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

July 27, 2023

A powerful trigger for cancer self-destruction

It’s not often you read about a completely novel approach to cancer therapy. Less often still the research emerges from a laboratory we know and love. But both are true this week. A paper from proto.life friend Gerald R. Crabtree and his group at Stanford University describes a powerful new way to push cancer cells into self-destruction—a process known as apoptosis. The work greatly expands an existing paradigm in cancer drug discovery, which uses chemicals to modulate key human proteins called transcription factors that control gene expression. That old approach targets particular transcription factors that block a cancer cell’s “apoptosis” genes—which tell the cell to self-destruct. Many cancer cells stay alive because these transcription factors sit like little cones of silence on top of those apoptosis genes. Removing them effectively induces the cancer cells to kill themselves, but such treatments are only effective if you can block all the transcription factors in a tumor. The new approach flips this idea on its head and incorporates another molecule, which actually promotes the expression of those same apoptotic genes. So it’s not just ungagging the genes—it’s like replacing the gags with bullhorns. Nature

Rethinking exercise for lowering blood pressure

Doctors at Canterbury Christ Church University in the United Kingdom have reanalyzed data from 270 randomized, controlled clinical trials published from 1990–2023 that involved 15,827 people, looking at the effect of various types of exercise on reducing blood pressure. The studies looked at aerobic exercise, dynamic resistance workouts, high-intensity interval training, isometric exercise, and combinations of each. The analysis found that all forms of exercise routines were effective at reducing resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure, but surprisingly it revealed the most effective was isometric exercise training—doing planks, wall sits, and other holds. This contrasts with current exercise guidelines for controlling blood pressure, which typically call for mainly aerobic exercise training. Those guidelines may need rethinking as they are largely based on older data, and the new study should inform future recommendations, the doctors write. British Journal of Sports Medicine

A woman doing the plank, a type of isometric exercise. Shutterstock

Wrinkled skin: The wine cure?

Muscadine grapes (not to be confused with moscato grapes) are the fat, thick-skinned, spherical, and often maligned cousins of the more familiar oblong-shaped fruits that feed children and ferment in our favorite wines. Making wine with muscadine grapes is often done, especially in Southern states where the fruit grows easily, but these wines tend to be overly sweet and are frequently overlooked by oenophiles. Perhaps the connoisseurs should look again! A randomized clinical trial of 17 women presented this week at the American Society for Nutrition’s annual meeting in Boston shows that those who drank two glasses of dealcoholized muscadine wine every day for six weeks showed significant improvements in their skin elasticity and water retention—skin parameters associated with aging. The researchers hypothesize that the potential benefit to sagging skin could come from natural chemical compounds called polyphenols found abundantly in muscadine grapes, which decrease inflammation and oxidative stress. Nutrition 2023 meeting abstract

The microbiome approach to cognitive decline

A double-blind, randomized clinical study involving 169 people who were 52–75 years old, and half of whom have mild cognitive impairment, suggests that taking a probiotic could help prevent cognitive decline. In the small study, researchers at the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University, and King Saud University in Saudi Arabia found that putting people on a popular probiotic called Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (commonly marketed as LGG) for three months changed their gut microbiome composition and improved their cognitive scores—work that was presented in preliminary form at the American Society for Nutrition’s annual meeting in Boston this week. “The implication of this finding is quite exciting, as it means that modifying the gut microbiome through probiotics could potentially be a strategy to improve cognitive performance, particularly in individuals with mild cognitive impairment,” one researcher said in a press announcement. Nutrition 2023 meeting abstract

Endometriosis linked to cadmium exposure

Cadmium is a heavy metal and potential environmental toxin found in paints, plastics, batteries, anti-corrosive plating, and other places. When it leaches into groundwater, it finds its way into tobacco leaves and fresh foods. It can accumulate in the bodies of smokers and other people who are exposed, causing chronic obstructive lung problems, kidney disease, and other health issues. Cadmium also mimics the hormone estrogen, and now researchers at Michigan State University are warning that cadmium could be linked to the development of endometriosis, the progressive systemic inflammatory disorder that’s both common, painful, and hard to diagnose. Analyzing data collected from 1999–2006 in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), they found a 60 percent increased risk of endometriosis among women who had the highest levels of cadmium in their urine. Human Reproduction

Why you feel more heavy when you’re tired and lighter when you’re not

We often associate fatigue with the feeling of muscle burdens weighing down the body. When you’re tired or sick, your shoulders slump, your feet drag, your arms feel like they weigh a thousand pounds, and your eyelids are hard to even lift. The same thing is true in reverse. When you’re healthy and alert, you feel lighter. All those feelings are sensorially spurious, of course—the weight of your arms or eyelids doesn’t actually change when you’re tired. Now a group of researchers at the University of London and the University of Westminster, London, have shown experimentally that healthy adults systematically underestimate the weight of their hands by nearly 50 percent on average. Inducing hand fatigue in the adults, however, caused them to systematically perceive an increase in their hand weight. The researchers hypothesize both distortions are part of the same psychophysiological adaptation that allows the nervous system to modulate activity by making our movement feel more effortless when we are fresh—or to weigh us down and signal the need for rest to preserve our energy when we’re not. Current Biology

Using AI for religious instruction—what the flock?

As artificial intelligence, robots, and other automatons wend their way into every corner of modern life, we are discovering that in certain ways, people still strongly prefer to interact with an actual human being—even if the AI can be just as helpful or even more so. According to researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, religion is one of these domains. In a series of experiments, they demonstrated that robot preachers are perceived to be less credible than their human counterparts, and the same sermons delivered by robots resulted in the flock giving less money to their religious institutions. “Automation of religious duties may prompt declines in religious commitment,” the researchers conclude. Journal of Experimental Psychology