It might not just be expectant mothers who have to pay attention to their lifestyle. Now a new study published in Science could be relevant to a growing body of research looking at ways in which the lifestyle and environment of men before they become fathers could influence the lives of their children and grandchildren.
We know that many human traits, such as weight, height, susceptibility to disease, longevity or intelligence, can be partly inherited, but researchers have so far struggled to identify the precise genetic basis for this. This may partly be due to limitations in our understanding of how genetics works, but now there is growing interest in the potential for something called “epigenetics” to explain this heritability. Read More
My sample kit from uBiome stared at me from the kitchen table. Inside its sleek black cover, latched with Velcro, a single high-tech Q-tip awaited. On some morning of my choosing, I was to dab that Q-tip on a piece of used toilet paper, seal it up, and send tiny particles of my excrement back to the uBiome headquarters in downtown San Francisco. There, researchers would parse it and let me know what organisms squirmed around my intestines.
uBiome, a biotech startup, exists to help people explore their microbiomes — the population of tiny organisms that live inside you, outnumbering your own cells 10(ish) to 1(ish). I wanted to know how my own microbiome compared to other people like me: youngish people who run a lot who are generally healthy but sometimes eat large cheeseburgers.
But like other genetic test providers, including 23andMe and Ancestry.com, the company has a second and less visible objective. Users participate out of curiosity, health concerns — or, in the case of the still-nascent science of the microbiome, sheer novelty. But their data is the ultimate prize, which those companies, with participant permission, can study, share, and sell.
When you drop a piece of food on the floor, is it really OK to eat if you pick up within five seconds? This urban food myth contends that if food spends just a few seconds on the floor, dirt and germs won’t have much of a chance to contaminate it. Research in my lab has focused on how food and food contact surfaces become contaminated, and we’ve done some work on this particular piece of wisdom.
While the “five-second rule” might not seem like the most pressing issue for food scientists to get to the bottom of, it’s still worth investigating food myths like this one because they shape our beliefs about when food is safe to eat.
So is five seconds on the floor the critical threshold that separates an edible morsel from a case of food poisoning? It’s a bit a more complicated than that. It depends on just how much bacteria can make it from floor to food in a few seconds and just how dirty the floor is.
“Cannabis is like a medicine cabinet,” says Roger Pertwee, who was instrumental in some of the early cannabis trials for multiple sclerosis. “It has a lot of compounds in it that are novel and unique to cannabis. We have discovered 104 so far, but there are others. There are many potential uses that we have to investigate.”
Pertwee is Professor of Neuropharmacology at the University of Aberdeen and also GW’s Director of Pharmacology (some of his research at the university is funded by the company). His work, alongside that of other researchers including Raphael Mechoulam and Vincenzo Di Marzo, is instrumental in our understanding of the endocannabinoid system, a network of lipids and receptors involved in a wide array of bodily processes, including appetite, memory, pain and mood.
We have two types of cannabinoid receptor: CB1, which is mostly found in the brain and spinal cord, and CB2, which is found mainly on cells in the immune system. These receptors are activated by cannabinoids made by the body (endocannabinoids) as well as synthetic cannabinoids and those present in plants.
Where should medical research focus its efforts exploring medical cannabis? Many prominent researchers, including Pertwee, believe that the individual components of cannabis are more effective than using the whole plant. Focusing on components would also obviate the need for a patient to smoke.
Areas of interest to researchers across the world include the possible therapeutic use of THC (the main psychoactive component of cannabis), CBD and other cannabinoids to treat autoimmune diseases, diabetes, cancer, inflammation, seizures and even psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia.
If you’re afraid of needles, here’s some good news: you may not always be stuck with getting shots.
At present, injections are the best way to deliver certain kinds of drugs. For example, vaccines and drugs like insulin are made of large molecules that you can’t take orally because they would break down in your digestive tract. Some antibiotic and antiviral medications are also given as injections for this reason.
But needles suck. About 10 percent of patients who need regular injections don’t comply with their doctors’ instructions, according to 3M, partly because self-administering injections is difficult and painful. And injectable drugs are a hassle, too: they have to be stored at cold temperatures and have a limited shelf life.
That’s why biotech companies around the world are working on needle-free ways to deliver these drugs, with everything from high-tech pills to simple do-it-yourself patches.
Ever fancied having a superpower? Something you can call upon when you need it, to hand you extra information about the world? OK, it’s not X-ray vision, but your eyes do have abilities that you might not be aware of.
We are all familiar with color and brightness, but there is a third property of light: “polarization,” which tells us the orientation in which light waves are oscillating. Animals, like bees and ants, use the polarization patterns in the sky as a navigation aid. But few people, even in the scientific community, are aware that humans can sense the polarization of light with the naked eye.
In research we’ve just published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, we used an experiment that was originally designed to test the visual abilities of octopuses and cuttlefish to investigate our human ability to perceive this polarized light.
“Breast is best”. So goes the message from the international and clinical guidance on what milk mothers should feed their babies. But it’s also more worryingly been adopted by a growing online community of adults wanting to buy and consume expressed breast milk for its perceived health benefits – or due to sexual fetishes.
Some online forums suggest cancer patients should drink breast milk because it is supposedly easier to digest, better tolerated, and full of immune benefits, including immunoglobulin (a protein used by the immune system). Meanwhile, fitness and diet forums preach the nutritional, energy or recovery benefits of such milk, suggesting it can work as a supplement to workout or bulking regimes.
A number of websites and online forums cater to those wishing to buy, sell and trade breast milk, alongside the use of more general social media platforms. This online marketplace allows women who are expressing milk to advertise with text and images, communicating details such as cost per ounce and a description of mother, milk and baby. Buyers can also advertise on such forums, detailing their own needs and volume requirements.
Individuals can then contact each other either to meet or arrange transport for the milk, which is often frozen or packed in dry ice, and shipped by express post or courier. Notably, the quality of packaging greatly varies, and studies have shown high levels of damage in transit.
The popularity of these sites varies by country depending on the availability of government-subsidized milk banks. But in the US, where regulated milk banks are costly, and the UK, where adult buyers are not catered for, online selling communities have been growing. New country-specific websites are now being launched, including using .co.uk addresses. Such growth has led commentators to label online breast milk sale a “booming market” around the world.
There is a good chance that your grandparents were born at home. I am going to go ahead and assume they turned out fine, or at least fine enough, since you were eventually born too and are now reading this.
But since the late 1960s, very few babies in the United States or the UK have been born outside of hospitals. As a result, you may find the new guidelines from the UK’s National Institutes for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) just as surprising as I did. For many healthy women, the NICE guidelines authors believe, there may be significant benefits to going back to the way things were.
Shortly after the NICE guidelines were issued, the New England Journal of Medicine invited me to write a response. The idea that any pregnant patient might be safer giving birth outside the hospital seemed heretical, at least to an American obstetrician like me. Knowing that no study or guideline is foolproof, I began my task by looking for holes to form a rebuttal.
I soon realized that this rebuttal largely hinged on flaws in the American system, not the British one. While we take excellent care of sick patients, we do less well for healthy patients with routine pregnancies – largely in the form of turning to medical interventions more than strictly necessary.
As the guidelines suggest, some women in the UK with low-risk pregnancies may be better off staying out of the hospital. Why? Because the significant risks of over-intervention in hospitals, such as unnecessary C-sections, may be far more likely (and therefore more dangerous) for patients than the risks of under-intervention at home or in birth centers. But women in the UK have access to greater range of settings where they can give birth. For women in much of the US, the choice is often the hospital or nothing.
The need to mend broken hearts has never been greater. In the USA alone, around 610,000 people die of heart disease each year. A significant number of those deaths could potentially have been prevented with a heart transplant but, unfortunately, there are simply too few hearts available.
In 1967 the South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first human heart transplant in Cape Town. It seemed like a starting gun had gone off; soon doctors all around the world were transplanting hearts.
The problem was that every single recipient died within a year of the operation. The patients’ immune systems were rejecting the foreign tissue. To overcome this, patients were given drugs to suppress their immune system. But, in a way, these early immunosuppressants were too effective: they weakened the immune system so much that the patients would eventually die of an infection. It seemed like medicine was back to square one.
Kevin Tracey, a neurosurgeon based in New York, is a man haunted by personal events – a man with a mission. “My mother died from a brain tumor when I was five years old. It was very sudden and unexpected,” he says. “And I learned from that experience that the brain – nerves – are responsible for health.”
This background made him a neurosurgeon who thinks a lot about inflammation. He believes it was this perspective that enabled him to interpret the results of an accidental experiment in a new way.
In the late 1990s, Tracey was experimenting with a rat’s brain. “We’d injected an anti-inflammatory drug into the brain because we were studying the beneficial effect of blocking inflammation during a stroke,” he recalls. “We were surprised to find that when the drug was present in the brain, it also blocked inflammation in the spleen and in other organs in the rest of the body. Yet the amount of drug we’d injected was far too small to have got into the bloodstream and traveled to the rest of the body.”
After months puzzling over this, he finally hit upon the idea that the brain might be using the nervous system – specifically the vagus nerve – to tell the spleen to switch off inflammation everywhere.
It was an extraordinary idea – if Tracey was right, inflammation in body tissues was being directly regulated by the brain. Communication between the immune system’s specialist cells in our organs and bloodstream and the electrical connections of the nervous system had been considered impossible. Now Tracey was apparently discovering that the two systems were intricately linked.
The first critical test of this exciting hypothesis was to cut the vagus nerve. When Tracey and his team did, injecting the anti-inflammatory drug into the brain no longer had an effect on the rest of the body. The second test was to stimulate the nerve without any drug in the system. “Because the vagus nerve, like all nerves, communicates information through electrical signals, it meant that we should be able to replicate the experiment by putting a nerve stimulator on the vagus nerve in the brainstem to block inflammation in the spleen,” he explains. “That’s what we did and that was the breakthrough experiment.”