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Vol. LIX, No. 7
April 6, 2007

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Welcome to Digest, a wrap-up of noteworthy science stories making news headlines recently.

Glow-in-the-Dark Cells

What if you could watch the spread of cancer by following a light? Researchers from NCI recently demonstrated they could do just that. The study, led by Dr. Hisataka Kobayashi of NCI’s Molecular Imaging Program in the Center for Cancer Research, and published in the Mar. 15 issue of Cancer Research, reports the effects of a new imaging compound that selectively binds to certain cancer cells and glows only when processed by these cells. The compound allowed investigators to see very small tumors in tissues lining the abdominal wall of mice with ovarian cancer. What’s new about this? Previous fluorescent compounds helped detect small clusters of cancer cells, but it was harder to distinguish tumors from normal tissue. By targeting cancer cells, this compound could be particularly helpful with cancers that metastasize widely before diagnosis, such as ovarian and pancreatic cancers.

Changing With the Seasons

As for following the path of a disease outside the body, researchers from the Fogarty International Center and NIAID, working with Brazilian investigators, recently made a discovery that could improve influenza control in tropical areas. Their study, which concentrated on transmission patterns in Brazil and will be published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, shows that each season, influenza travels from low-populated regions near the equator to more populated centers. The work helps contribute to the understanding of tropical regions and their role in the global circulation of influenza. More specifically, it could help guide where, when and how influenza vaccines should be delivered.

Live Long and (the Heart) Prospers

Having parents who live long lives can be a good sign for your own cardiovascular health. According to researchers from NHLBI’s Framingham Heart Study (FHS), people whose parents live to be 85 or older are more likely to avoid developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other cardiovascular disease risk factors in middle age than those whose parents died younger. The study was published in the Mar. 12 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. The FHS has studied the health of many residents of Framingham, Mass., since 1948, and has been a key source of research on the relationship between hypertension, high cholesterol, cigarette smoking and other risk factors and the development of cardiovascular disease.

The Boomer Complaint

Meanwhile, Americans in their early to mid-50s report more pain, difficulties and health problems than people the same age reported in years past, according to a new study funded by NIA. Using data from the NIA-sponsored Health and Retirement Study, a survey of more than 20,000 Americans over 50 that started in 1992, researchers compared the overall, self-reported health of three birth-year groups: 1936-41, 1942-47 and 1948-53. It showed the two younger groups were less likely to say their health was “excellent or very good,” and the youngest group reported more pain and chronic health conditions, as well as more drinking and psychiatric problems, than their older peers did 12 years earlier. The research, published by the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research, raises questions over whether boomers will reach retirement age in worse shape than their predecessors.

Older Mothers Choose Cesarean Section

Another study confronts issues of older mothers and delivery methods. After examining birth certificates from a whopping 8 million U.S. births for children born between 1995 and 2000, NICHD-funded researchers recently determined that mothers over age 35—especially first-time mothers—with normal, full-term pregnancies were more likely to undergo cesarean delivery than were younger women with similarly low-risk pregnancies. Because the information came only from birth certificates, researchers were not able to determine why older mothers were more likely to use this delivery method. However, authors of the study, which was published online in Human Reproduction, did find that older mothers were more likely to have delivery complications.

Good News for SMA

Finally, there’s new hope for treatment of spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), the most common severe hereditary neurological disease of childhood, thanks to a study by NINDS. The report, published in the Feb. 22 issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, showed that drug therapy can extend survival and improve movement in a mouse model of SMA. Directed by Dr. Charlotte Sumner at NINDS, the research suggests similar drugs could one day be useful in treating SMA in humans. The disease affects one in every 8,000 to 10,000 children and there’s currently no treatment that can change its course.—

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