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

June 15, 2023

Why some get sick while others don’t

Researchers at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System and the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio looked at clinical data from nearly 50,000 people and have concluded why some people live longer and are less susceptible to infections than others. They say it’s due in part to immune resilience—the ability of a person’s immune system to stay robust during aging and when challenged by infections and inflammatory diseases. They found that measures of this immune resilience track with a lower risk of acquiring HIV or developing AIDS, greater survival of COVID-19 and sepsis, more mild cases of influenza, less recurrent skin cancer, and greater longevity. “Strategies for improving immune resilience and lowering recurrent inflammatory stress may emerge as high priorities for incorporation into public health policies,” they write. Nature Communications

The age of the fruit fly

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), Stanford University, the Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub in San Francisco, and the pharmaceutical company Genentech have compiled a massive resource that promises to be of monumental importance in aging research. The so-called Aging Fly Cell Atlas characterizes 163 distinct cell types in Drosophila fruit flies and shows how tissue cell composition, gene expression, and cell identities change over the lifetime of the insect. The work found distinct aging patterns for specific cell types and identified a new way to measure aging based on gene expression. “This atlas provides a valuable resource for studying fundamental principles of aging in complex organisms,” the researchers write. Science

Adverse childhood experiences linked to rapid aging

Physical, verbal, or emotional abuse, household dysfunction, abandonment or negligence, and other awful adverse childhood experiences may be associated with faster aging processes later in life, according to a new study from Northwestern University. Looking at some 895 people born in the mid-1980s when they were 15 years old and again when they were 20, the researchers found people who suffered four or more of these adverse childhood experiences were more likely to age more rapidly “epigenetically.” Epigenetic age (measured using the PhenoAge, GrimAge, and DunedinPace clocks) looks at how DNA is modified through methylation and other chemical processes, and rapid epigenetic aging is linked to worse age-related health outcomes in middle-aged adults. JAMA Network Open

Diverse Chinese genomes sequenced

A bold step toward better representing East Asian populations in reference human genomes was announced this week by the Chinese Pangenome Consortium, a team of researchers at China’s Fudan University, Xi’an Jiaotong University, ShanghaiTech University, Jiangsu Normal University, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They sequenced some 116 high-quality genomes representing 36 minority Chinese ethnic groups and discovered 5.9 million small DNA variants to genes that had not previously been discovered. The atlas is a basic and clinical research tool that promises to help uncover disease susceptibilities—especially ones specific to Asian populations. Nature

A gene drive for agricultural pests

Scientists at North Carolina State University have created a potential way to control populations of the spotted wing fruit fly Drosophila suzukii. The bug was first discovered in Japan some 100 years ago and has been imported from Asia into North America and Europe over the last few decades. It’s a major agricultural pest because it infests young, ripening fruit—unlike other fruit flies that target only rotting fruit. They showed they could use CRISPR-Cas9 to target and deactivate a D. suzukii gene called doublesex, rendering female flies sterile and unable to lay eggs. The next steps, they say, will be controlled experiments in isolated greenhouses. PNAS

A fluorescent protein marks the genetic changes to spotted-wing Drosophila. Courtesy Max Scott/NC State University

No hope AND new hope for early dementia detection

A massive U.K. Biobank study of 465,929 people assessing the clinical utility of four standard 10-year dementia risk prediction scores found, sadly, they fall well short. If calibrated to keep false positives low, the scores completely miss 84–91 percent of people with preclinical dementia—far below the simplistic benchmark of predicting risk based on age alone. The only way the tools could predict more than half of all cases was if they were allowed to return an overwhelming number of false positives—66 false positives flagged for every one actual case of preclinical dementia. Still, there may be new hope. In a stunning display of synchronicity, scientists at Washington University in St. Louis found in a small study of 164 people that the gut microbiomes of people with preclinical, asymptomatic Alzheimer’s differs from people without preclinical disease. It remains to be seen whether these distinct gut microbiome profiles can actually predict dementia, however. Science Translational Medicine

Smart drugs + Silicon Valley = A massive fail?

Tech bros have long sought a chemical competitive edge by taking drugs like the ADHD medicines Ritalin and Adderall and the narcolepsy drug modafinil. So-called “smart drugs” are reported to have fueled the infamous excesses of disgraced crypto CEO Sam Bankman-Fried, whose alleged pill-popping, partner-swapping Bahamian romps are the stuff of legend, even if they’re greatly exaggerated—as he claims. But if those stimulant-laced stories are true, researchers at the University of Melbourne and the University of Cambridge could have saved SBF a lot of experimentation (and his investors a lot of money) had they been able to share with him their new research, which shows that smart drugs don’t really make you smarter. If anything, they make solving complex problems harder. In a randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, they gave 40 people aged 18–35 standard adult doses of three smart drugs and asked them to solve a complex everyday organizational task. The drugs failed to improve how people solved the problems, increased the time they took to find solutions, and significantly decreased the quality of their efforts. Science Advances

Good news for those who like to drink moderately

Our frustration with the ongoing debate over whether moderate alcohol consumption is good or bad for you is so unresolved it makes us want to drink. But according to doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, that may be exactly why drinking lowers your risk of heart disease. Following some 53,000 men and women for 3.4 years, 27,000 of whom were light-to-moderate drinkers (1–2 drinks/day) and 24,000 were non-drinkers, the doctors found the odds of having a heart attack or other major cardiovascular event was lower for the moderate drinkers. Why? The researchers showed via brain imaging that light drinking lowers stress-related neural network activity in the brain. And lower stress = fewer heart attacks. Does this mean drinking is good for you? Sorry, the answer is still no. Drinking is still associated with many other health issues: cancer, accidents, intimate partner violence, alcohol poisoning, and liver disease, and overall inflammation to name just a few. Journal of the American College of Cardiology