Aspirin and a Healthy Recession
In this NewsFlash, we discuss the role of aspirin in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, how recession could be healthy and what tuning in to the Earth's vibrations can tell us about the interior of the planet. Plus, Kat Arney reports from the National Cancer Research Institute's annual conference.
In this episode
Aspirin and flu
Little white pills of aspirin have been popped by millions of people since the drug came to market in 1899. And today around 40,000 tonnes of the drug are sold every year around the world. But a new paper published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases suggests that misuse of aspirin to relieve the symptoms of flu could do more harm than good - at least in the case of the 1918 flu pandemic.
This is work from Karen Starko in California. She thinks that very high doses of aspirin given to some patients during the flu pandemic in 1918 and 1919 - up to 30 grams per day - might have caused dangerous side effects, such as a buildup of fluid in the lungs.
In turn, this would contribute to the deadly effects of the flu, and increase the chances of lung infections. We know that doses this high can cause such side effects, as seen in people with aspirin poisoning. Adding to the evidence, the US Surgeon General recommended the use of aspirin for flu just before a massive spike in flu deaths back in 1918.
Based on what we know about the percentage of people who get fluid in their lungs when they take high doses of aspirin, this could have affected up to one in thirty people treated with the drug. And when you add up how many thousands of people died from the flu at that time, quite a significant number of them could have been due to aspirin. What's more, Starko thinks that the unusually high number of deaths in younger people - who usually fight off the infection - might have been down to aspirin use, as well as the flu.
Back in the early 20th century, aspirin was a relatively new drug, and doctors weren't sure exactly how to use it, and how much for people to take. It was also pushed hard by the pharmaceutical companies at the time, and doctors would prescribe it in order to just be able to do something for patients - back then there wasn't any Tamiflu!
Today we know much more about aspirin, and the complex ways it can affect the body. But we can certainly take this as a warning from history not to get carried away with unnecessarily high doses of drugs for relieving the symptoms of flu.
Depressions are good for you
The shadow health minister Andrew Lansley was criticised earlier this year when he pointed out that, fiscally painful as they are, recessions are nonetheless good for a nation's health.
Now there's more scientific evidence to support that claim thanks to a paper in the current edition of PNAS by University of Michigan researchers Jose Tapia Granados and Ana Diez Roux. The duo have compared the state of the US economy over the period straddling the Great Depression of the 1930s with the population mortality rates over the same period, with striking results.
The years 1923, 1926, 1929 and 1936-37, they report, were all economic booms and on each of these years the population mortality peaked. But in 1921, 1930-33 and 1938, which were all recessions or depressions, the death rate fell to its lowest levels. Initially this seems surprising because one would assume that during recessions people would be financially stretched, have little money for healthcare and healthy living and would be generally more stressed, all of which would translate into a high risk of dying. But instead the reverse appears to be true.
Some have suggested that this relationship reflects a lag effect, whereby people become ill during a recession but by the time they die the economy is booming again. The researchers discount this theory on the grounds that the timing just doesn't work because the periods between boom and bust are not constant each time yet the mortality rates change directly in step with the state of the economy.
Instead, they point out that although a fast-growing economy might be good for your bank balance it is potentially very bad for the health of the populace because people tend to work longer hours during a boom, they have more disposable income to spend on alcohol and cigarettes, consumption of which is known to increase at times of prosperity, there is also more traffic, more pollution and industrial accidents are more frequent. People often migrate in search of lucrative high-paid work, leading to social isolation. All of these factors add up to more ill-health during the so-called good times. So, rather than rue the recession, welcome it with open arms...and see how long your bank manager will swallow the story that your empty account and maxed-out credit card are all part of a healthier lifestyle...!
Gene controls brain cell count
Wouldn't it be fantastic if we could flick a genetic switch and increase the number of brain cells we have? But it would be bad news if this production line ran out of control, because then you'd end up with a brain tumour.
Now researchers in the US have tracked down the gene responsible for maintaining this tricky balance, making sure we grow enough new neurons, but not so many that things get out of hand.
Led by William Snider at the University of North Carolina, the scientists discovered that a gene called GSK-3 controls the signals that determine how many nerve cells we have in our brains. GSK3 is a kinase - an enzyme that sticks little molecular tags on other proteins, switching them on or off to send signals in the cell. They've just published their results in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
The researchers used genetic engineering to create mice whose GSK3 could be removed at a very specific time during the development of the mouse embryo - at a time when a type of brain cell called radial progenitors have just been made. These stem cells produce the bulk of the nerve cells in the brain.
The researchers found that removing GSK3 at this crucial time meant that the progenitor cells were locked into a pattern of constant proliferation, churning out endless new stem cells, rather than mature neurons.
As a next step, the researchers want to find out if adding GSK3 back into the brain after this massive burst of proliferation will make the stem cells mature. They think that they could make mice with three to four times as many neurons as normal mice.
So one day, by manipulating GSK3 levels, we could perhaps increase our brain capacity - Snider describes it as "dialling up and down the number of neurons that are generated in the brain."
The other potentially important thing is that GSK3 has also recently been fingered for a role in a number of psychiatric illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. And lithium,a common treatment for bipolar disorder, works by shutting down GSK3.
The researchers suggest that perhaps doctors should avoid giving drugs like lithium to younger children whose brains might still be growing, in case it causes problems like an overgrowth of cells, which could potentially lead to cancer.
Tuning in to see inside planet Earth
Scientists have discovered how to use the natural hum inherent to the Earth to see deep within the planet's interior.
Various processes, including ocean swells and atmospheric disturbances set up very low frequency vibrations - less than 0.01Hz - that propagate through the planet. Because the character of these waves is highly random it's possible to identify and follow specific signature sounds as they travel around the planet. The sounds change as they pass through different geological structures, so by tuning into them from many different places on the planet's surface you can build up a picture of what must lie beneath.
The work has been published in the current edition of the journal Science by Kiwamu Nishida at the University of Tokyo and the studies are based on recordings made between 1986 to 2003 by 54 seismic stations dotted around the world.
This approach is very similar to another method that scientists use to see inside the Earth, which is by looking at how vibrations triggered by Earthquakes spread around the planet. The data generated by the two techniques agrees very well, proving that it works, but the new approach offers the additional advantages of continuous sampling, the ability to see very deep inside the Earth - down as far as 500km say the scientists - and could even be used to reveal the internal structures of other planets.
According to the team atmospheric disturbances would set up a similar hum on Mars, allowing scientists to map the planet's interior.
13:51 - The National Cancer Research Institute Annual Conference
The National Cancer Research Institute Annual Conference
Dr Kat Arney
Kat - Well this is a conference that's organized by the National Cancer Research Institute, the NCRI, which is kind of a virtual institute. They're an umbrella that brings together all the funders of cancer research in the UK. So organizations like Cancer Research UK, Leukaemia Research, some pharmaceutical companies, basically to make sure that everyone is doing cancer research in a good way, not missing any areas and not duplicating too much work. So it's really - it was setup a few years ago to address the fact that people didn't really know what was going on in other labs. So basically, this is a conference where cancer researchers from all over the UK, from all over the world, get together to talk about the latest results to discuss collaborations. And it's not only scientists here, but there's doctors, nurses and also patient groups here as well. So, it's a really diverse range of people.
Chris - Now every year, when you go to the NCRI conference, you come back with some new hot kid on the biological block. So, what are the hot topics in cancer research this year?
Kat - Well, there's just been a talk this afternoon and by a chap called Larry Norton who's from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York and it was really, really interesting. When you think about cancer that starts to spread, there's this idea that there's a starting tumour and cancer cells go off around the body and find new places to go, such as the lungs, the liver, and they start new tumours. His idea is while that cancer is growing, stem cells; spreading cells, they go off, they travel around the body and then they come back to the original tumour, and they start growing there, so this idea of self-seeding. And what he's proposing is that, say, you treat this original tumour, you get rid of it with surgery, with radiotherapy, with chemotherapy. There are still these cells, out travelling in the body like the prodigal son, and they try to come back, but there's no original tumour there and they think, "Well, I should go somewhere else" and then they go and start growing in the lungs, in the liver and in the brain.
Chris - So by chopping out the cancer paradoxically, the primary tumour, we could be encouraging the process to spread?
Kat - Well, that's basically the idea and his ideas are really very new and at the moment, he's only got research in mouse models that might support this. But it's certainly an intriguing idea and he's got all sorts of ideas of how he might use this to treat cancer for example. So basically, the idea that the original tumour is acting like a kind of a sponge absorbing back in these cancer cells. So, it could be, we make some kind of fake sponge that would then mop up the cells that have started spreading? Can we find out the signals that they're giving out and try and mimic them or block them that might stop cancer cells spreading? And he's designing some cancer intuitive regimes of different drugs you might give that would actually help to stop this process and treat cancer more effectively. So, there's some really exciting work to be done in the future there, I think.
Chris - Okay. Well Kat, thank you very much.
You can keep up with the latest news and videos from the NCRI conference
on the Cancer Research UK Blog.