health benefits of dancing

For a Healthier 2018!

Dancing together is good for your health!

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

 

Social dancers know the amazing feeling that a synchronized dance could bring. When your follower or leader is connected and it feels like you are one mind and body following the music, it is mystical and magical… Well, it turns out that synchronized dancing is also good for your health. I started dancing salsa because a good friend was going crazy about it and she recommended it, this inspired me to join a class. At this point I was a solitary belly dancer only following in team dances where you have choreography and if you are coordinated enough you feel this celestial connection with the other dancers…but without any physical contact.

On the other hand, in social dances like salsa, bachata, tango, zouk or swing, the connection is the base of a good dance. Nobody wants to be the person stepping to the left when 5 other dancers moved to the right while performing in a stage in front of hundreds of people, as well as nobody enjoys turning to the wrong side for misreading your dance partner lead, or watching how a follower does a completely different step that the one the leader indicated. Furthermore, being “in sync” with the group or your direct dance partner may help to improve your health, science says. In a nutshell, a recent study found that synchronizing with others while dancing raised pain tolerance and encouraged people to feel closer to others.

This year, Dr. Burzynska et al., at Colorado State University, separated 174 healthy adults, 60s to 79 years old, who had no signs of memory loss or impairment, into 3 activity groups: walking, stretching and balance training, or dance classes. The activities were carry on for 6 months and three times a week, those in the dance group practiced and learned a country dance choreography. Brain scans were done on all participants and compared with scans taken before the activities began. Not surprisingly, the participants in the dancing group performed better and had less deterioration in their brains than the other groups. Their most recent study published in November: "The Dancing Brain: Structural and Functional Signatures of Expert Dance Training" showed that dancers’ brains differed from non-dancers’ at both functional- and structural-levels. Most of the group differences were skill-relevant and correlated with objective laboratory measures of dance skill and balance. Their results are promising in that long-term, versatile, combined motor and coordination training may induce neural alterations that support performance demands.” (link 2)

Moreover, It is well established that dancing-based therapies are providing outstanding results in the treatment of dementia, autism and Parkinson’s. Indeed, dance therapy improves motor and cognitive functions in patients with Parkinson's disease. Dancing was suggested to be a powerful tool to improve motor-cognitive dual-task performance in adults. Dance movement therapy has known benefits for cancer patients’ physical and psychological health and quality of lifeAnother study by Domane and collaborators, working with a cohort of overweight and physically inactive women, showed that Zumba fitness is indeed an efficacious health-enhancing activity for adults. Park also concluded that “a 12-week low- to moderate-intensity exercise program appears to be beneficial for obese elderly women by improving risk factors for cardiovascular disease”.

Dancing helps generate positive connections with others and this is one of the evolutionary reasons you are “called” to the dance floor when a song you like starts playing, and probably you will start your dance by coordinating with or copying others. Probably this behavior signaled tribe membership for early humans and also got couples together in a more romantic way, creating emotional bonds. Coordinated dances are as old as music, and distributed in a lot of different cultures, for example, the nowadays Hakka, used by rugby players, was a native group dance that intimidates rival tribes.

Talking about the chemistry of dancing, as any other exercise, it releases endorphins (the hormones of happiness and pain relief). For example, a study from the University of London were anxiety-sufferers enrolled in one of four settings: exercise class, a music class, a math class and a dance class, showed that only the last group displayed “significantly reduced anxiety.”

In the most recent study done in the same London University by Tarr and collaborators, the researchers used pain thresholds as an indirect measure of endorphin realize (more endorphins mean we tolerate pain better) for 264 young people in Brazil. The volunteers were divided into groups of three, and they did either high or low-exertion dancing that was either synchronized or unsynchronized. The high exertion moves were standing, full-bodied movements, on the other hand, in the low-exertion groups did small hand movements sitting down. They measured the before and after feelings of closeness to each other via a questionnaire and their pain threshold by attaching and inflating a blood pressure cuff on their arm, and determining how much pressure they could stand.

Most of the volunteers who did full-bodied exertive dancing had higher pain thresholds compared with those who were in the low-exertion groups. Most importantly, synchronization led to higher pain thresholds, even if the synchronized movements were not exertive. Therefore when the volunteers saw that others were doing the equivalent movement at the same time, their pain thresholds increased.

The results also showed that synchronized activity encouraged bonding and closeness feelings more than unsynchronized dancing. Therefore, “Dance which combined high energy and synchrony had the greatest effects. So the next time you find yourself in an awkward Christmas party or at a wedding wondering whether or not to get up and groove, just do it”, claims Dr. Tarr.

Coming back to the dance floor, I had reached out for an opinion about the wellness of dancing to the best Bachata DJ: Brian el Matatan: “I enjoy the dancing for a few reasons. There’s the enjoyment & challenge of using what I’ve learned; socially as well as choreographed performance. Also, there is the rush of endorphins similar to “runner’s high”. There’s also the socializing aspect of dancing. It’s like having a conversation without speaking.” Well said DJ!
He also offered some advice for followers: dance with many different types of leaders if you’d like to improve your following. There are many different leads, and there is an experience to be gained in social dancing that would not be gained via dance class. Also, feel free to ask a leader to dance, & be courteous in how you decline a dance. Most importantly- communicate. Don’t “lead” a leader into thinking their lead is better than what it really is- for your sake & that of your fellow followers. For example, if he almost ended your life with that risky move, let him know so that he doesn’t try it on you or anyone else again (at least not without figuring out how to do the move properly). And some advice for leaders: be VERY  courteous in how you ask for a dance, try to not take rejection personally, be patient with follows who may not be on the same skill level as you, & don’t almost end her life with risky moves.

Lastly, I asked for the most sensual dancer, scientist, and project manager –  Debbie McCabe – for her advice for followers. She commented “The lady’s job is to surrender and connect to her partner…it is a 3-minute love affair and energy exchange. I love Bachata because I can get out of my head and just feel, express my sensuality, be playful and connect… it balances out my left brained day job.”

More than 20 years ago, scientists found a connection between music and enhancement of performance or changing of neuropsychological activity involving Mozart’s music from which the theory of "The Mozart Effect" was derived. The basis of The Mozart Effect lies at the super-organization of the cerebral cortex that might resonate with the superior architecture of Mozart’s music. Basically listening to Mozart K.448 enhances performance on spatial tasks for a period of approximately 20 min.

So dear reader, please stop complaining and making excuses and just dance! Or at least listen to music, as the outstanding jazz singer Tamar Korn once told me when I was in distress “music heals”.

 

This post was originally published on Dec 30, 2015 and was updated with new research on Dec 12, 2016 and on Dec 19, 2017.


deodorant and cancer

Is Your Deodorant Bad For Your Health?

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac Leod, PhD

Body odors (BO) are part of our evolution, and the ability to smell has evolved with us, making people fall in love or run away from a smelly person. Sweat has an initial effect to cool our body down and avoid overheating. Sweat can also be trigger by stress, anxiety or other hormonal changes. Sweat by itself doesn’t smell, but the bacteria located near the glands, for example, the armpits, breakdown the sweat generating the “BO”. How do we deal with the stinky fact? We apply deodorants and/or antiperspirants. Deodorants have ingredients like triclosan, which make the skin more salty or acidic for the bacteria to grow in those areas. Therefore deodorants don’t stop you from sweating, but antiperspirants will do the trick, as they contain ingredients like aluminum and zirconium, which are taken up through the pores and they react with water and swell, forming a gel that blocks the sweat.

Last year, Mandriota and collaborators demonstrated that in a cancer mouse model, concentrations of aluminum in the amount of those measured in the human breast are able to transform cultured mammary epithelial cells, allowing them to form tumors and to metastasize. Moreover, aluminum salts have been linked with DNA damage, oxidative stress, and estrogen action. In 2004, a woman reported aluminum poisoning after using antiperspirants for four years, and after stopping the use of these products the aluminum levels dropped and she recovered.

Breast cancer develops after cells with mutations in their DNA start growing uncontrolled, generating a tumor. Most breast cancers develop in the upper outer quadrant of the breast, near to the lymph nodes that are exposed to antiperspirants. This fact was the starting point for the theories that the underarm cosmetic products could be carcinogenic. One of the first publications on this subject dates from 2002; it was population-based (ages 20-74, 1606 patients) and found no correlation between breast cancer and antiperspirant use. A second article found a relationship between an earlier age of breast cancer diagnosis to more frequent regular use of antiperspirants/deodorants and underarm shaving.

Aluminum salts have been linked to increased risk of developing breast cancer, but so far the research on this has been quite inconsistent. Last month, a new research study of 418 women (ages 20 to 85) examined their self-reported history of use of underarm cosmetic products and health status, in order to unveil a bit more about the link between antiperspirants and breast cancer. Linhart and col. from Austria, studied the relationship of the use of underarm cosmetic products and the risk of breast cancer. They divided the group in two: half of the women were breast cancer patients and the other half healthy controls. Then, they measured the concentration of aluminum in the breast tissue of some of the women. The results showed that the risk of breast cancer increased by an odd ratio of 3.88 in females who described using the underarm products multiple times per day starting before their 30th birthday. Importantly: “aluminum traces were found in the breast tissue in both cancer patients and healthy controls and it was significantly associated to self-reported underarm cosmetic products use”. In fact, the median concentrations of aluminum were 5.8 (2.3-12.9) nmol/g in the tissues from breast cancer patients versus 3.8 (2.5-5.8) nmol/g in controls. The conclusion is that more than daily use of these cosmetic products at younger ages may lead to the accumulation of aluminum in breast tissue and increase the risk of breast cancer.

Although the American Cancer Society claims that “there are no strong epidemiologic studies in the medical literature that link breast cancer risk and antiperspirant use”, after the Linhart investigation, and knowing that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, I will avoid antiperspirants with aluminum. Nobody wants to be called “stinky”, so some actions to take are to wash your clothes after working out, take showers regularly and/or clean your armpits with water and soap as soon as you “smell something”, apply deodorant, and consult with your doctor about the best way to keep your body odors under control. The last resource: perfume. If you can’t win the fight… hide.


Can Chocolate be Good for You? The Dark and Light Side of the Force

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

It is this time of the year again: San Valentin (aka Valentine's Day) -  the best excuse to give and more importantly to EAT a lot of chocolate. But, maybe a better gift that receiving chocolate,  is to know that eating chocolate might be good for your health.

In the beginning chocolate was "created" as a medicine -  a healthy beverage -  around 1900 BC by Mesoamerican people. The Aztecs and Mayas gave it the name of “xocolatl”, it means bitter water, as the early preparations of the cacao seeds had an intense bitter taste. Almost one year ago, a longitudinal study, done in the US East Coast, connected eating chocolate with better cognitive function. Yay! Great news, right? The scientists gathered information over a period of 30 years (starting in 1976) from 968 subjects (aged 23-98 years) in the Syracuse-Maine area. The results showed that more frequent chocolate consumption was meaningfully associated with better performance on the global composite score, visual-spatial memory and organization, working memory, scanning and tracking, abstract reasoning, and the mini-mental state examination. Importantly, they pointed out that with the exception of working memory, these relations were not attenuated with statistical control for cardiovascular, lifestyle and dietary factors across the participants.

More good news arrived last summer: an Italian research team announced that flavanol-rich chocolate improves arterial function and working memory performance counteracting the effects of sleep deprivation. The researchers investigated the effect of flavanol-rich chocolate consumption on cognitive skills and cardiovascular parameters after sleep deprivation in 32 healthy participants, who underwent two baseline sessions after one night of undisturbed sleep and two experimental sessions after one night of total sleep deprivation. Two hours before each testing session, participants were assigned to consume high or poor flavanol chocolate bars. During the tests the participants were evaluated by the psychomotor vigilance task and a working memory task, systolic blood pressure (SBP) and diastolic blood pressure (DBP), flow-mediated dilation and pulse-wave velocity. As you might know, sleep deprivation increased SBP/DBP. The result was that SBP/DBP and pulse pressure were lower after flavanol-rich treatment respect to flavanol-poor treatment sleep deprivation impaired flow-mediated dilation, flavanol-rich, but not flavanol-poor chocolate counteracted this alteration. Flavanol-rich chocolate mitigated the pulse-wave velocity increase. Also, flavanol-rich chocolate preserved working memory accuracy in women after sleep deprivation. Flow-mediated dilation correlated with working memory performance accuracy in the sleep condition.

The European Food Safety Authority accepted the following statement for cocoa products containing 200 mg of flavanols: “cocoa flavanols help maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, which contributes to normal blood flow”. This statement means that flavanol-rich chocolate counteracted vascular impairment after sleep deprivation and restored working memory performance. In another study led by Columbia University Medical Center scientists,  dietary cocoa flavanols—naturally occurring bioactives found in cocoa—reversed age-related memory decline in healthy older adults. One possibility is that the improvement in cognitive performance could be due to the effects of cocoa flavonoids on blood pressure and peripheral and central blood flow. Following on this other chocolate attribute, it was shown than weekly chocolate intake may be beneficial to arterial stiffness.

But, there are some bad news!  A review of 13 scientific articles on this topic, provided evidence that dark chocolate did not reduce blood pressure. However, the reviewers claimed that there was an association with increased flow-mediated vasodilatation (FMD) and moderate for an improvement in blood glucose and lipid metabolism. Specifically, their analysis showed that chocolates containing around 100 mg epicatechin can reliably increase FMD, and that cocoa flavanol doses of around 900 mg or above may decrease blood pressure if consumed over longer periods: “Out of 32 cocoa product samples analyzed, the two food supplements delivered 900 mg of total flavanols and 100 mg epicatechin in doses of 7 g and 20 g and 3 and 8 g, respectively. To achieve these doses with chocolate, you will need to consume  100 to 500 g (for 900 mg flavanols) and 50 to 200 g (for 100 mg epicatechin). Chocolate products marketed for their purported health benefits should therefore declare the amounts of total flavanols and epicatechin”.  The method of manufacturing dark chocolate retains epicatechin, whereas milk chocolate does not contain substantial amounts of epicatechin.

The first epidemiological “indication” for beneficial health effects of chocolate were found in Kuna natives in Panama with low prevalence of atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension. This fact correlated with their daily intake of a homemade cocoa. These traits disappear after migration to urban and changes in diet.

 

There are many  claims about the potential health benefits of chocolate, including anti-oxidative effect by polyphenols, anti-depressant effect by high serotonin levels, inhibition of platelet aggregation and prevention of obesity-dependent insulin resistance. Chocolate contains quercetin, a powerful antioxidant that protects cells against damage from free-radicals. Chocolate also contains theobromine and caffeine, which are central nervous system stimulants, diuretics and smooth muscle relaxants, and valeric acid, which is a stress reducer. However, chocolate also contains sugar and other additives in some chocolate products that might not be so good for your health.

 

Oh well, maybe the love of chocolate is like any other romantic affair: blind and passionate. Apparently, the beneficial dosage is 10 g of dark chocolate per day (>70% cocoa), so enjoy it as long as the serotonin boost for rewarding yourself with a new treat last.

 

Happy Valentine's Day!

 

 


How to Live Long and Prosper - a Vulcan's Dream

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

 

A new Harvard study found that we are living longer and better, too. In fact, the life expectancy for a 65 year old in USA grew a lot in the last 20 years: the life expectancy for females is now 81.2 years and for males it's 76.4 years. The 3 pillars of this improvement are the less smoking, healthier diet and the medical advances. Going straight into the deep science latest developments, two start ups (BioViva and Elysium Health) were in the news recently for their cutting-edge “anti-aging” approaches. The first group to research  telomeres gene therapy is Maria Blasco's group. A study by Bernardes de Jesus et al. demonstrated how telomerese gene therapy in adult and old mice could delay aging and increase longevity, without the collateral effect of increasing the propensity of developing cancer.

In the study, the scientists showed how the treatment of 1- and 2-year old mice with an adeno associated virus expressing mouse telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) had beneficial effects on health and fitness, with an increase in median lifespan of 24% and 13%, respectively. Some other benefits included better insulin sensitivity, reduced osteoporosis, improved neuromuscular coordination and improvements in several molecular biomarkers of aging. In cancer cells, the expression of the telomerase is enhanced, giving this protein a bad reputation as having a “tumorigenic activity”. Elizabeth Parrish, the CEO of BioViva, went all the way to Colombia, to receive two gene therapies that her company had developed: one to lengthen the telomeres and the other to increase muscle mass. The results of the treatment were very positive: the telomeres in leukocytes grew from 6.71 kb to 7.33 kb in seven months. As a side note, petite leukocyte telomere length may be associated with several psychiatric disorders (including major depressive disorder) and with poor response to psychiatric medications in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

In a nutshell, human telomeres are composed of double-stranded repeat arrays of “TTAGGG” terminating in a single-stranded G-rich overhang. The fidelity of that sequence is maintained by the enzyme telomerase, which uses an intrinsic RNA molecule containing the CAAUCCCAAUC template region and the reverse transcriptase component (TERT), to synthesize telomeric DNA de novo onto the chromosome terminus. The telomeres were named after the greek words télos (end, extremity) and méros (part). Take home message: Telomerase adds DNA to the ends of telomeres and by lengthening telomeres, it extends cellular life-span and/or induces immortalization. The telomerase is not active in normal somatic cells while active only in germ-line, stem and other highly proliferative cells.

 

Last year, Dr. Fagan and collaborators, published in PLoS One that the transcendental meditation and lifestyle variations stimulate two genes that produce telomerase (hTERT and hTR). Even cheerier news were reported in Nature for thanksgiving: the edible dormouse (super cute, small, long tail mouse - Glis glis) telomere length significantly increases from an age of 6 to an age of 9 years. As they state in the paper "the findings clearly reject the notion that there is a universal and inevitable progressive shortening of telomeres that limits the number of remaining cell cycles and predicts longevity".  These species of mouse skip reproduction in years with low food availability, this “sit tight” strategy in the timing of reproduction might pushed "older" dormouse to reproduce, and this could facilitate telomere attrition, this strategy may have led to the evolution of increased somatic maintenance and telomere elongation with increasing age.

The other company, Elysium, co-founded by MIT professor Lenny Guarente, is focus in the mitochondria and the NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide). Mitochondria are our energy generators and they get crumbly as we age. Dr. Guarente demonstrated in mice how it may be possible to reverse mitochondrial decay with dietary supplements that increase cellular levels of NAD, like nicotinamide riboside (NR, a precursor to NAD that is found in trace amounts in milk), resveratol (a red wine ingredient) or pterostilbene (present in berries and grapes). Elysium has just realized the results of the clinical trial that was placebo-controlled, randomized, and double-blinded, where they evaluated the safety and efficacy of BASIS (the diateary supplement with nicotinamide riboside (NR) and pterostilbene) in 120 healthy participants ages 60-80 over an eight-week period. Participants received either the recommended dose (250 mg NR and 50 mg pterostilbene) or double the dose. In both cases, the intake of Basis resulted in the increase of NAD+ levels in the blood safely and sustainably, 40% and 90% respectively.

 

A former Guarante's postdoc -  Dr. Sinclair - has just published in Science the discovery of a NAD binding area in a protein that regulate NAD's interactions with other proteins related to aging. The Sinclair's lab reported that the binding of NAD+ to DBC1 (Deleted in Breast Cancer 1 protein) prevents it for inhibiting another protein -  PARP1, an important DNA repairing protein. Furthermore, they have shown that as the mice aged, the concentration of NAD+ decreased, and more DBC1 was available to bind to PARP1, culminating in the accumulation of DNA damage. On a brighter note, this process was reversed by restoring higher levels of NAD+. The good news are that NAD+modulation might protect against cancer, radiation and aging.

 

Although all these advances are great, they won’t make you live longer in the next 10 years, so what can you do to live longer/healthier? Science comes again to answer this question! Harvard studies have shown that living “meaningful lives” helping others, having aims/motivations (and been conscious about the fact that we are taking our own decisions), been grateful, enjoying the present and significant relationships with other humans are key aspects to have a happy live. Obviously, exercising and having natural environments around us, as well as healthy eating are crucial points in a healthy life.

It might be an oversimplification, but 70% of your risk of disease is related to diet: soda and processed food are related with shortening the telomeres. Good news: you can slow down aging with a healthier life style: “Switch to a whole-food, plant-based diet, which has been repeatedly shown not just to help prevent the disease, but arrest and even reverse it” claims Dr. Greger’s, author of the Daily Dozen—a checklist of the foods we should try to consume every day. The super food list includes: Cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, spring greens, radishes, turnip tops, watercress), Greens (including spring greens, kale, young salad greens, sorrel, spinach, swiss chard), other vegetables (Asparagus, beetroot, peppers, carrots, corn, courgettes, garlic, mushrooms, okra, onions, pumpkin, sugar snap peas, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes), beans (Black beans, cannellini beans, black-eyed peas, butter beans, soyabeans, baked beans, chickpeas, edamame, peas, kidney beans, lentils, miso, pinto beans, split peas, tofu, hummus),  Berries: (including grapes, raisins, blackberries, cherries, raspberries and strawberries),  other fruit (such as apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, cantaloupe melon, clementines, dates, figs, grapefruit, honeydew melon, kiwi, lemons, limes, lychees, mangos, nectarines, oranges, papaya, passion fruit, peaches, pears, pineapple, plums, pomegranates, prunes, tangerines, watermelon),  Flax seeds, nuts, spices (like turmeric), whole grains (Buckwheat, rice, quinoa, cereal, pasta, bread) and the almighty: water.

As you can expect, a lot of research is needed to get a magic pill that might boost your life expectancy but you can start investing in your future having a positive attitude, healthy diet, exercising and all the other things that you already know you should be doing to feel better, without forgetting that life is too short, so eat dessert first.

 


Teleportation

Your Teleportation Dream Might Be a Reality Soon

Scotty, pleaaaase beam me up…

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Jokes aside… well, I can’t stop myself for writing “Scotty, beam me up”, teleportation has already been done with atoms, photons and ions, for example in Universities in China, Germany and Maryland. Are you surprise by all this examples? The process of quantum teleportation of multiple degrees of freedom of a single photon has been done at the University of Science and Technology of China last year. They performed a free-space, ground level link measuring approx. 100 km across the Qinghai Lake in China with high fidelity. The official name of the protocol is “long distance quantum teleportation with polarization qubits” (or quantum bit is the analogue of a “bit” of information). A second group from China has plans to create a quantum space communications system by sending to space a satellite that could facilitate quantum teleportation of photons between earth and space.

Other successful story in teleportation was performed using optical modes. Lee and collaborators generated an EPR state by using two degenerate optical parametric oscillators and a balanced beam splitter. The EPR paradox is a fundamental concept introduced by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen (their last names initial gave the name to this theory) back in 1935. They claimed that the wave function, as the representation of a particular pure quantum state, does not provide a complete description of the physical reality. Also, quantum teleportation with matter has been performed by other group using atomic ensembles of caesium atoms at room temperature, showing light-to-matter teleportation of a coherent state of an optical mode into a collective atomic spin. More than 13 years ago, Gao and collaborators, performed the amazing quantum teleportation from a propagating photon to a solid-state spin qubit, by exiting a neutral quantum dot onto the electron spin of a charged second quantum dot. So they were the first ones who teleported a photonic frequency qubit.  These advances in quantum teleportation are the Holy Grail for the “real” teleportation that we are all crossing fingers to be bring to our everyday world soon…hopefully very soon.

Moreover, these advances in teleportation technology opened the talk to pass to the next frontier: the teleportation of a live organism. The good news on this topic were published in Science at the beginning of this year. Two physicist from China, Tongcang Li and Zhang-qi Yin, propose to put a microorganism with a mass much smaller than the mass of the electromechanical membrane ( for example a bacterium) on top of an electromechanical membrane oscillator integrated with a superconducting circuit to prepare the quantum superposition state of a microorganism and teleport its quantum state. This tiny microorganism will not significantly affect the quality factor of the membrane and can be cooled to the quantum ground state together with the membrane. With a strong magnetic field gradient, the internal states of a microorganism, such as the electron spin of a glycine radical, can be entangled with its center-of-mass motion and be teleported to a remote microorganism. Since internal states of an organism contain information, this proposal provides a scheme for teleporting information between two remote organisms. Basically, what they described was a method to put a microorganism in two places at the same time, and provide a scheme to teleport the quantum state of a microbe (read more about it here). Unfortunately, all this is a just a great theory so far…

Sadly, as an Aprils fool joke, a really good one, the US army reported that they had teleported 9 soldiers from Massachusetts to Germany (here is the funny full article). They remained me that the term “teleportation” has coined by and American author Charles Port in 1931, he was a researcher of anomaly phenomena, phenomena that fall outside of existing understanding.

Recently, German researches from the Institute of Applied Physics at the University of Jena reported the Implementation of quantum and classical discrete fractional Fourier transforms, which represented a huge advance toward teleportation. Back in 2014, they had already generated of a new class of optical beams that are radially self-accelerating and non-diffracting. These beams continuously evolve on spiraling trajectories while maintaining their amplitude and phase distribution in their rotating rest frame. Also check out the fun article in Nature title “photonics: random sudoku light”, were the same authors described how they have imprinted on the laser beam a phase pattern that corresponds to numerical solutions to overlapping sodukus.  Translated to “normal” humans it means that they teleported elementary particles (light particles and electrons) in a "spatially delocalized state,” which allows them to be in two separate places at the same time. Oh Germans, such a bunch of funny people… at least in science related fields.

Mr. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal, wants to build a high-speed tube service Hyperloop which is capable of travelling around 700 mph. He is targeting to make the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco as short as 30 min using this “as close as you can get to teleportation” system. Let me leave you with a geeky quote from the book Endure by Carrie Jones: “We teleported," Issie finishes. "Like in Star Trek or Harry Potter, sort of. No! Like in Dr. Who in that episode with the Sontarans and the brilliant human boy, or really any Dr. Who ever if you think of the Tardis! Holy canola! That is just the coolest thing ever! Wowie, wow, wow!”

 


science behind meditation

Meditation and Science - Crossing Pathways

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Good news (as of February 22, 2016): finally science is starting to explain how mindful meditation can be good for your health. Last month, a study published in the Biological Psychiatry journal proved that  mindfulness meditation combines the default state network (a network of interacting brain regions known to have activity highly correlated with each other)  with a region known to be important in top-down executive control at rest (the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), which in turn is associated with improvements in Interleukin -6 levels. Interleukin-5 is  a marker of inflammatory disease risk. They recruited 35 jobless adults, who were separated in 2 groups: one group  was immersed in a 3-day intensive residential mindfulness meditation and the other group in a relaxation training program.  Blood samples and a resting state scan test were taken before and after the  program. The key findings indicated that  mindfulness meditation training, and not relaxation training, increased posterior cingulate cortex  resting state functional connectivity with left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (region important in top-down executive control). According to this study "these pre-post training alterations  statistically explained 30% of the overall mindfulness meditation training effects on Interleukin-6 at follow-up after 4 months". In healthy men, elevated levels of Interleukin-6 are related to  increased risk of future Myocardial infarction, for example heart attack.

 

More than 9 years ago I read a study that completely changed my point of view about meditation. I am very lucky to have an open-minded meditation-practicing mother who taught me the basic techniques when I was very young, but as a researcher I did not connect the power of meditation with any "biological" or scientifically proved alteration. Many people meditate to reduce psychological stress and health problems, but my mother taught me to meditate to reach a nirvana-like moment of peace and clarity. We focused on the moment - not searching for fixing any problem - and just enjoyed the experience.

 

Meditation can be defined in psychological terms as the practice of disciplining one's attention in an effort to attain a certain state of mind. There are two different types of meditation: spiritual (known for the presence of mantras and thoughts about God and God’s attributes) and secular meditation independent of any religious motivation. In the study that changed my view of this practice, Wacholtz and Pargament (1, 2) studied how these 2 types of meditation helped people deal with pain. They asked the participants to meditate for 20 minutes each day over a period of 2 weeks. One group was told to practice spiritual meditation and a second group would practice secular meditation. A third group of people were asked to not meditate as a control. Then, the researchers performed the simple "please introduce your hand in this cold ice water and try to hold it there as long as you can" method. How long could the participants keep their hand in this very uncomfortable situation? Well, the "spiritual" group had greater decreases in anxiety and more positive mood, spiritual health, and spiritual experiences, plus they tolerated pain almost twice as long as the other two groups. Of course, just meditation gave the participants a better tolerance to the -2C water. In 2008 they published another study where they showed that spiritual meditation was more effective than secular meditation at reducing the severity of migraines in chronic patients.

 

Recently, a variety of studies are proving that meditation is an effective treatment for stress and pain. For example in Nature Review NeurologyJensen et al. reviewed a number of publications on this very topic. First of all, they note that meditation is not an invasive therapy, moreover they conclude that the "evidence indicates that mindfulness meditation has both immediate and long-term effects on cortical structures and activity involved in attention, emotional responding and pain".

 

On the other hand, a meta analysis published this year by Goyal et al. in JAMA Internal  Medicine (they included 47 trials with 3515 participants) found that mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression and pain. They detected low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life, and low evidence of no effect or insufficient evidence of any effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight. In conclusion, they found no evidence that meditation programs were better than any active treatment, like medicine or workout.

 

Let's face it: the happiest guy in the world, Dr. Matthieu Ricard (yes, he has a PhD in molecular biology), meditates often as the basis of his awesomeness, so let's follow his example... or in scientific language: he has being proving his hypothesis with 100% success, and we can reproduce his experiment at any time in our own lives.

To find a meditation group near you and more information check the free mediation info website.

This post was originally published on June 4, 2014. 


How Can You Make Money and Help Others with Your Shit?

And other very important poop updates.

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

First, you have to be a healthy pooper… Second, you have to live in the Boston area. Your stool can help a person suffering from recurrent C. difficile infections, which is a bacterium that affects 500,000 Americans every year.  Where antibiotic treatment has failed to help, a new treatment called “fecal microbiota transplantation” has shown a cure rate of 90%.  In this procedure, a fecal microbiota preparation using stool from a healthy donor is transplanted into the colon of the patient.  OpenBiome, the startup company based in Boston, helps facilitate this procedure by screening and processing fecal microbiota preparations for use in this treatment. After joining the registration you and your stool will be screened and if you are healthy and a good candidate you will became a donor. If you can succeed with all the tests and you can provide “supplies” quite often then you can exchange money for you poo.

Lately, the study of the human microbiota has been all over the news, specially related with weight control, pregnancy and the infant’s diet. In fact, it's estimated that the human gut contains 100 trillion bacteria, or 10 times as many bacteria as cells in the human body. Yes, I know what you are thinking: “More of them that my own cells, that cannot be right, right?”

These bacteria, or microbiota, influence your health in many ways, from helping to extract energy from food to building the body's immune system, to protecting against infection with harmful, disease-causing bacteria.

Researchers are only just beginning to understand how differences in the composition of gut bacteria may influence human health. From what we know so far, here are five ways gut flora can affect your wellness:

 

Weight Changes

Yes, your gut bacteria affect your eating disorders (or orders if you are lucky). For example the diversity of gut bacteria is higher in lean people compared to obese people. Also, some specific bacteria groups, the Firmicutes and the Bacteroidetes, are linked with obesity. The famous study were they transplanted gut bacteria from obese and lean people to mice, making the host of the first kind of poo gain more weigh that the mice who received the “lean fecal bacteria”, was a shocking confirmation of the importance of the gut bacteria in the body weight regulation. They discovered that the gut bacteria from obese people increase the production of some amino acids, while the material from lean people increases the metabolism of “burning” carbohydrates.

 

Preterm Labor

Realman and col. found that pregnant women with lower levels of bacteria Lactobacillus in their vagina had an increased risk of preterm labor, compared with women whose vaginal bacterial communities were rich in Lactobacillus. Apparently, the absence of Lactobacillus allows the grown of other species that would have different effects in the pregnancy.

 

Crying Babies

In a funny study on how diet may affect babies, Pertty and col. showed that giving probiotics to your baby does not change the daily crying time, around 173 minutes, compare to the placebo group (174 min), according to the parental diary. They enrolled 30 infants with colic during the first 6 weeks of life.  However, parents reported a decrease of 68% in daily crying in the probiotic and 49% in the placebo group.

 

Heart Attacks

Gut Bacteria produce compounds can even affect your heart. One of these compounds is the trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), and the presence of it in the blood of the subjects of a recent research study, increased 2.5 times the probability of having a heart attack, stroke or to die over a three-year period compared with people with low levels of TMAO. They have also shown that the metabolism of the gut bacteria changes according of the host’s (your) diet. For example, the consumption of high cholesterol and fatty food can increase the bacterial production of TMAO.

 

The Immune System

A recent review published in Cell rang the alarm about the negative effect of the “rich countries” diet in the microbiota influencing the immune system. In ideal and normal conditions the immune system-microbiota association allows the induction of protective responses to pathogens and the maintenance of regulatory pathways involved in the maintenance of tolerance to innocuous antigens. In rich countries, overuse of antibiotics, changes in diet, and elimination of constitutive partners, such as nematodes, may have selected for a microbiota that lack the resilience and diversity required to establish balanced immune responses. This phenomenon is proposed to account for some of the dramatic rise in autoimmune and inflammatory disorders in parts of the world where our symbiotic relationship with the microbiota has been the most affected.

 

Lungs and Asthma

The gut bacteria can affect your lungs: The low levels of 4 gut bacteria strains (FaecalibacteriumLachnospiraVeillonella, and Rothia) in kids was been recently related to an increase in the risk for developing debilitating asthma. The introduction of these 4 bacteria in mice induced to suffered asthma shown protection as the mice’s lungs did not present inflammation.

The question is: how bacteria IN the guts can affect your other tissues and organs? One study that was just published shows  that these bacteria produce chemicals that may help the immune system to battle against other germs. Without this training, the immune system could fail and create inflammation in the lungs. As a follow up from the latest research it may be possible in the near future to predict asthma, and other diseases, as well as cure some illnesses with gut bacteria.

Be ready to give a shit about your shit.


What's Keeping You Up at Night?

If you want to sleep, turn off your electronic device.

The light-emitting devices might be keeping you awake!

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac Leod, PhD

 

It is well established by now that staring at your phone, iPad or computer screen before going to sleep may delay your “real sleeping” time. The continued exposure to light excites the receptors in your eyes and therefore your brain, sending the signal that you must stay awake longer. This might not be a problem if you enjoy laying around in bed, tossing from side to side, but most people have to get to work early or have other commitments that haunt them the morning after a bad night of sleep. Insomnia is actually a serious disease; the lack of mindful dreaming can have a negative effect in your daytime life, and can result in poor performance at work. A recent study, published in the SLEEP journal, showed that reducing sleep from 8 hours to 4 hours makes memories less accessible in stressful situations.

 

Last December, a study in Boston added more evidence to the hypothesis that blue light negatively affects the secretion of melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles. Dr. Chang and collaborators published in PNAS that the use of blue light emitting electronic devices before bedtime reduces a person’s alertness and interferes with their circadian rhythm. In this basic study they compared the effects of reading from a light emitting device verses from a paper book. They found that these e-readers delayed sleep for up to an hour compared to the old-fashioned paper books.

 

A recent study, published in the Journal of Biological Rhythms also tried to answer the question: can access to artificial light modify our sleeping patterns? Their answer was YES, it does! Sounds pretty legit, right?

 

Dr. De la Iglesia and collaborators studied two native communities in the north of Argentina: the Tobas and the Qom. These two indigenous communities share similar sociocultural and ethnic heritage, but one difference between them is that only the Tobas have access to electricity. Therefore, the Qom community regulates its lifestyle with natural light, like our ancestors before the almighty Mr. Edison’s invention.

 

The researchers provided the participants from both communities with motion-tracking wristbands to follow their activity during both summer and winter seasons. They found that in the summer season the Tobas had a tendency to get less daily sleep, about 43 min per day, than those living under natural light conditions. Not surprisingly, this was due to a later daily bedtime and sleep onset in the community with electricity, but a similar sleep offset and rise time in both communities. In the winter, the Qoms slept around 56 min per day more than those with access to electricity, and this was also related to earlier bedtimes and sleep onsets than the Tobas. They concluded: “The access to inexpensive sources of artificial light and the ability to create artificially lit environments must have been key factors in reducing sleep in industrialized human societies.”

 

But reading the conclusion you learn something else: the Toba community had TVs. This caused them to stay awake even later.

 

How do you get that pleasant sleep? To listen to lullabies... soft melodies ranging from 60 to 80 beats per minute. Take a warm bath, if body temperature drops before bedtime. Another option is to pay extra attention to your breath: focusing on how air moves through your body can relax you and can reduce stress. My favorite solution is to meditate! At least try - a lot of people accidentally fall asleep while trying to meditate anyways ;).

 

If you are a device-addicted insomniac, at least decrease the brightness of your screen. Tonight, have a nice encounter with Morpheus and remember that the rest of the human race will appreciate not dealing with a cranky sleepless person tomorrow.

 


Cancer DNA: The New Frontier for Preventing and Curing Cancer

By Jesica Levingston Mac Leod, PhD

 

DNA Biomarkers are the hot topic in oncology right now, and the more precise, easy and effective they may be to detect cancer, the better.  This cutting edge technique has its origins in the discovery that fetuses shed fragments of DNA into the bloodstreams of the mothers, so do normal and cancer cells. The strategy to search for the most accurate “bar code” for each type of cancer is been approach from a bunch of oncologists around the world.

Researchers from the National Cancer institute, MD, published this month in the Lancet, a correlative biomarker study for lymphoma. In the study publish by Roschewski and col., they detected circulating tumor DNA encoding the clonal immunoglobulin gene sequence (VDJ) in the serum of patients with diffuse large-B-cell lymphoma. The VDJ immunoglobulin genes contain unique sequences that are markers of clonality. Malignant cell VDJ gene sequences could be detected in the serum of patients with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and used to predict clinical disease recurrence after treatment. For this, they used next-generation DNA sequencing to analyze cell-free circulating tumor DNA in patients assigned to one of three different treatment protocols during a period of 20 years. They concluded that “Surveillance circulating tumor DNA identifies patients at risk of recurrence before clinical evidence of disease in most patients and results in a reduced disease burden at relapse. Interim circulating tumor DNA is a promising biomarker to identify patients at high risk of treatment failure.”

Earlier this year, Hyman and col., reported the analysis of a biomarker (the mutant BRAF(V600E)) in 2 systemic histiocytic disorders characterized by accumulation and infiltration of histiocytes in multiple tissues of the body, leading to organ compromise. These researchers from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, showed that in plasma and urinary samples cell free DNA provides a reliable method to detect the mutation that is a biomarker for these disorders, and it can monitor response to therapy in these disorders.

In Australia, the group of doctors  Tie, Cosgrove and col., identified and validated 3 protein-based biomarkers in independent cohorts of colorectal cancer (n = 145 and n = 197), which could be translated to a reliable, non-invasive blood-based screening test. The biomarker “winners” were selected by Elisa kits, and they are the following proteins: Insulin like growth factor binding protein 2 (IGFBP2), Dickkopf-3 (DKK3), and Pyruvate kinase M2(PKM2). (3) Anyways, this article is bout DNA markers: So, in a follow up study Tie and col. detected circulating tumor DNA in a high proportion of treatment naïve metastatic colorectal cancer patients. Moreover, they described that early changes in circulating tumor DNA during first-line chemotherapy predict the later radiologic response.  On other notes, they also reported that the intake of aspirin is not associated with improvements in survival in colon cancer patients, yeah, bad news for the daily aspirin takers.

Studying the blood samples of healthy elders (“wellderlies”, adults age 80 plus), the team lead by doctor Eric Topol, at the SCRIP center, is trying to find the immune response that attacked and effectively destroyed cancer cells. There is a high probability that these healthy elders had had abnormal cell/cells in their bodies at some point of their lives, which they attacked and destroyed, generating immune memory and powerful anti-cancer antibodies. In fact, a member of the team, Doctor Brunie Felding, had discovered that one of the proteins recognized by “wellderly” antibodies was Apolipoprotein E, suggesting that antibodies against this protein may help develop a targeted therapy against highly-expressing ApolipoproteinE cancers.

These new discoveries, plus the recently  FDA approval of three new immuno-oncology therapy drugs, called PD-1 inhibitors,  are bright examples of the importance of cancer research funding and support from the public to the government officers.

One of the most influential bioinformaticians/molecular biologists, Dr. George Church, genetics professor at Harvard, thinks that “the DNA is the ultimate computer code and we are all computer programmers”. Therefore, the study of the DNA fragments can help to solve multiple problems… it is working for cancer therapy, and it could be useful to treat even the most common disease: aging.


Germs on the subway

Buggy Transportation

All the bugs in the metro, tube, subway, from NYC to Asia

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

The New York City (NYC) subway is use for more than 5 million passengers per day. Passengers being humans, pets, bacteria, parasites, viruses and other unknown creatures. Consequently infectious diseases, like influenza can be easily transmitted in this transportation method. Other dangerous circumstances are the black carbon and particle matter concentrations, which In Manhattan are considerably higher than in the urban street level. If you have just ridden the subway, I recommend that you check you washed your hands before continue reading…because, literately, this article is about shit!

Last Month a great research team from Cornell published the studies on microorganisms from 466 subway stations where they found 76 known pathogens (aka “bad” bacteria), and, more interestingly, they found a lot of unknown organisms. This means that almost half of all DNA present on the subway’s surfaces matches no known organism. As they could identified some of the microorganisms, they described that these bacteria were originated in some metropolitan citizen food, pet, workplace… you can actually check which kind of bacteria was found in your favorite/closest subway station... just to be sure what to tell to your doctor next time that you have some infection….

During a year and a half, Dr. Mason, the leader of the group, took samples from materials like the metal handrails in order to collect DNA for the big data genetic metropolitan profile project, aka the Pathomap project. From the 15,152 types of life-forms, almost half of the DNA belonged to bacteria—most of them harmless; However, the scientists said the levels of bacteria they detected pose no public-health problem. The most prevalent bacterial species was Pseudomonas stutzeri, with enrichment in lower Manhattan (aka finance species ;)), followed by strains from Enterobacter and Stenotrophomonas. Notably, all of the most consistently abundant viruses (only 0.03%) were bacteriophages, which were detected concomitant with their bacterial hosts.

Other study done in 2013 in Norway, found that the airborne bacterial levels showed rapid temporal variation (up to 270-fold) on some occasions, both consistent and inconsistent with the diurnal profile. Airborne bacterium-containing particles were distributed between different sizes for particles of >1.1 μm, although ∼50% were between 1.1 and 3.3 μm. Anthropogenic activities (mainly human passengers) were the major sources of airborne bacteria and predominantly contributed 1.1- to 3.3-μm bacterium-containing particles. The peaks are at 8 am and 5 pm, following the rush hours.

Other great discovery was that the human allele frequencies in the subway mirrored US Census data. Within the neighborhoods they found African American and Yoruban alleles correlation for a mostly black area in Brooklyn, Hispanic/Amerindian alleles in the Bronx and they observed that Midtown Manhattan showed an increase in British, Tuscan, and European alleles.

In this globalized world, you won't be surprised that in the London's Tube a group of journalist and researchers found more than 3 million bacteria. These data suggested that the average train or bus seat could have more than 70 types of bacteria, plus cold and flu viruses. The North-South Victoria line was the only one that passed the hygiene test.

In a study at the Hong Kong subways system, researchers analyzed aerosol samples in order to find the taxonomic diversity of the "under" microbes. Each bacterial community within a line was dependent on architectural characteristics, nearby outdoor micro biomes, and distance to other lines, and were influenced by temperature and relative humidity.

Altogether these results sound really scary, but I hope that the reader won’t react panicking, but just being aware of the bad pathogens around him/her and carry a hand sanitizer/mask/cleaning aerosol/wipes or just wash your hands with soap! Actually, health officials from the FDA, believe washing hands with soap and water is the best method to get rid of germs.


You Can Help Cure Ebola!

 

By  Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Since the start of the outbreak last March, Ebola virus has already taken more than 8.000 lives and infected more than 21.200 people, according to the  Center for Disease Control (CDC). The panic raised from this situation rushed the testing of therapies to stop the outbreak and the research on the Ebola virus has seen a rebirth. Some research groups that have been working in this field for a long time can now openly ask for help. One of these groups is the one lead by Dr. Erica Ollman Shaphire at The Scripps Research Institute, California. In 2013 they published in Cell an analysis of the different conformations of Ebola VP40 (Viral Protein 40) aka the shape-shifting “transformer” protein. They reported 3 different conformations of this protein, and how this variety allows it to achieve multiple functions in the viral replication circle. This Ebola virus protein along with the glycoprotein would be used as target for anti viral research. In order to find new anti-virals, their approach is an in-silico scrutiny of thousands of compounds, using viral protein crystal structures in the in silico docking to find leads that may be tested in the lab as inhibitors. IBM is already helping them in this project, generating the World Community Grid to find drugs through the Outsmart Ebola Together project.  Here is where you can start helping, as this project involves a huge amount of data and computing time, they need volunteers that can donate their devices spare computing time (android, computer, kindle fire, etc) to generate a faster virtual supercomputer than can accelerate the discover of new potential drugs. This approach has been shown to be successful for other diseases like HIV and malaria, so you are welcome to join the fight against Ebola virus: https://secure.worldcommunitygrid.org/research/oet1/overview.do.

If you do not have any of these devices (I hope you are enjoying the public library free computers), you can still help Dr. Shapire quest to discover new therapies against Ebola. Her group is now “working to support the salary of a computer scientist to help process the data we are generating with the world community grid” as she describes it. To help identify the most promising drug leads for further testing you can donate money on: www.crowdrise.com/cureebola.

Other groups that were mostly working on other viruses, like Flu, also joined the race to discover efficient therapies. For example, last month, the Emerging Microbes and Infections journal of the Nature Publishing Group published the identification of 53 drugs that are potential inhibitors of the Ebola virus. One of the authors of this paper is Dr. Carles Martínez-Romero, from Dr. Adolfo García-Sastre’s lab in the Department of Microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. In the study, Dr. Martínez-Romero and collaborators described how they narrowed the search from 2.816 FDA approved compounds to 53 potential antiviral drugs. This high-throughput screening was possible thanks to the use of the Ebola viral-like particle (VLP) entry assay. This allows studying Ebola viral entry without using the ”real”, full replicative virus. These 53 compounds blocked the entry of Ebola VLPs into the cell. Understanding how these market-ready compounds can inhibit Ebola entry and its infectious cycle will pave the way for a new generation of treatments against Ebola virus-associated disease.

Dr. Martínez-Romero had an early interest in science; “Since I was a child, I showed great interest in biological sciences and a great desire to question and discover. This led me to pursue my studies in Biotechnology in order to become a successful researcher.”Viruses are very interesting to me because, although they are not strictly living organisms, they are as old as life itself. Even though they are the origin of many illnesses in mammals and other organisms alike, we are tightly interconnected with viruses and they will continue shaping our evolution throughout the years to come.

I also asked him about advice to his fellow researchers, and he answered: “There is a famous quote of Dr. Albert Einstein: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called Research”. As postdocs and researchers in general, we are constantly pursuing new hypotheses. It is a very arduous path with its ups and downs but full of rewards and new challenges ahead.” About the future of the antiviral research, he keeps a positive view: “Several antiviral therapies are being developed to combat the current Ebola outbreak, such as antibody cocktails (Zmapp), antiviral drugs, and specific Ebola vaccines. Together with re-purposing screens like the one we published, a combination of therapeutic drugs can be used to obtain better antiviral strategies against the Ebola virus.”


If Only Santa Would be Real...When Are We Going to Have a Universal Flu Vaccine?

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Wouldn't it be great if the answer to that question was "next year" (yep, only a 1 month wait). Sadly, besides all the astonishing efforts of various researchers groups we are just entering the clinical studies that might lead towards a safe and effective vaccine.

Probably you already heard about the antigenic mismatch with the current vaccine (for the strain H3N2): this means that the strains used in the vaccine could potentially not completely cover one or more of the seasonal influenza virus varieties. Therefore, if you got the flu shot, you might get sick anyways.

The concept behind the universal vaccine is to bypass the antigenic mismatch problem and other issues related with the way in which the vaccines are formulated nowadays. As Drs. Natali Pica and Peter Palese explained last year (Pica et al. 2013), the vaccines are prepared year by year with the aim to protect against the virus strains that are predicted to circulate in the next period. But, and there is always a "but" in predictions, an unexpected mutation in the virus not contemplated in the vaccine production, could conclude in a pandemic.

The clue came from thinking outside of the box, and breaking with the traditional dogmas in flu vaccine production. When you get infected with the influenza virus, your immune system targets the head domain of the HA (Hemagglutinin) protein, so the current vaccine production approach was to aim for this antigen. The bad news is that this domain changes every year. The flu vaccines are based on inactivated viruses , when you receive this vaccine, you will generate antibodies to fight these specific HA proteins. In Dr. Palese's lab they are focus on regions of influenza HA protein that are highly conserved across virus subtypes, like the stalk domain of the HA protein. Also, he is engineering different HA chimeras. This strategy has been really successful, showing protection in animal models (mice and ferrets), and the vaccines were approved to go to clinical trial next year. This universal vaccine offered good protection for pandemics H5N1 and H7N9 influenza viruses.

Another strategy, published in Nature Medicine (Sridhar et al.) reports that targeting conserved core proteins using virus-specific CD8+ T cells (lymphocytes or white blood cells with a vital role in the immune system) could provide a draft for a universal influenza vaccine. But... even the scientists implicated in the research were not very positive about how long is going to take to translate this technique to the "outside the lab" world.

The third strategy is coming from an Italian group (Vitelli et al. 2013), and this potential universal influenza vaccine is been tested in animal models by the FDA.  This vaccine uses as a vector the virus PanAd3 (it was isolated from a great ape), which carries 2 genes that express proteins conserved among a variety of influenza viruses. The 2 viral proteins, the matrix protein (M1) and the nucleoprotein (NP), could be expressed for the human cells infected with the recombinant PanAd3 virus and immunize the patient against different influenza viruses.

Other entrepreneurial ideas are blooming around the world in order to solver the "influenza virus infection" problem. The influenza virus kills around 500,000 people annually worldwide (WHO), and affects very negatively the life of other hundreds of thousands. In fact, I do not know anybody who did not got the flu at least ones, I encourage to try to find somebody who was never sick with flu symptoms. This points out how universal this problem is and therefore it should get an universal solution soon.


squeezed science - swtich to business mindset?

Squeezed Science - Should We Switch to a Business Mindset?

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

It is a common conversation topic among researchers, but it was not until the NPR article saw the light, and the dark side, that the public realized the problems that young scientists are facing when pursuing a successful career in Academia. As we raise awareness about these tribulations, my colleagues mentioned how a “postdoc”'s quality life depends on the quality of the lab, the institution, the project, the relationships with colleagues and the Principal investigator or PI (the boss), not forgetting that this is a very self driven career. So, if your hypothesis is very difficult to prove, or you have been hitting your head against the wall with all the negative results that took you years to get, you may eventually come to hating this path and leaving Academia. The same if you have been working in a non “hot field” where the funding sources do not consider interesting enough to support or your PI is not supportive, or you have a very wicked competence inside or outside the lab. All these negative situations can aggravate the perspective of the very little options one may have by pursuing a career in Academia. On the other hand, if you are obtaining excellent results, publishing in top tier journals, made hundreds of good connections and collaborators, have a “great boss” and literally love you job… well, probably you are also doomed...

One solution could be implementing the business approach to the scientific mindset: Why only having one PI per lab? At the end, two minds think more than 1. Perhaps collaborative research centers have a solution were 2 or more PIs can have access to more equipment, grants and professionals, and therefore use the best skills needed for the job, like a company where you have an executive committee and you distribute the stock between the employees, in order to make them be part of the enterprise.

Having a business mindset would mean to have a planed strategy about your career development. Having a backup career plan is one example of this: starting to apply for jobs before needed, or before it is too late. Begin with your preparation to be a leader, and make your PI know, and discuss a good starting point. Look for leadership opportunities in any situations, such as coordinating workshops or conferences.

Sign up to run workshops and career developing series!. Many postdocs can discover a great professional gain if these opportunities would be offer to them. Get training in other expertise to be competitive in, for example, the investing or consulting field. Taking classes about how to give a class is a great example of a course that could be offered to postdocs and graduate students, in order to train them to explain and transfer their empirical knowledge to the next generation.

A month ago, at the Mount Sinai Postdoc symposium, Dr. Bruce Alberts (yes, THE Alberts,  from “The Molecular Biology of the Cell” book) who spoke about “The Future of Biology: Keeping Science Healthy” and illustrated the dramatic changes in the age of the scientist successfully obtaining project grants from NIH. In contrast to 30 years ago, the average age of new investigators with PhD at initial RO1 was 36.8 year old, a large number of grants were awarded to scientist in their early 30s, but this tendency has been decreasing drastically, to the point where now, the mean age for receiving these prestigious grants is 42 years of age. Dr. Alberts, himself, made fun on the fact that he obtained his postdoc position, before been awarded with his PhD. (which actually his thesis was rejected the first time, delaying the whole process) and learned from his failures. He also pointed out that he got his professor position at a very young age, something that is almost impossible nowadays. He advocated for a change in this unfair situation, which cripples the young innovators from getting a start. Also, he encouraged researchers to get out of the lab and talk to the public about science and its importance. First, to attract/engage curious minds to the scientific field, and second to communicate “in simple language” what we do for 9 hours plus per day in the lab.

We must offer to all this new scientific minds the reality about the current situation of science, but we also need to fix it, so it is not going to turn into a snow ball and make disappear all the interest in pursuing a scientific career for the new generations. In a business mind-set we must recognize that the money is not only in the governmental funding, but also in private foundations and other organizations like angels or venture capitals. So go out there and try to pitch your science to investors.


Can panic speed up the discovery of Ebola therapies?

Why Panic Can Accelerate the Therapies Discovery

 

Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

 

In March, the Center of Disease Control (CDC) reported an outbreak of a “more virulent” Ebola virus infection in Guinea and Sierra Leone .Now, the disease has been spread to Liberia and Nigeria, among other West Africa countries. The final count is more than 1600 confirmed cases of Ebola hemorrhagic fever, with almost 900 deaths caused for this syndrome. Some of these cases included health-care workers. Indeed, two medical doctors were taken back to US to be treated with a new cocktail in the Emory University Hospital facilities in Atlanta, GA. Some Americans began to panic, for example Jon Stewart said in his show that “They are importing Ebola”.

Last week, two patients with Ebola like symptoms were all over the news. One of these cases happened in the New York City Mount Sinai Hospital, and the patient was isolated and tested right away. The hospital sent an email to all the employees updating them about the situation, and the press took over it. The bright side of the situation, in addition to the negative test result for Ebola virus, was the fast reply. The dark side was the paranoia and the lack of information and knowledge about this virus from the Manhattan community. It was alarming to read that some neighbors did not want to go to the emergency room in the hospital for fear to get infected. Well, you can’t get infected just for seating next to a sick person, or talk, or shake your hands: it is not an airborne transmitted virus.

The other problem is that the symptoms are pretty similar to other more “common” diseases: Fever, rash, severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and bleeding, both internally and externally. The difference is that the fatality rate is more than 60%. The transmission of the virus mostly occurs by contact with infected blood, secretions or organs of either bats, nonhuman primates or humans. This is why you should not eat bats or monkeys if you visit any of the affected areas, or hang around any cemeteries. Not surprisingly, Ebola was named as the most frightening disease in the world. It was documented for the first time in 1976 in the Republic of Congo; one of the sources came from the Ebola River.

 

In 2012 an outbreak in Uganda found us in a similar medical emptiness: the research of two of the vaccines that were “apparently” going great had been canceled by the department of defense, due to funding constraints. Therefore, so far we do not have any vaccine or effective treatment available.

In 2009, Dr. Feldmann, by then working in Canada (now in Montana, US), developed a vaccine that was used years after in Germany when a researcher accidentally pricked her finger with a syringe containing Ebola The Feldmann's vaccine consists in a recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus expressing the Ebola glycoprotein which protects macaques from Ebola virus infections; although this method is not licensed for human use and the government founding has been random. A similar vaccine has been produce by Profectus BioSciences in Tarrytown, New York, but they are also short in the monetary founding that will push the research to the human trials.

The famous ZMapp serum, the treatment that the 2 Americans are receiving, is a cocktail of humanized, three-monoclonal- antibodies. This “cure” was the result of the collaboration of 25 laboratories among seven countries. The project, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has a total budget of $28 millions. The scientific leader is the Dr. Erica Ollmann-Shapire, whom claimed that she would take the cocktail without doubts if she would be infected. Also the company Mapp Biopharmaceutical, based in California, is the principal producer of these antibodies. The initial trials in macaques were very successful, but the approval for the use in human trial is pending until 2015.

A lot of laboratories along the world are working towards the better understanding of the Ebola virus and the possible vaccines and cures. Most of these researches are founded by the US Department of Defense. But, why does the US Department of Defense care about an African virus? The answer is pretty obvious: it can be used as a bio hazard weapon. On the other hand, no leading pharmaceutical is going to invest in a “very expensive and time consuming” vaccine development to be used in countries that can’t afford even a basic level of health care. Some compounds are showing a promising antiviral effect in vitro and/or an inhibition of a variety of viral proteins activities. Sadly, all of them are in an early stage of drug development. On the other hand,the actual need for a therapy and a vaccine to stop this outbreak is speeding the drug development process.

 

Before freaking out, the best prevention method against this scaring virus is knowledge, so check out the updates in the CDC website.


Discovery of biomarker to predict suicide behavior

Predicting Suicide

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

 

The play “suicide is forbidden in spring”. written by Alejandro Casona, describes an organization that helps potential suicide patients to end their lives, but the truth is that the doctors really want to avoid the sad end, and... they actually save the patients. They work with the “leitmotiv” that if you really want to finish your life, you will just do it, but the search for help is an indicator or alert signal of some survival and seek for attention behavior.

As reported by the Health Research found worldwide, 1 million suicides are committed by year. This means 1 death every 40 seconds. According to the CDC, In United States the percentage of suicidal is around 0.012%, where is the 10th leading cause of death. North America has 1 suicide every 13 minutes.The suicidal capital of the world is Greenland with a 108.1 suicide rate, followed by South Korea with 31.7. China is in the seventh place, it accounts for almost one third of all the suicides, and differently than the other countries it is the only one where women have a higher suicidal rate than men. Indeed, 3 years ago the terrible news about how in some factories, like Foxconn, making sought-after Apple iPads and iPhones were forcing staff to sign pledges not to commit suicide. Among 2013 at least 14 workers at Foxconn factories have taken the decision of terminating the horrendous working and housing conditions, ending their lives.

 

This initiative to attempt against your own life was been related to mental illness (almost in 50% of the cases) and metabolic disorders. The most implemented way of killing themselves is firearms, followed by suffocation/hanging and falls. The alarming fact is that rates of suicide have increased by 60% in the last 30 years, especially in developed countries. Also, you must consider that for every suicide that results in death there are between 10 to 40 attempted suicides. But what does bring a human been to the edge... and push him to jump?

New research has found that the answer would be the lack of the correct expression of one gene. Yes, only the downregulation of SKA2, the guilty gene, could be a biomarker for detecting suicidal behaviors. SKA2 stands for spindle and kinetochore associated complex subunit 2. The protein encoded by this gene is part of a microtubule biding complex that is essential for proper chromosomal segregation.

When they examined the postmortem brain samples from 3 independent cohorts (around 29 from suicide assesd humans and 29 controls per each group) they found that SKA2 had lower expression levels in the suicide cases than in the control, and its expression was negatively associated with DNA methylation. The chemical addition of a methyl group can activate or negatively modulate a gene, as it is considered an epigenetic modification.

I guess you are thinking: these are “Frankenstein” samples, how can this gene be related to really live human beings? Well, apparently the Johns Hopkins researchers also made the same question. In order to answer it they collected blood samples from other 3 independent cohorts with suicidal ideation and controls (with a number of subjects of 22, 51 and 327 each). In these study, the expression of the SKA2 gene was significantly reduced in suicide decedents. Furthermore, they analyzed levels of salivary cortisol. Cortisol is implicated in the glucocorticoid receptor transactivation and stress response. The results suggested that SKA2 epigenetic and genetic variation may modulate cortisol expression. The most important discovery was that the model that they generated based on these data allowed them to predict the suicidal ideation of subjects just using blood samples. They analyzed the methylated status of the SKA2 gene, which correlated with the suicidal attempts.

The great thinker Albert Camus ones recalled the attention in this issue when he said: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide."  For some in risk groups, like the soldiers who are coming back home with traumas after the war, the possibility of attempts against their lives is a ghost that has taken a lot of lives. This simple blood test can point out which individuals could be in risk and therefore they may get a correct follow up and treatment that might end preventing the catastrophe. Some high pressure jobs can also implement this analysis to avoid the lost of lives, giving correct care to people who tested positive. And even closer to all: would you like to know if you have this tendency printed on your DNA? Or your partner? Or your kids?

While you think about this, let me leave you with a relief quote: “If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.” Perhaps, you would be surprise to know that the wise man who said this was the Dr. Mahatma Gandhi, whom almost killed himself in a starving protest trying to obtain the independence of the Indian Republic.