TIME Research

Bumpy, Shark-Like Surfaces Could Lessen Disease Transmission

Bacteria doesn't stick to the sharky material

A surface that imitates the scaly, bumpy skin of sharks could reduce the transmission of bacteria in hospitals, according to a new study in the journal Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Control.

“The [pattern] consistently demonstrated a reduction in microbial attachment, transference, and survival following simulated real-world inoculation methods,” the study said of the micropattern tested, called Sharklet. “When adopted into real-world use, application of the [micropattern] onto high-touch surfaces in hospitals or shared public spaces is expected to limit environmental contamination of infectious microorganisms.”

Bacteria struggles to attach itself to the textured surface of the Sharklet micropattern. The study found that surfaces with the micropattern retained 94% less antibiotic resistant bacteria than an ordinary smooth surface.

In the past, health officials have considered installing copper surfaces, which kills some bacteria. The study found that copper surfaces reduced bacteria by 80%.

In a press release, Ethan Mann, a researcher for the maker of the product, said the micropattern would be manufactured as a part of typical plastic surfaces in hospitals including “environmental surfaces” and “medical devices.”

“Sharklet does not introduce new materials or coatings – it simply alters the shape and texture of existing materials to create surface properties that are unfavorable for bacterial contamination,” he said.

TIME Research

Plastic Chemicals During Pregnancy Linked to 70% Increased Asthma Risk

Silhouette of Pregnancy
Getty Images

You won’t easily find the word “phthalate” on a label, but the group of sticky chemicals that help make plastic flexible (and help make fragrances “stick” to your hair, face, or skin) may have unintended health consequences, finds a new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

A research team from Columbia University followed a group of 300 moms and children in New York’s inner city for several years. Researchers compared the urine tests of the mothers’ during pregnancy—testing for concentrations of phthalates—to whether their children had asthma at ages 5-11.

“Virtually everyone in the U.S. is exposed to phthalates,” says study author Robin Whyatt, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. So in the absence of a true control, the researchers had to compare women with the lowest levels of exposure to women with the highest.

Children of women with higher levels of two types of phthalates—butylbenzyl phthalate (BBP) and di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP)—in their urine while pregnant had a 72% and 78% increase in the risk of asthma. And every single woman in the cohort had metabolites of both kinds of phthalates in their urine.

MORE: What Is A Phthalate?

Phthalates are everywhere, from school supplies and nail polish to designer denim. They lurk in plastic and home materials, and since they hold scent, they’re extremely popular in all kinds of personal care products. In the study, researchers found a strong association between phthalate concentration and perfume, as well as vinyl flooring. “They’re volatile, so they get into the air,” Whyatt says. “Our data indicates that inhalation is a significant route of exposure.” Fetuses seems to be especially at risk; since their lungs develop so rapidly, they’re more susceptible to environmental exposures, she says. And phthalates are endocrine disruptors, meaning they mess with the body’s natural hormone system, which Whyatt says are key to fetal development.

Studies have linked phthalates to early-onset eczema, hormonal imbalances and respiratory problems.

Eliminating your exposure altogether is impossible, and limiting it is difficult, Whyatt says. But she and her fellow researchers have adopted some phthalate-reducing recommendations, like storing food in glass containers instead of plastic, never microwaving food in plastic, avoiding air fresheners and all scented products (look for ‘fragrance” or “parfum” on the label), buying scent-free laundry detergent and dishwashing soap, and avoiding use of plastic with recycling codes #3 and #7 (you can tell by the number in the triangle).

“We feel we have a real burden, particularly to the women in our cohort,” Whyatt says, some of whom she’s been following for 16 years. But you can only cut down exposure so much. “Because they’re so widespread and in so many different products, addressing this is up to the regulators.”

Illustration by Heather Jones for TIME
TIME Aging

New Insight On Alzheimer’s: What Increases Your Risk

The two seemingly unrelated conditions may be driven by similar unhealthy states, including high blood pressure and diabetes.

The risk factors for the neurodegenerative disease affecting more than 5 million Americans aren’t all in the brain. And a new report from Alzheimer’s Disease International highlights the connection between the disease of the brain and heart disease, says Heather Snyder, PhD, director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer’s Association. In the report, blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking are highlighted as risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, which strike women far more than men. There’s other evidence that obesity and sedentary behavior might play a part.

Many people view Alzheimer’s as a disease over which they have no control. But while factors like age and genetics do contribute to its development, the latest data indicate that other factors, which can be modified, may also be important. For example, hypertension in middle age may increase dementia risk, and mid-to-late-life diabetes is also associated with increased risk for all kinds of dementia. Both can be avoided with changes in lifestyle and, if needed, medications.

“The best evidence right now for lifestyle factors that may reduce risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias is for regular physical activity in combination with social and mental stimulation, and quitting smoking,” said Maria Carrillo, Alzheimer’s Association vice president of medical and scientific relations, in a statement. “Other lifestyle aspects that may contribute to healthy-brain aging are eating a brain-healthy diet, being mentally active, and being socially engaged.”

And more research may likely identify other risk factors as well. “It’s a complex disease,” Snyder says. “It’s the sixth leading cause of death–and the only cause of death [for which] we currently don’t have a way to stop or slow its progression.” Understanding Alzheimer’s connections to conditions like heart disease could be a first step in addressing that gap.

TIME Research

Urine Tests Can Diagnose HPV

A representation of the Papilloma Virus(HPV) based on an electronic microscope magnification At 300000X.
A representation of the human papillomavirus (HPV) BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

They're not here yet, but urine tests could be game changing

Time for some cold hard facts: if you’re sexually active, there’s a very high likelihood that you have HPV, an infection “so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. While the vast majority of HPV infections go away on their own, specific high-risk strains can cause cervical cancer.

That’s why women get Pap smears, a procedure that tests for cervical cancer among women. Part of the procedure is collecting cells that are then tested for strains of HPV (as well as many other things). It’s not exactly pleasant or popular, and some women avoid them altogether. But there may be an alternative, according to a new meta-analysis published in the BMJ.

The analysis looked at 14 studies suggesting the possibility of diagnosing HPV by identifying HPV DNA sequences. The research showed that urine HPV tests had an overall sensitivity — the proportion of positive results identified — of 87%. Urine tests were also 94% correct in identifying negative tests. Compared with cervical samples collected during a Pap, urine tests had a 73% overall sensitivity in correctly identifying positive high-risk HPV strains 16 and 18 and had a 98% specificity for identifying negative test results.

The results don’t yet offer bottom-line advice; since each study was relatively different, the authors suggest that urine tests may be an option for women who do not partake in consistent cervical screening or who live in countries where self-sampling may be simpler and more cost effective.

Researchers concluded from the studies they analyzed that urine tests for HPV have good accuracy, though more research is needed to confirm how they could be used in clinical settings.

TIME Research

Chin-Powered Energy Is Now Possible, Say Scientists

Can’t you just see the infomercial?

“Darn it, that hearing-aid battery went out again!”

“Never happens to me, Fred. Because I have this.” (Pulls out strap, buckles around top of head and under chin. Pops a stick of gum in mouth. Starts chewing.) “Yep, I have all the power I need, right here.” (Points to chin. Fred looks on with a mix of awe and envy.)

It sounds like an Onion piece but it’s real—and it’s really, really peculiar. A new report in the journal Smart Materials and Structures lays it out: engineers at Montreal’s École de Technologie Supérieure have created a prototype of the energy-generating chin strap and proven that it works in the lab, putting out 18 microwatts of electricity.

“Given that the average power available from chewing is around seven milliwatts, we still have a long way to go before we perfect the performance of the device,” writes study co-author Aidin Delnavaz, in a press release—which is a bit of an understatement, since that would be about a thousandfold increase in performance.

The technology behind the chinstrap power source isn’t new, mind you: it involves piezoelectric materials, which generate electricity simply by being squeezed or flexed. They’ve been used to create energy-producing kneepads (“not that pleasant” to wear, says its inventor) and boots (not that fashionable).

But the chinstrap is evidently the new state of the art. Once the engineers get the kinks out, which could take a few years, it could become commercially available, at which point, said Delnavaz, “the device could substantially decrease the environmental impact of batteries and bring more comfort to users.”

This depends on your definition of “comfort,” though. If you think strapping a contraption around your head every time you sit down to dinner and chewing against resistance is likely to be comfortable, either physically or socially, this item is for you.


TIME Research

Here’s Why You May Be Better Off Taking Generic Cholesterol Drugs

Patients with cheaper drugs tended to take their medicine more consistently

A new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the cost difference between generic and brand-name drugs seems to be a big factor when it comes to sticking with a medication–especially when it comes to statins, one of the most-prescribed drugs in the country. People who got the generic versions of the cholesterol-lowering medication were more likely to consistently take it and avoid cardiovascular disorders than those who filled the brand-name kind.

“Initiating a generic versus a brand-name statin seems to be associated with lower out-of-pocket costs, improved adherence to therapy, and improved clinical outcomes,” the study said.

The study, which looked at more than 90,000 patients over age of 65, found that people taking generic drugs were more likely to stick to their medication regimen. Price played a role in this disparity, the study suggests. The average cost to fill a prescription for the consumer was $10 for generic statins versus $48 for brand names.

“Given this substantial cost difference, it is perhaps not surprising that adherence and cardiovascular outcomes were worse among patients receiving brand-name statins,” study authors wrote. Overall, people who took generic drugs had 8% fewer incidents than people who used brand-name drugs.

The study received grant support from drug manufacturer Teva Pharmaceutical (which makes both generic and brand-name drugs) and acknowledges that the results may not be generalizable for certain populations: particularly those with greater incomes or access to insurance plans that provide better coverage for brand-name drugs.

TIME Cancer

Male-Pattern Baldness Linked to Aggressive Prostate Cancer

A specific kind of baldness is linked to aggressive prostate cancer, finds a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Researchers analyzed the self-reported hair-loss patterns from 39,000 men enrolled in the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial and found that men who recalled having male pattern baldness—characterized by a receding hairline and thinning hair on the crown—at age 45 had a 40% increased risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer when they got older compared to men who weren’t balding. No type of baldness was linked to a higher rate of overall cancer, and male-pattern baldness was not linked to non-aggressive prostate cancer.

Michael Cook, senior study author and investigator in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute, suspects the link is due to male androgens, or sex hormones. Testosterone and an androgen derived from testosterone, called dihydrotestosterone (DHT), are linked to both male-pattern baldness and to the progression of prostate cancer, he told TIME. Genetics might also come into play. “There is some overlapping regions of the genome that may be implicated in both of these conditions, but it’s too early to say whether these are the exact same genes,” Cook says.

Up to 70% of men experience male-pattern baldness at some point, and men shouldn’t panic if they too experience hair loss. “You should not in any way be additionally concerned of your individual prostate cancer risk,” he cautions. “That’s because although these results are [interesting] and may indicate that there’s some central underlying exposure—which may be androgens—we cannot say that for certain.”

If you’re concerned, as always, talk to your doctor.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

The Link Between Sunny Days and Suicide

Sunshine's complex effect on suicide and depression

Sunshine seems to be linked to suicide—but not in the way you might think.

A new study published today in JAMA Psychiatry compared 69,462 suicides that occurred in Austria between 1970 and 2010 to hours of sunshine during that day. The researchers found a positive association between the number of suicides on a particular day and the hours of sunshine—meaning sunny days saw more suicides, shedding light on some popular misconceptions about what leads up to or contributed to someone taking his or her own life. (Take the myth of “holiday suicides”—the idea that more people commit suicide during the hectic holiday season. It’s not founded in stats, data shows. December actually has the lowest suicide rates of the year, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. They’re highest in the spring.)

Reasons for suicide are, of course, multifaceted, making it impossible to isolate a single risk factor, including how light affects brain chemistry. Still, researchers have some ideas.

When a depressed person first begins light therapy, for instance, their drive and motivation often improve before their mood does, says Dr. Matthäus Willeit of the Medical University Vienna, and one of the study authors. “If you have enhanced energy and motivation and drive but your mood is still very depressed, that might favor a state where you are at greater risk for suicide.” That’s similar to what can happen when someone first starts treatment with antidepressants, he says.

Another factor to consider is that exposure to light has profound effects on serotonin transmission in the brain, which influences things like mood and impulsiveness, the authors write in their paper. More light means lower serotonin-transporter binding in the brain, a decrease that encourages impulsiveness, Willeit explains. While most people have had suicidal thoughts at some point, very few act on them, and Willeit thinks impulse control is a key player in going through with it.

On the other hand, some studies show that bright light therapy is an effective treatment against depression with few side effects. And today’s JAMA Psychiatry study showed that light seems to have a protective effect against suicide in the long-term.

“It’s too early to say,” Willeit says of the relationship of sunshine to suicide. “We’re just beginning to understand what light does.”

TIME Cancer

Prediabetes Increases Cancer Risk By 15%

A new study published in Diabetologia shows a link between prediabetes–when blood sugar levels are higher than normal but don’t yet qualify as diabetes–and cancer.

More than one in three U.S. adults 20 years and over have prediabetes, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control report. Even more concerning, 90% of those affected don’t know they have it. And 15-30% of people with prediabetes will develop full-blown type 2 diabetes within five years, the report says.

The meta-analysis looked at 16 studies, including data from almost 900,000 people. Researchers found a 15% higher risk of cancer associated with prediabetes, especially in the liver, stomach, pancreas, breast, and endometrium. The association stuck even after controlling for body mass index (BMI), a risk factor for both diabetes and cancer.

However, prediabetes was not associated with an increased risk of cancer of the prostate, ovary, kidney, bladder, or lung.

The study authors speculate that the consequences of high blood sugar, like chronic oxidative stress and hyperglycemia, may act as carcinogens. And factors related to insulin resistance, a hallmark of diabetes and prediabetes in which the body becomes less able to use insulin to break down sugars, may cause cancer cells to proliferate.

“Although these results are unlikely to completely explain the epidemiological association between prediabetes and site-specific cancer,” they write, “they provide a new insight into a possible direct causal link.”

TIME Research

HPV Vaccine Cut Rates of Genital Warts 61%, Study Finds

Papillomavirus Dna Virus. Hdri Image Made According To A View Under Transmission Electron Microscope, Viral Diameter 45 To 55 Nm.
Papillomavirus Dna Virus. Hdri Image Made According To A View Under Transmission Electron Microscope, Viral Diameter 45 To 55 Nm. BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

The HPV vaccine is working for young women in Australia, suggests a new study published in the journal PLOS One.

Researchers analyzed a database of more than 1 million patients and found that since Australia began providing the HPV vaccine free to women ages 15-27 in 2007, the rate of genital warts fell 61% from four years before the vaccination program began.

The team from the University of Sydney saw no significant change in the rates of genital warts among other age groups not covered by the program, and other sexually transmitted infections didn’t decrease over this period. That suggests the vaccine is responsible, not a change in sexual behavior, the authors say. “Due to this reduction, some young women in Australia have been spared the distress of having genital warts and the health system spared the cost of having to treat them,” the authors wrote in the study.

Of course, the HPV vaccine helps prevent more than genital warts. It’s the only vaccine to protect against cancer (the kind in the cervix, anus, and mouth). But rates of adoption are lower in the United States, and compliance may be an issue—a recent CDC report found that only about 33% of American girls ages 13-17 got all three doses of the shot.

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