Friday, September 29, 2006
In our own time, we have become quite concerned about fast-evolving pathogens, like the flu virus. In 1918, a mutant strain of the flu caused millions of deaths all across the world, and as H5N1 spreads today, health worker are worried that it could change, and instantly become another number-one-killer. So, researchers at the CDC reconstructed the deadly 1918 strain, and have been examining its effects. It seems that that flu is so deadly because it incites a major immune overreaction in hosts - their own systems kill them trying to get at the virus! Learning how 1918 flu works will hopefully help us predict, treat, and prevent future pandemics.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Another way to have more kids is to, well, have more kids. Which is exactly what Ethiopian women seem to be doing in response to improved local water supplies. An intervention designed to improve their lives by bringing tapped water in to villages has had the secondary effect of increasing birth rates and childhood malnutrition. The theory was/is that improving environmental conditions would lower the birth rate (though I'm not sure why this would be thought to be the case), but reality seems to be that you need other factors too. Watching all the kids starve doesn't stop people from having them. Maybe they only get 'abstinence-only sex ed'?
However many babies you want, you probably want them to be healthy. So, prospective fathers (and mothers too!) should probably avoid solvent chemicals for a good while before trying to conceive: a study of male painters and carpenters found higher birth defect rates among the offspring of painters, who had high levels of organic solvent exposure. So it seems that stuff really is bad for you!
After being born, kids may need surgery. Someone has decided that space will be a good place to do that in the future, and the French are already trying it out, albeit in a very odd way: doctors will attempt to remove a tumor from a man's arm during 20-second intervals of zero-G on Airbus' version of the Vomit Comet. Does this strike anyone else as an unrealistic approximation, or simply just a bad idea?
And the obvious: a panel of US citizens, comissioned by Congress to discuss what Americans want in a health care system, report that Americans want affordable, accessible, universal health care. Needless to say, Congress is already ignoring the report and claiming that it's unrealistic.
Similarly, an IOM panel has found that the US drug system is "broken" and that major reforms (especially within the FDA) are needed. For the response to this report, see above.
Finally, via BoingBoing, this may be the coolest thing I've seen all week.
Monday, September 25, 2006
And, because it's hilarious: this. NSFW!!!
Friday, September 22, 2006
As much as I support wider and more effective HIV testing, I don't like the idea of it being done without proper consent and information. Especially since positive tests are reported to the Gub'men. Especially since, no matter how well-meaning Dr. Gerberding clearly is, there's still a major stigma against HIV positive folks, and that includes employment discrimination. So, I think this is a bit of a bad move.
Something else people keep getting despite knowing better is sunburns. A new compound, forskolin, mimics the effects of tanning (minus oxidative damage, we hope!) to give not only a healthy-looking tan, but also some protection from burning in mice. If it works, it could not only assist paley mcpalersons to tan, but also relieve the world of orange-tinted celebrities (a worthy goal).
And a new method of mosquito control: poisoning their food. While mosquitoes are most famous for blood-sucking, they feed on plant nectar for much of their calories, and Israeli scientists have had success at controlling populations by spraying mosquito-favored plants with pesticides. While I don't like the idea of more pesticide spraying at all, the potential to help control malaria is compelling to say the least.
Thursday, September 21, 2006
You probably also already know that the US spends more on lower-quality health care, but yet another study confirms it: the US ranks near the bottom on many quality measures, while on top for costs. And all those people talking about how the French system doesn't work? Well, actually they got top the marks for preventable death prevention.
And sometimes, you forget; Alzheimers Disease makes forgetting worse. And worse yet, some research suggests that AD may be self-propagating, like prion illnesses. I wonder about this in context of the amount of necrosis you see in AD brains - all that free lysozyme can do much damage, and I'm not sure why you need Beta-Amyloid to self-propagate. Interesting though.
Also cool, paleoanthropologists have unearthed an extraordinarily well-preserved 3-year-old A. afarensis (like 'Lucy') fossil in Ethiopia. A fantastic find!
As my brain continues to fry, I really wish I had the time or energy to really process all of this. So much cool stuff in just one week!
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
It seems that nicotinamide injections may help prevent the worst stages of chronic MS...the results aren't too clear yet, but any hope is really good for this debilitating, incurable condition.
Speaking of debilitating diseases, a new antimalarial drug is in the works that promises to be at least, an effective and inexpensive compliment to artimesin. The new drug, XC11, works by inhibiting Plasmodium's replication, a novel target of action. Cool!
And DC's HIV rates are still off the charts, even as New York seems to have a growing number of men on the down-low (or in denial, whichever).
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Monday, September 18, 2006
A couple of studies suggest that preventive diabetes treatment may help reduce disease incidence in at-risk populations. I'm always wary of this sort of thing, because it seems like we overmedicate so much as it is, we don't need yet another drug (with major side-effects) being tossed around like candy. Which is, let us be honest, what will happen if this use catches on. People don't want to change their lifestyles, they want to take a pill to make it OK.
On the good side, UK and Kenyan researchers have found that adding albumin to rehydration therapies makes young malaria victims much more likely to survive. Cool!
Friday, September 15, 2006
If you don't want your kids to get sick, get them that puppy (or kitten) they've been begging for: it seems that having pets may reduce the likelihood of getting sick by about 30 per cent. I want my puppies back!
On the other side of prevention, it seems that taking calcium supplements does not seem to improve bone density in kids. I wonder if that's because they're getting enough anyways?
Researchers offer hope for a reliable blood-test for TB, which could improve and ease screening, which would be great.
Two studies suggest that acupuncture is not only effective at treating back pain, but cost-effective as well. Good to hear.
Finally, a former Marine has been fitted with a bionic arm to replace one she lost in a motorcycle accident. She can control the limb with her thoughts alone - it responds to muscle movements in her chest and shoulder. This is ridiculously cool!
Thursday, September 14, 2006
The celestial object which forced astronomers to strictly define a 'planet,' thus stripping Pluto its status as such, has been officially named Eris, after the goddess of chaos. The name seems appropriate, but I kinda liked its old name, Xena.
The 'obesity epidemic' is clearly happening, but lots of people blow it out of proportion. For instance, I simply do not believe that there are more overweight people on Earth than there are undernourished. For starters, there's some overlap between those groups, and secondly we have no good definitions for either.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Prevention is best, but sometimes people get sick, and we need to cure them. Depression is a tricky disease to treat, in that all patients respond differently to treatments, and comorbitites (having other diseases at the same time) are very common. One common comorbitity is smoking: depressed patients smoke more, making them more likely to get physically ill as well. It seems that one reason for this is that nicotine may lessen depression symptoms. A small number of nonsmoking depression patients were given nicotine patches, and showed more improvement than controls. The study is tiny, but could suggest big results later.
Another increasingly common (and debilitating) disease is adult-onset (type 2) diabetes. Research has already suggested a possible cure for Type 1 Diabetes using pancreatic autotransplantation, but Us researchers have now found that they may be able to cure Type 2 Diabetes in a similar way. This is very exciting news!
Sometimes a cure is there, but hard to take. Hepatits C is treated with a vicious combo of drugs - interferon and ribavirin - that cause such side effects that patients often don't comply, leaving their livers to be destroyed by the virus. Some patients from a UCSF center smoked pot during their treatments, and they were not only better able to comply, but it's possible that the pot even helped treatment! This is a bit of a no-brainer, mostly: we know pot's good for nausea, anorexia, and depression - if it wasn't for stupid politics, doctors would give it to these patients as a matter of course. But, it's nice to have (even) more evidence!
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
You probably also thought that lifting weights was good for you. It may be, mostly, but new evidence suggests that it may increase intraocular pressure, leading to increased risk of glaucoma. This probably only really applies to serious muscleheads - you know, the kind who make all kinds of noise at the gym and lift way too much weight and have no necks - but still, blindness costs us all.
If working out was good, you probably thought that viruses - especially retroviruses - were bad. Not so! Evidence suggests that 'viral stowaways,' or old retroviruses long integrated into host DNA, can play critical roles not only in forming immunity to infectious forms, but also in assisting development. Cool!
Paternal pheromones may supress development in daughters, meaning that girls who grow up without their dads seem to go through puberty earlier. This could help explain the recent trend of girls hitting puberty younger and younger. And hey, while your at it, school is making kids depressed. Duh.
Brown kelp may hold a promising new anti-obesity treatment. Another magic pill, yay!
Finally, the EU is trying to decide what constitutes vodka, and which is best. Brussels just loves regulation...
Monday, September 11, 2006
Also affecting the surface of bacterial cells, Seattle researchers have found evidence that the peptide sequence of proteins dictated by DNA may not be what finally gets constructed: it seems that the proteosomes can alter this order to finalize functional proteins. This is really surprising news, and could potentially rock all kinds of boats in the scientific world.
In diseases not caused by bacteria, research suggests that the avian flu H5N1 may be so lethal because it reproduces much better than other strains. Patients who died from the disease had much higher viral loads (and thus inflammatory responses) than did patients with non-lethal flus. Interesting...
The gene that causes cystic fibrosis, a debilitating (and usually fatal) genetic disease, may persist in the population by protecting, in heterozygotes, from tuberculosis. The researchers suggest that CF patients are deficient in a protein that TB needs to survive, and that this resistance explains why such a toxic gene is not weeded out by natural selection.
Saturday, September 09, 2006
Friday, September 08, 2006
Speaking of over-parenting, MSNBC is reporting on how pushy/hypercompetetive parents are demanding that pediatricians put their kids on stimulants to get an edge in school. This isn't really news and it really isn't surprising, but it is slightly infuriating. These parents are clearly only concerned with how they look, in the eyes of their peers - having the valedictorian kid who got in to Harvard (or Yale, or whatever the Family School is) is more important than said kid's health now or later on. The problem is, it's really hard for doctors to keep saying no; these are the kinds of parents who'll sue for such things.
Maybe the mom's just don't hear the doctors' warnings: it seems that hormone replacement therapy including progestin is associated with accelerated hearing loss. This is a small study, and I would argue that it may not be too well controlled, but this could be a very interesting finding. Does progesterone affect calcium and potassium levels?
A formerly vegetative patient, who claims to have been aware but unable to respond while in that state, was studied by fMRI, and doctors claim she was able to respond to them with her thoughts. I'd like to buy this study a lot more than I do, but it just strikes me as a bit dubious.
Thursday, September 07, 2006
And this...well, it just made me laugh.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Of course, it's also a major step in creating our future cyborg overlords, but hey. Look on the bright side.
It's harder to find a bright side for new evidence of nearly untreatable strains of TB. Researchers in the US, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa are finding strains of TB which are resistant to more than half of available treatments, granting the classification Extreme Drug Resistant (XDR) TB. This is really bad news. But, always look on the bright side: now that we're aware of the problem, we can step up research for new treatments, right?
Speaking of looking, don't look at me. At least not when you're thinking about what I'm saying. A study to be published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology will suggest that looking in the 'middle distance,' or staring off into space, helps people concentrate on numerical and arithmetic tasks. They tested 5-year olds as well as adults, so it would seem that the effect spans ages and educational levels.
Another study on study habits, this one from PNAS and woefully small (n = 14, which gives me zero confidence in the result), suggests that multi-tasking, such as watching TV or IM'ing, harms performance on learning tasks. But, el WaPo's characteristically condescending tone is not helpful: it derides kids who have study habits their parents don't like (listening to music, TV, etc.) and suggests that this study's evidence is much more convincing than it is. Similarly, the study was done on twenty-somethings, who did not necessarily grow up in such a media-rich environment. Previous studies have shown that kids today are better at multi-tasking than older generations are. Plus, the article's own example kids prove its point wrong: while the father "would rather have them study in silence," his preference is just that: his daughter studies while listening to music, and clearly does well in school (she's going to Columbia). If forced to study his way, she might not.
Then there's the study itself: the learning task was an object-sorting task (which involves both passive learning and motor activity), and instead of watching TV or IM'ing, subjects counted beeps while learning. Counting involves your working memory all the way through: you have to actively remember the last number in the beep sequence, and more likely involves the same (or more similar) brain processes as the learning task, whereas TV, radio, or IM may involve very different ones.
And finally, looking better. Researchers have found that peptide YY, released when we eat protein-containing foods, makes us feel more full and leads to weight loss. This explains some of the beneficial effects of the Atkins diet, but still doesn't recommend it. Not even a little.
PS: Foreboding. Last night I had a dream where I went to watch an execution, and as the ashes of the condemned were flung like confetti to the cheering mob, I was in back, watching a giant golden-colored wild horse be broken. My dream-companion said that he thought it was more beautiful untamed, and I agreed. Perhaps not the best dream to have my second morning of grad school?
Sunday, September 03, 2006
On the other end of being healthy, it seems that eating lots of cured meats could harm your lungs: nitrogen compounds used in the curing process may be causing oxidative stress, reducing lungs' elasticity. This is an interesting find, but I'm not about to stop eating lunch meats over it.
Finally, researchers have found a gene - DUF1220, whose function is unknown - of which we humans have 212 copies, chimps have 37, and rats have one. This difference in copy number may have to do with how and why our brains develop differently than the other animals' do...and perhaps shed light on how we became human. Very cool.
Friday, September 01, 2006
On the other hand, there is good news in the air for HIV vaccine researchers: a Swedish study has found that air-pressure injection of a dual HIV vaccine (HIV DNA and a viral gene host) induced very promising immune responses in humans. Could a vaccine be on the way? Anything's possible, but I'm afraid I'm not very hopeful.
More hopeful still is news that gene therapy seems to have cured two men of skin cancer. But with such a low rate of success (2/17), it's unclear how real this is.
In prevention news, it seems that obese men are less fertile, and that drinking fruit juice may help prevent Alzheimer's. Does this mean that the next generation will be skinnier, and do Greyhounds count? (Probably: "no" and "sortof.")