Children of long-lived parents less likely to get cancer

May 28, 2013 — The offspring of parents who live to a ripe old age are more likely to live longer themselves, and less prone to cancer and other common diseases associated with ageing, a study has revealed.

Experts at the University of Exeter Medical School, supported by the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care in the South West Peninsula (NIHR PenCLAHRC), led an international collaboration which discovered that people who had a long-lived mother or father were 24% less likely to get cancer. The scientists compared the children of long-lived parents to children whose parents survived to average ages for their generation.

The scientists classified long-lived mothers as those who survived past 91 years old, and compared them to those who reached average age spans of 77 to 91. Long-lived fathers lived past 87 years old, compared with the average of 65 to 87 years. The scientists studied 938 new cases of cancer that developed during the 18 year follow-up period.

The team also involved experts from the National Institute for Health and Medical Research in France (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale), the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa. They found that overall mortality rates dropped by up to 19 per cent for each decade that at least one of the parents lived past the age of 65. For those whose mothers lived beyond 85, mortality rates were 40 per cent lower. The figure was a little lower (14 per cent) for fathers, possibly because of adverse lifestyle factors such as smoking, which may have been more common in the fathers.

In the study, published in the Journals of Gerontology: Series A, the scientists analysed data from a series of interviews conducted with 9,764 people taking part in the Health and Retirement Study. The participants were based in America, and were followed up over 18 years, from 1992 to 2010. They were interviewed every two years, with questions including the ages of their parents and when they died. In 2010 the participants were in their seventies.

Professor William Henley, from the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “Previous studies have shown that the children of centenarians tend to live longer with less heart disease, but this is the first robust evidence that the children of longer-lived parents are also less likely to get cancer. We also found that they are less prone to diabetes or suffering a stroke. These protective effects are passed on from parents who live beyond 65 — far younger than shown in previous studies, which have looked at those over the age of 80. Obviously children of older parents are not immune to contracting cancer or any other diseases of ageing, but our evidence shows that rates are lower. We also found that this inherited resistance to age-related diseases gets stronger the older their parents lived.”

Ambarish Dutta, who worked on the project at the University of Exeter Medical School and is now at the Asian Institute of Public Health at the Ravenshaw University in India, said: “Interestingly from a nature versus nurture perspective, we found no evidence that these health advantages are passed on from parents-in-law. Despite being likely to share the same environment and lifestyle in their married lives, spouses had no health benefit from their parents-in-law reaching a ripe old age. If the findings resulted from cultural or lifestyle factors, you might expect these effects to extend to husbands and wives in at least some cases, but there was no impact whatsoever.”

In analysing the data, the team made adjustments for sex, race, smoking, wealth, education, body mass index, and childhood socioeconomic status. They also excluded results from those whose parents died prematurely (ie mothers who died younger than 61 or fathers younger than 46).

The study could not look at the various sub groups of cancer, as numbers did not allow accurate estimates. This study was carried out in preparation for a more detailed analysis of factors explaining why some people seem to age more slowly than others. Future work will use the UK Biobank, which analyses a cohort of 500,000 participants.

Other collaborators on the paper were Dr Jean-Marie Robine, of the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médical, Dr Kenneth Langa of the University of Michigan, Professor Robert Wallace of the University of Iowa and Professor David Melzer, of the University of Exeter Medical School.

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New flu strains prompt review of current research, call to redouble flu fight

May 29, 2013 — Despite numerous medical advances over the past century, the flu — a seasonal rite of passage for many around the world — still remains deadly and dangerous. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 are hospitalized from influenza annually just in the United States, and between 30,000 to 50,000 die from this infection. The flu takes a heavy financial toll as well, leading countries to lose billions in direct medical costs, loss of productivity, and loss of life. In April of this year, a new flu strain known as H7N9, thought to have the potential to cause a pandemic, emerged in China. This novel strain’s high mortality rate, more than 20 percent, has led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue predictions of hospitalizations, deaths, and economic impacts several times higher than those caused by the typical seasonal flu.

In light of this new information, researchers have published a comprehensive overview of current flu research and efforts to combat this potentially lethal disease, including global surveillance to track the flu and vaccines and antiviral drugs currently in use. They also issue a call to improve efforts to fight the flu, including improving surveillance, developing new types of vaccines and drugs, and — most importantly — improving efforts to educate the public about the flu. This review article, entitled “Adapting global influenza management strategies to address emerging viruses” is published online by the American Journal of Physiology-Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology.

The new article is written by Diana L. Noah and James W. Noah, both of the Southern Research Institute.

Fighting Flu Now In their review, the researchers explain that various strains of the flu circulate annually, with new strains arising through small mutations in current strains and others arising spontaneously. Of these, several H7 strains — so named for a portion of the virus called hemagglutinin — have caused flu outbreaks in various parts of the world. For the most part, these infectious have caused mild upper respiratory symptoms. However, as the authors’ review was completed, the130 known H7N9 infections had caused 31 fatalities — a morality rate of more than 20 percent.

Though the transmission mode of the strain is not yet known, some research suggests that H7N9 is being passed between humans, rather than from animals to humans, a dangerous sign that this outbreak has the potential to escalate into a deadly pandemic.

The authors point out that the best way to curb flu deaths is by preventing the disease altogether through vaccination. However, many countries, including the United States, have suboptimal flu vaccination rates. Even if more people got the flu shot, they write, the vaccine itself isn’t perfect — although each year’s flu vaccine has been crafted to inspire an immune response to several different flu strains, it’s not always a match to currently circulating strains.

Because the flu mutates each year, researchers must develop a new vaccine annually. But when surveillance efforts identify dangerous strains, the authors say, current manufacturing efforts may not be able to produce new vaccines quickly enough to protect a large population.

For those who have the bad luck of contracting the flu, antivirals are currently available to limit disease severity and shorten its duration. However, the review authors say, the antiviral drugs currently in use are increasingly becoming less effective due to the flu’s ability to constantly mutate.

Flu in the Future To better combat the flu, Noah and Noah review a number of current efforts. For example, they say, a universal vaccine that could fight any flu strain and still be useful year after year is in development. Also, several companies are now working on new ways to manufacture current flu vaccines more quickly to avoid the problem of a vaccine shortage in the face of a rapidly arising pandemic. Other companies are focusing on developing new antivirals to gain the upper hand on flu strains that are immune to current drugs, as well as other drugs that modulate the human host’s immune response to the flu, which researchers now know can cause as much or more damage as the virus itself.

With a call to support each of these efforts, the authors point out that educating the public about the flu is equally important. Outreach efforts to increase public awareness, hygiene practices, and vaccination rates could significantly stem flu deaths, they say.

“Key innovations that result in new antivirals and new, broadly effective vaccines will contribute to increased public health, but aggressive education programs may be the most important factor in immediately leveraging current vaccines and antivirals,” they write.

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Subfossil forest discovered at building site in Zurich

May 29, 2013 — The fact that many finds have happened by chance was demonstrated again recently in Zurich. Daniel Nievergelt, a dendrochronologist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, was just having a look at a building site on the southern edge of the city. He knew there was some justification for hope of a spectacular discovery from his collaboration with his colleague Felix Kaiser, who died in 2012 and who in 1999 had already found subfossil* wood during the excavation of the Uetliberg Highway Tunnel.

The researcher took a closer examination of a few tree stumps on the edge of the loamy building pit in the neighborhood of Zurich Binz that had been discarded by the construction workers as waste timber. He found they were pine trees, and immediately investigated them further with colleagues from the WSL. He also sent three samples to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), where they were C14-dated. This confirmed his suspicions: the timber was discovered to go back to between 12,846 BP** and 13,782 BP. With the support of the building-site management, to date the WSL researchers have managed to salvage some 200 pine-tree stumps, which they have had transported in truckloads to the WSL. To the knowledge of the researchers involved, the quality and scale of the find are unique worldwide.

What the find could mean for science

WSL runs one of the leading laboratories for tree-ring research (dendrochronology) worldwide, making a significant contribution to research work in a wide range of disciplines. The most recent finds are being incorporated into a global database of environmental archives and may provide important information about a number of research questions: What was the climate like after the last Ice Age? What events left a mark on the area around Zurich and Earth in general? What is the genetic relationship between the Zurich Binz pines and their cognates today? In addition, the prehistoric wood in Zurich Binz could help in the calibration of the C14 curve.

The tree rings and condition and location of the discovered stumps allow conclusions to be drawn about past fluctuations in temperature and precipitation and attest to disturbances such as fires, storms and earthquakes. The density and chemical composition of the wood may provide clues to the climate and air composition in the past. And since relatively recently, aDNA analysis allow trees’ evolution to be traced.

All the data produced to be published

The WSL researchers are now sawing three sections from each useable stump and are analyzing the wood and the rings in their own laboratories and in those of their partners. The scientists will first try to add to the Central European dendrochronology chart (see image). This dataset contains dated tree rings going back to 12594 BP. The finds that have been made up to now in Zurich are from the period from 12700 BP to 14100 BP. Through meticulous comparison of tree-ring patterns, efforts are now being made to identify the overlaps needed for precise dating. Perhaps the new-found timbers can fill a gap and extend the chronology by around 2,000 years. Whatever the case may be, the timbers discovered in Zurich Binz and the data arising from their analysis are of invaluable scientific importance. In the tradition of open scientific exchange, the WSL will gradually make such data public, for instance through the International Tree-Ring Data Bank (ITRDB), which for decades now has been supplied with a wealth of data by the WSL’s tree-ring laboratory and its founder, Fritz Schweingruber.

* Subfossil = any prehistoric organism which has not fossilized, or only partially. Unlike fossils, subfossils can be dated using the C14 method (source: Wikipedia).

** BP = Before Present: a time-scale that is used in archaeology, geology and other sciences to date events in the past. Since ‘the present’ is constantly changing, international consensus was reached on making 1 January 1950 or the calendar year 1950 the point of reference (source: Wikipedia).

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Cardio and weight training reduces access to health care in seniors

May 14, 2013 — Forget apples — lifting weights and doing cardio can also keep the doctors away, according a new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute.

The study, published today in the online journal PLOS ONE, followed 86 women, aged 70- to 80-years-old, who were randomly assigned to participate in weight training classes, outdoor walking classes, or balance and toning classes (such as yoga and pilates) for six months. All participants have mild cognitive impairment, a well-recognized risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

The researchers tabulated the total costs incurred by each participant in accessing a variety of health care resources.

“We found that those who participated in the cardio or weight training program incurred fewer health care resources — such as doctor visits and lab tests — compared to those in the balance and toning program,” says Jennifer Davis, a postdoctoral fellow and lead author of the study.

The study is the latest in a series of studies that assess the efficacy of different types of training programs on cognitive performance in elderly patients. An earlier study, published in February in the Journal of Aging Research, showed aerobic and weight training also improved cognitive performance in study participants. Those on balance and toning programs did not.

“While balance and toning exercises are good elements of an overall health improvement program, you can’t ‘down-dog’ your way to better brain health,” says Teresa Liu-Ambrose, an Associate Professor in the UBC Faculty of Medicine and a member of the Brain Research Centre at UBC and VCH Research Institute. “The new study also shows that cardio and weight training are more cost-effective for the health care system.”

Background: Exercise benefits for the brain

The new studies build on previous research by Prof. Liu-Ambrose, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity, Mobility, Cognitive Neuroscience and a member of the Centre for Hip Health & Mobility, where she found that once- or twice-weekly weight training may help minimize cognitive decline and impaired mobility in seniors.

Research method

The weight training classes included weighted exercises targeting different muscle groups for a whole-body workout. The aerobic training classes were an outdoor walking program targeted to participants’ age-specific target heart rate. The balance and toning training classes were representative of exercise programs commonly available in the community such as Osteofit, yoga, or Tai Chi.

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Possible Bioterrorism Attacks

‘Historian of the future’ Charles Ostman discussed synthetic biology and its possible uses in bio-terrorism. Even if the recent E. coli outbreak wasn’t a deliberately invoked event, it suggests that food can be used as a platform to deliver pathogens, and points toward our vulnerability in that area, he noted. Ostman also warned that stealth viruses might be developed that could remain dormant until activated, and would be difficult to trace.Biography:Charles Ostman is a senior fellow at the Institute for Global Futures and serves with the management team of Fourth Venture. Charles is also chair of the NanoElectronics and Photonics Forum…

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Bio-detectives hunt for better surfaces with high-tech help

Bacteria-resistant doorknobs. Home HIV test kits. Bandages that help heal wounds. Biologists, chemists and engineers at McMaster University’s new Biointerfaces Institute work at the crossroads of man-made materials and biology. The lab, the first of its kind in Canada, helps researchers perform thousands of tests at once, allowing them to understand how materials match with biological agents to perform

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