, researchers have unearthed evidence of what appears to be the oldest known respiratory infection in a dinosaur. Lesions found in the vertebrae of a 150-million-year-old juvenile sauropod dubbed “Dolly” point to a lung infection that moved into her bones, vertebrate paleontologist Cary Woodruff and colleagues report February 10 in Scientific Reports. That’s at least 50 million years older than the previously reported respiratory infection in a titanosaur unearthed in Brazil. Dolly, a long-necked dinosaur, was probably closely related to Diplodocus. At the time of her death in what’s now southwestern Montana, she was about 18 meters long and less than 20 years old, Woodruff estimates. The fossils that the team analyzed include the dinosaur’s skull and the first seven neck vertebrae, which contained air sacs connected to the lungs and other parts of the respiratory system. The bones of many of today’s birds, which are modern-day dinosaurs, have similar features. On the fifth through seventh vertebrae, the fossils have bone lesions at spots where the air sacs would have intruded into the bone, the team found. The oddly shaped and textured bumps protrude from the bone as much as 1 centimeter, says Woodruff, of the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Mont. So many lesions turning up in similar spots are unlikely to be bone tumors, which in birds are rather uncommon anyway, Woodruff notes. Instead, the lesions formed in response to a respiratory infection that spread to the distant air sacs, the team proposes. Though Dolly’s bone lesions wouldn’t have been obvious to an ancient observer, she likely had a fever, cough, labored breathing and nasal discharge, the scientists suggest. It’s not clear whether the infection was bacterial, viral or fungal, or whether it is what killed Dolly. But the researchers note that many birds and reptiles today can suffer from a respiratory infection caused by the fungus Aspergillus that can in turn lead to bone infections.
2-10-22 Cell studies suggest a way sleep loss may be linked to Alzheimer’s
Protein plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease may build up in the brain if sleep is disrupted because this affects cells that normally destroy them, according to a study involving mouse immune cells. The immune system may remove the protein plaques in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease on a circadian schedule and this could be affected by sleep loss, a study involving mouse cells suggests. The circadian schedule is an internal clock that controls sleep and a vast array of other bodily processes on a roughly 24-hour cycle. Doctors have long observed that people with Alzheimer’s disease have sleep disturbances and circadian disruption, but it remains unclear the extent to which this disruption could be a cause for the condition itself. Now, Jennifer Hurley at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and her colleagues have found one possible mechanism by which beta-amyloid plaques, which are found in high numbers in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, could be related to sleep. Hurley and her team think the plaques are cleared away by macrophages, immune cells that destroy foreign material, according to the body’s daily rhythms. The researchers arrived at this conclusion following lab studies. They extracted macrophages from mice bone marrow and fed them beta-amyloid plaques, treated with fluorescent tags, at different times of day. By counting the plaques the cells had consumed, the researchers could map out the circadian rhythms of the macrophages. Hurley and her team also identified a class of circadian-controlled proteins involved, called heparan sulphates, which Hurley thinks may signal to the macrophages when to clear away the plaques. These proteins control many processes, but are typically associated with inflammation.
2-10-22 iden admin says government-funded 'safe smoking kits' never meant crack pipes
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the Biden administration "never" intended for federal funds to be spent on pipes for drug use, The Associated Press reported. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra and Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Dr. Rahul Gupta also released a statement asserting that "no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits." The clarification came after several right-leaning outlets reported this week that the Biden administration was "funding crack pipe distribution." The stories referred to the administration's 2022 Harm Reduction Program Grant, which was issued by HHS' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Grant documents showed a long list of "harm reduction activities" toward which municipalities and nonprofits could direct grant funds, and that list included "safe smoking kits." Articles, studies, and public health documents routinely refer to pipes as one component of safe smoking kits, along with items such as rubber mouthpieces, disinfectant wipes, and brass filter screens. The HHS document did not indicate that only "safe smoking kits" without pipes could be purchased using grant funds. The Washington Free Beacon had reported that a spokesperson for HHS said pipes would be included in safe smoking kits eligible for grant funds. However, the Beacon also wrote that, officially, "an HHS spokesman declined to specify what is included in the smoking kits." After the story circulated widely enough that a reporter asked about it at a briefing, Psaki insisted crack pipes were "never part of the kit" and blamed "inaccurate reporting." Reporter Patrick Hauf, who wrote the Beacon report, shared screenshots on Twitter showing that after the briefing, Facebook added a label to his story indicating it contained "partly false information."
2-10-22 Neanderthal extinction not caused by brutal wipe out
New fossils are challenging ideas that modern humans wiped out Neanderthals soon after arriving from Africa. A discovery of a child's tooth and stone tools in a cave in southern France suggests Homo sapiens was in western Europe about 54,000 years ago. That is several thousands of years earlier than previously thought, indicating that the two species could have coexisted for long periods. The research has been published in the journal Science Advances. The finds were discovered in a cave, known as Grotte Mandrin in the Rhone Valley, by a team led by Prof Ludovic Slimak of the University of Toulouse. He was astonished when he learned that there was evidence of an early modern human settlement. "We are now able to demonstrate that Homo sapiens arrived 12,000 years before we expected, and this population was then replaced after that by other Neanderthal populations. And this literally rewrites all our books of history." The Neanderthals emerged in Europe as far back as 400,000 years ago. The current theory suggests that they went extinct about 40,000 years ago, not long after Homo sapiens arrived on the continent from Africa. But the new discovery suggests that our species arrived much earlier and that the two species could have coexisted in Europe for more than 10,000 years before the Neanderthals went extinct. According to Prof Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum in London, this challenges the current view, which is that our species quickly overwhelmed the Neanderthals. "It wasn't an overnight takeover by modern humans," he told BBC News. "Sometimes Neanderthals had the advantage, sometimes modern humans had the advantage, so it was more finely balanced." Archaeologists found fossil evidence from several layers at the site. The lower they dug, the further back in time they were able to see. The lowest layers showed the remains of Neanderthals who occupied the area for about 20,000 years. But to their complete surprise, the team found a modern human child's tooth in a layer dating back to about 54,000 years ago, along with some stone tools made in a way that was not associated with Neanderthals. The evidence suggests that this early group of humans lived at the site for a relatively brief period, of perhaps about 2,000 years after which the site was unoccupied. The Neanderthals then return, occupying the site for several more thousand years, until modern humans come back about 44,000 years ago.
2-10-22 First evidence that dinosaurs caught potentially fatal coughs
The first evidence of a respiratory infection in a dinosaur suggests that a 15-year-old diplodocid suffered from coughing, sneezing and fever before dying. The fossil record has revealed dinosaurs with broken bones, osteoarthritis and even cancer, but now, for the first time, palaeontologists have found evidence of a dinosaur with a cough. The serious respiratory infection is only detectable because it left traces in the animal’s bones, which became fossilised. The illness would probably have caused sneezing, coughing, fever and a premature death. MOR 7029, or Dolly as the specimen is known by palaeontologists, dates back to the late Jurassic period approximately 150 million years ago. The young diplodocid – a large, long-necked herbivorous animal about 18 metres long – was discovered in 1990 in Montana and is still revealing new information. Cary Woodruff at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Montana, and his colleagues found unusual protrusions in three of the dinosaur’s neck bones. These bony growths were in an area that would have been attached to air sacs, thought to be part of the dinosaur’s respiratory system and similar to those found in modern birds. CT scans of the fossils revealed that the protrusions are likely to have formed in response to an infection in those sacs. Woodruff says that much evidence of a dinosaur’s health is lost in the fossilisation process, so the team compared the bony protrusions with those found in modern birds and believe that they are most likely to be evidence that Dolly had a fungal infection similar to aspergillosis, a common respiratory illness that can prove fatal even in people without treatment. “We can’t say whether Dolly just tripped over one day and died, or was so sick and weakened that it was a target for predators,” says Woodruff. “But I do believe that in one way or another this infection ultimately caused the death of the individual.”
2-10-22 Health Check newsletter: What do leukaemia cure claims really mean?
The success of gene therapy in treating a fatal form of leukaemia is cause for celebration, but we don't yet know how common such results will be. This week I’ve been reporting good news about cancer, and there are few more satisfying sentences for a medical journalist to write than that. You may have seen the stories about two people with an otherwise fatal form of leukaemia, a cancer of immune cells, whose disease disappeared 11 years ago thanks to a high-tech gene therapy. Our free-to-read article on this treatment, which uses what are called CAR-T cells, is here. When I was discussing how to cover this story with my colleagues, one said he didn’t think we should get our hopes up too much because the study only involves two people and the approach is impractical for wide use. I can understand his concerns. Journalism on cancer research is notorious for overhyping small studies, generating false hopes in those affected by this disease. The idea of using gene therapy against cancer probably was overhyped in the beginning. I first wrote about it 10 years ago, as part of a package rounding up five of the most promising new approaches against cancer. For that piece, I debated with my editor for quite a while about how exactly we could phrase the strapline – the sentence under the headline that summarises the story – where we used the word “cure”. In the end we compromised by saying the five approaches could “dramatically improve our chances” of a cure. Looking back now, I think we overstated it, because four of the techniques haven’t lived up to their promise yet. Gene therapy, though, has done better. In the approach used in the new study, people have some of their immune cells removed. A gene is added to these, which encodes an artificial receptor that recognises leukaemia cells, and the resulting CAR-T cells are then multiplied and reinfused into the cancer patient. It is such an ambitious and complicated thing to do, it initially seemed too far-fetched to work. So the latest study is seen as a real landmark.
2-10-22 Homo sapiens may have reached Europe 10,000 years earlier than previously thought
Migrations to the continent started long before Neandertals died out, new finds suggest. Stone Age Homo sapiens began migrating into Europe much longer ago than has typically been assumed. Discoveries at a rock-shelter in southern France put H. sapiens in Europe as early as 56,800 years ago, a new study finds. That’s around 10,000 years earlier than previously thought (SN: 5/11/20). The French site, called Grotte Mandrin, was alternately occupied by the H. sapiens newcomers and Neandertals native to Europe, replacing each other a couple of times before Neandertals died out roughly 40,000 years ago, researchers report February 9 in Science Advances. The finds from the rock-shelter, situated 225 meters above the middle Rhône River Valley, challenge a popular view that Neandertals died out within a few thousand years of H. sapiens reaching Europe, say archaeologist Ludovic Slimak of the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès in France and colleagues. Slimak has directed excavations at Grotte Mandrin for the last 24 years. Nearly 60,000 stone artifacts and more than 70,000 bones of horses, bison and other animals have been unearthed in 12 sediment layers. Only nine isolated hominid teeth have been found in five of those layers. But these teeth can be categorized as either Neandertal or H. sapiens based on their shapes and sizes, the researchers say. The oldest H. sapiens material in the rock-shelter includes a single tooth from a 2- to 6-year-old child, Slimak says. Dating of each sediment layer relied on radiocarbon age estimates for excavated bone artifacts and calculations of the time elapsed since each set of finds was buried and certain stones were heated during toolmaking. Given this evidence, it now appears that H. sapiens groups periodically entered southern Europe long before Neandertals went extinct, says paleoanthropologist Isabelle Crevecoeur of the University of Bordeaux in France, who did not participate in the new study. “The arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe after the demise of Neandertals was probably the end of a long, sometimes unsuccessful, migration process.”
2-10-22 How the Human Genome Project revolutionized understanding of our DNA
A century of ingenuity and technology advances taught us to read the stories in our genes. In October 1990, biologists officially embarked on one of the century’s most ambitious scientific efforts: reading the 3 billion pairs of genetic subunits — the A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s — that make up the human instruction book. The project promised to blow open our understanding of basic biology, reveal relationships between the myriad forms of life on the planet and transform medicine through insights into genetic diseases and potential cures. When the project was completed in 2003, the scientists having read essentially every letter, President Bill Clinton called it a “stunning and humbling achievement” and predicted it would “revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases.” Even dreaming up such an endeavor depended on decades of previous discoveries. In 1905, English biologist William Bateson, who championed the work of Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, suggested the term genetics for a new field of study focused on heredity and variation. Early the next decade, American biologist Thomas Hunt Morgan and his colleagues showed that genes are carried on chromosomes. Biochemists had been studying DNA for nearly three-quarters of a century when Oswald Avery and his team at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City helped establish in the 1940s that DNA is the genetic material. And perhaps most notable, and famous today, is the 1953 discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, by James Watson and Francis Crick of the University of Cambridge and Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins of King’s College London. But when the draft of the genetic instruction book was first published, independently by an international collective of academic and government labs called the Human Genome Project and the private company Celera Genomics, led by J. Craig Venter, the text was “as striking for what we don’t see as for what we do,” Science News reported (SN: 2/17/01, p. 100). There were many fewer genes than expected, leaving a puzzle about what all the remaining DNA was for.
2-9-22 Mickey7 review: If you want to live forever, read the small print
In Edward Ashton's novel Mickey7, Mickey gets a shot at immortality by uploading his consciousness, but at what cost, asks Sally Adee. IT WASN’T that long ago that sci-fi creators were more starry-eyed and optimistic about the prospects of tech companies keeping our best interests at heart. In 2016, Black Mirror, the TV series whose dark speculations defined the late 2010s, released an unusually upbeat vision of digital immortality in which a dying woman uploads her mind to a global megacorp’s server farm and lives her best life online in perpetuity. The idea of uploaded consciousness has long been an object of fascination in science fiction. Neal Stephenson spent several hundred pages of his 2019 triumph Fall; or, Dodge in Hell on a gonzo hallucinatory riff recounting his protagonist’s transition into life in silico. Yet, Stephenson’s artistically muscular depiction failed to answer a central question: is it a goal that’s worth pursuing, even in theory? Edward Ashton’s Mickey7 is the first novel I have come across that properly explores the philosophy behind that question. In the book, titular Mickey escapes a grim life on his home planet by signing on to a mission to terraform a new one. He has no skills to offer, so he applies to be the ship’s “Expendable”, a disposable employee who specialises in dangerous tasks that often prove deadly. The only perk of the job is that no matter how often he is killed, he is uploaded into a new body to carry on his work. “The way they sell you on becoming an Expendable is that they don’t call it becoming an Expendable,” Mickey muses. “They call it becoming an Immortal.” The ideal version of immortality is as a seamless continuation of the self. But will Mickey2 – or Mickey7, the incarnation we meet in the story – be the original Mickey or just an accurate copy? The hiring manager for the terraforming mission is deliberately ambiguous on this point. As the plot unfolds, Ashton artfully illustrates how this conceptual fuzziness benefits the corporations that make digital immortality their business.
2-9-22 Love drugs are coming and they bring big ethical problems with them
Drugs to help people fall in love are increasingly becoming viable, but they could cause harm as well as happiness, says Anna Machi. LOVE is unpredictable and complex. After spending many years researching its layers, I remain in awe of how it engages every mechanism in our bodies and infiltrates every aspect of our lives. But for a species like ours that craves certainty, this can cause all sorts of problems. The first recorded evidence for an “elixir of love” dates back to 4000 years ago. Ready access to love drugs is at most a decade away. Indeed, they are already being used therapeutically to support couples in the US. The experience of love is underpinned by four neurochemicals: oxytocin, dopamine, beta-endorphin and serotonin. Oxytocin is key at the start of relationships because it lowers our inhibitions to making new bonds, then dopamine motivates and rewards us for carrying out this survival critical behaviour. Serotonin underpins the obsessive elements of love, while beta-endorphin addicts us to love in the long term. Drugs that may be capable of mimicking love are already in use. The first, oxytocin, is utilised to induce labour, but research shows that it can also increase sociability, trust and empathy. The second is recreational drug MDMA or ecstasy, which is capable of inducing euphoria, empathy and love for our fellow humans. Arguably, taking a drug to induce or maintain love is no different to taking an antidepressant, because both supplement neurochemicals that naturally exist in our bodies. Add to this the link between having healthy relationships and good mental and physical well-being, and prescribing these drugs could revolutionise someone’s quality of life. But whether these drugs work is dependent on the individual. For a significant minority of people, recent research has found that oxytocin leads to increased social confidence and trust, meaning that they are more likely to form new relationships. For some, it has the opposite effect and studies have shown that it can cause negative interactions and even racism. Some people feel the impact of MDMA and others don’t.
2-9-22 Who wore it better? How masks can make you more attractive, or less
Valentine’s Day fast approaches – indeed, given the state of many postal services, you may thankfully already be hearing its Doppler-shifted whoosh to lower frequencies. This can only mean the world is agog for the latest top tips on love and dating from Feedback’s stationery cupboard-cum-boudoir. Giving us all hope in these uncertain times is a paper from Farid Pazhoohi and Alan Kingstone at the University of British Columbia in Canada, thrust through our door by an attractively half-masked colleague, entitled “Unattractive faces are more attractive when the bottom-half is masked, an effect that reverses when the top-half is concealed”. Feedback likes papers with titles that say it like it is. We delve further only to confirm that mask-wearing doesn’t enhance the attractiveness of faces already deemed highly appealing. Given beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we can only wonder why we didn’t all seize the evolutionary benefits of mask-wearing long ago. We can only surmise that, if inclined to act on any impulses, masks would start getting in the way at some point. A nice touch is that wearing a mask on the top part of your face, covering your eyes, makes highly attractive faces less attractive – but has no effect on the perceived attractiveness of less attractive faces. Noted, but we humbly submit that, as a mating strategy, this is both undesirable and impractical. “Owning cryptocurrency may make you more desirable on the dating scene, study finds”, reports CNBC, meanwhile. Feedback also likes a good study that finds, especially when, for example, the study doing the finding that “33% of Americans said they would be more likely to go on a date with someone who mentioned crypto assets in their online dating profile” is sponsored by a cryptocurrency trading platform. What’s more, “nearly 20% of singles would be more interested in you romantically if you set an NFT as your profile picture on a social platform or dating site”.
2-9-22 Team in China aims to start trial of pig organs in humans this year
After completing a human trial of modified pig skin grafts last year, a team in China hopes to start the first pig organ transplant trial later this year. Several groups are vying to be the first to transplant organs from genetically modified pigs into people as part of a clinical trial. One of the contenders is a team in China that last year was the first to complete a human trial of CRISPR genome-edited pig skin grafts. “We plan to do heart or liver xenotransplants within 2022, but we do not have a specific timetable at this moment,” Lijin Zou at the First Affiliated Hospital of Nanchang University in China told New Scientist. “We are completing all the technical and medical preparations, including the preparation of surgeons and the ICU team for solid organ xenotransplants,” he says. “Currently, we are in the middle of seeking all the necessary approvals.” Teams around the world are genetically modifying pigs to make their organs less likely to be rejected by the immune system after transplantation. Zou’s team has removed three genes from a strain of miniature pig and added eight human genes. The changes are similar to those made to the pig that provided the heart transplanted into David Bennett by surgeons at the University of Maryland School of Medicine on 7 January. That line of pigs was created by US company Revivicor, part of United Therapeutics. Last year, Zou’s team carried out a clinical trial involving 16 people with burns. Each person had a “Xeno X” skin graft from the modified pigs placed alongside a material derived from unmodified pigs. No drugs were given to stop their bodies rejecting the grafts. When people have severe burns, it is often necessary to temporarily cover the wounds with skin from human cadavers or from pigs to prevent infection and the loss of fluid, and to help prepare the site for a skin graft taken from elsewhere on the body.
2-9-22 Modern humans moved into cave one year after Neanderthals abandoned it
About 10,000 years before modern humans colonised Europe, a small group of them moved into a cave in southern France that had just been abandoned by Neanderthals – but they only stayed there for about 40 years. A small group of modern humans moved into what is now France about 54,000 years ago – which is 10,000 years before our species began spreading across Europe in earnest. The pioneering group only managed to survive in the area for about 40 years, before disappearing. “It’s not just one wave of modern humans arriving and colonising all Europe, there are probably several attempts,” says Clément Zanolli at the University of Bordeaux in France. “What we have found… is probably one of those attempts, and there are probably other attempts that we did not find yet.” It isn’t clear why this incursion into Europe was unsuccessful. “Did they go back to where they came from?” asks Zanolli. “Or did they just die there and not survive more than a few decades? It’s impossible to say.” Zanolli is part of a team that has been excavating at Grotte Mandrin in southern France since 1990. It is a small cave on a hill, overlooking the Rhône valley. Over the years, the team has found nearly 60,000 stone artefacts and more than 70,000 animal remains. Crucially, there are also nine hominin teeth, from at least seven individuals. The team has used these artefacts, along with dating techniques, to reconstruct which hominins lived at Mandrin. The earliest known inhabitants were Neanderthals, who lived throughout Europe for hundreds of thousands of years until their extinction about 40,000 years ago. Neanderthals lived at Mandrin from more than 80,000 years ago until about 54,000 years ago. However, one of the teeth belonged to a modern human. It was a baby or “deciduous” tooth, so it belonged to a child. The layer of sediment in which it was found was dated to between 56,800 and 51,700 years ago – probably about 54,000 years ago. The stone artefacts found in this layer were different from those associated with the Neanderthals, and resembled those made by modern humans elsewhere.
2-9-22 Breast cancer racial disparity linked to DNA repair gene expression
Differences in how DNA repair genes are expressed as a result of environmental impacts may help to explain why Black women in the US have a higher mortality from breast cancer than white women. Black women in the US have a higher mortality rate from breast cancer than white women. This may be in part due to differences in how a person’s environment affects the expression of genes involved in DNA repair. “These differences aren’t about mutations that are in you from the moment you’re born, but are instead about how cells adapt to your environment,” says Svasti Haricharan at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in California. There is no genetic basis to race, she says, but our environments and our lifestyles affect our biology. Haricharan and her colleagues analysed breast tissue data from 847 women, including 144 Black women. This shows the lack of tumour samples from Black women in general in US data sets, she says. Most of the women had been diagnosed with a common type of breast cancer, while some samples used as a control were from healthy breast tissue in women without cancer. “Oestrogen receptor positive cancer is the most common type of breast cancer diagnosed in the world,” says Haricharan. “Based on estimates, it accounts for about 60 to 80 per cent of breast cancer.” Previous studies have found that Black women are 42 per cent more likely to die from this type of cancer than white women. Structural racism, socioeconomics and lifestyle all play a role in this disparity, says Haricharan, but it is also important to study differences in molecular biology. “By better understanding this biology, we can tailor treatments for people from different demographics,” she says. The researchers focused their efforts on genes that drive DNA repair mechanisms, which have been shown in previous studies to affect how well a person with breast cancer responds to a treatment called endocrine therapy. This therapy slows tumour growth by stopping a person from producing growth-stimulating hormones.
2-9-22 Doing yoga at least once a week may help to lower blood pressure
A large real-world study adds to clinical trial evidence that people who do yoga tend to have lower blood pressure, which may prevent heart attacks and strokes. Practising yoga one or more times per week may help to lower blood pressure, according to a large observational study in the US. About one-third of adults globally have high blood pressure, which increases the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Physical activity is known to lower blood pressure, but many people have trouble sticking to exercise regimes. Yoga tends to be more sustainable than other forms of exercise because it is gentle on the joints, can be done with others and helps to relax the mind. Several clinical trials have found that yoga lowers blood pressure, especially when it incorporates breathing exercises and meditation. However, these trials have typically involved multiple sessions per week, which may not be achievable for many people. To find out if yoga helps to reduce blood pressure in the real world, Nadia Penrod at the University of Pennsylvania and Jason Moore at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles studied the electronic health records of 1355 people aged 18 to 79 in south-east Pennsylvania whose clinical notes said they practised yoga at least once a week. They compared each of these people with at least three other individuals who had similar characteristics in terms of things like age, sex, race, postal code, body mass index, alcohol use, smoking status and use of blood pressure-lowering medications, but who had no mention of practising yoga in their clinical notes. On average, the people who practised yoga had a systolic blood pressure that was 2.8 millimetres of mercury (mmHg) lower and a diastolic blood pressure that was 1.5 mmHg lower than those who didn’t.
2-9-22 How one scientist aims to boost Black people’s representation in genetic datasets
Black people have been wronged by the medical community. Geneticist Tshaka Cunningham wants to build trust. Nearly two decades after researchers assembled the first genetic blueprint for human life, our understanding of our instruction manual has a dramatic and problematic bias: It’s based primarily on white people. The overwhelming majority of genetic data is from people of European ancestry. As of early January, nearly 96 percent of participants across more than 5,500 studies looking for genetic variants associated with disease or other traits were of European descent, according to the GWAS Diversity Monitor, a real-time online tracker developed and maintained by the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford. Those with African American or Afro-Caribbean ancestry amount to just 0.18 percent of participants; Hispanic or Latino populations just 0.23 percent. That means efforts aspiring to use DNA to identify the best treatments for any individual patient, what’s commonly known as precision medicine, are heavily skewed toward white people. There are many reasons behind the stark disparity. A big one, says geneticist Tshaka Cunningham, is distrust of the medical community, born from decades of exploitation and abuse: The Tuskegee Study, where white researchers for decades didn’t treat Black men with syphilis, even after penicillin proved effective against the disease. The case of Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer biopsy gave rise to cells that today serve as a crucial resource for scientific studies even though she never gave consent. The forced sterilization of Black, Latina and Indigenous women that was driven by the eugenics movement — the damaging effects of which persist today. What happened to Lacks, for example, “left a scar on many a minority person,” Cunningham says. “It’s like, ‘Am I gonna get Henrietta Lacks-ed or Tuskegee-ed?’”
2-9-22 Ultrasound can control genetically altered brain cells in mice
A new technique called sonogenetics uses ultrasound to switch on and off genetically altered brain cells. It has been successfully tested in mice, and could be a future tool for treating brain conditions such as Parkinson's or epilepsy in humans. Ultrasound waves have been used to control genetically altered brain cells in mice, a step towards using this technique to treat conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy in humans. One of the biggest advances in neuroscience of the past two decades is a method called optogenetics, in which brain cells are genetically tweaked so they can be turned on or off with light. Now the technique has been adapted to control brain cells via ultrasound, which opens up new possibilities for brain research and developing treatments for neurological disorders, says Sreekanth Chalasani at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. Optogenetic experiments involve making the brain cells of animals such as mice respond to light by adding a gene originally found in algae. They have led to a raft of discoveries about how different circuits within the brain affect behaviour, but the animals need to have fibre-optic cables put into their heads, which makes the work more complicated. Chalasani and his colleagues have been working with a different gene called TRPA1, normally found in human brain and heart cells, which encodes a membrane protein that typically helps the cells respond to toxic chemicals. When the brain cells of mice were given a copy of this gene, they started firing in response to ultrasound beamed directly at a small area of their heads. The frequency that elicited the response was 7 megahertz, which is known not to damage biological tissues. The team calls this approach “sonogenetics”.
2-9-22 Fossils reveal that pterosaurs puked pellets
Fish scale–filled balls found by two fossils suggests regurgitation was the pterosaurs' final course. Picture it: Two hungry pterosaurs, one adult and one juvenile, settle down to dig in to a delicious lunch of fish. Down their gullets the whole fish go. A little later, back up come the scales and other indigestible fishy bits, vomited neatly as millimeter-sized pellets. Scientists now have the first fossilized evidence that pterosaur dining included a final course of regurgitation, scientifically called antiperistalsis. While studying two specimens of Kunpengopterus sinensis, a pterosaur species that lived in what is now China between 199 million and 146 million years ago, researchers found a gastric pellet containing fossilized fish scales preserved alongside each individual, they report February 7 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. That pterosaurs gave those inedible bits the old heave-ho isn’t a surprise. The flying reptiles’ family tree is full of gastric pellet–expelling species, from living birds such as owls and gulls to fossilized cousins like ancient crocodilians and non-avian dinosaurs. But the study does help flesh out what little is known about pterosaur diet and digestion (SN: 7/22/21). It reveals that members of this species, at least, were fish eaters. (Other possibly tree-climbing members of the genus Kunpengopterus may have dined on insects (SN: 4/14/21).) The find also suggests that, like modern birds, these pterosaurs had two-part stomachs: an acid-secreting part to dissolve the food, and a muscular gizzard to compact the indigestible bits into a pellet. Based on the size of the scales in the larger pellet, found next to the adult, the fish it was eating was much larger than most fish fossils found at the site, the researchers note. That suggests that rather than opportunistically scavenging any fish that washed up onshore, K. sinensis may have been a hunter, actively choosing the largest prey it could catch.
2-8-22 Cutting down meat and dairy could help you live up to a decade longer
A new website based on the latest scientific research offers people an indication of how their dietary choices can affect their lifespan. Want to know roughly how much longer you might live if you permanently adopted a healthier diet? The “Food for healthy life” website can give you an idea – and if you’re under 60 and eat a typical Western diet, the answer could be around a decade or more on average. The website is based on data from hundreds of studies. “The estimated life extension is mainly due to a reduction in the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer,” says Lars Fadnes at the University of Bergen in Norway. His team started with recent meta-analyses of the effect of eating various amounts of particular food types, such as fruits. These findings were combined with data on global mortality and what people currently eat to estimate the impact of a permanent change in diet. The highest estimates of lifespan extension are based on a diet designed to maximise the health benefits. This optimised diet involves eating no red or processed meat, drinking no sugar-sweetened beverages, reducing dairy and egg consumption, and eating more legumes, whole grains and nuts. The team also looked at a “feasibility” diet midway between the typical Western diet and the optimised diet. A 20-year-old man who permanently switched from a typical Western to the optimised diet would reap the greatest benefits, living 13 years longer on average, and seven years longer if on the feasibility diet. For a woman, the equivalent figures are 11 and six years. Eighty-year-olds of either sex would reap the smallest benefits, living about three years longer on the optimised diet and slightly more than half that on the feasibility diet.
2-8-22 Are genetically modified pig organs the future of transplants?
Leading surgeon David Cooper talks about the dawn of a new era of transplantation in which organs for human transplants come from genetically modified animals. Few people know more about transplanting animal organs into humans than David Cooper. “I think this is the beginning of a complete revolution in transplantation,” he says. Cooper, a surgeon and researcher at Harvard Medical School, is referring to the creation of pigs genetically modified to make their organs more suitable for xenotransplantation – the use of organs from other animals in humans. A series of such transplants has made recent headlines. Late in 2021, two teams transplanted pig kidneys into people who were brain-dead in experiments lasting just a few days. Then, in January, a pig heart was transplanted into 57-year-old David Bennett, who is said to be slowly recovering with no signs of organ rejection by his body. The next step is to carry out clinical trials – Bennett’s transplant was permitted on compassionate grounds as a last resort, rather than as part of a trial. But Cooper, who wasn’t involved in these recent transplants, is confident that the approach will succeed. In fact, he thinks that with further development, organs from modified pigs will be better than donated human organs. “This is the first time in 70 years of organ transplantation that we’re able to modify the donor, as opposed to just suppressing the recipient,” he says. “And the more you can do to the donor organ, the less you have to do to the recipient. So I think the day will come, in not too many years, when we don’t need to give the recipient any treatment at all.” In 1968, Cooper was present at the first heart transplant done in the UK, where he trained as a surgeon. He later worked in South Africa under Christiaan Barnard, who did the first ever heart transplant. Cooper then moved to the US where, since the 1990s, he has focused on developing xenotransplantation to increase the number of available organs.
2-8-22 How we got from Gregor Mendel’s pea plants to modern genetics
Philosopher Yafeng Shan explains how today's understanding of inheritance emerged from a muddle of ideas. The year was 1900. Three European botanists — one Dutch, one German and one Austrian — all reported results from breeding experiments in plants. Each claimed that they had independently discovered some remarkable patterns in inheritance that had been noticed by Gregor Mendel decades earlier and reported in “Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden,” or “Experiments in Plant Hybridization.” All three relied on or built upon the work of the Austrian monk, whose experiments in pea plants are famous today as the foundation of genetics. Yet at the time, “there was no such discipline as genetics, nor was there a concept of the gene,” says Yafeng Shan, a philosopher of science at the University of Kent in England. Instead, there were many theories of how traits were inherited, including Charles Darwin’s theory of pangenesis, which described particles of inheritance called “gemmules” thought to be given off by all cells in the body and to collect in the reproductive organs. From the muddle of ideas, Shan says, those three reports at the dawn of the 20th century helped introduce Mendel’s work to other scientists in the fledgling field of heredity. That set the stage for the development of Mendelian genetics as we know it today, and no doubt played into a century’s worth of developments in molecular biology, from the discovery of the structure of DNA to the sequencing of the human genome and the rise of genetic engineering. But the path to our current understanding of the inheritance and variation at the heart of modern biology has been far more winding than most biology textbooks reveal. In the conversation that follows, Elizabeth Quill, special projects editor at Science News, talks with Shan about the origins of genetics and what progress over the past century tells us about the nature of science.
2-8-22 Paralysed man with severed spine walks thanks to implant
A paralysed man with a severed spinal cord has been able to walk again, thanks to an implant developed by a team of Swiss researchers. It is the first time someone who has had a complete cut to their spinal cord has been able to walk freely. The same technology has improved the health of another paralysed patient to the extent that he has been able to become a father. The research has been published in the journal Nature Medicine. Michel Roccati was paralysed after a motorbike accident five years ago. His spinal cord was completely severed - and he has no feeling at all in his legs. But he can now walk - because of an electrical implant that has been surgically attached to his spine. Someone this injured has never been able to walk like this before. The researchers stress that it isn't a cure for spinal injury and that the technology is still too complicated to be used in everyday life, but hail it nonetheless as a major step to improving quality of life. I met Michel at the lab where the implant was created. He told me that the technology "is a gift to me". "I stand up, walk where I want to, I can walk the stairs - it's almost a normal life." It was not the technology alone that drove Michel's recovery. The young Italian has a steely resolve. He told me that from the moment of his accident, he was determined to make as much progress as he could. "I used to box, run and do fitness training in the gym. But after the accident, I could not do the things that I loved to do, but I did not let my mood go down. I never stopped my rehabilitation. I wanted to solve this problem." The speed of Michel's recovery amazed the neurosurgeon who inserted the implant and expertly attached electrodes to individual nerve fibres, Prof Jocelyne Bloch at Lausanne University Hospital. "I was extremely surprised," she told me. "Michel is absolutely incredible. He should be able to use this technology to progress and be better and better."
2-7-22 Spinal implants let three people who were paralysed walk with support
Three people who were completely paralysed from the waist down due to spinal cord injuries can now walk while using wheeled walking frames or crutches for support, thanks to implants that electrically stimulate nerves in their back and legs. “All three patients immediately after the surgery were able to stand up and to step [with support],” says Jocelyne Bloch at Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland, who carried out the surgery. “On the first day, I was able to see my legs moving and it was very, very emotional,” says one of the recipients, an Italian man called Michel Roccati. After three to four months of training, he could walk outside using a walker. Several groups have been investigating using implants to stimulate nerves of the spinal cord in people who have injured them, but most have focused on people with lesser injuries and more intact nerves. The idea is that the stimulation makes the remaining nerves more excitable and so amplifies the weak signals from the brain to the legs, although it takes months of training. In the new study, the three men, who had all been injured for more than a year, had complete paralysis from the waist down. The instant results hinge on using purpose-built electrodes. “This is a monumentally huge step forward,” says Ronaldo Ichiyama at the University of Leeds, UK. “However, we need to see this reported in more people before we get too excited.” Roccati, who was paralysed in a motorbike crash in 2017, now uses the implanted device for 1 to 2 hours a day, including for going for walks on his own. He can also stand up for 2 hours, cycle and even swim, by choosing different stimulation programs. He finds walking or standing helps relieve pain caused by sitting in a wheelchair all day.
2-7-22 Why being pregnant and unvaccinated against COVID-19 is a risky combo
The coronavirus is a danger to babies and pregnant people, and the vaccines are safe, data show. Snow covered the storied field of Fenway Park in Boston when Kate Yohay, in the second trimester of her pregnancy, arrived. The ballpark had become a COVID-19 vaccination site, and Yohay was getting her first shot. “That’s going to be a historical moment for me,” she says. “Like what I remember my parents describing as the day they got their polio vaccines.” Yohay was about as enthusiastic to get the vaccine in early 2021 as one could be. She felt confident in the shots’ development. She was encouraged by the pregnant health care workers who had gotten vaccinated right away and given birth to healthy babies. She did worry whether she would develop a fever afterward and the risk that could pose to her baby. But “it’s still better than getting COVID,” Yohay says. “So for me, it was a small risk, and it was worth the risk.” Others who’ve been pregnant during the pandemic haven’t been so sure. Cumulatively, only 42.6 percent of pregnant people ages 18 to 49 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in the United States as of January 15, before or during their pregnancies. Yet unlike when Yohay rolled up her sleeve almost a year ago, there is now a great deal of data attesting to the safety of COVID-19 vaccination for pregnant individuals and their newborns. “Being vaccinated is one of the best ways that you can keep yourself and your baby safe during this time,” says nurse-scientist Ifeyinwa Asiodu of the University of California, San Francisco. The risks from developing COVID-19 when pregnant and unvaccinated were demonstrated again in a recent study from Scotland. From December 2020 until the end of October 2021, a period when vaccines were available, there were 4,950 confirmed coronavirus infections among pregnant women. Seventy-seven percent occurred in those unvaccinated, along with 91 percent of the 823 hospital stays and all but two of the 104 intensive care admissions, researchers report January 13 in Nature Medicine.
2-7-22 Covid-19 news: Chinese study predicts impact of ending zero covid
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Even with a high vaccination rate, abandoning zero covid policies could lead to millions of deaths, a study suggests. Researchers in China have estimated that lifting coronavirus restrictions in zero covid countries would cause around 2 million deaths in the next year, reports Reuters. Zero covid countries that aim to eliminate the spread of coronavirus rather than “live with it” include China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. China continues to place strict lockdowns on cities with coronavirus cases. Masks must be worn in public and travellers entering the country must isolate in designated hotels for at least 2 weeks. The Winter Olympics are currently taking place in Beijing, and people have been advised not to travel into the capital. According to Reuters, the researchers first calculated the efficacy of current vaccines using data on the CoronaVac vaccine in Chile and the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines in the UK. They estimated that current vaccines provide around 68 per cent protection against symptomatic disease, and that vaccines are currently 86 per cent effective at preventing death. The team then calculated that, even with a 95 per cent vaccination rate in zero covid regions, lifting pandemic restrictions would lead to more than 234 million infections, 64 million symptomatic cases and 2 million deaths within a year. Australia has announced plans to reopen its borders to vaccinated visa holders from 21 February. Over 90 per cent of people aged over 16 in Australia are fully vaccinated and the country saw its lowest daily cases this year of around 23,000 on 7 February. The move follows that of New Zealand last week, which announced a phased reopening of its borders from the 27 Feb. Hong Kong has reported a record 614 new cases on 7 February. The country’s health secretary Sophia Chan said cases were expected to rise exponentially. Around 80 per cent of the city have had at least one coronavirus vaccine, although older people remain mostly unvaccinated.
2-7-22 What we can learn about year 3 of COVID from the 1918 influenza pandemic
The influenza pandemic of 1918 did not end in 1918 or even 1919 — but it did fade from the headlines even as the death toll mounted in 1920, the third year of the pandemic, The Washington Post recounts. There are a lot of parallels between 1920 and now, at the beginning of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Post reports: Hopes for an end to the pandemic dashed by waves of infection and death from a new variant, Americans "weary of the limitations on daily life," and a reactionary lifting of "nearly all of the public health restrictions — such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and the closure of schools and churches." The flu did eventually transition from a deadly pandemic to "a milder, more seasonal nuisance," the Post says, but in the meantime, "the country's experience a century ago suggests that we could be in for a lot more pain — especially if we let our guard down." There are plenty of differences between COVID and the 1918 pandemic — influenza viruses and coronavirus are genetically distinct, for example; this coronavirus appears to mutate faster; but we now have "more-sanitary hospital conditions, better access to clean water, and — perhaps what is most notable — a vaccine," the Post notes. But some things are the same, like the limits to human endurance and the universal drive to know, as Tom Waits sings: "How's it going to end?" The answer to that is probably — probably — a critical mass of immunity from vaccines and previous infection. Still, "predictions of the virus's demise have been wrong every time," the Post reported later Sunday, in a look at the current state of the pandemic. "Most experts have given up trying. We are just one variant away from going through it all over again." That roller coast of uncertainty after five surges in two years has left a growing segment of the U.S. population "fatigued, frustrated, and frazzled," the Post adds, and determined to "simply live with the coronavirus and move on." "We'd like to be done," said Maurice Schweitzer, a behavioral scientist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "The problem is, it's a virus. It's not getting tired."
2-6-22 Why switching asthma inhaler could be better for you and the planet
The current aerosol asthma inhalers we use are cheap but, because of the gases they contain, are one of the NHS's biggest contributions to climate change. Other countries think alternatives are superior - and some patients in the UK who have switched say they are controlling their asthma better. So, could millions of people be prescribed different inhalers? "It's like there's a vacuum cleaner in your lungs trying to pull your air out." That's what an asthma attack feels like for nine-year-old Sebastian. Some of his attacks have needed treatment in hospital. A recent cross-country race left him keeled over on the floor struggling to breathe through the inflammation in his lungs and his tightened airways. "I fell over and my lungs felt like the air can't go in, it felt like there was nothing in me left," he says. Asthma runs in his family. His mum Caroline Sousek says the disease has "hugely dominated" her life since the age of three. It would start from the moment she woke up wheezing: "I would not go anywhere without an inhaler in my hand, it really affected what I was able to do and when I was able to do it." Both mum and son say they have transformed control of their asthma by changing their inhalers to ones that are also much better for the planet. "I just can't believe the impact it's had… it has literally been life-changing," says Caroline - speaking to me for BBC Radio 4's Inside Health. She and Sebastian still have "preventer" medication to reduce the risk of an attack and "reliever" medication in case one happens. But the crucial change for them, is how those drugs get into their lungs. Before, they had been using aerosol spray inhalers - also known as puffers or pressurised metered-dose inhalers. "The aerosol sprays contain a powerful greenhouse gas which is used to propel the medicine out of the inhaler and into the airways," says Dr Alex Wilkinson, an NHS consultant in Stevenage who specialises in lung diseases. The different gases - called hydrofluorocarbons - used in these inhalers are between 1,000 and 3,000 times more potent at warming the planet than carbon dioxide.
2-4-22 Medical crowdfunding rarely helps those who need it most
Only the most successful campaigns are highlighted on social media, giving a skewed impression of success. Online crowdfunding for medical expenses raises less money than social media posts suggest and deepens health care inequities, a new study reports. The first large-scale assessment of medical crowdfunding in the United States shows that people in states with higher medical debt and lower rates of insurance coverage are more likely to try to raise money through crowdfunding websites, but less likely to succeed. From 2016 through 2020, more medical campaigns on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe were started in low-income and under-insured communities, researchers report February 3 in the American Journal of Public Health. But campaigns in more affluent communities with higher rates of insurance coverage raised substantially more money. The study matched state and county census data with outcomes from more than 437,000 GoFundMe campaigns over the five-year period. During that time, more than $2 billion was raised, with the median campaign earning just under $2,000. The study also found that 16 percent of campaigns raised nothing, while less than 12 percent met their goal. “The returns were notably low compared with the needs people have for medical expenses,” says sociologist Mark Igra of the University of Washington in Seattle. “Even for those with insurance, it can be daunting. For those without insurance, it might be devasting.” Mississippi, for example, has the highest percentage of population with medical debt and is among the highest in percentage of uninsured, but crowdfunding campaigns there raised the least money of all 50 states. Vermont, on the other hand, raised the most. Its population had one of the lowest percentages of uninsured people and was around the middle of the pack in terms of percentage of population without medical debt.
2-4-22 ‘Origin’ explores the controversial science of the first Americans
A new book looks at competing theories of how the Western Hemisphere was settled. Scientific understanding of the peopling of the Americas is as unsettled as the Western Hemisphere once was. Skeletal remains, cultural artifacts such as stone tools and, increasingly, microscopic pieces of ancient DNA have sparked heated debates about which of several origin stories best explains available evidence. Additional conflict stems from a tragic scientific legacy of ignoring and exploiting Indigenous groups whose ancestries are on the line. Anthropologist and geneticist Jennifer Raff offers her take on the state of this fascinating and turbulent research field in Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas. Raff wants to tell the most accurate, if still incomplete, story of how humans settled the Americas by integrating research on ancient and modern DNA with archaeological finds. She refers to people who inhabited the Western Hemisphere before Europeans arrived as First Peoples, a term favored by some of her Indigenous colleagues. Most researchers think that ancestors of the First Peoples lived in Siberia and East Asia 20,000 years ago or more during the Ice Age, Raff explains. A consensus view holds that those groups eventually crossed a now-submerged expanse of land — the Bering Land Bridge — that connected northeastern Asia and North America. Analyses of ancient human DNA indicate that these migrants gave rise to populations that lived south of an ice sheet that ran across northern North America from around 80,000 to 11,000 years ago. But much remains unexplained. Raff delves into several competing models of how, when and where people first made inroads into the Americas. One approach holds that Ice Age Siberians, known from archaeological finds, reached North America between 16,000 and 14,000 years ago and, within a few millennia, journeyed south across the continent through a gap in the melting ice sheet. Those settlers probably founded the Clovis culture, known for its distinctive stone points (SN: 1/15/22, p. 22).
2-3-22 ‘VB’ is a new and more infectious variant of HIV – but it is treatable
The new variant has been found mainly in the Netherlands and it is more infectious, but it can be detected with existing tests and responds to treatment. A more transmissible and potentially dangerous variant of HIV has been found in Europe. The discovery means it is more important than ever for people at higher risk to test for the virus regularly and to start treatment immediately, say doctors. The number of new HIV infections – all known variants combined – has fallen globally over the past decade, thanks to widespread use of medicines that suppress the virus. The new variant, called VB, is just as treatable as ordinary HIV and can be detected using the same diagnostic tests used for other HIV variants. There are only 109 people known to be carrying VB, all but two of whom live in the Netherlands. But there could be more people infected who don’t know it. Researchers who sequence HIV should check their databases for more cases of the variant, says Chris Wymant at the University of Oxford. People with HIV – whether the VB kind or not – who take treatments now have near-normal lifespans and if they don’t miss doses, the virus becomes undetectable in their blood and body fluids, so they cannot pass it on even during sex without a condom. People without HIV can also take the same drugs to avoid catching it. The new variant was discovered through a project called Beehive. This is aimed at understanding the links between HIV genetics and disease severity, and is based on databases of HIV sequences from people in Uganda and eight countries in Europe. Wymant’s team initially found VB in 16 people in the Netherlands, one in Switzerland and one in Belgium. Further digging revealed the others, who are all in the Netherlands.
2-3-22 Japanese and English language folk songs evolved in the same way
Japanese folk songs evolved in the same way as those sung in English even though there are significant cultural differences in musical tone and scales. Japanese folk songs evolved in the same way as English language ones even though they are sung in different tones and scales. Patrick Savage at Keio University in Japan and his colleagues analysed the musical notation of more than 10,000 folk songs, including the well-known Child Ballads from the pre-20th century. Around 4125 of the songs were sung in English and 5957 were Japanese. The team defined a folk song quite loosely. “There are a lot of definitions, but we essentially said a folk song is an old song that has been orally transmitted between generations,” says Savage. There are a few differences between Japanese and English folk songs. For example, Japanese folk songs use a five-note musical scale, whereas English ones typically use a seven-note scale. They are also quite different tonally. The researchers, however, were looking specifically at how the two musical genres evolved and whether there were any similarities. They first converted the musical notations into letter sequences that could be read by an algorithm that usually tracks evolutionary changes in nature. “This algorithm can identify highly related pairs of melody,” says Savage. The nature of the subject matter influenced the analysis. “It is difficult to tell which version of a song or which style of melody came first,” says Savage. This means that when the researchers compared two similar songs, they couldn’t say for sure whether a difference in the number of notes between the two was due to an insertion or a deletion – so they treated all of these sorts of changes as the same. They could, however, distinguish insertion/deletions from note substitutions, where the number of notes in a melody is the same in two songs, but a given note has a different value in each song.
2-3-22 Chewing gum while pregnant linked to fewer premature births in Malawi
Malawi has the highest rate of premature births in the world, but a study suggests a simple intervention with sugar-free chewing gum can reduce the problem Chewing sugar-free gum twice a day during pregnancy is linked with a lower rate of premature births, suggests a large trial in Malawi. The effect seems to happen because the chewing gum reduces gum disease, which has previously been linked with a higher rate of preterm births. The trial was carried out in Malawi as it has the highest rate of preterm births in the world. More than 10,000 pregnant women visiting health centres were asked to take part, with half given a jar of the gum at monthly health checks and advised to chew it for 10 minutes in the morning and evening. The other half were given standard advice on looking after their teeth. Everyone also got dental check-ups at the start and end of the study. The preterm birth rate was 13 per cent in the gum-chewers, but 17 per cent in the comparison group. In another way of looking at the figures, for every 26 women who were given gum and advice, one preterm birth was prevented. Women who were given chewing gum typically saw benefits in their oral health. Those who went to their dental checks had fewer signs of gum disease – such as bleeding and receding gums – at the end of their pregnancy compared with the women given only standard toothcare advice. The explanation could be that in people with gum disease, harmful bacteria enter the bloodstream through bleeding gums and reach the placenta. The chewing gum contains the artificial sweetener xylitol, and previous work has found that xylitol reduces levels of the harmful mouth bacteria Streptococcus mutans. The trial would need to be repeated in high-income countries before we could conclude chewing the gum is similarly beneficial during pregnancy there, says Kjersti Aagaard at Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. “All folks in all settings are interested in optimising both their pregnancy health and that of their children.”
2-3-22 Woolly mammoth and other Ice Age remains found in Devon
The remains of a woolly mammoth have been found among a host of hugely significant Ice Age animal bones in a cave in Devon, experts have said. The bones, including those of a woolly rhinoceros, wolf and hyena, are thought to date to the last Ice Age - about 30,000 to 60,000 years ago. Archaeologists found the remains during work as part of the development of a new town near Plymouth. Lead archaeologist Rob Bourn said the finds were of "national significance". Mr Bourn, from Orion Heritage, an archaeological and heritage consultancy, said it had been "a once in a lifetime experience for those involved". The developers of Sherford, a new 5,500-home town which is being built, instigated archaeological work at the start of construction in 2015, which has continued ever since. He said: "Construction happening at Sherford is the sole reason these findings have been discovered and it is remarkable that they have laid undisturbed until now. "To find such an array of artefacts untouched for so long is a rare and special occurrence." Excavation during infrastructure work led to the discovery of the animal remains in an area near old lime kilns and Sherford Quarry. The archaeological team has so far found the partial remains of a woolly mammoth and a woolly rhinoceros, along with a virtually complete wolf skeleton and the partial remains of a hyena, horse, reindeer, mountain hare and red fox. The bones are now undergoing academic analysis but are expected to be given to the care of Plymouth's new museum, The Box. The Sherford Consortium - the team behind the development of the new town - said the underground area where the remains were found would be conserved and no construction would take place on top of it. But it said the entrance would be closed and it was not, nor would it be, possible for the public to safely access the area. Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, called the discovery "exceptional". He said: "To have found partial remains of such a range of species here in Devon gives us a brilliant insight into the animals which roamed around Ice Age Britain thousands of years ago, as well as a better understanding of the environment and climate at the time."
2-2-22 Don't miss: A rare chance to see a coveted natural history book
New Scientist's weekly round-up of the best books, films, TV series, games and more that you shouldn't miss. Strange Bedfellows accompany many of us through our lives, yet most of us know next to nothing about common sexually transmitted infections. Ina Park aims to change all that in this upbeat look at the science of STIs. Audubon’s Birds of America is a chance to see this rare, hand-coloured natural history book and to learn more about its controversial creator, John James Audubon. It is on show at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh from 12 February. Death by Shakespeare sees chemist Kathryn Harkup reveal the science behind some of the grisly methods used by the Bard to kill characters in his plays. Online talk by the Royal Institution on 10 February at 7pm GMT.
2-2-22 Study finds gene therapy treatment for leukemia still effective 10 years later
Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania say that 10 years after treating two leukemia patients with an experimental gene therapy, both men were still in remission. The doctors wrote about the cases in a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. The treatment is called CAR-T cell therapy, and involves genetically changing T cells so they immediately attack cancer, The Associated Press reports. The cells remain in the body for years, and as they evolve, they keep the cancer at bay. This was the first time the therapy has been studied for 10 years, the doctors said, and based on the results, "we can now conclude that CAR-T cells can actually cure patients of leukemia," said Dr. Carl June, an author of the study. The treatment only has to be done one time, with the patient's T cells collected, modified, and then returned through an IV. Doug Olson, one of the men who received the gene therapy, was first diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 1996. He said that several weeks after going through the treatment in 2010, his doctor told him, "We cannot find a single cancer cell in your body." Olson, 75, told AP he is still doing "great," and remains "very active. I was running half marathons until 2018. This is a cure. And they don't use the word lightly." The other patient doctors tracked also did well after the treatment, and died of COVID-19 complications last year. In the U.S. and several other countries, CAR-T cell therapies are now approved for some blood cancers, and scientists are hopeful that there will soon be similar treatments for other types of cancers.
2-2-22 Cheap blood test detects lung cancer at an early and treatable stage
Lung cancer screening has always been expensive, but a simple blood test that detects lipids associated with tumours may offer a cheaper alternative. A blood test that can detect lung cancer before people get symptoms may save lives by allowing early treatment. Lung cancer has a 63 per cent survival rate if it is caught early and hasn’t spread to other parts of the body. Once it spreads, the survival rate drops to 7 per cent. Catching lung cancer early is difficult because we don’t have any cheap, simple ways to screen for it. Chest CT scans can be used to look for tumours in the lungs, but they are expensive, expose people to radiation and can sometimes make false detections. Jun Wang at Peking University in Beijing, China, and his colleagues discovered a new way to detect lung cancer by checking people’s blood for unusual levels of nine different lipids – fatty molecules that are present in unusual amounts in tumours. They trialled the blood test in 1036 people over the age of 40 who didn’t have symptoms of cancer and were going for an annual physical examination. The test was over 90 per cent accurate at detecting those with lung cancer, as determined by a CT scan of each participant’s chest. The 13 individuals who were found to have lung cancer – mostly early stage – were treated by surgically removing their tumours. A benefit of the test is that it takes less than 90 minutes to complete, from taking a person’s blood to running it through a mass spectrometry machine to measure lipid levels and crunching the data, says Wang. The test is also relatively cheap and doesn’t expose people to any radiation, he says. Kwun Fong at the Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane, Australia, says the blood test looks promising and could potentially be used to screen people who are at high risk of developing lung cancer – for example, those who have a family history or are heavy smokers.
2-2-22 Medical dressing works like duct tape to seal internal wounds
Wounds in the gut can cause dangerous infections, but a sticky medical dressing can patch them up and allow them to heal. A transparent dressing inspired by duct tape has been shown to quickly heal internal injuries in rats. Leaks after gastrointestinal surgery can cause dangerous infections, affecting millions of people each year. Surgeons typically use stitches to help heal wounds, but these can form imperfect seals and heal abnormally, allowing bacteria from the gut to escape into nearby tissues. Now, Xuanhe Zhao at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues have designed a transparent, degradable dressing that helps gut wounds heal more effectively and quickly in rats and pigs, without leaking bacteria. While adhesive wound dressings are common on skin, the wet environments inside the body are a trickier place to apply them. Zhao and his colleagues designed their dressing to work like duct tape, which is only sticky on one side. Once it covers the wound, it quickly forms a hydrogel, an adhesive layer that can help the wound to heal. The dressing is flexible too, so it can work on wounds with a complicated surface topology. “The magic is that here you have something that is designed to work in these wet environments, but at the same time has these tissue-conformant features,” says Christoph Nabzdyk at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who helped test the patch in animals. The dressing also spreads out pressure around the wound, which is important as some wounds are weak for several days before they eventually heal. While the use of hydrogels in wound patches isn’t uncommon, the combination of the wet adhesive surface and a dry upper layer, as well as its flexibility, is novel, says Nuria Oliva-Jorge at Imperial College London. “Until now, we were using mostly sutures and staples because there were no good adhesives that could match the properties of the gut,” says Oliva-Jorge. “And they’ve made it with this dual patch.”
2-2-22 Interoception: This ‘sixth sense’ could be key to better mental health
How our brains interpret signals from within the body has a surprisingly big influence on the mind, an insight that is leading to new ways to tackle conditions like depression, anxiety and eating disorders. LYING in the dark, my senses are straining for inputs and finding none. I am floating in warm, salty water that is so close to my body temperature, I can’t tell where my body ends and the water begins. After a while, my senses go quiet and my focus turns inwards. Now, all I am aware of is my breathing and the surprisingly loud beating of my heart. I am inside a pod-like floatation tank to try to boost my powers of interoception. According to a growing body of research, interoceptive sensations – those that originate from within the body, from its tissues, organs and chemicals circulating in the bloodstream – hold the key not only to better mental well-being, but to revolutionary new treatments for common, yet hard-to-treat conditions like depression, anxiety and eating disorders. With several now in clinical trials, it is a change of direction that could see the focus on the brain alone in mental health become a thing of the past, offering hope of progress for millions. In recent years, it has become clear that to really understand mental health, you need to factor in just how much the brain cares about what is going on below the neck. For any animal, survival depends on how well it can detect physical changes that may signal a threat and to take appropriate action to get things back on track. Interoception is a bit like our sixth sense – the ability to detect these bodily changes, from heartbeat to changing concentrations of certain hormones in the blood, as well as the psychological expression of these as feelings and emotions. Integrated by the brain, these changing bodily sensations feed into our mental state and behaviour, consciously or unconsciously, and have a say in every thought and emotion we have. “Interoception is fundamental to every brain process and behaviour that there is,” says Hugo Critchley, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex, UK, who studies the process.
2-2-22 Anxious and neurotic personality traits linked to ASMR sensations
People who get weird sensations in their head and neck when they watch soothing videos are more likely to be anxious – but the tingles may give some relief. People who experience weird tingles in their head and neck known as autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) tend to be more anxious and neurotic than average. But watching videos that trigger these sensations – which may feature people whispering or getting a massage – can help them relieve anxiety in the short term, a small study has found. For those able to feel it, ASMR could be recommended as a relaxation technique, says Joanna Greer at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. The term ASMR only came into existence in 2010 after the phenomenon began to be discussed online, sparking a craze for videos of people whispering into microphones, tapping things, folding towels and giving massages, which can trigger the sensation. Those affected report a pleasant tingling starting in the scalp or neck that may spread. It is unclear how many of us are susceptible to it – estimates range from one in five people to far more. To find out more about ASMR’s effects, Greer and her team asked 64 people to fill in questionnaires that measured their levels of neuroticism and general anxiety, based on standard surveys. The volunteers were recruited from chat forums and YouTube channels about ASMR, and about half of them said they could experience it. Participants watched a 5-minute video in which a woman tapped, scraped and shook various objects, such as plastic containers and shiny cardboard packages. They also completed a survey to measure their anxiety levels just before and after watching the clip. When asked if they felt the characteristic tingles from the video, eight people who had been recruited as non-experiencers said they did get them and were then put into the experiencer group.
2-2-22 Omicron BA.2: What we know about the Covid sub-variant
The highly transmissible Omicron variant now accounts for half of the world's infections. But Omicron is an umbrella term for several closely related lineages of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, the most common of which is the BA.1 lineage. Now more countries, particularly in Asia and Europe, are reporting an increase in cases driven by BA.2. While BA.2 appears to be more transmissible than previous variants, there is no data yet to suggest that it is any more severe. So how worried should we be about this emerging variant? Here is what we know about it. As viruses mutate into new variants, they sometimes split or branch off into sub-lineages. The Delta variant, for example, comprises 200 different sub-variants. The same happened with Omicron, which includes the lineages BA.1, BA.2, BA.3 and B.1.1.529. BA.1 accounts for most of the cases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 99% of viral DNA submitted to the global GISAID database as of 25 January were identified as this sub-variant. While BA.1 and BA.2 are similar, they are 20 mutations apart. It is not clear where BA.2 originated, but it was first detected in the Philippines in November. The sub-variant of Omicron has been detected in 57 countries now, the WHO says. In some countries, BA.2 accounts for more than half of sequenced Omicron cases, it adds. In some places, growth in recorded cases of the sub-variant has been sharp. According to Denmark's Statens Serum Institut (SSI), BA.2 infections rose to account for about half of the country's reported Covid cases in January. India is another country where BA.2 is rapidly replacing the Delta and Omicron BA.1 variant, according to molecular biologist Bijaya Dhakal. It is already the dominant variant in several states and likely drove the country's recent third wave of infections.
2-2-22 A faulty immune response may be behind lingering brain trouble after COVID-19
Headaches and trouble thinking plague some people after a coronavirus infection. A tussle with COVID-19 can leave people’s brains fuzzy. SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, doesn’t usually make it into the brain directly. But the immune system’s response to even mild cases can affect the brain, new preliminary studies suggest. These reverberating effects may lead to fatigue, trouble thinking, difficulty remembering and even pain, months after the infection is gone. It’s not a new idea. Immune systems gone awry have been implicated in cognitive problems that come with other viral infections such as HIV and influenza, with disorders such as myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME/CSF, and even from the damaging effects of chemotherapy. What’s different with COVID-19 is the scope of the problem. Millions of people have been infected, says neurologist Avindra Nath of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. “We are now faced with a public health crisis,” he says. To figure out ways to treat people for the fuzzy thinking, headaches and fatigue that hang around after a bout with COVID-19, scientists are racing to figure out what’s causing these symptoms (SN: 4/27/21). Cognitive neurologist Joanna Hellmuth at the University of California, San Francisco had a head start. As someone who had studied the effects of HIV on the brain, she quickly noted similarities in the neurological symptoms of HIV and COVID-19. The infections paint “the same exact clinical picture,” she says. HIV-related cognitive symptoms have been linked to immune activation in the body, including the brain. “Maybe the same thing is happening in COVID,” Hellmuth says. She and her colleagues looked for differences in the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord in 13 people who had lingering cognitive symptoms from COVID-19 and four people who had no cognitive symptoms. The four people without cognitive symptoms had normal cerebrospinal fluid. But 10 of the 13 people who did have lasting symptoms had abnormalities in their fluid, some of which point to immune system reactions.
2-2-22 Health Check newsletter: The brain’s amazing adaptability
Clare Wilson sheds light on the brain's power to constantly remodel itself, the latest covid variant and why vitamin D cuts the risk of autoimmune disease I am learning to play the ukulele, and while progress is slow, it’s very satisfying when I memorise a sequence of finger movements and it becomes automatic. When that happens, I can’t help wondering what is going on in my brain. Some light is shed on that question by one of the most interesting science books I read last year: Livewired: The inside story of the ever-changing brain by neuroscientist David Eagleman. It is about neuroplasticity, how the brain constantly remodels itself in response to changing demands. Eagleman is developing devices that help people with disabilities make use of new kinds of sensory information. One such technology is a wristband for people who are deaf, called Buzz, which turns sounds into a pattern of vibrations on their wrists. You might think this would feel strange, but Eagleman says people quickly get used to it and start to interpret the sensations as something akin to hearing. When I interviewed him in May last year, Eagleman said: “When we talk to participants about this, we say: ‘Do you feel a buzzing on your wrist and you think, ‘Oh, that must be a dog barking?’’ They say: ‘No, I’m just hearing the dog.’” Now, a different group has developed a similar device to help people who are blind. Users wear goggles with a camera that turns information about their surroundings into a pattern of vibrations on a five-by-five grid worn on an armband. The developers say participants were able to navigate around obstacles on their first attempt. It’s funny, because a thought experiment in consciousness science is about how impossible it is for people to understand what it is like to be a bat, whose main sense for experiencing the world, echolocation, is so different to vision. The results for these new technologies suggest that, for all we know, “seeing” by echolocation may be a very similar experience to human sight. In fact, some people who are blind do learn to get around through echolocation, by clicking with their mouths.
2-2-22 Pioneering leukaemia therapy still working well after 11 years
Two people who were among the first to get CAR-T cells as blood cancer treatment still have descendants of the cells in their bodies that are working well more than a decade later. A high-tech gene therapy for treating cancer, which uses what are called CAR-T cells, has put two people with an otherwise fatal form of leukaemia into remission for about 11 years, the longest follow-up for this treatment yet. While the same success may not happen for everyone who responds to CAR-T cells, the long-lasting results are a landmark for the field, says John Marshall at Barts Cancer Institute in London, who wasn’t involved in this study. “It shows that when you get it right, it works very well.” “We can now conclude that CAR-T cells can cure patients with leukaemia,” says Carl June at the University of Pennsylvania, who has led work on the technique. Although the team can’t say for sure the leukaemia won’t return, it is a reasonable assumption after this length of time, says Martin Pule at University College London, who is independent of the work. CAR-T cells are currently used for people with various kinds of blood cancer, such as leukaemia and lymphomas, which don’t respond to other treatments. To make them, doctors take a sample of someone’s blood and extract T-cells, immune cells which normally attack tumour cells, but have failed to do so successfully in people with cancer. In the lab, the cells have the gene for an artificial receptor added to their DNA by a virus, and are encouraged to multiply by about 10-fold. A few weeks later, the modified cells are then reinfused into the person. In the first kind of CAR-T therapy to be developed, the cells target a molecule called CD19, found on the surface of B-cells, another branch of the immune system. These are what multiply out of control in leukaemia.
2-2-22 Genetically engineered immune cells have kept two people cancer-free for a decade
Doctors say long-lasting effects show CAR-T therapy can ‘cure’ some patients. In 2010, two blood cancer patients received an experimental immunotherapy, and their cancers went into remission. Ten years later, the cancer-fighting immune cells used in the therapy were still around, a sign the treatment can be long-lasting, researchers report February 2 in Nature. California resident Doug Olsen was one of the patients. “From a patient’s viewpoint, when you’re told you’re pretty much out of options, the important thing is always to maintain hope. And certainly, I hoped this was going to work,” Olsen said at a February 1 news briefing. The treatment, known as CAR-T cell therapy, used the patients’ own genetically engineered immune cells to track down and kill cancerous cells (SN: 6/27/18). Based on the results, “we can now conclude that CAR-T cells can actually cure patients with leukemia,” cancer immunologist and study coauthor Carl June of the University of Pennsylvania said at the briefing. Olsen and the other patient had chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Both responded well to initial treatment. But it was unclear how long the modified cells would stick around, preventing the cancer’s return. Cancer doctors and researchers “don’t use words like ‘cure’ lightly or easily,” said oncologist and study coauthor David Porter of the University of Pennsylvania at the briefing. But with both patients remaining cancer-free for more than a decade, he said, the therapy has performed “beyond our wildest expectations.” The biggest disappointment is that the immunotherapy doesn’t work for everyone, Porter added. Some people don’t respond to the treatment. Others can develop dangerous side effects (SN: 1/17/20). But researchers are “starting to learn the mechanism of why and how it works, so that we can start to get at how to make it work for more people,” he said.
2-1-22 Cervical swabs could identify people at high risk of ovarian cancer
A DNA analysis of cervical cells taken from routine smear tests could identify people who might benefit from additional screening for ovarian cancer. Molecular clues collected from routine cervical swabs can be used to identify people who have ovarian cancer. In future, these epigenetic patterns could help doctors predict which individuals are at high risk of developing the disease, so they can be screened with more sensitive methods to catch tumours early. Currently, 75 per cent of ovarian cancers are picked up at a late stage when the tumour has spread throughout the abdomen and survival rates are low. Martin Widschwendter at the University of Innsbruck in Austria and his colleagues have developed a new test that can correctly identify more than 70 per cent of people under 50 with ovarian cancer at a range of disease stages, and 55 per cent of people over 50. The method involves looking at cells from the cervix. In many countries, people are already offered regular smear tests, in which a small sample of cells is taken from the cervix, to search for signs that indicate a high risk of cervical cancer. To assess the likelihood of ovarian cancer, the new test looks for small molecules called methyl groups that are tagged onto certain sequences of DNA, creating epigenetic marks. “Epigenetic marks record the environmental factors that the individual has experienced. This includes events during embryonic development, but also lifestyle factors like smoking, and hormonal changes,” says Widschwendter. “In this way, the test provides a simple and easy-to-access method to assess many risk factors that contribute to ovarian cancer risk.” The researchers used machine learning to analyse DNA samples from cervical swabs of an initial group of 242 people with cancer and 869 healthy people. This allowed them to identify a unique signature of epigenetic marks found in DNA from people with ovarian cancer but not healthy people. They then validated their approach in a second data set collected from 47 people with cancer and 227 healthy samples.