To make one of the most sensitive diagnoses, hospitals might do well to call in a computer program. Researchers created a program that can sift through medical records and flag those patients who show signs of domestic violence. While emergency room doctors are always on the lookout for telltale signs, it may be hard to make the diagnosis from one or two isolated incidents. With this program, says lead researcher Ben Reis, “You are potentially able to detect high abuse risk years ahead of time: you don’t wait for a very bad thing to happen” [New Scientist].
Researchers first let the program scan through more than 350,000 medical records which included a substantial number of people who were eventually diagnosed as victims of domestic abuse, and asked the program to look for differences in their medical histories. The computer came up with a collection of risk factors that were highly associated with a future diagnosis.
Breast-feeding may significantly cut a woman’s risk of breast cancer if she has an immediate relative that has ever had the disease, according to a study published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.
Among women with close family members who have had breast cancer, the risk of developing the disease before menopause sank by 59 percent if she ever breast-fed, according to the research, which used data from more than 60,000 subjects of the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study. The risk of breast cancer in women without the disease in the family was unaffected by breast-feeding. The findings suggest that breast-feeding may prove just as effective a strategy for high-risk women as the use of Tamoxifen, a drug that interferes with estrogen activity and is often used in high-risk women to reduce breast cancer risk [The New York Times]. For women with a high risk of breast cancer, due to factors like a family history of the disease or a genetic predisposition to develop it, the only preventive measures currently used are Tamoxifen and the prophylactic removal of the breasts.
To obtain a steady supply of unfertilized human eggs for medical research, New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board recently authorized paying women to donate their eggs. The decision has set off a new round of discussion about whether paying for eggs is ethical. The board agreed that women can receive up to $10,000 for donating eggs, a painful and sometimes risky process…. Proponents say compensating women for their eggs is necessary for research, and point out that women who give their eggs for fertility purposes are already paid. Others worry that the practice will commodify the human body and lead to the exploitation of women in financial need [The New York Times].
At the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research this week, British researcher Alison Murdoch described a less controversial “egg sharing” program that has met with success. Women struggling to conceive can obtain IVF at a discounted rate, in exchange for donating some of their eggs for research…. In 2008, Murdoch’s team had 191 enquiries from interested women and ended up obtaining 199 eggs from 32 couples. “We are getting donors and we are getting eggs,” says Murdoch. The team is using the eggs in experiments into “therapeutic cloning”, which could ultimately produce stem cells matched to individual patients [New Scientist].
A major new lawsuit is challenging the notion that human genes can be patented just like the latest mousetrap built by a basement inventor. The case focuses on two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, that are linked to a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and which were patented by the company Myriad Genetics more than 10 years ago. Now, the ACLU has organized a lawsuit backed by organizations representing more than 100,000 doctors and geneticists, and will argue that the information contained in each person’s DNA should not be private property.
The plantiffs also include individual cancer patients like Genae Girard, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, and took Myriad’s genetic test to see if her genes also put her at increased risk for ovarian cancer, which might require the removal of her ovaries. The test came back positive, so she wanted a second opinion from another test. But there can be no second opinion [The New York Times]. Since Myriad owns the patent to both the two genes and the test that looks for them, no other company can develop a competing test.
Researchers may have finally figured out the mechanism of the tragic birth defects caused by thalidomide, the drug taken by pregnant women in the late 1950s as a remedy for nausea: It is thought to have inhibited development of new blood vessels at a crucial stage in the pregnancy.
Women usually took the drug at about five to nine weeks into their pregnancy to combat morning sickness, a specific window that lead researcher Neil Vargesson says “is crucial as that is when the limbs of babies are still forming…. The blood vessels involved in this process, at this stage of pregnancy, are still at an immature stage when they rapidly change and expand to accommodate the outgrowing limb” [BBC]. The most common birth defects caused by thalidomide were babies born with stunted or malformed limbs.
A group of researchers has found stem cells in the ovaries of mice that they say can be prodded to become new eggs, which can then be fertilized to produce healthy offspring. The provocative findings challenge one of the most fundamental assumptions in biology: that female mammals, including women, are born with all the eggs they will ever have…. While much more research is needed to confirm and explore the findings, the work raises the tantalizing possibility that it could someday lead to new ways to fight a woman’s biological clock, perhaps by stockpiling her egg-producing cells or by stimulating them to make eggs again [Washington Post].
In the study, published in the journal Nature Cell Biology, researchers wrote that the stem cells were cultured for more than six months and then transplanted into the ovaries of infertile female mice, … adding that eighty percent of these mice went on to produce offspring after natural mating [Reuters].
The preference for sons in traditional Chinese families has led to a vast gender disparity in China: A study has found that there are currently 32 million more boys than girls under the age of 20. While Chinese officials have acknowledged that the country’s “one-child” policy has led to a gender imbalance, the new study offers the first hard data on the extent of the disparity. The study included nearly five million people under the age of 20 and covered every county in China. It found that overall ratios of boys were high everywhere, but were most striking among the younger age group of 1-4 years, and in rural areas, where it peaked at 126 boys for every 100 girls [The Wall Street Journal blog].
With the greatest imbalance occurring with very young children, the researchers say that China will be grappling with the problem for 20 years. The imbalance is expected to steadily worsen among people of childbearing age over the next two decades and could trigger a slew of social problems…. “If you’ve got highly sexed young men, there is a concern that they will all get together and, with high levels of testosterone, there may be a real risk, that they will go out and commit crimes” [AP], says study coauthor Therese Hesketh.
A double-whammy method of screening for ovarian cancer, which is sometimes called the silent killer, seems to catch many cases in the early stages when the disease is more curable, researchers say. A massive study tested the impact of two types of screening: One is a blood test which measures the levels of a protein called CA125, which is often higher in women with ovarian cancer. The other is an ultrasound scan that looks for abnormalities in the ovaries [The Guardian]. When used in conjunction, the two tests showed great promise in catching cancer cases early on.
Ovarian cancer is one of the most lethal types of cancer. About 21,000 U.S. women are diagnosed each year and more than 15,000 die. The high death rate is due to the fact that the disease is often detected at a late stage of development, when chances for a cure are much lower [Los Angeles Times].
However, many of the women in the study had false positive results, especially those who received only an ultrasound test, leading some to unnecessarily have their ovaries removed. Lead researcher Ian Jacobs cautioned that “women thinking of having [an ultrasound screening] must understand and realize that there’s a possibility it will do more harm than good. We have reason to think it will save lives,” he added, “and then the question is, will it save enough lives to balance out the harm it does?”[The New York Times].
Lab rats who were exposed to alcohol while in the womb had a skewed sense of taste and showed a marked preference for ethanol as young rats, researchers say. The findings may shed new light on why human studies have previously linked fetal alcohol exposure to increased alcohol abuse later in life, and to a lower age at which a person first starts drinking alcohol [New Scientist].
The taste of alcohol has both sweet and bitter components, and study coauthor Steven Youngentob wondered whether prenatal exposure could affect how rats respond to those elements. He gave young rats a choice between ethanol, sweet water flavored with sugar, and bitter water flavored with quinine. Those rats whose mothers had consumed alcohol while they were pregnant preferred ethanol and the bitter water. By contrast, rats who were not exposed to alcohol tended to plump for the sweeter alternative [Telegraph].
A compound often used in cosmetics and foods like ice cream may soon find a loftier use: Researchers say a topical gel containing the compound has shown great promise in preventing HIV infection. An effective vaginal gel would be particularly useful in Africa, where the virus is most commonly passed through heterosexual contact. Researchers say that while the current formulation of the compound does not provide 100 percent protection, it might greatly reduce a woman’s risk of being infected, and she could use it privately and without hurting her chances of pregnancy [Reuters].
The compound, glycerol monolaurate (GML), already has FDA approval because it’s used as an emulsifier in some foods and cosmetics; it’s also found naturally in breast milk. What’s more, the price for the compound is right: each dose used in the experiment cost about one cent.
The research marks a new approach to microbicides, as most other gels under development try to kill the virus outright or prevent it from attaching to cells. In contrast, GML stifles the host’s own inflammatory response that typically summons the immune cells targeted by the virus. “Even though it sounds counter-intuitive, halting the body’s natural defence system might actually prevent transmission and and rapid spread of the infection,” said chief investigator Ashley Haase [AFP]. Since GML prevents the immune cells from gathering, the HIV virus can’t infect them all and spread through the body.