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Vikings’ Parasites May Have Led to Lung Problems in Their Modern Descendants

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Scientists say parasitic worms in the guts of Vikings may have made their modern descendants more vulnerable to asthma, emphysema, and other lung issues. The researchers published their findings last month in the journal Scientific Reports.

While parasites in the ancient world are nothing new, the Vikings’ worms are a relatively new discovery. Last year, scientists examined 1000-year-old poop recovered from a Viking latrine and discovered three different species of intestinal worms.

"Having this extra dimension in our work is extremely exciting for archaeologists," professor and archaeologist Søren Michael Sindbæk told Science Nordic." It means that we can begin to answer questions we couldn't answer before."

He was right. The authors of the new paper say those parasites changed Vikings’ DNA, which changed the DNA of their descendants, predisposing them to lung conditions.

Parasite expert and senior author Richard Pleass and his colleagues were interested in the way antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE) are affected by the protein alpha-1-antitrypsin (A1AT).

The researchers collected plasma samples from people currently infected with the parasites, then scanned the plasma, looking for interactions between IgE and A1AT. They found that one specific variant of the A1AT-producing gene was especially helpful in fighting off any diseases the worms might cause. Vikings with this particular gene variant were more likely to live—and more likely to reproduce, passing the gene onto their kin.

Unfortunately, this particular gene variant has more than one effect. Today, people born with this variant are more likely to experience A1AT deficiency, which can predispose them to emphysema, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The deficiency is most common in Scandinavians.

“It is only in the last century that modern medicine has allowed human populations to be treated for disease-causing worms,” Pleass said in a press statement. “Consequently, these deviant forms of A1AT, that once protected people from parasites, are now at liberty to cause emphysema and COPD."

A1AT deficiency is treatable, but first you have to find out if you have it. The Alpha-1 Foundation and the World Health Organization recommend genetic testing for anyone with COPD, bronchiectasis, or treatment-resistant asthma.

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Medicine
Why Haven't We Cured Cancer Yet?
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Walkathons, fundraisers, and ribbon-shaped bumper stickers raise research dollars and boost spirits, but cancer—the dreaded disease that affects more than 14 million people and their families at any given time—still remains bereft of a cure.

Why? For starters, cancer isn't just one disease—it's more than 100 of them, with different causes. This makes it impossible to treat each one using a one-size-fits-all method. Secondly, scientists use lab-grown cell lines cultivated from human tumors to develop cancer therapies. Living masses are far more complex, so potential treatments that show promise in lab experiments often don't work on cancer patients. As for the tumors themselves, they're prone to tiny genetic mutations, so just one growth might contain multiple types of cancer cells, and even unique sub-clones of tumors. These distinct entities might not respond the same way, or at all, to the same drug.

These are just a few of the challenges that cancer researchers face—but the good news is that they're working to beat all of them, as this TED-Ed video explains below.

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Health
Skipping Breakfast Could Be Bad for Your Heart
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There are mountains of evidence supporting the claim that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. Getting something in your stomach in the first hours of the morning can regulate your glucose levels, improve your cognition, and keep your hunger in check. Now new research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology points to another reason not to wait until lunchtime to break last night’s fast. As TIME reports, people who skip breakfast are at an increased risk for atherosclerosis, a disease caused by plaque buildup in the arteries.

Researchers surveyed over 4000 men and women between the ages of 40 and 54 living in Spain. After looking at the dietary habits of each participant, they broke them into three groups: people who consumed more than 20 percent of their daily calories in the morning; those who got 5 to 20 percent; and those who ate less than 5 percent.

The subjects who ate very little in the a.m. hours or skipped breakfast all together were 2.5 more likely to have generalized atherosclerosis. This meant that plaque was starting to collect on the walls of their arteries, hardening and narrowing them and increasing the risk for heart attack or stroke. People who fell into the 5 to 20 percent calorie category were also more likely to show early signs of the disease, while those who ate the most calories in the morning were the healthiest.

These results aren’t entirely surprising. Previous studies have shown a connection between skipping breakfast and health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and unwanted weight gain. A possible explanation for this trend could be that waiting several hours after waking up to eat your first meal of the day could trigger hormonal imbalances. The time between getting into and out of bed is the longest most of us go without eating, and our bodies expect us to consume some calories to help kickstart our energy for the day (drinking straight coffee doesn’t cut it). Another theory is that people who don’t eat in the morning are so hungry by the time lunch rolls around that they overcompensate for those missing calories, which is why skipping breakfast doesn’t make sense as a diet strategy.

But of course there are many breakfast skippers who aren’t motivated by health reasons either way: They just don’t think they have the time or energy to feed themselves in the morning before walking out the door. If this describes you, here are some simple, protein-packed meals you can prepare the night before.

[h/t TIME]

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