The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

February 23, 2023

Potential new antibody therapy for endometriosis

Researchers at Chugai Pharmaceutical Co. in Tokyo have discovered a potential treatment for endometriosis, sometimes called “the missed disease” because of how it’s often misdiagnosed. It’s a debilitating condition for which there is no known cause or cure that impacts at least 10 percent of girls and women around the world and can cause chronic pain, fatigue, painful periods, pain during sex, and accounts for 1 in 10 of all cases of infertility. Currently treatments are restricted to two methods of surgery and a handful of limited hormonal therapies. The researchers gave cynomolgus monkeys prone to spontaneously developing endometriosis monthly injections of the antibody AMY109, which targets the inflammatory protein interleukin-8 (IL-8) found in both humans and monkeys. The therapy shrank their fibrotic lesions and other hallmarks of the condition, supporting its potential as a new treatment. They report they are now evaluating its safety and efficacy in humans. Science Translational Medicine

Long-term laxative use associated with dementia risk

The global laxative market is exploding, with a projected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.5 percent from 2020–2028 (up from sales of $5.5 billion in 2019). But laxatives are typically sold over the counter, which increases their potential for overuse. That could be cause for concern, according to a new study from researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Looking at health records from 502,229 people in the U.K. Biobank, nearly 20,000 of whom were regular laxative users, the researchers found habitual laxative use was associated with a more than 50 percent higher risk of dementia—particularly when people used multiple types of laxatives or osmotic laxatives (stool softeners such as milk of magnesium and Miralax). Could the heavy use of laxatives predispose a person to dementia, by disrupting the composition of the gut microbiome, affecting the gut-brain axis, or through some other causal mechanism? It’s way too early to say. The research certainly did not demonstrate regular laxative use predisposes one for dementia—merely that there is an association between the two—and we don’t know if that association is causal. Neurology

Protein interactome map to speed drug discovery

Researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL) in Cambridge, U.K., have created an “interactome” map showing a network of interacting proteins associated with genes that have been linked through earlier genome-wide association studies with 1,002 human traits related to 21 different diseases. “By helping to understand how biological processes affect human traits and diseases, this work will prioritize new targets for drug discovery and identify drug repurposing opportunities,” the researchers said in a statement. Nature Genetics

Is mathematical ability genetic? New research says yes.

A new study from Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an, China, that looked at the genomes and math scores of 1,182 children supports the idea that at least some math abilities are genetically linked. They analyzed 11 mathematical abilities and identified genes, gene sets, and specific DNA markers known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that were associated with those mathematical skills. Interestingly, this included the gene LINGO2, which is a reported risk gene for autism, and OAS1, which is a risk gene for Alzheimer’s disease. Still, the topic is controversial because even if mathematical ability has a genetic component, it’s likely to be a nuanced mix of genes, environment, and learning—like most complex human traits. But that probably won’t stop us from over-attributing math ability to genetics and perpetuating the myth that if your parents don’t excel at something, you can’t either. Genes, Brain, and Behavior

The dose-response relationship of friendship and health

To anyone who has ever questioned what all those personal relationships in life are worth, we offer this: a study out of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, that shows a dose-response relationship between the level of social satisfaction in relationships and overall health. The 20-year study followed 4,484 women for 20 years and asked them every few years to rate their satisfaction with their partners, family members, friends, coworkers, and other social connections. It correlated their satisfaction scores with the accumulation of 11 different chronic conditions, like depression, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, and found that women reporting the lowest satisfaction had the highest reported rates of multimorbidity. This suggests, the authors write, that “social connections should be integrated into the prevention and intervention of chronic diseases.” General Psychiatry

A potential screening tool to detect autism in infants

When children with autism receive interventions early on, it leads to better outcomes—especially if started at 2–3 years old while their brains are still forming. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all 18–24-month-old children be screened for autism. But it’s hard. There are no biomarkers for autism, and screening relies on the expert assessments of trained professionals based on developmental history and behavior. Diagnoses are often missed, and the average age of diagnosis is currently 4.5 years old. Now psychologists at Rutgers University say they may have found a simple way to screen for early signs of autism in much younger children, even infants, based on auditory brain stem response tests routinely given to babies to test their hearing. Their research reveals the tests show differences between typically developing neonates and those who later received an autism diagnosis, which suggests they could be used to develop a universal screening tool. PNAS Nexus

Nutritional intervention for pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma is one of the deadliest forms of cancer, and more than 9 in 10 people who have it tragically die within five years of diagnosis. Surgery is usually not an option for them, and front-line chemotherapy treatments are only effective half the time. But based on a small study of 24 patients, doctors at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany have identified a human microbiome-derived tryptophan metabolite called indole-3-acetic acid (3-IAA) that is enriched in people who respond to treatment. It appears to amplify the response to the chemo, which could have clinical implications and “provide a motivation for considering nutritional interventions during the treatment of patients with cancer,” they write. Nature