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JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

Nobel Prize Awarded for Drugs that Fight Parasitic Diseases

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

Three scientists who developed anti-parasitic drugs that have been used to successfully treat malaria, elephantiasis, and river blindness have won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The discoveries, the Nobel Prize committee said in a press statement [PDF], "have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually. The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable."

Pharmaceutical chemist Youyou Tu, from the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Beijing, was awarded half the prize for discovering a novel therapy for malaria based on the plant Artemisia annua, which she found after conducting a large-scale screening of herbal remedies used to treat malaria-infected animals—and then revisiting the ancient literature on herbal medicine for further clues about Artemisia annua's potential. Tu developed a purification procedure to render the active agent Artemisinin from the plant. Artemisinin is the key ingredient in a new class of antimalarial agents that rapidly kill the malaria parasites at an early stage of their development.

Now used worldwide to combat a disease infecting nearly 200 million people a year, Artemisinin is estimated to reduce mortality from malaria by more than 20 percent overall and by more than 30 percent in children. In Africa alone, Tu's medicine saves more than 100,000 lives every year.

The other half of the prize was awarded to two researchers whose development of a drug to treat infections caused by roundworm parasites has nearly eradicated two illnesses. Microbiologist Satoshi Ōmura, of Kitasato University, Tokyo, and William C. Campbell, of New Jersey's Drew University, developed the drug Avermectin from the soil-dwelling bacteria genus Streptomyces. Ōmura isolated 50 new strains of Streptomyces for further analysis, and Campbell, an expert in parasite biology, showed that a bioactive agent from one Streptomyces culture was "remarkably efficient" against parasites in domestic and farm animals. Purified and named Avermectin—also known by Ivermectin, its chemically modified, more potent form—this agent is the key component in a class of drugs that kill parasite larvae.

Today Ivermectin is used globally to fight parasitic diseases, especially to treat the one-third of the world's population affected by parasitic worms in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America. It's been so effective against river blindness (onchocerciasis) and lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) that "these diseases are on the verge of eradication, which would be a major feat in the medical history of humankind," as the committee noted.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
The 'Alien' Mummy Is of Course Human—And Yet, Still Unusual
Emery Smith
Emery Smith

Ata has never been an alien, but she's always been an enigma. Discovered in 2003 in a leather pouch near an abandoned mining town in Chile's Atacama Desert, the tiny, 6-inch mummy's unusual features—including a narrow, sloped head, angled eyes, missing ribs, and oddly dense bones—had both the “It's aliens!” crowd and paleopathologists intrigued. Now, a team of researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and UC-San Francisco has completed a deep genomic analysis that reveals why Ata looks as she does.

As they lay out in a paper published this week in Genome Research, the researchers found a host of genetic mutations that doomed the fetus—some of which have never been seen before.

Stanford professor of microbiology and immunology Garry Nolan first analyzed Ata back in 2012; the mummy had been purchased by a Spanish businessman and studied by a doctor named Steven Greer, who made her a star of his UFO/ET conspiracy movie Sirius. Nolan was also given a sample of her bone marrow; his DNA analysis confirmed she was, of course, human. But Nolan's study, published in the journal Science, also found something very odd: Though she was just 6 inches long when she died—a typical size for a midterm fetus—her bones appeared to be 6 to 8 years old. This did not lead Nolan to hypothesize an alien origin for Ata, but to infer that she may have had a rare bone disorder.

The current analysis confirmed that interpretation. The researchers found 40 mutations in several genes that govern bone development; these mutations have been linked to "diseases of small stature, rib anomalies, cranial malformations, premature joint fusion, and osteochondrodysplasia (also known as skeletal dysplasia)," they write. The latter is commonly known as dwarfism. Some of these mutations are linked to conditions including Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects connective tissue, and Kabuki syndrome, which causes a range of physical deformities and cognitive issues. Other mutations known to cause disease had never before been associated with bone growth or developmental disorders until being discovered in Ata.

scientist measures the the 6-inch-long mummy called Ata, which is not an alien
Emery Smith

"Given the size of the specimen and the severity of the mutations … it seems likely the specimen was a pre-term birth," they write. "While we can only speculate as to the cause for multiple mutations in Ata's genome, the specimen was found in La Noria, one of the Atacama Desert's many abandoned nitrate mining towns, which suggests a possible role for prenatal nitrate exposure leading to DNA damage."

Though the researchers haven't identified the exact age of Ata's remains, they're estimated to be less than 500 years old (and potentially as young as 40 years old). Genomic analysis also confirms that Ata is very much not only an Earthling, but a local; her DNA is a nearest match to three individuals from the Chilote people of Chile.

In a press statement, study co-lead Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at UC-San Francisco, stressed the potential applications of the study to genetic disorders. "For me, what really came of this study was the idea that we shouldn't stop investigating when we find one gene that might explain a symptom. It could be multiple things going wrong, and it's worth getting a full explanation, especially as we head closer and closer to gene therapy," Butte said. "We could presumably one day fix some of these disorders."

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Health
Just Two Cans of Soda a Day May Double Your Risk of Death From Heart Disease
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iStock

If you've been stocking your refrigerator full of carbonated corn syrup in anticipation of warmer weather, the American Heart Association has some bad news. The advocacy group on Wednesday released results of research that demonstrate a link between consumption of sugary drinks—including soda, fruit juices, and other sweetened beverages—and an increased risk of dying from heart disease.

Study participants who reported consuming 24 ounces or more of sugary drinks per day had twice the risk of death from coronary artery disease of those who averaged less than 1 ounce daily. There was also an increased risk of death overall, including from other cardiovascular conditions.

The study, led by Emory University professor Jean Welsh, examined data taken from a longitudinal study of 17,930 adults over the age of 45 with no previous history of heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. Researchers followed participants for six years, and examined death records to determine causes. They observed a greater risk of death associated with sugary drinks even when they controlled for other factors, including race, income, education, smoking habits, and physical activity. The study does not show cause and effect, the researchers said, but does illuminate a trend.

The study also noted that while it showed an increased risk of death from heart disease, consumption of sugary foods was not shown to carry similar risk. One possible explanation is that the body metabolizes the sugars differently: Solid foods carry other nutrients, like fat and protein, that slow metabolism, while sugary drinks provide an undiluted influx of carbohydrates that the body must process.

The news will likely prove troublesome for the beverage industry, which has long contended with concerns that sugary drinks contribute to type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. Some cities, including Seattle, have introduced controversial "soda tax" plans that raise the sales tax on the drinks in an effort to discourage consumption.

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