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Stops and Starts

Research on caterpillar cells, football players and false positives.

Summer 2007
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CATERPILLAR CELLS may someday replace chicken eggs as the preferred vaccine incubator. Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center found that the insects’ cells yielded a flu vaccine two months earlier than did embryonated hen eggs. Cells could also shave time off the front end of the process—in the event of an epidemic, vaccine makers could use readily available cells rather than wait for millions of hens to lay eggs.

QUITTING COLD TURKEY might be easier for some smokers, thanks to their genes. It’s well established that susceptibility to addiction is at least half hereditary; now the National Institutes of Health and Duke University researchers say the same is true of getting unhooked. The successful quitters shared characteristics within a set of 221 genes that regulate brain wiring, enzymes and neurotransmitters that were not shared by recidivists. Further research is needed to understand how these abstinence-enabling gene attributes stifle the urge to smoke, but perhaps someday doctors will test patients’ genotypes to tailor smoking-cessation plans.

DELAYING THE REGIMEN of insulin injections is a possibility for newly diagnosed type 1 diabetes sufferers who undergo a stem cell transplant, say researchers at the University of São Paulo. The treatment increases the function of insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells, which are destroyed as diabetes progresses. In the study, all but one of the 15 patients given the treatment were able to go from one to 35 months without insulin injections. Follow-up studies are needed to learn how, and for how long, the treatment works.

FALSE POSITIVES are more likely when radiologists rely on computer-aided detection (CAD) instead of their own eyes to interpret mammograms. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that using CAD leads to 32% more unnecessary callbacks and 20% more unnecessary biopsies than traditional detection. For every true positive mark on a mammogram read with CAD, there are 2,000 false ones. The study indicates that systemwide adoption of CAD (which is on the rise since Medicare began reimbursement for the technology) could raise the cost of mammograms by 18% while not clearly improving cancer detection rates.

RETIRED PRO FOOTBALL PLAYERS have revealed a possible link between concussions and depression. More than 2,500 former NFL players completed a health questionnaire for the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes. Nearly 600 reported enduring three or more concussions on the field; of those, 20.2% said that they had since been diagnosed with clinical depression (versus 6.59% of those who reported zero concussions). The NFL contests the findings and says it will conduct its own study.

HAIR ONCE LOST might actually return. University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researchers removed skin from the backs of mice, and 19 days later the scientists detected the beginnings of new follicles. Next they pinpointed a set of proteins, called Wnt, responsible for follicle regeneration and found that pumping up Wnt levels yields more follicles. A future route to reversing hair loss, then, might be via the molecular pathway through which Wnt operates.

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