Inexpensive 'Smell Test' Could Help Diagnose Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Diseases

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Diagnosing neurological illness is a lengthy, complex, and expensive process. But one surprising test might soon help to speed things up. A series of recent studies has found that checking patients' sense of smell could help identify Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

Doctors have known about the link between olfactory (smell-related) dysfunction and neurological diseases for a long time now. Their patients with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease often report losing some or all of their ability to smell.

Davangere Devanand is a neurology and psychiatry expert at Columbia University who has spent years investigating this poorly understood connection. In his latest paper on the subject, published last year in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Devanand found ample evidence to support doctors' and patients' stories. In many adults, he wrote, anosmia could be seen as a reliable predictor of Alzheimer's disease.

"It's important, not just because it's novel and interesting and simple but because the evidence is strong," Devanand told Scientific American. "In the past, most neurologists thought, 'Maybe there's something there statistically in a paper, but it's a bit flaky.'"

A paper published this month in the journal Lancet Neurology came to a similar conclusion, proposing a single, as-yet-undetermined root cause of anosmia in both illnesses.

Paper author Richard Doty is also the creator of the University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test (UPSIT), which asks patients to scratch and sniff 40 different odors. The results are instantaneous, and at $26.95, it's a far cheaper starting point than brain scans.

Neurologist G. Webster Ross of the Veterans Affairs Pacific Islands Health Care System says the test can be a strong negative predictor of neurological issues as well. "If a person scores very well on a smell identification test, then you can be pretty sure they're not going to have Parkinson's, at least within the next four years," he told Scientific American.

It's important to keep in mind that neurological disease is far from the only condition associated with anosmia. Our sense of smell naturally begins to grow duller as we age, and the most common cause of temporary or permanent anosmia is none other than the common cold. So if you can't smell your favorite perfume today, don't panic just yet.

[h/t Scientific American]

FDA Recalls Thyroid Medications Due to Contamination Risk

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Hypothyroid medications manufactured by Westminster Pharmaceuticals have been recalled after it was discovered that one of the company’s Chinese suppliers failed to meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards, CNN reports.

The oral tablets contain levothyroxine (LT4) and liothyronine (LT3), which are both synthetic hormones used to treat thyroid conditions.

The medicine was recalled as a precaution after it was discovered during a 2017 FDA inspection that the Chinese supplier in question, Sichuan Friendly Pharmaceutical Co., was not practicing good manufacturing practices.

However, patients with serious thyroid conditions shouldn’t throw out their pills just yet. No adverse effects from the medication have been reported, and the risk of not taking the medication outweighs the risk of taking a recalled pill.

According to the FDA, “Because these products may be used in the treatment of serious medical conditions, patients taking the recalled medicines should continue taking their medicine until they have a replacement product.”

For more information on the specific lots and products in question, visit the FDA’s website.

[h/t CNN]

A 'Zombie Gene' Might Be the Reason Elephants Rarely Get Cancer

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When it comes to cancer rates in the animal kingdom, elephants are an anomaly. As Popular Science notes, cancer should be more common among larger species, but with elephants, that simply isn’t the case. Only about 5 percent of elephants die from cancer, compared to 11 to 25 percent of humans.

In a new study, published in Cell Reports, University of Chicago researchers found what’s believed to be the genetic source of elephants’ cancer immunity. Elephants, like all mammals, have a gene called LIF that is known to suppress tumors. Humans have one copy of this gene, but elephants have 10 copies, which have developed over 80 million years of evolution. However, only one of those copies, called LIF6, is functional in elephants.

The other LIF copies are essentially dead because they lack a specific piece of DNA to make them function. At some point during the evolutionary process, the LIF6 gene copy turned back on, but scientists don’t know why or when this occurred. This “zombie gene” helps kill mutated cells, in true Night of the Living Dead fashion.

“This reanimation of LIF6 occurred perhaps over 59 million years,” Joshua Schiffman, who studies cancer in elephants but was not involved in the study, told Popular Science. “That’s an amazingly long period of time for nature to modify and perfect an anticancer mechanism.”

Scientists aren’t yet sure how this could be applied to cancer research in humans, but they say it’s a promising start and a creative approach to the problem. While these findings are still fresh and need to be duplicated, it raises the possibility of creating a drug that mimics the function of LIF6.

[h/t Popular Science]

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