Friday, May 27, 2016

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

Happy Friday, folks! I hope everyone's as excited for the long weekend as I am (though beware of the barbecue). I'll be out on Monday, but back to bringing you the day's science news bright and early Tuesday morning. 

What to know about the explosive new cell phone-cancer study

A major new study out this morning that finds there's a connection between cell phone exposure and two types of cancer. The peer-reviewed, longitudinal study — which was conducted by the National Toxicology program — exposed rats to the same type of radiation found in cell phones. Total-body exposure to radiofrequency radiation was tied to higher incidence of gliomas in the brain and schwannomas in the heart, and researchers say there's likely a direct connection between the two.

There are some major caveats, though. The results were only observed in male rats; there weren't any significant effects seen in female rats. Exposure in utero didn't seem to affect cancer risk. And in male rats, the incidence of those two cancers was quite low. But even a small increase in the incidence of those cancers could have a major public health impact given how many people in the world regularly use cell phones. You can read the first findings from the study here

Addressing the growing threat of antibiotic resistance

HHS is rallying experts to talk about the growing concerns over antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The presidential advisory council on antibiotic resistance just announced it’ll meet in the coming weeks to discuss new treatments for bacterial infections, strategies to better monitor antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and best practices for prescribing antibiotics. The meeting will be held on June 21 and 22, but the public can submit comments for discussion starting now.  Yesterday, researchers published two separate reports of a superbug resistant to last-line antibiotics found in the US — more on that from STAT's Helen Branswell here

Lab Chat: Why better fMRIs won't give a more detailed picture of the brain 

Neurons refire in response to stimulation. Apologies if it's too early in the morning for that stimulation simulation on the right. (Prakash Kara)

Changes in blood flow have long been thought to be closely coupled with changes in the brain’s neurons. Imaging techniques like fMRI have even been built around that relationship, but new research suggests the two aren’t as tightly interwoven as we thought. Here’s what Prakash Kara of the Medical University of South Carolina told me about the discovery, described in Nature.

What big problem did you find with fMRI?

The most popular method of imaging the human brain is fMRI, which images the changes in oxygen. Scientists inferred that the changes in neural activity they see are resulting from those oxygen changes. But what we found was oxygen changes and brain changes are not tightly correlated. When neurons fire, you do get a change in blood flow, but the blood flow is much more promiscuous. The vessels appear to have a property that allows them to transmit their blood flow beyond the region that triggered the initial change in blood flow.

What does that mean for the field of fMRI?

The field of human imaging has been saying we should get stronger and stronger magnets to get higher and higher resolution images. Which is true in anatomy, but our results suggest you’re always going to have a blurred view of what the neural circuits are doing when you use fMRI and other imaging methods that rely on blood flow. Because you can’t pinpoint where the neural signals are coming from, or what that part of the brain is responding to.

sponsor content by janssen

The microbiome funding boost and interdisciplinary innovation

Earlier this month the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) announced The National Microbiome Initiative to prioritize funding and other resources to realize the promise of microbiome science. To translate the exciting efforts into interventions to improve human health, the life science industry has a unique opportunity to evolve and accelerate novel drug discovery and develop approaches that are potentially more natural and personalized. Learn more about how the Janssen Human Microbiome Institute is catalyzing innovation across the field.

Inside STAT: Should researchers publish their findings before peer review?

Recently, a group of scientists, journal editors, and financial backers of research got together to talk about pre-print publishing for biologists. The practice — which lets scientists publish manuscripts online before they've been formally reviewed and published in a journal — has been widely frowned upon in the scientific world. In a new Watchdogs column, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus investigate the complicated relationship between preprint publishing and biology, and what it would mean if the field begins to embrace the idea. 

Palliative and hospice care aren't happening like they should

Advanced cancer patients are generally referred to palliative care upon diagnosis and to hospice care in the last few days of life, but that often isn’t what they get, according to a new analysis out this morning. In particular, there’s a gap in how veterans are receiving end-of-life care. Just 71 percent of veterans over age 65 with advanced cancer receive palliative care after diagnosis, and only 51 percent receive hospice care in their final three days of life. Often, the palliative care — which is meant to ease symptoms and improve a patient’s quality of life — came much later than the diagnosis in the nearly 12,000 patients included in the study. That gap is sometimes due to the services doctors offer, and in other cases, could be due to cost. The paper was published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine.

NIH funds biobank to stash samples for Precision Medicine Initiative

The NIH has announced the agency is doling out $142 million over five years to build a massive biobank — full of patient specimens and genetic tests — for the president’s Precision Medicine Initiative. The PMI aims to enroll at least one million participants in the US for a longitudinal, population-wide look at health. The biobank will be at the Mayo Clinic, which has to make room for a whopping 35 million samples. (To protect against loss during a natural disaster, they’ll stash a quarter of the samples at the Mayo Clinic’s Florida branch; the rest will reside in Minnesota.)

CRISPR slaps cells with genetic barcodes 

CRISPR is able to give cells barcodes worthy of a grocery store checkout lane to allow scientists to track them over time. The barcodes — which are, in essence, specific patterns of genetic mutations introduced into a gene sequence — were stuck onto zebrafish cells at the very earliest stages of life.  When scientists looked at tissues of those same fish in adulthood, they saw that just five of the 1,138 genetic variants they barcoded in the embryonic stages led to more than 98 percent of blood cells in adulthood. Once they’ve fleshed out the technique more for use in humans, the researchers hope they’ll be able to identify the origin of tumor cells to better target them with treatments.

What to read around the web today

  • Five days and five nights with Doctors Without Borders. NPR
  • CDC will lose Zika fight without funding. Politico

More reads from STAT

  • Six case reports of Memorial Day barbecues gone bad. 
  • As industry giant invests in science fairs, we all invest in biotech. 
  • Brain scans strongly predict return of consciousness in vegetative patients. 

A quick congrats to my Boston Globe Media softball team, which won its first game last night! I'll keep you updated on what's sure to be a riveting season.

Have a great holiday weekend,


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