Air pollutants linked to abnormal fetal growth

The findings, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, were based on data collected from more than 8,000 women in Lanzhou, China from 2010 to 2012.

The researchers said that, to their knowledge, it is the first study of its kind to be conducted in areas with very high .

"There is a lack of studies investigating the association between air and fetal overgrowth," said Yawei Zhang, M.D., associate professor at YSPH. "We analyzed data from Lanzhou Birth Cohort Study to investigate the hypothesis that exposure to high levels of PM10 during pregnancy increases the risk of abnormal fetal growth, including both undergrowth and overgrowth, to determine if and how expectant mothers could protect themselves from possible contributing pollutants."

In collaboration with researchers from the Gansu Provincial Maternity and Child Care Hospital, the Yale scientists collected the daily average concentration for PM10—a diverse class of air pollution with health implications—from the government monitoring stations in Lanzhou. Using ultrasound measures of four fetal growth parameters during pregnancy, the researchers examined the associations between PM10 exposure and risk of abnormal fetal growth.

The researchers consistently identified positive associations between higher levels of exposure to a mixture of pollutants from car fumes, industry emissions, or construction activities and fetal head circumference overgrowth, they said.

Pregnant women's home and work addresses were collected through in-person interviews, and researchers calculated daily PM10 concentrations by incorporating each participant's home and work addresses.

Zhang says the novel finding that high levels of PM10 are associated with risk of overgrowth should be confirmed by other studies in different populations, and that it is also important to identify the specific pollutants that are responsible for this association by investigating the components of PM10.

"Our results have important public health implications and call for future studies to explore the underlying mechanisms and postnatal consequences to the findings," says Zhang. "We are going to replicate the findings in another and will continue to identify individuals who are more susceptible to air pollution."

Women in the region may lower the risk of fetal overgrowth by choosing their inception time and reducing their outdoor activities during the days with high , said Zhang.

Pregnant women who came to the Gansu Provincial Maternity and Child Care Hospital for delivery in 2010-2012 and who were 18 years or older with gestation age of more than 20 weeks were eligible to participate in this study.

New Early-Stage Cancer Test on Trial

“This field of early detection is critical,” said Dr. Cristian Tomasetti, from the John Hopkins University School of Medicine.

A team of scientists at John Hopkins University have come one step closer to creating a universal blood test for cancer. While UK experts have called the CancerSEEK test “enormously exciting,” one said more trials are needed to assess the effectiveness of the test at detecting early-stage cancer, according to the BBC.

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Clinical procedures to detect eight common forms of the disease have been trialed on 1,005 patients with cancers in the ovary, liver, stomach, pancreas, esophagus, colon, lung or breast by the John Hopkins group. The disease had not yet metastasized to other parts of the body.

The CancerSEEK test scans for mutations in 16 genes often found in cancer, as well as eight proteins commonly released, according to the BBC. A total of 70 percent of the cancers were detected.

“This field of early detection is critical,” said Dr. Cristian Tomasetti, from the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. He went on to say “I think this can have an enormous impact on cancer mortality.”

Dr. Tomasetti reminded that encountering tumors in their early stage, when they can still be surgically removed would be “a night and day difference” for survival and chances of recovery.

People who have not been diagnosed with cancer are currently undergoing CancerSEEk testing.

Researchers hope it can be used in conjunction with other vital screening tools, such as colonoscopies for colorectal cancer and mammograms for breast cancer, according to the BBC.

“We envision a blood test we could use once a year,” said Dr. Tomasetti.

How alcohol damages DNA and increases cancer risk

Scientists have shown how alcohol damages DNA in stem cells, helping to explain why drinking increases your risk of cancer, according to research part-funded by Cancer Research UK and published in Nature today (Wednesday).

Much previous research looking at the precise ways in which alcohol causes cancer has been done in cell cultures. But in this study, researchers have used mice to show how alcohol exposure leads to permanent genetic damage.

Scientists at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, gave diluted alcohol, chemically known as ethanol, to mice. They then used chromosome analysis and DNA sequencing to examine the genetic damage caused by acetaldehyde, a harmful chemical produced when the body processes alcohol.

They found that acetaldehyde can break and damage DNA within blood stem cells leading to rearranged chromosomes and permanently altering the DNA sequences within these cells.

It is important to understand how the DNA blueprint within stem cells is damaged because when healthy stem cells become faulty, they can give rise to cancer.

These new findings therefore help us to understand how drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing 7 types of cancer including common types like breast and bowel.

Professor Ketan Patel, lead author of the study and scientist, part funded by Cancer Research UK, at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, said: "Some cancers develop due to DNA damage in stem cells. While some damage occurs by chance, our findings suggest that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of this damage."

The study also examined how the body tries to protect itself against damage caused by alcohol. The first line of defence is a family of enzymes called aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDH). These enzymes break down harmful acetaldehyde into acetate, which our cells can use as a source of energy.

Worldwide, millions of people, particularly those from South East Asia, either lack these enzymes or carry faulty versions of them. So, when they drink, acetaldehyde builds up which causes a flushed complexion, and also leads to them feeling unwell.

In the study, when mice lacking the critical ALDH enzyme -- ALDH2 -- were given alcohol, it resulted in four times as much DNA damage in their cells compared to mice with the fully functioning ALDH2 enzyme.

The second line of defence used by cells is a variety of DNA repair systems which, most of the time, allow them to fix and reverse different types of DNA damage. But they don't always work and some people carry mutations which mean their cells aren't able to carry out these repairs effectively.

Professor Patel added: "Our study highlights that not being able to process alcohol effectively can lead to an even higher risk of alcohol-related DNA damage and therefore certain cancers. But it's important to remember that alcohol clearance and DNA repair systems are not perfect and alcohol can still cause cancer in different ways, even in people whose defence mechanisms are intact."

This research was funded by Cancer Research UK, Wellcome and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK's expert on cancer prevention, said: "This thought-provoking research highlights the damage alcohol can do to our cells, costing some people more than just a hangover.

"We know that alcohol contributes to over 12,000 cancer cases in the UK each year, so it's a good idea to think about cutting down on the amount you drink."

Arctic clouds highly sensitive to air pollution

In 1870, explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, trekking across the barren and remote ice cap of Greenland, saw something most people wouldn't expect in such an empty, inhospitable landscape: haze.

Nordenskiöld's record of the haze was among the first evidence that air pollution around the northern hemisphere can travel toward the pole and degrade air quality in the Arctic. Now, a study from University of Utah atmospheric scientist Tim Garrett and colleagues finds that the air in the Arctic is extraordinarily sensitive to air pollution, and that particulate matter may spur Arctic cloud formation. These clouds, Garrett writes, can act as a blanket, further warming an already-changing Arctic.

"The Arctic climate is delicate, just as the ecosystems present there," Garrett says. "The clouds are right at the edge of their existence and they have a big impact on local climate. It looks like clouds there are especially sensitive to air pollution." The study is published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Pollution heading north

Garrett says that early Arctic explorers' notes show that air pollution has been traveling northward for nearly 150 years or more. "This pollution would naturally get blown northward because that's the dominant circulation pattern to move from lower latitudes toward the poles," he says. Once in the Arctic, the pollution becomes trapped under a temperature inversion, much like the inversions that Salt Lake City experiences every winter. In an inversion, a cap of warm air sits over a pool of cold air, preventing the accumulated bad air from escaping.

Others have studied which regions contribute to Arctic pollution. Northeast Asia is a significant contributor. So are sources in the far north of Europe. "They have far more direct access to the Arctic," Garrett says. "Pollution sources there don't get diluted throughout the atmosphere."

Scientists have been interested in the effects of pollution on Arctic clouds because of their potential warming effect. In other parts of the world, clouds can cool the surface because their white color reflects solar energy back out into space. "In the Arctic, the cooling effect isn't as large because the sea-ice at the surface is already bright," Garrett says. "Just as clouds reflect radiation efficiently, they also absorb radiation efficiently and re-emit that energy back to warm the surface." Droplets of water can form around particulate matter in the air. More particles make for more droplets, which makes for a cloud that warms the surface more.

Seeing through the clouds

But quantifying the relationship between air pollution and clouds has been difficult. Scientists can only sample air pollution in clouds by flying through them, a method that can't cover much ground or a long time period. Satellite images can detect aerosol pollution in the air -- but not through clouds. "We'll look at the clouds at one place and hope that the aerosols nearby are representative of the aerosols where the cloud is," says Garrett. "They're not going to be. The cloud is there because it's in a different meteorological air mass than where the clear sky is."

So Garrett and his colleagues, including U graduate Quentin Coopman, needed a different approach. Atmospheric models, it turns out, do a good job of tracking the movements of air pollution around the Earth. Using global inventories of pollution sources, they simulate air pollution plumes so that satellites can observe what happens when these modeled plumes interact with Arctic clouds. The model allowed the researchers to study air pollution and clouds at the same time and place and also take into account the meteorological conditions. They could be sure the effects they were seeing weren't just natural meteorological variations in normal cloud-forming conditions.

Highly sensitive clouds

The research team found that clouds in the Arctic were two to eight times more sensitive to air pollution than clouds at other latitudes. They don't know for sure why yet, but hypothesize it may have to do with the stillness of the Arctic air mass. Without the air turbulence seen at mid-latitudes, the Arctic air can be easily perturbed by airborne particulates.

One factor the clouds were not sensitive to, however, was smoke from forest fires. "It's not that forest fires don't have the potential," Garrett says, "it's just that the plumes from these fires didn't end up in the same place as clouds." Air pollution attributable to human activities outpaced the influence of forest fires on Arctic clouds by a factor of around 100:1.

This gives Garrett hope. Particulate matter is an airborne pollutant that can be controlled relatively easily, compared to pollutants like carbon dioxide. Controlling current particulate matter sources could ease pollution in the Arctic, decrease cloud cover, and slow down warming. All of those gains could be offset, other researchers have suggested, if the Arctic becomes a shipping route and sees industrialization and development. Emissions from those activities could have a disproportionate effect on Arctic clouds compared to emissions from other parts of the world, Garrett says.

"The Arctic is changing incredibly rapidly," he says. "Much more rapidly than the rest of the world, which is changing rapidly enough."

Is punishment as effective as we think?

Punishment might not be an effective means to get members of society to cooperate for the common good, according to a social dilemma experiment.

A game to study human behavior has shown punishment is an ineffective means for promoting cooperation among players. The result has implications for understanding how cooperation has evolved to have a formative role in human societies.

Human societies maintain their stability by forming cooperative partnerships. But, cooperation often comes at a cost. For example, a person taking time to raise the alarm in order to alert other members of a group to impending danger could be losing valuable time to save oneself. It is unclear why natural selection favors cooperativeness among individuals who are inherently selfish.

In theoretical studies, punishment is often seen as a means to coerce people into being more cooperative. To examine such theory, a team of international researchers led by Marko Jusup of Hokkaido University in Japan and Zhen Wang of Northwestern Polytechnical University in China has conducted a "social dilemma experiment." The team investigated if providing punishment as an option helps improve the overall level of cooperation in an unchanging network of individuals.

They used a version of the commonly employed "prisoner's dilemma" game. Two hundred and twenty-five students in China were organized into three trial groups and played 50 rounds each of the game.

In group one, every student played with two opponents which changed every round. The students could choose between "cooperate" or "defect," and points were given based on the combined choices made. If a student and the two opponents chose "defect," the student gained zero points. If they all chose "cooperate," the student gained four points. If only a student chose to defect while the other two chose to cooperate, the gain for the student was eight points.

The second group was similar to the first one in every aspect except that the people playing the game with each other remained the same for the duration of the 50 rounds, enabling them to learn each other's characteristics.

In the third group, players also remained the same. However, a new option, "punish," was introduced. Choosing punishment led to a small reduction in points for the punisher and a larger reduction of points for the punishees.

At the end of the game, overall points were counted and the students were given monetary compensation based on the number of points won.

The expectation is that, as individuals play more with the same opponents over several rounds, they see the benefit of cooperating in order to gain more points. Introducing punishment as an option is basically saying: if you don't cooperate with me, I'll punish you. In theory, it is expected that applying this option would lead to more cooperation.

The researchers found that players in the constantly changing groups cooperated much less (4%) than those in the static groups (38%), where they were able to establish which players were willing to cooperate and thus gain a larger average financial payoff for all involved.

Surprisingly, however, adding punishment as an option did not improve the level of cooperation (37%). The final financial payoffs in this trial group were also, on average, significantly less than those gained by players in the static group. Interestingly, less defection was seen in the punishment group when compared to the static group; some players replaced defection with punishment.

"While the implied message when punishing someone is 'I want you to be cooperative,' the immediate effect is more consistent with the message 'I want to hurt you,'" write the researchers in their study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Punishment seems to have an overall demoralizing effect, as individuals who get punished on multiple occasions may see a good chunk of their total payoff vanish in a short period of time, explain the researchers. This could lead players to lose interest in the game and play the remaining rounds with less of a rational strategy. The availability of punishment as an option also seems to reduce the incentive to choose cooperation over competition.

Why, then, is punishment so pervasive in human societies? "It could be that human brains are hardwired to derive pleasure from punishing competitors," says Jusup. "However, it is more likely that, in real life, a dominant side has the ability to punish without provoking retaliation," adds Wang.

Although the study provides valuable insights into how cooperation arises in human society, the team advises it would be unwise to extrapolate the implications of their study far beyond the experimental setting.

A kiss of death for prostate cancer

Hokkaido University researchers have uncovered a cellular protein that stabilizes a tumor promoting signaling pathway, suggesting a new target to treat prostate cancer.

The drug Gefitinib is used to treat breast, lung, and other cancers by inhibiting epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) signaling, but it has only a limited effect on prostate cancer. EGFR, present on the cell membrane, is involved in cell proliferation and the development of dermis, lung, and digestive tissues. When a mutation causes its over-activation, it can lead to increased cell proliferation and tumor formation.

Tadashi Matsuda of Hokkaido University and his colleagues in Japan investigated human prostate cancer cells to determine if there is an unknown up-regulation mechanism in the EGFR pathway.

When EGFR is attached to a small protein called ubiquitin, it is given "the kiss of death" and tagged for degradation inside the cell. This tagging process is facilitated by a protein called c-CBL. The degradation of EGFR leads to less signaling from the receptor and reduced cell proliferation.

Matsuda and his team found that signal-transducing adaptor protein-2 (STAP-2) stabilizes EGFR by inhibiting its c-CBL-mediated ubiquitination. Furthermore, when the team suppressed STAP-2, the prostate cancer cells showed reduced proliferation and did not form a tumor when transplanted into mice.

"STAP-2 inhibitors could play a role in treating Gefitinib-resistant prostate cancers. Further studies on STAP-2 will provide new insights into cancer physiology and support the development of anticancer therapies," says Tadashi Matsuda. The study was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Climate change could expose volcanic regions, increase eruptions: Study

Climate change caused by humans is rapidly melting ice in volcanically active regions, which could lead to increased volcano eruptions, a study has found.

Climate change caused by humans is rapidly melting ice in volcanically active regions, which could lead to increased volcano eruptions, a study has found. The study, led by researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK, found that there was less volcanic activity in Iceland when glacier cover was more extensive and as the glaciers melted volcanic eruptions increased due to subsequent changes in surface pressure.

“Climate change caused by humans is creating rapid ice melt in volcanically active regions. In Iceland, this has put us on a path to more frequent volcanic eruptions,” said Graeme Swindles from the School of Geography at Leeds. The study examined Icelandic volcanic ash preserved in peat deposits and lake sediments and identified a period of significantly reduced volcanic activity between 5,500 and 4,500 years ago.

This period came after a major decrease in global temperature, which caused glacier growth in Iceland. The findings, published in the journal Geology, found there was a time lag of roughly 600 years between the climate event and a noticeable decrease in the number of volcanic eruptions. The study suggests that perhaps a similar time lag can be expected following the more recent shift to warmer temperatures.

Icelandic volcanism is controlled by complex interactions between rifts in continental plate boundaries, underground gas and magma build-up and pressure on the volcano’s surface from glaciers and ice. (File Photo)

Iceland’s volcanic system is in process of recovering from the ‘Little Ice Age’ – a recorded period of colder climate roughly between the years 1500 and 1850 AD, researchers said. Since the end of the Little Ice Age, a combination of natural and human caused climate warming is causing Icelandic glaciers to melt again, they said. “The human effect on global warming makes it difficult to predict how long the time lag will be but the trends of the past show us more eruptions in Iceland can be expected in the future,” Swindles said.

“These long term consequences of human effect on the climate is why summits like COP are so important. It is vital to understand how actions today can impact future generations in ways that have not been fully realised, such as more ash clouds over Europe, more particles in the atmosphere and problems for aviation,” he said. Icelandic volcanism is controlled by complex interactions between rifts in continental plate boundaries, underground gas and magma build-up and pressure on the volcano’s surface from glaciers and ice.

Changes in surface pressure can alter the stress on shallow chambers where magma builds up. “When glaciers retreat there is less pressure on the Earth’s surface. This can increase the amount of mantle melt as well as affect magma flow and how much magma the crust can hold,” said Ivan Savov, from the School of Earth & Environment at Leeds. “Even small changes in surface pressure can alter the likelihood of eruptions at ice-covered volcanos,” said Savov.


Climate change may be vastly underestimated due to ocean temperature miscalculations - study

Scientists have discovered a flaw in the method used to measure past ocean temperatures which, if correct, could mean we have underestimated the rate of climate change over the past 100 million years.

According to the current methodology, the temperature of the ocean depths, and the surface of the polar ocean, was some 15C (59F) higher 100 million years ago, compared to now.

These estimates have been challenged, however, by a joint team of researchers from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).

In their study, published in Nature Communications, the team posits that ocean temperatures may have remained relatively stable throughout this period, raising serious concerns about the current level of climate change being experienced by Mother Earth.

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“If we are right, our study challenges decades of paleoclimate research,” EPFL’s Anders Meibom said. “Oceans cover 70 percent of our planet. They play a key role in the Earth's climate. Knowing the extent to which their temperatures have varied over geological time is crucial if we are to gain a fuller understanding of how they behave and to predict the consequences of current climate change more accurately.”

Researchers believe that over the last 50 years certain processes used in current methodology were overlooked. Scientists have used foraminifera, which are tiny marine fossils found in the sediment cores extracted from the ocean floor, to calculate ocean temperatures.

This is done by calculating the levels of oxygen-18 content in the calcareous shells of foraminifera. The level of oxygen-18 is dependent on the temperature of the ocean in which the foraminifera live.

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The problem now, it seems, is that all of these estimates were based on the principle that the oxygen-18 content remained constant while the fossils were in the sediment. To test this theory, the team exposed the foraminifera to high temperatures in simulated seawater that only contained oxygen-18.

The results show that “the level of oxygen-18 present in the foraminifera tests can in fact change without leaving a visible trace, thereby challenging the reliability of their use as a thermometer.”

“What appeared to be perfectly preserved fossils are in fact not,” CNRS researcher Sylvain Bernard said. This basically means that previous estimates of ocean temperatures are simply incorrect and instead of showing the aforementioned 15C-degree drop over the last 100 million years, the study notes that “these measurements simply reflect the change in oxygen-18 content in the fossil foraminifera tests.”

“This change appears to be the result of a process called re-equilibration: during sedimentation, temperatures rise by 20 to 30C, causing the foraminifera tests to re-equilibrate with the surrounding water,” the study says.

But what next? Well, Meibom says scientists will now have to revisit the ocean's paleotemperatures and “carefully quantify this re-equilibration, which has been overlooked for too long.”

The researchers say that they will now focus on a number of other marine organisms to see if they can “clearly understand what took place in the sediment over geological time.”


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