Archive for June, 2008

Genetic Test Could Predict Breast Cancer Risk for Young Women

By Eliza Strickland | June 26, 2008 5:34 pm

test tubesIn a few years, young women may be offered a genetic test that would gauge their probability of developing breast cancer decades later. The test, which could be a simple mouth swab, could make women who are at high risk more vigilant and could lead them to detect the disease earlier, researchers say. But some doctors warn the results could cause serious psychological stress and would not identify all women at risk [Sydney Morning Herald].

Researchers know that a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer is based on both genetics and lifestyle. Currently, women with a strong family history of breast cancer are offered genetic screenings, but those tests only look for the rare genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, which have long been known to carry a high risk of the disease. The proposed tests, which researchers say are just a few years away, would also look at seven genetic variants… which have been discovered to increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer, particularly if she has certain combinations of them [The Guardian].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Lion Die-Off Shows How Climate Change Can Cause Epidemics

By Eliza Strickland | June 26, 2008 1:40 pm

lion sleepingWhen researchers warn of the dire consequences of global warming, they often mention that disease patterns for both humans and animals will change in a warmer world. In the most obvious scenario, infectious disease carriers like mosquitoes may increase their ranges, bringing tropical disease to northern climes. But there will also be far more subtle examples of the interplay between climate and disease, and researchers say they’ve found an early case that may be a harbinger of what’s to come. It’s not a canary in a coal mine, but rather a lion in the Serengeti.

A research team from Minnesota studied data from two extreme die-offs of lions; a 1994 incident when almost one-third of lions in the Serengeti National Park died, and a similar incident in the nearby Ngorongoro Crater area in 2001. Researchers found that those lions were infected by two diseases that usually occur in isolation. In 1994 and 2001, however, a “perfect storm” of extreme drought followed by heavy seasonal rains set up the conditions for the two diseases to converge, the study said [National Geographic News].

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Prehistoric Creature Moved from Sea to Land, but Went Extinct Anyway

By Eliza Strickland | June 26, 2008 9:48 am

water land animal tetrapodAround 365 million years ago, a fishy, finned creature that resembled a small alligator clambered up on a sandbank and earned its place in evolutionary history. Researchers who recently discovered fossils of the animal, named Ventastega curonica, say it’s the most primitive four-legged creature ever found. While it wasn’t the first “fishapod” to lurch out of the water (that honor goes to the Tiktaalik, which accomplished the feat about 375 million years ago), its more primitive evolutionary stage gives researchers new information about the earliest four-legged creatures, or tetrapods.

Ventastega was first described from a few bone fragments unearthed in Latvia in 1994, but it took additional years of excavation and the discovery of remains from many more individuals before scientists had a good idea of what the creature looked like. The latest portrait to emerge, from an especially well-preserved find, reveals an animal with a part-fish, part-tetrapod skull and a full-fledged tetrapod body. It would have spent the majority of its time on water and been clumsy on land [National Geographic News].

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Ancient Region of the Brain Controls a “Sense of Adventure”

By Eliza Strickland | June 26, 2008 8:56 am

question mark boxWhen a “new and improved” sign catches your eye and your hand starts to move towards the product, an ancient part of the brain called the ventral striatum is at work. Researchers say a new study shows that primitive portion of the brain is activated when people try something unfamiliar, which suggests that the impulse to seek out new things has conveyed an advantage ever since the early stages of evolution.

To conduct the study, which was published in the journal Neuron, researchers took brain scans of volunteers who were playing a game. The test subjects were shown cards and had to pick the one they thought had a monetary reward attached; after a few repetitions, they knew which cards were most likely to win them some money. Then researchers started introducing new cards and watched the reaction. “What we found is that people preferentially go for the ones they’ve never seen before,” [lead researcher Bianca] Wittmann says. Rather than stick with the familiar — a picture for which they’ve already figured out the probability of getting money — they’d rather take their chance on a new picture [ABC News].

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Big Sugar to Return a Big Chunk of Land to the Everglades

By Eliza Strickland | June 25, 2008 7:37 pm

evergladesThe governor of Florida announced yesterday that the state is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to conservation of the imperiled Everglades. The state has agreed to buy out U.S. Sugar for $1.75 billion, and will switch the company’s 187,000 acres of land from sugar cane fields to natural wetlands. U.S. Sugar’s property lies just south of Lake Okeechobee, the heart of the Everglades’ unique ecosystem.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist said the deal is “as monumental as the creation of our nation’s first national park, Yellowstone. This represents, if we’re successful, and I believe we will be, the largest conservation purchase in the history of the state of Florida” [AP]. Environmentalists are delighted by the conservation coup, and will be keeping their fingers crossed that everything goes as planned; under the proposal, U.S. Sugar will farm the land for six more years before turning it over to the state.

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Massive Asteroid Impact Made Mars Lopsided

By Eliza Strickland | June 25, 2008 3:53 pm

mars impact asteroidThey call it the Mars dichotomy, or say that the planet is “two-faced.” Researchers have known for decades that the Red Planet is divided between smooth, low-lying plains in the north, and craggy, cratered highlands in the southern hemisphere. Mars orbiters have also confirmed that the planet’s crust is thinner in the north.

Now, a new study offers an explanation for this strange phenomenon: Around 4 billion years ago, an enormous asteroid smashed into Mars and changed the character of its northern half. “This impact is really one of the defining events in Mars’ history,” said [study co-author] Jeffrey Andrews-Hanna…. “More than anything this has determined the shape of the planet’s surface” [USA Today].

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MORE ABOUT: asteroids, Mars

Obscure Diseases Take a Toll on America’s Poorest

By Eliza Strickland | June 25, 2008 11:07 am

dengue fever signCysticercosis. Brucellosis. Dengue Fever. The names of these diseases are not familiar to most Americans, and they’re so obscure that U.S. doctors often don’t think to check for them. But a new analysis shows that these infectious diseases, which are usually associated with developing countries in the tropics, are surprisingly common in the poorer areas of the United States.

Peter Hotez, the report’s author, says the diseases go untreated in hundreds of thousands of poor people who live mainly in inner cities, the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia and the Mexican borderlands…. Hotez says it is a “disgrace” that diseases causing so much suffering remain at the bottom of the national health agenda. “If this were occurring among white mothers in the suburbs, you’d hear a tremendous outcry,” says Hotez, a microbiologist at George Washington University [USA Today].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Whaling Conference Dodges Thorny Issues; Uneasy Truce Continues

By Eliza Strickland | June 25, 2008 10:57 am

pilot whalesThe International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting is almost always a quarrelsome affair, with Japan pressing for less stringent rules on whale hunting and environmental groups shouting about the need for stronger protections for the marine mammals. But this year’s meeting, which began on Monday, became strangely peaceful yesterday, as opposing sides celebrated a rare agreement–an agreement not to talk about the hard stuff until next year’s conference.

The most controversial topics before the commission are Japan’s demand to lift the ban on commercial whaling in its coastal waters, and a proposal by South American nations to create a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic where hunting would always be prohibited. The international commission agreed to table both of these questions, and decided that over the next year a 24-nation working group … will meet in private to thrash out the most contentious issues that have left the whaling body so deeply divided [Australian Associated Press (AAP)].

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MORE ABOUT: ocean, whales

Ubiquitous Electronic Chips Can Interfere With Pacemakers & Ventilators

By Eliza Strickland | June 25, 2008 8:40 am

RFID chipLittle electronic chips called radio frequency identification devices (RFIDs) have been popping up everywhere in hospitals, and for the most part that’s a very good thing. The small devices are attached to all sorts of objects to help hospital staff keep track of their equipment–the chips are even implanted in surgical sponges so doctors can make sure they haven’t left any inside their patients.

But a new study suggests that RFIDs may not be entirely safe in a hospital setting, and that the wafer-thin chips could interfere with critical hospital equipment like pacemakers and mechanical ventilators. When a team of Dutch researchers tested the chips’ effects on various medical devices, they found potentially dangerous interference in more than 15 percent of cases.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology
MORE ABOUT: hospitals, RFIDs

Where You Vote Could Influence How You Vote

By Eliza Strickland | June 24, 2008 6:17 pm

polling stationPeople may think they’re making up their own minds when they step into the voting booth on election day; they may think that the decision they make there is a product of careful reflection and personal values. But a new study suggests that voters may be swayed by the simplest factors, like the associations they have with the physical place where they vote. In the study, researchers showed that people who cast their votes in a school were more likely to support an education initiative.

“Seemingly innocuous factors can influence behavior,” said Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the study’s lead author. “There is a connection between location and the thing people are voting on” [ABC News Medical Unit].

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MORE ABOUT: decisions, voting

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