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Jan 15
'Spermbot' to help sperm reach egg developed
In a first, German scientists have developed motorised "spermbots" that can deliver poor swimmers that are otherwise healthy to an egg.

Sperms that don't swim well rank high among the main causes of infertility.

To give these cells a boost, women trying to conceive can turn to artificial insemination or other assisted reproduction techniques but success can be elusive.

Now, building on previous work on micromotors, the researchers from the Institute for Integrative Nanosciences at IFW Dresden, Germany, constructed tiny metal helices just large enough to fit around the tail of a sperm.

Their movements can be controlled by a rotating magnetic field.

Lab testing showed that the motors can be directed to slip around a sperm cell, drive it to an egg for potential fertilisation and then release it.

According to Mariana Medina-Sainchez, Lukas Schwarz, Oliver G Schmidt and colleagues, although much more work needs to be done before their technique can reach clinical testing, the success of their initial demonstration is a promising start.

Artificial insemination is a relatively inexpensive and simple technique that involves introducing sperm to a woman's uterus with a medical instrument.

Overall, the success rate is on average under 30 percent, according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in Britain.

In vitro fertilisation can be more effective but it is a complicated and expensive process.

The report detailing the new finding appeared in ACS' journal Nano Letters.

Jan 14
Asthma may increase odds for nearsightedness at young age
People with asthma, sleep apnea or Down syndrome, have much higher odds of developing an eye condition that causes serious progressive nearsightedness at a relatively young age, new research has revealed.

The researchers also confirmed that men are at greater risk of contracting the condition called keratoconus than women.

Keratoconus makes the rounded, clear covering of the eye, called the cornea, weak, which leads it to become cone-shaped over time.

The last decade has brought new treatment options, but many people do not receive a diagnosis early enough to take full advantage of them, the researchers pointed out.

"Eye health relates to total body health, and we as opthalmologists need to be aware of more than just eyeballs when we see patients," said first author of the study Maria Woodward, assistant professor at the University of Michigan Medical School in the US.

The study also showed that people with diabetes appear to have a lower risk of the disease.

The findings support the idea that while diabetes causes other negative effects to the eye, the cornea may be strengthened as a by-product of those changes.

The researchers arrived at their findings by looking at data from health insurance claims, half of them from more than 16,000 people with confirmed keratoconus and half from an equal number of people with similar characteristics but no keratoconus.

This allowed them to see which characteristics and medical conditions were most associated with keratoconus, and which were not.

The people in the study were mostly in their 30s and 40s.

The study was published online in the journal Ophthalmology.

Jan 13
Pre-pregnancy potato consumption may boost diabetes risk: Study
Eating lots of potatoes -- especially chips or crisps -- is linked to a higher risk for women of developing a type of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy, a study said Wednesday.

So-called gestational diabetes can have long-term health consequences for both mother and child, including a higher chance of heart disease and other forms of diabetes.

Potatoes -- consumed massively across the globe -- contain important nutrients, including vitamin C and potassium. But compared to other vegetables and carbohydrates, they also contain extra starch, which is associated with a more rapid increase in blood sugar levels.

Generally speaking, diabetes occurs when the body is no longer able to make enough insulin, a hormone that prompts cells in the body to absorb sugar from the blood for energy and storage.

Up to now, the possible association between gestational diabetes and eating spuds had not been investigated. To see if there was a link, researchers led by Cuilin Zhang at the National Institutes of Health in Rockville, Maryland used data from the Nurses` Health Study II, which has monitored more than 115,000 women since 1989.

Zhang and colleagues looked at the records for 15,632 women with no history of gestational diabetes or chronic disease who became pregnant between 1991 and 2001. Of 21,693 single- foetus pregnancies, 854 -- some four percent -- developed gestational diabetes, according to the study published in the British Medical Journal.

The women were asked to report their potato consumption during the year previous to becoming pregnant, rating intake from "never or less than once a month" to "six portions per day".

This data was matched against medical records which showed whether they had developed gestational diabetes. After taking other factors such as age and family history of diabetes into account, the study found a strong link with taters, especially fried and baked.

"Higher total potato consumption was significantly associated with an increased risk of gestational diabetes," the researchers concluded. Doctors recommend changes in diet and exercise with the onset of gestational diabetes but in severe cases insulin treatment may be required.

The solution? Eat other vegetables and legumes -- a family including beans, peas and lentils -- instead of starchy spuds, the authors recommend. Substituting two servings of potatoes a week with other vegetables or whole grain foods yielded an approximately 10 percent reduction in risk, they reported.

Despite the statistical evidence, the researchers say that a direct cause-and-effect link between eating potatoes and gestational diabetes "cannot be assumed." But they noted that earlier studies have suggested that spuds can have a detrimental effect on blood sugar levels due to their high starch content.

Jan 12
Eating veggies doesn't equal to avoiding junk food
Children who eat more carrots and apples are no less likely to eat candies and fries, warns a new study, suggesting that emphasising on avoiding "bad" food is as important as adding "good" food in children's diet.

The researchers found that kids who ate fruits and vegetables and drank milk every day were as likely to eat foods high in sugar and salt as those who rarely ate healthy foods.

"There has been a kind of assumption that if you encourage people to adopt healthy eating it naturally leads to a decline in unhealthy eating," said study co-author Phyllis Pirie from the Ohio State University in the US.

Efforts to lower childhood obesity rates often focus on adding "good" foods, rather than on avoiding "bad foods," she said.

Trained interviewers met with parents or guardians of 357 children two to five years old and asked them to recall how often the children ate certain foods in the past week.

The research team asked them about the children's diets and categorised foods and drinks into healthy and unhealthy categories.

About half the children in the study ate fruit two or more times a day. Some rarely ate vegetables, but more than a third had them multiple times a day.

Regardless of age, there was no evidence kids who frequently ate fruits and vegetables and drank milk were any less likely to partake in the unhealthy foods.

The study appeared in the journal of the Maternal and Child Health Journal.

Jan 11
Skin cells can heal injured hearts
Usually after a heart attack, the heart is unable to replace its dead cells and patients are often left with little option of another heart transplant or cell therapy that transplants heart cells into the patient's heart.

In far too many cases, however, the transplanted heart cells do not engraft well, resulting in poor recovery.

One reason for the engraftment problem is the quality of the heart cells. For a typical cell therapy, heart cells are made from different stem cells, but the quality of the heart cells will vary.

First author of the study that was conducted by Kyoto University, Dr. Shunsuke Funakoshi said that the cells of different maturation will be mixed and transplanted together.

During the research, Funakoshi took induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells that were reprogrammed from skin cells and made them into heart cells. Heart cells differentiated from iPS cells effectively go through all stages of development.

Currently, over a billion cells are needed for human heart cell therapies. Knowing which cells are best for the therapy should not only improve patient outcome, but also reduce the number of cells required, which would further reduce both the time of the preparation and invasiveness of the procedure.

The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Jan 09
Low sunlight exposure increases cancer risk
Persons residing at higher latitudes, with lower sunlight exposure and greater prevalence of vitamin D deficiency, are at greater risk of developing cancer, including leukemia, a type of blood cancer, new research reveals.

Analysing data on leukemia incidence rates in 172 countries, the researchers found that people living in higher latitudes are at least two times at greater risk of developing leukemia than equatorial populations.

"These results suggest that much of the burden of leukemia worldwide is due to the epidemic of vitamin D deficiency we are experiencing in winter in populations distant from the equator," said Cedric Garland, adjunct professor at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine in the US.

Leukemia rates were highest in countries relatively closer to the poles, such as Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Ireland, Canada and the United States.

They were lowest in countries closer to the equator, such as Bolivia, Samoa, Madagascar and Nigeria, the findings showed.

"People who live in areas with low solar ultraviolet B (UVB) exposure tend to have low levels of vitamin D metabolites in their blood," Garland said.

"These low levels place them at high risk of certain cancers, including leukemia," Garland noted.

Vitamin D abundantly produced when ultraviolet radiation from sunlight strikes the skin and triggers synthesis.

The researchers analysed age-adjusted incidence rates of leukemia in 172 countries from GLOBOCAN, an international agency for research on cancer that is part of the World Health Organization.

They comparing that information with cloud cover data from the International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project.

The researchers found that reduced UVB radiation exposure and lower vitamin D levels were associated with higher risks of cancer.

The findings were published online in the journal PLOS One.

Jan 08
Insulin producing pancreatic cells successfully created in lab
Fully functional pancreatic cells have been cultured by scientists from human skin cells, potentially meaning the end of daily insulin injections for sufferers of the disease.

The lab-made cells were tested in mice and they successfully prevented the mice from developing diabetes.

The new study also presents significant advancements in cellular reprogramming technology, which will allow scientists to efficiently scale up pancreatic cell production and manufacture trillions of the target cells in a step-wise, controlled manner.

This accomplishment opens the door for disease modeling and drug screening and brings personalized cell therapy a step closer for patients with diabetes.

In the study, the scientists first used pharmaceutical and genetic molecules to reprogram skin cells into endoderm progenitor cells--early developmental cells that have already been designated to mature into one of a number of different types of organs.

The study has been published in Nature Communication.

Jan 07
Overweight young adults can reduce diabetes risk if they lose weight early enough
New research has found that the risk of diabetes associated with obesity can be reversed if obese young people make efforts to lose weight before middle-age.

The team of researchers from St George's University of London wanted to look at the effect of BMI in earlier life on the risk of heart attack, stroke or diabetes in later life, three major diseases in which obesity is an established risk factor.

To look at a possible link the team measured the body mass index (BMI) of 7735 middle-aged men between 40 and 59 years of age.

The measurements were then compared to data collected on the BMI of the men aged 21, taken from their military service records or previous participation in a medical study.

From the 4846 men that provided complete data, and taking into account their varying ages and smoking status, the researchers found that men who had had a high BMI at aged 21, but had lowered it by aged 50, had similar or even lower rates of diabetes than those who had a normal BMI when they were younger.

However a similar reversible effect was not seen for the risk of heart attack or stroke, and a high BMI when aged 21, although associated with a higher risk of diabetes in later life, showed no effect on the risk of heart attack or stroke later in life.

Lead researcher Professor Christopher Owen commented on the results saying, "Even in men who carried out UK National Service and were relatively thin in early life compared to more recent men, higher levels of fatness in early adult life appear to be associated with later diabetes. However, effects of early body mass appear to be reversible by subsequent weight loss. These findings have important implications for Type 2 diabetes prevention, especially in more recent adults with high levels of obesity."

Men who were obese at aged 50 however, still showed an increased risk of diabetes, as well as an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

The study was published in the journal BMJ Open.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980.

As well as being a major risk factor in diabetes and cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke, obesity, commonly measured by BMI, is also a risk factor in musculoskeletal disorders such as osteoarthritis, and cancers such as endometrial, breast, and colon cancer.

According to the WHO's definitions, an individual with a BMI greater than or equal to 25 is overweight, and an individual with a BMI greater than or equal to 30 is obese.

Jan 05
Psychotherapy for gut disease have long-term benefits
While doctors have known for some time that psychological therapy can reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome -- a gastrointestinal disorder -- in the short term, a new study has found that the benefits can extend up to one year after the completion of the therapy.

The beneficial effects of psychological therapy for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) appear to last at least six to 12 months after the therapy has concluded, the study said.

"Our study is the first one that has looked at long-term effects," said senior author Lynn Walker, professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, US.

The study analysed the results of 41 clinical trials involving more than 2,200 patients from a number of different countries.

"We found that the moderate benefit that psychological therapies confer in the short term continue over the long term. This is significant because IBS is a chronic, intermittent condition for which there is no good medical treatment," Walker noted.

Characterised by chronic abdominal pain, discomfort, bloating, diarrhoea or constipation, IBS is classified as a disorder of the "brain-gut axis."

Although no cure is known, there are treatments to relieve symptoms including dietary adjustments, medication and psychological interventions.

"Western medicine often conceptualizes the mind as separate from the body, but IBS is a perfect example of how the two are connected," first author Kelsey Laird, doctoral student at University, pointed out.

"Gastrointestinal symptoms can increase stress and anxiety, which can increase the severity of the symptoms. This is a vicious cycle that psychological treatment can help break," Laird explained.

The studies that the researchers analysed included a number of different types of psychological therapies, including cognitive therapies, relaxation and hypnosis.

The findings showed no significant difference in the effectiveness of different types of psychotherapy.

The study was published in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Jan 04
Babies learn turn-taking much before they can speak
Taking turns to respond to each other is a key part of conversation and babies learn the technique at around six months of age, long before infants know much about language, says a new study.

The speed of response white taking turns - about 200 milliseconds on average, about the same time as it takes to blink -- is astonishing when we appreciate the slow nature of language encoding: it takes 600ms or more to prepare a word for delivery, the study said.

This implies a substantial overlap between listening to the current speaker and preparing our own response.

In human infants, turn-taking is found in the 'proto-conversations' with caretakers.

These infant-caretaker interactions are initially adult-like in terms of how fast infants can respond.

But as they develop into more sophisticated communicators, infants' turn-taking abilities slow down, likely due to both learning more and more complex linguistic structures, and having to find a way to squeeze these into short turns, said researcher Stephen Levinson from Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands.

Levinson reviewed new research on turn-taking, focusing on its implications for how languages are structured and for how language and communication evolved.

He pointed out that turn-taking is common not only across unrelated cultures and language, the patter is also exhibited in all the major branches of the primate family - partly innate and partly learned in some monkeys, just as with human infants.

Even our nearest cousins the great apes take alternating turns in gestural communication, despite having a less complex vocal channel.

All of this suggests that humans may have inherited a primate turn-taking system, Levinson said.

This may have started out as a gestural form of communication, as with the other great apes, then later (about one million years ago) became one primarily expressed through the vocal channel, the study noted.

The findings appeared in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

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