TIME Research

Study: Pesticides Could Cause Unexpected Allergic Reactions

New regulations could stem the risk

Traces of antibiotic pesticides in fruits and vegetables may trigger unexpected allergic reactions for people with food allergies, according to a new study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

“As far as we know, this is the first report that links an allergic reaction to fruits treated with antibiotic pesticides,” said lead study author Anne Des Roches in a press release.

The study looked at a patient who suffered from anaphylactic shock after eating a blueberry pie, despite not being allergic to any of the ingredients. After weeks of testing with both the patient and a sample of the pie, researchers concluded that the pesticide streptomycin, which is used in orchards, had triggered the reaction.

The use of such pesticides remains legal in the United States, though new Food and Drug Administration regulations may help address the issue, according to the study. The pesticides are illegal in some European countries, Roches said.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Training Your Brain Could Make You Prefer Healthy Food

Neural network
Getty Images

Which is more appealing: cheese pizza or salad? For many, the lure of lettuce hardly matches that of greasy comfort food, but new brain research from Tufts University published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes suggests that reconditioning can train adults to prefer healthy food and shun the junk.

“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” said study co-author and Tufts University professor Susan B. Roberts in a press release. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating – repeatedly! – what is out there in the toxic food environment.”

The researchers studied the brain scans of 13 people, then assigned eight of them to a new behavioral intervention geared toward weight loss. The program taught lessons on portion control and distributed menu plans geared around specific dietary targets, encouraging people to get 25% of their energy from protein and fat and 50% from low-glycemic carbohydrates, with more than 40 g of fiber per day. After six months either on or off the program, a second round of scans showed the part of the brain associated with addiction and learning had changed in people who participated in the program and stayed the same in the control group. That brain region appeared more active and sensitive to healthier foods and less sensitive to caloric foods among people in the weight-loss group.

Though the study acknowledges the need for further research, the findings suggest that it may be possible to recondition our cravings from cheese puffs to carrots. “Our study shows those who participated in it had an increased desire for healthier foods along with a decreased preference for unhealthy foods,” co-author Sai Krupa Das, an assistant professor at Tufts, said in the release, “the combined effects of which are probably critical for sustainable weight control.”

TIME Obesity

Obesity Is A Big Contributor To Diabetes Boom

Diabetes is one of the most common diseases in the U.S., and there’s a single biggest culprit to blame, found a new study released today in Annals of Internal Medicine: our ever-increasing body mass index, or BMI.

The team analyzed data from five National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys of a nationally representative U.S. sample of 23,932 people. They found that the prevalence of diabetes almost doubled from 1976 to 1980 as well as from 1999 to 2004.

BMI explained most of the increase in the prevalence of diabetes, even more than other big factors like race, ethnicity and age, lead study author Andy Menke, an epidemiologist with Social & Scientific Systems, wrote in an email to TIME. “There has been a substantial increase in obesity in the US population during this study,” he wrote.

Intriguingly, diabetes prevalence increased more in men than in women. And after taking changes in age, race, ethnicity and BMI into account, Menke’s team found that diabetes prevalence still increased in men, but not in women. The reason for that gender gap is not entirely clear, but might be due to factors that fell outside the scope of the study like differences in survival between men and women after being diagnosed with diabetes, physical activity, sleep patterns, vitamin D levels, psychological stress and depression, and exposure to pollutants and toxins, Menke wrote.

“Decreasing the occurrence of being overweight and obesity remains an important intervention to reduce the burden of diabetes,” the study authors wrote. In the fight against diabetes, obesity is a clear place to start.

TIME Cancer

How Diet Can Lower Risk of Prostate Cancer

Tomato and bean consumption helps prevent the disease

Consuming more than ten servings a week of tomatoes and beans lowers the risk of prostate cancer, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Bristol.

The findings expand on previous research and suggest that men should consume foods rich in lycopene and selenium, which are found in tomatoes and beans respectively, to help prevent the onset of a disease that kills about 30,000 men in the United States each year.

The study compared the diets of more than 1,800 men between the ages of 50 and 69 who had prostate cancer to the diets of more than 12,000 of their cancer-free peers.

While the study’s conclusions provide some dietary guidance, researchers say more work needs to be done to develop further dietary guidelines.

“Our findings suggest that tomatoes may be important in prostate cancer prevention. However, further studies need to be conducted to confirm our findings, especially through human trials,” said Vanessa Er, a researcher at the University of Bristol who led the study. “Men should still eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, maintain a healthy weight and stay active.”

TIME Research

Journal Retracts Paper that Questioned CDC Autism Study

A paper that claimed government scientists covered up data showing a connection between vaccines and autism has been pulled by its publisher

Earlier in August, the journal Translational Neurodegeneration, an open access, peer-reviewed journal, published a re-analysis of a 2004 paper published in Pediatrics that looked at MMR vaccines and autism. The re-analysis of the data, by biochemical engineer Brian Hooker of Simpson University, claimed to find a higher rate of vaccination against MMR among a subset — African-American boys — of the original study population who developed autism than among those who did not, a finding that Hooker claims was suppressed by the authors of the original paper from the Centers of Disease Control. One of the co-authors of the 2004 paper, William Thompson, released a statement admitting to omitting the data after a secretly recorded conversation he had with Hooker was released on YouTube. (Thompson was not available for comment.)

MORE: Whistleblower Claims CDC Covered Up Data Showing Vaccine-Autism Link

Now, however, the editors of Translational Neurodegeneration have retracted Hooker’s paper, noting on its site that “This article has been removed from the public domain because of serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions. The journal and publisher believe that its continued availability may not be in the public interest. Definitive editorial action will be pending further investigation.”

TIME Research

Your Home Is Covered In Bacteria

And the bugs you live with are unique to you

If you think your home is a refuge from the gross bacteria of the world, a new study published in Science will burst your antibacterial bubble. Every room in your house teems with bacteria so unique to you and your family that a swab of any room reveals your microbial signature.

Scientists involved in the Home Microbiome Project sequenced bacteria from seven families (pets included) and their homes over six weeks. They swabbed the surfaces of skin, hands, feet, noses, countertops, doorknobs, and nearly every surface with which the residents interacted in their abodes. Turns out, our bodies release bacteria in almost every encounter we have with our environment—when we shed skin, when we yawn, when we open the fridge door. And that germ-sharing happens rapidly. When three of the families in the study moved to a new house, it took less than 24 hours for their new places to look exactly like their old ones, at least when it came to their bacterial housemates. And that was true even when the new place was a hotel room.

“People get very fidgety and itchy about hotel rooms,” study author Jack Gilbert, a microbiologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, says — from his hotel room in South Korea. “But realistically, my hotel room right now looks like my microbiome. I’ve wiped out any of the previous occupants’ microflora in here—it’s 99.9% me.”

We don’t only share our bacteria with our houses, but also with each other. In the study, couples and their young children shared the most microbes with each other, thanks to regular physical contact. Hands were the most similar microbially, while noses retained an air of germy individuality since we pretty much keep them to ourselves (thank you, tissues!). The microbial constellations of families were so specific and unique that researchers were able to predict which family a given set of floor germs belonged to.

That’s fine when it comes to the more benign microbial hitchhikers, but what about the more scary ones that can cause disease? The researchers tracked a potentially antibiotic-resistant human pathogen from a kitchen countertop to the hands of family members, but no one got sick. “It’s likely that we all carry around nasty pathogens all the time in our body,” Gilbert says. “People aren’t getting ill because of them.” So our immune systems are able to ward off many of the nastier bugs most of the time — as long as we’re relatively healthy. Gilbert believes that it’s only when our microflora are compromised or unbalanced that the bad bugs get the chance to attack us.

Exposing your immune system to a wider array of the microbial universe is another way to bolster your defenses against them. And one way to do that is to get a pet. Dogs and cats track in the outside world, and that includes microbes. In the study, families with pets had more plant and soil bacteria in their homes — and that’s a good thing: a study earlier this summer found that infants who lived among pet dander had lower rates of allergies. “[Having a dog] rapidly supercharges the highways of microbial transmission in the house,” Gilbert says. (He is so convinced by the results, in fact, that he got a dog.)

The results are just the beginning of understanding how we interact with our environment, including with elements that we can’t even see. “There’s a continuum between you and your world, not a brick wall that ends at your skin,” says Gilbert. “We have to really embrace it in every aspect of our lives.”

TIME Cancer

IBM Watson’s Startling Cancer Coup

A general view of IBM's 'Watson' computing system at a press conference at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center on January 13, 2011 in Yorktown Heights, New York.
A general view of IBM's 'Watson' computing system at a press conference at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center on January 13, 2011 in Yorktown Heights, New York. Ben Hider—Getty Images

For the early part of its existence, IBM’s Watson supercomputer was a bit of a carnival act. It could perform feats of computational magic, win on Jeopardy, and whip up crazy burrito recipes at SXSW. But Watson is designed to become IBM’s money-making, Big Data platform, earning its keep across a variety of industries. In New York, the company announced that a Watson-enabled group of researchers was able to speed the process of discovery to uncover new targets for cancer research.

“We’re moving from a time where Watson helps answer questions to one where it tackles the questions that don’t have answers,” says IBM vice president John Gordon, Watson’s boss.

Using a Watson app developed with Baylor College of Medicine called KnIT (Knowledge Integration Toolkit) that reads and analyzes millions of scientific papers and suggests to researchers where to look and what to look for, a Baylor team has identified six new proteins to target for cancer research. How hard is that? Very. In the last 30 years, scientists have uncovered 28 protein targets, according to IBM. The Baylor team found half a dozen in a month.

More than 50 million research papers have been published, and that is doubling every three years. “Not only are our databases growing; they are growing faster than we can interpret all the data that they contain,” says Dr. Olivier Lichtarge, a computational biologist and professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor Med who is one of KnIT’s developers.

Lichtarge and colleagues used KnIT to read 23 million MedLine papers, including 70,000 studies on a protein called p53, which is a tumor suppressor. The p53 protein is associated with half of all cancers. They also looked at other proteins called kinases—there are more than 500 of them in humans—that act as switches in turning p53 off and on. In cancer, mutations cause the switching function to go haywire, which lets cancer cells run amok. Using the KnIT analytics, the team was able to identify six previously unknown kinases that affect the p53 protein.

It sounds like Google for scientists—which already exists—but Watson’s calling card is its natural language and cognitive abilities. The program doesn’t just sift through the literature and spit out the search matches—it interprets the papers, looking for previously unseen connections involving proteins, drugs and molecular mechanics. Then it builds a graphic analysis to help the researchers see those connections. “You are not looking for an answer,” says Gordon. “You are looking for a chain across the papers. If we were playing pool: you would see all the direct shots. What would be less obvious are the combinations.”

At the end of the data-mining and analyses, Watson generates hypotheses for the scientists to consider, along with the probabilities that it has picked the right targets.

To test the process, researchers cut Watson’s reading material off at 2003, and then asked it to suggest protein targets to investigate. It came up with nine. Over the next decade, seven of them were actually discovered.

For IBM, it’s a kind of road test of Watson Discovery Advisor, a cloud-based service that the company is launching. The target: some $600 billion is spent annually on research and development by large corporations. IBM sees thousands of applications in everything from finance, engineering and science to law enforcement–basically any place where data is piling up faster than humans can absorb it. Other companies are doing likewise of course, as Big Data has the potential set off another wave of expansion in cloud services.

Watson has its limits. It isn’t going to do the scientists’ homework, the nuts and bolts of research; nor is it going to replace scientific intuition. “Let me be clear that nothing replaces good critical reading, in depth, by a specialist of a research paper,” says Lichtarge. “It doesn’t tell the scientist what to do: it suggests possibility,” he adds. Watson may be recommending bank-shots in the game of medical research, the scientists are still going to have to make them.

TIME Research

Study: Trash Burning Causes Serious Health Problems

A young scavenger walks near a burning pile of trash in the Anlong Pi landfill on June 11, 2014 in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
A young scavenger walks near a burning pile of trash in the Anlong Pi landfill on June 11, 2014 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Omar Havana—Getty Images

More than 40 percent of trash worldwide is burned in unregulated conditions

More than 40% of trash produced around the world today is burned without regulation or oversight in a process that damages public health and contributes to climate change, according to a new study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“Air pollution across much of the globe is significantly underestimated because no one is tracking open-fire burning of trash,” said NCAR researcher and lead author of the study Christine Wiedinmyer in a statement. “The uncontrolled burning of trash is a major source of pollutants, and it’s one that should receive more attention.”

Mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a type of particle created during burnings, are among the potent materials released from unregulated burnings that have been linked to health problems like neurological disorders, cancer and heart problems.

While garbage burning happens across the globe, it’s particularly rampant in developing countries with limited access to controlled methods of trash disposal. More than 20 percent of large-particle pollutants in China come from trash burning. In fact, it was the visible presence of pollutants in the air during a trip to Ghana that in part inspired Wiedinmyer to conduct this study, she has said.

And, even if the problem is clear, the lack of current data solutions difficult to design.

“This study was a first step to put some bounds on the magnitude of this issue,” Wiedinmyer said. “The next step is to look at what happens when these pollutants are emitted into the atmosphere—where are they being transported and which populations are being most affected.”

 

TIME Diet/Nutrition

The Bacteria That May One Day Cure Food Allergies

Peanut
Peanut allergies have risen sharply, but a new therapy is in the beginning stages of research Getty Images

As a kid, Cathryn Nagler used to eat a daily peanut butter and jelly sandwich at school. That’s a lunch she can’t pack for her children. “There’s an estimated two children in every classroom with such severe peanut allergies that a few crumbs left behind by another kid could cause an anaphylactic response,” says Nagler, a food allergy professor at the University of Chicago. “That’s a huge change in a generation.”

Every round of antibiotics a person takes will wipe out strains of bacteria inside the body, some of which are eliminated forever. Considering how early and how often antibiotics are administered to kids—coupled with our increasingly antimicrobial lifestyles—we’ve become more prone to allergies and other ailments, the hygiene hypothesis goes. There’s no cure for food allergies, just lifestyle adjustments and abstention. But Nagler and her team may have the germ of an idea for treatment using gut bacteria, according to a new mice study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team dosed two groups of mice with peanut allergens. One group of mice had been bred to be entirely without gut germs; the other group had sparsely populated gut bacteria due to treatment with antibiotics. Both groups of mice had higher levels of the allergen in their bloodstream compared to mice with healthy gut-bacteria populations.

After giving those same mice a mix that contained the bacteria strain Clostridia, their allergen levels plummeted. Infusing the mice with another group of intestinal bacteria, Bacteroides, didn’t help—so the researchers think the effect is special to Clostridia. “These bacteria are very abundant and they reside very close to the epithelial lining, so they’re in intimate contact with the immune system,” Nagler says.

She and her team plan to investigate how other allergens react to Clostridia, and how Clostridia signals the immune system to elicit the protective responses they saw in the experiment. Next, they’ll transfer gut bacteria from food-allergic infants and healthy infants into germ-free mice, Nagler says. “If we give back Clostridia to a mouse that has the bacteria of an allergic child, can we now reverse susceptibility in that mouse?”

The hope is that one day, we might see probiotics armed with Clostridia. Its ability to form stable spores may make the bacterial group ideal for this type of packaging. “They could potentially be encapsulated, given as a drug, and allowed to germinate when they reach the GI tract,” Nagler says.We hope now to be able to develop these bugs as a novel treatment for food allergy.”

TIME Research

Ice Bucket Challenge Nears $80-Million Mark

Supporters of Michael Brown, Kalisha Gilmore (L) and Recorida Kennedy (R), pour ice water on Kevin Ephron as he takes the ice bucket challenge in remembrance of Brown along Canfield Drive, where he was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri August 24, 2014.
Supporters of Michael Brown, Kalisha Gilmore (L) and Recorida Kennedy (R), pour ice water on Kevin Ephron as he takes the ice bucket challenge in remembrance of Brown along Canfield Drive, where he was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri August 24, 2014. Joshua Lott—Reuters

The funds have come from 1.7 million donors

The ALS Association has raised $79.7 million to combat Lou Gehrig’s Disease since July 29, as the Ice Bucket Challenge continues to encourage people around the world to dump ice over their heads and send in money.

The organization raised just $2.5 million during the same period last year.

The Ice Bucket Challenge, which began last month and has become a viral Internet sensation, has attracted 1.7 million contributors. Political figures like George W. Bush and celebrities like Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner have taken the challenge.

The ALS Association, which raised $64 million in all of 2013, has described the influx in funds as “a game changer” for the organization’s efforts.

Other groups outside the ALS Association have benefited from the challenge, too. The Project ALS, which also raises money for ALS research, said earlier this month that the challenge has attracted donations.

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