The Unknown Chinese Woman Who Helped Find a Treatment for Malaria

Among the three scientists awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work against parasites was Tu Youyou, an octogenarian pharmacologist whose work led to the development of the most effective treatment against malaria. But despite her invaluable role in saving millions of lives from this public health scourge, her contributions remained largely unknown, even in her own homeland. recounts the amazing story that led up to her breakthrough discovery.

In 1967, Chairman Mao Zedong set up a secret mission (“Project 523”) to find a cure for malaria. Hundreds of communist soldiers, fighting in the mosquito-infested jungles of Vietnam, were falling ill from malaria, and the disease was also killing thousands in southern China.

After Chinese scientists were initially unable to use synthetic chemicals to treat the mosquito-borne disease, Chairman Mao’s government turned to traditional medicine. Tu, a researcher at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, had studied both Chinese and Western medicine, according to a New Scientist profile, and was hand-plucked to search for an herbal cure.

By the time I started my search [in 1969] over 240,000 compounds had been screened in the US and China without any positive results,” she told the magazine. But, she added: “The work was the top priority, so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life.”

Tu’s dedication included first testing the promising treatment on herself, to ensure that it was safe. Once it was proven to have no side effects, she organized clinical trials for people with malaria, all of whom were incredibly cured of the disease within no more than a day. Continue reading

How Income Relates to Life Expectancy

It is no surprise that wealthier countries, like wealthier people, tend to live longer. But how strong is this correlation? In a video released by The Gapminder Foundation, Swedish academic and professor Hans Rosling uses detailed but digestible visual data to explore the link between a nation’s wealth –namely its gross domestic product, or GDP — and the average longevity of its people.

To check out the two minute video, click here. (Sorry, I cannot embed it.)

Ultimately, the findings do indeed confirm that rich societies live longer. But what the data also show is that those countries in the middle range of GDP — e.g. the developing world — display a broad range in life expectancy, from low to surprisingly high. This illustrates the discrepancy in how states invest their growing wealth, and whether the fruits of their development are going to their people.

Video courtesy of Aeon. 

Young People Have a Harder Time Losing Weight

As if the Millennial generation didn’t have enough going against — from poorer job prospects to more expensive education — a recent study reported in The Atlantic has found that young people in the 21st century are less likely to lose or maintain weight than previous generations — even when they eat and exercise the same.

The authors examined the dietary data of 36,400 Americans between 1971 and 2008 and the physical activity data of 14,419 people between 1988 and 2006. They grouped the data sets together by the amount of food and activity, age, and BMI.

They found a very surprising correlation: A given person, in 2006, eating the same amount of calories, taking in the same quantities of macronutrients like protein and fat, and exercising the same amount as a person of the same age did in 1988 would have a BMI that was about 2.3 points higher. In other words, people today are about 10 percent heavier than people were in the 1980s, even if they follow the exact same diet and exercise plans.

“Our study results suggest that if you are 25, you’d have to eat even less and exercise more than those older, to prevent gaining weight,” Jennifer Kuk, a professor of kinesiology and health science at Toronto’s York University, said in a statement. “However, it also indicates there may be other specific changes contributing to the rise in obesity beyond just diet and exercise.”

Note that the study utilized Body Mass Index (BMI), the accuracy of which is questionable. But if the findings are true, it has some pretty big implications about how much our social, dietary, and physical environments have changed, and what impact that is having on human health.

While the researchers are pretty cautious about what exactly accounts for this generational disparity, they mention three likely culprits.

First, people are exposed to more chemicals that might be weight-gain inducing. Pesticides, flame retardants, and the substances in food packaging might all be altering our hormonal processes and tweaking the way our bodies put on and maintain weight.

Second, the use of prescription drugs has risen dramatically since the ’70s and ’80s. Prozac, the first blockbuster SSRI, came out in 1988. Antidepressants are now one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., and many of them have been linked to weight gain.

Finally, Kuk and the other study authors think that the microbiomes of Americans might have somehow changed between the 1980s and now. It’s well known that some types of gut bacteria make a person more prone to weight gain and obesity. Americans are eating more meat than they were a few decades ago, and many animal products are treated with hormones and antibiotics in order to promote growth. All that meat might be changing gut bacteria in ways that are subtle, at first, but add up over time. Kuk believes the proliferation of artificial sweeteners could also be playing a role.

I would also add that the high rates of anxiety and depression resulting from tougher economic times probably play a role, too; stress and sleeplessness are well documented contributors to weight gain, and a large proportion of young people report chronically experiencing these problems.

As in so many other studies about the causes of weight gain, it appears that the contributing factors are complex and poorly understood, involving a confluence of hormonal, dietary, and environmental influences we are just starting to understand. Hence why the study cautions about the prevailing negative attitude towards the physically unfit.

The fact that the body weights of Americans today are influenced by factors beyond their control is a sign, Kuk says, that society should be kinder to people of all body types.

“There’s a huge weight bias against people with obesity”, she said. “They’re judged as lazy and self-indulgent. That’s really not the case. If our research is correct, you need to eat even less and exercise even more” just to be same weight as your parents were at your age.

As someone who has endured a lifelong struggle to maintain a healthy weight, I never really considered whether or not my difficulties were part of a larger generational milleui. Being fit and healthy was always supposed to be a difficult endeavor, not least because it runs somewhat contrary to our biology (humans evolved to store fat at all costs, for example). But what happens when humans struggle to adapt to totally new diets and conditions? Our species is already taller and larger in overall mass than it was just a couple of centuries ago; how different will physically be another century or two from now?

What are your thoughts?

The Benefits of Coffee

Well, besides the obvious caffeine-induced boost to energy, mood, and concentration. In honor of National Coffee Day here in the U.S., I present a multitude of scientific research (courtesy of the New York Times) that finds coffee to not only be safer to drink than once widely assumed, but even downright beneficial.

First, an important caveat: these studies are referring to black coffee, e.g. not the high-calorie, sugar-infused beverages that have comparatively little coffee in them; a coffee drink loaded with sweets is not going to be as healthy as the purer stuff, for obvious reasons. So by no means come away believing that a latte or caramel mocha is beneficial to your health (not that most people think that anyway).

With all that said, here is some encouraging news for fellow coffee lovers concerned about their habit. Continue reading

Poor People and Fast Food

Among the many ways that poor people are shamed and ostracized in American society is the pervasive myth that they are recklessly indulgent consumers of fast food. But as The Atlantic reports, bad eating habits, and subsequently high rates of obesity, are hardly the purview of low income people.

Back in 2011, a national study by a team at UC Davis concluded that as American salaries grow into the upper echelons of middle income, so does fast-food intake. “Low prices, convenience and free toys target the middle class— especially budget-conscious, hurried parents— very well,” wrote professor J. Paul Leigh, the senior author of the study. He adds that fast food is most popular among the people who are less likely to be obese.

But could that possibly be true? According to a 2013 Gallup study, the fries don’t lie:

“[F]ast food is hardly the province solely of those with lower incomes; in fact, wealthier Americans—those earning $75,000 a year or more—are more likely to eat it at least weekly (51%) than are lower-income groups. Those earning the least actually are the least likely to eat fast food weekly—39% of Americans earning less than $20,000 a year do so.”

Now a new study, this time by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, weighs in on the matter. While the national survey did show that on a given day, roughly one-third of American children will eat fast food, the breakdown among income levels is pretty even.

Another article in The Washington Post by Roberto Ferdman points out that it is “the poorest kids that tend to get the smallest share of their daily energy intake from Big Macs, Whoppers, Chicken McNuggets, and french fries”. Indeed, well-meaning yet flawed attempts to ban fast-food venues in areas with high rates of obesity and poverty alike have done little to curb the issue — indeed, in the case of South Los Angeles, it sped up the problem.  Continue reading

Cancers Cells Programmed Back to Normal

News about the next big breakthrough in cancer treatments are a dime a dozen. But this particular achievement seems worthy of hype and attention. Here is hoping its results can be further verified and replicated.

According to the Telegraph:

For the first time aggressive breast, lung and bladder cancer cells have been turned back into harmless benign cells by restoring the function which prevents them from multiplying excessively and forming dangerous growths.

Scientists at the Mayo Clinic in Florida, US, said it was like applying the brakes to a speeding car.

So far it has only been tested on human cells in the lab, but the researchers are hopeful that the technique could one day be used to target tumours so that cancer could be ‘switched off’ without the need for harsh chemotherapy or surgery.

“We should be able to re-establish the brakes and restore normal cell function,” said Professor Panos Anastasiadis, of the Department for Cancer Biology.

The scientists discovered that the glue which holds cells together is regulated by biological microprocessors called microRNAs. When everything is working normally the microRNAs instruct the cells to stop dividing when they have replicated sufficiently. They do this by triggering production of a protein called PLEKHA7 which breaks the cell bonds. But in cancer that process does not work.

Scientists discovered they could switch on cancer in cells by removing the microRNAs from cells and preventing them from producing the protein.

And, crucially they found that they could reverse the process switching the brakes back on and stopping cancer. MicroRNAs are small molecules which can be delivered directly to cells or tumours so an injection to increase levels could switch off disease.

As always, medical experts are rightly cautious about the results, noting that there is still quite a gap between cells grown in a laboratory and those of a human with cancer. Nevertheless, this is a big step forward, and presents yet another promising approach to consider in combating this scourge.

The Ice Bucket Challenge Bears Fruit

Amid a fair amount of skepticism and uncertainty — including, to some degree, by yours truly — it appears that the ALS ice bucket challenge that went viral some months ago has literally paid off:

According to Vice’s Mike Pearl, the $100 million in funding the challenge generated has led to breakthroughs in our understanding of what causes ALS and how it can be treated. Researchers now report that ALS — a fatal neurodegenerative disease that causes the muscles in the body to deteriorate — is caused by a defective protein, and stem cell therapy has shown promising results in lab tests.

Jonathan Ling, medical researcher at Johns Hopkins, stated in a Reddit AMA that funding from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been instrumental in helping scientists break new scientific ground.

“All of your donations have been amazingly helpful and we have been working tirelessly to find a cure,” Ling wrote.

An infographic from The ALS Association, the global leader in ALS research that received the funds, breaks it down thusly. Continue reading

America’s Early Alcoholic History

Though alcohol is a billion-dollar industry in the United States (as in many nations) — and its consumption is virtually customary in nearly all events, festivities, and social gatherings, public and intimate — Americans’ love of drink is not what it once was. As The Atlantic reports:

Early America was also a much, much wetter place than it is now, modern frat culture notwithstanding. Instead of binge-drinking in short bursts, Americans often imbibed all day long. “Right after the Constitution is ratified, you could see the alcoholic consumption starting to go up”, said Bustard. Over the next four decades, Americans kept drinking steadily more, hitting a peak of 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol per person per year in 1830. By comparison, in 2013, Americans older than 14 each drank an average of 2.34 gallons of pure alcohol—an estimate which measures how much ethanol people consumed, regardless of how strong or weak their drinks were. Although some colonial-era beers might have been even weaker than today’s light beers, people drank a lot more of them.

In part, heavy alcohol consumption was a way to stay hydrated: Often, clean water wasn’t always accessible. Hard liquor, on the other hand, was readily available, Bustard said; farmers frequently distilled their grain into alcohol. Rush “may have been observing what’s going on on the frontier”, Bustard said, “thinking, you know: What’s the country going to come to?”

This love of drink was not just perceived as public health problem (though the concept would not emerge until the late 19th century), but even a political one. Continue reading

How Indigenous People Beat Back Pain

Back pain is one of the most common afflictions in the developed world. The majority of Americans will experience it at some point, especially as they grow older, and an incredible one-third of them will suffer the chronic variety, for which treatments will not work.

But what is basically a given experience in the U.S. and other industrialized countries is a rarity among many indigenous cultures, namely those that have continued to live a traditional way of life. NPR follows Esther Gokhale, an acupuncturist and chronic back pain sufferer who travelled the world to study societies that seemed to lack this problem. Though I do not put much stock in the practice of acupuncture, her observations are worth noting:

If you look at an American’s spine from the side, or profile, it’s shaped like the letter S. It curves at the top and then back again at the bottom.

But Gokhale didn’t see those two big curves in people who don’t have back pain. “That S shape is actually not natural,” she says. “It’s a J-shaped spine that you want.”

In fact, if you look at drawings from Leonardo da Vinci — or a Gray’s Anatomy book from 1901 — the spine isn’t shaped like a sharp, curvy S. It’s much flatter, all the way down the back. Then at the bottom, it curves to stick the buttocks out. So the spine looks more like the letter J.

“The J-shaped spine is what you see in Greek statues. It’s what you see in young children. It’s good design,” Gokhale says.

In case you are wondering what a J-shaped spine looks like, here is a sample:

Not that the statue’s back is nearly flat until the bottom, where it curves so the buttocks are behind the spine; this is preferable to an S-shaped spine as far as back pain is concerned. Via NPR.

While the hypothesis seems to make sense, there is yet to be any scientifically rigorous study or documentation of indigenous peoples’ spines and whether their shape has anything to do with back pain. Hopefully this idea will spur such well-needed research, especially as back pain becomes more common.

But there’s a whole bunch of reasons why Americans’ postures — and the shape of their spines — may be different than those of indigenous populations, he says. For starters, Americans tend to be much heavier.

“If you have a lot of fat built up in the belly, that could pull your weight forward,” Mummaneni says. “That could curve the spine. And people who are thinner probably have less curvature” — and thus a spine shaped more like J than than an S.

Americans are also much less active than people in traditional cultures, Mummaneni says. “I think the sedentary lifestyle promotes a lack of muscle tone and a lack of postural stability because the muscles get weak.”

Everyone knows that weak abdominal muscles can cause back pain. In fact, Mummaneni says, stronger muscles might be the secret to Gokhale’s success.

In other words, it’s not that the J-shaped spine is the ideal one — or the healthiest. It’s what goes into making the J-shaped spine that matters: “You have to use muscle strength to get your spine to look like a J shape,” he says.

In essence, a J-shaped spine and the subsequent lack of back pain is a symptom of greater physical activity and well-developed core muscles, so the lack of both is what accounts for greater back pain in developed societies like the U.S.

In any case, back pain — not to mention other common but seemingly inexplicable pain like that of the knees — is a consequence of being bipedal. It has a natural basis that can nonetheless be mitigated through greater physical activity and less caloric intake, both of which were once the norm for humanity for millennia.

As someone who once suffered from chronic back pain, due mostly to growing up obese and sedentary, I can attest to the efficacy of building up muscle and being more active. The following tips from Gokhale are well worth considering for those of us who work desk jobs:

1. Do a shoulder roll: Americans tend to scrunch their shoulders forward, so our arms are in front of our bodies. That’s not how people in indigenous cultures carry their arms, Gokhale says. To fix that, gently pull your shoulders up, push them back and then let them drop — like a shoulder roll. Now your arms should dangle by your side, with your thumbs pointing out. “This is the way all your ancestors parked their shoulders,” she says. “This is the natural architecture for our species.”

2. Lengthen your spine: Adding extra length to your spine is easy, Gokhale says. Being careful not to arch your back, take a deep breath in and grow tall. Then maintain that height as you exhale. Repeat: Breathe in, grow even taller and maintain that new height as you exhale. “It takes some effort, but it really strengthens your abdominal muscles,” Gokhale says.

3. Squeeze, squeeze your glute muscles when you walk: In many indigenous cultures, people squeeze their gluteus medius muscles every time they take a step. That’s one reason they have such shapely buttocks muscles that support their lower backs. Gokhale says you can start developing the same type of derrière by tightening the buttocks muscles when you take each step. “The gluteus medius is the one you’re after here. It’s the one high up on your bum,” Gokhale says. “It’s the muscle that keeps you perky, at any age.”

4. Don’t put your chin up: Instead, add length to your neck by taking a lightweight object, like a bean bag or folded washcloth, and balance it on the top of your crown. Try to push your head against the object. “This will lengthen the back of your neck and allow your chin to angle down — not in an exaggerated way, but in a relaxed manner,” Gokhale says.

5. Don’t sit up straight! “That’s just arching your back and getting you into all sorts of trouble,” Gokhale says. Instead do a shoulder roll to open up the chest and take a deep breath to stretch and lengthen the spine.

Bugs May Be The Latest Culinary Trend

Over 2 billion people across 100 countries eat insects as part of their regular or traditional diet. But in the Western world, where meat consumption — and indeed the consumption of food in general — is disproportionately high, making bugs an accepted part of the menu would be beneficial — if not difficult, given the obvious taboos (there is a reason insects are almost always only eaten in the context of reality shows, or as part of gross-out humor).

NPR’s excellent food and health column, The Salt, has more on this growing trend in the West, and how bugs can be made more palatable to societies where eating is them unthinkable.  Continue reading