TIME Research

Duke Researchers Hail Breakthrough After Growing Muscle Tissue in Lab

Advancement may form bedrock for future personalized medicines

Scientists at Duke University announced this week that human skeletal muscle has been successfully grown in the laboratory that is able to react to stimuli just like native tissue.

The lab-grown muscle will allow researchers to study the effects that drugs and disease have on muscle tissue without having to endanger the health of a potential patient, reports Science Daily.

“The beauty of this work is that it can serve as a test bed for clinical trials in a dish,” says Nenad Bursac, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University.

Bursac said the development would hopefully allow doctors to begin prescribing personalized medicine to patients in the future.

“We can take a biopsy from each patient, grow many new muscles to use as test samples and experiment to see which drugs would work best for each person,” he explained.

[Science Daily]

TIME Heart Disease

Popping Aspirin for Heart Health Could Be a Waste of Time for Some

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Tetra Images—Getty Images/Tetra images RF

The drug is overused in about 12% of heart patients, study finds

Study after study documents the wonders of aspirin for the heart—it can lower levels of inflammation, the trigger that sets off the unstable events of a heart attack, and it also helps blood remain free of viscous traps that can block vessels and slow the flow of blood to the heart. But these studies only support the benefits of aspirin in low daily doses for those who have already had heart events. For people who haven’t yet run into trouble but may be a higher risk of heart issues—including people who are overweight and those with high blood pressure or diabetes—the evidence isn’t so clear.

MORE: Who Should and Who Shouldn’t Take Daily Aspirin

That hasn’t stopped doctors from recommending aspirin to these patients. In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers looked at more than 68,000 people in 119 medical practices in the U.S who hadn’t had any previous heart events, but who were receiving aspirin therapy. 11.6% of them were given the drug inappropriately, the authors concluded; even though they did not meet the criteria that various groups of medical experts established as the threshold for starting the medication, they were still taking it.

Though aspirin is available over the counter, the drug comes with potential side effects that can pose serious health risks, including bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract and brain. “With aspirin being so widely used and being available over-the-counter, the concern I have is that a lot of the use may be leading to side effects that could be preventable by having a discussion between the provider and patient,” says Dr. Salim Virani, from the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine.

MORE: Daily Aspirin May Not Prevent Heart Attacks

Virani says that aspirin use among patients with no history of heart disease varies widely across the country. Among two similar patients randomly assigned to two different doctors, one would have a 63% higher chance of being given an aspirin to prevent a first heart event than the other patient.

Currently, the American Heart Association recommends that aspirin be used in such primary prevention cases only if the person has a greater than 10% chance of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years. This calculation is based on the person’s age, sex, cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, blood pressure and whether he or she smokes. Based on a review of the available literature, in 2009 the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force criteria advised starting aspirin for anyone with a great than 6% chance of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years.

Despite these guidelines, most doctors are likely not making the calculations necessary to come up with this score, suspects Virani—regardless of whether they are primary care physicians or heart experts. “We know from prior data that we as providers are not good at calculating the risk of every patient because it takes time,” he says. “You have to get the equations and put all the patient’s numbers in, and in a very busy practice that could be a time drain. So most of the variation we see could be doctors just determining risk by looking at the patient rather than going to the actual data to tell them what the person’s 10 year risk [of heart disease] is.” In fact, 73% of the people in the study, which only looked at heart doctors’ practices, did not have enough information for their physicians to calculate their 10 year risk score. Of those without score data, 97% were missing critical cholesterol level readings.

The overuse of aspirin is concerning, Virani says, because it persists even after he and his colleagues adjusted for potential confounding factors, including the proliferation of statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs that can also reduce inflammation. Because more people are on statins, including those who have not yet had a heart event, it’s possible that the drugs are lowering the 10-year risk of a heart attack or stroke by more than the other factors that doctors usually use to calculate risk and the need for aspirin. In other words, there may be more people who no longer need aspirin because they are taking statins.

Virani admits that his study still leaves a lot of questions unanswered, like dosage and whether a doctor recommended the drug or the person started taking it on their own.

Part of the reason for the inappropriate use could be an artifact of the aggressive prevention and awareness campaigns surrounding heart disease. Though they’ve been extremely effective at informing people about the many ways to avoid heart trouble, like changing your diet, exercising regularly and taking drugs like statins or aspirin, the message isn’t one-size-fits-all. That’s important for aspirin in particular, since the medication can come with harmful side effects that overshadow any potential benefit they might have. It’s enough of a concern that the Food and Drug Administration recently rejected a request to add primary prevention of heart disease as a benefit of aspirin therapy on the drug’s label.

These latest results only reinforce that decision. It’s clear that when it comes to whether aspirin can prevent a first heart attack, neither doctors nor patients are being guided by the evidence—and that could mean more health complications for more people.

TIME medicine

69 People Die From Drinking Poisoned Beer

Some believe the beer was contaminated with crocodile bile

Sixty-nine people died following a funeral in Mozambique, after drinking traditional beer now thought to have been contaminated. An additional 196 people have been admitted to hospitals.

Area emergency rooms experienced an influx of patients complaining of diarrhea and muscle pain after a funeral on Saturday, Northeast Tete province Health, Women and Social Welfare Director Paula Bernardo told media. The Mozambique government has declared three days of mourning following the deaths.

The cause of the fatalities is still being investigated, but it’s believed that funeral-goers drank contaminated, and possibly poisoned, local beer. The beer is called Pombe and is made with millet or corn flour. The source of the contamination is not yet known, but the Associated Press reports that authorities believe the drink may have been contaminated with crocodile bile during the funeral.

There is no clear evidence recorded of how poisonous crocodile bile may be, and there are contradictory reports of its true toxicity.

Forbes reports that the woman who owned the beer stand, her daughter, nephew and a few members of close families were some of the first fatalities reported.

Read next: The AirAsia Flight 8501 Data Recorder Has Been Retrieved

TIME Infectious Disease

Unlicensed Cambodian Medic Charged With Murder After Allegedly Spreading HIV

212 HIV cases were found in the community where he practiced

An unlicensed medic is being charged with murder after Cambodian medical authorities found 212 cases of HIV in the district where he had been treating patients, allegedly with contaminated equipment.

Yem Chrin treated poor patients and was believed to have healing powers, Reuters reports. However, he did not have a medical license and was allegedly delivering injections and blood transfusions using unclean equipment. Authorities tested 1,940 people in the northwestern province where Yem Chrin worked, and 212 tested positive for HIV. Some children as young as 6 years old tested positive for the virus, according to al-Jazeera.

Yem Chrin allegedly told police that he sometimes used the same syringe on two or three patients before disposing of it.

The World Health Organization and UNAIDS found that “the percentage of people that reported receiving an injection or intravenous infusion as part of their health treatment was significantly higher among the people who tested positive for HIV than the people who were HIV negative,” in the area in which Yem Chrin treated patients, Reuters reports.

The development is a setback in Cambodia’s largely successful efforts to eradicate the virus since it first spread through the country in the 1990s.

[Reuters]

TIME HIV/AIDS

This Contraceptive Is Linked to a Higher Risk of HIV

Depending on the contraceptive they’re using, women may be at higher risk of getting HIV

When it comes to the double duty of preventing both pregnancy and HIV, condoms are the best option, especially in the developing world where treatment for the infectious disease is harder to access. But the same isn’t true of other contraceptive methods, according to the latest study in Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Lauren Ralph, an epidemiologist at University of California San Francisco, and her colleagues conducted a review of all of the available studies on hormonal contraceptive methods—including injections of Depo Provera and Net-En that work to prevent pregnancy for about 12 weeks, as well as the pill. Among 12 studies involving nearly 40,000 women in sub-Saharan Africa, those using Depo showed a 40% higher risk of getting HIV than those using other methods or no contraception at all.

Previous studies suggested that Depo, which is made up of a hormone that mimics the reproductive hormone progesterone, was linked to higher risk of infection, but other studies showed conflicting results. Ralph found that only Depo was associated with a higher risk of HIV infection; there was no similar increase among women using the pill, which is composed of two hormones, estrogen and a form of progesterone. The correlation remained even after they considered potentially confounding factors, such as the women’s condom use.

While the study didn’t address the reason for the difference between oral contraception and Depo, some research suggests that their differing hormone combinations may have varying effects on the structure of the genital tract, a woman’s immune response or her vaginal flora, all of which could influence her vulnerability to acquiring HIV.

The results raise a difficult question about whether the increased risk of HIV infection warrants removing Depo from a woman’s contraceptive options in places like Africa. Worldwide, according to the authors, 41 million women use injectable contraception, and they have played a role in lowering death and health complications among women of child-bearing age. “Whether the risk of HIV observed in our study merits complete withdrawal of hormonal contraception, especially Depo, needs to be balanced against the known benefits of highly effective contraception in reducing maternal morbidity and mortality worldwide,” says Ralph, who conducted the research while at University of California Berkeley. More research needs to be done to quantify the risks and benefits of providing Depo, and these calculations also have to be adjusted for specific regions and even particular clinics. “One thing to consider is whether women have access to other contraceptive options, whether they will be willing to take up these contraceptive options, and ensuring that women will be comfortable with them,” she says. “I would love to see these findings applied to specific regions. I think that would help women make the most informed decisions.”

TIME medicine

Genetic Testing Company 23andMe Finds New Revenue With Big Pharma

The company’s database of genetic information is worth $10 million to Genentech

The past two years have been a rough and transformative time for the controversial DIY genetic testing company 23andMe. At the end of 2013, the Food and Drug Administration requested that the company shut down its main service, an analysis of a person’s genome gleaned from spit samples that anyone who purchased a kit could send in, noting that interpreting human genes—understanding what changes in DNA mean, and how they contribute or don’t contribute to disease—is still too much of a black box.

But things may be looking better for the company in 2015. On Jan. 6, it announced a $10 million partnership with biotech company Genentech, which will sequence the entire genomes of 3,000 23andMe customers with a higher risk for developing Parkinson’s disease. Genentech is hoping the information will speed development of more effective drugs against the neurodegenerative disorder, in which motor nerves in the brain start to deteriorate. “What attracted us to 23andMe and this opportunity is the work 23andMe has done together with the Michael J. Fox Foundation in the Parkinson’s space,” says Alex Schuth, head of technology innovation and diagnostics for business development at Genentech. “They have built a community of individuals and their family members who have contributed DNA samples. What is unique about this cohort is that it gives us an opportunity to connect clinical data on how patients feel and how their disease is progressing, with their genomic data. That’s unique.” The 23andMe customers will be asked to sign new consent forms as part of any Genentech studies.

MORE Time Out: Behind the FDA’s Decision to Halt Direct to Consumer Genetic Testing

The agreement is one of many that 23andMe CEO and co-founder Anne Wojcicki says are in the works, and hint at the company’s most valuable asset—the genetic information on the 800,000 customers who have sent in their DNA-laden saliva since the company began selling kits in 2006. “Databases, and big data, is suddenly trendy,” says Wojcicki, “especially in health care where people are recognizing that when you have really large numbers, you can learn a lot more. I think we are leading part of that revolution.”

But for the past year, the company hasn’t been sending back health information to customers who pay the $99 for an analysis. Instead, customers are getting reports on their genetic ancestry, with the promise that when the FDA permits it again, they will receive health-related information based on their genetic profile. Wojcicki says that since the FDA action, sales of the kits have been cut by about half, and while they are slowly climbing back up, they haven’t yet reached pre-2013 levels.

Regaining that market is a top priority for 23andMe, says Wojcicki. “Everyone at the company has some kind of role, some involvement, in thinking about the FDA,” she says. “It has transformed the entire company—our product, our execution, how to think about marketing, every aspect of it.” The two entities are exchanging requests and responses, and while she hopes to have a resolution in 2015, it’s not clear yet when the health-related services will be offered.

In the meantime, the genetic information 23andMe has already collected is becoming a potential gold mine for academic researchers and for-profit drug developers. The company has more than 30 agreements with academic researchers for which they receive no monetary compensation, so that scientists can learn more about certain diseases and contribute to basic knowledge about what goes wrong in those conditions. Wojcicki says she’s balancing opportunities with both non-profit and for-profit companies to optimize the value of 23andMe’s database. “Some research has absolutely no monetary capacity, and we should still do those, because fundamentally what 23andMe does is represent the consumer,” she says. “And some research does have monetary capacity, and we should do those too. Because the reality is that the group that is going to develop a drug or treatment or therapy for something like Parkinson’s disease is going to be a for-profit company.”

Read next: These GIFs Show the Freakishly High Definition Future of Body Scanning

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TIME Innovation

These GIFs Show the Freakishly High Definition Future of Body Scanning

CT Scanner Image
GE

Doctors at a Florida hospital get up close to bones, organs and veins, without making a single cut

General Electric released images on Wednesday from its first clinical trial of a next generation body scanner that captures bones, blood vessels and organs in high-definition.

The patients ride into the chamber of the scanner, dubbed “Revolution CT,” where a fan-shaped beam of x rays passes down their bodies and a computer reconstructs a digital model of the body, slice-by-slice. The scanner can build an image of a heart in the time it takes for a single heartbeat, according to GE.

The snapshots below, provided by GE, may look like an artist’s rendering from an anatomy textbook. In fact, they were taken from living patients at West Kendall Baptist Hospital in south Florida, the first hospital to test the new scanner in the field.

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Read next: Genetic Testing Company 23andMe Finds New Revenue With Big Pharma

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME medicine

Why Working at Night Boosts the Risk of Early Death

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Nurses working more night shifts were at higher risk of dying early Image Source—Getty Images

Working while the rest of the world is sleeping may increase your risk of cancer and heart disease

Sleep isn’t just a time to rest and give your body and brain a break. It’s a critical biological function that restores and replenishes important body systems. Now, yet another study on shift workers shows that their unusual hours may be cutting their lives short—and that’s especially true for those who have rotating night shifts, rather than permanent graveyard duty.

In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, scientists led by Dr. Eva Schernhammer, an epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, studied 74,862 nurses enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study since 1976. The nurses were an ideal group for studying the effects of rotating night shifts on the body, since RNs tend to have changing night shift obligations over an average month rather than set schedules.

MORE: The Power of Sleep

After 22 years, researchers found that the women who worked on rotating night shifts for more than five years were up to 11% more likely to have died early compared to those who never worked these shifts. In fact, those working for more than 15 years on rotating night shifts had a 38% higher risk of dying from heart disease than nurses who only worked during the day. Surprisingly, rotating night shifts were also linked to a 25% higher risk of dying from lung cancer and 33% greater risk of colon cancer death. The increased risk of lung cancer could be attributed to a higher rate of smoking among night shift workers, says Schernhammer.

The population of nurses with the longest rotating night shifts also shared risk factors that endangered their health: they were heavier on average than their day-working counterparts, more likely to smoke and have high blood pressure, and more likely to have diabetes and elevated cholesterol. But the connection between more rotating night shift hours and higher death rates remained strong after the scientists adjusted for them.

MORE: Why You Shouldn’t Read a Tablet Before Bed

The data support the idea that changing the body’s natural rhythms by being active at night and asleep during the day may have harmful consequences, especially if you shift this rhythm inconsistently. “It’s sort of like flying between London and New York every three days — constant jet lag,” says Schernhammer. “However, if you fly from London to New York and stay in New York, then jet lag would subside after a few days, and that’s what we assume happens in permanent night workers.”

Why does the body react when sleep cycles change? Previous studies showed that too little sleep or the kind that’s disrupted can alter melatonin levels so that the body never powers down and slips into restorative mode, a time when much-needed repairs are made to cells and tissues and supplies of nutrients are replenished to the body. Without this period of rest, important processes such as inflammation, fat and sugar metabolism and immune functions get out of balance, creating fertile ground for heart disease or cancer. The growing number of studies connecting shift work with unhealthy outcomes led the World Health Organization to classify shift work as a probable carcinogen in 2007.

MORE: These 6 Things Will Bring You a Great Night’s Sleep

Schernhammer and her colleagues show that the categorization may have merit, but not everyone can avoid night shift work. Researchers are studying how these people might counteract some of the effects of their unusual work hours, but none of these strategies, including light lamps and sleep aids, has so far been proven to help. In the meantime, she says that shift workers concerned about their risk should do everything they can to lower their risk of heart and cancer risk in other ways — by quitting smoking, getting enough exercise, eating a healthy diet and getting regular cancer screenings. “Hopefully in the near future we can also recommend additional measures that alleviate some of the strain that night work imposes on the circadian system,” she says, “by matching their shift schedules, to the extent possible, with their inherent sleep preferences — whether they are night owls or morning types.”

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 6

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. China is the key to solving the problem of North Korea.

By Christopher Hill in Project Syndicate

2. Squeezing cells to make their walls temporarily permeable could open the door to new cancer and HIV treatments.

By Kevin Bullis at MIT Technology Review

3. Survivors of domestic violence are getting immediate protection from their abusers via videoconference with a court officer from their hospital beds.

By Laura Starecheski at National Public Radio

4. Japan is testing underwater turbines to harness the power of ocean currents for clean energy.

By Brian Merchant in Motherboard from Vice

5. Drones are the new tool of choice for biologists and ecologists studying endangered species.

By Aviva Rutkin in New Scientist

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Science

The Shy Scientist Who Could See Through Skin

X-Ray Hand
Circa 1890: an X-Ray view of the hand and wrist of a four year-old child George Eastman House / Getty Images

Jan. 5, 1896: An Austrian newspaper reports Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of a new type of radiation, which becomes known as an X-ray

No one was initially more skeptical of the existence of X-rays than Wilhelm Roentgen — the man who discovered them.

One day in late 1895, the German physicist was preparing to begin an experiment with cathode rays, the glowing beams of electrons that pass through a vacuum tube when electricity is applied, which were a popular fixture in physics at the time. In his darkened lab, he covered the tube with black cardboard to hide its glow, but noticed a glimmer of light on a fluorescent screen across the room.

Curious, Roentgen “placed a sheet of black cardboard between the screen and the tube, then another, then a book of 1000 pages, then a wooden shelf board more than two and a half centimeters thick,” according to a story in the journal Physics Today. “The glimmer remained.”

At some point, he held up a small lead disk, and cast a terrifying shadow on the screen: the dark shape of the disk itself, along with the skeletal outline of the bones in his hand.

According to Physics Today, Roentgen was very late to dinner with his family that night. When he did show up, “he did not speak, ate little, and then left abruptly” to return to his lab. Afraid that he might have imagined the whole thing, he cautiously told a friend, as quoted by the journal Resonance, “I have discovered something interesting, but I do not know whether or not my observations are correct.” Eventually he summoned the courage to tell his wife what he’d seen, and enlisted her help in a follow-up experiment. Just before Christmas that year, he replaced the fluorescent screen with photographic paper and took the world’s first X-ray, a clear image of the bones and wedding ring on his wife’s left hand. She found the experience as unnerving as he had, exclaiming, “I have seen my death.”

When news of Roentgen’s discovery was published in an Austrian newspaper on this day, Jan. 5, in 1896, the monumental implications for science and medicine quickly became apparent. The New York Times picked up the story two weeks later, but couched it in skepticism that echoed Roentgen’s own, reporting his “alleged discovery of how to photograph the invisible.

While the Times eventually wrote more glowingly of Roentgen’s discovery, neither it nor any other newspaper revealed much about the scientist himself. Notoriously publicity-shy, he turned down countless speaking engagements and stipulated that when he died, his letters and journals should be destroyed.

He eschewed fortune as well as fame: He never patented X-rays, which he thought should be freely available to other researchers and the medical community, and, according to TIME’s brief notice at the time of his death, donated the money that came with his 1901 Nobel Prize (about $40,000) to a scientific society.

Roentgen’s generosity caught up with him near the end of his life, however. By the time he died, in 1923, his unwillingness to profit from his discovery — coupled with the economic conditions that followed World War I — had left him nearly penniless.

Read TIME’s 1956 examination of the safety of X-rays: X-Ray Danger

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