Around the World — February 12, 2017

February 12, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

The cost of China’s dirty air

In the largest epidemiological study conducted in the developing world, researchers found that as exposure to fine particulate air pollution in 272 Chinese cities increases, so do deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The researchers have reported their results in “Fine Particulate Air Pollution and Daily Mortality: A Nationwide Analysis in 272 Chinese Cities”, published online ahead of its print version in the American Thoracic Society’s American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine .

“Fine particulate [PM2.5] air pollution is one of the key public health concerns in developing countries including China, but the epidemiological evidence about its health effects is scarce,” says senior study author Maigeng Zhou, PhD, deputy director of the National Center for Chronic and Non-communicable Disease Control and Prevention, Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Mortality was significantly higher among people aged 75 and older, and among people with lower levels of education. The association between PM2.5 levels and mortality was stronger in cities with higher average annual temperatures.

Protein volume paradox resolved

Durable proteins make life possible in the crushing depths of the ocean, and may have evolved in life below the surface of ice-bound oceanic exo-planets. These proteins stay folded — allowing them to perform their function — under immense pressures. But other proteins unfold under pressure, rendering them inoperable. What’s the difference between them?

For one thing, volume. Now, research published this week in Nature Communications makes it possible to predict how volume for a given protein will change between the folded and unfolded state. Computations accurately predict how a protein will react to increased pressure, shed light on the inner-workings of life in the ocean depths, and may also offer insights into alien life.

“We’re finding planets with ocean that, although cold at the surface, are likely warm at the bottom,” says George Makhatadze, a Constellation Professor of Biocomputation and Bioinformatics and member of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “So what would life look like in that space? With this computational ability, we can look at the proteome of barophillic organisms on Earth and ask — how do their proteins adapt?”

Spotlight on cancer drug

A drug first designed to prevent cancer cells from multiplying has a second effect: it switches immune cells that turn down the body’s attack on tumours back into the kind that amplify it. This is the finding of a study led by researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center and published recently in Cancer Immunology Research .

According to experiments in mice, macrophages — immune cells that home in on tumours — take in the drug nab-paclitaxel (brand name Abraxane). Once inside these cells, say the study authors, the drug changes them so that they signal for an aggressive anti-tumour immune response.

“Our study reveals a previously unappreciated role for Abraxane in tumor immunology,” says corresponding author Dafna Bar-Sagi, PhD, Vice Dean for Science and Chief Scientific Officer at NYU Langone.

“In doing so, it suggests ways to improve the drug and argues for its inclusion in new kinds of combination treatments,” says Bar-Sagi, also a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at NYU Langone, and associated with its Perlmutter Cancer Center.

Aggression-brain stem volume link

In the study, published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders , American researchers have reported an inverse correlation between aggression and brain stem volume in children with autism: the smaller the brain stem, the greater the likelihood of aggression. The finding, though preliminary, is significant in part because the brain stem is fundamental to autonomic activities such as breathing, heart rate, staying awake. The findings suggest a very basic connection between aggression and autism.

For the project, the team examined MRI images from two groups of children with autism: one that exhibited problematic levels of aggression and one that didn’t. Study coauthor Terisa Gabrielsen, a BYU Brigham Young University, U.S. assistant professor of school psychology, says identifying the brain stem as having at least a partial involvement in aggression helps lay a foundation for better treatment. “If we know what part of the brain is different and what function that part of the brain controls, that can give us some clues into what we can do in the way of intervention,” she said. — Eurekalert

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