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

Diet is More Important Than Exercise for Losing Fat

I say losing fat as opposed to losing weight because the latter is too broad: if excess weight is due to larger muscle mass for example, it is (usually) far less troubling for health reasons. When people speak of losing weight, they really mean improving the ratio of fat to muscle in their bodies (hence the phenomenon of “skinny fat“, in which someone appears slim in both appearance and scale results, but has a disproportionate amount of fat relative to muscle).

With all that cleared up, I know what many people are thinking: another study countering what so many other studies have previously established. This seems to be a perennial problem in nutritional science, which is still a young and developing field full of unknowns and rife with difficulties in conducting research (there are so many variables affecting health and weight among individuals that it takes unfeasible large and long-term studies to get solid, measurable results — hence why so many conventional wisdoms are being challenges decades later following the build-up of many studies).

Anyway, take the following report in the Washington Post as you will. From what I have read on the subject, the claims of these researchers do seem well-substantiated, but feel free to present your own arguments.  Continue reading

Chart: How The American Diet Has Changed Over Forty Years

Utilizing USDA data, Vox.com has produced acolorful graph that charts the vast changes in the average American’s diet since 1972. (Note that it shows the total supply of these items divided by the number of Americans, rather than exact consumption levels. However, this nonetheless gives a good sense of how eating patterns are changing over time, especially insofar as supply both reflects and often influences demand.)

Here is some analysis from the article:

[Y]ou might notice there are a lot of olive-green bars toward the bottom. We’re all eating a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables than we used to. That’s in part a story about changing tastes, but it’s also about economics — globalization and trade deals like NAFTA have given Americans more access to a wealth of fruits such as limes and avocados. And it appears those foods have replaced preserved or processed produce — many of the foods whose availability has shrunk are those maroon bars that represent canned, frozen, or dried produce.

While we’re eating a lot more fresh fruits and veggies than before, we’re not getting healthier all around. High-fructose corn syrup consumption has skyrocketed. Back in 1972 — right around the time that it was first introduced — we had 1.2 pounds per capita of the syrup available to us. Today, it’s 46.2 pounds … and that’s in fact down substantially from a high of 63 pounds in 1999.

Of course, don’t let the numbers fool you on a few of these — some of the massive growth came because of very small numbers. For example, it’s not that we’re eating piles and piles of lima beans today; rather, it’s that we were eating only 0.0005 pounds in 1989 versus 0.007 pounds in 2012 — a huge percentage gain in growth from an initially very small number.

What are your thoughts and reactions?

Less Than a Minute of Nature Can Boost Health

The Atlantic reports on yet another study confirming the benefits of exposure oneself to nature, even for literally a glimpse.

A nice walk through a city park can do wonders for a work-weary brain, reducing mental fatigue and improving attention. But if you’re trapped on the high floors of an office tower all day, you can’t exactly break for a long stroll and a picnic. Well, fear not. If you have a view of a nearby green space, like say a green roof, and even just a minute to spare, you can reap some of the same refreshing benefits of urban nature.

That’s the upshot of a new paper from an Australia-based research team set for publication in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. Their work has found that even taking just 40 seconds to focus on a view of nature can boost “multiple networks of attention”—sharpening your mind to handle the next task dealt by the work day. They call it a “micro-break,” and it turns out your brain loves it:

You can read the details and methodology of the study in the article, but it is certainly not the only research to confirm the importance of nature to human well-being:

The findings certainly fit with all that social science has found in recent years about the restorative power of nature. Whether it’s a walk through a park, a stand of trees out the window, or a mere desk plant, natural views give the working brain a breather—to varying degrees—by engaging our involuntary attention centers. The new conclusion that greenery might work its magic in mere minutes is an especially intriguing prospect in a fast-paced work world. And if green roof simulations were replaced with the real thing, the performance outcomes in the current study might even have been stronger.

I can certainly vouch for this by personal experience. From my regular bouts of anxiety and depression, to good old fashioned work-related stress, pausing for just a moment to focus on my desk plant, visit my garden, or take a stroll through a nearby park has done wonders.

I am glad to work just blocks away from a beautiful public park (and more glad that my job lets me take regular walk breaks). Since I have incorporated this practice into my daily routine, I have seen a notable decline in both the frequency and severity of stress, fatigue, and sadness (although other lifestyle and dietary changes have continued to that as well).

But a few minutes is all it takes to try this out and see the difference.

How Mindfulness Can Help Depression

Mindfulness meditation is one of the biggest trends in both medical and New Age circles. It broadly describes a form of mental training in which one deliberately focuses on emotions, thoughts, and sensory experiences of the present moment. Though it has roots in various religious traditions both Western and Eastern (especially Buddhism), it has long been observed to have secular applications as well, and the practice itself does not require any particular religious ritual or component.

There has been a lot of research showing that mindfulness, like meditation as a whole, has tangible mental and physical health benefits. The most recent study to confirm the benefits of “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)”, as it is known in medical parlance, was published in The Lancet, a leading medical journal. As Al Jazeera reported:

In this study, 424 adults in England with recurrent major depression, who were on maintenance antidepressant drugs, were randomly assigned to go off their antidepressants slowly and receive MBCT or to stay on their medication.

Study results published showed that after two years, relapse rates were similar in both groups — 44 percent in the therapy group versus 47 percent in the antidepressant drug group.

“Mindfulness gives me a set of skills which I use to keep well in the long term”, Nigel Reed, a participant in the study, said in a statement. “Rather than relying on the continuing use of antidepressants, mindfulness puts me in charge, allowing me to take control of my own future, to spot when I am at risk and to make the changes I need to stay well”.

The researchers said that while they found no evidence that [mindfulness] was superior to the use of antidepressants in preventing relapse, they said “both treatments were associated with enduring positive outcomes in terms of relapse or recurrence, residual depressive symptoms and quality of life”.

“We believe these results suggest a new choice for the millions of people with recurrent depression on repeat prescriptions”, Kuyken said.

I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this approach, although it is worth reiterating that this is just one of several ways to combat depression, and by no means is it a wholesale replacement of other therapies (indeed, it is usually complementary).

Solutions will always vary from individual to individual, but with the rate of depression growing across the world, any new options on the table will certainly help; moreover, mindfulness techniques are beneficial to overall wellness, not just as a therapy for depression.