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Global Health, Nutrition, Research, Stanford News

Stanford researchers address hunger in new book on food security

Stanford researchers address hunger in new book on food security

riceA piece from Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies notes how experts across campus are working together to address the complex global problem of hunger. A new book, The Evolving Sphere of Food Security (Oxford University Press, August), discusses the problem from numerous perspectives, including medicine, in its 14 chapters. The book’s editor, Rosamond Naylor, PhD, is director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment, which is housed jointly within the FSI and the Woods Institute for the Environment.

From the piece:

“This book grew out of a recognition by Stanford scholars that food security is tied to security of many other kinds,” said Naylor, who is also William Wrigley Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “Food security has clear connections with energy, water, health, the environment and national security, and you can’t tackle just one of those pieces.”

Stanford has a long history of fostering cross-disciplinary work on global issues. It is in this spirit that the idea for the book was born, Naylor said. The book weaves together the expertise of authors from the fields of medicine, political science, engineering, law, economics and climate science.

A recurring theme throughout the book – also reflected in its title – is the evolving nature of the food security challenges countries face as they move through stages of economic growth. At low levels of development, countries struggle to meet people’s basic needs. For example, Naylor’s chapter on health, co-authored with Eran Bendavid [MD] (medicine), Jenna Davis [PhD] and Amy Pickering [PhD] (civil and environmental engineering), describes a recent study showing that poor nutrition and rampant disease in rural Kenya is closely tied to contaminated, untreated drinking water. Addressing these essential health and sanitation issues is a key first step toward food security for the poorest countries.

Previously: Seeking solutions to childhood anemia in ChinaWho’s hungry? You can’t tell by lookingCould a palm oil tax lower the death rate from cardiovascular disease in India? and Foreign health care aid delivers the good
Photo by Thomas Wanhoff

Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Mental Health, Research

Exercise and relaxation techniques may help ease social anxiety, study finds

Exercise and relaxation techniques may help ease social anxiety, study finds

TrishWardMeditationPicPhysical exercise and relaxation techniques are common forms of stress-relief. Now, a new study has found that both may help people with social anxiety perceive their surroundings as less threatening environments.

Researchers from Queen’s University in the U.K. conducted two experiments measuring anxiety in participants. In both experiments, the participants were shown point-of-light displays describing a human but not indicating which way the stick figure was facing or whether it appeared to be approaching or receding. Facing-the-viewer bias, a possible biological protective mechanism, may lead people to assume the figure is approaching and posing a threat. And, according to the study, people who are more anxious may place their attention on more threatening stimuli, thereby increasing anxiety.

The researchers tested two means of altering participants’ perception of threat when looking at the stick-figure displays. From a release:

“We wanted to examine whether people would perceive their environment as less threatening after engaging in physical exercise or after doing a relaxation technique that is similar to the breathing exercises in yoga (called progressive muscle relaxation),” researcher [Adam Heenan, a PhD candidate,] said in a statement. “We found that people who either walked or jogged on a treadmill for 10 minutes perceived these ambiguous figures as facing towards them (the observer) less often than those who simply stood on the treadmill. The same was true when people performed progressive muscle relaxation.”

“This is a big development because it helps to explain why exercising and relaxation techniques have been successful in treating and mood and anxiety disorders in the past,” Heenan said.

The research was published in PLOS ONE.

Previously: Research brings meditation’s health benefits into focusAh…OM: Study shows prenatal yoga may relieve anxiety in pregnant womenStudy reveals initial findings on health of most extreme runners and The remarkable impact of yoga breathing for trauma
Photo courtesy of Trish Ward-Torres

Medicine and Society, Pregnancy, Research

Study offers clue as to why parents of daughters are more likely to divorce

Study offers clue as to why parents of daughters are more likely to divorce

poppy2Here’s something that caught my attention this morning (likely because I’m the mom of two girls): A new study provides a possible reason behind reports that parents with firstborn daughters are more likely to divorce than those with firstborn sons. According to researchers from Duke and University of Wisconsin-Madison, it could be due to girls being “hardier than boys, even in the womb.”

A recent university release further explains:

Throughout the life course, girls and women are generally hardier than boys and men. At every age from birth to age 100, boys and men die in greater proportions than girls and women. Epidemiological evidence also suggests that the female survival advantage actually begins in utero. These more robust female embryos may be better able to withstand stresses to pregnancy, the new paper argues, including stresses caused by relationship conflict.

Based on an analysis of longitudinal data from a nationally representative sample of U.S. residents from 1979 to 2010, Hamoudi and Nobles say a couple’s level of relationship conflict predicts their likelihood of subsequent divorce.

Strikingly, the authors also found that a couple’s level of relationship conflict at a given time also predicted the sex of children born to that couple at later points in time. Women who reported higher levels of marital conflict were more likely in subsequent years to give birth to girls, rather than boys.

“Girls may well be surviving stressful pregnancies that boys can’t survive,” Hamoudi said. “Thus girls are more likely than boys to be born into marriages that were already strained.”

The intriguing findings appear in the journal Demography.

Image courtesy of Michelle Brandt

CDC, Nutrition, Pediatrics, Public Safety, Research, Stanford News

“Happy Meal ban”: Where are we now?

"Happy Meal ban": Where are we now?

MuppetBabiesA newly released Centers for Disease Control report of a study conducted at Stanford has examined the effects of San Francisco’s 2010 “Happy Meal ban.” The ban prohibited the free distribution of toys with unhealthy meals; the fast-food restaurants McDonald’s and Burger King instead sold the toys for 10 cents. Though neither restaurant complied with the ordinance’s specific calls for changes in nutritional content, improvements have been made.

As reported by SFGate.com:

…over the study’s two-year period, McDonald’s in particular made big changes to its Happy Meals, said [Jennifer Otten, MD,] of the University of Washington School of Public Health — first in California, then nationally.

The fast food giant cut the amount of French fries it serves in Happy Meals in half, replacing them with apples; stopped serving caramel sauce with apples; and began offering nonfat chocolate milk to customers. Otten said those substitutions were “pretty dramatic,” — they reduced the calories in a Happy Meal by 110, and cut the sodium and fat content of the meal as well.

Otten and her colleagues, including senior author Abby King, PhD, concluded in the study, “Although the changes…  did not appear to be directly in response to the ordinance, the transition to a more healthful beverage and default side dish was consistent with the intent of the ordinance. Study results… suggest that public policies may contribute to positive restaurant changes.”

Previously: How fast-food restaurants respond to limits on free toys with kids’ meals, Toying with Happy Meals, How food advertising and parents’ influence affect children’s nutritional choices and Living near fast food restaurants influences California teens’ eating habits
Photo by Ursala Urdbeer

Patient Care, Pediatrics, Research, Technology

How virtual visits can help children in the hospital reduce stress, speed up recovery

How virtual visits can help children in the hospital reduce stress, speed up recovery

Past research has shown that patients in the hospital experience less nerve-related pain and recover more quickly when they have visitors. Now findings recently published in Pediatrics show that virtual visits are equally beneficial.

In the study, researchers at the University of California, Davis Children’s Hospital analyzed the effectiveness of Family-Link, a program that provides webcams, laptops and Internet access to pediatric patients. Researchers assessed the anxiety levels of roughly 230 children who used the teleconferencing service and 135 who did not when they were admitted to the hospital and discharged using the Parent-Guardian Stress Survey. According to a Futurity post:

Overall, children who used Family-Link felt less stressed compared to those who did not use the program. The effect was even more pronounced for children who lived closer to the hospital and had shorter hospitalizations. This group experienced a 37 percent stress reduction when using Family-Link.

“This study shows that we have another tool to help children during their hospital stays,” says Yang. “The improvement in stress scores shows that Family-Link is really helping many children and might possibly be improving outcomes.”

Previously: Using the iPad to connect ill newborns, parents

Ethics, In the News, Research, Transplants

Physicians more likely to become organ donors, Canadian study finds

Physicians more likely to become organ donors, Canadian study finds

When receiving advice from a physician, one might wonder what the doctor would choose for him- or herself. Recently we discussed here a study on doctors’ preferences for their own end-of-life care. Now, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has reported on physicians’ views and behavior surrounding their own organ donation.

As a news@JAMA piece reports on the Canadian study, physicians are nearly 50 percent more likely than non-physicians to register as an organ donor. More from the piece:

Despite waiting lists for organs in many countries, the percentage of individuals registered in national organ donation registries in most countries is below 40%. The United States fares a bit better than average, with 48% of adults registered as organ donors.

Concerns about organ donation have led to lower-than-average rates of registration in Ontario, Canada, where only about 25% of adults have registered. Currently, there are more than 1500 people on transplant waiting lists in Ontario.

Study author Alvin Ho-ting Li, BHSc, a PhD candidate at Western University in Ontario, Canada, discusses the study’s purpose and findings further in a Q&A section of the piece.

Previously: More on doctors and end-of-life directivesStudy: Doctors would choose less aggressive end-of-life care for themselvesStudents launch Stanford Life Savers initiative to boost organ donation and Family ties: One sister saves another with live liver donation

Genetics, In the News, Pediatrics, Research

New Yorker story highlights NGLY1 research

New Yorker story highlights NGLY1 research

PackardGirl260x190The new issue of the New Yorker, out today, includes a fascinating medical story with a notable Stanford connection. As we’ve described before, a team of scientists from institutions around the world reported earlier this year on their discovery of a new genetic disease, NGLY1 deficiency. Stanford’s Gregory Enns, MB, ChB, was co-lead author of the paper describing the new finding, and one of his patients, Grace Wilsey, was among the small group of children in whom the disease first was identified. Grace’s inability to make tears when she cries was a key clue in unlocking the mystery of the disease.

But, as the New Yorker piece (subscription required) explains in detail, there’s much more to the story than that. In particular, it tells how the families of patients – especially Grace’s parents, Matt and Kristen Wilsey, and Matt and Cristina Might, who are the parents of index patient Bertrand Might – successfully encouraged researchers at different institutions to collaborate with each other in a way that advanced the discovery with exceptional speed. This was counter to the usual practice in science, the story explains. Typically, scientists avoid sharing data with competitors, even if doing so would advance the research:

If a team hunting for a new disease were to find a second case with the help of researchers from a competing lab, it could claim to have “solved” a new disease. But it would also have to share credit with competitors who may have done nothing more than grant access to existing data. When I asked [Duke University geneticist and NGLY1 deficiency co-discoverer Vandana] Shashi if she could imagine a scenario that would result in one research team’s publishing a paper with data from a different research group working on a similar project, she said, “Not that I can think of.”

David Goldstein [another Duke geneticist who collaborated with Shashi] added, “It’s not an overstatement to say that there are inherent conflicts of interest at work.” Daniel MacArthur, a genetics researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, is even more blunt. “It’s an enormous deal,” he told me. “And it’s a big criticism of all of us, but it’s a criticism we all need to hear. The current academic publication system does patients an enormous disservice.”

Fortunately for patients like Grace and Bertrand, and for the doctors who want to help them, the culture is shifting. One marker of the shift is the NIH’s announcement earlier this month that it will be expanding its Undiagnosed Diseases Program to a network of seven sites across the country (including Stanford) and building in a requirement that all seven centers share data with each other.

Another is that researchers are realizing that families like the Wilseys and Mights will continue to make an impact. In fact, the Wilsey family has recently launched the Grace Wilsey Foundation to raise awareness about NGLY1 deficiency and promote investigation of possible treatments for the disease.

As Shashi puts it at the conclusion of the New Yorker story:

“Gone are the days when we could just say, ‘We’re a cloistered community of researchers, and we alone know how to do this.’”

Previously: NIH network designed to diagnose, develop possible treatments for rare, unidentified diseases and Crying without tears unlocks the mystery of a new genetic disease
Photo of Grace Wilsey courtesy of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford

Addiction, Emergency Medicine, Public Health, Research, Technology

Text messages after ER visit could reduce young adults’ binge drinking by more than 50 percent

Text messages after ER visit could reduce young adults' binge drinking by more than 50 percent

Bar_texting_0701414Researchers have demonstrated that text message programs can, among other things, help diabetes patients better manage their condition, assist smokers in kicking their nicotine habit, and encourage expecting mothers to get flu shots.

Now new findings published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine show that text messages can also be an effective tool for reducing binge drinking among young adults whose hazardous alcohol use has resulted in an emergency room visit. During a 12-week study, 765 patients who were treated in the emergency room and screened positive for a history of hazardous drinking were divided into three groups. The first group received text messages prompting them to respond to drinking-related queries and received text messages in return offering feedback aimed at either strengthening their low-risk drinking plan or promoting reflection on their drinking plan or decision not to set a low-risk goal. Another group received only text queries about their drinking, and the remaining individuals received no text messages.

A story published today on PsychCentral reports on the researchers’ results:

The group receiving both text message queries and feedback decreased their self-reported binge drinking days by 51 percent and decreased the number of self-reported drinks per day by 31 percent.

The groups that received only text messages or no text messages increased the number of binge drinking days.

“Illicit drugs and opiates grab all the headlines, but alcohol remains the fourth leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.,” said [Brian Suffoletto, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine].

“If we can intervene in a meaningful way in the health and habits of people when they are young, we could make a real dent in that tragic statistic. Alcohol may bring them to the ER, but we can do our part to keep them from becoming repeat visitors,” [he added].

Previously: CDC explores potential of using smartphones to collect public health data, Could better alcohol screening during doctor visits reduce underage drinking?, Personality-based approach can reduce teen drinking and The costs of college binge drinking
Photo by Anders Adermark

Chronic Disease, Research, Science, Stanford News, Technology

Stanford team develops nanotech-based microchip to diagnose Type 1 diabetes

Stanford team develops nanotech-based microchip to diagnose Type 1 diabetes

Dr. Brian Feldman?s M.D. hold a computer chip that he develop that will benefit diabetic patients at the Stanford School of Medicine,  on Thursday, July 4, 2014.  ( Norbert von der Groeben/ Stanford School of Medicine )

Years ago, when patients showed up at the doctor with excessive thirst, frequent urination and unexplained weight loss – in other words, the classic symptoms of diabetes mellitus – diagnosing them was usually just a matter of checking for high blood sugar. Yes, they needed to be treated for the correct form of the disease, but the two main types were found in different populations. So, in most cases, no lab test was needed to figure out whether someone had Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes; demographic factors were enough to make the distinction.

Of late, there’s been much more cross-over between the two groups. To treat patients correctly, it’s important to diagnose the right form of diabetes, but there’s a problem: The only test that does so is expensive, cumbersome and available only in hospitals.

So it’s great news that Stanford scientists are developing a new Type 1 diabetes test, described in a paper published online this week in Nature Medicine. The new nanotechnology-based microchip, which researcher Brian Feldman, MD, PhD, holds in the photo above, tests patients’ blood for the auto-antibodies that cause Type 1 diabetes. The new test is cheap, portable, and uses much less blood than the older diagnostic test. Unlike the old test, it requires no radioactive reagents and is simple enough to use in low-tech settings.

The test uses a nanotech enhancement (specifically, nano-sized islands of gold; hence the golden glow of the chip that Feldman is holding) to help detect auto-antibodies. In addition to diagnosing new patients, this technology will also enable better research into how Type 1 diabetes develops, as our press release explains:

…[P]eople who are at risk of developing Type 1 diabetes, such patients’ close relatives, also may benefit from the test because it will allow doctors to quickly and cheaply track their auto-antibody levels before they show symptoms. Because it is so inexpensive, the test may also allow the first broad screening for diabetes auto-antibodies in the population at large.

“The auto-antibodies truly are a crystal ball,” Feldman said. “Even if you don’t have [Type 1] diabetes yet, if you have one auto-antibody linked to diabetes in your blood, you are at significant risk; with multiple auto-antibodies, it’s more than 90 percent risk.”

Feldman’s team has started a biotech company to further develop the test and is seeking FDA approval for the new method. In addition, Stanford University and the researchers have filed a patent for the new technique.

Previously: A simple blood test may unearth the earliest signs of heart transplant rejection, Stanford microbiologist’s secret sauce for disease detection and One family’s story on caring for their children with type 1 diabetes
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

Cancer, Research, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells

Radiation therapy may attract circulating cancer cells, according to new Stanford study

Radiation therapy may attract circulating cancer cells, according to new Stanford study

Localized radiation therapy for breast cancer kills cancer cells at the tumor site. But, in a cruel irony, Stanford radiation oncologist Edward Graves, PhD, and research associate Marta Vilalta, PhD, have found that the dying cells in the breast may send out a signal that recruits other cancer cells back to the site of the initial tumor. Their work was published today in Cell Reports. As Graves explained in an e-mail to me:

Cancer spreads by shedding tumor cells into the circulation, where they can travel to distant organs and form secondary lesions.  We’ve demonstrated with this study that cancer radiation therapy may actually attract these circulating tumor cells, or CTCs, back to the primary tumor, which may lead to the regrowth of the tumor after radiation therapy.

The researchers studied mouse and human breast cancer cells growing in a laboratory dish, as well as human breast cancer cells implanted into mice. They found that irradiated cells secreted a molecule called granulocyte macrophage colony stimulating factor, or GM-CSF. Blocking the expression of GM-CSF by the cells inhibited (but didn’t completely block) their ability to recruit other cells to the cancer site. The finding is particularly interesting, since physicians sometimes give cancer patients injections of GM-CSF to enhance the growth of infection-fighting white blood cells that can be damaged during chemotherapy. As Graves explained, “This work has important implications for clinical radiotherapy, and for the use of GM-CSF in treating neutropenia in cancer patients during therapy.”

The researchers say, however, that cancer patients shouldn’t eschew radiation therapy. Rather, the finding may help clinicians devise better ways to fight the disease – perhaps by blocking GM-CSF signaling. Graves concluded:

It should be emphasized that radiation therapy remains one of the most effective treatments for cancer. Our findings will help us to further optimize patient outcomes following this already potent therapy.

Previously: Using 3-D technology to screen for breast cancer, Blood will tell: In Stanford study, tiny bits of circulating tumor DNA betray hidden cancers and Common drug class targets breast cancer stem cells, may benefit more patients, says study

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