Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Are Now In Every Part of the World

A report by the World Health Organization found that drug-resistant strains of infections have emerged in every part of the world, which means that patients who pick up E. coli or pneumonia don’t have an effective way to control their illnesses

In a first-of-its-kind report, World Health Organization (WHO) announced today that bacterial infections that can’t be treated with the antibiotics of last resort have emerged in every part of the world, which means that patients who pick up E. coli, pneumonia or staph infections don’t have an effective way to control their illnesses. In some countries, more than half of people infected with K. pneumonia bacteria won’t respond to carbapenems. A similar percentage of patients with E. coli infections won’t be helped by taking fluoroquinolone antibiotics.

MORE: New Report Says FDA Allowed “High Risk” Antibiotics to Be Used on Farm Animals

The growth of drug-resistant strains of bacteria means infections are either harder or impossible to control, which could lead to quicker spread of diseases and higher death rates, especially among hospital patients. But even more concerning, say experts like Dr. Martin Blaser, director of the human microbiome program at the New York University Langone Medical Center and author of Missing Microbes, is how these antibiotics are affecting the makeup of both good and bad bacteria that live within us – our microbiome. “The first big cost of antibiotics is resistance,” he says. “But the other side of the coin is [the fact that] antibiotics are extinguishing our microbiome and changing human development.”

MORE: The Good Bugs: How the Germs in Your Body Keep You Healthy

By that, Blaser is referring to growing research that shows that the trillions of bacteria that live in and on our bodies play a critical role in our health. Bacteria and microbes aren’t always enemies of a healthy body, but can be allies as well, helping us to digest food, fight off disease-causing bugs, and more. Early studies suggest that different communities of bacteria in the gut, for example, may affect our risk of obesity and of developing certain cancers. Other intriguing work hints that babies born vaginally and are exposed to their mother’s reproductive tract flora, may develop different immune systems that better prepare them to combat allergens compared to those who are born via Cesarean section. But overuse of antibiotics is slowing wiping out the good bacteria with the bad, and that may have serious consequences for public health years from now, warns Blaser.

The WHO report highlights how individual decisions about prescribing antibiotics can have more widespread, even global consequences. “If I prescribe a heart medicine for a patient, that heart medicine is going to affect that patient,” says Blaser. “But if I prescribe an antibiotic, that antibiotic will affect the entire community to some degree. And the effect is cumulative.”

MORE: A Hidden Trigger of Obesity: Intestinal Bugs

The first step in pushing back, public health experts say, is to reduce our over-prescription of antibiotics for minor infections that don’t necessarily require them, and that applies to both people and food-producing animals such as poultry and livestock. Animals can harbor and pass on drug-resistant bacteria as well as people can, and expanded use of antibiotics in agriculture in recent years has contributed to the growth of more aggressive bugs. In the home, people can refrain from using antibacterial soaps, which also push bacteria to become resistant.

“What we urgently need is a solid global plan of action which provides for the rational use of antibiotics so that quality-assured antibiotics reach those who need them, but are not overused or priced beyond reach,” says Dr. Jennifer Cohn, medical director of Doctors Without Borders’ Access Campaign.

That may also help to protect our microbiomes, which in turn could slow the appearance of chronic diseases such as obesity, cancer and allergies. As the WHO findings show, antibiotic resistance is now everyone’s problem.


A Breathalyzer For Lung Cancer May Be On Its Way

Researchers haven't made a cancer-testing breathalyzer reality yet, but a doctor in Kentucky has reported success in scanning exhalations for four cancer compounds that can distinguish between lung tumors and benign growths

Testing for cancer is an invasive – not to mention frightening – process. So wouldn’t it be great if you could breathe your way to a diagnosis?

Researchers aren’t quite there yet, but they’re making progress. Dr. Michael Bousamra II at the University of Louisville School of Medicine reported that he’s had success in scanning exhalations for four cancer compounds that can distinguish between lung tumors and benign growths. The test is also more specific than expensive PET scans for distinguishing between the two types of growths.

MORE: Smell Test: Using Breath to Sniff Out Cancer, Infections and More

Having a noninvasive less expensive way to separate potential cancer patients from those without the disease could go a long way toward getting the patients into life-saving treatments early in their disease, while giving those without cancer peace of mind, not to mention saving them from weeks or months of additional testing.

Piggybacking off previous work that identified four compounds that seemed to be elevated in the breath of lung cancer patients compared to healthy controls, Bousamra compared levels of these agents among 107 patients with lung cancer, seven with metastatic disease, 40 with non cancerous lung disease, and 88 healthy individuals. Each breathed into a device containing a microchip coated with compounds designed to detect these found cancer-related compounds. Having higher levels of three of the four compounds accurately predicted lung cancer. Bousamra doesn’t expect it will be enough to diagnose cancer alone, but it could be a relatively easy – and non-invasive – way to identify people who may need biopsies or more tests.

MORE: A New Way to Detect Lung Cancer? Dogs Can Sniff It Out

Other scientists working on similar breath-based tests for cancer note that their biggest challenge is making sure that the test doesn’t pick up on other, confounding factors such as the toxic products of the bacteria living in our mouths and guts, or the pollutants that we breathe in from the air every day.

But Bousamra is confident that it will eventually be possible to pinpoint lung cancer’s chemical signature, and make breathalyzers, not just for lung cancer but for other tumors, a reality. It would certainly be welcome news for patients who might be able to avoid an invasive biopsy.


Girls Beat Boys in Every Subject, and They Have for a Century

Kolett—Getty Images/Flickr RF

Girls have been getting better grades than boys in school for 100 years — even in math and science classes

Stereotypes are hard to break, and when it comes to education and gender, parents — and students — stick with a firmly held belief that girls don’t do as well in math and science, while boys don’t have great language and reading skills.

But a review of 308 studies involving more than 1.1 million boys and girls who were students from 1914 to 2011 blows apart that idea. For 100 years, according to the data that included students from 30 countries, girls have been outperforming boys in all of their classes — reading, language and math and science. And they’ve been doing it throughout their academic careers, from elementary school to high school. Which also means that the “boy crisis” — the worry that boys have recently been falling precipitously behind girls academically — is also a fallacy. They’ve been getting lower grades than girls for a century.

(MORE: The Myth of the Math Gender Gap)

But the conventional wisdom that boys are better at math and science is so entrenched that even the researchers, from the University of New Brunswick in Canada, were surprised by the results. “We didn’t expect to find that girls did better at math and science as well,” says Daniel Voyer, professor of psychology, who published his results in the American Psychological Association journal Psychological Bulletin. “The girls did better whatever you give them.”

Across all subjects, in all 30 countries, girls’ overall GPAs and their grades in individual subjects outpaced those of their male counterparts. The gap in math and science classes was smaller than that in language and reading classes, but remained significant. Surprisingly, however, Voyer found that the gap was larger in the U.S. than in Scandinavian countries, where principles of gender equity may be more effectively put into practice.

(MORE: The Math Gender Gap: Nurture Trumps Nature)

But the truth is, studies have long shown that girls tend to get higher GPAs than boys in school. So why the myth that they struggle in certain subjects? Studies documenting the gender gap relied almost exclusively on scores on achievement tests like the SAT, rather than on school grades. While such tests are predictive of performance in school, they may also reflect differences in things like how anxious students get before taking tests, as well as test-taking strategies.

(MORE: The Myth About Boys)

“Tests are more like knowledge: How much do you know? Grades are about how much you know but also how can you work with the material, how can you actually present the material and react to it,” says Voyer. And that’s why stereotypes may still have an integral role in explaining the gender discrepancy between school grades and test scores. Some research suggests that girls tend to focus on mastering material — which is what school exams and papers likely measure — while boys tend to prize getting the right answer over retaining information, something that standardized testing rewards.

Voyer and his co-author, his wife Susan, also speculate that stereotypes may work in more indirect ways. Given the assumption that girls struggle in math and science classes, for example, parents may encourage their daughters to study more or provide them with more resources such as tutors or supplementary learning materials to help them do better in school.

(MORE: Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Standardized Tests)

Voyer stresses that the results simply confirm that girls aren’t necessarily destined to do worse in math and science, but understanding why boys and girls differ in school and on standardized testing remains a rich area for future research. “We are really hoping that with our paper, people will wake up to the reality that girls get better grades than boys and try to figure out what is actually going on,” he says. “We have directions for future research, we don’t have answers — yet.”


Diabetes Ages the Brain by Two Years, Says Study

High blood sugar can not only damage the heart and kidneys, but also may harm the brain in two different ways, according to the latest research out of the University of Pennsylvania, which found that patients with more severe forms of the disease had less brain tissue

Patients with Type 2 diabetes may be more prone to brain degeneration, according to a study published in the journal Radiology.

Scientists led by Dr. R. Nick Bryan at the University of Pennsylvania found that patients with more severe forms of the disease had less brain tissue, as assessed by MRI scans of their brains, than those with milder forms of diabetes — even when those people’s blood pressure was under control through treatment. Patients who had been diagnosed for 15 years or more had less gray matter than those who had the disease for four years or less. And for every 10 years a person has diabetes, the brain looks two years older than those of similar-age people without the disease.

(MORE: Heart Attacks, Strokes Related to Type 2 Diabetes Drop Dramatically)

While previous studies hinted that diabetes was linked to brain degeneration, experts believed that the atrophy was mostly related to reduced blood flow to the brain; people with diabetes are at increased risk of stroke, for example, and their inability to properly control blood sugar is also linked to problems with the heart and poor circulation to fingers and toes.

But by examining the 614 people in the study, Bryan and his team uncovered another way that diabetes may be damaging the brain: by accelerating the rate at which brain tissue shrinks. “We found that diabetic patients have two strikes on the brain. There is the vascular effect, and now it looks as if there is a neurodegenerative insult on the brain too,” he says. Normally, humans lose about 1.5 cc to 2 cc of brain volume a year; diabetic patients, Bryan and his team calculated, lose about twice as much.

(MORE: Gastric-Bypass Surgery Highly Effective in Treating Type 2 Diabetes)

It’s not clear how diabetes is contributing to this additional assault on brain tissue, but it’s possible that abnormal glucose metabolism could lead to more free-radical formation, which increases inflammation, quickening the demise of older brain cells.

What’s especially concerning is that this brain loss may be an independent contributor to Alzheimer’s disease in Type 2 diabetics. Studies have documented the higher risk of Alzheimer’s in people with diabetes, and this brain-atrophy couple explain why. Gail Musen at the Joslin Diabetes Center, for instance, is investigating whether changes in the way the brain processes insulin may make it easier for the protein amyloid to accumulate and form the plaques that are responsible for Alzheimer’s.

(MORE: Young Kids, Old Bodies)

The findings also suggest that younger patients who are diagnosed with diabetes may be facing faster cognitive decline than their nondiabetic peers. “These results suggest that the adverse effects probably start fairly early on in the disease,” Bryan says. “They may be subtle, but they probably start early.”

Bryan plans to follow the participants in the study to investigate ways to slow this process. His team will test whether aggressive treatment to lower their blood-sugar levels can have an effect on the brain loss. Half of the volunteers have been randomly assigned to such intensive therapy, while the remaining patients will continue their existing treatments.

For now, it’s too early for doctors or patients to change how they’re managing the disease. But the findings do make it clear that treating diabetes as soon as possible is critical to avoiding potentially harmful consequences. “Diabetes affects everything, and everything you do to control it, from exercise to proper diet and medication, are important to prevent blindness and keep you from losing a limb, and are also important for the brain,” says Musen.


First Stem Cells Cloned From Diabetes Patient, Thanks to Egg Donors

The feat could lead to new cell-based treatments for the disease, but it relies on the willingness of women to donate their eggs

Is donating eggs to scientists for a research study any different from donating eggs to a couple hoping to have a baby using in vitro fertilization (IVF)? That’s a question that stem cell researchers — and policy makers — have been wrestling with ever since it became possible to “clone” cells with a technique involving eggs and skin cells. The debate is bound to heat up again thanks to a breaking study published today in the journal Nature: for the first time, scientists have generated stem cells from a patient with a disease. And last week, researchers did the same with skin cells from two healthy men.

Nuclear transfer—the cloning process that created Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned—has more important implications for humans than creating mini-mes. The technique, which involves taking adult cells and inserting them into an egg stripped of its own DNA (so the donor genes can be erased and reprogrammed to develop into any type of cell in the human body) holds promise as a way to treat and even cure a host of diseases ranging from diabetes to Alzheimer’s. But for years, the barrier to perfecting the process using human cells has been the dearth of eggs available for study.

While women have been donating eggs for decades to help infertile couples conceive through in vitro fertilization (IVF) — and getting paid around $8,000 for their trouble — ethicists have flagged concerns about compensating women who want to donate eggs for research purposes, despite the fact that the procedure is medically identical. The lack of compensation has deterred women from enrolling in stem cell studies, for example, since the process requires two weeks of daily doctor visits, injections and tests, as well as a surgical procedure to remove the eggs. “When we surveyed women who donated to IVF cycles and were compensated, and said would you be wiling to do it without compensation, do you know what? They’re not. And why would they be?” says Dr. Mark Sauer, chief of reproductive endocrinology at Columbia University who has recruited egg donors for IVF cycles for decades.

In a research context, some ethicists have said, such payment, while not for the eggs themselves but for women’s time and effort, could be coercive, and therefore exploit women who may be economically less able to resist the offers. The concern has led some states, such as Massachusetts and California, to prohibit compensating women who donate eggs to research studies. And scientists can’t use federal dollars to pay women to donate eggs for research.

But in New York, policy makers who believed that donating eggs to research studies was equivalent on ethical grounds to donating for IVF purposes, passed a law in 2009 that allowed women to be compensated up to $10,000, as they would for donating to IVF cycles. That allowed Dieter Egli, a stem cell scientist at the New York Stem Cell Foundation, and his colleagues to finally achieve success in using the technique to create stem cells from a patient – in this case, a 32 year old woman with type I diabetes. He was able to use funds from a grant from New York State Stem Cell Science as well as private sources including the New York Stem Cell Foundation and the Russell Berrie Foundation Program in Cellular Therapies of Diabetes.

MORE: Scientists Report First Success in Cloning Human Stem Cells

Egli’s report — the one published in the journal Nature — could mean that diabetic patients may one day be able to make their own insulin-producing cells to replace their no longer functioning ones. Other patients needing to replace diseased or damaged cells may also benefit; those with Alzheimer’s could, for example, generate new neurons to replace ones involved in memory and cognition that have been lost to the neurodegenerative condition.

The feat was only possible, however, because 35 women agreed to donate 512 eggs for the study — and get compensated for their contribution. “It’s a lot of effort. To do it for no money, no compensation, would be really asking a lot, especially given the risks,” says Hannah, one of the women who agreed to donate her eggs for the study but requested a pseudonym to protect her privacy. Those risks include changes in hormone levels that can cause hot flashes, sleep disruptions, mood swings, as well as more severe but rare complications such as blood clots and kidney failure. Hannah, 32, has donated eggs to two IVF cycles as well as to this research. “The process is basically identical. So in terms of being compensated for the time and effort it took, from that perspective only, it deserves equal compensation,” she says.

MORE: Stem Cell Miracle? New Therapies May Cure Chronic Conditions like Alzheimer’s

Sauer, a co-author on the paper, was responsible for approaching women like Hannah who were recruited to donate for IVF cycles and ask them about whether they would be willing to donate their eggs to the stem cell study for the same compensation. Most agreed. He stresses that the compensation is not for “buying” the eggs but for the time and inconvenience of participating in the study. “To me, it always seemed insulting, to ask if they would be willing to [donate] for free to research when they could get $8,000 donating for IVF,” he says.

Could the fee be considered high enough that it’s coercive? Possibly, but if it’s not considered unethical in an IVF scenario, and the process is identical, why would it be any more suspect in a research setting? “The possibility that [my eggs] may become a living being is not more valid to me than if they become something that can help a person who is already alive,” says Hannah. And the procedure is time consuming and risky. All told, agreeing to become a donor involves weeks of disruptions, starting with the two weeks of daily appointments at the hospital for hormone injections or ultrasounds and culminating in the surgical procedure under general anesthesia to extract the eggs, which can take an entire day including the recovery. That’s followed by a few weeks of refraining from intercourse until the next menstrual period. “It’s about a month of changing your lifestyle,” says Hannah.

But thanks to donors like her, not only have Egli and his group created stem cells from the diabetic patient, they have also coaxed them to develop into insulin-producing cells that respond to glucose when transplanted into a mouse model for diabetes. He argues that the technology could potentially lead to life-saving treatments for patients, since the cells made from the process are the patient’s own, and won’t be rejected by their immune systems if transplanted. “In my opinion, we should learn to use a patient’s own cells,” Egli told reporters in a teleconference discussing the results. “I think that is going to become a reality.”

That is, as long as laws continue to allow women willing to donate eggs for research studies to be compensated just as women who donate eggs to IVF cycles. “It’s part of my body that is not being used,” says Hannah of her decision to participate in the research. “When I do hear things in the news about diseases like childhood diabetes, my ears perk up, and I wonder if at some point I’ll be hearing about the use of stem cells in developing some kind of prevention or treatment, and if my eggs contributed to that.”

TIME Food Safety

Which Will Make You Sicker: Four Star V. Fast Food

Which type of restaurant do you think is safer?

Americans love to eat out. Every day, 44% of us have at least one meal at a restaurant. All that convenience of not cooking at home, however, has a price. In a recent report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), researchers found that 44% of foodborne illness outbreaks were tied to restaurants, compared to 24% that occurred at home. That means that you’re twice as likely to get food poisoning eating at a restaurant than you are at home.

But are some types of restaurants that are “safer” than others when it comes to avoiding illness? The CSPI report didn’t analyze outbreaks by restaurant type, says Sarah Klein, senior attorney for food safety at CSPI, but other data suggests that you shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the greasy diner and drive-thru are more likely to make you sick than a fine-dining spot. “One of the things that gives nutritionists palpations is that we’ve said at CSPI: That McDonald’s [and other fast food restaurants] may be the safest places to eat out,” says Klein.

MORE: When the World’s Top Restaurant Serves Up a Bug

Unwelcome critters like roaches and rats can certainly carry nasty bugs (and it goes without saying they’re health department no-nos) but they may not always be as bad as, say, using the same cutting board for raw and cooked foods, which can spread salmonella and E. coli, or employees neglecting to wash their hands after they use the rest room, which can introduce E. coli into the kitchen. “There’s a difference between quality and safety,” says Klein. “Things that are likely to gross you out are not necessarily the things that are likely to put you in the hospital.”

And it’s entirely possible that these violations may be more likely to occur in medium-priced or higher end restaurants, just because kitchen staff handle food more than they do fast food chains. Most fast food arrives frozen, in pre-packaged units, and cooking units can’t be turned off until the meat inside reaches the proper temperature.

Large corporations also use their purchasing power to ensure that manufacturers follow strict sanitation practices and provide reliably safe products: If an order for millions of dollars is on the line, growers and food makers are more likely to pay attention to keeping contaminants out.

MORE: How To Stop The Superbugs

At higher-priced restaurants or local facilities run by a family, however, there are more opportunities for contaminants to sneak into food. “Things are cooked to order and there are a lot of handling steps that go into that process,” says Klein of non fast food restaurants. Fresh ingredients are also more prone to contamination by bacteria since they aren’t processed or treated in order to retain their natural flavor. Once in the kitchen, they have to be stored at the appropriate temperature and washed, chopped, or cooked properly as well.

In a 2008 report on food safety, CSPI revealed that there was little difference in health department inspection reports — those letter grades you see in the windows of restaurants in cities like New York and Los Angeles — among lower-priced restaurants and higher-priced ones, suggesting that paying more doesn’t necessarily equal a cleaner kitchen. And across all restaurant types, the most common health department violations involved unclean food surfaces, followed by improper storing temperatures for raw and cooked foods. The third most common violation? Employees not washing their hands after handling raw meat or using the restroom.

For clues on how clean a restaurant is, check online reviews from recent diners (if they report getting sick after eating there, take heed), check the bathrooms for cleanliness, and if your food seems undercooked, don’t be shy about sending it back. Food poisoning is a bad way to end a nice night out.


The Man Who Co-Discovered HIV 30 Years Ago on Why There Won’t Be a Cure for AIDS

Dr. Robert Gallo, who co-discovered the cause of AIDS three decades ago and helped pave the way to blood testing for HIV, says a cure is unlikely, despite advances in drug treatments that have dramatically reduced the deaths from infection

On April 23, 1984, Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler called a press conference to make a stunning announcement: Hoarse from laryngitis, the Reagan appointee spoke for less than a minute, but her words sparked an international firestorm: “The probable cause of AIDS has been found: a variant of a known human cancer virus,” she said.

The data on which she based her statement hadn’t yet been published, which was unusual in scientific circles. But this was 1984, three years after the mysterious and fast-moving acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was first described, and the pressure — from public-health officials, the scientific community and from patients — to find the thing responsible could excuse some shortcuts to the glacially paced process of scientific publishing. At the time, more than 4,100 people had been diagnosed with the newly identified disease; every day, 20 new cases were logged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and 1,807 had already died of AIDS.

Finding the culprit responsible, then, should have been something to celebrate. Except that not everyone agreed that Heckler was heralding the right guy. She credited National Cancer Institute scientist Dr. Robert Gallo with the discovery of HTLV-III, which he was confident caused AIDS. Heckler said Gallo was also to thank for figuring out how to grow the virus, making possible a blood test for detecting it.

But in the previous year, Pasteur Institute virologist Dr. Luc Montagnier and his colleagues had published a paper describing another candidate, a virus he called lymphadenopathy virus (LAV). Gallo and Montagnier, who knew of each other’s work, believed that HTLV-III and LAV were related strains of the same virus, and in March 1984, they agreed to make a joint announcement introducing the world to the related strains of the virus responsible for causing AIDS. That changed when the New York Times published an article quoting CDC director Dr. James Mason saying that Montagnier had identified the cause of AIDS as LAV.

(MORE: China’s Secret Plague)

Unwilling to lose ground in the high-stakes race to find the cause of AIDS, Heckler called the press conference to highlight the efforts that scientists under her charge had made. “I told the French group we would announce together, so I was excessively nervous,” says Gallo of the now legendary press conference. But he didn’t have much of a choice; Heckler asked him to fly in from a scientific conference he was attending in Italy to contribute to the announcement. “Do I wish there [hadn't been] a press conference? Of course,” he says. (Attempts to reach Montagnier several times were unsuccessful.)

At the time, Gallo had 48 isolates of HTLV-III from AIDS patients, while the French had one of their LAV. Gallo also had been able to coax four of the isolates to grow robustly in the lab, which was essential for developing a blood test to identify the virus and, later, for testing drugs designed to thwart infection. In a handout to bolster her brief statement, Heckler mentioned the French contribution – as a “collaboration.”

(MORE: Treatment as Prevention: How the New Way to Control HIV Came to Be)

That June, Montagnier and Gallo finally held their joint press conference to announce that HTLV-III and LAV were most likely one and the same virus. But the damage had already been done; with a patent and commercial rights at stake, the French government sued the U.S. in 1985, claiming Montaigner had identified LAV first, and developed a test to detect antibodies made against the virus. It took the White House to resolve the dispute two years later; President Reagan and French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac announced an agreement in which Montagnier and Gallo would be recognized as the co-discoverers of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Even world leaders, however, couldn’t truly put the matter to rest. Montagnier was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2008 along with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, a Pasteur Institute colleague, for “their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus.” Gallo was not mentioned.

“I was surprised, and yes, I was disappointed, but I congratulated them,” Gallo says of being overlooked.

(MORE: Government-Backed Group Calls for Universal HIV Testing of Adults)

In the years since, Gallo has continued to work on retroviruses, the family to which HIV belongs, and now believes that it won’t be possible to completely cure HIV. Advances in drug treatments that interfere with the virus’ ability to infect and reproduce in healthy cells have dramatically reduced the deaths from infection — in fact, most public-health experts rarely use the term AIDS, which refers to the full-blown, advanced stages of the disease, and talk more about HIV infection. And in recent years, exciting studies showing that using the same drugs that can treat HIV, but giving them to healthy, uninfected people who are at high risk of getting infected, can block the virus from invading their cells at all. They’re enough to get experts, including executive director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibe, talking about bringing new infections down to zero and eliminating deaths from HIV as well.

(MORE: Anti-HIV Drugs Help Prevent Infection in Heterosexuals)

“Do I think [UNAIDS] will end the epidemic? No, I don’t; I think we’d be kidding ourselves,” says Gallo. Until an effective vaccine is developed that can protect people completely from becoming infected with HIV, he says, we can only talk about functional cures — getting people who are infected with HIV to the point where the virus remains at undetectably low levels — and unable to become activated again.

That seems to be the case with two young children, born to HIV-positive mothers, who are the first to be functionally cured of HIV after receiving powerful antiviral drugs in adult doses within hours of birth. “We will never replace active immunization,” he says. “But using [antiviral] drugs [to prevent infection] could be an important intermediary step to controlling the epidemic.” For some, that step may be disappointingly small for a 30-year effort. But for those living with HIV today, it’s a giant one toward keeping them alive.

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled the surname of Dr. Luc Montagnier.


How the Teen Stowaway Survived His Trans-Pacific Flight in a Wheel Well

A 16-year-old hopped the fence at San Jose International Airport and squeezed into the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines flight bound for Maui, where he emerged confused but unharmed some five hours later after surviving without oxygen at 38,000 feet

Authorities are still investigating the case, but a 16-year old stumbled out of a Hawaiian Airlines flight from San Jose, Calif., to Maui on Sunday, after apparently hitching a ride in the wheel well of a Boeing 767. Officials say he was unconscious during most of the five-and-a-half-hour flight, and is lucky to have survived.

The plane reached an altitude of 38,000 feet, at which point oxygen is scarce and the brain shuts down, say experts. Without enough oxygen to keep brain cells functioning, people at high altitudes first develop lightheadedness, and, if they don’t receive oxygen, lose consciousness in a matter of minutes.

Here’s what the teen faced, and experts’ best guesses as to how he survived:

Lack of oxygen

Without oxygen, nerve cells in the brain start to falter, resulting in dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, and loss of appetite and energy. Because the brain regulates much of the body’s metabolism, a de-oxygenated brain can lead to other organ failure as well. Fluid can build up in the lungs and brain and lead to potentially fatal swelling.

In this case, the teen’s youth could have been an advantage. “The brains of young people are more adaptable, and recoveries of kids who were comatose for a long period of time are more likely than recoveries among older patients,” says Dr. Ben Honigman, medical director of the Altitude Medicine Center at the University of Colorado.

Researchers are also finding that some genes that can predict who suffers from altitude-related sickness. That may explain why certain people experience more symptoms in mountain regions, while others, perhaps such as this teen, could pass out but regain consciousness when back at sea level.

There may be psychological contributors as well. According to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) report [PDF] of 10 such cases involving 11 wheel well stowaways, five survived flights that reached as high as 39,000 feet. Many were politically motivated to escape, which FAA officials believe may have contributed to their ability to reach a “virtual ‘hibernative’ state” in order to survive. In a more recent study by researchers at the FAA and Wright State University, two passengers survived flights at 35,000 feet – one from Havana to Madrid and another from Bogota to Miami. The scientists speculate that the gradual climb of the plane allowed the stowaways to acclimate somewhat to the changing air pressure and low oxygen conditions, although Honigman notes that such acclimation occurs over just 10 to 20 minutes, while most mountain climbers take days or even weeks to acclimate to altitudes higher than 20,000 feet.

Frigid temperatures

At plane-flight altitudes, temperatures can drop to 80 degrees below freezing, another way stowaways can die. But according to the Wright State study, some heat from the hydraulic lines powering the wheels and residual heat from the tires can warm up the well slightly, and that same source of heat during descent may help some stowaways regain consciousness. “I have to think that the temperature in the wheel well wasn’t around minus 40 degrees,” says Honigman. “I can’t conceive that he could have survived those temperatures for five hours; he would have been frost bitten or turned into an icicle.”

Even if it were that cold, there is a remote chance that the cold may have helped the teen survive the journey. Some research on survivors of near-drownings in lakes suggests that extremely cold temperatures and a lack of oxygen may put the body into a hibernation state as the heart rate slows and the body’s metabolism drops to minimal levels. But those experiences generally last only a few minutes, not the five hours that the teen endured on his oceanic flight.

If the boy’s story is confirmed, he joins a small group of flight stowaways who found some way to survive on low oxygen, low temperatures, and low air pressure under conditions that weren’t meant for human beings. “He’s a really lucky boy,” says Honigman.


Researchers Clone Cells From Two Adult Men

After years of failed attempts, researchers have successfully generated stem cells from adults. The process could provide a new way for scientists to generate healthy replacements for diseased or damaged cells in patients

After years of failed attempts, researchers have finally generated stem cells from adults using the same cloning technique that produced Dolly the sheep in 1996.

A previous claim that Korean investigators had succeeded in the feat turned out to be fraudulent. Then last year, a group at Oregon Health & Science University generated stem cells using the Dolly technique, but with cells from fetuses and infants.

MORE: Stem-Cell Research: The Quest Resumes

In this case, cells from a 35-year-old man and a 75-year-old man were used to generate two separate lines of stem cells. The process, known as nuclear transfer, involves taking the DNA from a donor and inserting it into an egg that has been stripped of its DNA. The resulting hybrid is stimulated to fuse and start dividing; after a few days the “embryo” creates a lining of stem cells that are destined to develop into all of the cells and tissues in the human body. Researchers extract these cells and grow them in the lab, where they are treated with the appropriate growth factors and other agents to develop into specific types of cells, like neurons, muscle, or insulin-producing cells.

Reporting in the journal Cell Stem Cell, Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology, and his colleagues found that tweaking the Oregon team’s process was the key to success with reprogramming the older cells. Like the earlier team, Lanza’s group used caffeine to prevent the fused egg from dividing prematurely. Rather than leaving the egg with its newly introduced DNA for 30 minutes before activating the dividing stage, they let the eggs rest for about two hours. This gave the DNA enough time to acclimate to its new environment and interact with the egg’s development factors, which erased each of the donor cell’s existing history and reprogrammed it to act like a brand new cell in an embryo.

VIDEO: Breakthrough in Cloning Human Stem Cells: Explainer

The team, which included an international group of stem cell scientists, used 77 eggs from four different donors. They tested their new method by waiting for 30 minutes before activating 38 of the resulting embryos, and waiting two hours before triggering 39 of them. None of the 38 developed into the next stage, while two of the embryos getting extended time did. “There is a massive molecular change occurring. You are taking a fully differentiated cell, and you need to have the egg do its magic,” says Lanza. “You need to extend the reprogramming time before you can force the cell to divide.”

While a 5% efficiency may not seem laudable, Lanza says that it’s not so bad given that the stem cells appear to have had their genetic history completely erased and returned to that of a blank slate. “This procedure works well, and works with adult cells,” says Lanza.

The results also teach stem cell scientists some important lessons. First, that the nuclear transfer method that the Oregon team used is valid, and that with some changes it can be replicated using older adult cells. “It looks like the protocols we described are real, they are universal, they work in different hands, in different labs and with different cells,” says Shoukhrat Mitalopov, director of the center for embryonic cell and gene therapy at Oregon Health & Science University, and lead investigator of that study.

MORE: Stem Cell Miracle? New Therapies May Cure Chronic Conditions like Alzheimer’s

Second, the findings confirm that the key factor in making nuclear transfer work with human cells is not the age of the donor cell, as some experts have argued, but the quality of the donor egg. “No matter how much you tweak the protocols or optimize them, it looks like the major player in efficiency is the individual egg quality,” says Mitalipov. He notes that all of his stem cell lines came from the same egg donor. The two cell lines described by Lanza’s group also came from one egg donor.

This latest success should reignite the debate over which reprogramming method generates the most reliable, and potentially useful, stem cells for eventually treating patients. The nuclear transfer method may join two other ways of making stem cells: one, developed by James Thomson in 1998, relied on extracting them from days-old embryos left over from IVF, and another, developed by Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka in 2006 (and for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize), bypassed the egg and embryo completely, allowing researchers to make stem cells by modifying an adult’s cells using a mixture of just four genes.

MORE: Stem Cell Researcher Calls for Retraction of His Own Work

Each method has it advantages and risks, however. IVF embryos are difficult to come by, since they require permission from couples to be used for stem cells research, and they may not be genetically matched to patients who might benefit from cells they generate.

While so-called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, avoid the need for embryos and could be matched to patients, some studies suggest that the process may not completely reprogram cells, leaving populations of some partially reprogrammed ones in the mix. In addition, iPS cells aren’t useful for treating mitochondrial diseases, which result from mutations in the cell’s energy factories, which have their own DNA outside of the cell’s DNA in the nucleus. If a cell with a mitochondrial mutation is reprogrammed using the iPS technique, any mutations would be reprogrammed as well.

MORE: FDA Approves Second Trial of Stem-Cell Therapy

Nuclear transfer, however, could treat these disorders since it involves an egg that provides its own, healthy mitochondria. But the process requires a good supply of eggs, which have to be donated by healthy volunteers. That raises ethical concerns since the technique could produce human clones. That’s why research on nuclear transfer is not funded by the federal government, and scientists know less about these cells and their potential than they do about iPS cells. “They have become kind of like cursed cells,” says Mitalipov of the stem cells generated through nuclear transfer. “But we clearly need to understand more about them.”

For patients who might one day benefit from stem cell-based therapies, that understanding could mean the difference between life and death, which is why the latest findings are potentially significant. “We have another way to skin the cat,” Lanza says. “The hope is that iPS cells work out, but for the future application of stem cell therapies to treating disease, it’s good knowing there is another way to make stem cells should we need to.”


Our Brains Begin to Slow Down at Age 24

Is 24 the new 50? A new study suggests that cognitive decline begins earlier than we think. The study of more than 3,300 volunteers tracked the relationship between age and the speed at which people make decisions and shift between tasks

Is 24 the new 50? If you’re going by when our intellectual skills start to decline and dull due to the passage of time, then it might be.

According to researchers at Simon Fraser University in Canada, things start going south at age 24. They came to that conclusion after studying 3,305 volunteers aged 16 years to 44 years. The participants played a real-time game that approximated everyday real-world situations that test our cognitive abilities, from concentration to juggling multiple tasks to shifting our focus from immediate to long-term issues. The game recorded the players’ moves, and researchers analyzed hours of data from it. As expected, the speed with which the volunteers made decisions, and shifted between tasks, declined with age.

Many studies have documented the gradual deterioration of cognitive skills over time. But in this study, published in the journal PLOS One, the drop, albeit small, was detected first among 24 year olds. In fact, for every 15 years after age 24, cognitive speed dropped by about 15%. And the results could not be explained by the fact that the players were getting better at navigating the game over time; the age-related decline remained, even among those with more skill playing the game.

This doesn’t mean it’s all downhill after your mid 20s. As cognitive speed slows, the brain makes up for some of the deficit in a variety of ways: by relying on experience to anticipate and more accurately predict upcoming tasks, as well as by employing mental shortcuts such as eliminating extraneous information and paring down incoming information to just core nuggets of relevant material. So while we may get slower, we might also be getting smarter. Feel better now?

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