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Lab Report: Health, Science and Medicine

4 minute read
Alice Park

ANTIBIOTICS

NDM-1 How Dangerous Is the Mutation?

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria aren’t new, but the threat they pose is getting more urgent. The latest salvo from our microbial foes is not actually a superbug but a genetic mutation called NDM-1–a supergene perhaps. The alteration allows bacteria to produce an enzyme that easily neutralizes any antibiotic, including last-resort medications known as carbapenems, which had proved impervious to other bacterial enzymes. Even scarier, say experts, is that NDM-1 can be passed like a secret survival code among different types of bacteria. So far, three species in the U.S. have picked up the genetic change, including E. coli and K. pneumoniae.

Most drug-resistant strains emerge in hospitals, particularly in developing countries, where improper antibiotic use is high and the pressure on bugs to mutate to survive is great. Stronger antibiotics are not the answer, however, since bacteria would only find new ways to bypass them. The most effective way to fight resistance is to prevent it from occurring in the first place, by prescribing antibiotics only when necessary and ensuring that patients take them properly.

OBESITY

How Colds Can Make Kids Fat

Most children will get–and shake off–at least one cold a year. But a study finds that the legacy of those viral bouts could linger in the form of extra pounds. Researchers who looked for antibodies to a specific strain of cold virus in the blood of 124 youngsters ages 8 to 18 report that kids who had the antibodies–evidence of a previous infection–were three times as likely to be obese as those who did not. And even among children who were already obese, those with the cold-virus antibodies weighed on average 35 lb. more than those who were never infected.

How can a virus lead to weight gain? Work with animals and cell cultures has shown that some cold viruses preferentially infect fat cells and their precursors and trigger them to become larger or more numerous. Even so, the results don’t mean that every case of the sniffles will cause a kid to pack on the pounds. The cold virus in the study is one of several dozen that circulate every season, and people’s immune systems respond differently to every microbe. Obesity is also a complicated metabolic condition caused by myriad factors, only one of which may be exposure to a cold bug.

But, the scientists say, their findings are another good reason to help children protect themselves and others from colds–by washing their hands and covering their sneezes.

FROM THE LABS

Flu Shots to Fend Off Heart Attack?

Getting a flu vaccine can protect you from chills and fever, and a new study reveals it may also lower your risk of a first heart attack by 19%. Now is the time to take advantage of the heart benefit: people who were immunized early in the season–September to November–enjoyed nearly twice the reduction in heart-attack risk that people immunized later did.

New Clues to Ovarian Cancer

An international group of scientists has uncovered genetic changes in five stretches of DNA that increase the risk of ovarian cancer. Four of these variants contribute to more aggressive forms of the disease, so researchers hope to eventually test for them and identify patients early, when treatments can be more effective.

GOING TO THE BIRDS

Researchers have a new resource for tracking antibiotic-resistant bugs: seagull droppings. By studying fecal samples, scientists in Portugal documented that 10% of wild birds living in a preserve harbored bacteria resistant to vancomycin, a last-resort antibiotic. The feces also yielded new proteins that may be helping bugs evade drugs and could become targets for novel antibiotics.

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