[Kat Clements | Contributing Writer]
Working out what science stories matter and which ones are just a flash in the pan can be tricky, especially if you don’t have a science background. UniVerse is here to help with our regular roundup of the biggest news in science, environment and health.
It takes three
From dead babies to new ones; the hot-button issue of the month has been the recent approval of so-called ‘Three-person babies’ by Parliament.
“Three-parent-babies” are foetuses created using IVF to combat crippling mitochondrial disorders. Mitochondria, in case you were wondering, are the cell’s powerhouses; they generate energy and play a vital role in respiration. Without them, the cell can’t produce ATP, the chemical form of energy used to power most of the body’s processes.
Mitochondria are unlike every other part of your body in that they are inherited directly from your mother. They normally hang out inside cells – they’re one of the organelles, mini structures that do various jobs to make your cells function. When an egg (the female gamete, or sex cell) is formed, it has a nucleus, a few other organelles, and mitochondria from the mother’s cells. The sperm, on the other hand, has no organelles – just DNA. So all your mitochondria are copied from the ones in your mother’s cells.
Three-parent babies is really a misnomer. The technique simply involves taking the mitochondria from a healthy woman and using them to replace the faulty ones. The actual DNA is unaffected, and nothing except the mitochondria changes in the child. The mitochondria contain mDNA, which makes up less than 1% of your overall biological makeup. So the woman who donates the mitochondria is the “third parent” – but her contribution is minimal and she has no influence in the child’s overall makeup.
Objections to this procedure are that it is not proven to be safe; although three parent children have indeed been made, and are now around 10 years old, the long terms effects of mDNA transfer haven’t yet been explored. However, these children are wholly healthy, and extensive testing has failed to reveal abnormalities.
Other objections are on ethical grounds; the Church of England has now officially come out against the procedure, declaring that it is “playing God”. People are concerned that the manipulation of mitochondrial characteristics will lead further down the path to “designer babies”.
And now to the ultimate good news story; drinking could be good for you!
A new study published in the European Heart Journal suggests that around seven drinks per week, or one per day, could cut the risk of heart disease by 20% for men, 16% for women, when compared to teetotallers.
But you shouldn’t go out and celebrate in the EleHouse just yet. This is just one of a huge body of research “proving” different and contradictory things about the impact of alcohol. The study, by a team from the US’ Harvard Medical School and a Boston hospital, followed around 15,000 men and women for 25 years, starting in the 80s, and recorded the incidence of heart failure. That’s different to heart attacks, by the way – there’ve been plenty of studies suggesting that drinking moderately can protect you from myocardial infarction, which is the official name for heart attacks. Heart failure, on the other hand, is a condition where the heart can no longer pump blood around the body, due to injury or disease. It often results from trauma or fatigue.
Plus, “one drink” doesn’t mean what you think it means. The researchers defined “one drink” as around 14g of alcohol, which is equivalent to a small glass of wine, around half a pint of beer, or a bit less than a single shot of spirits like vodka. Seven drinks a week is 12 units of alcohol, only just under the NHS’s recommended limit of 14 units for women, 21 for men.
And, in case you thought more drinks was better, the 20% figure was actually compared to teetotallers – people who don’t drink at all. People who drink more than 7 drinks a week had an increased incidence of heart failure – and the more they drank, the worse it got.
But if you don’t drink, you shouldn’t rush out to the Forum to make up for lost time – the study might not show that you’re more likely to die because of it. Prof. Scott Solomon, who led the study, is quoted by The Times as saying “This could be related to the reasons why they had stopped drinking in the first place, for instance because they had already developed health problems,” such as alcoholism or liver failure, or a non-alcohol induced disease. So if you’re totally healthy, deciding not to drink isn’t going to kill you.
Expensive Fakes Work Better Than Cheap Ones
A study from the University of Cincinatti, building on work done in 2008 by another team, found that when they gave patients pretend drugs (placebos) and told them that they were expensive medicines, the patients improved more than another group given the same placebo and told it was cheap. Confused? Let’s break it down.
Placebo is a word used in science for, basically, a fake. In experiments where you want to work out if giving someone something – say paracetamol – does more to relieve their headache than if they hadn’t taken it, you need somebody to not take a pill. But if you don’t give them anything, they are going to behave differently to the person who took the paracetamol, because they know they are meant to feel worse. So you give them a fake pill – just pressed powder with no medical effects, but indistinguishable from the real pill. This means that they don’t know what they’ve taken isn’t really medicine, and helps to show how much of the effect of the paracetamol is really medicinal and how much is the power of belief. The brain is a powerful organ and it plays a lot of tricks, and one of them is this placebo effect – that if somebody thinks that a medicine will make them better, it often will despite having no real impact. This extraordinary effect can be seen even with purely physical illnesses – for instance, people who have a limp due to a muscle injury can be seen to walk better and less painfully if they think they’ve been given a medicine that will fix their muscles.
So two groups of patients are given the same fake drug, which they’re told will treat their Parkinson’s disease. And some of them are told that what they’ve been given is a really expensive new drug, and others are told that the drug is really cheap and easily available. And the ones who were told their drug was expensive got better faster! The human mind is a wonderful thing.