In Brief

January / February 2017   Comments

New insights into an aggressive cancer

Researchers at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and the University Health Network’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre have published findings in Nature that challenge current beliefs about how pancreatic cancer develops. The traditional view is that it progresses gradually, through a particular sequence of genetic alterations. However, the clinical reality is that the disease can go from being a local cancer, restricted to the pancreas, to being fully metastatic very rapidly. The research team used whole genome sequencing to reconstruct the history of pancreatic cancer development in 100 independent tumours. Unexpectedly, they found that many of the important alterations that are thought to cause this disease actually occur all at once.

Pancreatic cancer is expected to be the second leading cause of cancer-related death by 2030. Improving clinical outcomes has proven stubbornly difficult. The disease is often inoperable by the time the patient experiences symptoms. These findings open important new pathways of investigation that could lead to the ability to better diagnose it, predict how it will develop and determine how and when it will metastasize.

Better muscle health equals better blood sugar levels

Two studies by McMaster University researchers have advanced the efforts to prevent the muscle deterioration that is a complication of type 1 diabetes. The loss of skeletal muscle affects the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar and respond to insulin over time. Loss of sensitivity to insulin is a major contributor to other complications such as kidney failure and cardiovascular disease.

In a study published in Diabetes, the researchers found that the stem cell content of the skeletal muscles of mice and young adults with type 1 diabetes was significantly lower than that of control subjects. In a study published in Scientific Reports, the team discovered that one way to prevent the loss of skeletal muscle in mice with type 1 diabetes is to reduce the animals’ ability to produce a protein that represses muscle growth. The senior author of the studies noted that through research with both mice and humans, his team was able to show that the disease has a negative impact on muscle and that by improving muscle health it is possible to improve the body’s response to insulin and thereby reduce blood sugar levels.

Moving parents to get their kids moving

If parents are going to get their kids to exercise more, they need more than just public awareness campaigns, according to a study headed by a University of British Columbia researcher and published in Health Education & Behaviour. The research team surveyed 700 parents of children age 5-11 across Canada three months after the launch of ParticipACTION’s 2011 Think Again campaign and another 700 parents 15 months after. The campaign was designed to raise awareness among parents of physical activity guidelines, which call for kids to get at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise a day. The researchers found that children whose parents knew about the campaign were not more likely to meet the guidelines than children whose parents were not aware of the campaign.

The lead author commented that although it looks like mass media campaigns increase awareness of the need for children to get sufficient exercise, parents may not be able to translate this awareness into action.

Teaching an old antibiotic a new trick

First-generation cephalosporins — antibiotics introduced as a treatment against bacterial infections in the early 1960s — show promise for tuberculosis therapy, according to research published in Scientific Reports. TB, caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is the most deadly infectious disease in the world. Standard TB therapy takes at least six months, and patients infected with drug-resistant strains undergo treatments that take up to 24 months. Treatment is often associated with severe side effects. New approaches are urgently needed to shorten the duration of the standard therapies, but studies indicate that the cost of developing any new drug has soared to $2.6 billion.

Cephalosporins can be taken orally and have a good long-term safety record, but up until now they have not been explored as a TB therapy. With an in vitro study, researchers from the University of British Columbia and the Diseases of the Developing World GlaxoSmithKline Centre demonstrated that cephalosporins work well on their own against the bacteria and are even more effective when used in combination with traditional and new TB therapies. Because cephalosporins are already approved for clinical use, this new application can be readily tested in humans.

Drink up! It’s time to go to bed

The brain’s biological clock stimulates thirst in the hours before sleep, according to a study by researchers from the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre. The finding and the discovery of the molecular process behind it provide the first insight into how the clock regulates a physiological function and could lead to discovering ways to reduce the problems people experience with jet lag and shift work.

Rodents show a surge in water intake before they sleep, even in the absence of a physiological need. The researchers found that restricting the access of mice to water during the surge period resulted in significant dehydration toward the end of the sleep cycle. The increase in water intake before sleep guards against dehydration and serves to keep the animal healthy. Using optogenetics, a cutting-edge technique that uses laser light to turn on or off neurons that have been genetically engineered to be activated by light, the researchers were able to show that a particular neurotransmitter turns on thirst neurons in the mouse brain. The study was published in Nature.

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