Coldest spot on Earth identified by satellite

High Plateau
Antarctica‘s dry and clear conditions allow heat to be radiated very efficiently out into space

The coldest place on Earth has been measured by satellite to be a bitter minus 93.2 Celsius (-135.8F).

As one might expect, it is in the heart of Antarctica, and was recorded on 10 August, 2010.

Researchers say it is a preliminary figure, and as they refine data from various space-borne thermal sensors it is quite likely they will determine an even colder figure by a degree or so.

The previous record low of minus 89.2C was also measured in Antarctica.

This occurred at the Russian Vostok base on 21 July, 1983.

It should be stated this was an air temperature taken a couple of metres above the surface, and the satellite figure is the “skin” temperature of the ice surface itself. But the corresponding air temperature would almost certainly beat the Vostok mark.

“These very low temperatures are hard to imagine, I know,” said Ted Scambos from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

“The way I like to put it is that it’s almost as cold below freezing as boiling water is above freezing. The new low is a good 50 degrees colder than temperatures in Alaska or Siberia, and about 30 degrees colder than the summit of Greenland.

“It makes the cold snap being experienced in some places in North America right now seem very tame by comparison,” he told BBC News.

Dr Scambos was speaking here in San Francisco at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, the largest annual gathering of Earth scientists.

AntarcticThe 2010 cold spot (red) was just south of a ridge running between Dome A and Dome F

He and colleagues have been examining the data records from polar orbiting satellites stretching back some 30 years.

They find the coldest moments in Antarctica occur in the dark winter months at high elevations, where the extremely dry and clear air allows heat to be radiated very efficiently out into space.

It is evident that many super-cold spots are “strung out like pearls” along the ridges that link the high points, or domes, in the interior of the continent.

They are not quite at the ridge crests, but set slightly back down the slope.

“Air chilled near the surface flows downhill because it’s denser; and it flows into these very shallow topographic pockets,” explained Dr Scambos.

“If you were standing in one of these places, you’d hardly notice you were in a topographic low – it’s that gentle and that shallow. But it’s enough to trap this air.

“And once in those pockets, the air can cool still further and get down this extra three or four degrees below the previous record air temperature in Vostok.”

The cold pockets run in a line for hundreds of kilometres between Dome Argus [Dome A] and Dome Fuji [Dome F]. They all achieve more or less the same low temperature between minus 92C and minus 94C. The minus 93.2C figure is the temperature event in which the team has most confidence. It was recorded at a latitude of 81.8 degrees South and a longitude of 59.3 degrees East, at an elevation of about 3,900m.

Hottest place

One of the spacecraft instruments being used in the study is the Thermal Infrared Sensor on the recently launched Landsat-8.

It has very high resolution, but because it is so new the team says more time is needed to fully calibrate and understand its data.

“I’d caution Guinness not to take this result and put it in their world record book just yet, because I think the numbers will probably adjust over the coming year,” Dr Scambos told BBC News. “However, I’m now confident we know where the coldest places on Earth are, and why they are there.”

By way of comparison, the hottest recorded spot on Earth – again by satellite sensor – is the Dasht-e Lut salt desert in southeast Iran, where it reached 70.7C in 2005.

The coldest place in the Solar System will likely be in some dark crater on a planetary body with no appreciable atmosphere. On Earth’s Moon, temperatures of minus 238C have been detected.

BBC Weather presenter Peter Gibbs explains how he found life living in Antarctica for two years


Old enough to know better: how teenagers cope with a parent’s cancer

When his wife was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, Marc Silver admits he didn’t always consider how her illness affected their two teenagers. Now he – and his elder daughter – have some advice for other families


My daughter Maya is in the family room watching TV. I’m heading out to buy ginger sweets for my wife, Marsha, who’s upstairs in bed, feeling queasy after her latest round of chemotherapy.

“Going to get something for Mum; be right back,” I call to my 15-year-old.

“How is she doing?” asks Maya.

In my head, I think: “Why don’t you ask her yourself since she is just one flight of stairs away!” But I bite my tongue. I don’t want to add to the tension that cancer has already brought to our home.

Looking back, I realise that Maya wasn’t the only family member to avoid direct communication during the seemingly endless months of treatment for Marsha’s breast cancer. Consumed with all things cancer, my wife and I never asked her and her younger sister, Daniela, who was 13 at the time: “How are you doing?”

Many families find themselves in a similar situation: parent with cancer, teens in the house, not a lot of cross-generational conversation. Tens of thousands of children live with a parent who is a cancer survivor. Roughly a third of those children are 13 to 17 years old. While parents pay a lot of attention to the needs of younger kids, they may figure, as we did, that teens are old enough to cope.

“Adolescents are an unheard group,” says Shara Sosa, an oncology counsellor. Unfortunately, the nature of adolescence fights against openness of any kind, never mind the cancer in the family.

“With their kids locked behind a mask of teen indifference, parents are often intimidated and don’t know how to talk to them,” Ms Sosa says.

Teenagers are pulling away from the family, forging their own identity. The news that a parent has cancer yanks the adolescent back into the fold – exactly where they don’t want to be.

The reaction of a teen to a parent’s illness varies widely. Some respond with a disappearing act: after-school activities, shopping trips, sleepovers, you name it, they’ll do it to avoid the uncertain environment at home. It doesn’t mean they don’t love and care about the parent with cancer – it’s just their way of dealing with it all, says Maureen Davey, a family therapy Professor at the Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professions, in Philadelphia.

Does that mean these kids are likely to turn to risky behaviour? Mental-health experts say that there are no data to quantify this and emphasise that most of the teens they work with do not act out. Yet typical teen temptations are always present.

Of the 100-plus teens who my daughter Maya and I interviewed for a book we wrote about teens and parental cancer, around 10 per cent confessed that they’d turned to drinking, drugs or vandalism as coping mechanisms.

Elissa Bantug, who was 12 when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer 21 years ago, felt as if her mother had abandoned her. She drank, hooked up with an older boyfriend and forged her mother’s name 36 times on notes to get out of school. When the school asked her mother to come in for a conference, she felt too exhausted from her cancer treatments to turn up.

It’s impossible to say if Elissa would have acted out if her mother had been well. Still, looking back as an adult, Elissa says: “I felt like no one really talked to me.”

And she had lots of questions: would her mother be OK? What does it mean to be a cancer survivor? How would their family life change in the short run and the long run? Her rebellion, she says, was sparked by a lack of information.

Others respond by defying their developmental stage, assuming responsibilities that normally fall to the parents. Out of sync with their peers, these kids sometimes talk about their real age and their “cancer age”.

“I’m 16, and I have to act like I’m 40,” a teenager named Lyndsey told me. While her mother is in treatment for breast cancer, she says, “I have to cook, clean, make sure my mum eats, my brothers are fed.”

A “parentified” teen will inevitably feel frustrated. Teens may be “angry they have to take over everything and nobody appreciates that they’re doing so much more than they used to,” says psychiatrist Karen Weihs, medical director for supportive care at the University of Arizona Cancer Center in Tucson.

Stacy Hoover, a single mother, learned she had breast cancer when her daughters were 13 years old, and 18 months. She leaned on the older daughter, Megan, which took a toll. “Sometimes I wanted to go over to a friend’s house, but I didn’t want to leave my mum with the baby,” Megan recalls. When chemo made her mother irritable, Megan says: “It was hard not to yell back.”

No matter how the teenager responds, the parents can help shape the child’s frame of mind. That means sharing information, regardless of whether the news is good or bad.

Indeed, several studies establish the value of honest communication above all. Medical psychologist Stacey Donofrio looked at nearly 300 adolescents in the Netherlands who were coping with a parent’s cancer. She found that “the intensity of the parent’s treatment” for illness was not as important in influencing adolescent reactions as the way parents talked to the kids about it.

“Adolescents may feel especially uncertain if they feel their parents are not being entirely open,” she said.

Such an information gap elevated the tensions for Jackie Shmauch, a teenager whose father had leukaemia. One night, the 14-year-old fled her home in tears after eavesdropping on a call from her father’s oncologist. Jackie thought her father’s leukaemia was in remission, but she overheard a discussion of a bone-marrow transplant. After her parents found her at a friend’s house, they explained that the transplant was a preventive measure, not a sign that the cancer was back. That’s when Jackie delivered her ultimatum: “If there is information you have and you think you shouldn’t tell Jackie, that’s what I want you to tell me.”

Yet not every teen is like Jackie.

“If your child says, ‘Talking about this with you is not helpful to me’, it’s important to respect that,” says child psychiatrist Paula Rauch, who directs the Marjorie E Korff PACT Program (Parenting at a Challenging Time) at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

It is critical for parents to remember that, cancer or no cancer, they still need to keep an eye on their teenagers – no easy task, especially when one of the parents is ill. The key, Ms Sosa points out, is listening closely even though “your head is in so many different places” because of the cancer diagnosis. That means asking follow-up questions, even challenging your teenager at times. If teens know you’re truly paying attention, she says, “they’re going to tell you all sorts of things”.

Some teenagers may just need a break from all the care-giving – perhaps by having other family members or friends shoulder the young person’s chores from time to time.

“Just to be 12 again, that was really quite a blessing,” recalls Bailee Richardson, now 19, who cared for her two younger sisters while her mother was being treated for breast cancer and her stepfather was working out of town.

A decade after my wife’s diagnosis, Marsha is in good health, but she and I are just beginning to understand how the experience affected our daughters. Maya tells me how uneasy she was with her mother’s bald head, courtesy of chemo, and that she found relief from the free-floating cancer anxiety that infiltrated our home by turning to friends, even if they didn’t quite understand what she was going through. And she’s sorry she didn’t help out more.

I, too, was sorry she didn’t step up. But I made the mistake of assuming that Maya and her sister could read my mind. I once exploded when my daughters didn’t rush to my aid as I dragged in bags of groceries after a day of errands.

“Can’t you give me a hand?” I yelled.

Maya calmly said: “We’d be happy to if you’d ask us.”

Exercise most effective lifestyle choice for preventing dementia, researchers say.

Taking regular exercise is the most effective single lifestyle choice people can make to reduce their risk of dementia, according to one of the most extensive studies yet into people’s long-term health outcomes.
The 35-year investigation, carried out by researchers at Cardiff University, found that consistently following just four out of five key behaviours could reduce dementia risk by 60 per cent, while also cutting the chance of heart disease and stroke by 70 per cent.

Of the five behaviours – exercise, not smoking, having a low bodyweight, a healthy diet and low alcohol intake – exercise was found to be the most effective at improving long-term physical and mental health.

Although the five factors will be familiar to almost everyone, researchers said they were “really amazed” by quite how beneficial they had proved to be.

“What the research shows is that following a healthy lifestyle confers surprisingly large benefits to health,” said principle investigator Professor Peter Elwood of Cardiff University’s School of Medicine. “Healthy behaviours have a far more beneficial effect than any medical treatment or preventative procedure.”

The study, the longest of its kind to probe the influence of environmental factors in chronic disease, followed the health outcomes of 2,235 Caerphilly men. It is published today in the journal PLOS One.

Professor Elwood said that, unfortunately, the evidence from the study was that very few men actually follow the kind of healthy lifestyle that can prove so beneficial, and that, while smoking rates had gone down since the study began, the number of people living completely healthily had remained unchanged.

On Wednesday the UK will host the first ever G8 Dementia Summit, with health ministers meeting to discuss a global strategy to combat the disease. Dementia rates are set to treble worldwide to 135 million by 2050, with enormous societal and economic costs.

Dr Doug Brown, director of research and development at the Alzheimer’s Society said: “We have known for some time that what is good for your heart is also good for your head, and this study provides more evidence to show that healthy living could significantly reduce the chances of developing dementia.”

Does taking photographs ruin your memory?

A scientist wanted to find out whether photographing objects affects what’s remembered about them. She found that the impact was huge but there might be more to it
  • A man photographs a statue entitled Pentateuque
Is the man more likely to remembe the elephant on his back without the photo? Is the elephant less likely to remember the man under his feet? Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP

On a guided tour of an art museum early this year, 28 university students were told to simply observe 15 objects and to photograph 15 others. Dr Linda Henkel was studying the students all the while to measure whether taking photographs affected their memory.

The next day, the students were asked to remember the objects and their details. The results demonstrate what Dr Henkel calls a “photo-taking-impairment effect“.

If participants took a photo of each object as a whole, they remembered fewer objects and remembered fewer details about the objects and the objects’ locations in the museum than if they instead only observed the objects and did not photograph them.

Zoom to remember

There’s a lot more to it though. The study found that if the students changed their behaviour even slightly, the effect on memory was entirely different; zooming in to photograph part of an object actually improved memory. What’s more, students who focused the lens on a specific area could even recall parts that weren’t zoomed in on.

Dr Henkel concluded that additional “cognitive processes” (i.e. thinking and paying attention) “can eliminate the photo-taking-impairment effect”.

What did the scientist forget?

There are a few other caveats that it’s worth adding:

1. Plenty of photos aren’t about capturing the detail on a terracotta vase or the brush strokes on a painting – they’re about registering an emotion. Many people still recall the feelings of something (a wedding, a birth, a summer) in great detail, even if they can’t remember the caterers or the flowers.

2. Interest matters. If asked to open 20 new windows in your browser of 20 different articles and take screenshots of some of them, it’s likely that the ones you remember are the ones you were likely to read – the ones with the titles or pictures that seem interesting to you. The students’ memory was probably affected by how much they were interested in the objects in the first place. In short, the results might have been very different if the students had chosen what they could photograph.

3. Memory isn’t just about images – it’s about words too. The students were asked to write down the names of the objects they remembered. Presumably, a painting called hippocampus is easier to recall than one called sepultusque est in pulvere hydria.

4. Memory recall isn’t as simple as a ‘do or don’t’. Maybe the students with cameras remembered more details about the objects (albeit more inaccurately) than those without. Is it better to remember 50 facts slightly imprecisely than to remember 1? Would you rather bump into someone that you’d met once and accidentally call them Anna rather than Anne and ask about their 3 children rather than 4 or just bump into them and remember that they fell over the last time you’d met?

5. The study used 28 undergraduate students and 30 objects in the first museum tour then used 46 students and 27 objects in the second study to test the effect of zooming. Changing the students and the objects means that these findings, published in the Journal of Psychological Science, probably aren’t a sufficient reason to stop taking photos.

Have we missed any other caveats? Do you think the research is persuading? Let us know in the comments below


Ketamine should be reclassified as class B drug, government experts say

Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs says new evidence of bladder damage means drug should be upgraded from class C
  • The ACMD said ketamine’s short-term effects can include stomach cramps, impaired consciousness, agitation, hallucinations and dissociative effects. 

The drug ketamine, which is widely used as an anaesthetic for humans and animals, should be reclassified from a class C to a class B drug because of new evidence of the damage it can cause to the bladder, the government’s drug experts have said.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said it was making the recommendation to the home secretary, Theresa May, despite only limited evidence of ketamine causing social harm and its recent declining popularity as a club and party drug. May had asked the council to take another look at ketamine following evidence of an increase in regular, high-dose, daily use of the drug.

The council last looked at its classification in 2004 and recommended it should be in class C, attracting the same penalties as cannabis. It said its recommendation that it should be a class B drug – meaning that illegal possession can attract a maximum of five years’ imprisonment – follows new evidence that intensive use can lead to severe bladder and kidney damage.

The ACMD report said its short-term effects can include stomach cramps, impaired consciousness, agitation, hallucinations and “out of body” or dissociative effects: “In addition, there is now good evidence that frequent and heavy ketamine misuse can cause significant toxicity to the bladder, urinary tract and kidneys.

“This can be associated with severe and disabling symptoms that typically include pain on passing urine, frequency and urgency of urination, blood in urine and incontinence.”

The council said that while many of these side-effects can be reversible if the user stops taking the drug, there were “numerous reports of individuals who are having to have surgery to remove their bladders because of severe ketamine bladder-related damage”. But it added that there was no reliable national data on how many cases have required surgery.

The council also wants to see the conditions in which doctors and hospitals store ketamine made more secure and would like to change its supply in multi-dose phials to single-dose packages. Many hospitals have already tightened the conditions in which they store the drug.

Professor Les Iversen, the ACMD chairman, saidthere would be a consultation about the proposals and added that the council did not want to do anything that would impede the use of ketamine in medical research, particularly to treat depression.

The latest crime survey of England and Wales said around 120,000 mostly male users took ketamine in 2012-13, but the latest figures showed a sharp fall in its popularity in the last year. Users are mostly clubbers who take ketamine as a second or third drug alongside alcohol. Use among 16-to 24-year-olds fell from a peak of 2.1% in 2010-11 to 0.8% in 2012-13. The ACMD said, however, that it was too early to say if the decline was likely to continue.

Harry Shapiro, of DrugScope, the drugs information charity, said: “While the reclassification of ketamine from class C to class B may be logical given the current legal framework, we do not believe that this will be sufficient to address the public health problems posed by the drug.

“Drug users, nightclub and festival staff and healthcare practitioners all need to be better informed about ketamine, its effects and potential for dependency. This is especially important in general health settings when people present with unexplained bladder problems, to prevent long-term and potentially life-changing health issues.”

The popularity of ketamine surged three years ago after the “legal high” mephedrone was banned in 2011. Drug charities said its price was a big factor, with ketamine often selling for as little as £6 a gram, which split between four people made it cheaper than a pint.

The drug was originally used as an anaesthetic to sedate wounded American soldiers in the Vietnam war and is still used widely used by the military in field hospitals and as an anaesthetic for children. It is also widely used by vets as a horse tranquilliser.

Frank, the Home Office drug advisory website, says the effects of ketamine do not last long but can reduce sensations in the body, giving users a feeling “as if the mind and body have been separated”.

It adds that some feel people feel incapable of moving while under its influence, while others may feel completely detached from their bodies and surroundings. The trip it induces can last up to an hour although after-effects may be felt for some hours.

It is only recently been discovered that ketamine can cause serious bladder problems including severe pain and difficulty passing urine, and can even result in surgical removal of the bladder in extreme cases where users are taking large amounts of ketamine every day.

The home secretary asked the advisory council to review the evidence on ketamine in March last year amid emerging concerns about its popularity and potential harm.

May recently banned the use of khat, a mild herbal stimulant widely used by the Somali and Yemeni communities in Britain, against the advice of her official drug advisers.

The recommendation to increase the penalties for use of ketamine comes as academics at Edinburgh University announced that they intend to use the drug along with cannabis in a ground-breaking medical trial for pain relief for cancer patients.

Will your next phone have no screen?

Nobel winner declares boycott of top science journals.

  • Randy Schekman
Randy Schekman, centre, at a Nobel prize ceremony in Stockholm. Photograph: Rob Schoenbaum/Zuma Press/Corbis

Leading academic journals are distorting the scientific process and represent a “tyranny” that must be broken, according to a Nobel prize winner who has declared a boycott on the publications.

Randy Schekman, a US biologist who won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine this year and receives his prize in Stockholm on Tuesday, said his lab would no longer send research papers to the top-tier journals, Nature, Cell and Science.

Schekman said pressure to publish in “luxury” journals encouraged researchers to cut corners and pursue trendy fields of science instead of doing more important work. The problem was exacerbated, he said, by editors who were not active scientists but professionals who favoured studies that were likely to make a splash.

The prestige of appearing in the major journals has led the Chinese Academy of Sciences to pay successful authors the equivalent of $30,000 (£18,000). Some researchers made half of their income through such “bribes”, Schekman said in an interview.

Writing in the Guardian, Schekman raises serious concerns over the journals’ practices and calls on others in the scientific community to take action.

“I have published in the big brands, including papers that won me a Nobel prize. But no longer,” he writes. “Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of bonus culture, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals.”

Schekman is the editor of eLife, an online journal set up by the Wellcome Trust. Articles submitted to the journal – a competitor to Nature, Cell and Science – are discussed by reviewers who are working scientists and accepted if all agree. The papers are free for anyone to read.

Schekman criticises Nature, Cell and Science for artificially restricting the number of papers they accept, a policy he says stokes demand “like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags.” He also attacks a widespread metric called an “impact factor”, used by many top-tier journals in their marketing.

A journal’s impact factor is a measure of how often its papers are cited, and is used as a proxy for quality. But Schekman said it was “toxic influence” on science that “introduced a distortion”. He writes: “A paper can become highly cited because it is good science – or because it is eye-catching, provocative, or wrong.”

Daniel Sirkis, a postdoc in Schekman’s lab, said many scientists wasted a lot of time trying to get their work into Cell, Science and Nature. “It’s true I could have a harder time getting my foot in the door of certain elite institutions without papers in these journals during my postdoc, but I don’t think I’d want to do science at a place that had this as one of their most important criteria for hiring anyway,” he told the Guardian.

Sebastian Springer, a biochemist at Jacobs University in Bremen, who worked with Schekman at the University of California, Berkeley, said he agreed there were major problems in scientific publishing, but no better model yet existed. “The system is not meritocratic. You don’t necessarily see the best papers published in those journals. The editors are not professional scientists, they are journalists which isn’t necessarily the greatest problem, but they emphasise novelty over solid work,” he said.

Springer said it was not enough for individual scientists to take a stand. Scientists are hired and awarded grants and fellowships on the basis of which journals they publish in. “The hiring committees all around the world need to acknowledge this issue,” he said.

Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief at Nature, said the journal had worked with the scientific community for more than 140 years and the support it had from authors and reviewers was validation that it served their needs.

“We select research for publication in Nature on the basis of scientific significance. That in turn may lead to citation impact and media coverage, but Nature editors aren’t driven by those considerations, and couldn’t predict them even if they wished to do so,” he said.

“The research community tends towards an over-reliance in assessing research by the journal in which it appears, or the impact factor of that journal. In a survey Nature Publishing Group conducted this year of over 20,000 scientists, the three most important factors in choosing a journal to submit to were: the reputation of the journal; the relevance of the journal content to their discipline; and the journal’s impact factor. My colleagues and I have expressed concerns about over-reliance on impact factors many times over the years, both in the pages of Nature and elsewhere.”

Monica Bradford, executive editor at Science, said: “We have a large circulation and printing additional papers has a real economic cost … Our editorial staff is dedicated to ensuring a thorough and professional peer review upon which they determine which papers to select for inclusion in our journal. There is nothing artificial about the acceptance rate. It reflects the scope and mission of our journal.”

Emilie Marcus, editor of Cell, said: “Since its launch nearly 40 years ago, Cell has focused on providing strong editorial vision, best-in-class author service with informed and responsive professional editors, rapid and rigorous peer-review from leading academic researchers, and sophisticated production quality. Cell’s raison d’etre is to serve science and scientists and if we fail to offer value for both our authors and readers, the journal will not flourish; for us doing so is a founding principle, not a luxury.”

• This article was amended on 10 December 2013 to include a response from Cell editor Emilie Marcus, which arrived after the initial publication deadline.

Bolstering a Link Between Alzheimer’s Disease and Lead Exposure.


Lifelong hazard. Infants exposed to lead from peeling paint and other sources may be more susceptible to Alzheimer’s-like brain abnormalities as adults, according to a study in macaques spanning 23 years.Shaiith/iStockphoto/Thinkstock; (inset) Paul StevensonLifelong hazard. Infants exposed to lead from peeling paint and other sources may be more susceptible to Alzheimer’s-like brain abnormalities as adults, according to a study in macaques spanning 23 years.

Researchers striving to understand the origins of dementia are building the case against a possible culprit: lead exposure early in life. A study spanning 23 years has now revealed that monkeys who drank a lead-rich formula as infants later developed tangles of a key brain protein, called tau, linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Though neuroscientists say more work is needed to confirm the connection, the research suggests that people exposed to lead as children—as many in America used to be before it was eliminated from paint, car emissions, water, and soil—could have an increased risk of the common, late-onset form of Alzheimer’s disease.

Even in small doses, lead can wreak havoc on the heart, intestines, kidneys, and nervous system. Children are especially prone to its pernicious effects, as it curbs brain development. Many studies have linked early lead exposure with lower IQs. Researchers estimate that one in 38 children in the United States still have harmful levels of the metal in their systems, but evidence linking this exposure to dementia later in life has been tenuous.

A team led by toxicologist Nasser Zawia, however, has vigorously pursued the lead hypothesis. In one early study, from 2008, the group showed that plaques, insoluble globs of a protein called β-amyloid, marred the brains of five macaques that had consumed a lead-enriched formula as infants. The researchers had compared the preserved brain tissues from those macaques, sacrificed in 2003 at age 23 in a National Institutes of Health lab, with four similarly aged monkeys who had had lead-free formula. The amyloid plaques closely resembled those in the brains of adults with Alzheimer’s disease that are thought to contribute to the dementia.

Now, Zawia’s team has used brain samples from the same five macaques that received lead-enriched formula to find clear evidence of another structural change strongly linked to Alzheimer’s: tangles of tau protein. It’s not certain how, or even if, these tangles promote dementia, but when tau proteins decompose into crumpled strands inside a neuron, the cell’s vital transport system can become blocked. The researchers analyzed frontal cortex tissues to show that the lead-exposed monkeys had three times more irregular tau protein in their brain cells than the monkeys who drank normal formula as infants. Moreover, the genetic instructions that assemble the tau proteins were altered, suggesting that early lead exposure epigenetically reprogrammed the monkeys’ DNA.

“This is very strong evidence that early [lead] exposure can determine what happens in old age,” says Zawia, of the University of Rhode Island, Kingston. The team’s results appear in the December issue of NeuroToxicology.

The brain physiologies of macaques and humans are close enough that dementia researchers should pay attention to the findings, says neuroscientist Marc Weisskopf of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. “This study adds another important piece to this link between early-life lead exposure and Alzheimer’s-like pathology.”

While Weisskopf says he is “intrigued” that the researchers could find macaques that lived a full life after infant lead exposure, he is cautious. “As far as I can tell, there’s only one group putting this story out,” he says. “We [would] like to see that this is replicable, but that’s hard. It’s just a difficult study to wait that long and have that kind of data.”

Understanding how lead might interfere with DNA’s instructions to promote brain degeneration later in life will take much more work, Weisskopf adds. Correlating the lead exposure of human infants to a disease that doesn’t manifest until people are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s is challenging, he says.

Current lead regulations in the United States should suffice to prevent such long-term neurological harm, Zawia believes. However, children in many other countries still face this hazard—as do adults in the United States who grew up in densely populated areas much more contaminated by lead. “This study is a good indicator to not forget people who were exposed in the past before [lead] awareness and regulations,” he says. “Their risk [of developing dementia] might have been increased.”


Cancer Survivors Celebrate Their Cancerversary.

Cancer Survivors Celebrate Their Cancerversary

December 6, 2013

The attendant walked into the hospital waiting room and called my name. I took a deep breath and hurried through the door. “I’m always surprised when my name is pronounced properly at a doctor’s office,” I said.

He chuckled. “You’ve been here before.”

“Yes,” I said. “Today are my five-year scans.”

“You’re a frequent flier!” he said. “Good luck.”

I lay on the bench and slowly slid into the doughnut-shaped machine. As I did, I noticed the ceiling. It was painted with a scene of sunlight peeking through some leafy branches.

For all the cruel randomness and vagaries of cancer, the disease, as a brand, is extremely consistent. There are the recognizable symbols: the bald head, the yellow wristband, the pink ribbon. There are the well-known treatments: chemotherapy, radiation. There are the familiar expressions: Stage IV, metastases, remission, cure. But of all these elements, perhaps none is more enduring than the metric of the five-year survival rate.

When I first learned that I had aggressive bone cancer in my left leg in 2008, I did what many patients do: I immediately searched out the five-year survival figures. I then did the grim calculation of how old my children would be at that time and whether I would outlive my parents. Over a brutal year of chemo, surgery and rehabilitation, I kept an indelible ticking clock in my head. Sometimes I wondered, “Why won’t the clock speed up?” Other times, “Why won’t it slow down?”

And as I slogged through subsequent years of scans — first every three months, then every four, then every six — and experienced what survivors call “scanxiety,” I imagined what the five-year benchmark would feel like. Like an actor practicing my Oscar acceptance speech, I even rehearsed exactly what I would do: break down in tears, give a party, buy plane tickets to Hawaii.

And yet, as I approached the milestone in recent weeks, I began to feel more ambivalence. What happened? Or, had I been wrong all along?

The concept of the five-year survival rate for cancer was introduced in the 1930s. Initially, the designation was used for blood cancers, which grow fast and were extremely lethal at the time, said Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer specialist at Columbia University Medical Center and the author of “The Emperor of All Maladies,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. For those patients, reaching five years was considered something of a miracle. “The idea was you could define a time point where it would make sense to think about that cancer as being cured,” Dr. Mukherjee said. “From there it crept backward into all cancers.”

By the 1950s, five-year survival figures were becoming standard, and by the early 1970s the National Cancer Institute began releasing regular statistics for most forms of the disease. In the face of such authoritative endorsement, the public accepted these figures as meaningful.

But from the very beginning, many scientists were uneasy with grouping all forms of cancer under one metric of survival. “Five years is quite an arbitrary number,” said Julia Rowland, the director of the National Cancer Institute Office of Cancer Survivorship. “For some cancers, if you haven’t had a recurrence in two years, your rate of recurrence drops considerably. For others, like breast cancer, you can have a recurrence at any time.”

For these reasons (and more), Dr. Mukherjee called the five-year figures a “vestige of the past” and predicted that in the near future they would be replaced with more individualized benchmarks. “Just as it makes sense to personalize cancer therapy, it also makes sense to personalize what survival means to an individual patient,” he said. Until then, he considers the five-year survival figure an “instrument of convenience.” In his book he tells the moving story of delivering flowers to a patient when she reached the date. “I was responding to the iconography,” he said. “We mark birthdays, and if you’re a cancer physician you mark survival days.”

Patients, too, mark survival days. Almost everyone I know who’s been told they have the disease can tell you the date. But how to recognize that “cancerversary,” especially the five-year one, is a source of surprising unease. In conversations with nearly two dozen survivors, I found patients divided almost evenly between those who view their five-year “cancerversary” as a joyous occasion and celebrate with gusto, and those who view it as a more solemn day and acknowledge it with quiet gratitude and continued vigilance.

On the joyful side, one breast cancer survivor told me she held a “queen party” at which she decorated a cake in the shape of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation crown and wore a purple ball gown and crown of jewels. Another told me that on her “five-year celebration day,” her husband treated her to lobster tail and crab legs at Red Lobster.

A veteran of testicular cancer told me that when he hit five years, he felt invincible and started running across streets and dropping his surfboard into disproportionately huge waves. “Then I settled down a bit,” he said. “But I still cannot be killed.”

On the more subdued side, one breast cancer survivor who learned she had the disease in her early 30s told me that every year on her “cancerversary” she sends out “a sappy email to all the wonderful people in my life, thanking them for all they’ve done, and continue to do, to make my life so special.” When she hit five years, she asked her doctor what to think.

“Well, five is better than four,” he said, “but six will be even better.” She’s now at eight.

The parents of a boy who was found to have Stage IV neuroblastoma at age 4 told me that when they approached the five-year mark, they planned a party. “But when the time came, we just felt too superstitious about it,” the mother said. “Why tempt fate?” The boy reached the mark of eight and a half years this week, she said, and is healthy and happy.

As for me, when my oncologist announced that my scans were clean (I had reached five years with no sign of cancer), I did a small fist pump but was otherwise more stone-faced and sober than I had anticipated. I spent a few minutes grilling him about ongoing challenges, and he asked me to come back in a year for my next appointment. When I stepped outside, instead of sobbing uncontrollably as I had after previous scans (and instead of buying those tickets to Hawaii), I stood in silent awe at my good fortune. Unlike winning an Oscar, I had done little to earn this moment. I am among the lucky ones, at least for now: My biology had taken the chemistry. Like anyone in this situation, I have met many who never made it this far.

Four years ago, on the first anniversary of the diagnosis of my cancer, I saw my surgeon, John Healy, and asked what message he would give my daughters if I died. He said he would tell them what he has learned treating this disease for decades. “Everybody dies,” he said. “But not everybody lives. I want you to live.”

That has been my motto ever since: to live. If my cancer comes back, I want to have learned that lesson. If it doesn’t I want to have learned it, too. It’s the message I took from one year; I take it today from five years; and I hope to take every year that I slide back into the doughnut hole and look up at the sun peeking out through the leaves.


New Diagnostic Test for Blood Cancers Will Help doctors.

Pictured: Ross Levine
Physician-scientist Ross Levine

A new diagnostic test that identifies genetic alterations in blood cancers will enable physicians to match patients with the best treatments for leukemias, lymphomas, and myelomas. Co-developed by Memorial Sloan-Kettering and cancer genomics company Foundation Medicine, the test analyzes samples from patients with the blood diseases and provides information about hundreds of genes known to be associated with these disorders.

The genetic profile will help physicians make more-accurate prognoses and also guide them in treatment recommendations — from deciding whether to take an intensive approach with existing drugs such as chemotherapy to enrolling patients in clinical trials investigating novel therapies. The new test is produced commercially by Foundation Medicine and is expected to be available by the end of this year.

Medical oncologist Ross Levine, who led research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering contributing to the development of the test along with physician-scientists Marcel van den BrinkAhmet Dogan, and Scott Armstrong, presented results demonstrating its accuracy today at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology in New Orleans.

A Tool with Broad Impact

The test will play an essential role in the clinical care of most patients with blood disorders at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and, it is expected, in the care of patients throughout the United States. According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, an estimated 1.1 million people in the nation are currently living with, or in remission from, leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma, and an estimated combined total of more than 148,000 will be diagnosed with one of these diseases in 2013.

“Our hope is that this test becomes available to all patients in the country with these malignancies,” Dr. Levine says. “We were particularly excited that we weren’t just developing a tool for the relatively small number of people who are treated at our institution, but providing access to state-of-the-art cancer genomics more broadly.”

The diagnostic test was developed and validated using more than 400 samples from Memorial Sloan-Kettering patients with the three blood disorders. Dr. Levine explains that it is far more comprehensive than existing tests, which focus on a small number of genetic mutations associated with specific blood cancer types. The new test analyzes more than 400 cancer-related genes, and unlike most standard tests, it looks for alterations in both DNA and RNA.

Sequencing RNA along with DNA is especially useful in the detection of certain kinds of genetic alterations that commonly occur in blood cancers. These include translocations (which occur when pieces of DNA are exchanged between two chromosomes) and fusion genes (new genes that include parts of two different genes). In addition to improving the treatment of patients, Memorial Sloan-Kettering will use information gleaned from the test to further advance research into blood cancers.

Clinically Relevant Mutations

Dr. Levine explains that Memorial Sloan-Kettering researchers worked with Massachusetts-based Foundation Medicine to annotate, or define, every gene in the panel to correlate it with clinical data and to provide insight into how this information can be used to guide clinical decision making.

“What’s vital about the test is that it’s not just reporting the presence of specific alterations but also indicating how a particular genetic event detected in a patient can guide either prognosis or therapy,” he says. “We identified clinically relevant mutations that were not found using standard tests. These mutations are ‘actionable,’ meaning that targeting them can change the course of the disease, including directing patients to innovative clinical trials.”

Initially, the goal for the test is to produce the full genetic profile from a patient sample within three to four weeks. “With the exception of someone who has very acute leukemia that requires immediate treatment decisions, this test is going to be valuable in clinical care,” Dr. Levine says.