TIME Breast Cancer

Why Statins Could Be the Next Treatment for Breast Cancer

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Photodisc—Getty Images

Research connects high cholesterol levels with increased risk of breast cancer.

Cholesterol and cancer may not seem to have much in common, but scientists are increasingly seeing some intriguing connections between the two. In the latest study on the topic, presented at the Frontiers in Cardiovascular Biology in Barcelona, Spain, researchers report on preliminary but strong evidence that women with high cholesterol levels had a 1.6 times greater risk of developing breast cancer over 14 years than women with lower levels.

While the association doesn’t prove that cholesterol can cause breast cancer, the strength of the study comes from its numbers – the data emerged from 664,000 women enrolled in an ongoing study in the UK.

MORE: The Serious Heart Risks That Come With Chemo

Earlier studies have suggested that obesity may be tied to an increased risk of breast cancer, but more recent trials raised the possibility that cholesterol was the driving factor in this correlation – animal studies found, for example, that lowering cholesterol can inhibit tumor cell growth.

So Dr. Rahul Potluri, from Aston University in the UK, decided to investigate the relationship with the database he had established known as the Algorithm for Comorbidities, Associations Length of Stay and Mortality (ACALM) study, focusing on a subset of data from among 1.2 million women in the UK between 2000 and 2013. And indeed, those whose records showed cholesterol levels of 200mg/dL or more were more likely to develop breast cancer. (In the U.S., recent changes to cholesterol guidelines by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology mean that doctors no longer focus on target cholesterol levels but include cholesterol as part of a heart disease risk calculation that includes age, smoking history, blood pressure and diabetes. In previous guidelines, levels between 200mg/dL and 239 mg/dL were considered borderline high.)

MORE: High-Tech 3D Mammograms Probably Saved This Woman’s Life

“It’s a starting point for looking at the relationship in human populations,” says Potluri, who is cautious about overstating what the correlation means. He says that the database did not include information on medications, for example, so he and his colleagues could not adjust for other factors that could explain the association, such as whether the women smoked, or their exposure to other things that could increase their risk for breast cancer.

MORE: Treating Cancer With A Malaria Drug

Still, says Dr. Clifford Hudis, chief of the breast cancer medicine service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who was not involved in the study, “I think this is an important observation. It’s interesting when a big study like this supports some evolving basic science.”

Hudis suspects that the explanation for how cholesterol is involved in breast cancer – or potentially in other types of cancers – may be quite complex, and certainly requires deeper investigation. His own work, for example, explores how obesity and its related metabolic syndrome, which involves resistance to the effects of insulin and low levels of inflammation, could be activating some tumor triggers in breast tissue. Cholesterol is also part of the body’s steroid hormone pathways, which can play a role in certain cancers.

MORE: New Guidelines for Cholesterol Treatments Represent “Huge Change”

“The problem of obesity is going to have profound public health repercussions,” says Hudis; these results are just another reminder of how insidious the health effects of obesity can be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TIME Stem Cells

Blockbuster Stem-Cell Studies Retracted Because of Fraud

Editors of Nature, which published two papers claiming to generate stem cells in a simplified way, are retracting both papers after data was “misrepresented.”

In an editorial published on Wednesday, editors at the scientific journal Nature announced their decision to retract two papers that received wide media attention, including by TIME, for apparently dramatically simplifying the process of creating stem cells. Genetically manipulating older, mature cells are the only confirmed methods for reprogramming them back to their embryonic state, but in the Nature papers, Japanese scientists claimed to have accomplished the feat by physical means, using an acidic bath or physical stress.

Several months after the papers were published, one of the co-authors, from the RIKEN Institute, called for their retraction, saying “I’m no longer sure that the articles are correct.” RIKEN’s own probe determined that the studies’ lead author, Haruko Obokata, was guilty of misconduct.

At the time, Nature launched its own investigation into concerns that some of the figures in the paper contained errors, and that parts of the text were plagiarized. The journal now says that “data that were an essential part of the authors’ claims have been misrepresented. Figures that were described as representing different cells and different embryos were in fact describing the same cells and the same embryos.”

MORE: Stem-Cell Scientist Guilty of Falsifying Data

While scientific journals have peer-review processes to check researchers’ work, they rely on the fact that the scientists are presenting their data in their entirety and without any biases—something that didn’t occur in this case.

Nature’s editors say they are reviewing their review process and intend to improve on the way they select articles to ensure that such mistakes are minimized.

TIME Environmental Health

Potent New Weed-Killer Could Be Sprayed Near Schools, Says Environmental Group

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering approval of a new herbicide that could pose health risks to school children, says the Environmental Working Group

The EPA is open to public comments until June 30 about approving Enlist Duo, a new combination of 2,4-D and glyphosate, which is the main ingredient in Monsanto’s popular RoundUp weed killer. A majority of soybean and corn crops are now resistant to glyphosate alone, which is why Dow AgroSciences created the new formulation, designed to work on genetically modified seeds the company has developed that are supposed to be more resistant to weed growth.

But in a new analysis, EWG says more than 5,000 schools are located within 200 feet of fields that could potentially be sprayed with the chemical, if it’s approved. According to the environmental advocacy group, the compounds in Enlist Duo have been linked to harmful health effects, including immune and reproductive issues as well as certain cancers and Parkinson’s disease. EWG says the EPA analysis of the herbicide doesn’t sufficiently consider the potential health harms, especially if inhaled, which would be the primary way people would be exposed to it. The agency, for its part, says it “confirmed the safety of the use for the public, agricultural workers and non-target species.”

In its analysis, EWG found that Michigan contains the highest number of schools—658—located within 200 feet of corn and soybean crops that could be sprayed with Enlist Duo, followed by Missouri, South Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. For an interactive map of schools within 1000 feet of such fields, click here.

TIME sleep

Less Sleep Pushes Your Brain to Age Faster

Researchers find connection between sleep deprivation and a marker of aging brains

We know that sleep is important for a host of body functions, from weight control to brain activities, but the latest study hints that it may also keep aging processes in check.

Scientists at the Duke-NUS Graduate School Singapore report in the journal Sleep that among a group of 66 elderly Chinese volunteers, those who reported sleeping less each night on average showed swelling of a brain region indicating faster cognitive decline.

The participants had MRI brain scans every two years, and answered questions about their sleep habits as well. Other studies have suggested that adults need about seven hours of sleep a night to maintain proper brain function; future research will investigate how sleep helps to preserve cognitive functions and hold off more rapid aging.

TIME vaccines

Childhood Vaccines Are Safe, Says Pediatrics Group

The latest in-depth review of immunizations shows that they aren’t linked to higher risk of autism or cancer

It’s been three years since the Institute of Medicine (IOM) came out with its comprehensive look at vaccine safety. That’s enough time to generate dozens more studies investigating side effects and risk of conditions such as autism and cancer that keep some parents from vaccinating their children against potentially lethal diseases like mumps, measles and pertussis.

Since 2011, when the IOM issued its report, 67 new studies that included proper follow up periods and control groups have emerged. So the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality requested an updated review of the data on vaccine safety, this time including data on previously unstudied immunizations against pneumococcus, rotavirus, Hib and inactivated polio virus vaccines in addition to the well-studied ones.

MORE: How Safe Are Vaccines?

Overall, the researchers, led by Margaret Maglione at the RAND Corporation, report in the journal Pediatrics that most of the childhood immunizations are safe, with only a few associated with rare adverse effects. The group found that the MMR vaccine, which some parents believe raise the risk of autism, does not increase the risk of the developmental disorder. They did find moderate evidence that rotavirus vaccination can cause twisting of the bowels in a small number of children, but the condition can be treated.

“We need to keep doing this,” says Dr. Carol Baker, executive director of the center for vaccine awareness and research at Texas Children’s Hospital, of the study updates. “We can’t just sit still and rest on prior information.”

MORE: 4 Diseases Making a Comeback Thanks to Anti-Vaxxers

Increasingly, she says, pediatricians are spending more time discussing vaccines and vaccine safety with confused or hesitant parents. That’s a different scenario from the days of the polio epidemic, when parents were lining their children up to get them vaccinated against the paralyzing disease. “The major reason the safety of vaccines has become more of an issue recently is that many of the diseases they prevent have pretty much disappeared,” says Baker, who also served as chair of the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which makes recommendations about which vaccines children should get, and when. “So this is a very needed report.”

It’s especially helpful as more parents are either skeptical about vaccines, and need reassurance that getting their children is the safe, and responsible thing to do, or are adamantly convinced that vaccines do more harm than good. Many pediatricians have alerted their patients that they won’t see children whose parents won’t get them vaccinated since they could pose a risk of passing on disease to their other patients, including infants under six months old who can’t get vaccinated because their immune systems are still too undeveloped to respond properly to the shots, and children whose immune systems are compromised because of cancer or other conditions. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t advise that its members refuse patients, but some pediatricians believe it’s the only way to protect the children they see. “Pediatricians have to have a conversation about risks and benefits of vaccines,” says Baker. “So we need to keep looking at the studies and the data. Vaccines are good, and disease is bad, and the risk-benefit ratio is favorable for all vaccines. This new study gives reassurance that that’s true.”

TIME Social Media

Calm Down: Facebook Isn’t Manipulating Your Emotions

Yes, they played with your News Feeds. Yes, that’s creepy. But here’s why you shouldn’t be so shocked and upset

Have you heard that you might have been Facebook’s guinea pig? That the company, working with some scientists, fiddled around with 698,003 people’s News Feeds in January 2012 and tried to make the users feel sadder (or happier) by manipulating what members read?

Shocked? Violated? Creeped out? Well, be prepared to be even more shocked, violated and creeped out. Because what Facebook did was scientifically acceptable, ethically allowable and, let’s face it, probably among the more innocuous ways that you’re being manipulated in nearly every aspect of your life.

First things first. The researchers didn’t “make” users feel sadder or happier. What they did was make it more or less likely for them to see posts that contained either slightly more negative language or slightly more positive language. Overall, those who had emotionally charged messages hidden from their News Feed used fewer words when posting, and those who did see emotional words tended to reflect the tone of their feeds when they posted. But there’s a difference between using, as the study found, one more negative word per 1,000 in a week of posts, and what psychologists would call feeling sad or depressed.

Adam Kramer of Facebook, one of the study’s co-authors, posted on an apology of sorts, for the way the study was presented. “My co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused,” he wrote.

But the study is not without value, says Dr. Nicholas Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University who has studied emotional contagion across social networks. “The scientific concerns that have been raised are mostly without merit,” he says. He points out that while the positivity or negativity of words may not be a validated measure of mood, the fact that the study found similar effects in both directions – people were affected in similar ways when the number of negative and positive words were manipulated in their feeds – suggests emotional contagion on social media is, indeed, real.

Concerns about people’s privacy being violated by the experiment may also be unwarranted. First, Facebook users know that their data is no longer exclusively their own once it’s on the site. And the whole premise of News Feed is that it’s a curated glance at the most appealing or engaging updates your network of friends might post. That’s why the Cornell University Institutional Review Board (IRB), which reviews and approves all human research studies conducted by its members, gave the experiment the green light. They determined that the study posed minimal risk of disrupting people’s normal environments or behavior, and therefore waived the need for getting informed consent from each participant (something that IRBs routinely do for studies involving medical records, prison records and educational information as long as the scientists maintain the anonymity of the owners of the data).

Should the 698,003 users have been told once the study was done? Perhaps, but only out of courtesy, and not for any legal or ethical reasons. “Certain items weren’t shown to people in their News Feed,” says James Fowler, professor of medical genetics and political science at University of California San Diego, who has collaborated with Christakis and has spoken with Facebook about the company’s research. “This sounds like something that happens to people ordinarily. As a consequence, I’m having a hard time understanding why people are so upset.”

“Things that happen to you that you aren’t aware of can be scary to people,” says Fowler. That could explain why, despite the fact that Fowler and Christakis conducted a similar intervention by seeding Facebook users’ accounts with messages from friends asking them to vote at an election, they weren’t accused of manipulating people in the same way. “It’s fascinating to me that everyone is piling on [this study] when we have already done it,” Fowler says of tweaking people’s social network to see how it influences their reactions.

It’s not that anyone condones the fact that we’re being studied and analyzed all the time (the fact that you clicked on this story was recorded by this site’s administrators, as well as how long you’re taking to read it to see if posts like these are appealing).

But if social networks are here to stay, and if, as many intriguing studies suggest, they do have some influence on the way we act and think, then it’s worth trying to figure out how they do it.

“I wouldn’t want the public outcry to shut down the science,” says Fowler. “I would much rather study it and understand it than stick my head in the sand and avoid the issue altogether.”

TIME Research

In 2025, Everyone Will Get DNA Mapped At Birth

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What will the future hold? REB Images—Getty Images/Blend Images

Scientists have scoured trends in research grants, patents and more to come up with these 10 innovations that will be reality in 10 years (or so they think)

Everybody likes to blue-sky it when it comes to technology. Driverless cars! Fat-burning pills! Telepathic butlers! But the folks at Thomson Reuters Intellectual Property & Science do it for a living—and they do it with data.

By examining who’s investing in what, who’s researching what and who’s patenting what, the group has come up with 10 predictions of innovation for 2025, which they presented at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The list included the first attempts at testing teleportation, the ubiquity of biodegradable packaging and electric air transportation.

Here’s what they say will be commonplace in medicine in a decade:

1. Dementia will be on the decline

While the World Health Organization predicts that more than 70 million people will be affected by dementia, much of it related to Alzheimer’s disease, by 2025, that upward trajectory of cases may be blunted somewhat by advances in genetics that will lead to earlier detection and possible treatment of the degenerative brain disorder.

2. We’ll be able to prevent type 1 diabetes

Unlike type 2 diabetes, which generally develops when the body gradually loses its ability to break down sugar properly, type 1 diabetics can’t produce enough insulin, the hormone that dispatches sugar from the diet. Advances in genetic engineering will lead to a more reliable technique for “fixing” genetic aberrations that contribute to type 1 diabetes as well as other metabolic disorders, making it possible to cure these conditions.

3. We will have less toxic cancer treatments

Building on the promise of targeted cancer therapies, which more precisely hone in on tumor cells while leaving healthy cells alone, researchers will have a deeper knowledge of the Achilles’ heels of cancer cells, which will help them to develop more powerful and precise drugs that can dispatch tumors with fewer side effects.

4. Every baby will get its DNA mapped at birth

It’s already a trendy thing to have your genome sequenced, but today there isn’t much you can do with the information. Having that information, however, may prove useful in the near future, both for predicting your risk of developing diseases as well as your ability to respond (or not) to certain drugs. As knowledge about the genome, and what various genes, or versions of genes do, grows, so will doctors’ ability to predict health outcomes and treat patients based on genetic information. So within a decade, getting a baseline DNA map at birth could be a valuable way of preparing to lead a healthier and possibly longer life.

TIME

Here’s What It Will Take to Contain the Worst Ebola Outbreak in History

Doctors Without Borders is calling the latest outbreak in west Africa “out of control,” and here’s why

The “perfect storm” analogy is often over-used when it comes to disease outbreaks–all the elements that you don’t want to see converge to make conditions ripe for a bacteria, or, in this case, a virus, to rip through a population at lightning speed: geography, society, culture, a potent virus, reluctant politicians and a weak health care system. But all those factors are contributing to history’s largest-ever Ebola outbreak, which the World Health Organization now calls a “crisis.” Since early spring, Ebola has spread to two additional countries, Sierra Leone and Liberia, infecting 635 people and claiming nearly 400 lives.

MORE: Ebola Outbreak Beyond Our Control, Doctors Without Borders Says

The Ebola virus causes a nasty infection that triggers an inflammatory reaction so intense, patients essentially drown in their own fluids as they bleed internally and externally — victims’ bodies are overtaken with a well-intentioned defensive system run amok. Anyone who comes into contact with the infected fluids can also get infected. As of now, there are no treatments for Ebola. The only hope is for the body to remain strong enough to overcome the initial onslaught from the virus and start to develop antibodies to fight it. As patients get sick, they stop eating and drinking, becoming too weak to develop these critical antibodies. Left alone, nine out of 10 infected people die. At treatment centers, where doctors can provide supportive care with nutrients and hydration, that figure improves to seven out of 10.

Those aren’t great odds, and social and cultural practices in west Africa may be stacking the deck even further. Dr. Michel Van Herp, a physician and epidemiologist with Doctors Without Borders who traveled to Guinea when the outbreak began, says he has been confronted by hostile villagers who did not welcome the medical help.

“I have had aggressive people in front of me in the village,” Van Herp says, as he tried to bring infected patients to treatment centers. “Most villagers are denying the existence of Ebola.”

MORE: 6 Things to Know About the Latest Ebola Outbreak

That denial is fueled by a strong stigma against the disease. In other parts of central Africa where smaller outbreaks occurred, survivors of Ebola returned to their villages only to find their homes burned and their remaining family members ostracized for having been infected.

Such denial not only increases the risk that the close contacts of those infected by Ebola will be affected, but it also creates the ideal situation for the virus to gain an even broader foothold. A critical first step in containing any outbreak of infectious disease involves carefully tracing which people patients have been in contact with. Only then can scientists start to create barriers against the virus by keeping it contained to people known to have already been exposed. In Guinea, denial and stigma against Ebola means some patients who believe they are infected are fleeing to other villages or even crossing the border to another country.

“If you have a guy who runs away to a village 20 kilometers away, then you need to start from scratch in that village to trace his contacts,” says Van Herp.

MORE: What You Need to Know About the Ebola Virus

Making things worse is the fact that in the part of western Africa where the outbreak is centered, the population is particularly mobile, often traveling to nearby Sierra Leone and Liberia in search of work.

“We’ve seen kids who travel between three or four villages, and between the countries before they are too sick and weak that they aren’t able to work any more,” says Van Herp. “In the meantime they have contaminated three or four villages.”

Cultural practices mean that the potential for transmitting Ebola is also amplified if a respected elder is affected.

“If a guy like this falls sick, then more people try to cure him,” says Van Herp. “If he dies, more people are involved in the process of the funeral–in cleaning the dead body, and preparing the body. We have seen that one patient can give disease to 15 or 20 other people.”

Van Herp plans to return to Guinea in July, but he says that so far, there hasn’t been much improvement in people’s education and acceptance about Ebola, despite the rising number of deaths. The WHO has called an emergency meeting of 11 nations next week to discuss ways of containing the outbreak. Attending will be the Minister of Health from Uganda, where the government has made efforts to address the stigma associated with Ebola by creating a survivors network to educate and inform the public about the disease–and hopefully reduce fear and misperceptions about the virus.

TIME

The Oldest Human Poop Tells Us Neanderthals Ate Plants

Our human ancestors ate a varied diet after all – at least according to their fecal remains

If you think that eating a meat-heavy diet will make you lean like our Neanderthal forebears, you might be disappointed. Researchers analyzing sediment from a mid-Paleolithic era site in Alicante, Spain, report in the journal PLOS One that they have the strongest evidence yet that while Neanderthals did consume a lot of meat, they also ate plants as well.

Previous data on the Neanderthal diet relied on indirect evidence of their meals—residues from cooking equipment, and remnants of their prey in areas that the species was known to inhabit that have survived over the ages. More recently, scientists have even found evidence of plant seeds and animal remains in teeth belonging to Neanderthal specimens, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that those food sources were eaten. Neanderthals used their teeth as tools as well.

MORE: 17 430,000-Year-Old Skulls Discovered in ‘Pit of Bones’

But in analyzing sediment from the Spanish site, Ainara Sistiaga and her colleagues found evidence of human fecal remains, and those provide the best evidence yet of what Neanderthals actually ate and relied on for energy daily.

How did Sistiaga know that the fecal sediment belonged to early humans, and not animals? Thanks to the microbes that live in the human gut, the ratio of certain molecules known as sterols and stanols produced by these bacteria when they digest animal fats and plant fibers is uniquely human. Using that as a fingerprint, Sistiaga confirmed that the sediment belonged to the Neanderthal populations that resided in that region, making it the oldest recorded sample of human fecal remains. “At the beginning we didn’t know what the [ratios] meant, but after some research we are confident that we can apply the technique for the first time in this old sediment,” she says.

Based on that analysis, she and her colleagues could also tell that the Neanderthal diet contained not just large amounts of animal protein but some plant metabolites as well.

Sistiaga, a PhD student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of La Laguna in Spain, plans to study even older fecal matter from other primates as well, including the chimpanzee and gorilla, to better understand when in primate evolution species began to favor meat over plants, and how that change affected their development. In the meantime, it looks like even our Neanderthal forebears knew the benefits of eating a balanced diet.

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