TIME medicine

New Genes Found that Determine Your Height

The latest analysis doubles the number of genes connected to height

How tall you are is strongly related to the genes you inherit, and previous studies suggested that as much as 80% of the variance in height among people is due to their DNA.

And in the largest genetic study of height-related genes to date, scientists involved in the appropriately titled GIANT consortium (Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits) identified 423 genetic regions connected to height — which could explain as much as 60% of that genetic component.

Dr. Joel Hirschhorn, leader of the GIANT consortium at Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute of MIT says that for a trait like height, which isn’t determined by a single gene but likely the combined effects of multiple genes involved in multiple different processes from bone growth to cell growth, the new findings are like finding biggest nuggets of gold in a riverbed. The latest analysis, published in the journal Nature Genetics, describes the gene variants most commonly shared among people (not the rare mutations) that likely contribute to height.

They emerged from a sweep of the genomes of more than 250,000 people of various heights, and from correlating their stature with their genetics. Many of the known and familiar factors related to height, including those dealing with skeletal growth and collagen that are mutated in people with medically short stature, for example, appeared in the study, confirming their role in determining how tall people get.

But there were also some surprises — genetic regions that previous had never been thought to be related to height, including a gene known to be involved in cell growth but not in skeletal functions. “It’s a mix ranging from completely known things, to those that make sense to things that are completely surprising and things we don’t even know what to think about them,” says Hirschhorn.

What the group has identified are gene regions of interest, and a new round of studies will have to delve deeper into those areas to isolate specific genes — and the proteins they make, such as growth factors, enzymes, or other agents — that are actually responsible for determining height. But it’s a critical first step, and could lead to potential new ways of treating medical conditions of short stature or gigantism that can have health negative health effects on the heart and joints.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 3

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

1. With 3D printing, prosthetic technology is poised to change millions of lives.

By Tom McKay in Mic

2. Dysfunctional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security undermines its mission.

By Daniel Kaniewski in The Hill

3. The web isn’t killing newspapers. Print readership has been in decline for 20 years.

By Whet Moser in Chicago Magazine

4. Skyrocketing drug traffic has deeply affected life on Indian reservations at the US-Mexico border.

By Shannon Mizzi in Wilson Quarterly

5. With Chinese elites joining the movement, the protests in Hong Kong could yield a partial win.

By Zack Beauchamp in Vox

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 ebola

Ebola Patient in Texas Is Not Allowed Any Visitors

Thomas Eric Duncan remains in serious condition at a Dallas hospital

Thomas Eric Duncan remains in serious condition at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, kept under close watch by law enforcement officials. He’s not allowed any visitors, but is communicating with family and friends via phone.

In a news conference on Thursday, Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said CDC-trained health officials in Monrovia, Liberia, took Duncan’s temperature before he boarded a plane on Sept. 19 to begin his journey to the United States. As part of the screening process to prevent the spread of Ebola into this country, passengers’ temperatures are taken and those with fevers are pulled off the flight. Duncan’s temperature, according to Frieden, was 97.3 (or 36.3C) — normal.

Frieden said more than a dozen people from the countries most affected by Ebola were prevented from boarding flights to the U.S. in September. Duncan did not develop fever and symptoms until four days after he arrived in Dallas.

The four people in the apartment where he stayed are now under quarantine, prevented from leaving their home by a law enforcement officer stationed outside the complex. If any of the individuals violate the order, a formal court order will be issued. None of the people are symptomatic, but, said Dr. David Lakey, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, he “had concern about our ability to be confident that monitoring was going to take place the way we needed it to take place.” People who might have had contact with Duncan are being monitored with twice daily temperature checks and, he said, without elaborating on the reasons, “we felt this [quarantine order] was needed.”

Food is being delivered to the four people in the apartment and Lakey said a cleaning service had been found to thoroughly clean the residence as well. Health officials visited the apartment when Duncan was admitted to the hospital, and helped the residents bag Duncan’s belongings, along with trash and towels that he used. In an interview with Anderson Cooper 360° due to air Thursday evening, however, Duncan’s partner, Louise, with whom he stayed and is one of those quarantined, said the sheets he used were still on the bed. She and the other four people in the apartment were also instructed about how to decontaminate areas that Duncan might have touched, until more thorough cleaning could be done.

For now, Lakey said, “I have no intention to put other individuals under a control [quarantine] order.” Together with the CDC, the Texas health department is monitoring 100 people with daily temperature checks; most are unlikely to be at high risk of developing Ebola, and only about a dozen had direct contact with Duncan. The state is also investigating how Duncan could have been sent home after his first visit to hospital, when he had a fever and told the nurse that he had recently arrived from Liberia.

TIME ebola

Pentagon Dispatches 101st Airborne to Africa to Tackle Ebola

Ebola
Getty Images

Headquarters unit from the storied division to coordinate U.S. efforts to tackle the disease

While the U.S. military has dispatched some 1,600 troops to Iraq in recent weeks to deal with the threats posed by Islamic militants there, it apparently was saving its big guns for a more insidious threat: the Ebola virus.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced it will soon have about 1,600 troops in western Africa dealing with the spreading scourge—and that nearly half of them will come from the Army’s storied 101st Airborne Division.

“It’s not an armed threat,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said of the Ebola virus Tuesday. But “just like any other threat, we take it very, very seriously.” While U.S. troops will not be tending to those infected with the disease, he said, they will be “trained on personal protective equipment and on the disease itself…we’ll make sure that they’ve got the protection that they need.”

Like the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the battle against Ebola is open-ended, Kirby said. He announced that a 700-strong headquarters unit from the 101st would head to Liberia by the month’s end to help coordinate the response to the epidemic. The virus has so far killed over 1,800 in Liberia, the country worst affected by the outbreak.

A second group of 700 engineering troops are headed there to build treatment units to treat the infected, he said. Nearly 200 U.S. troops are already in West Africa dealing with the threat.

“These deployments are part of a whole-of-government response to the Ebola outbreak,” Kirby said. “The U.S. military is not in the lead, but we are fully prepared to contribute our unique capabilities.”

Last week, 15 Navy Seabees—the service’s construction arm—arrived in the Liberian capital of Monrovia to begin help building treatment and training centers. “We’re establishing command and control nodes, logistics hubs, training for health care workers, and providing engineering support,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. “The protection of our men and women is my priority as we seek to help those in Africa and work together to stem the tide of this crisis.”

The World Health Organization said Tuesday that the number of Ebola patients in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone had topped 6,500, with nearly half of them dying from the disease.

It was only two weeks ago that President Obama declared the U.S. would dispatch 3,000 troops to battle Ebola. “If the outbreak is not stopped now,” he warned, “we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected, with profound political and economic and security implications for all of us.”

On Tuesday, in another echo of the fight against ISIS, Kirby said that might not prove sufficient. “They’ll come in waves,” he said of U.S. troops deployments. “It could go higher than 3,000 troops eventually.”

TIME medicine

Soon You Can Send Your Expired Painkillers Through the Mail

painkiller pills
Getty Images

The DEA has a new way to get rid of extra meds

How to get rid of leftover medication is a tricky question—keep it around and it can get into the wrong hands, but dispose of it improperly and you risk contaminating the environment.

That’s why in the past, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has held National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. Last April, the DEA reported that it collected 780,000 pounds of prescription drugs, and during the event on Sept. 27, a single county in Virginia dropped off 1,200 pounds of drugs. But even though half a ton of drugs for one county is certainly a coup, it was the last event of its kind—because soon, through an innovative new program, Americans will be able to safely abandon their unused pills at any time.

The DEA first recognized the leftover pill problem because the Controlled Substances Act had no outlined provisions for how people could get rid of their unused or expired prescription drugs. According to the DEA, people would keep them in their medicine cabinets (which made it possible for them them to be abused), toss them in the trash or flush them down the toilet. The latter method was discovered to contaminate water supplies.

In 2010, the Drug Disposal Act gave the DEA the authority to create a framework for how the general public and facilities could dispose of prescription pills properly and safely. On Sept. 9 the regulations were approved, and the DEA says it will start implementing the plan in early October. The new regulations allow Americans to get rid of their excess drugs at pharmacies or police departments with drop-off receptacles. Patients will also be able to grab envelopes from places like hospitals that they can use to mail their pills to authorized collectors, who will make sure the pills are properly incinerated. “It will be more convenient because once these rules are implemented, then people can do it all the time,” a DEA spokesperson told TIME.

The number of Americans abusing prescription drugs has dropped in the last couple years, but the DEA says the 6.5 million people who reportedly abused prescription drugs in 2013 is double the number of people who use hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, LSD and Ecstasy combined.

TIME medicine

For Back Pain or Headache, Painkillers Do More Harm than Good

Blue pills
Getty Images

For the first time, a major medical organization takes a stand on rampant overuse of opioids for treating back pain, headaches and migraines

Powerful painkillers do little to improve patients’ daily functioning, finds the American Academy of Neurology in a new position statement on opioid painkillers for chronic pain not related to cancer. Written by Dr. Gary Franklin, research professor in the departments of occupational and environmental health sciences and neurology at the University of Washington, the paper outlines the growing epidemic of overdose deaths—most of them unintentional—linked to opioid use. It concludes that in the majority of these cases, pain killers may ease some pain but fall short of truly improving patients’ health. Coupled with the potential hazards of addiction and overdose, the Academy says that doctors should be looking for other ways to help these patients manage their pain.

“This is the first position paper by a major American specialty society saying that there is a real problem here, and the risk might not be worth the benefit for certain conditions,” says Franklin.

MORE: Stopping America’s Hidden Overdose Crisis

The statement traces the rise of the opioid prescribing epidemic to loosening of previously strict regulations put in place in the 1940s, when opioid-based opium and heroin gained popularity as narcotic drugs of abuse. Recognizing the potential for addiction and overdose, states implemented rigorous controls over who could prescribe opioids and how much of the medications were dispensed; violating the rules meant doctors could lose their medical licenses or face criminal prosecution. Therefore, most physicians shied away from the drugs, leading to under-treatment of chronic pain, particularly among the growing number of cancer patients.

To address that trend, advocacy groups and pharmaceutical makers of opioids lobbied to change state laws to remove sanctions against doctors prescribing them—and ended up making them too lenient, says Franklin. “The language in Washington state, for example, said that no doctor shall be sanctioned for any amount of opioids written. So even if a doctor is handing out bags of opioids, it made it hard for the medical board or disciplinary board of the state to do anything about that doctor.”

MORE: FDA Approves New Pain Pill Designed To Be Hard to Abuse

That push to begin treating pain more aggressively began with cancer patients and those who were terminally ill, but drug makers saw another opportunity in people with chronic pain. The problem, say experts, is that for most such chronic pain, including low back pain, headaches and fibromyalgia, there is little evidence to support the idea that opiates are effective, and even less data suggesting that escalating doses and keeping patients on opioids for months or even years to treat persistent pain would benefit them. Most studies only followed patients for about a month on average.

Some in the pain community called out a red flag when they saw that a growing proportion of pain patients were still taking opioids but not reporting any improvements. In 2003, Dr. Jane Ballantyne and Dr. Jianren Mao, then at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, published a review of the existing data on opioid use for chronic pain in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was among the first studies to highlight the fact that the skyrocketing number of prescriptions was doing little to actually reduce reports of chronic pain. “The real problem is physicians who are practicing with the best intentions and not understanding what the limited role of opiates is,” says Ballantyne, now a professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the University of Washington. “For 20 years they have been taught that everybody deserves an opiate, because they really don’t know what else to do. It’s a cultural thing and it’s hard to reverse that.”

The result, Franklin notes, is that since the 1990s, more than 100,000 people have died from opioid overdoses – more than the total number of American soldiers who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. In addition, studies have linked opioid use to serious health problems, from changes in hormone levels that can contribute to infertility, abnormal immune function, heart problems, and even worsening of pain symptoms.

MORE: Viewpoint: FDA Approval of Overdose Antidote Leaves Lives on the Table

Ballantyne says that the opioids can backfire in excessive doses; in the same way that neurons become over-sensitized to pain and hyper-reactive, high doses of opioids could prime some nerves to respond more intensely to pain signals, rather than helping them to modulate their reaction. “The idea is that we have the answer to all chronic pain, and that is to give opiates. That’s simply not true,” she says. “A lot of chronic pain isn’t appropriate for opiates.”

To stop the epidemic of deaths by opioids, Franklin says, states have to reinstate stricter oversight over doctors who prescribe these medications and implement guidelines that call for clear limits to opioid use that both doctor and patient agree upon, particularly for chronic conditions outside of cancer or terminal care. A handful of states and the Centers for Disease Control, for example, have already instituted so-called yellow-flag warning doses that require providers to get additional opinions if a patient reaches daily opioid doses of 80 mg to 120 mg and continues to complain of pain.

MORE: FDA Expands Access to Overdose Antidote to Stem Opiate Addiction Epidemic

But perhaps the best way to move the needle in the epidemic is to reset expectations that doctors and the public have about pain treatment. “In this country we expect everything to be fixed, and that doctors have the answer and can take pain away,” says Ballantyne. Yet many of the first strategies for alleviating pain might start with patients and their lifestyles rather than a prescription. Exercise and a healthy weight can ease much of the chronic pain associated with the back and joints, for instance. “We shouldn’t be resorting to pills as a first resort; they should very much be a last resort,” she says.

Alternative approaches to managing pain, including cognitive behavioral therapy, should also be given strong consideration. The Academy is urging insurers to step in and cover more such pain management approaches so that drug therapy doesn’t continue to be the default. “The important message is that we should not use opioids chronically for most people because they don’t work,” he says. “But at the same time we ought to be paying for things that do work.”

TIME Crime

How Poisoned Tylenol Became a Crisis-Management Teaching Model

Tylenol 1982
Bottles and boxes of Tylenol products which were taken off the shelves or returned to a Safeway store, on Oct. 1, 1982 Jim Preston— The Denver Post / Getty Images

Sept. 29, 1982: The first three of seven victims are killed by poisoned Tylenol in the Chicago area

The killer’s motives remain unknown, but his — or her, or their — technical savvy is as chilling today as it was 30 years ago.

On Sept. 29, 1982, three people died in the Chicago area after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol at the outset of a poisoning spree that would claim seven lives by Oct. 1. The case has never been solved, and so the lingering question — why? — still haunts investigators.

According to TIME’s 1982 report, Food and Drug Administration officials hypothesized that the killer bought Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules over the counter, injected cyanide into the red half of the capsules, resealed the bottles, and sneaked them back onto the shelves of drug and grocery stores. The Illinois attorney general, on the other hand, suspected a disgruntled employee on Tylenol’s factory line. In either case, it was a sophisticated and ambitious undertaking with the seemingly pathological goal of killing strangers entirely at random. Their symptoms and sudden deaths confounded doctors until the link was discovered, traced back to identical pill bottles that each smelled like almonds — the telltale scent of cyanide. The perpetrator left no margin for error, filling the capsules with poison at thousands of times the amount needed to be fatal.

One victim, 27-year-old Adam Janus, took Tylenol for minor chest pain and died within hours. His younger brother and sister-in-law were killed after taking pills from the same bottle while grieving the sudden, shocking loss at Janus’ house.

TIME’s Susan Tifft wrote of the tragedy’s victims on Oct. 11, 1982:

Twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village took Extra-Strength Tylenol to ward off a cold that had been dogging her. Mary Reiner, 27… had recently given birth to her fourth child. Paula Prince, 35, a United Airlines stewardess, was found dead in her Chicago apartment, an open bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol near by in the bathroom. Says Dr. Kim [the chief of critical care at Northwest Community Hospital]: “The victims never had a chance. Death was certain within minutes.”

Without a suspect to revile, public outrage could have fallen squarely on Tylenol — the nation’s leading painkiller, with a market share greater than the next four top painkillers combined — and its parent corporation, Johnson & Johnson. Instead, by quickly recalling all of its products from store shelves, a move that cost Johnson & Johnson millions of dollars, the company emerged as another victim of the crime and one that put customer safety above profit. It even issued national warnings urging the public not to take Tylenol and established a hotline for worried customers to call.

Tylenol relatively quickly reestablished its brand, recovering the entire market share it lost during the cyanide scare. Though things could have gone very differently, the episode’s most lasting legacy has been in the annals of public relations, not poison control: the case has since become a model for effective corporate crisis management.

Read the 1982 report on the poisonings, here in TIME’s archives: Poison Madness in the Midwest

TIME medicine

Male ‘Enhancement’ Drugs Called Dangerous Amid FDA Crackdown

Turns out, bigger can be badder: Many products claiming to enlarge men’s genitals are deceptive and potentially even deadly, according to federal experts

Turns out, bigger can be badder: Many products claiming to enlarge men’s genitals are deceptive and potentially even deadly, according to federal experts and doctors.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, seeking to curb what it calls “an emerging trend,” has issued 20 public notifications this year concerning 20 “tainted” Internet products with names like Weekend Warrior and O.M.G. that promise male “sexual enhancement.”

Yet months after the FDA warnings, some of these supplements are being sold on mainstream retail websites…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME medicine

Look Up Your Meds On This Massive New Drug Database

Iodine

The Yelp of medicine is here

Iodine, a new health start-up from a former Wired editor and Google engineer offers an easy-to-use database of drug information.

The database, which launched on Wednesday, uses Google surveys to get consumer information on a wide variety of both over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Users can search a specific drug from Aleve to Xanax and see how people generally feel about its efficacy, about the side effects from actual users, tradeoffs, comments from users, warnings, costs, and a readable versions of the drug’s package insert.

And the database will continue to grow. According to the New York Times, Iodine uses Google Consumer Surveys, of which they have 100,000 ones completed, and they add to their website every day. Iodine also uses data from clinical research, pharmacist surveys, adverse event reports made to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Average Drug Acquisition Cost (NADAC)–which reports the average wholesale price pharmacies pay for over 20,000 drugs.

Thomas Goetz, the former Wired editor and co-founder of Iodine told the Times that Iodine is developing the largest survey of American’s drug use and experiences which could not just help consumers but help impact policy.

The folks behind Iodine may have actually succeeded in making Big Data useable—and helpful.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 24

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

1. Because of America’s unique relationship with Liberia, we have an obligation to help fight the Ebola outbreak there.

By James Ciment in Slate

2. Medical research often doesn’t account for different ethnicities, and underrepresented groups suffer.

By Estaban G. Burchard in Nature

3. One way to head off sexual violence in professional sports: start with high school coaches.

By Libby Nelson in Vox

4. Beyond the sharing economy: Is “reputation” the next important currency?

By Heather Schlegel on CNN

5. Powerful protests over climate change target corporations – and new leadership is needed to restore faith in capitalism.

By Judith Samuelson in the Huffington Post

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.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser